thepiemansimon (thepiemansimon) wrote,

The US Crossword Championship

So I see my last entry was back in November 2008. I don't know how you've managed.

And what, you may ask, has persuaded me to rejoin the blogging community... well I am moved to reminisce on last weekend's US Crossword Tournament which I (and a few other English folk) attended in Brooklyn. What a cracking weekend - and for me it was such a far cry from our British equivalents that preserving the experience in something other than my notoriously poor memory seems somehow appropriate.

So this is a one subject entry and it is long - if you aren't interested in crosswords, please don't start and then complain about its length :-)

Magoo and I journeyed over on the Friday morning and the hotel itself was a nice surprise. I was expecting something more akin to the accommodation we get at World Puzzle Championships - which in last year's case surpassed itself by including such luxuries as a bed and a light. Not so for the US xword championships - this was a proper hotel (replete with a foyer-full of nerds a plenty!).

We enjoyed a good dinner at the steakhouse next door where we were joined by chance by Ross, Magdalen and Henry B-W and shared thoughts on the forthcoming competitions. One major reason Peter B, Mark and I had decided to go across for the event was the 'World Championship' of cryptic crosswords competition planned for that evening. It would be a race over two puzzles - one English cryptic (by Don Manley I believe) and one American cryptic (by Rich Silvestri). This was the brainchild of Will Shortz, of whom I can't speak highly enough. He was extremely welcoming to all us Brits and the sheer competence with which the event is run and the whole scale of thing is a testament to how much 'profile' he has. The size has to be seen to be believed - the hall where the puzzles are solved is gigantic - 700 seats - and although it wasn't packed out for the cryptic event there was still a very good turnout. (I'd guess as many as we'd get for the Times finals anyway - which is not bad considering this was definitely a sideshow for the American contingent).

So the Friday evening started with us enjoying the 'magic' of David Kwong, himself a class act. I suspect this was the easiest and hardest audience he has had for his main trick - which consists of him constructing a New York Times grid on stage there and then. Except that this is no ordinary grid, as those who've seen what he can do on Youtube will know (go look it up!). Many of us could see what he was doing but it's no less impressive for that. Ross then gave a speech on the differences between UK and US cryptic crosswords, which was also very entertaining - surprisingly so for such a dry subject matter! (I think this is also available on Youtube).

And then came the cryptic competition itself. I moved myself away from Peter and Mark in the hall given how off-putting I suspected it would be when they put their hands up finished after no minutes at all.

In fact puzzle one went ok, so ok that I don't remember anything of it bar one clue. After 5 minutes I was faced with something like this for 2down:

Stars American city to cater, possibly (7)

I had L_C_R_A

and went for LACTREA. I put up my hand for 5mins 33 secs, a good time for me and I think second in the room. I looked over and Mark looked like he'd been finished for a while (he had, he was done in 4mins 3seconds!) but Peter was still finishing off so I knew I had an ok finish. Peter was done in just a shade over 6mins but in-between an American, Jeffrey Harris, had finished. This was despite what could be regarded as a whole series of UK-assisting answers/clues: ANDORRA, LIECHENSTEIN/ PM following Churchill in the garden (EDEN).

Puzzle 2 I found much harder. I'm not sure whether it was the style but I just didn't get traction. I also think my brain was starting to sleep as I managed to come up with several wrong names for an anagram clue (3,6) with the definition 'famous actor' or somesuch. No TIM ROSCUE wasn't right... Although the right answer eventually made its weary way to the forefront of my mind, the process by which it got there was rather tortuous. Anyway I finished this one in 11 minutes something - and was just outside the top 10 for that puzzle I believe. Mark, on the other hand, had breezed through in 4minutes 45secs with Jeffrey Harris again hot on his heels (just over 5 minutes). So Mark was, as Will announced, the official cryptic crossword World Champion with a combined time of under 9 minutes - a fairly extraordinary performance.

