A trio of snapshots from the American Crossword Puzzle Championship. I took blurred photos, then made adjustments in Photoshop, including the addition of a watercolor effect (it shows up more when the photos are enlarged). The last shot is a rare photo of Don Christensen, the man who takes pictures of everyone else over the weekend. Don is about to capture Will Shortz and Mike Shenk, the final-puzzle constructor, for posterity … and hopefully not fall off the stage.
By chance, about five years ago, I heard that Will Shortz would be hosting a small get-together at his house for a few puzzle friends. That didn’t involve me, but an annual crossword tournament Will holds in his hometown the week before — that would. The event is always followed by a trek of the puzzling faithful to stately Shortz manor for snacks and drinks and hobnobbing.
After the tournament, while clogs of puzzlers were clustered in Will’s kitchen, dining room, and living room, I planted a small puzzle hunt around the house. There were three clues. Each was a 4-line poem on a small piece of paper giving a hint as to the location of the next clue.
On the day of Will’s party, I sent him an email explaining what I’d done. At the end of the email was another 4-line poem to start the hunt.
The first clue was hidden in a vase on his mantel, not far from a Rotten Tomatoes award for the best-reviewed documentary of the year, Wordplay. Where was the second clue? I’m not remembering. But the third one was inside a fake can of Coca-Cola in a kitchen cupboard otherwise filled with cans of Campbell’s Chunky soup. Its message led to the “prize” I’d squirreled away in the back of his freezer, a small container of mustache antifreeze for use during the upcoming winter.
I’ve never asked if he’s used it, but I suspect not.
“No” can take many forms, as can be seen by sifting through the stack of rejection letters I’ve received from publishers over the years. Here are some actual quotes.
• We regret to inform you …
• We appreciate your interest …
• Due to current commitments …
• Please forgive this form letter …
• It has been a joy over the years to see the many beautiful and unique expressions of God’s creativity that people from all over the world have shared with us …
• Dear writer …
But my name is Patrick
• Dear Jane …
• It’s not right for us.
• Your work has not been chosen for publication.
• It is not a book we could take on at the present time.
• In the end, it wasn’t something we felt strongly enough about.
At least they’re paying attention
• Thank you for submitting …
• Thank you once again for submitting …
The diplomatic approach
• I think it’s wonderful, but I don’t see how it would work in our hands.
• Our editorial board does not think we could do justice to your efforts.
• Though your ideas are very interesting, we feel we must pass on this.
• Although I love your dry sense of humor, I don’t think that this story is right for us.
• This is a delightful book that I don’t have a clue what to do with.
• I think you’ve got a fascinating idea here and one that could sell well if you can find the company that can sell such a thing.
How about something with mice?
• I really like the little mice, but we have had no success with rodents.
• I’m sure by now you’ve made a deal elsewhere.
• We encourage you to continue submitting this package to other companies.
• I have no doubt you’ll find someone else to publish it.
A bit more direct
• We just didn’t find it catchy enough.
• I’m afraid I did not see the material clearly.
• I just didn’t respond emotionally to this story.
• Your submission was not considered particularly humorous by our personnel.
• I’m pretty quirky, and like a good laugh, but this is a bit strange, even to me.
A publishing exec named Roy Wandelmaier, while rejecting a proposal, asked if I’d like to create something his company had a lot of success with, a maze book. Maze•Mania and five titles that followed combined to sell over a million copies.
Tommy Lee Cook brought his bluesy vocals to the talent gig at this year’s xword champeenship, whilst leaving his howling guitar back home at the “World Famous” Buckingham Blues Bar in Ft. Myers, Florida. However, guitar and voice can both be heard HERE.
If you don’t know Tommy, the intro on his website says it all:
“He’s a down-home boy who goes head-to-head with the word nerds in New York City, a mule-loving man who pens novels and songs, a soul food lover who negates any ill effects of Farmers Market meals with his daily 90-minute workout. If Tommy Lee Cook didn’t exist, it’d be a lucky writer who dreamed up so complicated and engaging a character.”
More musings about the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament:
But Maura was not forgotten. A giant card made up specially for the occasion (with “MA _ RA” across the top and “missing U” beneath) was posted outside the ballroom, and it was soon covered with signatures, thoughts, well wishes and puzzling love.
