I once read an essay from which I can remember a single thing: that the author, a white man entering his forties, was no longer afraid to commit acts of minor to moderate civil disobedience in the service of righteous causes, or for just for shits-n-gigs. Send him to jail? Sure. Whatever he had to pay, literally or figuratively, to make his mark on the world, he was finally willing and able to pay it; he considered it a mark of victory over a place that had, until then, gotten over on him.
The lesson I took then was one of empowerment, and it isn’t quite the one I take away from it now, which is more one of privilege. But it was what I thought about it in the minutes before this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, in the moment when I saw a green file folder left unattended on a ballroom table with a pair of glasses on top. The folder had a name stuck to it by way of a marked-up piece of tape: SHORTZ.
This is the ACPT, where The New York Times Crossword Editor Will Shortz is emcee, idol, and spiritual guide. Every secondhand story I’ve heard about him in real life—outside of the Stamford (Connecticut) Marriott, over the weekend in question—has been about his relative prickliness, which is perhaps what you might expect from the Mozart of the Puzzle, but also who really knows? Either way, losing his glasses on his biggest day of the year would have to set him, or anyone else, off. That was why I thought about taking them.
To do so would be either impish or childish, depending on how charitable you’re feeling. But I was a 40-year-old rookie at this year’s tournament and feeling mischievous. I didn’t do it, of course, but I considered it longer than I should have—not two or three seconds, but more on the order of a solid seven or eight. I wondered if a room full of solvers, the best in the country, would be able to figure out that I’d swiped them just for the hell of it, just to see if they could crack the code. I couldn’t imagine they would. Then again, based on where I finished the weekend, it was clear that they could imagine a lot more than me.
I lived in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn during the five-year stretch the ACPT moved from its traditional home at the Stamford Marriott to the Downtown Brooklyn Marriott, which was a five-minute walk from my apartment. During those years, I never did the tournament. This was for two reasons. One, it was expensive. To merely do the puzzles was something like $275, and I didn’t really have that kind of cash to spare. More importantly, I wasn’t great at the crossword, although I was good at it. I didn’t need to spend a fortune to be told I was, relatively speaking, a dummy.
Before we get too much further, a note on the crossword vs. a crossword. “A crossword”—that one you know. “The crossword” is The New York Times daily crossword puzzle, and it is hegemonic, so much so that you can refer to the puzzles in shorthand simply by day of the week: “Did you do Thursday? How was Saturday? Sunday was fun as hell,” etc. Times puzzles run on a pattern: Mondays are easiest, Saturdays are hardest, Thursdays are tricky and Sundays are the biggest and most famous, and generally land at about at a Wednesday/Thursday level of difficulty.
Beyond that, there are themes within the puzzles running week to week—certain answers or themes that pop up on Monday will usually resurface two to three times later in the week. Recently I saw this good tweet:
I am ashamed to say that I almost *actuallied* a response here—just thinking about doing so is cursed—because Times employees had been a theme of the week. Their names kept popping up, and it was noticeable. These small things seem small, but they can be important on Fridays and Saturdays when help is at a premium. I was pretty sure that’s why “ROSS” was Douthat, and not any of other Rosses it could have been—Rick, Terrence, Cody, From Friends. But then I remembered that it’s not my job to “actually” anyone, and that her unassailable broader point was that Ross Douthat sucks.
I finally decided to try the tournament for several reasons. The first is that I live in Westchester County now, a move I made a few years after the ACPT decamped back to Stamford. It’s a 20-minute drive, and I think I’d probably have done it no matter how good I am at the puzzle. That speaks to the second part, which is that I’m sorta great at it now. The tournament, I would learn, would lean a heavy emphasis on the “sorta” part.
My first mistake was obvious, embarrassing, elementary: I didn’t bring a pencil. I’m so used to doing puzzles on the computer that I forget you don’t do real puzzles—Thursday to Sunday count as real—in pen. I went across the street to Barnes & Noble when it opened and bought the only pencil they sold, a $15 Moleskine mechanical joint that I realized, tearing it open 15 steps out of the store, had no eraser, thereby making it pretty much useless to me. I was determined to find a solution and I did, but it was hardly a genius one. There were free yellow-ass pencils on a corner table, pre-sharpened.
I took two, because most people seemed to have two pencils. The ACPT is a tactile environment. There must have been 500 workspaces set up in the room and another 200 in the basement, and each one had a manila folder propped on its spine to give the solver an ostensible shield from prying eyes. Given that they hand out the actual puzzles on honest-to-god paper and trust you to keep things face-down until Shortz pronounces it go-time, that seems like overkill, but I think the dividers serve another purpose. The stagecraft makes it seem like a game instead of a test, because games are good and tests suck.
