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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Constructors’ Favorite Crosswords from 2017!

Yesterday, I wrapped up my efforts to celebrate 2017’s contributions to the long, marvelous legacy of puzzles and games.

But before saying goodbye to 2017, I reached out to other constructors and puzzlers to ask them if they had any favorite crosswords from 2017, either of their own creation or those made by others.

So let’s check out the favorites from some world-class constructors in their own right.

Note: Wherever possible, I’ve included links to the puzzles, but for the most part, the links included filled-in grids, so if you want the full solving experience, scan for dates, outlets, and names to hunt down copies for yourself.

And remember: every single person who replied stated that there were other puzzles they loved that they knew they were leaving out, so don’t consider this in any way to be an exhaustive list. 2017 was a dynamite year for crosswords!


We’ll start off with some of crossword gentleman Doug Peterson‘s favorites:

– Monday, May 8 NY Times puzzle by Zhouqin Burnikel aka CC Burnikel. It’s an LGBTQ theme executed so nicely for a Monday. Difficulty and theme are spot-on for an easy puzzle. Lots of fresh, colloquial fill. CC is the master.

– Saturday, July 22 LA Times themeless puzzle by Erik Agard. All of Erik’s themelesses are fun, but this one stood out a bit more for me. SHIRLEY CHISHOLM, KITE-EATING TREE, TOOTHBRUSHES stacked on top of ORTHODONTISTS. Fun stuff everywhere you look.

– Wednesday, August 9 AVCX puzzle “Birthday Bash” by Francis Heaney. Broken PINATAs that have dropped their candy into the grid. It doesn’t get much better than that. 🙂 OK, slight ding for having one PINATA filled with ALTOIDS, but this was still a blast to solve.

[Image courtesy of Party Cheap.]

Several constructors, including Joanne Sullivan and Patrick Blindauer, heaped praise upon the puzzles from this year’s Lollapuzzoola event, and rightly so. They always push the envelope in terms of creativity with Lollapuzzoola, and folks went all out for the tenth year of the tournament. Blindauer cited Paolo Pasco’s tournament opener in particular as a delight.

Patrick had several other recommendations:

It’s no surprise to see New York Times puzzles getting a lot of love. George Barany cited David Steinberg’s June 8th puzzle as particularly clever. Definitely not surprised to see those words associated with David.

[Image courtesy of Snark Squad.]

David Kwong sung the praises of Mark Halpin’s Labor Day Extravaganza — which doesn’t contain any crosswords, but it is still very worthy of mentioning — making a point of mentioning that “the meta puzzle involving the spider’s web was so expertly constructed.”

Constructor Brendan Emmett Quigley did an entire post highlighting his favorite puzzles from the previous year, which marked the only overlap between today’s entry and my list of puzzles yesterday. As it turns out, we both enjoyed his “Next Level Shit” puzzle from November 2nd. He cited “Party Line” from September 28th and “We Have Achieved Peak Puzzle” from November 9th as two other favorites.

[Image courtesy of Arrested Development Wiki.]

To close out today’s rundown of killer puzzles, we’ve got a murderers row of recommendations from Evan Birnholz of Devil Cross and The Washington Post crossword:


Thank you to all of the fantastic constructors who offered their favorite crosswords from 2017! Please check out both these constructors AND the constructors they recommend! There are so many great puzzles out there for you if you bother to look!

Here’s to a terrific, challenging, baffling, and creative new year of puzzles to come!


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The New York Times Crossword Cruises and Celebrates!

A few months ago, we told you about The Crossword Crossing, a 7-night transatlantic journey aboard the Queen Mary 2, hosted by Cunard Cruise Line in honor of The New York Times crossword’s 75th anniversary.

Well, the cruise leaves tomorrow, and interest was apparently high, as it’s listed as “sold out” on the Cunard website!

Scheduled speakers include “Wordplay” blogger and crossword guru Deb Amlen, linguist Ben Zimmer, journalist Jane Corbin, historian Simon Newman, and crossword constructors Natan Last and Joel Fagliano.

