Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Like Walter White On Condoleeza Rice

My second BuzzFeed crossword puzzle ran today.  Hopefully it will not be my last, but we shall see.  I don't have anything pending, and I don't have plans to submit anything in the near future.  In fact, it's unclear to me exactly what is the submission procedure now.  The puzzle is evidently going through some growing pains, and so the BZF crossword editor (Caleb Madison) sent out an email to BZF contributors detailing some possible changes on the horizon -- particularly a move away from the traditional 15 x 15 crossword puzzle toward smaller, more novelty type puzzles.  Currently BuzzFeed is still running three crossword puzzles per week (easy, medium, hard), but it's not clear to me if that is only until the current backlog of accepted puzzles runs out, or if that is the new normal.  So ... I dunno.

I do hope the BFZ puzzle sticks around for a while in some form that approximates a traditional crossword puzzle (smaller grids would be cool, if they are 13 x 13, or something like that, but I hope it doesn't become like the NYT Mini).  I've every much enjoyed constructing my two BZF puzzles, and I also enjoy solving them regularly.  Yeah, sometimes the tone, the forced "hipness" (which often means awkward jack-off jokes and drug references) can be a turnoff, but I still think they are fun -- and some of the themeless puzzles have been downright tremendous so far.  I'd like to see that continue.  (Note: see addendum for more on this topic.)

But anyway, on to today's puzzle, my puzzle.

For some reason, I really like the phrase LIKE WHITE ON RICE, and it happens to be 15 letters, so I decided to make it the center of a crossword puzzle.  I then got the idea to stack things in the gird that are white on top of things that are rice, but there was a big problem in that the only thing that is really rice is rice, because rice isn't an adjective.  So all my rice things ended up being people with the last name Rice.  So it occurred to me to just make all my white things people named White, and then I would have a legit theme idea.

But the transition from theme idea to workable grid was substantially more difficult with this puzzle than it is with most my other puzzles.  I spent hours and hours -- entering and erasing, rotating the grid, flipping theme entries, moving around cheater squares, etc. -- just trying to come up with something that was workable.  I finally did, but the residue of my strain is evident to the savvy solver.

For instance, one might notice that each "white on rice" pair its own little subsection with only a single white square providing an entrĂ©e.  I don't like this, but it's the only way I could get the grid to work.  Also, there are many short answers that got locked into place by some of the weird letter combinations imposed by the theme (e.g., NYY, DRJ, OMG, UNM, CNN, MTA).  So the fill isn't quite as clean as I would like it.  And lastly, some of the Whites and Rices are not as famous as I would prefer -- BETTY and JERRY, yes; RON and JIM, eh...

So this puzzle isn't perfect -- I probably wouldn't put it in my personal puzzle pantheon -- but I do think it is pretty good, and I'm proud of it.

Some bullets before I go:

  • The vast majority of the clues are mine, although one thing Caleb did is add the names "White" and "Rice" explicitly to the theme clues.  In my version, these were absent.  I like the way I did it better, but I understand what Caleb was doing.  He was making it less opaque for the solver, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  Also, I would've liked circles around the Whites and Rices, but the BZF software apparently can't do circles in grids. 
  • Another notable Caleb clue is "Inanimate opponent of a costly American war with many prisoners," which I very much appreciate and agree with politically (Johann Hari's book on the subject Chasing the Scream is fantastic), but, in this case, I went with something easier, because I was worried that little section could be unsolvable otherwise (again, Ron White and Jim Rice, aren't exactly Walter White and Condoleeza Rice).  Also, I would have used the word "in" instead of "of" in the clue.  Using "of" makes it sound like the drugs are part of an anitwar movement.  
  • I like my clue for TRUMP.
  • When DEPECHE MODE came out with their album Violator, I played it so much at my friend's house that he crushed it with a skateboard.  It was his CD.
  • Caleb didn't like EMERSONS as an answer, but ultimately let it stand.  I don't mind plural last names because we use them all the time -- "Keeping up with the Joneses" and whatnot.
  • Jim Rice, fine ballplayer, not a deserving Hall of Famer.
  • Glen Rice, fine basketball player, also probably really did once hook up with Sarah Palin -- not that it's any of my business (but I read the Deadspin article on it all the same).
  • In my last post, I described Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" as "number one on the 'Songs that are Actually Really Good But that You Can't Stand Because You've Heard Them Over and Over and Over Again' list."  Well, if that's the case, "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes is a close second.  Let's go out on a different cut from Jack and Meg instead.

