Date: March 22, 2011
Byline: Anne Erdmann
It finally dawned on me that I don’t need my own blog to post an ACPT recap — I can just do it here! (Yeah, I know, I’m a Facebook Luddite...). If you haven’t done the tournament puzzles yet, be warned that there are spoilers here! Also this is VERY long.
I was nervous this year; I knew last year would be a tough act to follow, and it wasn’t especially psychologically beneficial to have jumped from competing as a 49-year-old last year to competing as a 51-year-old this year thanks to my birthday the week before. (Thanks, Will! There goes my potential 10-in-a-row 50s trophies record! :-) Unlike a lot of top competitors who announced that they’d done minimal or no preparation for the tournament this year, I did prepare all year, though it certainly wasn’t Feyeresque preparation.
Another psychological issue I was dealing with this year was how things played out last year. I squeaked into the A finals by the most unbelievable of narrow margins (tiebreaker on Puzzle 2, of all things). If I made the finals this year, I was hoping it would be more definitively than that, so that it couldn’t be said that it was a fluke (and so that it would erase some of the memories of the fluke-ish previous year), but I knew doing that was going to be very difficult. Also last year, by the time I got up there, I was so drained by what it had taken to get there that I was totally stumped by Shenk’s nightmare puzzle. It was incredibly embarrassing, and I hadn’t forgotten it. I didn’t want to stand on that stage again and not finish a finals puzzle. So yes, I was nervous.
[Since the question I get more than any other is "how do you prepare for the tournament?", I’ll digress and answer that here. I do the usual suspects every day (NYT, LAT, CrossSynergy, and Newsday — yes, I do Newsday every day, and it’s been very helpful in increasing my speed on easy puzzles), and the usual weeklies as they come out (Gaffney, Gordon, Jonesin’, Tausig, WSJ, etc.). I don’t do nearly as much solving in books as I should, though I try to get through a few puzzles in books on the weekends. To give you an idea of how slow I am in getting through books, I still haven’t finished S&S’s Mega #1, and I just started S&S’s #2; I haven’t touched any of the others yet, and I’m still only on Merl’s Sunday book #1. One thing I did differently this year was solve at a table as the tournament drew nearer. I like to solve in a comfy chair with a clipboard, but last year I found it very disorienting and uncomfortable to have to do Puzzle 1 at the table — I was like, oh yeah, I forgot about tables! And I finished three seconds into the wrong minute on #1 last year. So this year I practiced "table".]
I came a day early, Thursday, and saw the fantastic "War Horse", and was thrilled to learn that excellent solver and puzzlemaker Greg Pliska was the music director; the music was handled probably the best I’ve ever seen in a non-musical production. Thanks to Janie for that recommendation, and thanks to Greg’s work in making the production even more memorable! Also hiked around Chelsea and on the High Line, and hit a museum, but in the back of my mind was always "ACPT.. ACPT.. ACPT.. ACPT"... this low-level buzz I couldn’t get rid of. Friday morning I just felt like getting out of the hotel and walking, and I took the train to Coney Island and hiked along the boardwalk and pier. Lunch with a great group at Coco Roco, then back to meet up with Dale and have dinner and a walk in the DUMBO neighborhood, and then it was time for evening registration and games. Once that starts, it’s like a conveyor belt — you don’t get off until ACPT is over, and at that point I start to relax a bit, paradoxically — preparation is over and now you just do it, or not, until it’s done.
I was delighted to see my Chicago crossword buddy Kent Brody, who said he’d be willing to be the sacrificial lamb who sat next to me again this year and to give me "Coach Kent" pep talks. I know doing all this impacted his own performance, so thank you, Kent! My Chicago buddy Dale who I’d come with had no desire to sit next to me at all!
I had one main goal for this tournament, which was "no mistakes", but I had several other subgoals as well, and the first one was upon me right away: "Break 3 minutes on Puzzle 1". Last year, I think largely due to the uncomfy-table issue, it was 11:57 when I finished 1. I told myself that would NOT happen this year. Happily, it didn’t, and I finished comfortably under three minutes. Of course, so did, I think, 21 other people! Still, I was really happy not to choke on 1 the way I did last year.
#s 2, 3, and 4, were also straightforward. A little separation started to happen after #2, and more after #3, as Dan pulled away from the masses and a few of us started to form a little subgroup under him. I finished fairly close to the right side of the minute on #4, which helped me considerably. Then it was time for #5, and I thought this was likely to tell the tale this year; little did I know by how much! When Will read Mike Shenk’s name, the first thing I did was flash back to last year’s A finals puzzle, which was NOT the thing I wanted to be thinking about going into #5, but Coach Kent’s pep talk helped, and it was time to start.
Augh! Pop culture and what felt like nothing but pop culture — my worst area. I’d tried to work on that this year, but it didn’t do much good here, because the work I did was on short crossword-like names like LENE Lovich (well, OK, that one did me some good earlier!) and so on. Multi-word song titles? No way! Even worse, the gimmick made it difficult to tell if the words I was developing from the crosses were forming plausible-sounding song titles. I even tried a rebus with VER first, following the false trail of CrossoVER Hits (never mind that this would have been a very ugly rebus and totally unlike Mike’s fine work). There were huge chunks of time (or so it felt) in which I wasn’t writing anything at all, and that’s doom in puzzle 5. There were even a couple times I wondered if I would finish it at all, which started to flash me back again to the A finals last year, which did NOT help.
