Saturday, May 30, 2015

Indie 500: Recap -- The Good, The Bad, and The Gandar

Warning: This blog post contains spoilers for the Indie 500 puzzles.  Proceed at your own peril.

My first crossword puzzle tournament was definitely a worthwhile experience.  No doubt about it.  I'm very glad I went.  The vibe was welcoming; the people were cool; the organizers were exceptionally competent (especially given it was their first tournament too); the puzzles were well-crafted; and, as promised, there was pie.  It was good.  It was fun.  But...  it wasn't fun.  It wasn't a success.  I did awfully on the very first puzzle -- an embarrassing Did Not Finish -- and it put a damper on the entire rest of the competition.  To immediately have the prospect of a good tournament stamped out is so disheartening.  It's like blowing out a tire on the first lap of the real Indy 500.  Straight-away you're at the back of the pack, and there's no way you're getting to the front.  Maybe you can fight your way back to respectability, but respectability is, like, the top quartile, it's not the winner's circle.  That shipped has sailed.  That dream is over.  Now, in my case, winning was not a realistic option to begin with, but I just wanted to keep the door to that fantastical notion slightly ajar for a little while -- just a crack and just for a few puzzles.  Let me bomb out on the last puzzle of the day (well, I did that too), not the first one.  Let me at least look through the standings and do the far-fetched mental calculations while looking at the names ahead of me -- well, if I can solve this puzzle a minute faster than this guy, and if she makes a mistake somewhere, and if he total tanks...  Just let me get in on some of the excitement.  That's all I want.  And it all went out the window on Puzzle 1.

But I muddled my way through the other four puzzles, not completely devoid of success, and I finished 30th out of 60 in my division (the Outside Track).  Smack in the middle.  Here's a puzzle-by-puzzle recap.

Puzzle 1 (Click to the left to see my grid and the correct grid, but don't laugh, please.)
I took physics as a freshman my first quarter in college.  There were four exams.  My scores on them were 100, 10, 100, and 100.  That's not a typo.  I scored perfect on three of the four exams (it was an intro course at a state school) and scored 10% on the other one.  During that second exam I got stuck early on, got flustered, became fixated on the fact that I was flustered, which only made me more flustered, and before long my time was up and my paper was nearly blank.  (Thankfully, we were allowed to drop our lowest exam score.)

Something very similar happened with Puzzle 1 today.  I got buffaloed out of the gate in the northwest when YOUSGUYS didn't fit in the grid (the clue was something like "Alternative to y'all," and apparently the preferred spelling is YOUSEGUYS), and I didn't know the crosses (Damn you, PEETA from The Hunger Games!).  I tried to move on, but mentally I couldn't do it very easily, and then when I finally did, I couldn't get the theme to the puzzle right way (or rather I got the theme, but couldn't get the theme answers), and then I relapsed into freshman-physics mode and the whole thing was fucked.  I didn't finish, and my desperation fill at the end was almost entirely wrong.  My final score was brutal, and that basically was the tournament for me -- effectively over after 20 minutes.

In general, I didn't really like this puzzle.  I mean, it was OK.  I don't want to come off as bitter.  But I thought it was the worst of the bunch.  The theme was based around the DC Metro system -- so the clue is "Silver Line" and the answer is STATISTICS (get it?  because statistics is Nate Silver's line of work) -- which is a cute idea, but the execution was lacking, in my opinion.  The theme is so loose, there are seemingly endless possibilities for each color line, that I feel like the other clues have to be really straightforward to be fair to the solver.  And the clues weren't straightforward at all.  They were too clever by half.  Too cool for school.  Too hot to handle.  Pick you idiom.

Anyway...

Puzzle 2
I nailed this one -- no mistakes and a decent time (for the Outside Track).  A lot of solvers, even the really good solvers, made mistakes on this one, so it felt good to do well -- especially after my previous debacle.  My buddy Josh Himmelsbach actually won the Outside Track division (more on that below), and this was the only puzzle I scored better than him on.  He finished before me, but he misspelled PHARAOHS (always remember: it's a rare A before O word), and you get penalized harshly for errors.

