Date: March 29, 2007
Saved by the Bevel - Tyler Hinman's recap of the 2007 American Crossword Puzzle Championship
So I thought I'd present my crossword tournament wrap-up. (And you thought that link and witty subject line were all you were going to get.) It's mostly spoiler-free, but I do get into specifics about the championship puzzle.
As you read, I managed little sleep the night before departure. As usual, I putzed around for too long before finally realizing I needed to begin my travel. Got in a cab and shot the shit with the cabbie for a while before I realized I was cutting it close. As it happened, I got through security and barely stopped walking until I was on the plane. So much for the Cinnamon Melts I'd been hoping to get. I saw Nancy and Amy, who asked what had taken me so long. I was incredulous that they would react this way to my brilliant timing. I've never spent less time in an airport.
Despite my fatigue, I plowed through some puzzles on the plane in some decent times. Made a dumb mistake on the tough Sun puzzle by not reading either clue (well, okay, reading one and not really processing it), just putting a letter that fit there. Amy was watching me and gleefully circled it about a half-millisecond after I stopped my timer. Oh well.
After getting out of LaGuardia, Nancy sorted out the business at Avis and we began the drive to Stamford. The conversation was pretty much two-sided as I spent most of the ride nodding off. In the hotel, I stealthily checked in and went up for a nap, deciding to save most of my greetings for when I was refreshed. My attempt at rest wasn't particularly successful, but I figured I'd perk up for the evening festivities.
I was starving, but waited for Alison (wonderful to see her again!) to get in; her car to the hotel from New York was hellishly delayed for whatever reason. I worked things out with Francis and we joined his group at Bennigan's, where I eagerly put down a big burger. Good food and good company gave me some energy.
We kicked things off with a highly entertaining set of variety puzzles from Scott and Susan Weiss. There was one puzzle themed to each year since the tournament's creation; 2007's was the meta, solvable only with the solutions from all the others. I teamed up with Alison, her dad Marty, and a rookie I hadn't previously met. We were just a minute or two short of victory due to a puzzle that exposed our ignorance of art. Still a good time, and, as others have said, proof that an extravaganza (as these sets of puzzles are called) does not need to be long or difficult to be elegant and fun. Next was a Norwegian puzzle editor who was going to talk about puzzles in Norway. This would be followed by a race to solve a puzzle with English words but in the Norwegian style. The speaker was actually kinda hot, but, mindful of the snoozefests that were previous years' talks about French puzzles and sudoku, I and several others retreated to the bar. I wouldn't have minded getting back for the informal contest, but this desire dissipated as I enjoyed the company and a Heineken. We finally adjourned to the traditional wine and cheese reception, where I did the traditional meeting and greeting. Met some newcomers and fans of Wordplay, as I would often the remainder of the weekend. I was within a few feet of Phil Donahue when he was talking to Wordplay director Patrick Creadon, but Will began to announce the evening's prizewinners just before I got myself into the conversation. With the Friday night program over, I whiled away a few pleasant hours in the bar before calling it a night.
Slept poorly again, aided only slightly by the Benadryl I'd gotten earlier. Sigh. I never sleep well at this damn tournament. Hoped I could still power through. I was going to wear my Bulls jersey on Saturday, just because I thought it would be a fun thing to wear, but I'd realized the "three-peat" connection the previous evening. It wouldn't have been a big deal; it's a Ben Gordon jersey and he wasn't around for any of that success. And most people probably wouldn't have made the connection. Nonetheless, it suddenly struck me as bad mojo, and I didn't wear it.
I got coffee and a muffin for breakfast. I found my traditional spot in the ballroom, and nerves slowly set in; I'd end up eating only about a third of the muffin. Nerves are good. More adrenaline, more energy, and smarter solving. I powered through the Saturday Times puzzle, making correct educated guesses at a couple squares. Alison, that sweetheart, gave me some encouragement, and at long last we began.
Puzzle #1 was slightly trickier than most opening puzzles at the tournament. It was a good puzzle, but it had a few weird things in it. Several top solvers couldn't get in under three minutes; I fortunately did so. Puzzle #2 had an interesting gimmick to it; I thought there was more going on than there was. Again finished in a good time. #3 was a funny puzzle with an unexpected twist that very nearly tripped me up. But I got through it, and I was past the morning in excellent shape (note: when a top solver makes a statement like this, the nervous additional phrase "if I didn't do anything stupid" is tacitly understood).