I drove it over to her house Tuesday afternoon, and … well, I think the grin in the photo tells the story.
I stayed for just over an hour, sipping ginger ale and trading crossword stories with her and her husband Jerry. I then hit the road, leaving her to solve the rest of the crossword atop her card.
The Finals Boards
Most years, I’m one of the judges assigned the job of preparing the nine oversize boards for the finals. It’s a two-step task: affixing black cardboard squares (with tape rolls on their backs) and correctly writing numbers in the proper squares. High-tech, no?
There was a wrinkle this year. Will Shortz stores all of his tournament supplies in the basement of his house, and it was partially flooded a few months ago. Many of the black squares were mush, leaving us two boards short of a final round. (That’s not a commentary on our mental state.)
It was suggested that we recycle the black squares from the C final, after it ended, hastily transferring them to the A boards.
An incident from an earlier tournament immediately came to mind. Joe DiPietro and I had been in charge of monitoring the contestant Arnold Reich’s progress during the B final and, about five minutes into the solve, Joe whispered that a black square was missing from Arnold’s board!
Seeing the square lying on the floor nearby, I ran over and picked it up, jumped on stage and stuck the square in its spot. Merl Reagle, doing the color commentary, announced to the crowd, “there appears to be a board malfunction.” Luckily, Arnold hadn’t gotten to that area of the puzzle, and he later told me he hadn’t even noticed what I’d done.
So we eschewed the black-square-transfer strategy and decided instead to see if there was a roll of black duct tape in the hotel. As I approached the front desk, I noticed a maintenance worker walking toward me — with a roll of black duct tape in his hand! Seriously. Nothing but that single roll of black tape. I explained my crossword emergency, he obligingly yielded his pelf, and our black square problem was solved.
Note: The A and B finalists solved with official cardboard squares. The C’s got the black-tape version.
Will’s Ping-Pong Streak
Will Shortz loves his table tennis, so much so that he keeps track of how many consecutive days he plays. With the tournament foofaraw seriously clogging up his schedule this past weekend, he was in danger of breaking his streak.
But not to worry. On Saturday night, when the festivities ended at about 11:00, he dashed for a cab that would take him to SPiN, a high-end table tennis mecca in Manhattan. He made it in time and has now played something like 80 days uninterrupted, with the next 100+ days of his calendar looking good to keep the streak alive and growing.
What can you say. Dan Feyer is amazing. Congratulations on another impressive win. And a big tip of the hat to Tyler and Anne for their great performances … not to mention (but I am going to mention) David, Al, Francis, Howard, Joon, Stella, Ellen and, well, you gotta stop somewhere. (Don Christensen photo)
Changing of the Guard
There was a changing-of-the-quard mini-theme to this year’s event: no Maura Jacobson puzzle for the first time ever, no Merl and Neal calling the finals, and no Trip Payne as a competitor. In addition, the dynamic Doug Heller, who served as head judge and webmaster for many, many years, played more of a sideline role this year.
Their full or partial absence made me appreciate them all the more.
Anne proved once again the class and integrity of the top solvers in the ACPT. None of them wants to be given anything they haven’t earned on paper.
I happened to be in the tournament bunker with Helene Hovanec on Sunday morning when Anne Erdmann poked her head in the door. She had misgivings about her mistake on puzzle #1 being overturned the day before and insisted that it should be re-reviewed. She stated she would gladly abide by whatever was decided, but she wanted there to be no doubt that it was the right call.
The online scan doesn’t show it clearly, but looking at the actual paper, there’s no way to ignore that there’s an ascender coming down and ending in a small circle-shape. The vertical line is clearly and fairly strongly written (not just a drag of the pencil), resulting in something that looks pretty close to the lowercase “b” just below it. The ruling was regrettable but clear: It wasn’t an “o.”
As it turned out, Anne solved her way back from 4th to make the final three on stage. Good things do sometimes happen to good people.
The good Dr. added a lot of interest to this year’s tournament and generated more pre-tourney publicity than we’ve ever seen, including a front page article in The New York Times.
