It's been more than a week since the ACPT and we've all moved on. Still, there might be a few people interested in my play-by-play on the competition puzzles. You've seen the Instagram video of the final seconds – what can I say about that except holy crap.
I look forward to reading Oliver Roeder's FiveThirtyEight article about the tournament, which will be published next week. Because 538 is all about data-driven journalism, they are using this site's daily spreadsheets to come up with some charts and graphs. The whole reason I started posting my times six-plus years ago was so that somebody, someday, could run some sort of statistical analysis on them. And finally that day has arrived!
For the record, I really liked the Stamford Marriott and environs, and I was one of the people very disappointed with the move away from NYC. The hotel was great, and there seemed to be a better range of dining options within walking distance. The extra travel leg remains annoying, but my cousin Juli in Stamford helped mitigate the loss of “home-field advantage,” picking me up at the train and putting me up on Thursday night. Thanks, Juli!
(Spoilers starting here.)
Puzzle 1 – 1:55
I don't think I've been particularly close to a sub-two-minute solve before. The secret this year was that I wasn't even thinking about trying it. I knew I was going at a good pace and didn't get tangled up anywhere, and about halfway through when I hit the answer RETTA (which probably under 5% of the room would know cold, as I did), I was emboldened to keep pushing.
Part of my strategy is to glance at the clock when there's one more section to go, so I know whether I need to speed up or can relax. I looked up and was shocked to see 13:14 on the clock with only a few answers left in the southwest corner. When I finished I saw 13:05, took a glance at the grid, and raised my hand. And then for the next hour or two I was very nervous, because I wasn't sure that I didn't have a blank square – I was too stunned for my glance to be at all thorough.
Puzzle 2 – 4:02
I should probably ditch that strategy of checking the clock. With this puzzle I broke in near the middle, so I nailed the revealer and figured out the theme very early. I looked up with 21:14 on the timer and only the southeast corner empty, which meant that it was possible to get in under the minute if I hurried. Instead, I froze up a bit, had some trouble in that corner, and just missed it. If I'd just kept solving I could have broken four minutes – and it would have been awesome to beat the whole room on each of the first two puzzles.
Puzzle 3 – 5:15
I hadn't solved any of Merl's puzzles since the last ACPT, so I printed out a few of his recent ones for the “warmup” clipboard. Unfortunately I never looked at them, because I had Merl pegged for Puzzle 6. Oh well!
Puzzle 4 – 2:45
Picked up the theme pretty early once again, so that helped me through some of the crunchier spots in this harder-than-usual #4.
Puzzle 5 – 7:35
Did not pick up the theme early at all, which is why Joon and Anne beat me so handily on this puzzle. I had the top half basically finished and was rebooting somewhere in the bottom half when I finally figured out what was going on. I had fallen into the clever traps sprung by Jeff Chen in the first two theme answers: namely, ambiguous clues for 5- and 12-Down (SERB & HERB, but I had SERF & HERO) that kept me from seeing the “newbies” gimmick. After the “aha” I worked quite fast, and fixed my errors, but the damage was done.
Puzzle 6 – 4:40
Not much to say here – I tend to be good with proper names, but most of the theme answers didn't come very easily. I wish Lynn Lempel would make some Sunday puzzles for Will!
Puzzle 7 – 7:00ish
With a four-minute cushion over fourth place, I could afford to solve carefully, but the puzzle wasn't tricky enough to slow me down much. The solving time is approximate – I saw 38:15 when I checked the clock near the end, so I started writing more slowly and looked over the puzzle for a full extra minute, handing it in at the eight-minute mark. I don't know that I could have broken six minutes if I'd tried. As I said elsewhere, I think that Tyler's sub-six-minute solve here is a more impressive feat than my sub-two on Puzzle 1.
Puzzle 8 (Finals) – 7:13
Obviously, this was not my best performance on the whiteboards. I thought I would need to be extra-cautious with a scary, sciencey constructor and an extremely low word count. (For the laypeople: fewer words means more long answers and fewer short answers, which are usually the easiest to solve.) But then I saw two gimmes to get started with (RIPA and ASLAN) and made short work of the northeast corner. It seemed overall like Byron and Will were pulling their punches with the cluing – maybe they thought that the low word count (and many proper names) needed to be offset, but the upshot was that it played way too easy for an ACPT final.
I still had plenty of trouble, of course. Sometimes there will be two or three entries in a themeless grid that I've never seen. In this one, I was unfamiliar with LEMAITRE (LeMaster is a name, so I didn't hesitate too much); TEST GRADE (two words I'd never seen together); HARGREAVES (“Homeland” actress Amy would have actually been easier for me, and she is not famous); Messrs. WALSH and PETERSON as clued; and most especially, MANAMA.
I kept getting stuck in the middle of the grid because I have just never seen MANAMA before. I didn't know if the “capital” of [Mideast capital] was a city or a currency; I even wondered if there was another way to interpret “Mideast”! This is entirely my fault, because a puzzle champion should absolutely recognize the capital of Bahrain when given six out of six letters. I might have been more confident if I had ever seen MANAMA in one of the tens of thousands of crosswords I've done, but somehow it's never been in a major puzzle. I don't study trivia, I don't play Sporcle, I never took geography – if it's not in crosswords, and The Amazing Race hasn't been there, I may not have heard of it.
So I was tentative because as much as you want to finish fast, you really don't want to have an error. That's why I spent a few extra seconds after finishing, first scanning for a blank, then looking one more time at the crossings of MANAMA. Obviously, this was not the best strategy either, because if I'd waited just one more second, I would have lost.
Much was made in the run-up to the ACPT about “six in a row” and breaking that record. I use the passive voice because I don't give a rap about having the most consecutive wins. The only record I'm shooting for is eight career titles, because to me that's the most meaningful. If I manage to get eight in a row, as I've said, I'll step away and give some other people a chance. (That doesn't mean that I'd never come back to compete – if Tyler were to reel off three more quick wins, which would not be at all surprising, I'm sure I'd be tempted to try to take back the career record.) Next year, though, the goal is just to make it a little less exciting.