Puzzle 3
Speaking of errors ... I missed just a single square on the Sunday-sized Puzzle 3, which was extremely annoying.  The theme had to do with adding CY to the beginning or end of entries to turn ordinary phrases into zany Crossworld phrases.  For example, "Last stage of the Tour de France" was (CY)CLINGWRAP.  And the answer to the one I messed up -- "Shocking twist to 'Pride and Prejudice'" -- was GAYDAR(CY), which makes sense given the theme (the word "gaydar" becomes "gay Darcy"), but I put GANDAR(CY), which makes no sense given the theme -- or presumably any theme.  The reason I did this is because I've never read Pride and Prejudiced (nor seen the movie), so I thought, "Guess I'll have to get this one from crosses", and the clue for the cross at the Y was a Homeland character named Martha, whom, despite seeing every episode of Homeland, I didn't know.

The answer was BOYD and I guessed BOND.  Martha Bond?  It seems plausible, right?  Not really.  It was actually a very silly rookie mistake.  For one thing, BOND is a common word and popular surname, so it likely would not have been clued through an obscure TV character.  For another thing, I should not have been so immediately dismissive of the Pride and Prejudiced clue.  I actually have heard of the character Mr. Darcy, and the theme could have led me to the correct answer even if I hadn't.  There was no good reason to enter 'N' into the square before going through the entire alphabet over and over until something clicked.  Total tyro error.

It was also a bit of bad luck.  If the clue for BOYD was something like "Baseball's 'Oil Can'" or "Harrelson's character on 'Cheers'" or "William who played Hopalong Cassidy," I would have gotten it.  But, it wasn't, and I didn't.

Puzzle 4
Easy-peasy puzzle, and I breezed through it (relatively speaking) without error.  This was like a straight-over-the-plate New York Times Tuesday puzzle.  It was the most stress-free one of the bunch.

Puzzle 5
Another disaster.  But unlike Puzzle 1, this one was made to be a disaster -- or at least a major struggle.  It was very hard.  The theme was that at the corners the across and down clues were swapped, and then the answers were opposites (e.g., THICK and THIN crossing at the T).  I actually did not even get the opposite part.  I eventually grokked the clues were swapped, but I completely missed the other half of the theme.  It would have helped me a little, but probably not too much.  The big issue with this one is that I just couldn't get footholds in wide empty swaths of the puzzle.  This one played a bit like a difficult NYT themeless, and such puzzles are typically all or nothing for me.  I generally don't get stuck on a few squares.  It's either all filled in or there is a huge section missing.  In this case, there was a huge section missing -- several, in fact.  From a score standpoint this one probably hurt me more than the first puzzle, but emotionally it didn't feel as devastating.  I don't know why that is -- perhaps by the last puzzle I was just too tired to care.  It was a long day.

Final Puzzle
I, of course, did not make it to the finals, but my friend Josh Himmelsbach did, and surprisingly he won!  I say surprisingly, because another competitor, a fellow named Andrew Miller, was the fastest solver in the Outside Track by far.  He also solved the final puzzle much faster than Josh and the other finalist (Christine Quinones), but he left two squares blank -- just a straight-up oversight, much like Al Sanders at the end of Wordplay -- which meant that if Josh finished the puzzle correctly ahead of Christine (on whom he had a sizable lead at the time Andrew "finished"), he would win.  And that's exactly what happened.  It was his first tournament also, so it was really cool, mostly for him, but also for me -- vicarious success is better than no success.

Joon Pahk won the Inside Track fairly handily.  Amy Reynaldo came is second, and Eric Maddy placed third.  I felt bad for Eric; he struggled mightily on the final puzzle and didn't finish.  In his defense, that thing, with the Inside Track clues, was an absolute beast.

Next Tournament
Yes, there probably will be a next tournament for me.  I just don't know when.  The next opportunity is Lollapuzzola in New York on August 8, but I'm probably not going to make that one.  My wife is pregnant, and I think that is literally the due date.  I like solving crossword puzzles, but I should probably be around for the birth of my second child.

So, whenever it may be, until next time ...

