Monday, March 27, 2017

We Didn’t Solve the Puzzle: Musings from the 40th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

We take a break from politics to report on the ACPT, one of the truly wonderful events of our time.  We wrestled with some tough puzzles, performed in the Talent Show as a band ("Clueless"), and soaked up the atmosphere with a special group of people.  And for those attendees who asked for the lyrics to our song parody "We Didn't Solve the Puzzle," you can find them at the bottom of this post.

We have just returned from the 40th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Ct., a weekend-long extravaganza hosted by Will Shortz, the esteemed “enigmatologist” who is, of course, the editor of The New York Times Crossword Puzzle.  Will is not just a legend in the field, but rather he is THE legend in the field.  Will founded the event in 1978 and has presided over each and every one since, and does so with a calm tone (amidst the swirling madness), a gentle voice, and an incredible repository of puzzle arcana – and he is the nicest person you would ever want to meet.

Will and his trusty crew of volunteers (dozens of them) put on quite a show.  The main event is a seven-puzzle competition, which attracted 619 entrants this year, up from 575 a year ago.  While it is open to all (for a modest fee), it attracts the best solvers on the planet (and the constructors who create the special puzzles used at the event are the best as well).  And surrounding the competition are an array of ancillary events including, this year, a Palindrome Championship, two nights of additional contests just for fun, a rather fulsome awards ceremony and a talent show to boot (“Crossworders Got Talent”).

For eleven years, from 2005 to 2015, the contest has been dominated by two men, Tyler Hinman, who won the tournament the first five of those years, and Dan Feyer, who unseated Hinman and whipped off six straight championships of his own.  Feyer and Hinman are prototypes of classic sports match-ups, with Hinman playing the role of the colorful and emotive crowd favorite, while Feyer is the cool machine, methodical and menacing.  Substitute the names Palmer versus Nicklaus, Ali versus Frazier, Mickelson versus Woods or Namath versus Unitas and you get the idea rather neatly.

But last year, Howard Barkin, a top ten finisher for years, broke through and defeated Feyer in the finals, for which Hinman failed to qualify.  It should be noted that after the seven contests, the three highest scorers, those who complete the puzzles most accurately and in the fastest times, ascend to a stage and go head-to-head in the finals under the bright lights, filling in the answers on giant white boards, all the while sealed off from the screaming audience (complete with exceptional play-by-play and color announcers) by their bodies (backs to the crowd) and headphones of the kind that airport personnel use to block out the noise of giant roaring airplanes. 

The finals this year were no less exceptional than those of the last two years, which were both certifiably epic.  Two years ago, the last year Feyer won, he defeated Hinman by literally half-a-second, using every last one of the five second advantage he had earned over Hinman in the seven contest run-up (they both got every puzzle absolutely right, but Feyer completed them a tad faster and was duly rewarded with the advantage) to hold onto his title.  Last year, Feyer seemed to be methodically rolling to a seventh consecutive title when he lost his momentum and Barkin made his move.

This year, Hinman was back in the finals, and itching for a title after a seven-year gap in hoisting the cup.  And he was on his game, easily outpacing Feyer and Joon Pahk in the match (Pahk made the finals as Barkin was wiped out by trouble in the notoriously difficult Puzzle Five).  But alas, Hinman had uncharacteristically made an error, coming up with TEATAX (as in “tea tax”) for 48 Down, clued as “drastic, as cuts“ when the correct answer was MEATAX (as in “meat ax’).  Hinman had no way of knowing that he had a huge time advantage over Feyer and thus could have taken a bit of time to check his work.  Instead, he thrust his arm in the air, yelled “DONE!” triumphantly (he could tell that Feyer and Pahk were still at it), only to confront a sea of agonized faces when he turned around in joy to face the crowd.  He quickly looked  back at this puzzle, realized his error, and became the very picture of despair, shoulders slouched, helplessly watching as Feyer tidied up, corrected his own miscue, and claimed victory.

Theirs was not the only championship playoff.  Contestants are divided into various skill levels, A through E, and the top three categories have their own finals.  Each levels’ finalists solve the same puzzle, but the clues are progressively harder, with, in Will’s words, Level C’s being “pretty hard,” Level B’s “difficult” and Level A’s “excruciating.”  The drama this year was that, inadvertently (and echoing the Oscars), a mistake was made and the “B” folks were given the “A” clues.  But they soldiered on and each completed the puzzle anyway, within the time limit.  (And form held, as “A” champ Dan Feyer completed his puzzle three minutes faster than his B champion counterpart, Brian McCarthy, using identical clues.)

My wife, daughter and I are tangential players in this crossword drama.  Out of the 619 players, I finished in 542nd, just one place behind my wife, Wendy.  We may be among the best in our hometown, but we meet our betters in Stamford.  Kristy, however, is rising swiftly.  In her first tournament, back in 2012, as a 21-year old (and thus one of the youngest competitors), she was back with us in 476th.  But by leaps and bounds she has progressed, and did so again this year, rising from 181st to 129th place, moving from Division E to D to C and now knocking on the door of B.  She was one of only 65 contestants to complete every puzzle without an error.