Addendum: A few hours after posting this I received an email Caleb sent to contributors stating that the BZF puzzle will continue in its three-puzzle-a-week format (MWF), and that Tuesday and Thursday will be devoted to smaller puzzles.  Cool!  He also said to keep submitting puzzles as usual, so I will probably do that.  All I need is a great idea -- anybody got one?

Friday, December 18, 2015

A New Old New York Times Themeless Puzzle

[Grid shot lifted from Diary of a Crossword Fiend]

The good thing about getting a crossword puzzle published in the New York Times is that you get a crossword puzzle published in the New York Times.  It's a big audience, certainly in the thousands, probably in the hundred-thousands (in the millions? probably not), and likely containing a handful of very famous people, by whom I would be completely star-struck if I peeped into their kitchens in the morning and saw them solving my puzzle over cups of coffee.  (Being a huge baseball fan, after seeing Wordplay, I like to imagine Mike Mussina has done a few of my puzzles.)  The bad thing about getting a crossword puzzle published in the New York Times is that the process is l-o-ng.  The turn-around time -- the time it takes from submission to publication -- is at least a few months and often (and in this case) a few years.

In the past, this hasn't been such a big deal.  The solver doesn't know (or care) when a puzzle is submitted and the essential elements of a good crossword puzzle aren't usually that time sensitive -- a good bit of word play in 2015 is still going to be a good bit of word play in 2017, and if a splashy word or phrase doesn't hold up for at least a few years, it's probably not as splashy as you think.  Lately, however, I've been finding the submission-to-publication lag very annoying.  The reason is that about three years ago I started constructing themeless puzzles that were good enough to publish.  I built up an NYT cache of five or so puzzles and now they are starting to run.  (One ran in September, another ran in April.)  This is fantastic, I'm stoked about it, but it would have been fantasticer, and I would have been stokeder about it three years ago, when the puzzles were representative of my current work.  I've really tried to make strides toward improving my themeless puzzles, and I feel like I have, so it's a bit -- I'm not sure what the right word is, dismaying is too strong -- irksome? -- that's not right either, but I'll go with it for lack of a better option -- it's a bit irksome to see work I did when I was very much a themeless-puzzle novice being published today when I've since stepped up my game.

I can't help but focus on the flaws of my earlier puzzles -- the things I would change today -- instead of just enjoying them.  I did it a bit with my last two NYT puzzles, and I'm doing it big time today.  The first thing I did when I saw this grid recently was cringe at the bottom section: REPOT, TSOS, ARBORED, MERLINS (partially saved by Will's Harry Potter clue) all in the same section, with INSTR just a stone's throw away -- that's just shabby fill.  There are many good things in this puzzle too (it did get published after all), but the bad parts bother me more than the good parts make me happy.

And it's not just that I'm being my own worst critic.  I recently had a themeless puzzle run at BuzzFeed that I made just a few months ago that think is superb (seriously, check it out, if you haven't already); it's that I know I could do this puzzle better today, and so it feels as if I'm looking at an inferior version of my work.  And that's a little frustrating.

But, when it comes down to it, nobody but me really cares anyway, so let's do some quick bullet points and call it a post...

