ACPT 2013: It Takes Me Four-Ever To Write Things

Surprise! I managed to finish this thing while delayed in Fort Lauderdale.

Nine days later, and another ACPT is in the books! Sorry I've totally punted on writing about it, but I didn't think I had too much to say. (And sorry that this is going to be long anyway.) This year, my story was far from the most interesting one: Anne had a birthday, Tyler had a DiMaggioesque streak end, Howard had another near miss, and Dr. Fill got smarter, I guess. Let me first thank Will, Helene, the constructors, the judges, my friends near and far, my A Division colleagues, my theatrical colleagues, my family, Gretchen, and the Almighty, from whom I'm told all blessings flow.

(I'll have some SPOILERS, but only for the final puzzle.)

I was expecting to have a tougher tournament than usual, because I spent the weeks leading up to the ACPT rehearsing, orchestrating, and opening a new musical. It's true that I didn't “train” nearly as much as I had in the past – maybe 5 hours over the last month solving extra puzzles beyond the daily spreadsheet fodder – but that was enough to keep up the chops. Good to know!

This was probably my favorite set of ACPT puzzles in the last six years. Not a weak theme entry or ugly bit of fill to be found. Starting with Puzzle 2, I remembered to read and consider all the titles and blurbs, which really helped me untangle some of the theme answers. On the downside, this seemed like a slightly easier set than usual – at least, there were very few errors among the top ranks, and (aside from the CSI actress in Puzzle 3) few really tricky spots for solvers in general. On the upside, fewer errors meant that the judges could get all the Saturday scores online by 7 p.m., and everybody's happy about that.

Here are my approximate solving times, because that's the point of this website, isn't it:
  • Puzzle 1 (2:20) – every year, I start really fast and think “maybe this is the year for a two-minute solve.” And every year I'm reminded halfway through that it's a Tuesday puzzle, not a Monday puzzle, and I ease off the gas pedal.
  • Puzzle 2 (3:30)
  • Puzzle 3 (5:05) – I'm going to blame my cheap Bic mechanical pencil, which broke twice during this puzzle, for keeping me from a two-minute win. I'd predicted BEQ for the playoff puzzle, with the logic that he's fully qualified, has paid his dues, and hasn't done it yet. (Correct logic, wrong answer. I only got one correct in the prediction game: Liz Gorski on #6.) Now I'm really rooting for BEQ to have the playoff grid the next time I'm up there, because this Puzzle 3 and 2010's Puzzle 5 have been my best performances relative to the rest of the field.
  • Puzzle 4 (2:35)
  • Puzzle 5 (6:50) – Funny moment in the aftermath here: David Plotkin bursting out into the hallway, “Give a taxonomist a clue about primates...!” Guess it took him longer than the rest of us to stop thinking about monkeys. A couple minutes earlier I'd been chatting with Howard Barkin, because the two of us were the first finishers. Howard was psyched about having smoked Puzzle 5, and hadn't felt that good of a solving groove in years. Sadly, I was with Howard a couple hours later, when the afternoon scores were appearing online, and we looked at his Puzzle 4 scan with its inadvertent blank square. Heartbreaking. But even without much training, and even with a small child in his house, Howard is clearly in the top tier and will be solving for all the marbles again soon.
  • Puzzle 6 (3:58) – Pure hubris, but fortunately not hamartia. I often check the clock when I'm down to the last corner. On Puzzle 6 I saw 26:08 left, and instead of playing it safe (knowing that I was still in the pole position), I stepped on the gas (sorry for all the racing metaphors) and raised my hand right at the minute mark. I gather that nobody had ever solved an ACPT 19x19 in under 4 minutes, but the fun of setting an apparent record surely wasn't worth the risk of having a blank square. With the relative lack of errors among the top ranks, I wouldn't have been able to make up for such a mistake like I did last year. (And I'd even spotted a blank on Puzzle 4 before turning it in. Stupid Dan.)
  • Puzzle 7 (7:50, at 90% speed)
Then we came to the finals. I knew from the 20-minute time limit, as well as a Sunday morning conversation (spoiler-free, of course) with constructor Kevin Der, that it was going to be harder than the playoff puzzles of recent years. That's why I didn't freak out when I got stuck – if I'm having trouble, Tyler and Anne probably are too. According to the video, I went two full minutes without entering a correct letter. In the moment, of course, it seems like an eternity, but I wouldn't have guessed it was that long.

I started slowly, as you do on such a hard puzzle, but never really picked up the pace like I had in the past. The last area to finish was the southwest, where I was looking at those three long Downs for a while. Getting APHRODITE was helpful, but still didn't break it open. I was not trying to figure out APOLUNE, because I knew I wouldn't know the word. The other Acrosses all had unhelpful clues and not enough letters entered, and I couldn't break in from the bottom (having had an incorrect E in what turned out to be LIENOR – not LOANER or LENDER – for almost the entire solve).

I entered DDE using the “D” of APHRODITE, but (contrary to what commentator Greg Pliska and lots of other people watching thought) that wasn't my problem. I was aware of the FDR possibility, but statistically (based on letter frequency) it's more likely to be DDE. The real problem was a total brain freeze, the kind that happens when you're banging your head against insanely hard clues for eight minutes. Remember that none of the finalists are used to spending more than five or six minutes on a crossword! So there's a little bit of mental endurance involved, for which I may not have been prepared. Perhaps next winter I'll finally take a crack at speed-solving Frank Longo's "25-Foot-Long Crossword Puzzle"...

Anyway, I could not figure out -A-ATICS. And there's only one word that fits! Pattern recognition is supposed to be my strong suit, but I was letting the many possible interpretations of the clue [Ones bearing high interest?] throw me off. Finally I thought, “this shouldn't be so hard,” and started running the alphabet. (You can even see me on the video sort of pointing to the first letter of the word while mouthing, “A, B, C, D, E, F---ohhhhh!”) Once I got around that roadblock, I had enough letters in place to mop it up quickly.

Hopefully that little play-by-play was somewhat interesting! Thanks for reading, and special thanks to the solvers who visit here regularly and post their times. (Shout-out to Ken Crowell!) See you next year at the Drive For Five! (Okay, let's not call it that.)


Al Sanders said...

Excellent writeup, thanks for sharing your thought process, and once again, congratulations!

Bruce S. said...

Fun to read what was going through your head. Congrats Dan!

PhillySolver said...

I enjoy watching you solve and then reading your commentary adds another deminsion I also enjoy. It was good to see you both and to see you enjoy the spotlight together...I hope Gretchen forgives me for pulling her up on the stage for the photo shoot.