Wednesday, March 29, 2006

New York Times, Wednesday, 3/29

If you are registered at the NYT and have a subscription to the puzzles, please be sure and do today's puzzle, which was constructed by the late, great Frances Hansen.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Congratulations To The Winners


Puzzle Brothers Both Take Home Trophies; Ken Jennings Wins C and Rookie Crowns

It's over in Stamford, where the 29th American Crossword Puzzle Tournament has ended. There are going to be more pictures, but here's a few shots of Will Shortz congratulating now two-time defending champion Tyler Hinman, and right below, both of the Puzzle Brothers who won trophies - Dave won the D Division (placing 106th overall), and Bob won for top score among people from New Jersey (18th place overall).

The big news from the tournament was the success of Ken Jennings, who won C Division and top rookie. We have some other pictures and they'll be coming up soon.

(Will Shortz and Tyler Hinman picture by Dave Mackey; Puzzle Brothers picture by Barrie Fein)

Sunday, A Division Finals

And here we go with the A Division. Ellen starts first, then Tyler and Kiran start together three seconds later. This should be an exciting one!

They have now begun. These are the toughest clues for the best solvers. "This is like 'Gilligan's Island': The movie star, the professor, and .... THE KID."

Kiran already has a mistake in his grid.

Tyler has filled in the bottom right, while Ellen is attacking the bottom left. Tyler is now migrating to the top left. Ellen has begun doing the top of the puzzle. Ellen has now pretty much finished the upper right. There is now one word in the puzzle that all three competitors have wrong!

Some of the very clever clues are eliciting laughs, oohs and aahs from the audience. Ellen's now working the bottom right. Meanwhile Kiran pretty mich has the right side nailed but has few entries to the left side. Tyler and Ellen haven't gotten a lot on the top yet. Kiran's now working the center. "Did we mention this (puzzle) is a bastard?" asked Merl.

Tyler has fixed everyone's mistake; Ellen and Kiran haven't caught it yet. Tyler's just finished 1-Across and may now take this home. Ellen's now corrected her error. Tyler has two letters left. He is done.

Kiran and Ellen are still plugging away. Will they finish? There's now about 3:30 left. Kiran fixed his previous mistake but has now made a new one. Kiran's pretty much got the center and has now fixed his mistake.

Less than 2 minutes to go! Kiran and Ellen are about equally far away from finishing. It may come down to missed letters. Ten, nine, eight, seven.. time's up!

3rd place, 15:00, 7 letters wrong - Ellen Ripstein
2nd place, 15:03, 3 letters wrong - Kiran Kedlaya
1st place - Tyler Hinman

We will have coverage of the luncheon and more pictures later. For now, we're signing off from Stamford.

Sunday, B Division Finals

The room is still abuzz with Ken's C Division win. "Let's see him win 75 of these in a row," quipped Will Shortz. Ken is also assured of the top rookie prize, previously won by the likes of Bob.

Beginning with the B finals, "our old pal" Merl Reagle and NPR's Neal Conan are at the mike giving their patented play-by-play.

Will tells us the sounds in the headphones are actually old tapes of U.N. proceedings in many different languages. "Sounds like you're going into a party, very nice feeling."

Adam starts 9 seconds ahead, Thomas starts 5 seconds ahead. Brian starts at 15:00. Neal and Merl open with their soon-to-be-famous lines from "Wordplay" - "It's a beautiful day for a crossword tournament!" "LET'S PLAY TWO!"

Bob has just finished the finals puzzle. It looks like it was a toughie. As I've been blogging, I haven't done the puzzle yet, and it's too far away to see the words.

Merl's discussing a "two-pun corner" in the puzzle. What they're saying is very funny; to give their gags away would give the puzzle away (although there is some talk of a "bacon freeway"). You really had to be there.

Adam's finished the bottom of the puzzle first and is making great progress. But he's got some things up top to fix. Adam has just one corner left but still has a mistake, and Thomas has only finished the bottom left.