  • The highlight of this puzzle for me is definitely WIFFLEBALL.  It's a nice lively answer, with a major personal connection, as I spent much of my youth playing Wiffle Ball Home Run Derby.  In fact, one summer, when I was about 14, I played a full "season" of it with my friend Jeff, where we each adopted a major league lineup (he was the Braves; I was the Mariners) and carefully record our stats after each game on his Apple IIe computer (it was old even back then).  Because I'm such a baseball obsessive (have you seen my book?), I would bat from the same side of the plate as the real player I was emulating even though I couldn't really hit left-handed.  Come to think of it, I couldn't really hit right-handed either.  I didn't win very often.
  • I got BELLYLAUGH from Jenny McCarthy's book "Belly Laughs," which is currently sitting on my bookshelf.  I'm not exactly sure how it got there, and I haven't read it, but I bet it's hilarious!  I'm being sarcastic, if you couldn't tell.  Jenny McCarthy is not funny... especially when it comes to her "well-researched" views on vaccines.
  • Where have you gone, Mr. AYKROYD?  I saw Ghostbusters again recently (still holds up, for the most part), and one thing I was struck by was how much the Ghostbusters smoke throughout the movie.  I don't think that would fly today.  Your protagonist can smoke bad guys without remorse, but he (or she, but mostly he, it's Hollywood after all) can't be shown smoking a cigarette.  It's a bad message for the kids.
  • I posit that Queen's ARENAROCK anthem "Another One Bites the Dust" is number one on the "Songs that are Actually Really Good But that You Can't Stand Because You've Heard Them Over and Over and Over Again" list.  Seriously, the bass line is great, and Freddie Mercury kills it on vocals.  If I had never heard Queen before, and somebody played me this song, I'm sure it would blow my mind.  Instead, when I hear this song, I want to blow off my head.  (Not literally -- stop gun violence!)
  • I will leave you with the song "Blackbird."  It was originally performed by those Fab Four MOPTOPS and later used in a cover of EAZYE's song "Boyz-n-the-Hood."  It's a fitting way to go out.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Making of BuzzFeed Themeless 8: A (Darlene) Love Story

I had a great idea.  I was going to make a three-minute video about the making of this crossword puzzle.  It’s just the type of silly, self-indulgent project I would find enjoyable.  I was going to put the empty grid of my puzzle on the screen, and then show it being filled in while I provide background narration, talking a bit about the process, but mainly giving fun facts about the marquee entries.  I was also going to show relevant pictures and YouTube clips.  I was going to do this for every crossword puzzle I make -- this one would be the first.  It was going to be a new “thing.”  And it was going to be great!

The problem is that I don’t really know how to do this.  The only software I know how to use that can even kinda make videos like this is PowerPoint, but when I actually sat down to make such a PowerPoint presentation things quickly fell apart.  I made a short test video, and the sound quality was not great, the animation was choppy, and my narration was stilted.  Nothing flowed.  I probably could have lived with this, but the bigger problem is that I could not figure out how to make the YouTube videos work right.  I got horribly frustrated, and then my three-month-old son started crying, so I just deleted everything in a fit of pique, and that was that.  But still, I think it is a good idea.  A short, witty (well, hopefully witty) video about the making of a crossword puzzle – somebody would watch that, right?


BuzzFeed Themeless 8.

[This grid shot was lifted from Amy Reynaldo's excellent "Diary of a Crossword Fiend" blog.  Please don't sue me for copyright infringement.]

I started this puzzle with SWEEPTHELEG.  It was my only seed answer.  It comes, of course, from the 1984 film “The Karate Kid.”  I saw this movie in the theater when I was seven-years-old, and I remember three things from it: 1) It was the greatest movie I had ever seen (mainly because I was seven and it was the most recent movie I had ever seen); 2) My grandpa stayed home to watch football instead of seeing it, which makes much more sense now than it did then; 3) My mom made sure to point out that the adult (Sensei Kreese) was the “real” bad guy, not the kid (Johnny).  And in watching the clip below, I say she was right.

[Sensei John Kreese was played by actor Martin Kove.  Is KOVE crossworthy?]

I really like the northwest stack of SWEEPTHELEG, THEREYOUARE, and AARONSORKIN, especially so since it led the way for HOOBASTANK to make its crossword puzzle debut (to my knowledge, anyway).  I had heard the name Hoobastank, but thought I didn’t know any of their songs, but I actually did know at least one of them.  “The Reason” got some pretty good radio play in the early twenty-aughts.  Not really my type of music.

