American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

 Crossword Tournament

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Stamford 1997: A Rookie runs with his Heroes

Internet Report, posted in listserver Cruciverb-L

By C. KENNETH STERN, 3/31/97

Day 1: Friday, March 21

I arrived at the Marriott and was waiting for registration around the table. People were coming in and heartily greeting each other (I guess, for some, it had been a year since they last saw each other). Among others I met around there were Patrick Jordan and Marilynn (Asobi). People were pretty much just milling around for the hour before the festivities started, and during that time I met a bunch of CV-L'ers, notably Fred Piscop, Derek Allen, and my "heroes" Frank Longo and Matt Gaffney, co-lords of the obscenely wide-open grid :) I sat with Frank, Matt, and a syndicator Frank knew for the panel discussion and crossword relay. The panel discussion, with Mike Shenk, Merl Reagle, Cathy Millhauser, and Mel Rosen discussing grid-filling, making up themes, making up clues, and selling puzzles, respectively, was really enjoyable, the highlight of which was probably Merl's invitation to the audience to make up theme entries having to do with the Pillsbury Doughboy's funeral. "He will rise again" was the one I remember, there were plenty more. Merl also mentioned a wide-open 15x15 themeless he did for GAMES in 1979 (that I had asked him about earlier that week) that included a particularly long and questionable partial. When I went home that night, I made a bunch of copies to show people who were interested. Frank and Matt were both shocked at the prospect of a 7x7 open center, which this one had. Then, we had the crossword relay, in which each person worked on one of four puzzles for 30 seconds, and then everyone passed them around. It was pretty fun.

Then, everyone moved downstairs to the wine+cheese reception, which was very nice. I met a ton of people during this time, starting with Rich Norris. We chatted for awhile about my being a rookie, and other things. Then I proceeded to have conversations with super-solvers Jon Delfin and Ellen Ripstein -- I felt like I was in the locker-room at a major-league sports game! I was rather in awe at various points -- here I was, a 22-year-old college kid, in a circle of 6 or 7 people, all of whom I'd heard of! Dan Asimov and the infamous Brendan Quigley were around, along with Frank and Matt and others. Later that night I met Stan K (who it turns out lives not far from me), Merl, and Ray Hamel, as well as non-CV-L'er Patrick Berry, whose puzzles I like. I chatted with old schoolmate Bridget Copley (who's now at MIT and did some work for GAMES) for a bit. I finished off the night by chatting for about an hour and a half with Amy Goldstein, whom I met when I interviewed for an internship at GAMES. Drove home, checked email, did a few puzzles, went to bed.

Day 2: Saturday, March 22.

Arrived to conversations in the lobby and went to find a seat. I was a bit jazzed on adrenaline (the coffee didn't hurt either) as this was my first competition. The first puzzle was a 15 by Fred, which was cool. I took more time than I would have if I had read the title first -- I was so read to tear into the puzzle that I didn't even look at it before starting to write. Before the 2nd puzzle, Will announced that "if you're wondering which is the hard puzzle, it's 2, 3, and 5. Especially 5." Ominous. The second puzzle was a 17 by Mike Shenk, which was somewhat harder than puzzle 1. I had more trouble with that one, and judging from chatter afterwards, I wasn't alone. Between puzzles 2 and 3 (I think) was when I met Doug Heller (who was a judge), and we had a too-brief conversation about cyberspace and such. We were interrupted by puzzle 3, a delightful 19 by Cathy Millhauser. After that was lunch. Brendan and I cruised the mall.

After lunch: before the puzzles I met Stan N, who remembered my Dad from when they worked at the same company. My dad remembered Stan performing quite well at the old US Open tournaments. Then, the puzzles: first was a 15 by peter Gordon. Then, Will introduced the judges. When Mike Shenk's name received some assorted boos (brought on by his difficult puzzle), Will had the best line of the weekend when he said, without missing a beat, "not to be confused with the Mike Shenk who wrote puzzle #2." It was hilarious. The last two were Bob's very difficult but very good 17 (for which we were given 30 minutes, 5-10 more than for most 17's) and a 19 by Maura Jacobson, who it turns out lives even closer to me than Stan K. I have liked Maura's puzzles for a long time (hers in New York magazine were the first ones I solved with any regularity) and I told her so later that day. She seemed quite happy about that. She even asked me for a ride home on Sunday but it turned out I was not planning to go that way. So I almost got to give a famous constructor a ride!!

After the second set of puzzles there was a crossword book sale, at which I had several more enjoyable conversations. I spoke to Mel for a bit, and we marveled at Stan K's diagramlesses. Frank and matt goaded me into buying "Masterpiece Crosswords 3" ("you mean you don't own it? how can a fan of good crosswords not own masterpiece 3?" :) and I aped Derek Allen by getting autographs from the featured constructors who were present: Frank and Matt, along with Mel, Ray, Stan N, Manny, Trip, Will, and Rich Norris. I had also asked Rich to autograph my copy of the Saturday 3/22 NYT puzzle earlier that day, and then I couldn't even finish the darn thing! (later, Stan N told me that he had beaten Trip Payne in a head-to-head match on that very puzzle, 6 minutes to 11. On a Saturday! Wow!) after the book sale, my brother Toby drove up from home to join a bunch of us for dinner, at the lovely Acropolis (?) restaurant. [That was where I found myself reciting best picture winners with the trivia guru Trip Payne, just to try to validate my claim that Annie Hall was the last comedy to win the award. The fun we have!] Toby, Frank, Matt, Brendan and I had a nice dinner, and I think we actually discussed some stuff that didn't have to do with crosswords. Regardless of what they might tell you, I did *not* get Frank, Matt and Brendan lost in the mall on the way back, I knew exactly where I was going.

