As I'm sure you know, the second annual Lollapuzzoola crossword puzzle tournament was held in Queens, New York this past weekend. Ryan and Brian (and their awesome wives, Kathryn and Toni) did an unbelievably good job of putting it together. I think I can speak for everybody when I say we all had a great time. And here's the thing I just want to say right up front. You don't have to be super speedy at puzzles to have a good time at a tournament. I can't stress that enough. As a group, crossword people are the nicest, warmest, most generous people in the world. They are also, to a great extent, wicked smart and wicked funny. If you enjoy crossword puzzles at all you owe it to yourself to get to a tournament and mingle with kindred spirits. I feel like if I try to add much more about how I feel about tournaments, this post will become sickeningly sappy because I have pretty strong emotions about them. When I walked into my first tournament — the 2008 ACPT — I looked around the room and thought to myself: "My People." And I had that same feeling when I walked into Lollapuzzoola on Saturday.
First let me just say that, although Rex and I had a lovely dinner Friday night before the tournament with Dan Feyer, Janie, and HudsonHawk, Saturday didn't start out too well. Rex and I were staying in an apartment that belongs to a friend of my mother. It's one of those old, stately buildings on the upper west side. Really nice and solid, but ... old. So when I woke up Saturday morning I couldn't get the door to my bedroom open. It's an old door and it was super super humid, so it was just stuck. It wasn't even 8:00 yet, and I wasn't sure if Rex was awake. So I sent him a text message. I waited a few minutes and ... no response. So I called him on his cell-phone. Twice. Still nothing. By about 8:10, getting out of the room wasn't exactly optional any more so I started pounding on the door. He eventually heard me and woke up (for some reason he was a little cranky if I remember correctly) and, whew! I was rescued. Rex Parker! My hero!
We rode out to Queens with Dan and Ellen (thanks for the ride, Dan!) and talked about the usual thing that New Yorkers talk about: the best way to get from one place to another based on distance, traffic, and mode of transportation. If you've ever found yourself in a conversation with a group of New Yorkers, you know I'm telling the truth.
We arrived at the church a little early (and, by the way, yes, the tournament is held in the church where Scrabble was invented!) and there were already a lot of people there. We mingled a little, chatted with friends, got ourselves checked in and then it was time for the puzzles! I'm not Exactly sure how the scoring system works. Ryan and Brian distributed a handout that explained it, but I just decided to trust them. I mean, if I had figured it all out I surely would have been compelled to build a spreadsheet to keep track of my progress and I didn't have my computer with me, so why get all worked up about it? I do know, however, that there were two "divisions" which, basically, separated the elite solvers from the rest of us. Anyone who had finished in the top 20% at the ACPT over the last three years was assigned to the "Express" division. The rest of us were placed in the "Local" division. The breakdown of Express to Local was something like 20 to 54. The other interesting twist Ryan and Brian have added to their tournament is the use of "Google Tickets." Every contestant is provided with eight Google Tickets that they can use any time over the course of the tournament. Basically, the ticket allows you to ask for, and receive, an answer. The drawback is, of course, that each Google Ticket lowers your score on that puzzle by 25 points.
The first puzzle was easy and I'm pretty sure that was by design. It's nice to let everyone sort of get their bearings on a puzzle that's not going to cause a lot of stress. It also had a really fun component to it that I won't spoil for you here. But go solve it and then imagine a room full of people all solving it at the same time. It's pretty funny.
Puzzle 2 was constructed by one of our hosts, Brian Cimmet. I think he's pretty new to constructing, but the puzzle was very, very smooth. A really enjoyable solve. The gimmick on this puzzle was that after solving, the shaded center squares were to be used as a Boggle board in one of the day's "bonus" games. Francis Heaney won that particular bonus game. He was followed closely by Amanda Yesnowitz, who regularly kicks my ass on Facebook's version of Boggle. [Photo at left is Brian's wife and sister. Aren't they adorable??]
Puzzle 3, by Peter Gordon, was quite a bit tougher. It also had an added ingredient to it that included music being piped into the room at a certain point in the process. Again, I won't spoil it by telling you what piece of music it was, but if you're sitting in a room that's pretty much silent, the first note of it sounds bizarre. I thought it was someone's ringtone and was a little annoyed until it became clear it was part of the program. [Photo at right is Peter Gordon. Font humor!]