From a British perspective, I think we were all surprised by just how good the Americans were at puzzles which (I presume at least) they aren't solving every day. That Jeffrey Harris could be within touching distance of Mark is, quite simply, amazing. After all it's not like Mark is just solving the occasional cryptic - he is a machine built and bred specially for the purpose and, what's more, he practises A LOT. Also Jeffrey looks extremely young so he could well still be getting faster, which could make future events like this even more interesting.

Anyway the following day started very nicely with an American breakfast in the hotel and a browse through the bookstalls set up outside the main hall, all selling (or giving away) crosswords of every variety. I am a nerd for saying it but it was so cool :-). Mark and I found (and instantly purchased) a book called Banned Crosswords, which is hilarious for those of a puerile disposition... Next year we must remember to take some Magpie stuff along.

The competition itself then commenced. Nearly 700 people gather in the hall and there is real bonhomie between the competitors. I know Mark and I got talking to those around us and were made to feel very welcome. In fact the whole weekend was great from this perspective: people we'd never met coming over and wishing us a safe journey home on the Sunday; chatting to people in the lifts - I'm not sure whether it just our English conservatism but it is really nice when people are actually friendly and happy to initiate conversations just to see how things are going.

Will was also kind enough to introduce us again - this was more daunting this time as there were a lot more people and I suspected that our results were really not going to be impressive in the main event. Will is a brilliant compere, sharing jokes with the audience and reading from amusing letters he had received over the past year. Again the contrast with British version of the event could hardly be greater.

Puzzle 1 is supposed to be gentle and it was. With one exception. I was faced (as I would be again countless times over the coming puzzles) by a crossing which for Americans is a gimme. The clues:

Aerobic exercise popularized by Billy Blanks (5) was one across, the third letter of which was the first letter for:

Ice cream brand (4)

I had TA_BO for one across and _DYS for 3 down.

I have heard of TAE BO but never had to spell it and went for an I on the basis of TAI CHI (rather than E as in TAE KWON DO). EDYS ice cream is very famous in America I am told. I don't know about that but I am pretty sure it is not very famous in Kent.

Making one mistake (so two incorrect answers given the 100% checking) in any puzzle is a big problem - you lose A LOT of bonus so this wasn't a good start.

Puzzle 2 is apparently one of the harder puzzles from the set and so it proved for me. (I think Mark 'finished' but had an error or two). The puzzle was called Counter Offer and it became clear that you needed to work out a recipe which appeared in several across answers through the grid. Many American solvers around me were delighted afterwards as they were very familiar with the BROOKLYN EGG CREAM and the two ladies on my left were even able to discuss the nuances of the recipe. I had NEVER heard of it and this proved an unsurpassable obstacle. The puzzle is a good example of why it can be so hard for anyone without deep American cultural knowledge. Here are some examples I struggled with:

First name in Chicago politics (4) RAHM
Sch. with the fight song Anchors Away (4) USNA (I think!)
Singer Lovich (4) LENE
Landing site near City Field: Abbr (3) LGA (This happens quite a lot in these puzzles. ie we've all heard of LA GUARDIA and if the clue was New York City Airport it would be doable for those of us across the pond. But the reference to City Field will, for most Brits, just mean that this clue is a reference to some airport somewhere in America/Mexico/Canada - so we just move on.)
Like Washington, Adams or Madison: Abbr (4) EPIS (They were all Episcopalians apparently... I would have preferred a clue like 'Short letter').
Location of only WWII battle fought on US soil (4) ATTU
Photographer Adams (5) ANSEL
Baseball brothers (5) ALOUS
Gangster Bugsy (6) SIEGEL (yes, my first answer in was MALONE)
Baseball scoreboard letters (3) RHE

That said, there are also wonderful puns:

Get ready in a hurry? (4) NUKE
It might have one or more sides (6) ENTREE
One way to get to the top (4) TBAR