Friday, May 29, 2015

Indie 500: Preview

I'm competing in my first ever crossword puzzle tournament -- the Indie 500 -- tomorrow, and I have no idea what to expect.  Well, okay, I have some idea -- the tournament format is clearly laid out on the website, I've seen the movie Wordplay about competitive crossword puzzle solving, and I've competed in many a Scrabble tournament, so I think I have a decent sense of the logistics and the vibe (for lack of a better word).   The part I'm clueless about is how well I will do.  I don't know how my times compare to the field.  Typically I do an NYT Monday puzzle in 4-5 minutes (on paper), a Wednesday puzzle in 7-8 minutes, and a Saturday puzzle in 10-20 minutes (with the important disclaimer that sometimes I get stuck on late week puzzles and either don't finish at all or finish after many, many minutes of banging my head against the wall).  Certainly, this doesn't rate with the top solvers -- I do know that -- even if I cut my times in half, I think the best solvers would still beat me, but I won't be competing against the top solvers.  I'm on the "outside track" of the Indie 500 (Get it? Outside track, Indie 500 -- it's a car theme.), which means I will be competing only against people who have not finished in the top 25% of a crossword puzzle tournament within the last five years.  Against these less formidable foes, my times are -- good?  bad?  average?  Like I said, I have no idea.

Now, I'm sure I could search online and get some notion of where my times rate among my likely competitors, but I'm intentionally not doing that.  I'm not doing it, because I'm telling myself that it doesn't matter.  I'm telling myself that it's all just for fun, that the point of the tournament is just to have the experience, that I don't care where I finish.  It's a lie, of course, I do care, but I'm telling myself this, because there is a non-trivial chance I am quite bad as a competitive crossword puzzle solver, and it's much worse to be bad at something you care about than something you don't.

The truth of the matter is that I'm a pretty competitive person -- not in a sociopathic-affects-my-personal-relationships-Ty-Cobb-Michael-Jordan type of way, but in a run-of-the-mill-egotist type of way.  I take tournaments and things of the like seriously and want very much to win them, even if they're about frivolities like Scrabble and crossword puzzles.  I've never understood the phrase "for fun," because to me the competition -- the score, the stakes, the stats, the winning, the losing -- is precisely what makes games fun.  Things that are only "for fun" are, to me, usually the exact opposite.

So despite what I'm telling myself, my performance tomorrow does matter.  I don't have to win (I'm competitive, not delusional), but I would like to not be the slowest -- middle of the pack would be fine.  Obviously winning is the ultimate goal, but that's probably not realistic given that I've never competed in a tournament, and I've never really practiced speed solving.  I decided to sign up for the Indie 500 completely on a whim (it's located just a few miles from my house, which was the deciding factor), and the only training I've done for it started a week ago.  My typical xword regimen is to do the New York Times everyday (except Sunday -- too big) and do the LA Times themeless on Saturday, all on the computer.  But I figured if I'm going to do a competition, I had better up the volume and solve on paper.  So for the past week, I've done about five paper puzzles a day with a stopwatch running.  I also Googled some tips on speed solving.  That's been the extent of my preparation.  It's pretty minimal.  I would have liked to have done more, but, you know, job and wife and kid and whatnot -- free time is not as plentiful for me as it once was.

So I'm probably underprepared.  Also, I worry that my biggest problem with speed solving isn't about "solving" at all.  It's about something much more basic: reading.  For a smart guy, I'm a very slow reader.  Growing up, I was usually in the advanced classes, and I was amazed at how much faster than me the other kids could finish their reading passages -- so much so that I remember thinking they must be skipping parts.  And yet they would answer all the comprehension questions correctly.  At some point, I realized the unusual person couldn't be every kid.  The outlier was me -- and in the wrong way.  I can tell too when I'm reading crossword clues that I'm taking a relatively long time; there's a little voice in my head telling me "you should be done with this one by now!," which of course only makes things worse.  Doing puzzles casually those extra microseconds aren't even noticeable, but with the clock ticking they matter a lot.  They add up.

