ACPT 2018 Wrap-Up!

The 41st annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this weekend, and puzzlers descended on the Stamford Marriott Hotel once again to put their puzzly skills to the test in what is lovingly known as “the Nerd Olympics.”

The tournament takes place over two days, with six puzzles to solve on Saturday, followed by one on Sunday. Then the top three finishers in the A, B, and C brackets solve the championship puzzle on whiteboards in front of the audience.

On Friday and Saturday night, there are often puzzle events, demonstrations, and panels by top puzzlers and figures in the puzzle world as well.

I made the journey down to Stamford myself Saturday morning, arriving with plenty of time to spare to prep our spot in the puzzle marketplace and say hello to friends and puzzly acquaintances. This year, I was joined at the Penny Dell Puzzles booth once again by my friend and partner-in-promotion Stacey Scarso.

The Penny Dell crew had a terrific setup as always, with a metric buttload of magazines to give away, including copies of The Crosswords Club and several flavors of Tournament Variety, Master’s Variety, and Dell Sunday Crosswords. They were also running a kickass promotion offering half-price on a year’s subscription to Crosswords Club, which is a great deal.

Plus we had a terrific sample puzzle for the Daily POP Crosswords app, constructed by the marvelous Angela Halsted! You can click this link for the answer grid AND a bonus offer for anyone who missed our ACPT tournament puzzle!

PLUS we held a contest to win a bundle of PDP puzzle swag, including a mug, a tote bag, an umbrella, and a bunch of puzzle magazines! All you had to do was solve a marvelous crossword variant puzzle cooked up by the folks at Penny Dell. (Though I did have a hand in writing some of the clues.)

And, yes, in their downtime between tournament puzzles, many competitors DO solve other puzzles.

At 9 AM, the tournament was two hours away, but the marketplace was up and running. There were puzzle magazines galore from the Village Bookstore (as well as a table of Merl Reagle’s puzzle books), a booth loaded with Nathan Curtis’s various puzzly projects, and ACPT-themed jewelry, key chains, teddy bears, magnets, and other items from All of the Things.

As competitors readied themselves for the day’s solving, I had plenty of time to see friends of the blog like Crosswords Club editor Patti Varol, crossword gentleman Doug Peterson, constructor Joanne Sullivan, and Penny Press variety editor Keith Yarbrough!

Perhaps the best part of attending the tournament is getting to chat with so many members of the puzzle community in one place. There were first-time attendees and enthusiastic rookies; apparently, contestants ranged in age from 17 to 92(!), and there was a 90-year-old rookie competing this year!

There were long-time puzzle fans who have been competing at ACPT for years, if not decades, many of whom were decked out in puzzle shirts, puzzle scarves, and other grid-heavy accoutrements.

One of the attendees even offered to buy the Crossword Puzzle Junkie shirt off my back! I assured him that that would work for him and literally no one else in attendance.

But I digress.

Many of the top constructors in the business were there, names like David Steinberg, Evan Birnholz, Joon Pahk, Peter Gordon, and more, along with former champions and first-rate competitors like Dan Feyer, Tyler Hinman, Howard Barkin, Ellen Ripstein, and Stella Zawistowski.

Getting to connect faces and personalities with names I know from tournaments like the Indie 500 is a real treat, and so many of the people in the puzzle world are genuinely nice, funny individuals. Not only that, but I also got to meet several fellow trivia fiends from the Learned League community!

The two hours before showtime passed quickly, and soon, the marketplace emptied and the ballroom filled as competitors took their seats for Puzzle 1.

Attendance jumped again this year, which meant not only was the main ballroom absolutely jam-packed with competitors, but an overflow room was needed to accommodate the nearly 700 solvers in Stamford!

When Puzzle 1 arrived, most competitors found Tracy Gray’s puzzle to be quick and fair. One solver in particular, constructor Erik Agard, delivered an absolutely blistering time, solving the puzzle in under 2 minutes! (A feat not seen since Dan Feyer did so in 2015.) It immediately rocketed Erik to the top of the leaderboard in impressive fashion.

Puzzle 2, constructed by prolific puzzler Zhouqin Burnikel, surprised some solvers with its difficulty. Then again, Puzzle 2 has been on the tougher side for at least the last few years, but I think many solvers forget that, given how legendarily difficult Puzzle 5 is every year. It’s easy to forget other puzzles can offer quite a challenge along the way.