Adam is finished and is declaring himself done.

Thomas has the bottom left, and Brian hasn't even scratched the upper part of the puzzle. Thomas finishes, then Brian.

3rd place, 8:49 - Brian Olewnick
2nd place, 8:33 - Thomas Weisswange
1st place, 7:27 - Adam Cohen

Sunday, C Division Final

Ken Jennings already has a quarter of the puzzle filled in after about a minute. Some dip left a cell phone on; fortunately our competitiors cannot hear that. They're all wearing headsets with old Yma Sumac tapes of her singing the Voice of the Itxapay. Ken is really ripping through this puzzle. He has just the upper right to go. From where I'm sitting, it's really hard to see the two side grids. Don't leave any squares blank, guys. Bob is alongside me working the printed copy of the puzzle with the A clues and hasn't gotten very far yet. Ken has finished first. But is it correct?

Unofficial C Standings:
3rd place, 1 letter blank 8:56 - Steven Katton
2nd place, 1 letter wrong 5:19 - Howard Barkan
1st place, 4:09 - Ken Jennings

BTW, for the benefit of those who will be solving by mail, we are not divulging any details of the puzzle, which is a Saturday-style themeless 15x by Mike Shenk.

Sunday, 11:00 a.m.

Here we go at the finals! The grids are up and the room is filled with anticipation. In case you don't know how it works, the same grid is used for all competitors, but different clues are used at each level.

C Division: 10,600 Steven Katten
10,725 Howard Barkin
10,785 Ken Jennings

B Division: 11075 Brian Olewnick
11130 Thomas Weisswange
11220 Adam Cohen

A Division: 11750 Tyler Hinman
11750 Kiran Kedlaya
11775 Ellen Ripstein

Good Luck!

Sunday, 9:42 p.m.

What defines a Sunday in Stamford during Tournament Week? The buffet breakfast? Seeing how many sleep-deprived zombies (Vic Fleming, Stan Newman) pervade the hotel lobby at 7 a.m.? Or the twinge you feel when you see your ranking at 8:30?

Could be all of those for me. I started the morning in 21st place, with 130 points separating me and the all-important 11th place for a shot at the B title. I finished the Merl Reagle 21x at the same time 11th place Stella Daily did, so she looks to be playing the big board. Myself, I have them crossed.

And the usual suspects are lined up 1-2-3, all good pals now: Tyler Hinman, Ellen Ripstein, and Trip Payne.

A more-or-less recap of the finals will follow around 12:30ish from Dave.

Sunday, 9:38 a.m.

I am STOKED! I just finished the seventh puzzle, a very clever 21 by one of my favorite constructors (and one of the stars of the movie "Wordplay"), Merl Reagle. I had one crossing that was a little suspect, but I confirmed with Bob that those answers were CORRECT!

I am almost assured finishing better than last year.

And one other thing: when I scanned the results after I finished Puzzle #7, I discovered something that I didn't know beforehand (and may have hampered my results on this puzzle): through six puzzles, I am LEADING D Division! I certainly didn't find anyone higher than 122nd, my current ranking, in the D class, and most of the others were in the high 200's to the 400's.

More later... this is getting exciting.

(EDITED LATER: It turns out that I was actually second in D Division, trailing by about 200 points. I more than made those up on the 7th puzzle to overtake Mike Nothnagel by less than 100 points. That puzzle and good scores on 1, 3 and 4 really made a difference.)

Sunday, 7:05 a.m.

After another interesting night of hilarious late night game playing, I dragged into bed at a little after 3:07 a.m. last evening. Bob has already showered and left for downstairs, while I'm still up here. In less than two hours, we're handed our final mass puzzle challenge, then the room will be reset for the finals at 11:00 a.m., during which time we'll gather up our things and check out.

It's going to be very interesting to see who is going to be on stage for the finals, as there are a lot of fine competitors who posted some blistering times. But did they have the accuracy?

