3.24.2011

03.24 ACPT

ACPT Wrap-Up

This was my fourth year attending the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and so far it's gotten better every year, which hardly seems possible. The first thing I want to say — and I'll probably say this about ten more times — is that you really really really don't need to be a speed-solver to have fun. I'm gonna say that again right now and I'm gonna type it real slow so pay attention. YOU DON'T NEED TO BE A SPEED-SOLVER TO HAVE FUN AT THE ACPT. I can't stress this enough. I hear people say they're not fast enough and that's why they decide not to attend. It's SO not about that. I mean, think about it. Every year I've attended there have been more than 600 competitors. You know how many of those 600 actually crack the top 20? Yes, that's right, 20. The rest of us know the weekend will bring us no glory, but THAT'S NOT THE POINT. What is the point? The point is to be around Puzzle People for a couple days. And why is it awesome to be around Puzzle People? Because you can have indepth conversations about pencils. Because you can use a lot of big words. Because you can play word games with people and not hold back in order to refrain from crushing their spirits the way you have to do with your family. And if none of that sounds appealing to you, you really need to know that Puzzle People are the nicest, most welcoming people in the world and they're super fun to be around. Even the socially awkward ones seem slightly less awkward at ACPT. (And, really, who among us isn't socially awkward?) So let me tell you a little bit about my weekend.

I arrived in New York Thursday afternoon. The official puzzle festivities don't begin until Friday, but a number of people start drifting in Thursday. I actually thought I was the first one there, but then I spotted Deb Amlen in the hotel lounge. As you probably know, Deb writes the official New York Times blog, Wordplay. She just started the gig earlier this year, so it's new for her. And it was pretty cool hearing some behind-the-scenes stories about the New York Times, the paper's blog team, and how Wordplay is a totally different animal than our humble little L.A. Crossword Confidential. (It's the New York Times after all!)

By the time the evening rolled around, we had ourselves a nice little puzzle gang that included Deb, PuzzleSister, Doug Peterson, Amy Reynaldo, Sam Donaldson, Merl Reagle and some other people I'm sure I'm forgetting. Oh yeah, Peter Gordon was there. If you attended the tournament and weren't approached by Peter about his new iPhone app, "Celebrities," ... oh who am I kidding? There wasn't a single person at the tournament who wasn't approached by Peter Gordon about his "Celebrities" app. I'm willing to bet money on that. Peter's app is a high-tech version of the well-known party game and it's a blast. He was basically testing the app on us (and by "us" I mean anybody who ventured within a ten-foot radius of his iPhone) and we will no doubt hear about it when it's available for purchase.

On Thursday we had a great dinner and basically just hung out at the hotel. Let me tell you a little bit about Merl Reagle. I could sit and listen to Merl all day long. The man thinks about words All. The. Time. And it's interesting stuff too! PuzzleSister was wearing a sweatshirt that said NEVADA (which is where she lives) and as soon as she sat down Merl says, "You see how with the word NEVADA you can take the first and last letters off and then flip the rest of the letters around and it makes the name DAVE?" We're all, "Yeah, Merl! We see it! That's cool!" And then he goes, "What other U.S. State can you do that with?" And we're all "We're too dumb, Merl! We'll never figure it out!" So he tells us that with the other state, the name you come up with is actually the last name of a famous person. So we all sat around trying to figure it out for a while but never did get it, except for Amy who cheated. I'm not going to tell you the answer in case you want to figure it out for yourself, but I will just say that PuzzleSister then wore a sweatshirt with the name of that state on it the following day. It was a little Twilight Zone-ish.

Friday we had kind of a lazy morning and almost didn't make it to lunch with the gang. Thank God for Doug Peterson. He wouldn't let them leave without us. We had lunch at a Peruvian place with great food and extremely mediocre service. But we didn't care! We were having a blast anyway! The restaurant had white butcher paper on the tables and little plastic cups full of crayons available for ... well, I suppose, they're available for the children, but a bunch of people in our group decided to use them to make crossword grids. I don't think we came up with anything particularly creative, but it was a good way to kill time. The challenge was to use the five-letter names of two people at our table, TYLER (Hinman) and BYRON (Walden), one on top of the other (insert your own inappropriate joke here). That double Y looks daunting, but I took care of it by using the two-word phrase "SAY YES." I know. This is way too exciting isn't it? I can tell you can't wait to come next year!