Puzzle 3 was constructed by Mike Shenk, and served as a well-received palate-cleanser before the lunch break. Solvers scattered to the four winds in order to grab a bite to eat before returning by 2:30 for Puzzle 4.

[Even empty, all the dividers make the room feel packed…]

And what a Puzzle 4 it was. Constructed by Damon Gulczynski, this puzzle had a visual element that tripped up several top competitors. (An unclear blurb “explanation” didn’t help matters, and several competitors told me they would’ve been better off with no blurb at all.)

The judges were forced to actually explain the puzzle before competitors began Puzzle 5. It was a disappointing way for the second half of the tournament day to kick off.

Not only that, but one solver was mistakenly given Puzzle 5 to solve INSTEAD of Puzzle 4. He managed to solve it in the shorter time allotted, but couldn’t fairly solve Puzzle 4 afterward because of the explanation. I haven’t been able to follow up and find out what exactly happened to his score.

Finally, after the unexpected drama of Puzzle 4, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Joel Fagliano did the honors, and according to competitors, it was as challenging as expected, really putting the craftiness and keen wits of the solvers to the test. (Apparently, computer solving program Dr. Fill failed to complete puzzle 5, one of its few slip-ups in an otherwise impressive year for the program.)

After the diabolical Puzzle 5, competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6, constructed by Lynn Lempel, and declared it both fun and fair. The competitors dispersed to rest their brains (or solve more puzzles). We packed up the Penny/Dell table and headed for home.

And although I wasn’t present for Sunday’s tournament finale, I continued to get updates from friends and fellow puzzlers.

Puzzle 7, constructed by Patrick Berry, was what you might expect from a constructor of his caliber: elegant fill, very little crosswordese, and great fun.

Erik Agard remained at the top of the leaderboard, having kept a great solving pace after his outstanding performance on Puzzle 1 — a nice redemption for him after a heartbreaker last year, when an error dropped him out of finals contention after a strong performance overall.

So the final three would be Erik, Dan Feyer (7-time champ), and David Plotkin (a familiar name in the top ten).

Thankfully, this year, there was no repeat of last year’s flub where the B-level finalists got the A-level clues or anything like that. And there were no distinct time advantages among the top solvers.

It was simply a match-up of some of the fastest, sharpest puzzlers. (Including 2 rookies in the C-level final!)

You can watch the final puzzle being solved below, courtesy of Ben Zimmer:

Erik Agard would complete the puzzle first, solving it in under 5 minutes. By comparison, huge swathes of Dan and David’s grids were still empty at this point. It was a stunning showing for a very well-liked member of the puzzle community!

Dan Feyer would wrap the puzzle up in 9 minutes, with David Plotkin following at around 13.

As he had done all tournament, Erik solved with incredible speed and precision, claiming his first tournament victory!

And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 14th (up from 18th last year!), David Steinberg placed 23rd (up from 28th!), and Patti Varol placed 74th (up from 103 last year!) out of a field of almost 700 participants. (And even with one eye tied behind his back, Keith Yarbrough managed an impressive performance as well!)

[I wonder how many competitors this tweet applies to…]

It’s always great fun to spend time with fellow puzzlers and wordplay enthusiasts, immersing myself in the puzzle community and enjoying all the charm and camaraderie that comes with it.

We’ll see you next year!


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Wine Is Better For Your Brain Than Puzzles?

[Image courtesy of Bevlaw.]

“It’s time to trade in your Sudoku and crossword puzzles for a glass of wine.”

That was the opening quote in an article sent to me by a friend (and wine enthusiast) who thought I’d be interested to hear just why we should be tossing aside our puzzles for a bit of vino.

That article discusses the book Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine, by Yale neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd, and Shepherd posits that the flavor of wine “engages more of our brain than any other human behavior.”

More than listening to music, solving math problems, or hitting a baseball? Apparently so. Even more than solving one of our beloved crossword grids? Shepherd certainly believes that to be the case, and he’s packing some serious science to back it up.

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

From an NPR piece about the book:

The apparently simple act of sipping Merlot involves a complex interplay of air and liquid controlled by coordinated movements of the the tongue, jaw, diaphragm and throat. Inside the mouth, molecules in wine stimulate thousands of taste and odor receptors, sending a flavor signal to the brain that triggers massive cognitive computation involving pattern recognition, memory, value judgment, emotion and of course, pleasure.