Caleb had me redo the northeast and southwest corners because each one contained an objectionable short answer (EME and ELG, respectively).  I think the revised versions are better, although I don’t like STRIATED because it’s boring, and I don’t like LYINEYES because … well,

I do however like the pairing of IRONMIKE with TYSON, because it reminds me of one of my very favorite Nintendo games: “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!”  If you are not familiar with this game, you control a boxer who has to fight his way through a circuit of ethnically offensive stereotypes (a weak Frenchman, a mystical Indian, a drunk Russian, etc.) to earn a championship match against … a convicted sex offender!  It’s incredibly fun, though.  Just remember, a quick body blow on the third hop is the only way to defeat Bald Bull’s bull charge.

The southeast stack took me about as long to finish as the entire rest of the puzzle.  In my experience, this isn’t unusual, because by the end of the puzzle you have so many things already locked into place that there aren't that many workable options.  My breakthrough was SUPERSOAKER, which I like a lot because it's a good entry and because it's not on any of my word lists.  I just saw it organically.  Actually, I saw that SUPER------ would fit, so I just started going through all the “super” things I could think of, hoping something would work -- and something did.

I think that’s actually a decent tip for novice constructors: If you get an entry from a word list that doesn't quite work, take a moment to see if there might be a similar entry, perhaps not from a word list, that does work.  I found this to be a good way to come up with decent, never-before-used entries – or at least to finish a section that AutoFill would tell you is impossible.

Anyway, that’s my puzzle.  Hope you enjoyed it.  Here's some Darlene Love for the road. 'Tis the season!

Bonus bullets:  I wrote everything up to this point last night before seeing the final edit, so a few quick thoughts now that I've seen the final version.

  • Most the clues are my clues, but Caleb changed some to, I think, make the puzzle more BuzzFeed-y, which is good.  That's what an editor should do.  
  • I have no idea what Pen 15 is; I've never heard of "Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl;" and I disagree that technology has rendered ROTE learning useless.  (I actually think there can be great value derived from brute force memorization, but that's a whole other topic.)
  • The SUED clue got cut off in my .puz version, but it was supposed to reference a joke Bill Maher made about Donald Trump being the spawn of his mother and an orangutan.
  • Two clues I wish would have stayed: "Fighter who once chewed a man's ear off ... literally" for TYSON, and "Her boots were made for walking (and that's just what they did)" for SINATRA.  Oh well.  No biggie.
  • I like Caleb's clues for ERI, MEATPIE, FRAT, STRIATED and WARP (good misdirection, using "pervert" as a verb) better than my original clues, which were all kinda boring.
  • I think this went well.  I hope to contribute to BuzzFeed again in the future.
  • Oh, did you notice my head-shot photo?  Dapper!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

I'm Not Bicurious, But I'm Bicurious-Curious

My tenth puzzle ran today in the New York Times.  It received mixed, but I would say mostly positive, reviews from the critics.  Rex Parker wrote, "The majority of this puzzle was amazing.  The end ... well, we'll get to that..."  He really didn't like the SE corner.  Amy Reynaldo gave it four stars.  And Jeff Chen, thought it was ... just OK, maybe.  It's tough to tell with Jeff, because he isn't really a critic.  He is not going to pan a puzzle the way Rex will, and he prefers to temper even modest criticism with a compliment.  For example, he wrote, "Damon's layout doesn't allow for a lot of long (8+ letter) answers, but he does have some seven-letter slots to shore up the snazziness. FAUX FUR is a great one. I would have liked a couple more," which is about as "vicious" as he gets.  (And by the way, I like the way Jeff is, and I like Rex's and Amy's styles too; there is room in Crossworld for a range of different personalities.)