The whole event ran from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, but the competition took place in four sessions between Saturday morning and the awards ceremony, like so:
Saturday, 11 a.m.: Puzzles 1, 2, 3
Saturday, 2:30 p.m.: Puzzles 4, 5, 6
Sunday, 9 a.m.: Puzzle 7
Sunday afternoon: The finals, among the top three competitors, which happens when your author is back home watching the kids
Just as the puzzles in Shortz’s Times run on a reliable pattern, so do the seven main puzzles in the ACPT, each of which has a unique time limit. Puzzle 1 is usually easy, and so we had 15 minutes. If you finished early, and many did, you raised your hand and someone came by to collect your sheet and record, to the minute, when you handed it over; earlier meant more points, obviously. Puzzle 2 is usually hard, and we had a bit longer, and so on from there. While each of the puzzles have unique descriptors, the only one that matters is Puzzle 5. It is to the tournament as the mountains are to the Tour de France: what truly matters, in that it is become death, destroyer of worlds.
Like a huge number of the contestants, Puzzle 5 crushed me. It crushed me less than some others, but it crushed me nonetheless.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I got to the hotel Saturday at 9 a.m., two full hours before Puzzle 1—short drive, very young children, winning attitude, I don’t need to explain myself to you—and the lobby was already jam-packed with solvers. Enterprising crossword constructors had left copies of their own puzzles on the lobby tables, and people obliged them by the dozen, preferring a chance to warm up on those grids to a stroll through vacant, cold, sunny downtown Stamford. Others stood in a painfully long line to buy a $4 cup of coffee, while the more motivated among us went to the mall across the street and caffeinated at a normally priced and line-free Starbucks.
Eventually it was time for the show, and I completed Puzzle 1 without much trouble. The woman sitting to my left, who was wearing an ACPT cap and was competing in her 22nd tournament, said the first puzzle was designed to give you a false sense of security. Two, she said, was the first hard one—but it was all really about Puzzle 5. The twist, this year, was that Puzzle 2 actually wasn’t hard. Not that I aced it, of course—I was so pleased with my obviously correct grid that I handed it in without noticing that I had forgotten to fill in two squares in which I had to erase an answer. This was a rookie mistake, and I was a rookie (missing or erroneous squares are highlighted in yellow:
After each puzzle, Shortz announced how a computer solving program nicknamed “Dr. Fill” did on each puzzle; until the results were finalized, Dr. Fill was listed alongside the human competitors on the impressively almost-up-to-the-moment results page. On Puzzle 1, Dr. Fill was perfect in eight seconds. Puzzle 2? Perfect in seven.
I was having an issue that Dr. Fill wasn’t, given that I was a human being and not a bot named after a TV host who made $79 million last year: I was re-learning how to do the puzzle in pencil instead of on a computer. Until about five years ago I still printed any puzzle I wanted to do and then did it in pen, not entirely out of arrogance, but definitely a little bit out of arrogance. Mostly I hate pencil smudges and making mistakes.
Everyone uses pencil at the ACPT, though, and I had forgotten that I’m a meat-gripped idiot who, oh right, breaks pencil tips with regularity by pushing too hard. My workspace was littered with graphite and I felt even worse for the lady who had been wrong about Puzzle 2 as I showered her workspace with loose lead. It was all fair, though. This was a competition. It could not not have been anything but brutal, ugly, strewn with overdetermined shards.
Puzzle 3 was a Sunday-sized one that took me almost the entire 30-minute limit to finish, but which I finished without an error. See!:
Dr. Fill had made a mistake, and so I beat “him.” Two hours later I was back in the ballroom for Puzzle 4, at which point all hell broke loose, extremely relatively speaking.
I nearly missed it all, being a dolt, but I wasn’t the only one.
The details of the Puzzle 4 snafu are less important than the scrambling Shortz did from the podium to address the “issue.” TL; DR: Judges were deluged with requests to honor what were effectively wrong and confusion-related answers, and they largely resisted. The details aren’t really important, but some people put two letters in a box that should have contained one; two letters in a box is a common practice in harder crosswords, but weren’t required here. Shortz’s announcements to this effect led to some serious “rabble rabble rabble” responses among the tables. It was a reminder that, for all its rigidity, this is still a minute-to-minute affair and not, in any way, science.
I mugged through the chaos because I had simply ignored the theme—which, full disclosure, I hadn’t understood in the first place—and filled out the grid correctly except for one final square at which I had to guess. I got it wrong, costing me a relative boatload of points in the process. A perfect grid is worth a significant bonus, and I blew it, although I didn’t know it at the time and also didn’t care, because I was looking ahead Puzzle 5. That and Dr. Fill had screwed up too, so it was all good.
