The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns soon!

Last year, a new crossword tournament joined the ranks of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and Lollapuzzoola, immediately carving out its own niche in the puzzle world. The Indie 500 offered top-notch puzzles and a pie-fueled solving experience both live in Washington, D.C., and for solvers at home.

And it’s back! The second edition of The Indie 500 is happening on Saturday, June 4, and this year, it’s all decked out in a prom motif.

I reached out to the team behind last year’s event, and constructor/director Andy Kravis was happy to answer my questions and offer some insight into this year’s event.

Andy has been published in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Los Angeles Times, and other venues, and he was excited to discuss this year’s tournament with the PuzzleNation audience.

1.) I’m very glad to see The Indie 500 returning for a second year. What did you learn from the inaugural event, and what are you hoping to change/improve?

We’re glad to be back! Here’s a list of things we learned from the inaugural Indie 500:

How to run a crossword tournament.

None of us had ever done anything like this before, so every step was brand new to us. We all went into it knowing that building our own crossword tournament from the ground up was going to be a lot of work, but I don’t think any of us fully appreciated how much work it would be until we were already neck-deep in it. We started planning about a year in advance, and one thing I learned is that it takes almost exactly a year to plan a successful Indie 500, even with a team of five directors and a ton of wonderful volunteer test-solvers and staffers.

As for the tournament itself, a lot of our more ambitious ideas — writing a meta suite to raise funds for the tournament, using a new scoring system, having a contest to find a tourney puzzle by a new constructor — worked out really well, so we brought them back this year. We got some great feedback from attendees about which puzzles they enjoyed most, which parts of the program worked well, and so on, all of which we incorporated into our planning for this year. On the whole, the tournament will look a lot like last year’s: five preliminary puzzles of varying difficulty, plus a finals puzzle for the top three scorers in both divisions.

I would say the most visible change we’re making is getting lots of new faces involved. After last year’s event, Evan Birnholz was hired as the Washington Post‘s new crossword constructor (whoo!), and Neville Fogarty entered the last year of his Ph.D program, so they both had to step away from their directorial duties. We were thrilled to bring on Angela Olson Halsted, who’s been a terrific addition to our team, and we’ve also gotten to work with a lot of really talented constructors this year as well.

We’re always open to ideas of how to improve the tournament experience, so feel free to e-mail us at if you have suggestions.

[Andy, alongside Sara Nies, solves at the 2015 Lollapuzzoola event.]

2.) Last year’s theme was racing, and this year’s theme is prom. What about prom appealed to the team more than other possibilities?

We knew almost immediately after wrapping last year’s tournament that we wanted this year’s Indie 500 to be prom themed. The biggest upside, and the main reason we chose it as our theme, is that we really wanted to see what we could do when working with other new constructors in teams. By bringing on prom dates, we now have the opportunity to showcase not just the work of our contest winner but also of the additional constructors we’ve invited. Some of our constructing teams bring very different voices to the constructing process, and it’s been really cool to see how those styles have meshed. And of course you don’t have to take a date to prom — you can go solo, or you can go with a group — and we’ve also kept that in mind while planning the tournament.

We also love the aesthetics of prom. As we tossed around ideas for this year’s tournament, we kept returning to the similarities between a disco ball and a crossword grid, and Raina Zheng did an awesome job designing this year’s logo with that idea in mind. It was easy for us to see the aesthetics of crosswords in disco balls, tuxedos, limousines, and dance floors, and it’s also fun for us to think of ways to inject some of the colorful elements of prom back into a crossword tournament.

Plus, our tradition of playing entrance music for our finalists makes possibly more sense with a prom theme than it did with a racing theme.

In a broad metaphorical sense, I think prom is more in line with what we’re about than racing anyway. Racing seems like a natural fit for a crossword tournament — it’s an individual pursuit that’s about speed (plus the checkered flag and the Indy/Indie pun were too good to resist). But I think what’s great about crossword tournaments is that crossword people have an excuse to get together and have fun and celebrate.

[Possible crossword prom looks?]

3.) One of my favorite aspects of The Indie 500 is that you hold a contest for constructors to join the team and contribute a puzzle to the tournament. Last year’s winner was Finn Vigeland, and this year’s winner is puzzle newcomer Sam Trabucco. What sort of response did you get when you announced this year’s contest, and what made Sam stand out?