My own feeling on this puzzle: I like it, I'm proud of it, but if I made it today, I would probably do it differently.  I constructed this puzzle over two years ago, when I was very much a low-word-count novice.  Since then, I've made it a point to not only get in the "snazzy" answers, but to do so without comprising the rest of the puzzle with garbage fill and Crosswordese.  So looking back on things, I cringe when I see ALUI, AOUT, IDEE, and especially STES in my puzzle.  I wouldn't stand for this in a puzzle I made today -- I'd work and rework it until I ironed it all out of the puzzle.  But back then I simply didn't have the experience and wherewithal to do this.

But judging from the comments online, people aren't bothered much by the spate of Franco-Crosswordese.  Instead the majority of the criticism, like Rex's, is aimed at that SE corner.  ICEBEARS ("Knoxville hockey squad") seems to be the entry people find most objectionable, which is completely understandable, minor league hockey teams don't really belong in a puzzle (we can grandfather in the Houston Aeros).  The only things I'll say in my defense is that I think ice bear is also a colloquialism for polar bear, so it's (maybe) a real thing outside of being a minor league hockey mascot.  Also, it's completely inferable, and the crosses are fair.  Surprisingly, a few people (including Jeff and Rex) also balked at RAVER, which is very strange to me, as raver has been a normal word in my vocabulary for the last two decades.  I would have gone RAVEN/SCONE, if I thought RAVER was in any way illegitimate.  Also, I actually did have an alternate SE corner that used ICEBEERS instead of ICEBEARS, but I opted not to use it, because I didn't love the plural (ice beer, yes; ice beers, eh...).  Perhaps I made the wrong choice.

So this puzzle wasn't perfect, but like I said, I'm still proud of it.  If nothing else I achieved my goal of getting BLAXPLOITATION and BICURIOUS into a New York Times puzzle.  As Amy Reynaldo wrote: "I asked my husband if my answer grid should highlight BI-CURIOUS or BLAXPLOITATION and he was astonished that these are both in a crossword."  Yes!  Exactly.

Until next time...

(PS: If you are a baseball fan or a word play fan (or both) buy my book, Urban Shocker All-Stars: The 100 Greatest Baseball Names Ever.  It's a fun little read.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Merl Reagle and Two "Holy #$@&%! Moments"

I never met nor corresponded with Merl Reagle.  Truthfully, I haven't even solved many of his puzzles.  Yet, he was a big reason why I started creating crosswords puzzles -- "real" crossword puzzles -- in the first place.

One puzzle I did solve of his was his famous Simpsons puzzle.  It is still my favorite crossword puzzle of all time.  Not because it was so expertly made (although it was), but because it provided the most remarkable solving experience I've ever had.  The puzzle ran in The New York Times on November 26, 2008.  At the time, I was in graduate school putting in long hours on my dissertation.  I was feeling so stressed and so overworked that I was struggling to remain productive.  I decided it was in my best interest to take an entire day off (a "me day," if you want to be cutesy about it).  So I woke up around noon and went to the neighborhood sports bar.   There I watched NFL games, consorted with my fellow locals, and got properly buzzed off whatever shitty "domestic" (i.e., foreign conglomerate-owned) beer was on special.

After the four o'clock games had ended, I went up the street for a falafel and then walked to a bookstore and bought the day's New York Times.  I immediately took out the magazine part containing the crossword puzzle and asked the man at the register to recycle the rest of the paper.  There was no sense in pretending I was going to read any of the articles.  Plus, the Sunday paper is quite thick, and I didn't want to carry the entire thing home.

I made it back to my apartment just in time for the start of The Simpsons.  This was purely accidental.  Despite being my favorite show ever, I hadn't watch it regularly in years.  I just was just looking for something palatable to put on in the background while I solved my puzzle and waited for the late game to start -- The Simpsons happened to be it.  I had no way of knowing this particular episode of the show was going to be about the puzzle I was eagerly anticipating.