I had a new seat now, after my aisle spot got sniped, and I was sitting next to a lawyer from Hartford in her 12th tournament who was much faster than I was. Next to her was pure nerd royalty—the Okrent boys, an entity that included the Times’ first public editor, Daniel, who also invented fantasy baseball at a shitty chicken joint in Midtown (“La Rotisserie Francaise”) three decades ago.
After all the hype, both among the contestants and from Shortz, it would stand to reason that I’d have been disappointed by this year’s Puzzle 5. It was by Joel Fagliano, a familiar name to Times crossword junkies; he designs the mini puzzle they produce daily and his name is all over the games page. The man himself stood at the front of the ballroom before his puzzle was revealed, gazing over the assembled as the Eye of Sauron looked upon Middle Earth. The contestants lowercase-t twittered nervously. What did he have in store for us?
Once we began, I thought: Nothing! Within 10 seconds, I had two answers down and thought I was headed for a romp; Fagliano had failed, and maybe the unheralded rookie—the Red Sox fan marooned in Westchester, the fresh-faced kid with the uniquely powerful brain and most beautiful children ever, yes, I’ll accept the check—was about to make a huge jump in the standings. Where, I wondered, would I put my trophy?
Friends: Fagliano had not failed. Not unlike a Deadspin Award, my trophy’s place was the trash.
I spent the next 10 minutes virtually unable to fill out a single answer. This is... not common. Eventually I got the ball rolling and progressed to about 40 percent complete, but I had no idea what the theme was or how I’d make real progress. Worse, answers for one clue seemed to pop up in another part of the grid. I eventually figured out, that the answers for some of the clues were located at different points in the grid than was indicated in the text. (If this sounds confusing, it totally was!) Five more minutes and I’d have had it, I think, but those five minutes exist only here in this story. As it was, I was chaff instead of the wheat. My score wasn’t terrible, but it was my lowest by an order of magnitude, just as it was for pretty much everyone else. This was the best I could do and, no, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that for Puzzle 5 they switched from marking the answers you got wrong to the ones you got right:
Shook from Puzzle 5, I didn’t bother utilizing the 10-minute break between rounds to go outside or hit the bathroom or anything. I just sat, frozen, trying to understand the magnitude of the brilliance of the puzzle I had done. My $175 competitors’ fee was largely payment for the venue and prizes, of course, but Fagliano’s puzzle, to a crossword freak, was almost worth the price of admission alone. Asked to be the angel of death, he Daniel Day-Lewis’d that shit. The man drank my milkshake.
Puzzle 6, a Sunday-sized one, came as scheduled. I filled it out at great length, but correctly. I had expected to stay through the night, enjoying the festivities and meeting a friend, but he was a judge and otherwise busy. I was home before five, pleasing my bemused and child-drained wife. I jumped out of my Uber so excitedly that I stopped him from driving away just to make sure I hadn’t left my phone in there.
There was a final puzzle on Sunday at 9 a.m., and I was there, back, among the walking wounded, most of whom has stayed in Stamford overnight. Before Puzzle 7, Shortz announced some wonderfully fun incorrect answers to the crowd in a heinous and hilarious bit of spot-blowing. Best among them was one solver’s answer to “The Scream” emotion. The correct fill was “ANGST,” and the desperate contestant had written “ISUCK.” Lots of laughs! Another clue was Blotto, to which someone had answered “ONLSD.” A lot more! But not from me, because I had definitely written that before correcting to “OILED,” which was right.
Puzzle 7 was massive, and we had 45 minutes. I got three squares wrong on that one and finished in 309th place, in the top half of the 675 contestants. The guy who won the whole thing is a young man named Erik Agard, victorious for the first time, and judging by the heavily repeated pattern of ACPT winners—apart from Agard, only three people have won the tournament since 2005, and titans Tyler Hinman and Dan Feyer combined for 12 of those wins—he’s probably going to reign for a half-decade or more. If you were curious, Dr. Fill finished like 25th before “he” was removed from the rankings. Suck it, machines! Enjoy daytime TV!
Still, I wasn’t in it to win, and because of that, I had a great time. It was all fun, if a little disorienting, and I’ll be back. While 40 years of waiting had paid off, it still took about seven or eight seconds for my problem-solving brain to finally reach a conclusion on Saturday afternoon that I would have easily come to in the morning, before the hundreds and hundreds of clues I sorted through to get to that point, before I had entered the gauntlet I had avoided so long. My brain was tired. My brain was perhaps even sore, yet it came up with something that wasn’t quite an epiphany, but it was something close: I was smart, sure. And I knew where to put letters in a grid. But I couldn’t see everything, and I knew it, because my phone was definitely still in that car.