Yeah, the Charlie Sheen jokes are played out and won’t age well at all, but I’m not going to come up with something cleverer on my own. This loooong post is spoiler-free until the very end, at which point you will be warned.
Where to start? I already talked a little bit about the Friday night fun, where I had a small serving of humble pie in the cryptic crossword contest. I did well, but was hoping for better than 10th place on the British puzzle and maybe 15th-20th on the American (and that’s without the dozens of top solvers who skipped the event). Retired to my hotel room around 12:30, thus breaking my promise last year to hang out more. I’ve finally realized two things: getting into bed relatively early does not get me more sleep, and none of my competitors are getting much sleep either.
Next year I really will socialize more. I got to at least chat a little with most of my pals from tournaments past, but I regret not getting more than brief hellos with Matt Gaffney, who was one of my favorites even before he started serving up free weekly genius. What I do not regret is bringing a small stack of puzzles from home (NYTs from 2005 and Saturday Stumpers from 2006) and polishing them off before and between tournament rounds. “Readers” of this “blog” may not know that before solving the day’s puzzles, I almost always warm up with some old puzzles (between 2 and 12, depending on how cobwebby the brain is that day). After all, I have a reputation to uphold, so I want those times to be optimal. Anyway, this was most useful on Sunday morning. During the less absorbing talent show acts, I solved BEQ’s Sunday Times puzzle, two Stumpers (one of which had me stuck in a corner for quite a while), and two NYT freestyles. I finished by flying through a Saturday by Patrick Berry, which gave me confidence for Puzzle 8, and cracked me up when I saw this answer (Puzzle 2 spoiler!).
Going back to Saturday morning. I didn’t get to the ballroom early enough to have my pick of seats, so in order to be in my usual position (last row, right half) I had to sit next to Stella Zawistowski -- who of course is delightful, but she wasn’t thrilled about the situation at first. Stella ended up handing in two puzzles before me (when we were in the same minute), so I think it worked out OK.
Puzzle 1 started out Monday-easy, and for the first half I was actually considering a sub-2-minute solve. But I lost the groove a bit in the bottom half, and mis-wrote some letters in 46-Down, finishing at 2:20. Puzzle 2 wasn’t as hard (or outside-the-box) as I’d expected from Pete Muller, and I was somewhat familiar with the theme. Solved in 4:05, and if only I’d done that Berry puzzle earlier, I wouldn’t have spent time wondering about 3-Down, and might have broken 4 minutes and beaten the room. Apparently I did beat the room on Puzzle 3 (4:50), which surprised me, because it was typical Merl and didn’t have much in the way of weirdness or traps. Except for those short theme answers, I guess -- when I filled in 57-Across I just assumed it was someone I hadn’t heard of with a Merl-y clue.
Lunch, like last year, was a Wendy’s meal back in my room. The restaurants get overwhelmed at the lunch break, and I wanted to decompress alone for a few minutes. Puzzle 4 was a Wednesday theme with Tuesday clues, and I didn’t have to push too hard to get in under 3 minutes (2:45). And then there was Puzzle 5, by Mike Shenk, whom I’d considered the least likely of the viable candidates for that slot. I found the overall cluing harder than last year (as did most people, I assume), and didn’t grasp what was going on with the theme until about halfway through. Spent a lot of time looking at 81-Across, which I’d never seen before (not thinking of the common French word that adds a prefix to it!), but I was satisfied with the crosses and finished up around 8:40. Out in the hallway, every A Division contender except for me and Francis was leaving the ballroom with head in hands, claiming to be out of the running. I kept pointing out that if everyone tanked the puzzle, everyone was still alive! Puzzle 6 (4:15) was typically unexciting, but I totally laughed at the pun at 81-Across.
My girlfriend Gretchen came over at dinner break, and we joined Eric Berlin and Katherine Bryant for a reprise of our meal last year, when we'd happened upon a great Mexican restaurant on Pacific Street. Peter Gordon, Kiran Kedlaya, Thomas Weisswange, David Moulton, and Kevin Wald came along to make it a nice big-but-not-too-big group. Back in the ballroom later, the one-act play exceeded expectations, and the “ACPTzing Race” extravaganza by Greg Pliska and John Chaneski was pretty brilliant, though maybe a little too difficult overall (I think about 20 groups out of 100 were able to finish). Gretchen and I roped in Michael Smith and Patrick Merrell to solve with us, and we gave up with aching brains and a couple puzzles left. Late in the game I went to beg a hint from Pliska, and apparently I was the first person to claim I was holding a Fast Forward pass. Went to bed earlyish again, and couldn’t fall asleep for way too long again.
