March 7th, 2008


T minus one

(I'm not going to use LJUser links in these tournament reports, but you know who everyone is.)

Last we heard (in detail, anyway) we were a day away from the tournament and I was getting all nervous as usual.

I attempt to calm myself down with logic and reason: I've competed more than just about anyone else - 30 Stamfords (tied with Miriam Raphael, second only to Jay Kasofsky) and a few other major tournaments thrown in (the dear departed U.S. Open, Long Island, NJ, Baltimore, and even one for Channel 13). I do puzzles every day, usually online and sometimes proofreading so not under tournament conditions, but still they are puzzles. I've done so many puzzles I'm out of current puzzle books, though I eventually hope to finish those old crossword books and magazines lying around. I generally know my way around a puzzle, and I've done really really well.

So WHAT IS MY PROBLEM? Why is my ego and esteem so tied up in this? Life isn't automatically better or magical if you win or make the top echelon; Tyler, Jon, and the other champs can attest to that. Still, there's that adrenaline and fear going full force. I think the main thing I need to train on is the decision-making process. What to do (other than panic) when you just don't know an answer or corner, when nothing is making sense. The ability to let go of that wrong answer that's preventing the right answer from revealing itself. The brute force of going through the alphabet trying different letters when stuck. The plowing through and not giving up.

Or I can just pretend I'm not in a ballroom with hundreds of people trying to be the very best, and enjoy the puzzles. Not there yet, too much fire in me.

So anyway it's Thursday. Because Will's insanely busy with tournament preparation, the NYT puzzles are running late. I went in Wednesday and got the Sunday puzzle out in time for the Magazine deadline, but the dailies were still to come. My hair appointment was at 4 (when I made it, I didn't think there'd be any conflict) and I'd have to leave at 3:30 to get to First Ave. and 50th. I waited around at the Times and the puzzles arrived at 3:15. I was not going to the big event of the year with witchy friz so I flew through Monday and Tuesday and left. They'd just have to understand.

I got to the hair place by subway and walking and had a nice respite of pampering. Ron said he put the signed "Wordplay" postcard ("Hair by Ron") on his wall and a visitor noticed it and gushed about the movie. "I do her hair!" he beamed. I told him to point out how much better my hair looks during the tournament shots than beforehand; I didn't know this thing would be a real movie so didn't have my hair done, and the frizzy mess is preserved for posterity. Ron worked his magic blow dryer and soon I looked human.

Traditionally I go to Ess-a-Bagel for a hot, fresh bagel after the haircut (Ron has moved several times but never too far from there), but I had to go back to the Times and it would be easiest to take the crosstown bus immediately. There's even a 49th St. crosstown that goes to Port Authority so I didn't have to transfer. Oh well, no bagel.

Back at the Times, things went smoothly and it looked like I could join the traditional pre-tournament theater dinner at 6:30 (I've never gone to the show, but I've met them for dinner at least once before). The guys were eating at Ollie's, and I looked online to refresh my memory on the exact street: 44th just off Broadway. I left a bit late (the puzzles weren't going quite THAT smoothly), walked to 7th Ave. and up to 44th, saw Carmine's, thought Ollie's was next door but it wasn't there and I didn't think it was further west than Sardi's. I went back down the block and there was a sign saying Ollie's moved to 42nd between 9th and 10th. Grrr. Finally got there, found Jeffurry, Todd and Adam, and even had time to order food. In the worst case, I could have stayed and eaten after they left for the show but I wolfed down my chicken and cashews in time to leave together.

I walked with them to the theater, but the others joining them already had their tickets and were inside so I didn't stick around to say hello. We'd all be seeing each other the next day anyway. I headed on home.

There were various movies I could have gone to Thursday night but it just seemed too close so I didn't plan anything. Back at home, I didn't do anything special to prepare for the tournament either.

Crossword Tournament Friday

At Stamford, I usually took a train with Mike and Leslie and sometimes Mark early in the afternoon to allow for maximum schmoozing time. With the tournament a subway ride away no plans were made. I'd get there when I got there. The only constraint was the Cru Dinner at 5:45, and even that was flexible with the last-minute switch to a buffet.