Our final dispatches from here are going to be during the finals. Pictures from the luncheon will appear later tonight. But now, before it gets too crazy later this morning, some thank yous... the staff of the Marriott here in Stamford... excellent job with getting our conference room set up and ready to go... the judges, thank you for getting to us as quickly as you could in the puzzle room... Patrick Creadon and the folks at his production company and IFC Films for making the wonderful screening of "Wordplay" a reality... friends old and new, as well as our special guest this weekend, Ken Jennings... it was a hell of a lot of fun, you all...

...and lastly, to Mr. Will Shortz for continuing to realize his dream of a national crossword tournament, and to all of the tournament staff for another fantastic weekend.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Saturday, 10:17 p.m.

What a night for a Saturday movie! "Wordplay", the documentary filmed in part at last year's tournament, was the centerpiece. Filmmaker Patrick Creadon was originally going to have the tournament be a little sidebar to the movie, but the story that unfolded that cold March weekend was too good to pass up.

We meet the dramatis personae up front: Will Shortz, the tournament founder; Merl Reagle, the constructor, and solvers from all walks of life: the Indigo Girls, Jon Stewart (hilarious), even Bill Clinton, who said he solved more puzzles after he became President. And some special solvers in it for the speed challenge: Al Sanders (the tragic hero of the film), Trip Payne, eventual winner Tyler Hinman, and tournament veteran Ellen Ripstein (very charming in her scenes walking the New York streets with her broken umbrella).

Creadon mixes marvelous historical footage (some of the first tournament in 1978, lorded over by the then-25-year-old Shortz) with interesting graphics that give the clues and answers being solved.

Much like in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket", the first half shows the basic training of the solvers, and in the second half, they're "in the s--t" - or, more properly, Salon D here at the Marriott.

We see some of the fun sidelights: the talent competition from last year (featuring the singing voice of Stella Daily), contestants kibbitzing in the lobby, the late night games. We see many of our friends and fellow solvers on screen. But when it comes to watching the competitions - especially the finals - Creadon excels with his excellent camera work and tight editing.

I've got to agree... this is a fine film and you should all go see it when it hits the theatres this summer.

Saturday, 10:05 p.m.

I have just returned from the screening of "Wordplay", Patrick Creadon's chronicle of the 2005 Stamford tournament. Creadon tells the story in two parts, by introducing us to the main players (Will Shortz, Merl Reagle, Tyler Hinman, Trip Payne, Al Sanders) and then chronicling the Stamford experience.

Creadon does a generally good job setting up the alternate dramas in the film, down to the little-seen "war room" where puzzles are scored and errors are winnowed out, such as the SDS/SSS slip-up which knocked Patrick Jordan out of a sure shot in the finals. And of course, the finals where Al Sanders made his famous _OL_ESQUE gaffe is played to the hilt. Cameo appearances range from the thoughtful insights of Indigo Girls to the "Bring it, Shortz!" ballsiness of Jon Stewart.

The film will quite possibly be a sleeper hit, as were the docs "March of the Penguins" and "Super Size Me", and should have quite a run off the DVD shelves. And the film did indeed resonate deeply with its core audience...hopefully more general audiences will tak to it as well.

Saturday, 5:47 p.m.

Amidst all the madness that's gone on so far this weekend, just a reminder to any of the Stamfordites who may be reading this: tomorrow sees the last Starbuck's puzzle and the publication of further clues. As Mr. Shortz has made copious amounts of the first five puzzles available to tournament participants, I see no different treatment for the sixth puzzle. It sure beats delivering 500 copies of the Sunday New York Times here.

Saturday, 4:53 p.m.

Just went upstairs to change my shirt. That soaked me.

Puzzle 5 was tough as billed; guess I'll be riding the E-train next year.

That's what makes Maura Jacobson's puzzles so special; they come at the end, like they do in New York Magazine. No matter how tough what's come before has been, she always knows how to put a nice bow on it.