Well, that's where I'm at with this thing.  I'm feeling inexperienced, untrained, and slow.  And I have no idea what to expect.  But it doesn't matter anyway, because that's not what it's about; it's not about how fast I can solve the puzzles; it's not about winning and losing.  Being in the presence of other crossword puzzle aficionados and enjoying the solving experience -- that is what it's really about.  Except not completely.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Themeless 1: Apparently Not Everybody Likes What I Like



My first New York Times themeless puzzle ran today.  I submitted it quite a long time ago, several years ago, so it was interesting to look back on it recently, when I received a sneak-preview copy a few days ago.  My thoughts, being as impartial as I can, are that it has too much short dross -- ARY, RELO, OOP, OTO next to UTE, OTTOI, IDA, DECI, OLEO, and ALAR aren't good, and in fact, I've made it a priority to reduce this type of fill in my more recent themeless submissions (several of which have already been accepted) -- but the medium and the long entries rock.  Seriously, there's not a bad one in the bunch and there are a few legit gems (BELIEVEYOUME is my favorite answer and it was my first "seed" entry).

The critics mostly agree with my assessment.  Jeff Chen of XWord Info liked it the best.  (I was quite pleased to get a POW rating.)  Rex Parker of Rex Parker Does the NY Times Crossword Puzzle said, more or less, what I did above, as did Amy Reynaldo of Diary of a Crossword Fiend.  However, the public -- or at least the commenting public -- was much more down on my puzzle than were the critics.  Both at Rex's blog and at the NY Times WordPlay blog, there were a decent amount of negative comments and the overwhelming percentage of them came from people claiming it was too reliant on proper nouns and too trivia oriented.  In fact, the number one "Readers' Pick" comment at the WordPlay blog is:
Not impressed with this puzzle.  It's just a game of "How many obscure proper nouns can I Google and put in a puzzle." 
I understand the sentiment of this comment.  As I mentioned in my constructor comments at XWordInfo, I sometimes forget that people don't love all the things that I love.  I've had many a puzzle rejected, in part, because entries I thought were awesome Will Shortz did not think were awesome at all: VERBALKINT, THEGOOGLE (based entirely off a joke from The Onion), and JIMMORA (he of "Playoffs?!" fame) all come to mind.  Constructing, I do tend to get caught up in my own little "crossworld" and not think about the broader public.  That's a fair critique.

On the other hand, to say I crammed the puzzle full of obscure proper nouns is absurd (and it's even more absurd to say that I had to Google them -- those answers are pure Gulczynski [tapping my head]).  For one thing, take a look at the grid -- ICECOLDBEVERAGE, BELIEVEYOUME, LAPDOG, TEAPARTY, FIREPLACE, SOUNDSLIKEAPLAN, OHCOMEON, HOWNICE, BOOKEM, OEDIPAL, VULGAR, BABYSIT -- there's a slew of decent-to-very-good, longish, common words and phrases for a solver to get a foothold.  If you can nail this stuff, the proper nouns, even if they aren't up your alley, will mostly fall into place.

For another thing, here are some of the proper nouns in the puzzle commenters said they didn't know, along with the number of Google hits they get:
  • THECLASH: 16.7 million.  Only the most well-know punk band ever (arguably).  
  • PANTERA: 30.9 million.  Heavy metal might not be your bag (it's not mine), but you can't argue with the massive popularity of Pantera.
  • ECKHART: 9.3 million.  "Aaron Eckhart" (what I entered into Google) was in all the recent Batman movies and Erin Brockovich.  Even if you have never heard of the movie in the clue (Thank You for Smoking) he is a pretty big star.
  • DIRKDIGGLER: 380 K.  I really wanted the clue, "1997 film character who finally reveals himself in the end."  I suppose that would have really thrown people for a loop.
  • RAINES: 225 K.  "Ella Raines" was an old-timey actress, but apparently still one who is pretty well-known.
  • TSR: 526 K.  I Googled "TSR" + "D & D".  Admittedly bad fill, but not that obscure.  There are a lot of D & D nerds out there.
  • NED: 631 K.  "Ned Flanders" is the guy who says "okely-dokely" on that little-known TV show called The Simpsons.
  • DIAS: 380 K.  "Bartolomeu Dias" was the first known European to sail around Africa.  That's kinda a big deal, right?  
  • LINA: 43 K.  I Googled "Lina" + "Singin' in the Rain" -- not a ton of hits.
  • CHET: 67 K.  I admit "Chet Lemon" was purely self-indulgent.  I love the '84 Tigers.  They started the season 35-5.  They only lost five of their first 40 games!  Five!  (And then they got swept by "my" Seattle Mariners who lost 88 games on the season.  Baseball is weird.)  
  • CRACKOS: 936.  This is a late entry.  I forgot about the biggest offender of them all.  "Graham Crackos" gets a whopping 936 hits -- not 936 K, just 936.  So that one is super obscure.  But also super inferable.
So, OK, I'll give you Lina, and I'll give you Chet [late entry: and Crackos], but that's about it.  Everything else is fair game.  Some of it (e.g., The Clash) I'd say is even common knowledge.  Perhaps you didn't know it, but that's the way it goes.  It doesn't make it obscure or unfair fill.  The flip side of "not everybody loves what I love" is "just because I don't know it, doesn't mean everybody doesn't know it."  And Google, although admittedly not the ultimate arbiter of popularity, suggests that a lot of people know most the proper nouns in my grid.

