Tourney Report for the NPL
Note: This report was written for the National Puzzlers' League. Each member chooses a "nom" or a name used by the group, which explains the peculiar yet amusing references to the various members. For those who want additional information about the NPL:
- http://www.research.att.com/orgs/ssr/people/guy/npl/e-nigma.html: Xemu's online e-Nigma is great for computer-weenie logophiles.
Btw, Tournament Director Will Shortz goes by the nom "WILLz" (Will short "z"), and yours truly, Doug Heller, is Spout (mine is strictly a wordplay on my first name — see if you can figure it out!)
The 1996 Stamford convention had 70 members present that I know of (*noncontestants): Al DeSuda, April's Child, Arbutus, *Asobi, Astorian, Cache, Chainsaw, Charts, *Chex, Coach, *Cork, Daz, Ditto, Doc J, En, Endgame, *Eric, *Famulus, Fraz, G,Ames, Gem, Glad E, *Helene, both of *Hex, Hypatia, IRBS, Jaelti, Joker, Jo the Loiterer, Lunch Boy, Luv, Lyric, *Manx, *Meerkat, mehitabel, Minimus, Momus, *Munro (Friday-night drop-in), Non Sequitur, *On and Off, 144, 100 Down, *Panther, Pebbles, Peri, Qaqaq, Queen B, *Quip, *Rain Man, Roamin', Sanit, *Senor, *Sluggo, Squonk, Sunshine, Teki, *Tihz Wa, Treesong, Tyger, Uncanny, *Wagstaff, Warden, *WILLz, *Wiz, Wolverine, Wombat, Zonker, Mary Johnson, and Ruth Tetschner. Ed Bethea was missing (schedule conflict), but the presence of Joker and Uncanny, in particular, made it feel even more like a convention. Also present were at least four nommed noncontestant nonmembers, Asteria (Mrs. Senor, at the banquet), Nomless (Mrs. Munro), Otherwise (with Eric), and Spoonful (Mr. Luv); and fourteen ex- members: Bookworm (Hendricks), *Dandylion (Stark), Desmond (Mindell), Faulkner (Vaughn), *Jaybirds (Weiner), Publius (Henschel), Reynard (Sirower), *Spout (Heller), 317537 (Billig), Tim Buck II (Stein), *Torpedo (Gordon), Whalewatcher (Moy), Janet Bradlow, and *Merl Reagle. Some of the latter, like Whalewatcher and Reagle, were never really interested members, but they will never get rid of the taint. At least thirty Minisamples were handed out and I took addresses for two more, so we will surely get a few new members out of this.
WILLz reports 239 competitors, a new record; 27 noncompetitors like Panther who just came for the evening and night games or the like; and about 25 officials. I think there were about twenty actual contestants more than last year. Wolverine was #1 in the D division and Momus was #3 in C. Minimus was #2 in B and top Midwest. 'Like you, I'm in the Limbo A division now and many were happy to remind me! The B division was always so warm and cuddly. Oh, well.' Squonk was #1 and Lunch Boy #2 in the Juniors category (the last year in the category for both); Charts was #2 in the Sixties; Ditto was #1 and Jaelti #2 in Seniors. Hypatia was 10th; 144 was 9th; Jo the Loiterer was 8th and top NJ; Conarck (7th) is not NPL-connected; ex-Publius was 6th; Teki was 5th, top Fifties, and top West; En was 4th; Coach was 3rd and top NYC; Qaqaq was 2nd and top South; and Sanit was 1st, top Mid-Atlantic, and top Sixties. The A-division playoff was particularly exciting; as two years ago, 'Iceman' Sanit seemed to be behind for a long time, but solved steadily and caught up at the end. One of the nicest things to happen was the very good performance of a couple of first-timers. William Michaels of New Jersey came in 12th! He also finished second to Teki in the Friday night British cryptic. I was called up for the B finals but someone pointed out that he belonged there instead. Upon returning I got a number of kind but unnecessary condolences; also a nice consolation Crossword America T-shirt from Asobi, who runs the C.A. site on America Online.
If you want full results and assorted other fun stuff you can go to the web page: http://crosswordtournament.com.
The redecorated lobby got generally bad reviews, notably the big mirrored pillar in the middle with the Grand Central-style clock on top, which was just in the way. Other mirrored pillars led Ditto to say that she kept seeing someone familiar and finding that it was her. The sunken lobby is now flat, with fewer chairs, which cut down on socializing in the lobby. But they let us have the meeting room all night Saturday.