Those of you who solved last year’s puzzles know just how lucky we were to get Finn’s submission. We got a lot of excellent puzzles that year, quite a few of which we’ve since been pleased to see published in venues like AV Club and Fireball Crosswords.

We chose Finn’s puzzle because it had a unique combination of clean and lively fill, clues with a clear voice, and a tricky theme that had the potential to incorporate a unique visual element (namely, the candy bars that ended up going in the grid). The version of the puzzle that ran during the tournament ended up being one of my favorite puzzles that year.

[One of the candy bars from Finn Vigeland’s Indie 500 puzzle.]

We didn’t get quite as many submissions this year, and yet picking a winner was just as tough. After narrowing the group of submissions to four or five entries that stood out to us as the best of the bunch, we debated for a long time before picking the puzzle that turned out to be Sam’s. Without giving too much away, what we liked about Sam’s submission was that the theme was something we hadn’t seen before, and the fill was really fresh and showed a point of view.

One thing I want to mention is that after we unblinded the submissions, we were really disappointed not to have received more entries from women and people of color. We’ve already started talking about what we can do to encourage more submissions from that pool of talent next year. This is a top priority for us in running the best indie crossword tournament we can.

4.) Finally, and most importantly, will there still be pie?

Yes, there will be pie. In fact, we’re considering a Pie-Only division in 2017.

Thanks to Andy for taking the time out to answer my questions! You can check out the full details on The Indie 500 by clicking here!

(I’m already signed up to solve from home, and I can’t wait to see this year’s puzzles.)

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(More Than) 5 Questions: Lollapuzzoola edition!

Welcome to a very special edition of 5 Questions!

Usually, 5 Questions is simply that: five individual questions answered by our guest. But this time around, we’ve ditched the 5 Q format in lieu of a more relaxed, conversational interview. I hope you enjoy!

Last weekend marked the seventh edition of Lollapuzzoola, a crossword puzzle tournament held in New York City and hosted by people who love puzzles for people who love puzzles.

The brainchild of Ryan Hecht and Brian Cimmet, Lollapuzzoola has quickly become a beloved yearly tradition for top constructors and solvers, and I’m pleased to announce that friend of the blog and Crossword Goddess Patti Varol won the Locals division this year!

Patti is Puzzle Editor for The Uptown Puzzle Club and Acquisitions Editor for both Uptown and The Crosswords Club, as well as Assistant Editor for the Los Angeles Times Crossword.

Patti was gracious enough to take some time out to talk about her experience at Lollapuzzoola, so without further ado, let’s get to it in a very special edition of 5 Questions!

Tell us a little about Lollapuzzoola.

My favorite description of LPZ is from the organizers: it’s the best tournament held in New York on a Saturday in August.

How does it differ from the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament?

It’s much more casual and laid-back, smaller, 150ish competitors versus 600ish.

All crosswords?

All crosswords. There’s usually a theme to the day — last year was birds (… I think) and this year it was baseball. There’s a meta puzzle that everyone solves to pass the time between the last puzzle and the Finals.

How many times have you participated?

This is my second year.

What do you look forward to most when heading into the tournament?

Now? Winning!

I’m kidding. I talk to crossword people all day long, but it’s always over IM or email. It’s great to see them in person.

[Tournament directors and pro puzzlers
Patrick Blindauer and Brian Cimmet]

And the crosswords at LPZ are fantastic — the clues are clever and current, the themes are fun and tricky. There is usually one puzzle with an off-the-page gimmick.

Last year there was a very fun puzzle with picture clues. This year there was one with audio clues (for the theme entries, not the whole puzzle).

How do they determine which three solvers in each division go into the final solve?

Ugh, math.

There are two divisions. Express and Local. If you’re in Express, you’re one of the solving gods – you’re in the top 20% at ACPT. Local is everyone else, the mere mortals who happen to be pretty good at crosswords.

[Glenn’s note: There is also a Rookie division, a Pairs division (where you solve with a partner) and an At-Home division, where anyone can purchase the puzzles for a very reasonable $10 and compete from the comfort of home.]

Scoring is a reflection of speed and accuracy. The scoring is way simpler at LPZ than it is at ACPT, but it’s still math, so…

The way they [Brian Cimmet and Patrick Blindauer] write it all up, you really get a sense of how playful the whole event is. They are there to have fun, and so the day is lots of fun for everyone. They are relaxed and we are relaxed… unless we have to stand on tiptoe in front of 200 people.