The official tournament activities began Friday night with a team puzzle event, but PuzzleSister and I had already decided not to participate. We did it our first year and it was really fun, but this year we were more in the mood for unstructured time. Also, participation in the Friday night activity costs extra. Wait, that's not exactly fair. What happened was the Friday night activity used to be included in the registration fee but a lot of people who live in New York and don't stay at the hotel would end up not coming out for it. So this year they made the fee for the Friday night activity separate (and the registration fee lower). So it's not really fair to say it cost extra, but it was a separate charge and we didn't really want to do the thing anyway so we didn't. Instead we had dinner at an awesome Italian restaurant with an awesome group of people including Rex and Mrs. Parker, Patrick Blindauer and his lovely fiancĂ©e, and former five-time Jeopardy! champion John Beck, who apparently knows gang signs? (Those Jeopardy! people are so smart!) Then we went back to the hotel and mingled and played "Celebrities" and basically just enjoyed being around Puzzle People until very late at night, by which I mean, like, 2:00 in the morning. (Who's too old for that kind of behavior? PuzzleGirl, that’s who!)
Saturday morning is when the solving part of the tournament actually starts, but the first puzzle doesn't start until 11:00, which is really very civilized if you think about it. Because I actually had a couple puzzles published recently, though, I was very excited to be invited to an unofficial women constructors' breakfast that happens every year. I was less excited when I learned I was expected to be there at 8:30, but whatever. It was awesome. I already knew a couple of the women there, but was very happy to meet Nancy Schuster, Nancy Shack, Sarah Keller, and (especially) Donna Levin. I've been a fan of Donna's for a long time and I've always been so grateful to her for visiting the blog — it was very cool to finally meet her in person. Other constructors at the breakfast who we've seen here on LACC include Bonnie Gentry and C.W. Stewart, both of whom I met last year, and both of whom are super, super nice and fun to be around.

I feel like I've already been rambling for a long time here, so let me try to be a little more succinct. On Saturday the ballroom fills up with 650-or-so people all ready to solve some puzzles. The puzzles are available online so I'm not going to spoil them in case you still want to do them. I'll just tell you that the difficulty level of the puzzles varies, but you do know what to expect in advance. For example, Puzzle 1 is always super easy and Puzzle 5 is always really, really hard. You're also informed in advance how big each puzzle is and how much time will be allowed. So that kind of gives you an idea what to expect. You know what's the most important thing to remember though? YOU DON'T NEED TO BE A SPEED-SOLVER TO HAVE FUN AT THE ACPT.

Basically, my goals every year are to place higher than I did the previous year and to finish Puzzle 5. I actually reached one of those goals once — I did better my second year than my first — but just that once. I've never finished Puzzle 5 and the last two years my ranking has actually slipped. But guess what. It doesn't matter. Hanging out with Puzzle People is FUN and even if I came in dead last, I wouldn't miss it for the world.

So we solved three puzzles, broke for lunch, then came back and solved three more. That evening I joined the Crossword Fiend blogging team for dinner at a really nice restaurant in Manhattan where I didn't really get to spend enough time with Janie and Neville, but had quite enough of Sam. (Just kidding, Sam!) You'll never guess what happened next. That's right: back to the hotel for hanging out and "Celebrities." Only this time I didn't get to bed until 3:00am, which is pretty stupid but I just couldn't leave! I didn't want to miss anything! And in hindsight, it turns out I was right to stay. If I had gone to bed earlier I would have missed about 64 hilarious things Jeremy Horwitz said and would totally have missed Peter Gordon's impression of Jeremy's typical exclamation of approval while playing "Celebrities," which is "Nice!" only when I type it you really don't get the full effect. In fact, I don't think you can really get the full effect unless you're sitting in a bar in Brooklyn at 2:00 in the morning and you're Peter Gordon.

Sunday morning we solved one more puzzle and it was a doozy. It was a puzzle constructed by Ashish Vengsarkar and Narayan Venkatasubramanyan. I saw Ashish after the puzzle and he looked a little rough. Apparently he'd been out all night drinking with Matt Gaffney and Brendan Emmett Quigley, who he described as "bad, bad men." After Puzzle 7, people go check out of the hotel and wait around for the finals. There was a talent show going on during the wait, which I really enjoyed last year, but this year somehow I just missed it. Probably the sleep deprivation which caused me to not understand what was going on any more. Oh man! There were group activities Saturday night and I missed those too. I'm probably the last person Will Shortz wants writing about the ACPT because I didn't do any of the planned activities. I swear I don't have anything against those activities — it really just worked out that way.