The next puzzle was by Merl Reagle - who even Brits have heard of! And it didn't disappoint. It was called Hooked on Homophonics and contained some gems:

Constantly yelling fan... after the game ( 18) THE HOARSE WHISPERER
Words after 'here' and 'there' in a song (4) AMOO (LOL!)
It may carry a tune (4) IPOD

Lots of culture which I struggled with:

- James Garfield's middle name (5) ABRAM
- Jack's girl in a 1982 #1 hit (5) DIANE
- Ole Miss rival (3) LSU
- Big name in gift chocolate (6) BRACHS

And those that I still don't get:

Kate's sneaky brother? PETE MOSS

Puzzle 4 was fine from memory. It was called A UN Assembly and included puns like POWER LAUNCH and RABBIT HAUNTING. I did have trouble with

Students taking Torts or Contracts, say (5) ONELS (ONE L's - some weird Americanism!)

which I got from the checking but was very dubious about. Plus not having heard of OSCAR DE LA RENTA wasn't helpful but I was bailed out by the apostrophe in

Androphobics' fear (3) MEN (not MAN and RANTA).

Puzzle 5 is (and was) 'the bastard'. I don't recall ever having sat in front of a crossword for so long for so little. It was called Crossover Hits and the culprit responsible for this monstrosity was Mike Shenk.

There were two ways to approach this puzzle:

1) Be au fait with 1967 hits by The Turtles or 1933 hits for Ted Lewis and write in the answers;
2) Have just enough American culture to get clues like:

NHL Coach Vigneault (5)
Cal Neva resort setting (5)
Nascar driver Hamlin (5)

I failed on both counts. But so did many others. All credit to Ross who got a substantial portion of this puzzle done and scored really well. Certainly it gives me a new crossword related ambition ie finish a Puzzle 5 in one of these competitions. I suspect the amount of practice necessary will be beyond me but I'm planning to give it a go.

I should mention that some of the pun clues were just outstanding in this puzzle:

Places to take notes (4) ATMS
Abrupt removal from the board (7) WIPEOUT
Sources of some pressure (5) PEERS
Union acquisition (5) INLAW (apparently some people put SOUTH).
Either end of America (5) SCHWA

And then there were clues that were brutal

Unlikely to offend (6) RATEDG - sorry I just don't see that ending as a possibility...
Pan companion (5) SATYR (I had WENDY for ages, which didn't help)

The best American solvers are finishing puzzles like this in 6/7/8 minutes, which is astounding. I'm also not sure it is fair to put the difference in speed down to culture. It wouldn't be impossible to come up with a culturally neutral puzzle of this difficulty and I suspect, even for the likes of Mark, the Brits would struggle to compete. Certainly it's something I'd love to see one day. In Dan Feyer the US has I suspect found a 'once in a generation' solver and, in Mark, so has the UK. Finding some way to compare the two would be fascinating.

Puzzle 6 was a larger puzzle but not meant to be as tough. It was titled Future World and had a series of gems in it:

President of the future? (12) RONALD RAYGUN (LOL)
Oscar winning actor of the future (12) ROBOT REDFORD

and traps for fools like me:

Dieter's possession (5) I put MEINE reasoning that Dieter was German. The answer was the more prosaic SCALE, doh.

I struggled to get into the middle of the grid, particularly with the mistake above. I was unaware that macaroni is shaped like an ELBOW, that ABIE was the title role in a 1922 play, that ELMAN Mischa is a violinist and that SONOMA is a wine region in California.

This concluded the crossword competition for day 1. In the lead was... no, not me... but Dan Feyer. My (probably inadequate) understanding of the scoring suggests that he didn't lose a single puzzle that day (he may have finished later in an individual minute but always within the same minute of his competition) and he seems to have beaten the room on more than one puzzle too. In other words, pretty dominant. I was really pleased to see Tyler up there too. I didn't get a chance to say hello to him (and frankly felt a little in awe) but the guy is a Snyder-esque sort of genius and I wanted to see him in the finals.