Now, of course, we’re all about engaging the brain in a positive way in this blog. We’ve spent plenty of time debunking faulty promises about “brain-training” puzzle sites and the like that make grand, unfounded promises about what puzzles can do to stave off Alzheimer’s, memory issues, dementia, and more. The science is still out on exactly how long-term puzzle-solving affects the brain, and whether there are benefits, so we’ll table that idea for now.

But savoring a sip of wine and exercising the brain? Now that’s something we can get behind.

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Or you could be evil, slap one of these brain teasers on the bottle, and annoy your friends.

Then again, this just makes me think you should enjoy a glass of wine WHILE solving a crossword. The best of both worlds!


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A Crossword Mystery Movie?

It’s 2018, and these days, it seems like crosswords are everywhere. They’re in the paper, on the newsstands, and even in your pocket.

And now, they’re making it onto TV with a Hallmark Channel original movie!

Oh yes, check out this snippet from the recent press release:

Hallmark Movies & Mysteries has greenlit development for new mystery movie, The Crossword Mystery starring Lacey Chabert and Brennan Elliott. The movie is co-created by Will Shortz, crossword editor of The New York Times, puzzle master for NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday,” editor of Games magazine and founder and director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

Lacey Chabert and Brennan Elliott are no strangers to Hallmark themselves, having starred in three movies together since 2015: All of My Heart, A Christmas Melody, and All of My Heart: Inn Love.

Now, they’ll reunite for a new puzzly mystery.

Here’s a sneak peek of what you can expect from the film:

A brilliant crossword puzzle editor (Chabert) finds her life turned upside-down when she is pulled into a police investigation after several of the clues in her recent puzzles are linked to unsolved crimes. Proving her innocence means leaving the comfort of her sheltered world and working with a tough police detective (Elliott), puzzling through clues together in order to crack the case, as the two are fish out of water in each other’s worlds.

As far as we know, there’s no airdate scheduled yet for the film, but we’ll keep you posted when we know more.

Perhaps Will himself will have more details for us by the time the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament rolls around in March.

Still, what an unexpected bit of news for puzzlers everywhere. 2018, what other surprises are lurking up your sleeve?


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5 Questions with Puzzler Leslie Billig!

Welcome to another edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s interview feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, board game creators, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m overjoyed to have Leslie Billig as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

[Leslie, next to trivia whiz Ken Jennings, at the
2006 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament]

Leslie Billig began her puzzle career at Dell Magazines in 1982 and went on to create, edit, proofread, and fact-check puzzles for numerous outlets, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Games magazine, People, and Reader’s Digest.

She’s also published her own puzzle books, authoring Sit & Solve Cryptograms for Sterling and coediting Dell Magazines’ Puzzler’s Sunday Crosswords. In addition to all that, she has served as editor of The Uptown Puzzle Club — a by-mail Puzzle of the Month Club subscription with high-quality, New York Times-style puzzles — for more than a decade, but she’s making an exciting transition to a new post! (Come on, I can’t tell you everything in the intro. *smiles*)

Leslie was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

5 Questions for Leslie Billig

1.) How did you first get into puzzles?

I’ve loved puzzles and wordplay from an early age, and started solving crosswords at my father’s knee. He did the New York Times crossword puzzle (in ink!) and at some point I was able to fill in the squares he left blank. I also enjoyed the variety puzzles in Dell magazines; my favorite was the Bowl-a-Score Challenger (also known as Bowl Game).

In this game, you’re given 10 letters arranged like bowling pins, and the goal is to form one word using all the letters for a “strike” and two smaller words for a “spare.” I was never satisfied to make just one spare: I’d try to form as many combos as I could: 5,5 4,6, 3,7 etc. This game instilled in me a love of anagrams that’s lasted to this day.

[Leslie performing in the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle
Tournament talent show… which she won, by the way!]

2.) In your estimation, what separates a topnotch puzzle from a run-of-the-mill puzzle? What are some favorite puzzles or clues you’ve encountered over the years?

Crossword puzzles have truly evolved in the 32 years that I’ve been in the “puzzle biz,” and I continue to be astonished by the originality and cleverness of the people who make them. A great crossword begins with the theme, of course, but I believe the fill is just as important. The solver solves the *whole* puzzle, not just the theme entries. You can have a brilliant theme, but if the rest of the grid is filled with crosswordese, Roman numerals, obscure abbreviations, and overused words, it will diminish the solving experience.