So the finals. First they hand out trophies for all the different divisions (competitive divisions, age, and region). The top three finishers in the A, B, and C Divisions solve the final puzzle on the big boards in front of everyone (no pressure!). As you probably know, the grid for all three divisions is exactly the same. It's the clues that determine the difficulty. While the C Division finalists are solving on the big boards, the room is pretty quiet. I think a lot of people take that time to solve the puzzle. Then for the A and B Division finals, Merl Reagle and NPR's Neal Conan give the play-by-play. Yes, it really does get kind of exciting. This year it was the B Division finals that were the most exciting though. I believe there was a half-second difference between the first- and second-place finishers (David Plotkin and Ken Stern, respectively). In the A Division finals, on the other hand, Dan Feyer finished something like three minutes before former five-time champion Tyler Hinman wrapped up his grid. If you think about it, that really is amazing. I mean Tyler's no slouch! Dan is basically a freak of nature is what I'm saying.

After the finals, people start drifting out of the hotel to the train stations and airports, and ultimately back to their lives. Over the next couple days it's pretty fun to watch the pictures pop up and all the Puzzle People friend each other on Facebook. And that's really about it. It was an awesome weekend. I got to spend time with people I really love even if it seems like I don't know them all that well. I also got to meet some new people like Rich Norris (finally!), Brad Wilber, Bob Klahn (Bob Klahn!), and Andrew Ries. Some of the folks leaving will be congregating in L.A. in a month or so, others won't see each other again until Lollapuzzoola 4, but I hope everyone will be back at ACPT next year! And you should come too!

16 comments:

Orange said...

Now, that's an ACPT write-up! Anyone asks me for one, I'll just refer them to this post.

Joon said...

wonderful write-up! but i'm still confused on one little point. do you need to be, like, some kind of super-fast solver to enjoy the ACPT?

PuzzleGirl said...

Yes, Joon. Yes you do.

mac said...

Great, PG, now I miss it even more.... You are right, it gets better every year.

P.S. CT won.

The Bionic, Byronic, Ironic Man said...

Cool write-up, PG. Pretty good turn-out of white people?

CrazyCatLady said...

Awesome write up! Thanks Angela! You actually met Rich Norris?? Did you also meet the mysterious Joyce? Sounds like a really fun weekend. Great pictures too.

Jeremy said...

Nice!

Elaine said...

Any chance you could add captions? I actually only know about 4 faces (though a lot of names) and would enjoy knowing more of them. This year it has to be vicarious enjoyment, but someday.....

pauer said...

I just relived the whole weekend in my head thanks to you. :) It was a terrific tourney: the weather on Friday night was stellar; the puzzles were challenging and creative (Mike Shenk's was my favorite); the "Celebrity: Get a Clue" beta-app was addictive; and the Puzzle People are indeed about the friendliest, most articulate group around. Good friends, good food/drink, good puzzles, and talking about good puzzles ... what's not to love?

One thing I didn't do this year was Adopt A Rookie, which I regret. I've always made a point in the past of finding somebody new and inviting them to join us, but not this time. So I'll have to adopt two rookies next year to make up for it!

Competing isn't the main reason I attend, but it is still a big part of the weekend for me, and even though I'm not a top speed-solver, I have a few people who are my pace cars and I try to beat my own ranking from year to year, as well. I had my best finish yet this year (171st, tho I still didn't finish puzzle 5 and had 2 squares wrong on the last puzzle). Guess I better get a book of tough themelesses before next year, and a little more sleep on Saturday night wouldn't hurt, either. Easier said than done.

All that post-tourney pic-sharing and Friending sounds fun, too; guess I may finally have to break down and join this Facebook thing I keep hearing about ...

Orange said...

@pauer, you know you want to be on Facebook with the rest of us. All the coooool kids are doing it. Come on.

@Ironic Byronic: Boy, howdy. Ain't that the truth? The ACPT crowd isn't all white but it sure is mostly white (I'll guesstimate 95%+). That's why I gave my son's teacher a box full of Trip Payne's puzzle books for kids—trying to expose a diverse classroom to the crossword habit and get 'em while they're young.

in-saindon said...

It's like I was there! Oh, wait. I was.

Doug P said...

Yes, you were there! And thank god you were sitting next to me during the talent show.

*David* said...

Now I'm completely intimidated, until I can solve a Puzzle #5, I won't show my face. I tried the BEQ from last year and didn't do as well as I hoped. I'm thinking of trying the Silicon Valley Day next year as my first approach to a competition.

Vega said...

Devoured this post from top to bottom. Oof, I just don't know what I'm going to do with myself between now and next March. Thank goodness for Lollapuzzoola.

KarmaSartre said...

Great write-up, PG, thank you.

Sam Donaldson said...

"I didn't really get to spend enough time with Janie and Neville, but had quite enough of Sam."

If I had a nickel for every time I heard that....

Superb writeup, PuzzleGirl! You really captured the spirit of the weekend.