This cruise caps off an impressive year of celebration for The New York Times crossword. Throughout the year, notable fans of the crossword have been paired with top-flight constructors to try their hand at constructing puzzles of their very own, and the results have been as intriguing as they are impressive.

The last four puzzles in the series in particular pushed the creative envelope in different ways.

Constructor Lynn Lempel tagged in comedian and “The View” host Joy Behar as a partner for the September 26th puzzle, and it was a punny delight. The names of various comedians served as the anchors for puns like PAW PRINZE and PRYOR COMMITMENT. Couple a great theme with interesting fill like DALAI LAMA, KOALA, RESCUE DOG, and BAMBI, and you’ve got a terrific debut puzzle.

October 18th marked not only Brendan Emmett Quigley’s 175th(!) NYT puzzle, but a collaboration with actor John Lithgow. Their puzzle redefined acting terms in clever ways, cluing entries like SUMMER STOCK and STAGE LEFT as “Accountant’s shares in a company?” and “Why one missed the coach?” respectively.

The grid was also loaded with additional thematic words like PROP, DRAMA, WALK-ON, and ACTOR, making for a puzzle positively bursting with style.

It was a marathon of a solve when game designer and puzzler Mike Selinker teamed up with NPR host Peter Sagal for a crossword that actually mapped out the New York City Marathon from Staten Island to the Bronx with entries like FERRY and CHEER. It’s a super-clever theme and layout, and an interesting use of grid space.

Venerated newsman Harry Smith worked with constructor Zhouqin Burnikel for the December 5th puzzle, where they playfully created their own news show. Clues like “Beat reporter?” and “Anchor man?” led to unlikely castings ALLEN GINSBERG and POPEYE THE SAILOR.

It’s been quite a year for what many view as the flagship daily crossword, and apparently there are still a few more celebrity collaborations to come!


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Delving into the ACPT puzzles!

One of the highlights of the puzzle year is the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and the impressive, challenging, and well-constructed puzzles awaiting solvers there rank among the craftiest you’ll ever see.

So let’s put them under the microscope and see how I did!


Puzzle 1: For Cooler Heads by Kristian House

The opening puzzle was an excellent introduction to tournament solving, well-constructed but not too challenging. The grid featured two shaded 2×2 blocks within the fill (containing the word CELL), as well as three themed entries and a revealer for those shaded squares (CELL BLOCKS). The theme entries themselves were jail-themed phrases punnily clued, and they were very accessible.

Interesting grid entries included SCOPE OUT, BILOXI, GAUSS, and my favorite clues were “Something done by a prisoner” for TIME, “Spade doing a lot of digging” for SAM, and “Place to find a spare tire?” for ABDOMEN. This was a very solid Puzzle 1.

Puzzle 2: “T” TIME by Patrick Blindauer

Patrick is a top name in puzzles, and he set himself quite a constructing challenge with Puzzle 2. Not only did every clue start with the letter T, but every entry, both across and down, included a T. Very impressive.

If you read my recap of the tournament, you’ll recognize this as the puzzle with the diabolical crossing of CONTE and CORTANA that flummoxed so many competitors, but honestly, I found the entire upper-right corner to be tough. Much tougher than the rest of the puzzle, comparatively. Otherwise it was a very accessible grid, but one that asked a bit more from solvers than Puzzle 1.

Interesting grid entries included SPIN ART, SANTANA, and CORONET, and my favorite clues were “‘That’s all folks,’ for Mel Blanc” for EPITAPH and “Trojan material” for LATEX.

Puzzle 3: Series Cancellations by Mike Shenk

This time around, each of the theme entries was a television show with one letter missing. For instance, “TV series about a driver rear-ending another motorist” clued BRAKING BAD. Together, the missing letters from each entry spelled the word CENSOR reading down in the lower-right corner. This was very clever construction, and the puzzle offered some fun wordplay with the “new” shows as clued.

But there was something else lurking in the grid. The lower-right corner featured a pretty diabolical crossing that could’ve misled solvers. The correct entries were ROMANI crossing CRIER at the I, but a solver could easily fill in those entries as ROMANY crossing CRYER. Pretty sneaky.

