On Saturday I attended my first-ever crossword puzzle tournament: the ninth annual Lollapuzzoola. It’s the second-largest crossword tournament in the US, and the only one held in New York City.
I’ve loved puzzles forever. When I was a kid, my dad used to buy Games Magazine, edited by the great Will Shortz (who is now the longtime New York Times crossword puzzle editor and the nation’s puzzle master), and bring it home from work. When he was done with the issue, I’d take it and do the puzzles myself.
I’ve done the New York Times crossword every day for years. I can’t remember the last time I missed one; when I go on vacation, I do the ones I missed when I get back. I do them by hand — I like the tactile feel of writing on paper — and in pen. (Some people marvel that I do them in pen, but it’s not that impressive; it just makes for a sloppy puzzle when I get a letter wrong and have to write over it really heavily.)
I can do a puzzle pretty fast, but I don’t usually solve for speed. I like to savor the jokes, the witty wordplay, the words I’ve never seen before. Still, I was curious to know how I’d do in a tournament. I just missed out on attending last year’s Lollapuzzoola, because I didn’t learn about it until a week after it had happened. But I downloaded the puzzles on my own and my times were pretty good, so this year I decided I’d sign up and compete in person.
The tournament is hosted by Brian Cimmet and Patrick Blindauer, and it takes place in a church basement on the Upper East Side. This year there were about 230 competitors (a few competitors were pairs, but most were solo). The competition consists of five puzzles, three in the morning and two in the afternoon. Each one is timed. There are two big digital clocks in the room, and it’s on the honor system: when you’re done, you write down your time on the puzzle and raise your hand, and someone comes over to collect it.
Scoring on a puzzle is as follows: the fastest person gets 3000 points, the next fastest gets 2995, the next 2990, and so on, in decreasing five-point intervals. You get a 100-point bonus for completing a puzzle with no errors, and you lose 10 points for each square that’s incorrect or empty.
There are two individual divisions: Express (anyone who was in the top 20% in the previous tournament), and Local (everyone else). At the end of the day are the finals. The top three scorers in each division come to the front of the room and compete against each other by doing a puzzle on a whiteboard while wearing noise-canceling headphones. The Local and Express finalists do the same final puzzle, but the Express clues are harder than the Local clues.
So, how’d I do? Really well! After the three morning puzzles, they posted the scores, and at that point I was 29th out of 230 overall. I was #6 in the Local division, and I was the #2 rookie, i.e. it was my first time at the tournament (designated by an R):
The rookie ahead of me at that point — by a huge margin — was Paolo Pasco, a 16-year-old crossword puzzle constructor.
Someone at my table told me that if I kept doing well and some of the other Locals stumbled, maybe I could make it into the top three. I was hopeful, but I wasn’t counting on it.
After lunch, I did well on puzzle number 4, except I had my second error: The Karate Kid takes place in the city of Reseda, not Peseda. (The first letter crossed with a theme answer, and had I understood that theme better, I might have gotten it right.) But I was still hopeful.
And then, on puzzle number 5… I collapsed. Ugh. Some of the puzzles had been quirky, but this one I just could not get. I couldn’t figure out what was going on with the theme or how the puzzle worked. There were blank lines at the bottom and you were supposed to write something in them. Letters? Words? What was going on? It wasn’t clicking. The seconds ticked by, and other people at my table were finishing before me, while I’d been the first one at my table to finish every other puzzle. I got panicky.
Suddenly I had an aha moment and finally realized what was going on. I turned in the puzzle with what I later realized was an error. (I’ve seen The Apartment twice and Promises, Promises once, so I really should have gotten it right.)
So anyway, I didn’t make it into the top 3 of the Local division. I ended at #12. And I wound up being the #3 rookie. Overall, I was 49 out of 230, which is still very respectable. And since I just missed the top 20%, I get to compete in the Local division again next year.
Oh, and guess who showed up in the afternoon? Will Shortz. I got up the nerve to go over and introduce myself to him. I told him I was a fellow UVA Law grad and that I’d been a fan of his ever since reading Games Magazine as a kid. I was really excited, but I think I played it cool. And I got a photo:
I had a blast at Lollapuzzoola and got to meet some great people. I’m looking forward to going back next year!