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 Crossword Tournament

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Report from Bill Michaels

The following report contains detailed discussions of competition puzzles, so if you have plans to solve them in future, read with care.

Wampahoofus: I pulled into Stamford at 3 PM Friday, went from the parking garage into the keyhole leading to the Queen's garden, and said hello to Ditto, Geneac, Panther, Lilith, Munro, Treesong, Minimus, and others. I paid John Samson, whom I had never met before, a long-overdue compliment for the quality and erudition of his Simon and Schuster crosswords. I've been solving this series for 10 years.

As always, the pre-registered contestants' list included a few somewhat unusual occupations. Minimus, who last year had been a 'Beanie Baby fence', now was a 'Y2K alarmist'. Lyell Roedick was a 'cat servant' (I wish I'd thought of that one!). Amanda Brush was 'anything interesting'. But Uncanny took the gold medal, with 'kept woman.'

Willz began the Friday festivities, as before, by reading the most egregiously weird letters he received during the preceding year. One letter referred to Beck as 'socially maladapted' (must be those cannibal jokes). But the clear winner in the stupidity category, and not just for this year, was a letter accusing Willz of 'spreading Judaism' through his use of Yiddish terms, such as 'tchotchkes', in the definitions!

Willz also told us that the tournament was going to be televised, and the TV crew had all sorts of new tricks up its sleeve for filming the proceedings, using cameras of various sizes: one would run on an overhead track; another would be mounted on a volunteer's glasses, yet another on a solver's pencil. Finally, a hole would be cut in the cardboard separator between two contestants, so that a camera could rotate between their puzzles. I hope to see this.

Another new twist: Proverb, a computer program developed at Duke University to solve crosswords with sophisticated fuzzy logic, had been set loose on the competition puzzles. Its solution of each puzzle, with wrong letters in red, was posted immediately after the contestants finished. The computer's performance ranged from near-perfect on the easier puzzles to 57% on puzzle 5. It got only three words right on puzzle 4, but there were extenuating circumstances (see below).

The games started with an icebreaker, 'Human Limericks'. Everyone was given a word on a piece of paper, which also had a symbol suggestive of the limerick. People had to find the others with matching symbols, then the group had to reconstruct the limerick. These concerned puzzling personalities (e.g., one rhymed 'Schuster' with 'goosed her'). At the conclusion, the teams filed past the microphone at the front, each person reading ter word into it. This produced an interesting discordant effect, sort of like hearing a scale played on a really badly out-of-tune piano. But one problem with the game: not all the people on each team could easily participate in, or even see very well, the piecing together of the limerick.

We then broke into groups of four for a crossword relay (no cryptics this year). As I remember, this had been billed in advance as a combined crossword/jigsaw event. It was probably a good idea to drop the jigsaw part, since I cannot visualize how it could be made into a workable, yet challenging, competition. The new twist was that when we passed the puzzles to other team members at the usual 45-second intervals, it was in a direction (clockwise, counterclockwise, or across), chosen randomly by the gamemaster. As it happened, this was not beneficial to my team, since the person most expert at comic strips (not a NY Times reader? or someone owning at least two paper recycling pails?) first received the puzzle on that subject late in the game. But then, as Carter said, 'life is unfair.' My team still finished fifth; my prize was a brand new set of Scrabble Up®! I could have taken something else, but felt this was an opportunity to prove/disprove my statement in the '97 GotS StamCon report, that the fault was not with the game itself, but with the fact that we didn't have enough time both to learn the rules and then play it as it was intended. Apparently the Games editorial board agrees with me, since Scrabble Up® made the Games 100. Minimus, on the other hand, said he has owned the game for two years, and still thinks it's bad. If any Krewe actually want to play this at Contana, let me know in advance.

In the after-hours games in the ballroom, I got to try Al DeSuda's excellent team game, Duplicate Wurdz. This is played by randomly dividing the tiles of a Scrabble® set into four groups of 25, and placing each group on a separate table, face down. Teams of three people move from one table to the next; at each, they play a round, with a 4-minute time limit, in which they try to form words from these tiles. There is a heavy premium on long words, since the score for each word is the square of the number of tiles used; the tiles' point values do not enter into the scoring. Also, there is a 15-point penalty for unused letters. The longest words formed during our game included 'oleomargarine' and 'slaughterhouse.' One suggestion: run a second game, in which individuals, rather than teams, compete.

