Reflections on the 2019 Tournament, by Ken Stern, as posted on Facebook
I say “half a life ago” in reminiscence a lot, with varying degrees of precision, but it really was (give or take a couple of weeks) halfway ago when I attended my first American Crossword Puzzle Tournament on my way back to my senior year of college from Spring Break. 22 years later, it remains one of the best decisions I ever made and a highlight of my year. This weekend – my 22nd ACPT and the 42nd overall, was as wonderful as always.
I had a good feeling coming into this tournament. I am finally back in the B division after my 7-year exile in A (following my B division prize in 2011), so my solving actually means something in the standings again as opposed to just competing with myself (and selected nemeses). In addition to a great showing at the Westport tournament last month, I was excited to see the constructor list include many of the usual suspects, plus newcomers Evan Birnholz (whose work I always enjoy) and Robyn Weintraub, one of my favorite themeless constructors. I had suggested to Will in the fall that Robyn would be a great constructor for a final – unbeknownst to me, he had already come to the same conclusion! I hoped this might be fate and that I might get to solve that one onstage.
So, after a wonderful dinner and evening of games, greetings and hanging out on Friday night, I naturally came in Saturday morning with great excitement and anticipation, and … proceeded to make an error on the otherwise-straightforward Puzzle 1, as I found out during lunch. I put in several down answers easily and quickly without looking at the acrosses, and one of those downs was a plausible wrong answer. (This isn’t it, but imagine the correct answer were YEA and I put in YES). Then, when I had about 40 seconds to check my grid, I decided (for some reason, for the first and only time in my ACPT experience) to check by reading through all the Down entries. So I never, in two passes through the grid, saw that wrong across entry. Oh well. I rarely make mistakes in ACPT puzzles (I had an 8+ year clean streak which is pretty rare), but I’ve now had one in three of the last four tournaments, so I need to turn that around next year! An error costs points equivalent to 8 minutes of solving time, so when (my) solving times range from 4 to 15 minutes, mistakes make a big difference.
Oh, and then I also went ahead and made another error, in Puzzle 3. ARGH. The most annoying kind, a “skip-over” error. If (also a fake example) the entry was FRIEND and I already had the N filled in from the crossing entry, I filled in F-R-I-E and then in the last square I entered that N instead of the D. FRIENN – not a word, alas. I guess I'm long overdue for that sort of error, so hopefully I can put those behind me for awhile.
The rest of the puzzles went without incident, and other than those errors I actually solved pretty well: my time (without errors) would have put me 2 minutes out of the B finals, which means I was pretty close to my speed goals. Those errors, though, cost me about 35 places, bringing me down to 58th. I actually felt not-so-bad about the errors and was hopefully able to deal with them a bit better than I would have in past years (my Saturday lunch companions might report otherwise ??)
The non-competition part of the weekend was also wonderful, as usual. In addition to a fun live HQ trivia game, Saturday night included Matt Ginsberg’s annual presentation of “Dr. Fill”’s results, and the presentation of the Merl Reagle MEmoRiaL award to Mike Shenk. Matt’s presentation is always one of the most enjoyable parts of ACPT weekend for me. Dr. Fill is a computer program Matt wrote, that “solves” the tournament puzzles. It’s pretty mind-blowing. RANT ALERT: Inevitably, on one of the first 2-3 puzzles, Will will announce that Dr. Fill made a mistake, and I’ve never understood the people who cheer for this. I find it frustrating and borderline mean. I realize Dr. Fill – being a computer program – doesn’t have feelings, but what “good” is it if the machine makes a mistake? Why can’t we revel in the impressive nature of what Matt’s been able to do? The program isn’t a competitor. Its “performance” doesn’t take anything away from human competitors’ actual performance. I’ve always admired the puzzle community for its open and welcoming nature at gatherings like these (even as so many of us have known each other for 20, 30, 40+ years) and booing _anything_ feels pretty counter to that ethos. Anyway, I find Matt to be a really engaging presenter and I always enjoy hearing about this or that intricacy of how Dr. Fill works and why it didn’t catch a difficult gimmick or entry. I hope he keeps doing it.
It was also great to see Mike Shenk, one of the 2-3 greatest constructors out there, honored with the MEmoRiaL. Will and Amy Goldstein spoke wonderfully about Mike, and the walk down memory lane of some of his greatest puzzles was a delight. I got to play some of Mike's homemade Jeopardy and Split Second games later that evening with Laura, Greg, Erin, Ben, Ben Smith and others, and as usual, his games were as flawless and enjoyale as his puzzles. I recall another seminal life event in 1997, a few months after that first tournament, when I ran into Mike, Amy, Julia, Julian and I believe Leslie Billig (RIP, we miss you) on the street in NYC. Little did I know that Mike – who was as much a celebrity to me as anyone – lived just a couple of blocks from me. They invited me to come with them to play games with them, and if I hadn’t been hooked on being a part of the puzzle world already, I certainly was then.
The tournament closed up with the finals on Sunday, with the finals puzzle indeed a particularly nice creation by Robyn, who is the first-ever female constructor of an ACPT final puzzle. Congrats to Dan Feyer, who (no surprise) cruised to his 8th (!) title, easily dismantling Robyn’s difficult A clues and vanquishing perennial contenders Joon and David in the finals. Also great to see Brian Fodera, long a top contender in B, winning that division over strong competitors Matt and Arnold. Any of them would be worthy winners, and on behalf of other B contenders I bid them a gracious adieu as they head to A for 7 years :) (Edit: yes I knew about the scoring error and I know the results were vacated, and that sucks for everyone involved, but as Eric noted below, Brian still had the best performance onstage and he did great.) Equally exciting was seeing Stella reach her personal best finish of 4th place overall, Katie and GP (Glen) cracking the top 10 for the first time and other exciting milestones. Brian remarked to me afterwards that he was able to improve a fair bit after solving Downs-only during the year, a tip he heard about from Stella, who heard about it from … me, 15ish years ago. I’ve always known it works, but I never have the willpower or discipline to do it. Every year I say I will, and every year, I … don’t. But particularly after a couple of years of disappointing finishes, I’m still saying this is going to be the year ??
Thanks to all of you who make ACPT so great, and who make the puzzle community the second family that you have been for half a life – and counting.