ACPT 2019 Wrap-Up!

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:

Our friends from Lone Shark Games also had a booth at the tournament, staffed by either a very good hologram or an impressive doppleganger of Gaby Weidling. There were The Maze of Games books for sale and a puzzle card for their ongoing Maze of Games Omnibus Kickstarter campaign!

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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The ACPT Returns This Weekend!

acptlogo

The 42nd edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is this weekend!

Puzzlers from all over are sharpening their pencils and their wits as they gear up for what is affectionately known as the Nerd Olympics, and we here at PuzzleNation wish all of the competitors the best of luck!

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Here’s hoping Puzzle #5 isn’t as diabolical as it has been in previous years!

There is a topnotch lineup of constructors to challenge this year’s competitors. Not only do we have Patrick Berry and Mike Shenk — perennial contributors to the tournament — but there will also be puzzles from ACPT stalwarts like Lynn Lempel and Joel Fagliano, as well as tournament puzzle debuts for Evan Birnholz, Robyn Weintraub, Jeff Stillman, and Kathy Wienberg! I can’t wait to see what they’ve concocted for this year’s tournament!

Good luck to everyone competing! And hey, if you need a pencil sharpener — or you’d like some terrific puzzly merch, contests, and a few freebies — we’ll be hanging out with our pals at the Penny Dell Puzzles table again this year! Be sure to stop by!


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A New Twist on a Classic Twisty Puzzle?

The Rubik’s Cube is an instantly recognizable icon of the puzzle industry. That simple pattern of colors on a 3×3 grid, the twisty turny puzzly challenge… it’s unmistakable.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped Rubik’s Cube devotees and puzzle designers from experimenting with new variations on this iconic idea. Just in the last few years, we’ve seen everything from a solvable Google Doodle to a smartphone-enabled solving tool, from self-solving cubes to 3D-printed designs from superfans. Heck, we’ve seen cubes the size of buildings! (We’ve even seen them animated!)

But we’ve never seen a Rubik’s Cube quite like this.

[Image courtesy of Gearbrain.]

Say hello to the Rubik Tilt, a $25 handheld Rubik-style twisty puzzle that mixes button pressing with rotating, turning, and tilting the device itself in order to manipulate a virtual Rubik’s Cube on its game screen.

The buttons on the back of the controller allow you to select which row or column of the Cube is being shifted by your real world maneuvering.

Now, you may very well be saying, “So what? What does the Rubik Tilt do that you can’t get from playing with an actual Rubik’s Cube?” And that is a very fair question.

And the designers at Super Impulse did think of that; yes, the Rubik Tilt does have one trick up its sleeve that the original Cube does not.

[Image courtesy of Gizmodo.]

It’ll offer you hints if you get stuck.

Yes, when the game detects a lapse in solving — such as when you’re stumped about how to proceed next — it offers hints on which rows and columns of the puzzle to focus on. Although the puzzle won’t go as far as walking you through solving a Cube, it does provide a little pushing and prodding to keep you going.

When you factor in that the game also keeps track of your solving time, you have a Rubik’s-solving experience that not only encourages you, but actually teaches you to be better at solving this classic, diabolical brain teaser.

And, like the best puzzles, it rewards determination, rather than doubling down on frustration.

It’s certainly a different take on the Cube we all know, but it remains a worthwhile experiment, a proud new entry in the grand tradition of puzzles that teach us to be better solvers.


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Daedalus, The Original Master of Mazes

[Image courtesy of Lofty Dreams 101.]

Writing about The Maze of Games Kickstarter last week got me thinking about labyrinths and mazes, so naturally, my thoughts turned to the ultimate maze builder: Daedalus.

Stories about Daedalus are inconsistent — his workshop was variously attributed to Crete, Sicily, or Athens, and even when he lived is up for debate — but his reputation as the premiere craftsman of his day is unparalleled.

His most famous creation was the Cretan Labyrinth, an enormous baffling maze with a roof, so there could be no assistance or solving from above. The Minotaur, a hulking creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull, was imprisoned inside it by King Minos.

[Image courtesy of Medium.com.]

It would fall to the Athenian hero Theseus to navigate the Labyrinth and slay the Minotaur in order to stop periodic sacrifices of young men and women from Athens to the monster. Theseus did so thanks to a magic ball of wool given to him by the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne. By tying one end of the wool string to the entrance of the Labyrinth — and following instructions given to him by Ariadne — he would be able to find his way back.