After Puzzle 3 we broke for lunch. Rex and I had lunch at a little diner not far from the church. Several other tournament-goers were there too. At one point a couple of nice, young people approached the table and asked, "Are you Rex Parker?" I had to laugh. All I could think was, "You're famous! But only today! And only within, like, a four-block radius!" We ended up staying at lunch way longer than we had planned and we missed the extra "Family Feud" event that Crosscan apparently hosted. I can't imagine it was anything less than hilarious. If anyone was there, please tell us about it in the comments!
When we walked back into the tournament, several people were trying to get my attention at once and it turned out I was in second place in the Local division! I couldn't believe it! I mean, I knew I had done well but, wow! My competitiveness immediately took over and I became nervous and absolutely sure that the only thing I had to look forward to the rest of the day was total inadequacy leading to a complete collapse. When it comes to competition, I don't really have the mental part down is what I'm saying.
Puzzle 4 completely kicked my butt. I mean, I'm sure it kicked almost everybody's butt. It was a really hard Brendan Emmett Quigley masterpiece. When I finally figured out the theme I made a lot of progress, but the northeast corner was just not coming together for me. I ended up using three Google Tickets and two of them were completely wasted. The answers I got were answers for which I had really good educated guesses and if I had just plugged them in, I might have been able to get rest of the corner to work. But I was impatient! Nervous! I had second place to protect! So I got the help I needed and finished the puzzle, but lost 75 points in the process.
Puzzle 5 was a 19x19 puzzle by Doug Peterson, one of my all-time favorite constructors and a super nice guy. I was FLYING through this puzzle. I mean FLYING. I was going with my gut on guesses and they were working, I was getting gimmes that I knew would not be gimmes for everybody, I was feeling GOOD. Until I got to the last corner. There was a clue there for a nine-letter word that I knew I didn't know. And I couldn't get anything else to work up there without the nine-letter word. So I used another Google Ticket. This part is pretty funny. PhillySolver came over to give me the answer I wanted and as he was writing it down, I was watching him and thinking, "He's making a mistake. What the heck is he writing? That's not a word!" But it was, in fact, a word. A word I have never heard in my entire life. As soon as I plugged it in, the rest of the corner fell into place and I was done. But I knew I had lost another 25 points and wondered if that was going to make me slip in the standings.
After Puzzle 5, we played a game of Scratch Yahtzee led by Peter Gordon. I'd never played before. It's the same general idea as normal Yahtzee, but has a little twist to it. I totally sucked at it. I totally suck at regular Yahtzee too.
Then it was time for the finals. Will Shortz had generously allowed Ryan and Brian to borrow his big puzzle boards for the finals, so we knew we were going to see the top three finishers up on the stage, which is always exciting. (If there are any non-puzzle people reading this — and I can't imagine why there would be — they have now decided that I am completely nuts. But if you've seen Wordplay or, even better, if you were at the ACPT finals last year, you know exactly what I'm talking about!) To make a long story short, I was five points away from making the finals in the Local division. If I had ever heard that one stupid word in Puzzle 5, I probably would have made it to the stage. Ack!
Well, that just meant I got to relax and watch the top three guys sweating it out on the stage while chatting it up with Deb Amlen. So I can't really complain. Will Irving ended up winning the Local division with Matt Matera and Matthew Besse coming in second and third. Then the three big shots took the stage — Dan Feyer, Francis Heaney, and 2008 Lollapuzzoola Champion Howard Barkin. If you've ever looked at the finishing times on the New York Times applet, you know these guys are freakishly fast. The three of them were very close going into the finals. In the end, Dan ended up finishing just seven seconds ahead of Francis. All the finalists got prizes: books, action figures, snacks, stuff from Ryan and Brian's apartments, I don't know — nobody really pays attention to that stuff. It's not the point! The point is that if you're a crossword puzzle person, it's super super fun to hang out with other crossword puzzle people.
I'll close by telling you about my favorite moment of the weekend, which happened Saturday night after the tournament. Rex and I had dinner with Tony Orbach, Patrick Blindauer, and Patrick's girlfriend Rebecca at the Jackson Diner. We were talking about all kinds of stuff, mostly about words, puns, puzzles, and the puzzle world. At one point a cool phrase came up in conversation and I said, "Hey. That's 15 letters." Tony and Patrick thought for a second and then they both pulled little notebooks out of their back pockets and wrote it down. I was in crossword geek heaven is what I'm saying.
If you've never been to a tournament before and the ACPT is either too intimidating (which it shouldn't be At All) or too expensive (which it looks like it always will be), consider attending Lollapuzzoola 3 on August 21, 2010. See you there!
[You can read more about the tournament, check the final standings, and download the tournament puzzles here.]
[P.S. I really wanted to put captions on all the photos in this post but I couldn't figure out how to do it.]