Report from the Crosswords Los Angeles Tournament

Last weekend, the very first Crosswords Los Angeles Tournament was held at Loyola Marymount University. Sounds like everybody had an awesome time (as you would expect). Our undercover spy, Andrea Carla Michaels, was on the ground and brings us the following report of the event:

OK, I waited a bit to write up what happened in Los Angeles because I confused it with Las Vegas, and I thought what happens in Lalaland stays in Lalaland. But if Rex says write, I write! But I also wanted to wait till there would be fewer spoilers and you could relate to the puzzles we had to solve. And you could sympathize with writing DUMB as a post, instead of DEAF, etc.

SO I flew down to L.A., mostly to see my grandmother (Maidie will be 97 end of next month but I can't be there on Memorial Day, so I just told her that it was almost June, we celebrated and no one was the wiser…).

Drove to non-UCAL-Loyola Marymount. Gave myself an extra hour to get lost, hit traffic, schmooze beforehand … and glad I did. Got there extremely early, but not before Swedish-sounding Doug Peterson. He personified what these "competitions" are like in that they don't feel like competitions … and I don't think I'm just saying that because my name is not Eric and I don't have a chance to win! Doug warmly greeted me. (He finished JUST outside the finals and even set them up. The hardest working solver there … I think he shared his thoughts on Amy's blog and is Brian and Ryan's special correspondent if you want to check out his take.)

Throughout the day, I also got to meet fellow constructors whom I only knew by byline: John Farmer, Susan Gelfand (who was a volunteer), Alan Olschwang, Alex Boisvert (gorgeous, like a cross between Topher Grace for you young folks and Ron Livingston, the guy that broke up with Carrie on a post-it and who was in "Office Space") and Todd Gross who just got his first puzzle accepted for the L.A. Times. There was also a super-cute childhood friend of Peter Not-for-me Gordon. (I honestly don't know if there were other crossword blog commenters there, but I've just noticed on the results page actor Dennis Boutsikaris, whose father reads Rex religiously and has written to me privately. I wish I had realized that and would have sought him out.)

There was a huge showing of NPLers (National Puzzle Leaguers, not known as Nipples, but really, these bad acronyms have GOT to stop!). They all knew each other from many puzzle gatherings, northern tournaments, etc. and made quite the plea to join. One of their group, John Suarez, led a huge, fun, group game while folks were waiting for the final results.

Here's the thing … Elissa Grossman was amazing. Funny, smart, self-deprecating and she managed to keep things running PLUS gave us lunch! These mini-tourneys are great. The three or four I've taken part in have all been for fantastic charities involving literacy, libraries, kids, etc. Somehow she managed to only charge $25 (that went to a terrific cause) and yet every competitor got a Dell book, an unpublished puzzle by Merl Reagle, who had tried to do one of these tourneys in the early '80s (!), laminated name tags, mechanical pencils, and did I mention, a free lunch!?!

Because Elissa is a professor at the business school, the room was donated … so it was in a tiered lecture room, and memories of college came flooding back. It was freaky to feel so much older than the professor. I've gotten used to be older than cops and even doctors, but business school professors … damn!

We got off to a late start since folks signed up at the last moment. All told, there were about 100 folks, 50 in the regular division, 25 in the "Experts" (which was really just anyone who had ever done one of these things), and lots of volunteers. But Elissa kept us apprised, and if she ever decides to become a stand-up, she'll do well. Her students must love her!

The rest of the setup was like the Brooklyn tournament. The puzzles were from this week's New York Times. I bummed halfway through when I realized the first was by Joe Krozel, whose wavelength I've never been on. PLUS I made the rookie error of not checking crosses, and put -INE for "Chlor- suffix" instead of -IDE … making NECI instead of DECI. ☹

The drag is ONE error costs about 200 points once you've subtracted the 150-point bonus for a perfect puzzle, the 20 points less for two wrong words, AND the 25-point penalty for getting something wrong. OUCH! And this was my only error in the entire tournament!

When I'd finish a puzzle, I'd wonder where my row had gone (she put the "Experts" in the last row, making it easier for volunteers to grab our puzzles more easily) but when I'd go out into the hall, there would only be about 10 folks who had finished before me. All named Eric. And yet in the end, that ONE LETTER (damn JoeK) cost me even the top 20.

However, Elissa managed to have prizes for the first 25 folks, so I actually won a book of easy puzzles called "Mocha Mondays" which I had two puzzles IN, yet had no idea had been published, as we are not given residuals nor even a copy of the book when our puzzles are reprinted! But that's another story!

After three rounds and free lunch — did I mention that? (Five different choices! Plus fruit and cookies … Really, how DID she do it?) — there were two more puzzles. It was a little freaky that the puzzles went Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and then another Wednesday. I was hoping for a Friday, because then I could maybe make up what I lacked in speed with solving toughies.

The problem (for me) with these competitions is that the first puzzles can be solved by everyone there, so the speed demons are almost uncatchable. I'd like to see a competition of all Wednesday through Saturday puzzles, so speed isn't the main factor. A major determining one, but not the main. That way, I also think we'd see more women. Maybe all named Erica?

After five rounds, there actually was a newcomer Jordan Chodorow who was ahead of the Erics. (For those of you who don't know, Eric Maddy and Eric Levasseur have won all the West Coast tourneys. Both are NPLers and quite amicable guys who seem to be friends. Eric Maddy even won the Sudoku tournament in Morgan Hill as well, so he ain't to be messed with.)

As for the finale, Tyler was there to do the play-by-play, along with this cool, funny, nice guy named Michael Colton who writes for "Sit Down and Shut up" which is on … after … the … SIMPSONS!!!!!!!!! Unfortunately, he had a dinner party he was giving, has a one year old, was getting it all together, so when the tourney ran late, he had to split. He was also in the top ten at that point. Swedish-sounding Doug ran up to me and asked if I could fill in. I was thrilled, and contrary to popular belief, I had neither poisoned Michael, nor broken his leg.

Young Tyler was quite amusing, despite operating on four hours' sleep and with somewhat of a hangover. I have renewed respect for Merl (was it ever lacking?) as the play-by-play happens so fast you can barely say anything about what they are solving … much less be clever and entertaining. I can't say anything about the final, unfortunately, as it hasn't been published yet, but it was a toughie by Elizabeth Gorski. Perfectly constructed, but with an exceedingly difficult twist, which may or may not have involved rebuses, more than that I cannot say, but it wasn't a puzzle suited for a final, necessarily. (See! That's why I've been procrastinating writing anything about the tournament!)

Two friends of mine, Paul Clay and Eric (!) Seale, had driven all the way down from Santa Barbara to hang with me and give it a try (Paul doesn't even do puzzles, but Eric, true to his name, is totally into it and would like to construct). And although Paul finished dead last (ok, ahead of a woman who left after two puzzles!) he personified what the day was like: upbeat, super friendly, fresh, and challenging. He knew no one save me, and yet found everyone super-welcoming and had a blast. I felt very proud to be part of this community.

You can see the results and check out who was there, at crosswordswest.com.


*David* said...

Sounds like great fun, unfortunately Saturdays are a no go for me. Maybe we'll get a Sunday tournament going one of these days.

Alex said...


chefbea said...

What a great write up!!!

mac said...

Andrea, you make it sound as good as the Brooklyn event. It's all about being in the same space with people who like puzzles as well.
I liked your Paul Klee picture!
Were all those Erics blond?