Incidentally, that 500 contestants R.W. mentioned in the last post is a Stamford record. The tournament is growing, not by World Series of Poker leaps and bounds (they're expecting 8000 there this year, up from 5600), but it's growing just the same.

I am looking forward to a fun evening of seeing the film, and connecting with some of the new friends I've made this year. Perhaps some more late night games are in order tonight!

Saturday, 4:35 p.m.

Puzzles five and six today were as polar as you can get in the tournament. Will Shortz had his 29-year competitor tell him that the fifth Byron Walden puzzle was the hardest puzzle ever in the tournament, trumping even Jack Luzzatto's Year One Opus and Henry Hook's tribute to klabberjaas. More details later on why this puzzle left nearly 470 of the year's 500 competitors still pumping their pencils at the end of the time.

Puzzle six was the traditional Maura moment, a cute 19x19 in her inimitable comic style.

Now comes some serious downtime, before a 7PM reception hosted by "Wordplay" distributor IFC films. Hot dogs and beer will be consumed copiously. Then comes a screening of "Wordplay"...but wouldn't it have made more sense for them to hijack the Loews theaters across the street and cancel one of their 18 daily showing of "Aquamarine" to put it on a big screen?

Next post: more on the movie from both of us, Ebert and Roeper-style.

Saturday, 3:08 p.m.

Robert here, for the first time from Stamford...

This is an incredibly mind-blowing experience for me every year since I meet so many new people...I am truly among friends here.

Puzzle-wise, after four I believe I am in the thick of it...nothing iffy or half-hearted has been put in any grid. I have been sure of absolutely everything. But #5 is the one Will says will be the big equalizer...we shall see. I'll check back for more after Puzzle #6.

Saturday, 2:07 p.m.

Back from lunch; PM session begins in about 20 minutes.

Feel really good about that third puzzle again. There were some oohs and aahs when people glommed onto Patrick Merrell's theme. I also learned that there were quite a few folks who fell into the trap on the second puzzle. We shall see what develops there.

There are some new pictures up from today, including the inevitable "Puzzle Brothers with A Very Rich Man" shot.

Saturday, 12:46 p.m.

I am now officially toast.

I found out that that bad crosser in puzzle #2 was indeed wrong, so that's my bonehead mistake this year. If I keep going at the rate I am, I figure by the year 2012, I will be perfect.

Bob is doing well. He compared notes with Amy Reynaldo and is keeping pace with her.

Saturday, 12:06 p.m.

Two puzzles down, four to go. I won't give any details on the puzzles but the first one was pretty easy; the other one a little tougher but at least I finished. There is one word I wasn't too sure on (a crosser that didn't make a lot of sense) that may prove to rival this year's PRADA/PRADO fiasco. By tomorrow morning we'll know. I used one more minute than I wanted to working on checking over the puzzle.

I am competing in the D division, so no stage appearance for me. Bob, however, is firmly enmeshed in the A division, so it's him vs. the big shots.

Saturday Morning....

Saturday, 7:50 a.m.: It IS entirely possible to have a hangover on only half a glass of wine.

The wee hours were filled with some interesting games. A few people had packed suitcases full of board games and came equipped with Quizzard lock-out devices for game show style fun. Trip Payne and Adam Cohen were each hosting self-written, six-player "Jeopardy!" games, and I played in Adam's. Leading heading into the Final, I (along with everyone else) blew it. I bet all but $100 and I think that may have been good enough for second place.

Todd McClary was hosting a game called "Coordination" which was very clever - the players were divided into two halves, the X team and the Y team. The players were shown visual clues with coordinates along the side, and you had to guess ONLY your coordinate (X or Y, depending on which side you're sitting) based on the question asked. Then you pick someone who you think has a good enough answer from the other group of players. The scoring is based on the difference between your team's coordinates and the actual answer; low score wins. There is more than a little measure of strategy involved.

A special shout out to Howard and Debbie, the father-daughter team who were our partners in last night's KenJen trivia throwdown.

