Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Boxing Day

So, anyway, last weekend, if you have read below or followed my Facebook/ Twitter/ TweetDeck/ Etc. updates, you know was the 33rd annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott in beautiful downtown Brooklyn, NY. It's located right across the street from the Supreme Court Building, and rumor has it that the hotel was constructed for the primary purpose of sequestering juries, although I'm told that may be apocryphal.

Anyway, the event drew about 650 contestants (and many other non-competing guests) and worked like this. For most contenders, there were seven puzzles, which ranged in difficulty from pretty easy to "queen bitch" difficulty (Will Shortz's term). Everyone gathers in the main banquet hall, and yellow folders help ensure that one's eyes stay on one's own puzzle:
A puzzle is passed out, Will Shortz says, "Ready, set, go," and a clock ticks down the time allotted for a given puzzle--15 minutes, 20 minutes, etc. When you are done, you raise your hand, a proctor picks up your paper, marks the time, and you are released to go out to the lobby and commiserate with others--"what the heck was 19 down?" "did you get the theme of that?" "I have shamed the family," "I paid money to do this," and so forth.

It's interesting how the puzzle scoring and tracking has evolved, and it's a somewhat sophisticated process now. Every contestant is given a Contestant Number, and a sheet of bar-code labels that you stick on the back of each puzzle. (How fortuitous that a crossword puzzle grid can be easily used as a bar code!) These all varied by contestant:
The puzzle is graded by hand; judges verify manually that each square is filled correctly, and deduct points for wrong letters and blank squares (I am happy to say that in seven puzzles, I got no wrong answers or left any blanks). Points are then awarded by how quickly the puzzle was completed. The marked puzzles are then scanned and uploaded to the contest Web site, and you can log in with your contestant nunber to see the scanned puzzles, and track the standings (which are also posted in hard copy on the wall near the banquet hall). I would say that at least half of the contestants had iPhones and BlackBerrys or at least laptops. There were computers in the lobby of the hotel, as well.

There are a bunch of different contestant categories, based on skill, age, and geography. The A category is the best of the bunch--these are the power solvers who are more like human laser printers and can fill in an entire grid faster than I can write a single letter. (There are all sorts of tricks they use, only some which I have any aptitude for.)

At the end, there is an eighth puzzle that is used for the playoffs. If you've seen the movie Wordplay, you know how this works. There is a stage on which is a set of three large puzzle grids mounted on easels. The three contestants stand at their easels (they are angled such that they can't see each others' grids), they are given sound-proof headphones, and then solve the final, really hard puzzle while 700+ people watch--and Neil Conant of NPR and puzzle constructor Merl Reagle do play-by-play commentary. It's pretty intense, but a lot of fun.
You do meet interesting people from all walks of life--some of them are rather silly walks:
This is Jim Jenista, who apparently always comes to this event in some bizarre costume or other. He's kind of a celebrity.

It was a fun time, and I look forward to next year's tournament. I must work on my speed.

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