In particular, both the NW and SE refused to fall. I switched back and forth between them several times, trying to get a fresh perspective, and finally the SE fell, but the NW was still a mystery. For 5D, "Etta James portrayer in ‘Cadillac Records’, I had _ _ Y _ _ C E, and still couldn’t get it! I finally powered through this thing by starting to try random letters (!!), and the one I began with was at the crossing of 1A and 5D. "A" got me nowhere in that square, so I tried "B" next, and that broke out BEYONCE, and after that I made it through. I was very grateful it was B and not, say, W! But when I looked up at the clock and saw how much time had elapsed (more than 11 minutes!), for a minute or two I couldn’t get up out of my chair. I was sure it was over at that point. Although I still had 20-25 seconds left in the minute, after taking a few seconds to check for blanks I just flung my hand up — I wanted that thing taken out of my sight immediately, and I never wanted to see it again!
Then I went out into the hall, and was surprised to see how few people were out there. Many people were talking about how they’d crashed and burned, but I was also hearing buzzing about some fast times — Dan (of course), Francis, Howard, Jeffrey Harris. Tyler and I wailed together for a while. Several other people straggled out looking semi-shellshocked as well — Kiran, Amy, Stella, Trip. But based on what I was hearing, I figured it was all over at that point, and that I’d probably dropped somewhere into the 10th-15th range. Oh well! It had been a great ride for the last tournament and a half, and I couldn’t do anything about it now.
I tried to put it behind me for #6 and just speed as fast as I could through it. I finished just a few seconds into the next minute and heaved a huge disappointed sigh — if I’d have pulled that off, I’d have beaten the room on that one (!!). So, I knew I wouldn’t be making up any ground from #5 there. That was it for the day, and since I’d been too tense to eat lunch, I grabbed Dale and we went out for a nice dinner, as I tried to put the whole thing out of my head.
After dinner, I went up to my room to lie down for a few minutes, but as I was lying there I had the same experience that Tyler posted about on his blog — I started to think about #5 again and think to myself, well, if EVERYONE thinks they messed up (except Dan and Francis), then... what actually happened at the top of the standings? Might third place still be up for grabs? I hadn’t brought any kind of electronic device with me so I had no way of checking.
When we came down for the evening events, one of the first people I saw was Doug Peterson, who said that I was tied for third. My jaw hit the floor — despite my speculation upstairs, I didn’t believe that it was really possible. Doug backed off quickly, saying that he hadn’t seen the results yet himself and that he’d just heard people talking about it — he backed off quite a few steps, in fact, because I told him I’d kill him if he was wrong! Kent soon showed up with his IPad and pulled up the results. Doug WAS wrong. At that point, it showed me in second place alone and Francis and Tyler tied for third. I couldn’t believe it. I was just grateful I wasn’t tied with Tyler for third — I really, really didn’t want a repeat of last year in that respect! (See: Psychological Issues, above.)
Last year, I got barely 2 hours of sleep Saturday night as I ran all sorts of hold-Tyler-off scenarios in my head. This year, with a bit of a time lead, I slept much better, although still not all that many hours. I was clear on what I had to do — not let both Tyler and Francis beat me. One of them could, and I would keep third, but not both. I felt that if I solved cleanly, I could stay with them and keep my place. But I found #7 tricky — I never did get into a groove on it, partly because of the essentially unclued theme answers, and I could feel myself starting and stopping several times, which was worrisome. There were also several tricky crossings, most of which I thought I had examined carefully enough as I was solving, but you can never be completely sure. I was hoping to break 7 minutes on this puzzle, but as it turned out, breaking 8 was good enough. It was a clean solve, and I kept 2nd place. Wow — after the low of #5, to this — I was thrilled!
Then the wait in the room. For a while we amused ourselves by creating Newman-like clues for the ultimate Stumper: "French word". "Phrase (not in dictionary)". "Abbreviation (three letters)". Then it was time.
You know those movies where the hero is trapped between two huge rotating razor-blade-like devices that come closer and closer as the walls push together? That’s kind of what it felt like competing with Dan and Tyler. Most of you reading this (are you still reading???) were there so you know what happened. I know that a lot of people think it was nerves, or that I just can’t compete on the big board, but I didn’t feel like either of those things were it. I knew I was a huge underdog next to defending champ Watson, I mean, Dan and five-time-champ Tyler, and so I wasn’t actually all that nervous. And I’ve done OK on the big boards before — I took second in C, I won B, so it’s not like I can’t solve up there. I did, however, have a very hard time "seeing" the board this year — I felt I was standing too close to it, and it was really hard to distinguish word length from that distance, but the boards weren’t angled very much, and I didn’t want to back up any further because then I would have been able to see Dan’s board. On the other hand, I finished, I finished within the time limit, and I finished correctly (See: Subgoal entitled Do Not Repeat Last Year!). Stan Newman took me aside afterward and recommended I practice on a big board at home, and he’s probably right. It wasn’t that hard a puzzle, and I should have done much better than I did.
Will I? I don’t know. I have a limited time to do puzzles, and I rarely do them for more than half an hour a day. Do I want to put more time into it than I currently do? Do I want to use some of that time to practice a skill I may very well never need again? I know some people think I’m falsely modest, but it isn’t that. Don’t get me wrong. I know I’m good at this, and after this year, I know I have a chance to make the A finals again. But realistically speaking I’m 51, I’m not speeding up, my vision sure isn’t getting any better, and everyone else at the top is very, very good as well (and I’m old enough to be the mother of many of them!). It’s so so hard to make the A finals. So this may be as good as it gets. And that’s OK. I remind myself every so often that a lot of people would like it to get that good for them.
Dan has devoted himself to this in a way that few others have, and he deserves everything that’s coming his way. I feel I’ve been more than adequately rewarded for what I’ve put into it.
In closing, it was great seeing you all again — I wish I had had more time to talk to so many of you — and I wish it didn’t have to be another year before I see most of you again!