But while we are not in the elite, we do get to play on the big stage, not by performing crossword magic as a champion, but rather in the Talent Show.  The Talent Show serves the functional role of killing time on Sunday morning after Puzzle Seven, so that scores can be finalized and thus finalists and other award winners determined.  This was our fourth year of performing, in a band we call “Clueless,” that purports to represent the “plight of the crossword challenged,” those who, like Wendy and me, plod along in the competition as members of Division E.  Each year we perform a crossword-themed song parody, with Kristy as lead singer, me on the guitar, and Wendy serving as back-up singer and, this year, on the kazoo.  We were the sixth of ten acts, which included six other musical acts (performed by a variety of mostly professional musicians, which we are not), two comedians of various stripes, and a juggler who preceded us and exacted a huge roar from the crowd.

Our song, plaintively titled, “We Didn’t Solve the Puzzle,” was set to the tune of the Billy Joel classic, ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which, as you recall, was a rapidfire review of world history from roughly the early 1950’s to the late 1980’s.  Ours was devoted instead to all the funny words and celebrities one learns about through the puzzle solving experience, the ones that are often repeated because of their wonderful “filler” abilities – essentially short words with a happy mix of vowels and consonants.  There are also a few stanzas recognizing the constructors who torment us; each of the constructors who contributed the eight puzzles featured in the tournament are mentioned, as well as a few others.

The Talent Show may be a filler event but it is captures perfectly the light-hearted spirit of the entire weekend.  The audience, fellow solvers who, like us, have just completed Puzzle Seven, are ready to relax.  They are wondrously supportive of our follies; all they want to do is laugh and help us along.  It is a terrific group, incredibly talented, kind and generous of spirit. 

After our performance they shared their good wishes with us, and a few of them asked us for the lyrics, which we reprint below.

We’ll be back in 2018, of course, in our roles as solvers, Talent Show performers and, ultimately, spectators of what will surely be another riveting set of finals.

We Didn’t Solve the Puzzle (to the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” with apologies to Billy Joel)

Oreo or olio? Or the soldiers at St. Lo?
Epee, Esme-- don’t know which to do
Is it Asta -- yeah the dog, or Asti -- the bubbly grog?
Yoko Ono, the brothers Alou

Was it Tosca or Aida, or the sands of Iwo Jima?
Uzi, ouzo, Apolo Ohno
It could be the UAR – wait I think the UAE
REO, GTO -- I don’t drive -- how would I know!!!

We didn’t solve the puzzle
Though our minds were churning while the clock was turning
We didn’t solve the puzzle
Couldn’t get the theme and now we want to scream!

Entertainment’s not for me – Captain Hook and faithful Smee
Oona, Uma, actresses I think
Barbara Bel Geddes of Dallas, and of course Esai Morales
Opie, Odie – puts me on the brink

Sports – well there I’m not so hot, just know Giant slugger Ott
Ogee, Agee – wasn’t he a Met?
I don’t get what hockey’s for – well there’s Boston legend Orr
Jai alai, worth a try – gotta ante up a bet!!!!

We didn’t solve the puzzle
Though our minds were churning while the clock was turning
We didn’t solve the puzzle
Couldn’t get the theme and now we want to scream!

There was Mork who was from Ork, and there is that other orc
Ewok, Eloy, how is one to know?
Maybe it is AOK, or Isao Aoki
Eli, Ali, with a TKO

Is it oro -- or oso?  Just more Spanish I don’t know
Ural, Aral -- all the same to me
Is a caribou an elk?  Or something of a different ilk?
Emu, or a gnu – just more beasts I’ll never see!!!

We didn’t solve the puzzle
Though our minds were churning while the clock was turning
We didn’t solve the puzzle
Couldn’t get the theme and now we want to scream!

Patricks Berry and Blindauer, I can’t finish in an hour
Mike Shenk, Bruce Haight, I can’t get the theme
David Steinberg, Trip Payne, both are driving me insane
Brandon Emmett Quigley, a bad dream

Paula Gamache, David Poole, they make me look like a fool
Julie Bérubé, I can’t get the flow
Michael Shteyman, David Kahn, what exactly are they on?
Lempel, Merrell, Joel Fagliano

Now it’s time for us to go
Division E -- that’s what we know
Not Greek, not sports
Blame it all on Will Shortz!!!!

We didn’t solve the puzzle
Though our minds were churning while the clock was turning
We didn’t solve the puzzle
Couldn’t get the theme and now we want to scream!

We didn’t solve the puzzle
Though our minds were churning while the clock was turning
We didn’t solve the puzzle
Couldn’t get the theme and now we want to scream!

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