Lots of enjoyable conversation before things got started. Qaqaq was trading sources of bad music with others. He was excited to learn from Lunch Boy of a new CD of music by the companies that used to advertise in comic books: send us your songs and we'll set them to music and make you famous. One example about going to the disco ran through about thirty rhymes: San Francisco, Crisco, Mount Kisco.... Much discussion among the pros of the sale of the Dell crossword magazines to Penny Press and the impending sale of Games to a Pennsylvania publisher. Famulus had a printout of an upcoming crossword- finisher that he and someone else edited. The word stock for it started with all the crosswords he'd edited, hand-winnowed, and supplemented with whatever he and others (notably Qaqaq) could think up. All the Roman numerals, for example, and 'olestra', and 'Jumanji' and 'on the qt' from Qaqaq. Lots of phrases like 'doordie' and 'aamilne' that you won't find as such elsewhere. Famulus claims that P&G and Baus have about 30% of the entries in some NYTimes puzzles he tried them on, but his book can do over 90%.
All three hotel restaurants were renamed; the pricey rotating rooftop restaurant, where I had dinner Friday, is now 'Windows on the Sound' rather than 'the Carousel'. Tyger questioned the point of a restaurant with a view of the Stamford industrial section, but it's pretty nice late at night when all you see is lights. The menu there made my menu-typo hunt unusually easy. 'Tepande' for 'tapenade' was the most egregious. Momus commented that his cellar at home, though nothing great, was better than the Marriott's.
Friday night there was an 'Information Please' game in which attenders were invited to submit trivia questions to stump a panel of past ACPT winners: Qaqaq, Famulus, Sluggo, and Senor. They did pretty well, I thought, but I bet a panel with Al DeSuda (who had just won the $10,000 Trivia Challenge) and Bookworm would have done much better. I won an 'Information Please' tape with the question 'What two Nobel laureates went to high school together?' Sluggo had gone to school with both of them and remembered that they'd won their prizes in chemistry and physics, but couldn't remember their names. Someone had an uninteresting question about who invented the wind-chill factor; at least that let Famulus reply 'Walter Windchill', just ahead of Qaqaq. Quip, one of the question-screeners, wrote, 'We allowed that question to reach the front of the room only because we had that joke, too, and were sure someone on the panel would produce it. (For the record, Manx noted that Walter had a colleague: Max Factor.)' There was also a cryptic-solving competition with cryptics by Hex (American style) and Brian Greer (British). Sanit won the first with a ridiculously short solving time and Teki won the second.
Scheduled events for Saturday night included 'News Clips', familiar to long-time NPLconners, in which teams vie to find logologically interesting items in newspapers, like words with five or more consecutive consonants, or pangrammatic paragraphs. There was also a treasure hunt by Hex; the final solution instructed the team to play a march on kazoos, and there were prizes for the first team to solve it and for the best performance. The team that did the Marseillaise edged out the one that marched along on their knees doing the 'March of the Siamese Children'. One team included a drummer and En as baton twirler.
The unofficial nightly games included the usual charades, as well as a number of commercial games brought by Al DeSuda and others. In Once Upon a Time the players are dealt cards with fairy-tale themes on them, like 'Evil', 'Woodcutter', or 'Labyrinth', and win by playing out all their cards. But with every card laid down the player must integrate its contents into the ongoing story that players have built on past cards, avoiding a judgement from the other player that their addition is 'Silly' and they must take back their cards. Qaqaq said this was the highlight of the convention for him. I think you have to have the right people for a good game, though; I doubt I'd be one. Qaqaq says Fraz is a natural. A few people were introduced into the silliness of Sproing, and others played Trumpet (a card game with special trump cards) or a celebrity-clueing game in a variant called 'Pass the Chicken' at Games magazine. Squonk and Astorian emceed home-made Jeopardy! games; the former had what is perhaps my all-time favorite category, Steven Wright jokes. Al DeSuda burned through that category; the only one I was good at was 'computer science'. I never got to play Astorian's and hope to do so in Chicago.
Some notes from the charades session that ended about 0330 Saturday morning:
Panther put 'syzygy' in the kitty. Lunch Boy drew a bunch of concentric circles above his head; I thought it was insects, but Qaqaq got the idea and was guessing 'apogee' and the like. Lunch Boy mimed an alignment and elicited the answer.
Spout put in 'Under Milk Wood'. I indicated the category 'play' and, with some knob-twiddling, eventually got 'radio play'. Qaqaq thereupon said the answer.
Spout put in 'http://www.microsoft.com', the first URL (Uniform Resource Locator, or World Wide Web address) in one of our games. Panther tried to draw a web for us to indicate the category, but we thought it was a coordinate diagram and stuck on 'spiral' and the like. Finally she mimed a spider, wiggling fingers, and got the desired response. Then she had to get the URL itself; she drew a great big dollar sign (that's cheating; no symbols) and got 'Bill Gates', and the rest was easy enough.
Lunch Boy put in 'Viswanathan Anand', a top young US grandmaster. First Qaqaq did two people pondering a game, which elicited Kasparov and Karpov, then 'and' got the surname, but the given name took a lot of piecemeal clueing.