Interesting grid entries included BOSWELL, NO MAYO, and A TO Z (as well as the way-too-hard for this puzzle AZUSA), and my favorite clues from the puzzle were “River past Memphis” for NILE, “Sch. for fathers-to-be” for SEM, “Focus on the road” for CAR, and quite appropriately for the tournament, “Didn’t get the 150-point solving bonus, say” for ERRED.

Puzzle 4: Symbology by Zhouqin Burnikel

This was the toughest puzzle thus far, as some of the entries were simply clued with a symbol like “/” or “[ ]” and you had to come up with the theme answer that fit the symbol or symbols. For instance, CUT SHARPLY (slash) and TAX LEVELS (brackets) were the answers to the above clues. Very crafty.

Given the challenge level, this felt like a good warm up for the infamous Puzzle 5, which was looming next.

Interesting grid entries included C’EST LA VIE and NO FEAR ACT, and my favorite clues were “Set in stone, say” for ETCH, “Fails to finish a sentence?” for ESCAPES, and “Pound note?” for ARF.

Puzzle 5: Changing Lanes by Patrick Berry

There are two sounds I’ll always associate with the tournament. The first is the whoosh of everyone turning over their puzzles and beginning at the same time. The second is the groan that accompanies the timer running out during Puzzle 5.

Puzzle 5 is always a beast, and this year’s puzzle did not disappoint. (Well, it probably disappointed a few people, but not with the craftsmanship of the puzzle itself.)

I admit, this one melted my brain. I got that some of the entries would shift from reading down to reading across and back again (in a zigzag pattern), but it took me a long while to realize that those “lane changing” entries would share those unclued lines reading across, but in the other direction. Had I been competing in the tournament, there’s no way I would have completed this one within the 30-minute tournament deadline. Brutal.

Interesting grid entries included CAR TALK, BOB VILA, TOLTEC, and LION CUB, and my favorite clues were “Drawing room?” for ART STUDIO and “Block lettering?” for LEGO.

Puzzle 6: I’ll Be There by Joel Fagliano

Rounding out Saturday’s competition was a nice mental palate cleanser after the diabolical Puzzle 5. In Joel Fagliano’s contribution to the tournament, the letter “I” added to standard phrases to make them comparative (like “Quaker State” becoming QUAKIER STATE comparing California to Nebraska). It’s a neat hook, one easily gettable for solvers already rundown by Puzzle 5.

Interesting grid entries included BBQ PIT, I RAISE, FOOD COMA, and RAZZIE, and my favorite clue was easily “Girl who’s coming back with something valuable?” for TESSA (asset backwards).

Puzzle 7: Page-Turners by Lynn Lempel

Sunday started off strong with this well-read entry by Lynn Lempel. As indicated by the title, the themed entries were novels with the last word in the title anagrammed. For instance, “Lord of the Flies” becomes LORD OF THE FILES and “Tender is the Night” becomes TENDER IS THE THING.

A solid closer with lots of accessible crosswordese, this puzzle was perfect for easing solvers out of tournament mode right before the big championship showdown.

Interesting grid entries included ALVIN AILEY, GANGSTA, ACOLYTE, and STEPS ON IT, and my favorite clues were “Soprano not known for music” for CARMELA and “Manhattan spot” for BAR.

Puzzle 8: The Low-Down (And Across) by Mark Diehl

And then, we were down to one. The final puzzle of the tournament offered three sets of clue difficulties (A for the top performers, B for the solid performers, C for everyone else). And there were a lot of longer entries crossing in this grid, so there were fewer giveaway words to get you started.

I found the solve to be pretty challenging, and I’m constantly amazed at how fast the finalists solve these puzzles. (For context, tournament winner Howard Barkin solved it in 8 minutes, using the A clues.)

I solved it with the B clues, and still with some difficulty. Interesting grid entries included PARLANCE, TOOK A HINT, and RARIN’ TO GO, and my favorite clue was easily “They have wings but never leave the ground” for SNOW ANGELS.


Overall, I was impressed with the quality and ingenuity of puzzles we saw in the tournament, and as always, it reminded me of just how quick, how cunning, and how clever many of the tournament solvers are. These puzzles were a real treat.

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