This year's set of puzzles was relatively free of gimmicks likely to hurt the solver who did not catch on to them (e.g., numbers, or more than one letter, to be put in a box). For example, Merl Reagle's #2, 'The Gods Must be Crazy' consisted of words, which, if pronounced differently, sounded like those of Greek gods (god of healthy hair = Follicles). Coincidentally, one of Momus's shirts read 'It's Greek to me' in Greek. Puzzle 3, by Cathy Millhauser, one of my very favorite constructors, included unlikely ice-cream flavors (lousy flavor = cooties 'n' cream; flavor with a punch = maple awlnut; flavor served only in cups = Heath bra crunch). It also contained a killer crossing: the 'O' in 'Elio' (Petri, an Italian film director) and 'Orne' (a Normandy river, clued as 'River in D-Day news'). I heard that several prominent competitors missed this one, using an 'A' instead.

The clues of Puzzle 4, traditionally an afternoon warmup, consisted of Spoonerisms of the actual definitions! (The clues, when un-Spoonerized, were not especially hard; #4 took me about the same time as an average Friday Times puzzle.) For example: 'Maimed fountain in Thessaly' (Ossa), 'Freight for the stench' (etat), 'Spate of studs' (Idaho). Definitely a Hex masterpiece! The computer somehow managed to get three of these right. Possibly it got 'Alaska,' clued as 'Home is near,' because of the Near Islands (part of the Aleutian chain). #5, by David Kahn, was less devilish than last year's, with an fairly easy theme ('Monkey in the Middle' -- names of primates buried in the answers). I also appreciate puzzles with a number of specific references to areas of life other than TV, Hollywood, and pop songs (in this case, including Regulus, Jung, McGuffey Readers, and Taos). #6, by Maura Jacobson, had some puns on an animal theme, including Eland Stanford and Chamois Sosa.

At the book sale I picked up the N.Y. Times Crossword Puzzle Dictionary, which, together with the Chambers Anagrams that Treesong kindly sold me for next to nothing, I fantasized would help me with my two flat holes in the February 'Nig. When I got home, fantasy became reality!

Saturday night we began with Willz' favorite warmup game, in which the audience identified phrases with a common element, honored the Simon and Schuster puzzle series' 75th anniversary this year. The phrases all began with 'S and S'. And, as always, the answers were shouted out long before the clues had been completely read, e. g., 'Tennessee...' 'Summer and Smoke!' I'm waiting for someone to read Willz' body language, and produce the answer before he's opened his mouth! John Samson now told us some things about the history of the Simon and Schuster puzzles, including references to Ernst Theimer, the S & S equivalent of Ucaoimhu. He mentioned some good clues, such as 'word on a dollar bill' (ordo), and a themed puzzle, which promised to contain hidden Edgar Allan Poe story titles. Solvers could not find any titles in the diagram -- for good reason, since they were found by reading down the first letters of the definitions, acrostic-style.

In a related contest, we could win a set of the first three Simon and Schuster crossword books from the 1920s by correctly solving a reprinted puzzle from the first book. I hope the books have some value as collectors' items, since, if the competition puzzle was a fair example, I don't think I'd want to win 149 more! Willz was given the 'Shortz award' for the best crossword tournament. This consisted of the homonymic article of underclothing, covered with black and white squares.

Chainsaw's game followed, in which we had to identify, from photographs, personalities who were mere crossword words to most of us. To be fair, I had seen pictures of Oona O'Neill before, and even once shaken hands with Noam Chomsky. But I had no idea what Elisha Otis looked like. (Ironic, since I may be one of the few people who actually enjoys -- or admits to enjoying -- elevators with substantial G forces at the beginning and end of the ride. The Stamford one actually wasn't bad in that regard -- a co-rider said, 'you don't want to be drunk and on this.'). There were two competition levels. On the easy level, we were given a list of the nationalities and professions of the 45 persons. On the hard level, only the nationality was supplied. I got 17 on the easy level. Famulus won the hard division with 37!

