The 42nd 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.
The Penny Dell Store also returned for the first time in a few years, as puzzle books (including a collection of Daily POP Crossword App puzzles!), tote bags, travel mugs, and coffee mugs were for sale. The Word Nerd mugs were a big hit!
PLUS we held a contest to win a bundle of PDP puzzle swag, including a mug, a tote bag, coffee fixin’s, and a bunch of puzzle magazines! All you had to do was solve a marvelous crossword variant puzzle cooked up by Eric Berlin.
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 books galore from Will Shortz and Merl Reagle, ACPT shirts and cards from Elena Powell Abrahams, and a massive uber-crossword from T. William Campbell, which definitely caught the eye of some solvers:
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 200 first-time attendees and enthusiastic rookies, mixing with current and former champions, and all sorts of puzzle enthusiasts of all ages.
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, puzzle ties, 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, Erik Agard, Peter Gordon, and more, along with former champions and first-rate competitors like Dan Feyer, David Plotkin, 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 once again needed to accommodate the more-than-700 solvers in Stamford!
When Puzzle 1 arrived, most competitors found Kathy Wienberg’s puzzle to be quick and fair, on par with Monday NYT puzzles.
Although there was no sub-2-minute time like last year, the top solvers still blasted through this one.
Puzzle 2, constructed by prolific puzzler Joel Fagliano, surprised some solvers with a clever little trick at its core. This is consistent with the last few years, where Puzzle 2 has surprised the competitors. 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.
About this time, scores started trickling out for Puzzle 1, and many of the expected names were at the top: Feyer, Pahk, Plotkin, Zawistowski, Sanders, Kravis, Ryan… but two big names were missing.
Former 5-time champion (and perennial top contender) Tyler Hinman was not attending the tournament this year, and Erik Agard, last year’s champion, had a mistake in Puzzle 1, which would seriously hamper his efforts to repeat last year’s success.
Puzzle 3 was constructed by Patrick Berry, and served as a well-received, smooth-solving palate-cleanser before the lunch break.
[Even empty, all the dividers make the room feel packed…]
Solvers scattered to the four winds in order to grab a bite to eat before returning by 2:30 for Puzzle 4, while the tournament officials were still hard at work tabulating scores:
After 3 puzzles, Dan Feyer was on top of the rankings, followed closely by Pahk, and then a three-way tie among Kravis, Plotkin, and Zawistowski for third.
But it was time to kick off the second half of the day with Puzzle 4.
Last year’s fourth puzzle had a visual element that tripped up some of the competitors, and this year’s Puzzle 4 (by constructor Jeff Stillman) was also harder than expected. The fill featured more obscurities than solvers anticipated, and several competitors commented on it on Twitter:
Oh, and by the way, thanks to his puzzly skills and blistering speed, Erik Agard had worked his way back up to 7th place after completing Puzzle 4. Amazing.
Finally, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Evan Birnholz (not Birnholtz, as it was misprinted on his name tag) 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.
Even the officials noticed:
After the diabolical Puzzle 5, it was Dan Feyer, Joon Pahk, David Plotkin, Stella Zawistowski, and… Erik Agard.
Competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6, constructed by Lynn Lempel (she also contributed Puzzle 6 last year), 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.
[The standings after Puzzle 6. Erik has worked his way back to 4th. Was a comeback story in store for Day 2?]
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 Mike Shenk, was what you might expect from a constructor of his caliber: elegant fill, little crosswordese, and great fun.
But Shenk’s name being announced for Puzzle 7 also meant a puzzly milestone for the Finals:
Yes, Robyn Weintraub’s tournament constructing debut would be the final hurdle for the competitors! Fantastic news!
Dan Feyer remained at the top of the leaderboard, having maintained a great solving pace, followed closely by Joon Pahk and David Plotkin.
But it was not meant to be, and the final three came down to Dan Feyer (7-time champ, looking for a record-breaking 8th title), Joon Pahk and David Plotkin (two familiar names in the top ten).
[Image courtesy of Dave Mackey.]
The top three competitors for each live-solving division were:
- A: Dan Feyer, Joon Pahk, David Plotkin
- B: Matthew Gritzmacher, Brian Fodera, Arnold Reich
- C: Brian Kulman, Lily Geller, Claire Rimkus
Lily Geller won the C division, and Brian Fodera won B. Congrats to the winners!
And, finally, it was time for the A Block.
You can watch the final puzzle being solved below, courtesy of Ben Zimmer:
Dan Feyer crushed the A clues in under 7 minutes. Joon Pahk was a strong runner-up at 9:05, and David Plotkin placed third with a very respectable showing of 11:13.
[Image courtesy of ACPT.]
As he had done all tournament, Dan solved with undeniable speed and precision, claiming his eighth tournament victory!
And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 21st, David Steinberg placed 26th, Angela Halsted placed 94th, Vega Subramaniam cracked the top 100 with 98th, and Patti Varol placed 113th out of a field of 741 participants. (And even with one eye tied behind his back, Keith Yarbrough managed an impressive performance as well!)
There were also some wonderfully heartwarming stories to emerge from the tournament, like this multi-generational solving success story:
In the end, Jenna LaFleur (aka daughter) placed 33rd! Awesome job!
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.
Of course, everyone should make sure to check their puzzle vaults when they get home:
We’ll see you next year!
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