ACPT 2009: The Experience

It's a week later and nobody really cares, but for posterity, here’s the story of my ACPT weekend. As you know, many other reports and videos are linked on the tournament website. Read ’em!

By the way: No ACPT Puzzle Spoilers!

Friday evening I took the A train from my home in upstate Manhattan down to Brooklyn, and met up with Doug Peterson and Barry C. Silk – confidants, collaborators, incredibly prolific constructors and roommates for the weekend – at the hotel. We went to the Celeste Diner for dinner, and I learned a lot about the business from those excellent gentlemen. My grilled chicken wrap was tasty enough but kept falling apart.

When we got back to the Marriott, the lobby was starting to fill up. Patrick Blindauer was showing off Patrick Berry’s amazing new book of variety crosswords. I met up with Ryan and Brian and saved some seats with Amanda Yesnowitz near the front of the ballroom, where eventually Brian Cimmet’s charming parents would join us.

The bloggers’ panel kicked off the festivities. It was too short and could have used a moderator, but everyone was funny and some solvers got to learn about the wild world of crossword blogs. KenKen creator Tetsuya Miyamoto was the opening act for Amanda’s brilliantly written and hastily rehearsed KenKen song. After that was the warmup competition. I had never KenKenned before, so I opted for the smaller puzzles, and I’m only a little ashamed to admit that Brian helped me finish the last one. I chose the diagramless in round 2, which turned out to be a fun tribute theme by Mr. Blindauer. I wonder if I was the first to finish it, because I assume the other top-ten types chose the cryptic. Needless to say, I didn’t score any prizes.

The rest of Friday night was social time, with the official wine ’n’ cheese reception downstairs and the Rex Parker And Friends wine ’n’ Oreos reception upstairs. I was glad to chat with Jim Horne, John Farmer, Dave Sullivan, Pete Mitchell, “PuzzleGirl” Angela and her sister, noted blog commenters Crosscan and HudsonHawk, and plenty more. Headed back home around midnight, solved the Saturday puzzles in an encouragingly short amount of time, and went to sleep.

On Saturday morning I couldn’t find a seat with my usual companions, because Ryan and Brian’s entourage has expanded greatly since last year. I ended up in the middle of a row with some friendly folks (of course), including a schoolteacher who was making a video for his class. I agreed to be interviewed later but he never found me again. Between puzzles I reported my scores to Trip and the first-out-in-the-hallway crowd, and I was as surprised as they were that I seemed to be leading the pack. By the lunch break after Puzzle 3, I was unofficially in first place and starting to freak out just a little.

I joined R&B, Amanda, Tyler Hinman, and the Cimmets for lunch at the same Celeste Diner, and yes that’s the place that R&B hated last year, but we took so long getting out of the hotel that we didn’t have much of a choice. Once we got there, the company was delightful but the service not so much, as the place was packed with puzzlers and the staff couldn’t quite handle it. I got my cheeseburger in a timely fashion, but Brian and Amanda only had about 5 minutes to eat before we had to return for the afternoon session.

More solving, more comparing notes, more socializing in the hallway and watching R&B run around interviewing people. Rumor had it I was still in first. Honestly, my goal was always the top 10 and B Division win, and though I knew going in I had a chance to make the top 3, I wasn’t particularly anxious to go up against Tyler or anyone else on a crazy-hard final puzzle. Sure, it would have been cool to come out of nowhere and win the whole thing, and I definitely choked on Puzzle 7, but I’m not at all disappointed with the way it turned out.

I wasn’t hungry for dinner – and hadn’t been invited anywhere anyway – so as everyone went their separate ways, I made a few phone calls, and sat and read Entertainment Weekly for a while to get my mind off crosswords. I found Amanda in the hotel bar enjoying chicken wings and the Friday NYT puzzle. Nearby was wunderkind constructor Caleb Madison, whom we’d roped into our Family Feud team a couple hours earlier, so we all sat together for a while. (Instructions stated that the five-player “families” for the Family Feud game should have at least one over-50 and one under-30 solver, so the young ’uns were in great demand.) Caleb, a high-school sophomore, is as charming and well-adjusted as he is brilliant. Amanda had white wine, I had Sam Adams, and Caleb savored a single malt Scotch.

So the evening games got underway, with my Blackberry Family being one of the lucky four teams to participate in Greg Pliska and John Chaneski’s excellent Crossword Clued Family Feud. Alas, I was responsible for the team name, inspired (if you can call it that) by Stephen Grant, honcho of Magmic Games, developer of the NYT crossword program for Blackberries (and tournament sponsor). Stephen, Amanda, Caleb, Ryan, and I won the round but never received our promised prizes. I didn’t pay much attention to Stan Newman’s trivia, but the Shortz-led Chain Reaction game was entertaining. I hung around to chat for a bit, but was anxious to get home and try to get some sleep. Unfortunately, nerves kept me up and I only slept about four hours. What if I totally tank the final puzzle? What if I actually win? Would I have to talk to the press? (Not really, as it turns out.)