Finally, we played another excellent game, 'To Be Announced,' in which the contestants formed teams of four or so. Each team was given a crossword grid, in which certain squares were circled, and a sheet of paper containing only the numbers of the definitions. We were supposed to find the hidden question in the circled squares, and give its answer to the gamemaster. The definitions were read off, slowly, one by one, and the teams copied them and tried to fill in the puzzle. At first, the definitions came from all over the puzzle, and happened to be for words containing few circles. The puzzle was pretty tough, including definitions like 'Pianist who recorded all of Beethoven's sonatas' (Arrau) and 'One from Mars' (M and M). Toward the end, a couple of answers contained digits ('Les 6' -- the French composers' circle) to be written in a single space. A great idea for a game. My only reservation: I don't think it should have led to a question referring to the S & S puzzle, since some of us had already handed it in, and others not.

Sunday started with a saddening announcement -- Beverly Sills couldn't make it; she had come down with the flu. Next year for sure, though.

The Sunday puzzle, 'Take Five,' by Bob Klahn, featured answers altered by adding the letter 'V' to familiar phrases, translating them into Icelandic in the process, with appropriate clues. For example, 'running scared' became 'running scarved,' which was defined as 'competing at Ascot.' San Francisco now has 'one wavy street' (Lombard -- which is also one-way, at least in the famous block). Country mice congregate at the 'Grand Vole Opry,' and a Southern California bar Baedeker points out 'Leading LA dives.'

Later, I settled into a nice comfy chair in the ballroom, with plans for solving the 'A' version of the puzzle while the 'C' contestants did theirs. I had managed this two years ago, and, except for the H in huts/hits, last year. But I had a premonition of trouble when I found only one entry word (former maker of Selectrics -- IBM). A seemingly endless number of tortuous minutes later, when they started putting the headphones on the 'B' competitors, I threw in the towel, with about a third of the diagram empty. This little number, perpetrated by Joe DiPietro and, of course, abetted by Willz, included among the A definitions: 'Preparation for making preparations?' (home ec); 'Took' (toted); 'Prefix with static' (hemo); 'Lean end of a neck of veal' (scrag); 'Kvetch' (kicker); 'Me' follower (Tarzan -- at first, I had 'decade'); 'Black-and-white killer' (Orca -- the commentators thought it might be 'Oreo'). But, I figured, the A finalists are different from you and me. Surely they will breeze through this. They did not.

At first, no one had much of anything in the diagram, but then Sanit and Al Sanders began to forge ahead, leaving Coach fairly far behind. But Coach pulled off a Tiger Woods-style (or Arnold Palmer-style, for members of my generation) charge, finishing the diagram with several minutes to spare. Then -- shocking! -- it was found that his diagram had not one, not two, but three mistakes! Poor guy, I thought. Then I noticed that Sanit and Al Sanders were not taking advantage of this; with 'time's up' looming, both had substantial portions of the board as pure as the driven snow. At the bell, Sanit still had 12 squares unfinished, while Al Sanders had enough for composing a 7-square, if he was so disposed. I suspect he was not. It will be interesting to see if this degree of cruelty is an aberration, or the beginning of a new tradition.

The A and B finals commentators, Merl Reagle and Neal Conan, were excellent, this time really convincing me that they should become a permanent feature of the tournament. Examples: 'Jon Delfin does well because he sees the crossword grid as piano keys on acid.' 'How could he get the wrong 'kebab' -- sheesh!' 'No -- he can't hear the other guy say "done" -- but he can see him walk away!' They pointed out a trap in the lower-right corner, where a definition for 'vitamin E', 'Skin aid', could have been filled in as 'calamine' if the solver started from the bottom. (I started from the top, and put in 'Vaseline'. Must remember those tricky phrase divisions.) They also speculated on likely sites for the Crossword Puzzle Hall of Fame...Abu Dhabi, perhaps..though maybe Bala Cynwyd, PA for the hard-core. (I would vote for Szczecin, Poland, though I've rarely, if ever, seen it in a puzzle.)

In between times, I was glad to find out that Tyger liked early Woody Allen but had walked out of Hannah and her Sisters (later, I tried to think of a reason for not doing so and could only come up with 'force of habit'). I went to lunch with JrMan/Sew Do I, who turned out to be the first people I've met who agreed that some of Schickele's P.D.Q. Bach pieces were actually pretty darn good as 'real' music. Lilith seemed gratified that her March co-flat #64 was one of my ten holdouts at that point. I solved it later that evening, though.

All in all, I don't think anyone else is going to be winning the Will Shortz(s) award in the foreseeable future. One of my two favorite times of year, supplanting the Christmas of old, and birthday of way old.


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