The puzzle started smoothly; I was into it, but some of the cluing seemed off to me.  I remember being particularly befuddled by the clue "Yul Brynner died the same day as ___ Welles (odd fact)".  I found that clue very, well, odd.  A more astute solver might have suspected something was up, but I'm more of a good "coffee table" solver than I am a true expert, so I just carried on as usual.  That is until Will Shortz and Merl Reagle appeared on my TV and blew my mind.  Crossword puzzle solvers live for the "a-ha moment," but seldom do we get to experience a "holy-fucking-shit moment!" like I did that night.

I excitedly barged into my roommate's room and explained everything to him and his girlfriend, knowing full well that they wouldn't care at all -- that they couldn't care at all.  Without the years of context of being a huge crossword puzzle fan and a huge Simpsons fan (they were neither), there is no reason for anybody to think this was a big deal.  But it was a big deal to me, and I had to tell the only people around, even though I knew they wouldn't get it.


Going back about a decade earlier, I had another crossword-life changing experience involving Mr. Reagle.  I was about 21 at the time, in college, and I had just started creating "crossword puzzles."  I use quotes because I had no idea what I was doing, and what I created resembled actual, publishable crossword puzzles in only the loosest sense.  My puzzles were meandering mish-mashes of words I found interesting (often sports or math words) and could fit together in some way.  There were no themes and no symmetry to the grid; two-letter words were common, as were isolated singleton squares; and the shape of the grid, although rectangular, was whatever size it was when I (arbitrarily) felt like quitting -- 12 x 15, 18 x 13, 20 x 20, whatever.  Everything was handwritten on graph paper, and if I misnumbered the grid, say, I missed 21-Down, I would add a 20-A-Down and a 20-B-Down rather than renumber a large portion of the grid.  My puzzles were awful, but still I showed them off to friends and family as if they were masterpieces.  (Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.)  I had no ambition beyond this.  The thought of publishing a puzzle never even crossed my mind.  It didn't even occur to me that one could publish a puzzle.  For as much though as I gave it, crossword puzzles appeared in the newspaper through immaculate construction.

One summer break, I went to a friend's beach house for a few days.  My friend's mom, knowing I was into crossword puzzles, gave me a Reader's Digest containing an article about crossword puzzle construction.  It was written, of course, by Merl Reagle.  I read the entire article standing in the exact place where it was handed to me (it was in Reader's Digest; it wasn't very long).  The article (which can be found in full here) gave the basics of crossword puzzle construction from A to Z.  It gave the rules and conventions of construction, discussed theme consistency, Crosswordese, and taste considerations.  It also gave me my first crossword-puzzle "holy-fucking-shit moment!".  I had no idea crossword puzzles were a "real thing" in this way.  I didn't know about themes or symmetry or word counts or any of it.  And I certainly didn't know there were people out there who spent their lives thinking about such things.  This was a new, intriguing world to me.  I felt like Ilie Nastase surely felt the first time he learned the basics of tennis or like Isao Aoki during his first round of golf.

When I returned home, I started constructing in a new light.  I also started solving vociferously to get a feel of how real crossword puzzles worked.  I still remember the first themed puzzle I constructed: It was titled PROFESSIONAL COLLABORATIONS.  And the theme answers were as follows:

Ken Shamrock collaborating with Ken Kesey, and others?  ULTIMATEWRITERS
Leonhard Euler collaborating with David Copperfield?  MATHEMAGICIAN
Madeline Albright collaborating with Marilyn Manson? SECRETARYOFHATE

It was not a publishable puzzle, even by the lower standards of the day (you might notice the inconsistent and ugly "and others" in the first clue).  But it was kinda cute, and most importantly, it looked like a publishable puzzle, and the process by which I made it could lead to a publishable puzzle.  And it did.  I had my first puzzle published in Games magazine a few years later.

Anyway, all of this is a long way of saying Merl Reagle was the man.  Even as somebody who did not know him at all, and who was not even very familiar with his work, he had a colossal influence on me as a constructor.  That's how deep and widely spread his roots were in the crossword puzzle community.

Art lives much longer than artists, so while it's true I have done very few of Merl Reagle's puzzles, this doesn't have to always be the case. Someday I hope to have the chance to "discover" him for myself.  I hear he was pretty good.

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.


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.