Oh, and you’re allowed to cheat.

You’re allowed to cheat?

They have a system with Google tickets. Once the allowed puzzle time reaches the halfway point, you can write a clue number on the back of a Google ticket, and signal to a judge. The judge comes over and writes the correct answer on your ticket. 25 points are deducted from your score, and you forfeit the 100-point perfect puzzle bonus.

But the penalty for multiple wrong letters can be worse than -25 for the ticket. I used 2 of them on puzzle 4, and I still had 6 letters wrong! That puzzle was a beast.

[Some of the trophies awarded at Lollapuzzoola 6 last year.]

So, can you take us through what it’s like to solve the final puzzle?

After everyone has solved the first five puzzles, the standings are announced and the top three in each division go into the final puzzle, which is solved on whiteboards in front of all the solvers.

When Brian Cimmet called my name for second place of the Local division, I was stunned. And then it turned out that the first place person really belonged in the Express division, so I was bumped up to first place.

They took us into this room in the back so they could set up the grids and distribute the puzzles to the crowd. Sara [Nies, ranked 47th overall, but a finalist in the Local division], Simon [McAndrews, 48th overall], and I were a blur of nervous, giggly energy, but Francis [Heaney], Jon [Delfin], and Scott [Weiss], the Express gods, were all chill.

They bring us out, and there were two immediate problems: I couldn’t get the noise-canceling headphones to stay on my head – they were too big and I was shaking so hard from nerves. And then I couldn’t really reach the top line of the dry-erase board. I was a nervous, shaking, flustered mess. We were all joking about finding me a phone book or a dictionary for me to stand on, but they couldn’t find one, and they had me test it out – I could reach, barely, on my tiptoes.

[Several solvers tackling the final puzzle
at a previous Lollapuzzoola event.]

I was on the far right of the stage. I could see Simon, but not Sara. I was shaking so hard at first that I couldn’t read the clues on the paper. And the board seemed so big and the puzzle seemed to be in German… I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and didn’t throw up on my shoes. I started solving in the lower right corner, because it was right in front of my face. Ultimately, I solved from the bottom up.

Simon finished solving first, and once he stepped away from the stage, I calmed down – I knew I couldn’t win, so I just wanted a clean grid. I slowed down, I read more carefully, I started to enjoy the puzzle. I was sure Sara had finished already, too. I finished the puzzle and started checking the grid, line by line, very carefully, and then I took a step back … and saw Sara was still solving! I turned around and took off my headset as quickly as I could, and there was this huge collective sigh of relief – Sara had only two letters left when I turned around.

My friends were on the edges of their seats, telling me to stop checking the grid and turn around. I finished a good 20 seconds ahead of her, but officially, it’s only 3 seconds because I took so damn long to check the grid. Doug [Peterson, crossword gentleman] told me later that he had been trying to get Brian and Patrick’s attention because they hadn’t noticed I was done – they were busy reviewing Simon’s grid.

Heartbreak for Simon, who finished more than a minute before me: he left a square blank and placed 3rd. But as soon as I finished, Simon thumbsed-up to me and whispered, “It’s you!” because of his wrong letter. Big smile, really gracious.

And, it turns out – had Erin [Milligan-Milburn, who has a cheating trophy named for her after winning Rookie of the Year when she wasn’t a rookie] and Angela [Halsted, Locals finalist last year] remained in the Local division, it would have been an all-girls Local final! And I still would have been in first place going into the finals. How cool is that?

And I got the greatest trophy.

And a gift card to Barnes and Noble, and a puzzle book. A bunch of us agreed it would have been funnier if a dude got the bikini-clad musclewoman trophy… but I’m not giving it back.

(It didn’t sink in that I’d actually won until Oscar, Brian’s two-year-old son, handed me the musclewoman.)

After everything was over, I asked Doug, “How did this happen?” And Doug, laconic as ever, shrugged and said, “You’re good at crosswords?”

So you’ll be back next year to defend your title?

If I understand correctly, I will be in the Express division next year. But I will be there. And they just announced the date — Lollapuzzoola 8 will be on 8/8.

What advice would you give a first-time Lollapuzzoola-er?

Solve puzzles. Have fun. Stay for pizza.

Many thanks to Patti for her time and insight into the Lollapuzzoola experience. You can check out her work at The Uptown Puzzle Club, The Crosswords Club, and the Los Angeles Times Crossword. Can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.

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