After dinner was a slideshow about crossword history, which was capped off by a picture of a crossword pinball machine. we were stunned by that one. Then, everyone play-tested a new game called "scrabble-up." Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the general consensus was "thumbs-down." (looking at the comments on the tournament homepage, it seems Matt liked it, though.) During that time, Frank was helping me work on a corner of the crossword I was starting to construct. I kept telling him that RAHAL (Bobby, the 1986 indy 500 champ) was definitely an OK entry, even though frank hadn't heard of him. I left it in (it's no longer there, unfortunately). More on Bobby Rahal later.

After the events, people started to break up into groups to play games; I first played a fun game with a group of mostly GAMES people. A notable non-sequitur from that game came when someone mentioned the speed of Doug Hoylman, a 4-time tournament champ. Peter Gordon said "that guy beat me on my own puzzle!" peter had test-solved his puzzle in 5:05, but Doug finished before the 5th minute was up. Impressive. I was sitting near him, and I noticed he took all of 9 minutes to solve Bob's puzzle. After that, Brendan, Frank and I were watching a Jeopardy! game home-made by one of the competitors, and Brendan and I played in the next game, which was fun. Finally, after a wacky hour or two of charades with Trip Payne, Brendan, and some other National Puzzlers' League people (which Frank seemed to enjoy watching, though he wouldn't play) I called it a night. Tonight, it was NOT raining for the drive home.

Day 3: Sunday, March 23

Got to the hotel a bit more tired than I had been the previous morning. Saw that I was in 148th place going into puzzle 7, which got me a bit dejected since I was hoping to do a bit better. Matt, though, was tops in the C flight at 37th, and Frank was 101. We went in to the last puzzle, a Sunday-size by Merl. No sooner do I turn it over and look at the clues, than do I see the sixth across clue: "1986 Indy 500 champ"! For me, this was redemption of the first order. Everyone who had been in the discussion about it the night before noticed :) I enjoyed merl's puzzle a lot, and was getting through it at a pretty good rate, until around the 21st minute I was STOPPED DEAD by the last corner, the lower-left. I agonized over that one until the 30th minute, when I finally got to hand it in, finished. To add insult to injury, I had a couple wrong. Ugh! At least I got to talk to merl about the puzzle later -- this was in one sense the epitome of the weekend for me: I solved a really enjoyable puzzle by a famous constructor, and within 30 minutes was discussing it with him.

After that puzzle, people were pretty much just milling around the lobby. I met Manny and Kelly Clark and chatted for awhile with various people. Then the finalists were announced in the A, B, and C divisions. Matt G. was #1 in the C's by 330 points! Trip Payne, Ellen R., and Doug Hoylman were the A finalists. Soon after the announcements were the finals, which consisted of each flight's finalists solving the final puzzle on big grids in front of the room. The puzzle was an open 15x15 by David Kahn, and there were three sets of clues, one for each flight. They handed all three out to the audience, and the A's were REALLY hard :) Matt gave it a good effort but was narrowly beaten by Kiran Kedlaya, a Princeton math grad student. They both finished in the 7th minute, which was REALLY impressive. Then the B's went. Then the A's came up. I was sitting with Frank and Stan N, and Stan commented about Doug Hoylman that "he look like he's the slowest of them all, and then you turn away twice and he's finished!" this turned out to be exactly the case... The three of us (along with most of the rest of the audience) was rooting for Ellen, who was doing very well in the beginning. It was essentially a two-person match between Ellen and Doug, who was evenly filling in the grid, befitting his name, "the Iceman." He seemed to always be filling something in. Ellen was staying neck and neck, but a couple of wrong entries late in the round allowed Doug to sneak in and take it. Ellen finished about 40 seconds later. When Will announced Doug as the winner, Ellen took the mike and had the runner-up line of the weekend, "I want to say that it's an honor just to be nominated!" Next year, Ellen!

The awards banquet was very nice; Matt/Frank/Brendan/Ray and I sat at a table with 5 other people, two of whom live near me. We had a nice chat, and the awards were given out. Frank was surprised (though I wasn't) to be announced as the E division champ! and Matt took home #2 in the C's along with Top Rookie honors. A good showing for the CRUCIVERB-L crew!

I left for school that afternoon with: 151st place, a new autographed copy of Masterpiece 3, a grid needing lots more work, and tons of satisfaction about a weekend wonderfully spent. Anyone who is unsure of whether to go to Stamford, DO IT! I got to solve some terrific crosswords in an entirely novel setting, but more importantly to meet tons of fun people (I think Harvey was the only CV-L'er there that I didn't meet) who really love crosswords as I do, and I already am priming myself for Stamford '98! So, it was terrific to meet all of you, and I can't wait to see you then. Also, thanks to all here who were involved with the weekend -- you put on a great show!

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