Qaqaq put in Gleaming the Cube, a skateboarding movie. I decided to do the whole thing, and mimed polishing a cube; despite my failing to give feedback that 'cube' was right, I got the sol from Al DeSuda. Qaqaq put in a number of other phrases that he thought would be tough, like Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, but they all fell pretty fast. The Young Whippersnappers are not easy to stump.
I put in 'la ilaha illah Allah'. Lunch Boy folded his hands to give 'prayer' as the category, pranced about singing to get 'tra' (no!) 'la', and then prostrated himself .
Qaqaq indicated a seven-word book title, funny, and that was enough for Wombat to get Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot.
I got 'Hey, you kids--stay out of that riptide...Baywatch', a quote from 'Pinky and the Brain', from Lunch Boy(?) and was embarrassed not to recognize it. Nobody else did, either; had to clue every word. But I've just seen it as a .sig quote in alt.tv.animaniacs.
Saturday evening, thirteen of us went again to Meera, a nearby Indian restaurant. This time we decided that a big party ordering from all those choices would be a pain, so we just told the owner, 'feed us, heavy on the vegetables, low on the beef, heavy on the hot stuff, $10 to $12 each'. It worked out very well. Good appetizers (I liked the spinach pakoras), good bread, aloo palak and tandoori chicken and a nice chickpea dish and so on. My standards are high because White Plains has two top-of-the-line Indian restaurants, but Meera came off pretty well. The dishes actually added up to over $15 each, about $19 with tax and tip, and we all tossed in $20 for simplicity's sake; but we finished off just about everything (a little aloo palak left at the end), so I don't think anyone had complaints. We'll probably do it again next year but maybe pay in advance to avoid inflation.
Then, about 2330, it was time for the traditional Saturday night run to Bennigan's for Death by Chocolate, with the getting-to-be-traditional revelation that they'd run out. Actually, last year they had enough for some of those who wanted it, but this year, not a scrap. What the heck, I like the apple cobbler better anyway. Someone said the brownie bottom pie qualified as Flesh Wound by Chocolate. The main topic of conversation at the table was music, particularly bad music of the 70s (disco sux) and music trivia. Not topics of much interest to me, but I did at least come away knowing that many bands took their names from blues songs, including the raunchy 'lovin' spoonful'. I wonder if Luv 'n' Spoonful are aware of its origin? A card on the table said that you get your order free if the waitron doesn't ask if you want an appetizer or dessert. Sure enough, when the desserts were cleared away she asked if anyone wanted another.
Qaqaq was going to go up to the room and skip the Sunday-morning charading, which began around 0245, but he had to come down and pick up something in the ballroom and got sucked in for about a half an hour. Later that day he lost to Sanit by about thirty seconds on the playoff puzzle; maybe we cost him first place. Heh heh heh.
I put in a song line that I think is one of the hardest to clue I've seen: 'And bismuth, bromine, lithium, beryllium, and barium' from Tom Lehrer's 'The Elements'. Lunch Boy spent a while after establishing the 'song line' category establishing 'periodic table' (no, not 'point' or 'that', 'period'!) and then making it clear that that was more category information rather than part of the answer. People were singing other parts of the song, but not that one; he finally had to clue the elements one by one.
I picked up Qaqaq's Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooey and managed to get it done fairly fast. Drawing squares and laughing gave 'comic strip', and pointing to a panel and opening a book got the desired category. For the first word I went down on all fours and puffed my cheeks out; after 'pig'(?) and 'gerbil' came 'hamster', and that was all Lunch Boy needed.
Eric told us about a couple of his practical jokes. When Uncanny was visiting, he got whips and handcuffs and other S&M paraphernalia out of drawers and hung them up on the walls of the guest room. Uncanny figured that was the normal decor and didn't think anything of it. Another time, Famulus had been putting ads for his Tough Puzzles in Official Crossword magazines, showing a crossword with a wide-open diagram and saying that if you could solve the puzzle, TP was for you. Eric did a completely different fill for the (hard-to-fill) diagram, with none of the answers matching the definitions, and sent it to a friend out west. That friend sent in the completely misfilled diagram to Famulus and complained that three of the clues didn't seem to work. Eric still doesn't know what Famulus's reaction was, but it was the doing that was fun.
I did well Sunday morning and moved up from 30th place to 19th. This returns me to the A division, so I don't have to worry about being in playoffs for another three years.
Eric and Otherwise had lots of tales of Iambic, who seems to be a very interesting and bright just-turned-five-year-old. They and Junebug encourage him in his enthusiasms, resulting in things like constructions of blocks that allow a ping-pong ball to roll down a five-foot-long slide with multiple switchbacks, or his staying up until 0326 folding origami peacocks. I particularly liked hearing that he refuses to admit a skill until he has it down pat. If you asked him to count, for some time he would refuse to admit that he could count past 20; if you kept asking him what came next, you could get him past 100 without error, but he'd say he was only 'guessing'. Then one day he announced that he could count to 209, and demonstrated. 209. Love it.