After a little hemming and hawing, I got myself in a group heading out for food. The mall in Stamford is huge, but its food court was recently gutted aside from Subway. We navigated through the mall and ended up at a little Chinese place. They promised quick service and delivered it. I had sweet and sour chicken, which was good if a bit small. I was much more intrigued, though, by my fortune cookie. I tucked the slip of paper into my name tag, its message against my chest (jealous, ladies?), and we hied back to the hotel for the afternoon puzzles.
Puzzle #4 felt faster than #1, but I cracked three minutes by an even slimmer margin. Evidently I was determined to stress myself out as much as possible; I'd finished three of the first four puzzles with less than fifteen seconds left in the minute. This lack of checking time, combined with my fatigue, made me worry that I'd done something idiotic. But it was time to knuckle down with Puzzle #5. It was here that I ran into trouble. I hadn't grasped the full nature of the theme, and the upper center of the puzzle alone took me a few minutes. (Deciding at one point that SOAK was an adjective did not help my cause.) I lost some time to my rivals, and was thus a little mopey I hadn't done better, even though I was still in good shape. However, I really responded on Puzzle #6, perhaps my best performance ever at the tournament. I cracked the traditional Maura Jacobson puzzle in under five minutes; Howard (a very good under-the-radar B-level solver) and I were the only ones to do so. I'd recouped most of my loss, and thus entered the evening in a good, if still tired, mood.
I was feeling a little beaten up and refreshed myself with another quick shower, after which I headed up to Jenny's for homemade beer. It was a small but decently sized crowd, and a relaxing time was had. While there, I received a call from the Parkers and Baukses, family friends of ours. They had planned to surprise me by showing up to cheer me on, but my dad had let it slip some time prior (this is just one reason why they call him Butthead). They invited me to Vuli, the rotating restaurant on the top floor of the Marriott; I'd never been there. There was a crossword event being filmed by the Discovery Channel, but I didn't feel like speed-solving any more puzzles today. Alison declined my invitation (by way of my friends) to dinner to do that, so I headed up by myself. We enjoyed ourselves, but our order seemingly got lost in the queue; other patrons who'd ordered later were leaving before we got our food. During our wait, I was thrilled to receive a call from five of my gorgeous high school classmates. Thanks to Amy, Sarah, Nicky, Jess, and Gill for a nice surprise. The adults cajoled them a little, and we were finally served just in time for me to scarf it down and head all the way back down for the Saturday night program.
Alison and Marty had saved me a seat, and I caught the end of Will's NPR puzzle; thankfully I wasn't going to miss any of the extra Wordplay material. First there was an entertaining snippet from a theoretical Wordplay musical, capturing Will in his enigmatology-studying days at Indiana. Written and performed very well. The hour-long feature was very entertaining. The best part was Jon Stewart's alternate answer to "Like Bo Peep's sheep," which, as a caption noted, would have made the film R-rated. I was a little disappointed that my imitation of Will Ferrell imitating Robert Goulet didn't make the cut. Some more time in the bar with cool people, then bed for better but still shortish sleep.
Sunday. Out came Trogdor. After some nervous moments, I found out that the standings were exactly as we calculated. Francis and I were tied for first and Al was in third, with Trip nipping at his heels. If Trip beat Al by just one minute on Puzzle #7, Trip would move forward on the tiebreaker. I held the tiebreaker over Francis and would continue to have it if we tied on the last puzzle. So, despite being technically in first, I didn't have enough room to play defense. My nerves jangled more than usual as I solved, but I still got through it to tie Trip and Al and beat Francis by a minute. Now only a dumb error could take me out of the race.