I had mixed feelings about Matt Ginsberg’s cyber-creation and its presence as an unofficial competitor. What Matt has accomplished is really remarkable, downright awesome. In fact, I was inspired enough that I made an unsolicited donation of a Dr. Fill logo to the cause back in May.
On the other hand, I was tapped as the constructor of puzzle #2, so Dr. Fill was the competition. Did I want to beat Dr. Fill? Yes. Some wrong answers would be satisfying. I mean, who doesn’t like to beat a computer.
But I didn’t write a puzzle to try and beat Dr. Fill.
That thought wasn’t even on the radar. And I had no instruction from Will Shortz to do so. The truth is, there was zero discussion between us about what my theme or approach would be, other than the level of difficulty to aim for. The first he knew of my puzzle was when the finished version arrived in his mailbox about three weeks before the tournament.
My only consideration was trying to make an original and interesting puzzle, hopefully one that solvers would appreciate. The humans are what the tournament is about; they’re paying the big bucks to be there, and they want the best entertainment they can get. Computers are great, but they aren’t going to come up and thank you if you write a good puzzle (you at least have a shot with humans). As Matt has repeatedly said, Dr. Fill doesn’t even know what it’s doing.
After the puzzle was constructed, I did give some thought to how Dr. Fill might fare with it. Here’s part of an email I sent to Will Shortz the day after I sent him the puzzle: “My #2 theme is one that could likely flummox Dr. Fill, although that wasn’t something I set out to do. Real solvers were the focus!”
Will’s response: “As long as your primary goal is entertaining solvers, not flummoxing Dr. Fill, that’s fine.”
More to Come?
I might file a few more notes later but, if nothing else, I will make sure to include a follow-up about a paper that many of you signed at the tournament.
In the meantime, thanks to all who came up and said hello or gave me a thumbs up for my puzzle #2 (even those who waved a fist at me). It’s greatly appreciated. Also thanks to those who purchased books at my table. My nieces’ cut of the take (rounded up to reward them for their hard work) netted them a couple hundred dollars toward their cause to fight Crohn’s disease.
Go to: Vignettes, part 2
A few random thoughts about the three finalists in this past weekend’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament… Read the rest of this entry »
One of my favorite authors, Donald E. Westlake, died this past week at the age of 75. I didn’t know him and never met him. My memories consist only of reading his incredibly clever and funny mysteries — with one exception. In 2002 a crossword puzzle appeared in The New York Times with the byline Donald E. West. I wondered, Could it be yet another of his many pen names, especially since the missing “lake” was suspiciously planted in the bottom right corner of the grid? Read the rest of this entry »
…about the birth of crossword blogs. As far as I know, Curtis Yee was the first daily crossword blogger with THIS ENTRY on April 18, 2005 (scroll down to the bottom). Curtis gave it up later that year but went on to create some very nice puzzles for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times.
Also worth checking out is Curtis’s music on his homepage, kazoo and all. Once you go HERE, click on the “Music” link. My personal favorite is “Songs about Milk” toward the bottom of the list. I challenge you to listen to it without smiling.
…about the People Puzzler Book: Jumbo Edition — on newsstands April 14th! It’s got Harry Potter, Dirty Harry, Prince Harry, When Harry Met Sally, Deborah Harry, Harri-son Ford, and the Donald’s hair. Twenty “puzzlers” (13×13 crosswords) and twenty “jumbos” (17×17 crosswords) in the book are mine — but don’t let that stop you! The book has another 20 jumbos and 14 classic puzzlers from the past, plus profiles on Brad, Katie, Zac, Ben, Julia, Rihanna, Oprah, Catherine, Carrie, and George!
Have you read every issue of People and don’t know what to do with all that knowledge? Here’s the answer!
…about turnaround time. Today marks two contrasting crossword records for me: the longest and shortest waits between submission and publication.
Wednesday’s New York Times crossword was carefully aged for 3 years (3 years, 1 month, 2 days to be exact) while a March Madness crossword I created for Sports Illustrated is appearing only 3 days after being handed in (5 if you count from when it was assigned).
For all you solvers who can’t get enough sports clues in your crosswords, the Sports Illustrated puzzle is in the April 7th Final Four issue. It should be on newsstands today or tomorrow.