So, Solver, I offer you a proposal: I'll agree to cut back on the self-indulgent proper nouns in future submissions, if you agree to not get sour because you happen to not know something that many others do know -- deal?  Great.

Oh, and also, buy my book.  Thanks.

Until next time ...

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

MORTAOISM

Well, I guess it's time for my annual update to this blog.  My puzzle will run tomorrow in the New York Times.  It was accepted a month or so ago, which I think makes it the NYT puzzle with the fastest acceptance-publication turnaround for me.  It's nice when that happens.  My least favorite part of the publishing process is the publishing process.  I don't even mind the rejections (well, I do, of course I do, but I have thick skin).  It's the submitting and then the waiting for a response and then the waiting for it run.  Too much waiting.  Although, maybe that makes the rejections easier.  You don't feel the same emotional investment in a puzzle a year after you make it as you do when the ink is still dry on the last clue.

Speaking of publishing.  I've started a website where I post puzzles on a regular (approximately weekly) basis.  The site is ostensibly a sports blog (mainly about the Seattle Seahawks), and some of the puzzles are sports-themed, but I also have some good other-themed and themeless puzzles.  Also, it's got a great name that probably only people who are fans of the Seahawks, over the age 35, and knowledgeable in graduate-level mathematics will get.  (You know, gotta target the key demographics.)  You should check it out.

jimzornslemma.com

I wrote blurbs about this puzzle for XWordInfo and the Wordplay Blog, if you're interested in knowing a little bit more about it.  I won't rehash them here, because you can just click on them, but I will say that I particularly like my line about being "the Rob Deer of the New York Times Crossworld".  Mainly that's because I like pretty much any reference to a mid-'80s baseball player.  If speeding tickets came with a "Fun Fact" about the 1987 baseball season, I wouldn't mind getting them.

Your speed: 83, The number of RBI by Kevin Seitzer in 1987   

Anyway, I suspect this puzzle won't be the big hit that my last few were (Rex Parker doesn't really like it), but that's OK.  Even Rob Deer mixed in a few bloop singles.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Twelfth Man Puzzle

This blog is barely alive, but it's alive -- turns out having a kid really cuts into one's free time when it comes to things like blogging about crossword puzzles and Scrabble.  Who would have ever imagined?  If only while my wife was pregnant other couples with kids would have warned us about how time consuming having a child would be -- if only they would have said things like "You have no idea!" and "Your life is going to change so much!" -- I could've been more prepared.  Alas.

But I have occasion for this entry because a puzzle of mine will appear in tomorrow's NY Times.  I believe this is my seventh in NYT.  (Spoiler alert) It's a rebus puzzle in which there are 12 squares with the entire word MAN as the correct fill, and then the revealer is "TWELFTH[MAN]".  It's already available online (with a subscription, of course) and has been reviewed by Rex Parker here.  He seems to like it for the most part, I think.  He said it was too pop culture-y, which it might be, but there are two main reason for this:

1) My hand was completely forced in a section that required me to use SAMMI (Sammi "Sweatheart" of "Jersey Shore", whom I only know from Googling "Sammi" and was happy to find as I do know "Jersey Shore" was/is huge, so its cast is fair game as fill) and WINGO (Trey Wingo an ESPN analyst).  I couldn't see any acceptable way to avoid using both of these barely crossworthy, pop-culture people, without completely dismantling the basic structure of the puzzle which I didn't want to do, because I liked the basic structure of the puzzle.