One of my favorite crosswords appeared in the January 2007 issue of the Uptown Crosswords Club. It was called Self-Effacement by Robert H. Wolfe, and the gimmick was that there were no I’s in the grid. I decided it would be even better if there were no I’s in the clues, either. That was a fun challenge!

I remember the hardest two answers to clue were ENYA and BOHR. For Enya I couldn’t use the words Irish, Gaelic, singer, vocalist, musician, or (Grammy) winner. The clue for BOHR couldn’t include Danish, Nobelist, Niels, physicist, scientist, pioneer, or Einstein (contemporary).

Another example is a terrific puzzle constructor Raymond Young made for my magazine, Dell Puzzler’s Sunday Crosswords. It was a 15×15 crossword that, when solved, became a Word Search puzzle in which the names of all the playing cards, from ace to king, were hidden. Pretty impressive for a daily-sized crossword!

3.) In addition to your work in puzzles, you’re something of a game show pro, having worked on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and been a contestant on NPR’s Ask Me Another. Do you feel that your puzzle-solving experience has helped you in your game show adventures? Are there any other shows you’d like to tackle?

[Leslie on NPR’s “Ask Me Another”]

I actually held two positions while working on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — first as a researcher and then as a question writer. I’d say my years as a professional puzzle editor certainly helped me there: one picks up a lot of trivia and odd information in that line of work!

Being on Ask Me Another was a hoot. For one thing, it’s unique among game shows because so many the questions involve puzzles and wordplay, not just trivia. Right up my alley! You can hear the episode I was on at their archives.

You can listen to the whole episode, or just the segments I’m in: “Bankable Stars” (my first segment) & “Reverse Spelling Bee” (big finish).

4.) What’s next for Leslie Billig?

After 12 years as editor of the Uptown Puzzle Club, I’m excited to succeed Rich Norris — [Glenn’s note: Los Angeles Times Crossword Editor] — as editor of the Crosswords Club.

Patti Varol — [Glenn’s note: friend of the blog, puzzle constructor, and all-around good egg] — succeeds me as editor of Uptown, and solvers can continue to expect challenging and entertaining crosswords in each of these Clubs. Check them out!

5.) If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

No advice, but a request: please introduce any children in your life to the joys of puzzle solving — the pleasures and benefits will last a lifetime.


Many thanks to Leslie for her time. You can follow her work with the Crosswords Club here, and be sure to check out her library of puzzle books at Barnes & Noble here! I can’t wait to see what puzzly fun she cooks up next.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

100th Anniversary Roundup!

It’s been nearly a week since the 100th Anniversary of the Crossword, and so many newspapers, websites, and bloggers wrote about it that I’m just now sitting down to compile some of them for your viewing pleasure.

Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t start with the interactive Google Doodle that had everyone wishing me a happy hundredth anniversary a day early. *laughs*

But, as it turns out, that wasn’t the first puzzle created for Google’s signature doodle! Check out this story from the Washington Post about Merl Reagle’s eleventh-hour constructing wizardry that saved the day! (And based on Google’s ubiquitous nature, what will probably end up as the most-solved crossword of all-time.)

[Here’s a picture from constructor and magician David Kwong’s Instagram, showing the whole family getting in on solving Google’s anniversary doodle.]

Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles posted a terrific video of Will Shortz discussing the future of puzzles, and added their own tribute by creating a marvelous book commemorating the 100th anniversary. (They’ve also got a pretty nifty crossword app you can check out here.)

Letters of Note had perhaps my favorite post in honor of the anniversary: a letter from Frank Sinatra to then-New York Times Crossword editor Eugene T. Maleska.

The Wall Street Journal offered an interesting look into how Arthur Wynne’s “word-cross” became known as the crossword.

There were numerous puzzles created to honor the anniversary. The Orange County Register published David Steinberg’s contribution, and NPR’s Ask Me Another posted a curious puzzle of their own!

These are just a few of the links that caught my eye, but if you’re still hungry for more 100th Anniversary goodness, check out this impressive collection of links compiled by the folks at Puzzazz.

And, of course, you can always click the previous button and check out PuzzleNation’s 100th Anniversary post, where I talk about not only Arthur Wynne’s puzzle, but my own anniversary as a puzzler.

As we step into a second century of Crossword history, I’m sure we have plenty of marvelous wordplay surprises coming our way.

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebookfollow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Tumblr, download our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

5 Questions with Puzzle Master Will Shortz

Welcome to another edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s interview feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, writers, filmmakers, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole.