(As it turns out, this technique would also prove useful for solving a riddle later in Daedalus’s life, but we’ll get to that in a little bit.)

Theseus bested the Minotaur in a fierce battle, saving the potential sacrificees and ending Minos’s reign of terror over the Athenian people.

But who gave Ariadne the wool and the instructions on how to navigate the Labyrinth? Daedalus, of course.

For his betrayal, Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the Labyrinth.

[Image courtesy of Fine Art America.]

We all know this part of the story. Daedalus fashions wings for himself and Icarus, and they fly off to escape. Unfortunately, Icarus ventures too close to the sun, melting the wax holding his wings together, and he plummets into the sea.

Daedalus, heartbroken, continues his flight, eventually finding himself in Camicus, Sicily, a land ruled by King Cocalus. Cocalus welcomed Daedalus and promised him protection from the vengeful King Minos.

During his time serving King Cocalus, Daedalus was credited with creating other, less famous wonders, like a perfect honeycomb made of gold, and self-moving “living” statues, and a fortified citadel for Cocalus that was so well designed, three or four men could hold off an invading army.

Naturally, King Minos was still hunting the fugitive inventor, and he devised a puzzly scheme to expose Daedalus wherever he was hiding.

[Image courtesy of Baburek.]

As he traveled around pursuing Daedalus, Minos would bring a large spiral seashell with him, challenging any clever people he encountered to thread a string through its many interconnected chambers. If they could do so, he would pay them a hefty reward.

Hmmm… threading a string though a convoluted maze of chambers. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Minos’s travels brought him to Sicily, and King Cocalus wanted that reward money, so he brought the seashell to Daedalus in secret.

Daedalus drilled a small hole at the top of the shell, and placed a drop of honey at the mouth of the shell. He then glued a thread to an ant and placed it in the hole. As the ant explored the interior of the seashell, hunting for that tempting drop of honey at the end of the maze — like cheese to a lab rat — it towed the string through the shell. Eventually, the little ant completed the task, and Cocalus returned the solved puzzle to Minos.

Naturally, Minos demanded that Cocalus turn over Daedalus — the only person who could’ve possibly solved the seashell puzzle — and Cocalus agreed.

Of course, Cocalus instead had his daughters murder Minos in a hot spring instead. As you do, when you’ve been denied the puzzly prize money you were promised.

So, if you’re ever confronted with a maze — of corn, of wood, or lurking inside a book — make sure you’ve got a ball of yarn or wool with you. And possibly an ant as well.


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Crossword Solving Advice, Tournament-Style!

With the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament looming large, newcomers to the tournament and experienced puzzlers alike are trading advice, looking for ways to improve their solving, and gearing up for the latest edition of the Nerd Olympics.

In a similar vein, Lifehacker recently shared a post with advice for how to get better at crosswords. And I thought, with the tournament a little more than a week away, we’d analyze Lifehacker’s suggestions for sharpening your solving game.

1.) Do puzzles every day.

According to article author A.A. Newton, “the only way to improve at crosswords is to do lots of them, and the best way to do that is to work them into your daily routine.” Now, since there is more than one entry in her list, clearly that’s not THE ONLY way to improve.

But this is still valuable advice, especially with the tournament coming up. You see, a fair number of crossword solvers solve them online, either through apps or website interfaces, rather than on paper. But since the tournament puzzles are solved on paper, it’s a good idea to practice the old-fashioned way for a few weeks before the competition, especially if solving time is a priority for you.

2.) Use an app.

Like I said, access to puzzles is a great thing; being able to solve crosswords for all sorts of skill levels at the touch of a button… you can’t beat it. It exposes you to different cluing styles, theme ideas, and all sorts of clever wordplay.

I’d recommend an app that tracks your solving. Several apps like our very own Daily POP Crosswords app track data like your solving times, themes or categories you excel in, and even streaks of days gone without missing a daily puzzle!

3.) Know when — and how — to cheat

Now, this one is a little bit clickbait-y, since it’s only cheating if you look up answers during actual competition. I don’t consider it cheating to admit defeat on a clue you can’t get or a reference you don’t know, and looking it up in order to educate yourself.

Many apps offer hints — either by offering additional letters or entire words that are stumping you — which allows you to continue solving and get past a roadblock in your crossword knowledge.

And if you’re solving a paper puzzle, there are numerous crossword clue sites on the Internet with databases of previously used clues for you to peruse. Not only does this help you with the troublesome clue at hand, but it shows you the different variations of clues you might see for a given entry, which is helpful in the long run.

