The 2019 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

I attended my second American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this weekend. Socially, it was wonderful — I got to reconnect with old friends and make new ones, and a couple of people even recognized my name from my NYT puzzle with Derek Bowman a couple months ago.

As for my performance: it’s complicated.

Last year I came in 105th out of 674, making the top 16%. My goal this year was to do better than that. During the last two weeks I did a lot of prep: I did dozens of crosswords. On paper. As fast as possible. I tried to get better at reading more than one clue at a time to speed things up. And: at previous tournaments, ACPT and Lollapuzzoola, I ruined several potentially perfect grids by making stupid errors, thereby forfeiting valuable bonus points. So I vowed that this time I’d check my grids before turning them in, making sure nothing looked obviously wrong. I was going to do better.

And I achieved my goal — I came in 95th out of 741, in the top 13%.

Now, if someone had told me going in that that would be my result, I’d have been thrilled. But instead I was really annoyed at myself, because of how I got there.

After the first four puzzles of the tournament, I was actually in 20th place out of 741 people. My puzzles were all error-free. I was so, so happy. All my efforts were paying off.

And then Puzzle 5 happened.

Puzzle 5 is traditionally the hardest, trickiest puzzle of the seven-puzzle tournament. This year it was by Evan Birnolz, constructor of the weekly Sunday Washington Post crossword. I love Evan’s puzzles, and I’ve met him in person — he’s a great guy. But for some reason, I was just not on the wavelength of this puzzle. I couldn’t figure out the theme. I first noticed something was weird when I tried to write down ROMA and the A was conflicting with the I in PHONE BILL. I couldn’t figure out why. Was it a rebus? Was I supposed to enter both letters in the square? Then in another part of the puzzle, the R in A MINOR clashed with the E in TEST (as in “Beta TEST,” or so I thought). What the hell? I kept re-reading the puzzle title and the blurb and trying to figure out what they meant and why the hell this puzzle wasn’t coming together for me, as the minutes kept passing and I started panicking more and more. Finally I had the whole grid at least filled in, and I realized I wasn’t going to get anywhere by spending more time looking over the grid and losing more points as the time continued passing (you lose points the longer you take). So I decided to cut my losses and turn it in.

Ultimately that puzzle wound up being a total car crash for me. I had THIRTEEN wrong squares. Before puzzle 5, I’d been ranked 20th; after puzzle 5, I fell to 138th. Jesus. I learned after the fact what the theme was. But I just hadn’t been able to figure it out.

Next was puzzle 6, and I rebounded. It was nice and smooth, and I completed it error-free. That was a relief — but I still felt so glum the rest of the evening about puzzle 5.

Sunday morning was puzzle 7, and again – no errors!

So ultimately, puzzles 6 and 7 pushed my ranking back up to 95th place. And if I’d known before this weekend that that’s where I’d rank, I would have been really happy. But if I’d known how I would get there… I don’t know.

Puzzle 5 was a total mess for me and it ruined my score. But on the other hand, I’ve clearly improved my fundamental crosswording skills since my last tournament. I completed six puzzles without stupid errors and with great times. I did well enough that even with my disaster, I still finished in the top 100.

There’s always next year. And more importantly, I got to hang out with terrific people for a whole weekend. Ultimately, nobody else but me cares how I ranked. Making friends and spending time with great people is more important than a crossword tournament ranking.

But I’ll conquer you next year, puzzle 5.