That night we went to a get-together organised by Ross and Magdalen in their suite(!). It was quite a gathering: Will was there, as was Brendan Emmett Quigley, Jon Delfin and I think Amy Reynaldo too. Jon was a star as he'd printed out that days UK Times puzzles for us, just in case we were missing home :-).

Mark and I went back to the steakhouse for dinner which meant that we missed the start of the evening's puzzle entertainment. In hindsight this was a big mistake because it was AWESOME. It consisted of having to solve lots and lots of little puzzles to build up a complete answer to one big one. The individual puzzles were hugely varied - there were things like cryptic crosswords, smell tests (yup you read that right), word searches, and logic problems. Having arrived late we managed to join with another latecomer (Steve from Kentucky) to form a team of three and get going. We actually did pretty well I think because we managed to finish (just) in the time given. If we'd started half an hour earlier and had an extra person we might have been competitive. Mark showed off an uncanny knowledge for the flags of the world, Steve provided access to all the American culture we would have otherwise died on and I did a very good job of not doing the things I decided I would be bad at (like smelling anything). This was definitely one of the highlights of the weekend for me - I'm not sure whether it happens every year but, as Steve would say, I sure hope so.

Sunday consisted of one final puzzle in the general competition - which I died on horribly. It contained a neat gimmick whereby some across answers contained a few cirled squares scattered along their length - the letters in the circled squares then provided the clue for the answer. So, for example, the letters TITAN were circled in the answer SAtELLitEOFSaTURn. This puzzle had the most US-crossword-ese IMO. We were sitting just along from Trip Payne and, to use a cliche, I had hardly had time to read the clues when his hand went up. Seriously seriously impressive.

And so we came to the most surreal part of the weekend - the talent show. And there were those that genuinely seemed to have some talent and those that... well, didn't. But who cares, no one seemed to and we all applauded all! There is something rather sweet about it looking back - a sort of 'yes, we know we are all nerds this weekend'-camaraderie. In dark moments I consider how the English equivalent would go... I'm not sure it would work so well...: Some ancient professor standing up to give a lecture on Danish grammar or some disturbed misfit exhibiting the sebum collected from his hair after different periods of unwashing... man, it would be great.

The finals can be seen I'm sure on YouTube. I decided to try to solve the A Clues (the hardest) set while the C and B finals were happening. This required discipline as I couldn't look up for 30 minutes, which is about what it took me. The A clues are brutal and often brilliant. Eg

Off-hand remark (5) IPASS
Charge when a job is done? (5) GUNIT
Changed locks (4) WIGS

Even clues where you think 'Aha a way in' prove not to be:

1964 Lennon/McCartney song (8) turned out to be IM A LOSER, which is hardly one of their better known tunes...

The lack of a gimmick meant it was just about doable for me. For Dan Feyer/Tyler Hinman/Anne Erdmann though this puzzle and these clues were a mere bagatelle. Dan just started and then didn't stop... steadily filling in answers with seemingly little pause for thought. 6 or so minutes later he'd done. Tyler is also ludicrously quick just the occasional pause meant he took 8/9 mins. Anne took slightly longer but still so impressive. I remember noting that she seemed to start with

SW Colorado's _ Mountain (3) (UTE apparently... no, I didn't know that either).

At the end they are applauded to the rafters and when Dan is formally declared champion he is given a standing ovation. One of the things that will stay with me is Mark getting to his feet and applauding as hard as anyone there. For me it was one of the most interesting moments of the whole weekend because I can't really imagine Mark doing the same for any sort of performance he could witness in a UK competition - frankly almost nothing would impress him. But here in this 'same but different' discipline, a game with which he is familiar, it was possible for Dan Feyer to actually wow someone who many would argue is the finest solver of cryptic crosswords ever. In this strange, somewhat geeky world, there was a real poignancy to it.
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