Of course, you can’t actually do this sort of thing at the ACPT. (Though you can utilize “Google tickets” at other tournament events like Lollapuzzoola, where instructors will silently provide an answer for you so you can keep solving.)

4.) Study up

There are all sorts of crossword resources out there. The article namedrops a few, like Rex Parker’s blog, XWordInfo, and several online guides to crosswordese.

I would also recommend Wordplay, the companion blog to The New York Times crossword. Not only does Deb Amlen break down each day’s puzzles, but there are articles collecting words that will help you become a better solver. Musical terms, authors, plants, opera terms, French rivers, characters from Greek mythology… the whole series is packed with common crosswordese and little obscurities that crossword solvers have come to know and, if not love, then at least tolerate.

But there is other tournament-specific advice I would offer:

  • Have pencils and erasers handy. Maybe a sharpener as well, though there are a few scattered around the competition space. (And we always have one available for use at the Penny Dell / PuzzleNation table in the marketplace!)
  • Bring a clipboard or other writing surface, since the solving space is often tableclothed, which can interact poorly with sharp pencils and paper puzzles.
  • Talk to fellow puzzlers. There’s nothing better than the experience of other solvers, many of whom are also constructors or tournament regulars.
  • Everyone approaches the actual solving process differently. Some people scan the clues for fill-in-the-blank clues or people’s names and fill those in first. Others read through the clues sequentially and fill in what they can. Some solvers even try to solve using only the Down clues, and then double-check their solve with the Across clues. My advice is to try different techniques and see what works best for you.

Whether it’s your first time attending a tournament or you’ve got a few seasons under your belt, there are always new tricks to learn and new techniques to try out.

Do you have any solving advice we missed? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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The Maze of Games Returns to Kickstarter With Some Epic New Twists!

Less than a month ago, we wrote a blog post about The Maze of Games, an interactive puzzle novel first published in 2014, designed by Mike Selinker of Lone Shark Games.

After four years, an intrepid team of puzzlers had finally conquered all five labyrinths in the story and freed the Quaice siblings from the clutches of the diabolical Gatekeeper and his many puzzly challenges.

Naturally, some assumed that the adventure was over.

But not yet, my friends.

Today, Mike and the team at Lone Shark Games are launching a Kickstarter campaign to expand the universe of The Maze of Games like never before!

And in honor of Pi Day, they’re launching it at 3/14, 1:59 PM Eastern!

For the first time, in one collection, you can collect the entire world of The Maze of Games, plus some brand-new features!

In addition to The Maze of Games book (hardcover, PDF, and audiobook), The Theseus Guide to the Final Maze (softcover and PDF), a new updated version of The Maze Map poster, The Maze of Games Soundtrack, AND the EP Songs in the Key of Maze, you can add:

  • a new audiobook version of The Theseus Guide to the Final Maze
  • a new audio puzzle suite, The Gatekeeper’s Variety Hour
  • a new answer guide, The Keymaster’s Tome, written by The Maze of Games characters Samuel and Colleen Quaice (PDF or softcover)

It’s the most complete version of The Maze of Games ever offered: The Maze of Games Omnibus.

And yet, there’s still more.

You can now experience The Maze of Games in an immersive new way: in one of the Gatekeeper’s escape rooms in Seattle!

Yes, as we first reported back in September 2017, A Curiouser Heart, the first of four escape rooms designed in the world of The Maze of Games, is now open and awaiting the bravest and puzzliest minds, thanks to Epic Team Adventures!

And one of the perks of The Maze of Games Omnibus Kickstarter campaign is a discounted booking for this escape room experience! How cool is that?

But if you can’t get to Seattle, guess what? You’re not excluded from a proper puzzling experience. There’s a Maze of Games challenge awaiting you on the Internet as well.

As part of this Kickstarter campaign, author Mike Selinker and developer Gaby Weidling ventured into The Maze of Games themselves, and now they’re trapped. And only you can save them.

During the campaign, there will be daily puzzles — available through the Kickstarter campaign page, the Lone Shark Games Twitter account and at several puzzly events happening nationwide (including the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament) — and if you solve them all, you can help free Mike and Gaby from The Maze of Games!

That’s right, you can be a puzzly hero from the comfort of your own home!

Check out the Kickstarter campaign page for full details on The Maze of Games Omnibus, the Escape Room for “A Curiouser Heart”, and the ongoing puzzle hunt to save Mike and Gaby!

No matter how you participate, you’re bound to have a marvelous puzzly experience!


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