I plan a couple of blog posts on the tournament. Today's will be a personal essay on my experience where I'll drop a few famous names and talk about the one truly dramatic moment of the event which, by the way, wasn't during the competition. Part 2 will be interesting conclusions from an analysis of the raw competition data. That won't be for several days.
There's something magical about the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. I would never get a chance to play hockey with Wayne Gretzky but I just spent a couple of days competing with the best crossword solvers around. I sat behind Tyler Hinman (1) who generally had his hand up waiting for his sheet to be judged by the time I had carefully scratched my name and competitor number on the back of mine. Surrounding me were Peter Gordon (21), Rich Norris (52), and Will Johnston (one behind Amy Reynaldo at 16.) Tyler was in his own world, and fair enough, but it was a treat to be able to chat with the others after each puzzle about what they thought. Rich is third on my Most Prodigious Authors list and one of my heroes — almost exclusively a Saturday constructor and now the puzzle editor at the L.A. Times — and how nice that he's also a great guy to talk with. I'm going to have to make him a victim of an upcoming mini-biography of people I don't know anything about.
It took me most of the tournament to understand something that you probably already know. Competition solving is fundamentally different from my experience as a casual hobbyist. Hard-core gamers talk about twitch games meaning ones where, unlike FreeCell or puzzle favorite Myst, reaction speed is critical. The ACPT turns our casual crossword pastime into a twitch game where the best players have honed their real-time skills through incredible dedication to a degree I can't even imagine.
I talked to dozens of competitors, asking them why they were there and why they kept coming back. Some people can't twitch and don't care. They were there for the pure fun of it and were probably the happiest. Many of them were very fast indeed but they won't ever be interviewed on ESPN. The next category is people who can't twitch and wish they could. I'm in that bunch. It takes only a little perspective to get over the frustration. Then there are the elite experts and this competition is their Olympics. Again, the fact that everyone from each category gets to compete together is a special feature of this event. Somehow the vast majority of the participants leave feeling great. How many competitions can you say that about?
I'm sure other bloggers will fill you in on the play-by-play details of the final rounds. It was more fun to experience than you might think. In the end, the same guy wound up with the gold medal, but not without some moments of uncertainty. The extra-competition activities were mostly successful, with only one joke going on too long. Not bad at all for an event of this size.
The story of the weekend for me, though, happened during the final awards luncheon. The mood is finally relaxed because the competition is over and all that's left is thanking the many organizers, judges and behind-the-scenes workers, and handing out a stack of trophies. Will Shortz, the man whose vision made the competition possible, takes the podium.
Before I go on, pause for a moment to think about the incredible logistics of this event. There are 700 competitors solving 7 puzzles each - nearly 5000 individual hand-written sheets have to be scored quickly and accurately by humans. Mistakes matter because the scores are close and the people at the top care desperately about their positions, but mistakes will happen. It's a statistical certainty. Let me repeat, they are unavoidable. All you can do is hope that they won't have material effect.
Will begins by stating that he first has to make an announcement, and a slight catch in his voice gets people's attention. In his cool straight-forward style, he explains that one of those 5000 sheets was temporarily lost and it affected the results at the top of the B category. One competitor who should have been up at the big board being mercilessly teased by Merl Reagle while wearing goofy headphones was denied the chance.
The crowd is stunned. It happened again. Everyone has the same reaction. Of course there is regret for the solver who missed his chance, but that's not the story. Will Shortz, the man so admired by everyone in the room, the man who works so hard for this event to be successful, the man who after all makes his living making sure mistakes don't happen, has had to admit that an important one slipped through and everyone's heart goes out to him. The mistake is compensated in the fairest way possible but it isn't and can't be the same.
After the luncheon people drift back to their real lives. I'm sure many, like me, are convinced that next year they can improve, and plans are already underway.
Monday answers are posted in the usual place.
Update: The story gets more interesting when you read the next day's post where we hear from one of the participants in the B final. Read the comments as well where the rest of those affected along with Will Shortz himself chime in.