And I’m overjoyed to have Will Shortz as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Without a doubt the most famous name in crosswords today, Will Shortz is the crossword editor for the New York Times, a position he’s held since 1993 (after putting in time with both GAMES Magazine and our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles). In his time as editor, he’s been credited with spearheading a sharp decrease in crosswordese in Times puzzles, as well as offering a greater level of visibility and acknowledgment for individual constructors.

He continues to serve as the amiable face of crosswords across all forms of media — on the radio with NPR, on television in The Simpsons and How I Met Your Mother, and in theaters with the documentary Wordplay. (He even provided the Riddler’s puzzle clues that so bamboozled the Dark Knight in the film Batman Forever.)

But solvers interested in puzzles beyond crosswords will also have a treat in store for them in 2014! The folks at Penny Press have teamed up with Will to create Will Shortz’s WordPlay, a magazine featuring crafty variety puzzles and crossword variants created by some of today’s top constructors.

Will was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

5 Questions for Will Shortz

1.) As the world’s first (and only) degree-holding enigmatologist, was becoming the editor of the New York Times crossword always a goal you had in mind, or did you foresee yourself doing something else with your singular degree?

Since childhood I’d always planned a career in puzzles, just not as crossword editor for The Times. In fact, I didn’t envision a career with crosswords at all. I imagined myself in an attic or a tiny house somewhere making novelty puzzles and sending them out for publication — probably living in poverty, but doing what I wanted. I fell into puzzle editing without a lot of planning.

But I do have a law degree from the University of Virginia (J.D., 1977), so if puzzles ever end up not working out for me, I always have that to fall back on!

2.) The hundredth anniversary of the crossword is fast approaching. Given your familiarity with puzzles both past and present, what does the hundredth anniversary mean to you? And where do you think puzzles will be a hundred years from now?

I’m not good at predicting the future. But I will say that crosswords are the best and most flexible form of puzzle ever devised, because they involve language (which we all use) and connect with virtually everything in life. They can be made easy or hard, small or large, tricky or straightforward, topical or of general interest. There’s a crossword for everyone and every mood.

Also, there’s something very appealing about filling empty squares. As humans, I think we like to fill empty spaces, and doing that in a crossword seems to satisfy some elemental human need. Even if print media die someday, I think crosswords will probably exist forever in one form or another.

[Here, Will and constructor Merl Reagle appear with the Simpsons in a
promotional pic for the episode “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words.”]

3.) I could ask you how far in advance you choose puzzles for publication (considering the Times’ famous incremental rise in difficulty throughout the week), or inquire about your work as NPR’s resident puzzle master, but to be honest, I’m more curious about what you do when you’re NOT doing puzzles. What other activities or hobbies do you enjoy?

As friends know, I’m almost as fanatical about table tennis as I am about puzzles (emphasis on *almost*). I own my own club — the Westchester Table Tennis Center, just north of New York City. It’s one of the largest table tennis facilities in North America, and I believe it’s the nicest (which I say having played in almost 200 clubs in 43 states and two Canadian provinces).

At the moment I’m close to finishing a personal goal — to play table tennis every day this year. As I write this (on Dec. 17), I’ve played every single day since Jan. 1 — 351 days in all. And I’m filming myself every day as proof. At the end of the year, if I succeed, some friends of mine in Hollywood have promised to edit a 3- or 4-minute video of me playing every day, which I’ll throw up on YouTube.

My ultimate goal is to become national table tennis champion for my age.

4.) What’s next for Will Shortz?

No plans for anything else. I love what I’m doing. I’ve been the crossword editor of The Times now for 20 years, overseer of the U.S. team for the World Puzzle Championship for 22 years, puzzlemaster for NPR’s “Weekend Edition” for almost 27 years, director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament for 36 years, and program director for the annual convention of the National Puzzlers’ League for 38 years. That’s plenty to keep me occupied.

5.) If you could give the readers, writers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

I have two goals in life: One, to make the world a little better for being here. And Two, to enjoy myself. I think that’s a good philosophy for anyone.

Many thanks to Will for his time. You can follow him on Twitter (@Will_Shortz) and listen to his NPR appearances on Weekend Edition here! And keep your eyes peeled for the first issue of Will Shortz’s WordPlay, which will be hitting newsstands in February!

Oh, and I suppose you could always check out the New York Times Crossword, if you’re so inclined. =)

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebookfollow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Tumblr, download our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!