The increased attendance this year had forced the organizers to put some solvers outside the ballroom, so us main ballroom people had to stay for the duration of Puzzle #7. I finished the Discovery Channel puzzle from the previous evening and had started in on the Sunday Times crossword when Will came over and alerted me that I was wanted for an interview outside. I talked with a local guy I vaguely recognized, and then greeted my parents. And the Parkers. And the Baukses. And my neighbors in Hebron. And Chris, a fellow documentary star of mine, the guy I hung out with over New Year's weekend. And most of them were wearing their custom-made Wordplay poster T-shirts. I had my own cheering section, even if its members came closer to forming my episode of This Is Your Life than, say, a college football cheerleading squad...mmm...sorry, where was I? Ah, yes. Anyway, seeing that they all made the effort to come down was very flattering; I hoped not to disappoint them.
Ah, my least favorite part of the tournament: waiting for confirmation of either my finalist status or my ability to choke. I talked with Chris in the hotel room as Trip and I gathered our things to check out. Then we all filed in for the results. I finally allowed myself to feel relief when Francis was announced in third, a strong indication that no major shuffling had taken place in the top ranks. Indeed, I'd protected first place, and would be going for my third straight championship!
The wait in the bowels of the hotel was a nervous one, as usual. Judge Jim Page joined the A and B finalists, as did a reporter. He clearly hadn't done much homework (why yes, Al HAS been in the finals before), but we all talked to him. After the B finalists (which, in a major scoring error, did not include Howard; Will admirably did what he could to atone for the lapse after the fact) had vanished, I made my preparations, going to the restroom and getting myself pumped up in the mirror. At last, it was time.
I was in the middle, and I got myself set with my headphones. It seemed to be a long wait before I got started, but at last a judge tapped my shoulder. Notes on my performance on the final:
- My first answer was ECOLE for "___ Polytechnique"; I spent the briefest of moments amusing myself by wondering if there was a French translation of RENSSELAER that fit into five boxes.
- Answering LIPS for "Rose ___"... I'm pretty sure I was thinking of the oxlip and got my flowers confused. Of course, that led to the highly amusing LATEMONGER...more on my correction of this below. When I fixed it, I made a big "whew!" gesture for the audience. Hope you all enjoyed that.
- Getting the STOLENBASE/ONSECOND pair took for-goddamn-ever; the former entry was missing only the B for way too long. For some reason I had INSECURE in my head for a great while.
- Really thought I'd have to guess at 1-Across; I don't know Glengarry Glen Ross at all. Have never been so thankful to see that sort of trickery.
- SPROUT took a while because I was sure it was a two-word phrase ending in OUT.
- Other sticking points: DYED for MADE (that hurt for a while), ELTRAINS for GASMAINS (reasonable, and I figured I should write it in because I'm a Chicagoan now and would have looked like an idiot if it was right and I didn't get it, but I never really believed in it), ARENAS for AROMAS (just stupid; ditched it quickly), and just getting GASPAR (the traditional spelling with a C threw me off, and I had to pause to consider and discard NEST for REST).
- And, of course...the infamous B. All three finalists unhesitatingly put LEVEL for BEVEL. That left "Secesh" to be answered by REL. Fortunately, I just never understood the meaning of "Hood ornaments" for PINKYRINGS and thus hesitated to fill the R. That gave me another look at "Secesh". It looked like it could be short for something, but it wasn't an abbreviation, and I didn't know REL as anything but that. It just COULDN'T be right. Then, for whatever reason, the B snapped into my head. I definitely knew the word BEVEL, and REB just made so much more sense. I can't even remember if I saw the hidden "secession" in the clue before or after the fact. I can't fully explain what compelled me to fix that letter. Ditto on LIPS/LATEMONGER. For some reason, in that final, my sense of "look, this CAN'T freaking be right" was as awake as it's ever been. It had as much to do with adrenaline and being sort of "in the zone" as anything else, and it's difficult to explain afterwards.