By Saturday night I knew I had a four-minute lead on Anne, and wasn’t in any danger of missing the finals unless I turned in an error. So I took it easy on Puzzle 7, finished in around 8:35, and double-checked theme answers and thorny spots for another minute and a half. Checked out of the hotel, grabbed (more) coffee and a sandwich from Starbucks, and chilled out until it was time to pile into the ballroom for the marquee events.
AND HERE COME THE SPOILERS FOR PUZZLE #8. BEWARE!
Let’s just fast-forward to the A finals, since this is too long and Tyler has already spoken of the brick-pooping in the back room and the craziness of the B finals. I wasn’t too nervous, though I was more afraid of Tyler next to me this year than I was of Howard last year. I mean, dude won five in a row and hasn’t missed a letter in competition since, what, 2002?
I got started, and my five-second “head start” was immediately erased by Nancy Schuster, who accidentally tapped Anne on the shoulder right away. (Gretchen was ready to file a complaint if the finish was close, which… didn’t turn out to be a problem.) I scanned the clues like the proverbial headless chicken before settling on “dysphonia” as a concern for ENTS, but couldn’t get anything to cross it. (Why haven’t I learned the elementary skill of looking for fill-in-the-blank toeholds? Then again, none of these FITBs would have been gimmes.) I kept coming back to [Figure in “The Greatest Game Ever Played”] because I knew I’d heard of said game, but couldn’t pull it up until I had a few letters in UNITAS.
So I jumped down to STINE crossing ITALIC and then KHAN -- never saw that movie, but 1982 + sci-fi was enough -- which was enough of a chunk to get me going. I ran into a wall after completing that center-right section, and putzed around for a bit (putting in that all-important E at the end of [Chemical suffix]!) before completing the top right and dropping ETERNAL OPTIMIST into the bottom section. I’m thinking those 15s helped make this grid easier than many finals, because all those free letters were there when moving into a new quadrant.
I really started feeling good when I put in LEAD A DOUBLE LIFE with only two letters on the board -- though I had SO FEW in mind, which provided that tell-tale “-IF-”. (Didn’t even think of LIVE as the first word; Tyler was wise to wait on that.) (Also, seems to me like the A-level clue for SO FEW was the easiest of the three.) From there it was pretty smooth sailing. No idea how I’d heard of DIGITALIS, but that helped a lot with the bottom left. The only scary moment was the clue for GUN IT, [Charge when a job is done?]. I knew that had to be the answer, but the “aha” never clicked into place. Afterwards I talked with constructor Mike Nothnagel about it, and told him (as I’d still argue) that I thought that clue was too much of a stretch. The last letter I put in was the “U” in SHOUT. I didn’t even notice this coincidence until afterwards: next week I’m going to Michigan to work on a production of… Shout!
And that was that, the second win of my anticipated eight in a row before retiring to a farm upstate with David Rosen. (Kidding, of course. Despite my performance this year, I hardly think I'm unbeatable, but you're all welcome to your opinions otherwise. Note that in 2004, one Trip Payne completed a tough Bob Klahn final in 5:16, while noted slouches Al Sanders and Jon Delfin were over 10 minutes, and I recently managed 6:11 on paper.)
I was glad to have defeated Tyler head-to-head, which I didn’t get to do last year. I was glad that Anne finished perfectly, which she didn’t get to do last year. And of course I had a marvelous time hobnobbing with old and new friends for a weekend. I wonder if the same five or six people are going to monopolize the A finals for a little while, like that period when it was always Ellen/Jon/Doug/Trip/Al. I also wonder if I will manage to solve fewer crosswords in 2011. After last year I thought for sure I’d slow down, but that didn’t pan out -- I still feel like I want to catch up on all those years I wasn’t doing puzzles. And because I’m posting times here every day, my pride may not allow me to slack off. Oh well.
Four years, nine trophies... I’m coming for ya, Mimi Raphael!