The 38th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this weekend, and puzzlers descended on the Stamford Marriott Hotel in the hopes of putting their puzzly chops to the test in what has been dubbed “the Nerd Olympics.”
The tournament takes place over two days — with six puzzles to solve on Saturday, followed by one on Sunday — and then the championship puzzle, which the top 3 solve on white boards 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 ventured down to Stamford myself Saturday morning amidst some unexpected snow flurries and sat in with my friends from Penny/Dell Puzzles at their booth.
They were armed to the teeth with tote bags, magazines, pencils, and freebie copies of The Crosswords Club, The Uptown Puzzle Club, Will Shortz’s Sudoku, and some of the tougher Penny Press and Dell Magazines titles. It was a sumptuous buffet of puzzly goodness, to be sure.
Joining me behind the tables were Penny Press proofreader and puzzler Debra Yurschak Rich and PuzzleNation‘s very own Director of Game Development, Fred Galpern, who was on hand to show off the Penny Dell Crosswords App.
We had a few hours before Puzzle #1 would kick off the tournament, so I wandered around, checked out the ballroom where the competition would take place, surveyed the other booths, and chatted with many tournament competitors and puzzlers.
Not only did I get to see friends of the blog like Uptown Crossword Club editor Patti Varol, author and puzzler Eric Berlin, constructor Ian Livengood and Penny Press variety editor Keith Yarbrough, but it was a great opportunity to match names and faces, since I’d had the chance to tweet, email, and otherwise interact with many of them online over the last few years, but never actually met them in person.
Among the folks I got to meet were crossword gentleman Doug Peterson, New York Times Wordplay blogger Deb Amlen, constructor and Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project curator David Steinberg, constructor Joon Pahk, top solver and former champion Ellen Ripstein, Los Angeles Times crossword editor Rich Norris, constructor Alan Olschwang, Evan Birnholz of Devil Cross, top competitor and former champion Tyler Hinman, and New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz.
[Will stops in at the Penny/Dell Puzzles booth, and poses with his namesake titles.]
One of my favorite things about the tournament is the absolute and unabashed puzzle love shown by so many competitors. I saw crossword-patterned sweaters, ties, shirts, and earrings, as well as punny t-shirts of all kinds. One guy even dressed up in full papal regalia, but with a crossword theme!
[Fred poses with the eye-catching Puzzle Pope. In nomine puzzle…]
Finally, it was time for the tournament to begin, so the competitors filed into the ballroom where Will Shortz introduced Puzzle #1, created by Tracy Bennett, which would be a Monday difficulty puzzle.
It’s an excellent warm-up puzzle for competitors, and rarely one that poses a significant challenge. Dan Feyer, reigning five-time champion, set a new tournament record by completing Puzzle #1 in under two minutes. WOW.
But, as it turns out, there was a bit of a kerfuffle surrounding the first puzzle. From the Puzzle Brothers blog:
A weird scoring anomaly took place when the Puzzle 1 results were announced, when a solver named William Hall appeared to have solved Puzzle 1 a full four minutes before Dan Feyer did. Since Dan solved the puzzle in less than two minutes – believed to be an ACPT first – that meant that Hall would have had to do some serious messing with the time-space continuum to finish the puzzle TWO MINUTES BEFORE HE EVEN STARTED.
[I believe I met a third of the names on this list over the course of the day.]
The glitch was soon resolved and Dan Feyer returned to his proper spot at the top of the leaderboard.
Puzzles #2 and #3 (constructed by Joel Fagliano and Merl Reagle, respectively) proceeded without any scoring scandals, and throughout the day, I was getting great insight into the puzzles themselves and the energy of the room with post-puzzle updates from Keith, Patti, Doug, and some of the other competitors.
After a break for lunch, the ballroom filled once more for Puzzle #4, Paula Gamache’s contribution to the tournament. And then, it was time for Puzzle #5.
If you recall my report from last year’s tournament, Puzzle #5 is routinely the toughest puzzle in the tournament. While Brendan Emmett Quigley’s puzzle last year was widely regarded to be a brutally challenging one, Will Shortz said this year’s entry (constructed by Jeff Chen) was “easy for Puzzle #5.” Which is akin to calling something “the friendliest volcano” or “the warmest Eskimo.”
I happened to bump into Dan Feyer outside the ballroom after he completed Puzzle #5, and he jokingly inquired, “Where is everyone?” I looked at him point-blank and replied, “You know exactly where everyone is, Dan!”
Not long after, I received the following text, from another competitor: Puzzle 5. *sad trombone*
The day’s puzzle wrapped up with Puzzle #6, a Lynn Lempel creation that helped set the stage for Sunday’s remaining two crosswords: Patrick Berry’s Puzzle #7 and Byron Walden’s championship closer.
And although I wasn’t present for Sunday’s tournament finale, I continued to get updates from friends and fellow puzzlers throughout the day. When it came time for the top three to solve on their white boards in front of their fellow competitors, a familiar trio of names were listed: Dan Feyer, Tyler Hinman, and Howard Barkin.
Due to his performance over the previous seven puzzles, Dan began with a 5-second head start over Tyler. And that made all the difference.
Watch as Dan and Tyler race to the finish:
Only a half-second separated Dan and Tyler’s times, a nail-biter in ANY competition, but Dan Feyer locked up his sixth straight ACPT championship!
Not only did he top Tyler’s streak of 5 straight wins, but he’s put himself in contention to match Jon Delfin’s record of seven tournament victories next year! Names like Anne Erdmann, Francis Heaney, Joon Pahk, and Al Sanders were not far behind.
And out of more than 560 competitors, friends of the blog had a strong showing themselves! David Steinberg ranked 36th overall, and was named the Division C champion, the youngest ever!
Patti Varol placed 109th, and only a few steps behind her was Eric Berlin at 112th! Keith Yarbrough placed 177th, and Doug Peterson was the top performer in our little cabal of puzzlers, delivering some outstanding solves and placing 14th overall!
(In case anyone was curious, the Puzzle Pope placed 463rd.)
I’ve never experienced anything quite like the ACPT, but I’m definitely going back next year. Congratulations to all the competitors!
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