So, I saw Al move away from his board as I was trying to sort out all my problems with GASPAR. I finally rolled with it and announced my completion. I whipped off my headphones and, just as I had in 2005, searched the judges in front for some confirmation of my second-place finish. I was disappointed that I'd missed a third straight victory by such a slim margin, but I was prepared to be fine with it if Al was the winner. I won't forget what happened next. My eyes met Merl's, and, with his hand just in front of his chest, he extended his index finger. I pointed very slightly and questioningly to myself in disbelief. No freaking way. Al was suddenly on my right, and he said "I must have an error." I searched his board, and soon found the L of REL and LEVEL. I shook Al's hand and gave him an awkward sort of half-hug. My emotions had been dragged back and forth a lot in the past few minutes, and at this moment I felt bad for Al, again coming so close. I then turned away from everyone to face my own board, put my face in my hands, and mutter something that I believe rhymed with "holy trucking split." I turned back and sat at the edge of the stage. Someone later told me that I looked like I was about to faint. My initial reaction was, "No, I'm always this white," but I actually did feel a little woozy up there. In any case, I didn't have much time to relax; the clock was nearing 00:00. Time expired, the judges stopped Francis's work, and I stood back up as Will announced my third consecutive championship. Unbelievable! I did the usual photo-ops with Will and Stan, the evil, evil man who had created that behemoth. Stan told me that he'd thrown the hardest stuff he could throw at me, and I'd done it. That was good to hear.
My parents had me call all the relatives and so forth, and then we parted ways so they could get their own lunch while I went to the banquet. I left the ballroom while the banquet was set up and accepted many congratulations in the lobby. After some waiting, we enjoyed our final awards banquet in the Stamford Marriott. I was at a table with Chris, Alison, Marty, an NYT crossword forum regular, and several NPL cohorts. After some good conversation, Richard Maltby Jr. presented the awards and I reaped my bounty. I didn't have much time to say goodbye to everyone; Nancy alerted me that we should leave for the airport soon. I tried to talk to as many people as I could, then hurried out to our rental car, where Nancy, Amy, and I were joined by Bob.
In the airport, I made more calls, including one to the quintet of ladies from the previous evening. I had them put me on speakerphone to tell them I won, and their exultant, perhaps slightly lustful scream was the perfect reward. Amy and I got a Sam Adams to make ourselves content prior to boarding. We were delayed on the runway for a while, but it was smooth sailing from there. En route, Amy and I derived tremendous amusement from the SkyMall catalog, looking for ways to spend my prize. Much of this humor was puerile. We had fun. Shut up. The two of us shared a cab from O'Hare back to the north side, and I was home. I unpacked, showered, relaxed for a while...and went to work. No rest for the wicked.
Some closing thoughts:
- Of course, thanks to Will, Helene, and everyone else involved for another terrific tournament. The increased attendance was dealt with smoothly, the puzzles were terrific, and the program was entertaining.
- I'm a little wistful to leave the Stamford Marriott, although the move to Brooklyn will bring some improvements. In a way, it was nice to close out my experiences there by winning.
- Congratulations to Al for another strong showing; you'll get it done one of these years. Congratulations to Francis on making his first final; we'll see you back, I'm sure. Congratulations to my awesome friend Sko for achieving her goal and scooping the Handwriting Award. And congratulations to all the other prizewinners, as well as everyone who met their personal goals for the competition.
- Many kudos have been sent in my direction as well. I haven't replied personally to everyone, but I appreciate all the kind words.
- It was good seeing people and meeting new faces. It was difficult not to get a little weary of telling people that I've graduated and I'm trading bonds in Chicago and it's all right but I'm still getting good at it. I tried to answer people cheerily, though; 'tis the price of G-list fame.
- As usual, I brought my camera and never used it, relying on the mass of pictures that everyone else took. I'm also very much looking forward to this year's DVD so I can watch the final that my dad said very nearly gave him a heart attack!* * The Ucaoimhu cryptic this year was once again staggeringly brilliant. Shame on you if you miss it.
- I had fun hanging out with friends in the bar, but I wish I'd ventured out a little to play a homemade Jeopardy or something.
- Proof that you can't win them all: When I got back to my apartment and unpacked, I discovered my crossword clipboard (the one with that very unusually designed Times puzzle by Patrick Merrell) snapped quite convincingly in two. Not sure how it happened; it was near the middle of the bag and my other stuff seemed to be in good shape.
- Oh, and that fortune cookie? The Chinese lesson on the back was the word "March," and the fortune was "Your path is arduous but will be amply rewarding." It's still in my nametag, and I will keep it.
- Lastly, this weekend increased my excitement for my first NPL convention this summer. This is just a great group of people, and it's nice to await eagerly another event that's coming up relatively soon.
Well, that's it. Good fight, good night!