Time to grab a shower and get downstairs.. the puzzles are in the air at 11:00.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Greetings From Stamford!

This is as close as a postcard as you're gonna get. Right now everyone else is doing the wine and cheese thing downstairs, and I'm up here typing away. Hopefully we'll have some pictures posted.

We've already had our Quiz Bowl game with Ken Jennings (who, by the way, will be competing in the crossword competition) and also completed the Sudoku. Tomorrow, we get our first crack at the crosswords.

Here is the first album of images from tonight's competitions!

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Just about 24 hours from the time I am writing these words, Dave and I will be at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut.

Ever since I was doing puzzles in the first couple of years of Games magazine as a high-schooler, I thought that having a national competition was a dandy idea. How cool would it be, I thought back then, to actually participate in this against other kings and queens of the black-and-white?

This weekend I will be in the hunt for the fourth time as I go against the titans of the 15x15 interlocks, Trip, Al, Tyler, Ennie, Amy, and all the greats of this yearly dance. Someone told me that this was the true March Madness, not those guys dribbling that orange ball. And in an e-mail to a family member, I mentioned that this is the one weekend all year where I mingle the most with like-minded souls.

The best part about being at Stamford this year is that this is the first year I can tell everyone that I am a professional crossword constructor, with one puzzle under my belt, and three more to be published. Hopefully this year I will be able to get a lot of tips from the constructors to better my craft.

Plus, Friday night will mean more than wine and cheese as there will be a Sudoku competition hosted by Wayne Gould, the man who revived this puzzle form and made it a multi-million-dollar industry, and a trivia game featuring "Jeopardy!" monolith Ken Jennings, who will hopefully stay the heck out of the tourney itself...all kidding aside, it will be nice to meet a guy who's got a lot in the old noggin.

Those of you who have read our blog, we will see you there, and of course have a great time. If you can't get to Stamford, Dave will be filing reports all weekend.

As Will Shortz would say, "Ready? Begin..."

Monday, March 20, 2006

Crosswords Take Center Stage of CBS' Early Show

Will Shortz will host a mini-crossword tournament today on CBS' "The Early Show", airing now on a CBS affiliate near you. The little tournament will consist of one puzzle created by the estimable Frank Longo and edited by Mr. Shortz, who this weekend will step into his 29-year role as director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

Robair is on-site at The Early Show and will file his impressions later.


The tournament failed to materialize (I'm sure we'll get the 411 from Will before long), but you can get a copy of the puzzle that Will showed on-air by clicking on this link.

We were also treated to a brief (albeit soundless) clip from "Wordplay" which features a hand writing the words WORD and PLAY into a crossword grid, and then spotting some blacks. The camera pulls back and reveals the hand as that of master puzzle constructor - and Sunday-puzzle commentator at Stamford - Merl Reagle.

Monday, March 06, 2006

More Themeless Chicanery To Come

Those of you still smarting over last weekend's L.A. Times Saturday themeless had better get some more bedrest because very soon it is happening again! I will again be making an appearance on the Saturday tip over at the L.A. Times. No idea yet just when, but we'll let you kn--err, warn you in plenty of time.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Nineteen Days And Counting...

As the annual tournament we affectionately call Stamford draws near, I am looking forward to the cameraderie and the competition. I have been intensely training, doing puzzles online and on paper at an alarmingly increasing rate of speed, and with accuracy not seen before. I hope for better than last year and as long as I get that I'll be happy.

This year, The Puzzle Brothers will be on-site at Stamford for the entire weekend and will be participating in all events, including the Friday night trivia games (with the help of Ken Jennings, the all time "Jeopardy!" champion), the Saturday night screening of "Wordplay", and the Sunday awards luncheon. (Robair is extremely looking forward to the Sudoku competition. Yes, he does those too, and quite fast.) We will also be filing reports with exclusive photos of some of the competitors and puzzle celebrities. If you can't make it to Stamford, then make The Puzzle Brothers your destination for the really very truly latest (like they say in TV news)!