Five down, three to go? I've told people since last year that I would retire (to a farm upstate with David Rosen) if I kept on winning, because I wouldn't have any records left to break, and I imagine it's already getting less and less fun for everybody else. Since that hubristic pronouncement has now been published, I might have to stick to it.
Of course, I won't get to keep winning without a fight. Through Saturday's puzzles, I was ahead of Tyler by all of three seconds. And this year, Joon and Erik broke into the “top tier” with their excellent performances. It will certainly be more exciting if six solvers (rather than four) have a real shot at the finals. That's not even mentioning Francis, David, Stella, and other top-ten stalwarts, ready to pounce.
I managed to have more fun in the off-hours than usual, because I was staying at the hotel this year. I was particularly glad to finally meet Alex Boisvert, and played my first-ever games of unofficial Jeopardy!, both written and hosted by Mike Shenk. Not only that, I held my own against big-time game-show winners Jason Keller and Andy Kravis. My one game of Celebrity: Get a Clue! ended in an exact tie, which was pretty fun. Jet lag didn't turn out to be a big factor, since I flew in two days early, but I still never really caught up on sleep, and didn't feel like I solved at 100% effectiveness on Saturday.
Here are my approximate solving times, and some commentary, for the tournament puzzles. Slight SPOILERS, mostly for Puzzle 8.
Puzzle 1 – 2:25
Puzzle 2 – 3:30
As usual, Puzzle 2 is where I remember to look at the title and blurb. So I had the theme pegged 15 seconds in, and used it for an especially fast solve. I've been on Patrick Blindauer's wavelength since 2007, so I'm glad he keeps coming up with wacky ideas for Will to use in the tournament.
Puzzle 3 – 5:20
This was a perfect ACPT theme, dense and tricky. I haven't been doing Merl's puzzles since he stopped distributing .puz files, but I solved a few recent ones in my preparation, and didn't feel like I had any trouble locking into his style. The “Merliness” is always sanded down a bit for ACPT anyway.
LUNCHTIME – I went to my usual spot,
Puzzle 4 – 2:55
Puzzle 5 – 8:40
My strategy was to grok the theme early, because that often helps with a very hard puzzle. This turned out to be a bad strategy, since top solvers could (and did) finish the thing without totally understanding the theme. I spent extra time in the southwest corner (the first one I finished) making sure I “got it.” Knowing about the “clones” did provide me with some free letters during the rest of the solve, but in retrospect it wasn't worth it. Two other forehead-slapping moments on this one: not getting any of the music-related clues without a bunch of letters in place, and making a rookie mistake in the northeast corner (the last one I finished). I had the end of 12-Down (...ASIF) and wrote in ACTSASIF, which does not fit the tense of the clue. Thirty seconds later, when nothing else was working, I finally realized my error and erased it. This was the longest a Puzzle 5 has taken me since 2009, so I was worried that I would lose ground in the standings. But no – just like I was telling people in the hallway before Puzzle 5, if it's hard for you, it's hard for everybody else too.
Puzzle 6 – 4:15
Really enjoyed this, though I don't approve of the notorious Girls/backpack crossing. It was an easy enough puzzle that finishing under 4 minutes was possible, but I wasn't solving smoothly.
Puzzle 7 – 6:45
I was worried that there was some sort of meta answer, because Will Shortz had repeatedly announced that something weird and Dr. Fill-unfriendly was involved. Not too weird, fortunately – this theme also took all of 15 seconds to suss out. I took extra care with the numbers, and spent an extra minute at the end to look over the grid again.
The Finals (link to video)
What can I say? It was much easier than last year. There were no unusual words, and while the clues were typically creative and misdirective, they weren't difficult in a “fresh” way that would stump experts like us. I had a bit of an advantage in the proper-name clues; almost all were pieces of trivia that I recognized with a few letters down. The big exception was NELL'S, apparently a 1980s Manhattan nightclub, but I knew TOP GEAR, I AM LEGEND, KLAUS Baudelaire, the novel GILEAD, not to mention old crossword friends SAL Paradise (a Tuesday clue), KIM, and ESALEN (which could be the institute for the study of advanced crosswordese).
I consciously decided to ignore the top-left corner when I began, partly because it tends to be a little more intractable than other sections, and partly because there are more short answers in the top-right, which might make it easier to start in. Once I got past my DR PEPPER problem up there early on, I didn't run into any roadblocks. The only time I “jumped” away from the section I was working on was when I spotted an easy fill-in-the-blank, confirmed it with a crossing (ENEMY/DENY), wrote those in, and returned to where I'd been working.
The only other erasure I had was near the end, when I confused the obscure Cleopatra attendant for the obscure Argonaut, which might have made 2-Down LAUDER (a European name that can also have an easy clue). But once I figured out the awesome “stripper” clue at 26-Across, I fixed it, and it was over.
Thanks and congratulations to everybody involved, and all the top finishers, and all the new and old friends I got to see. Let's do it again next year!