2) I originally wrote this puzzle without the intent of submitting it anywhere, so I wasn't trying to make it broad and balanced, but rather specific to my interests.  It was going to be a sports-themed puzzle that I was going to post on my own puzzle website that didn't exist at the time and still doesn't.  That's why the first long answer is ELI[MAN]NING, a football player.  But then I got rolling on it, liked the way I was able to cram in so many MANs without forcing things too much, and decided the puzzle was worthy of NYT submission.

A few other things about his puzzle.

It was inspired by the Seahawks' upset win over the Saints in the playoffs two years ago.  I was living in Australia at time, and they would show American football live on regular TV at like 4 a.m. Monday morning.  Being the NFL addict I am (especially with the Seahawks, I was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington*) I used to wake up early and watch all the games (much to my wife's dismay -- we were renting a studio), so I was intently watching Seahawks vs. Saints.  Seattle likes to tout its 12th Man (which they have call the 12th Fan on some merchandise for legal reasons, despite the fact 12th Fan makes no sense whatsoever, because Texas A & M has some sort of copyright on 12th Man), and it gave me the idea for a 12th Man rebus puzzle.

I originally had the theme answer [MAN]SSIERE in the puzzle, but Will made me cut it, because he thought an answer based on a gag in a single "Seinfeld" episode wasn't very sporting to the solver (given Rex's critique, I guess he was right).

I have no idea who Armando Iannucci is.  I tried cluing AR[MAN]DO through a "Planet of the Apes" character, which in retrospect is odd considering I've never seen a "Planet of the Apes" movie.  I just assumed Armando was a somewhat main character because he was portrayed by Ricardo Montalban, a name actor.

I fought off the urge to use [MAN]ON[MAN], although it would've been very apropos given the election results of gay marriage referendums in Washington, Maryland, and Maine (which were all good news to me). 

That's it.  Hopefully I will have more puzzles published in the somewhat near future.  I don't have anything on the docket, but I've submitted one recently and have a plethora more ready to go, just waiting to be submitted if I would ever just do it.  As it turns out, I like creating a lot more than I like submitting.






*Technically I was raised in an area of unincorporated Pierce County, Washington which is now a city called University Place.  It's most famous residents include Gary Larson (through whom I tried to clue GARY, but Will changed it), Pat Tillman, and the basketball-playing Isaiah Thomas (not to be confused with the basketball-playing Isiah Thomas).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

My First Entry In Months

The occasion is that I came across a copy of "Will Shortz Picks His Favorite Puzzles" while wasting time in a book store this afternoon, and I have two puzzles in it. For each puzzle Will says a little blurb, and for my first puzzle (chronologically), he says,

Here's a fun subject for a puzzle, and there is a little surprise at 41-Across. To date, Damon has had six crosswords published in The Times, two of which are in this book. Not a bad average!

Pretty cool. But it's a good thing he didn't state my acceptance / submission average, that one's not so great.

Actually, I knew that I had two puzzles in this book a while ago. Will mentioned it in an email while telling me a puzzle of mine was accepted (as did his helper Paula Gamache in an email telling me a puzzle of mine was rejected, I liked the first email better). The puzzle hasn't appeared yet, but I suspect it will soon. You never know though, sometimes they appear faster than other times.

My new goal is get a themeless puzzle accepted. I've submitted a few, but they've been no-gos. Looking back over them, I see why. I often get caught up in the moment constructing and convince myself that bad fill isn't so bad (like TOKENED). I think I can eliminate this with some more practice, so my new strategy is to make a bunch -- five or so, wait a little while, and then go back over them later and see if any of them are worth submitting.

We'll see how it goes.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Temporary Retirement

The main function of this blog is to record my Scrabble and crossword puzzle lives. At the moment, I am in temporarily retired from both of these things. I do intend to get this blog rolling again someday.