Sunday morning, Puzzle 7, 9 am sharp, and I wish there was a way for the schedule to work without starting so early. I am not a morning person – nothing in my line of work ever starts before 10, and it’s rare that I ever have to be out of the house before noon. Excuses, excuses. As has been recounted elsewere, I was a little too slow and careful on the final puzzle and fell to fourth place (though tied for first in total points). Ten or fifteen seconds faster, and I would have had a shot at $5,000. (And Trip and Francis would have had to solve a bonus puzzle to break their deadlock, which would have been fun for us but sucky for them.) I happened to finish each puzzle with plenty of time left in the minute to check over the grid – at least 20 seconds – so I didn’t have to make any snap decisions. Puzzle 7 was the only near-miss, as the clock said 36:50-something when I looked up. Trip was the one to break the news to me in the hallway, when I told him my score was 36. But I still couldn’t relax completely, because Tyler wasn’t sure that he hadn’t made an error…

Of course, he didn’t, and the first thing Will Shortz announced once the ballroom was full for the final rounds was “We have a four-way tie.” Hearing that, I knew I was in the B Division finals, with a big head start to boot, and could relax. Sunday was a little stressful personally, because my mother (on the East Coast by coincidence) and girlfriend (of only a couple months) both came to watch the finals, and met each other for the first time. But that went fine, because they’re both cool.

So all the finals happened, very exciting, and we don’t need any more recapping of it. I kept my promise to Ryan and Brian and gave them my first audio interview afterwards. The “Dinner Impossible” awards-banquet game, where all the finalists and other luminaries had to guess food-related clichés from photographs of dishes, was clever enough, but I pretty much failed when it was my turn. By that time I was starving – too bad most of the food was gone when I made it to the buffet line. I didn’t end up at one of the “A-list” tables, but got to meet the Puzzle Brothers, who do a great job live-blogging the ACPT every year. My official trophy haul was 1st Place B Division, 4th overall, and 2nd in New York City (to Brooklyn’s own Mr. Heaney). Chose a thesaurus to go with my dictionary from last year (still shrink-wrapped!), the NYT "Ferocious Crosswords" with 150 Fri/Sat puzzles from the last few years, and a Mon/Tue book for the girlfriend, who completed her first crossword this week. I remembered afterwards that there was supposed to be a $200 check, and had to request it from the Tournament Director.

Mom left for the airport, and we hung around talking to people until the room was empty before heading home. I made my one puzzle error of the weekend after the awards ceremony: Jan O’Sullivan, Connecticut champ and applet speed-solver, had me sign her crossword jacket, the lining of which is designed like a grid and adorned with dozens of names. So I looked for a five-letter spot for my name… and Sharpied “DAN” into the five-letter slot, leaving “FEYER” on the next row to make a right turn into a down entry. Whoops.

Thanks for everyone I met for being so nice! Since I’m horrible at starting conversations, I was glad that so many people came up to talk to me – friends from last year, from the blogs, and as the weekend progressed, strangers offering congratulations. I was still too shy? intimidated? to go talk to Byron Walden or Frank Longo, which is silly but what can I say. I was able to choke out a few words with Mr. Shortz after the Sunday banquet, and had a nice conversation before the banquet with Stanley Newman, inventor of the “do a crapload of puzzles to reach the top ranks” ACPT strategy. Actually, the celebrity I most wanted to meet but didn’t ever see was Karen M. Tracey, creator of so many astounding Saturday crosswords.

I’ve said this elsewhere, but the big story of the 2009 ACPT was Matt Ginsberg’s automatic score-tabulating scanner system. Webmaster extraordinaire Doug Heller and his team could post the scores online earlier than ever before, with fewer mistakes, and fix any problems quickly. (Anne Erdmann, amusingly, was in something like 186th place after Day 1 because one of her papers briefly disappeared.) (And if anyone wants to see my handwriting, enter contestant number 175 at the ACPT site.) I think if Matt and Jim Horne teamed up, they could write a program that would Save Crosswords forever. There have been requests to explore a more refined scoring system, rather than the minute-by-minute division that causes so much bunching at the top of the standings. I’d be fine with that, but can’t imagine that it’s feasible. Matt and Jim, get on it! (Call Pete Muller and Joe Krozel if you need crazy ideas that could never work.)

Thanks for reading all that! Yikes. One more shorter, semi-ACPT-related piece yet to come before moving on with my life...


Jeffrey said...

Wow, "noted blog commenter"? I'm just glad anyone remembered me.

I've also got a second place regional trophy; now to work on those other ones.

It was great to meet you and congratulations. I'm glad you are now out of B division as I move in.

Anonymous said...

Well, it took a little while before I was amused... try to imagine the feeling of scanning the first page of the "in standings order" printouts and not seeing your name... and having to go to the alphabetical listing... and seeing 186 next to your name! Those first few moments were NOT pleasant! And I did toss a bit that night, both in replaying my #5 error and in wondering if my missing puzzle would be found before the end of the tournament. I did have some fun with it afterward, though.

Congrats again, Dan! I enjoyed your competition reports. I AM a morning person, though, so I'll be lobbying for that 9 AM start on Saturday as well as Sunday next year. Sounds like it's my only hope against you. :-)

Anne E.

Dan said...

Sorry, Anne... I guess it was only amusing after the fact! I knew you'd be back near the top of the page...

Anonymous said...

I always knew the first instance of our mother being described as "cool" would take place in a word-gaming-related blog