The banquet was decent, though it took them two tries to still not get Tyger's meal right.
Brian Greer, the new editor of the Times (of London) crossword, presented the prizes. We weren't told until the awards banquet that he was Virgilius. I had to ask 100 Down to wait on the ride he was giving me so that I could go up and tell Virgilius that he was my favorite constructor.
I suppose I should say something about the actual crossword competition but I don't have much, aside from the fact that I liked Merl Reagle's gimmick and clueing thereof.
Some notes phoned in by Qaqaq: He thought the puzzles were the best in years, and certainly the fairest: no 'blind crossings' where two obscure answers intersect. The experts seemed to agree, though, that it would have been good if they were a little harder, to separate the top contestants better. [I recall that he was tied with someone nearby on the first five puzzles and was separated by one minute on another. My jump from 30th to 19th on the last puzzle also suggests rather close spacing in the sub-experts.]
Some brief notes from Panther: I put 'meta-category' in the pot; I truly enjoyed watching Al DeSuda violently stabbing himself and spurting blood à la Monty Python. I also thought it pretty neat that not three days after I got home, my James and the Giant Peach got a reprise on TV in the form of a trailer for the new Tim Burton movie. I intend to see it next weekend. A final tidbit: the catch phrase of StamCon96 among the Whippersnappers seemed to be, 'You're having way too much fun.'
Tyger: Every tournament or Con, I spend a little extra time with person(s) I just know a little from prior events. This time, I got to know the Krewe's Austin delegation a little better, since Astorian (né Sisyphus) sat to my left during the competition, and Teki sat behind me. Lots of delightful conversation with both between puzzles, and with Teki at dinner Friday and Saturday.
Since Famulus's crossword periodical folded, I haven't seen a Merl Reagle puzzle, so I bought his latest collection of crosswords at the Saturday book sale. Also found out that Patrick Berry, whose variety word puzzles I've enjoyed in Games magazine, took over the Harper's variety cryptic from the ailing Ed Galli, so I felt compelled to buy the latest issue from the newsstand and mail off for a subscription. Pat showed up last year at Stamford, too, and failed to succumb to vigorous lobbying from many quarters to get him to join the NPL. He claimed he couldn't think of a nom. (With a name like Berry?!) He may fall this year, along with Greg Plinska of Brooklyn, who sat near me during competition and, with Pat, on the train back to NYC.
During Portland's Saturday night puzzle extravaganza, Wombat and Wiz were on my team, and we were together again for the verse-riddle hunt at Stamford's Saturday night, with Astorian rounding out the team. This team had by far the best mesh of any I've been on since joining the Krewe, and I hope we can be a team again. We planned strategy, cosolved efficiently and without stepping on anyone's toes or having hurt feelings, and came in second place. We didn't get a prize or recognition, but we felt proud and happy anyway, though if you'd heard us trying to play kazoos as dictated by the puzzle rules, you'd wonder why.
My placement in the tournament (#33) wasn't as good as in the past two years (#13 each time), and in fact was the same as three years ago. My time was good in the first puzzle, but I kept slipping further back as the day went by. I made an error in Henry Hook's puzzle, but that only cost me about 10 places, and last year I had an error too, so even if I'd been perfect, I was too slow. The week before the tournament was difficult for me, so I'm hoping it was only a temporary setback, and that someday I'll reach my next goal which is top 10.
The week after tournament, I found a most appropriate verse by Hilaire Belloc on a box of tea:
From quiet homes and first beginning
Out to the undiscovered ends,
There's nothing worth the wear of winning
But laughter and the love of friends.
Qaqaq: A very good Stamford this year, especially with new competitors like Uncanny and Fraz. My favorite memory, perhaps, is the Once Upon a Time game. I found this a lot of fun, particularly as the point was more to come up with a good story than to win — a nice break from the ultracompetitive nature of the tournament itself. A good final-round puzzle from Manx, although once again he threw in a word none of the three A finalists recognized (ALAMORT in '93, LOTHAIR this year). I thought I had a good chance to win this year, as I felt like I was zipping through the final puzzle, and was stunned when I heard Sanit cry 'Done!' when I was thirty seconds away from finishing. The man is amazing. (Actually, I was zipping through it; in 1993, my winning time was 10:20, and this year my losing time was 7:45.) The A final was interesting in that it was the first time in all 19 years that all three finalists were previous winners. The end result was also interesting: there are now three four-time winners of Stamford (Sanit, Coach, Senor), seven one-time winners, and no one in between.
Thanks to En, Squonk, Jaelti, mehitabel, Lunch Boy, Eric, and Quip for additions and corrections to the main story.
[Report revised April 23, 1996]