Date: February 15, 2010
Byline: Brendan Emmett Quigley
Interview with Tyler Hinman
Once again, the ACPT is at the end of the week. And what a better way to get you psyched up for the premier crossword event of the year than an interview with the reigning five-time champion Tyler Hinman? I had a few minutes to chat with the 25 year-old from San Francisco last week, and here's what went down.
BEQ: How are you feeling going into the ACPT?
Tyler: I'm trying to stay cool, not really think about it much. It's supposed to be fun, and while I think the adrenaline of competition helps me do my best solving, I don't like how nervous I get. I really haven't done any training; I'll probably break out the stopwatch and the Maura Jacobson collection on the flight over there or something. I know I have the skills. In any event, I've had a hell of a run at the top, so I'm trying to remember that it's gravy from here.
BEQ: So do you make a deliberate point to train on certain constructors?
Tyler: I think Maura is good training for a few reasons. First of all, you can be extremely confident that you're solving someone who's going to have a puzzle in the tournament. Secondly, they're big, so you can practice keeping up top speed for that long. Also, they're pretty easy, so they're good for honing the speed-solving techniques you don't use when you're solving normally.
BEQ:What are the sizes?
Tyler: Mostly 21x. I think there's an occasional 19x.
BEQ: So do you train year-round? Or do you ramp it up as it gets closer?
Tyler: No. I'm trying to enjoy puzzles more when I solve on paper. You really have to sit down somewhere and focus when you're speed-solving, and I'm finding it more and more difficult to set aside time to do that. Sometimes I try to blaze through computer puzzles as fast as possible, but that's different. I suppose solving harder crosswords counts as training; I'd like to get better at those. I may be 6-0 on stage (counting my Division B victory), but I haven't been particularly fast.
But yeah, as the tournament nears, I start thinking "I should practice on paper." Haven't been good about that this year.
BEQ: You've been selling puzzles for about ten years.
Tyler: Yup, we're close to the ten-year anniversary of my Times debut.
Tyler: I know. Shit.
BEQ: Do you see anything that links construction and speed solving? Clearly, there's something there. Last year's top three finalists [Tyler, Trip Payne and Francis Heaney] can make a puzzle like nobody's business.
Tyler: Eh, maybe a little. But when I sold my first puzzle in 2000, I was not a particularly good solver at all. And look at Al [Sanders] and Ellen [Ripstein]. They're perennial contenders and I don't think they've ever made one. Same with Doug [Hoylman]. Jon [Delfin] does it very rarely.
BEQ: When I solve puzzles, I sometimes get caught up doing a corner and I think, "this would have made a much better fill." Has that thought ever crossed your mind?
Tyler: Sure. Sometimes I'll see a 3x5 corner or some other relatively easily filled space, and it's filled with boring letters and at least one or two partials and abbreviations. I think, "come on, there are two freaking letters connecting this to the rest of the grid; there's no better fill here?" I never try to refill it myself, though; not worth the effort. I just discard the thought and move on.
BEQ: And does that happen ever during speed-solving?
Tyler: Hell no. No time. :-)
BEQ: How often do you take the time to figure out the theme. I've heard some top solvers get the theme exclusively from the crossings.
Tyler: Depends on the theme and the difficulty. If it's a theme that's not readily evident from the clues and it's easy puzzle, I might miss it. For the harder stuff it can be critical. I remember [David] Kahn's note-shifting puzzle from a few years ago, in which I might never have gotten the lower left if I hadn't sussed the last theme entry.
BEQ: So you were clearly the break-out star of "Word Play." Any funny stories about that? Did anybody recognize you in weird places? Any stories of random girls giving you their numbers?
Tyler: It was just a hell of a ride, and as a matter of fact, changed the course of my life. Without it, I wouldn't have had the bond trading job, which means I wouldn't have been open to taking the job at Google in 2008.
Recognitions were few and far between, although it happened again just last week.
As for the girls ... well, I know when you think "crossword expert" you immediately think "sex god," but it didn't really pan out like that. I get a lot of "oh, my grandmother does crosswords." If a girl is linking you to her grandmother, you're probably not in good shape. Single man over here.
BEQ: Are you a voracious reader?
Tyler: No. I solve much more often. I'm trying to work it in more, though.
BEQ: Everybody must want you on their trivia night teams, though, right?
Tyler: Yeah, usually. It's a high standard I often fail to meet. At trivia and elsewhere. Please don't give your crosswordy friend pop quizzes, people. Give us some peace.
BEQ: Any advice for the uninitiated ACPT-goers?
Tyler: Just have fun. It's important to remember that this is just a crossword tournament. I'll be disappointed if I don't win, of course, but I'll be downright angry if I let that affect my enjoyment of the weekend.