I thought I had no good, recent puzzles to do but while going through the "bring puzzles for between rounds" item on my list, I realized I hadn't done most of the BEQs in Time Out NY. In fact, I'd only done 3, so I happily ripped out over 20 puzzle pages. I did a few and they were fun and twisty with unusual letter combinations. I also grabbed a few Merls from AARP magazine and Mauras from New York mag. Just in case this wasn't enough, I also packed a Games World of Puzzles and a really old Dell Champion. It turned out I finished ALL this during the tournament except for the Dell.

Since I'd never seen the ballroom, I brought two different models of Mighty Brite lights (in case the first one failed). A timer and a spare timer in case the first one died. One sharpened brand new pencil for each puzzle, make that more than one in case they broke (so 10 pencils), plus the mechanical Stamford commemorative pencil I don't really like writing with.

I reserved a room at the hotel, so needed to pack. I shaved my legs, and tried on the clothes I usually wear, which fit even though I haven't lost an ounce. Made sure to pack the Trogdor shirt (this was going to be so funny. Couldn't wait!). A WWTBAM tee to sleep in. Reading glasses, must not forget glasses. I checked they were packed about a zillion times. The 4 books I was giving away with a Post-It indicating each recipient. I had recharged the laptop, but it's not the lightest and I decided to leave it home. It all went into the WWTBAM duffel bag. Too bad the WWTBAM jacket never fit, or I could have had a full ensemble (I also have a sweatshirt).

Finally got on the subway, itchy with anticipation. I'd written down walking directions from Jay St.-Boro Hall to the hotel but when I emerged up an escalator to an enclosure with a flaky ceiling, I turned around and saw the hotel bridge I recognized from pictures, right there across the plaza. I don't know why Hopstop wanted me to walk 2 blocks down and turn right. In the door, up the escalator. There!

Said brief hellos, checked in with the friendly desk staff, went to my room on the 20th floor. Niiiice, good view including the bridge, chaise longue. I unpacked and headed back down.

Soon it was time for the Cru Dinner. Last year at Stamford the food was not very good, but that was not the case here. Score one for Brooklyn. Janie came over and said she was only here for Friday because she'd just moved - into my building. Pat identified herself and got her book, and Barry was sitting nearby to get his. I also found Cazique but he didn't want to carry his book just then. No sign of the unknown Jon with shaved head who claimed the last book.

Some people had preplanned teams for Eric Berlin's event, but I didn't want to deal with that. Last year I teamed with the people who happened to be around me and it worked out well. I was even talking to one of them (Pete) just before dinner and thought of reteaming, but decided I'd explore new horizons and take potluck. Entering the really large ballroom, I soon saw Cramerica and he then got Aleph so there was the team.

We were initially in a dark spot (the ballroom seems brighter than Stamford but there are a few black holes), so moved over way right. So many people, and not everyone comes Friday night. Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz and his wife spoke in Brooklyn accents that warmed my heart. Nice of them to come. They inadvertently gave away the answer to the extravaganza, but the puzzles were still lots of fun.

Then outside to have veggies and cheese chunks. Candisse was there looking to improve MGC, and I pointed out ex-contestants who knew just how to do that. I met young constructor Natan Last, found Mr. and Mrs. Tex, talked to Mira for the first time in ages, and realized later I'd missed any announcement of prizes and results. Must have been in another room. I'll assume my team didn't win anything - or did we?

Various pickup games were going on, but I like to stay focused on the contest. I went up around 12:30 and set the alarm. Except I wasn't sure if I screwed up and also reset the clock. That clock was confusing. I had no watch or cell phone or iPod - or laptop - or anything with the time. I turned on the TV hoping to find a station or screen displaying the time, but no luck (it took a while to realize that you don't have to go through the MENU to watch regular TV but can just change the channels after it comes on). I then tried the radio but AM didn't seem to be working (where's 1010 WINS when you need it?). Finally, I called the operator and asked what time it was. It was the time on the clock.

Since I didn't seem to be sleeping, I decided to take a shower. I brought my own soap since I don't trust Marriott citrus aloe. I had washed my hands with it earlier ("maybe it's not that bad") and they turned red. Uh oh. Luckily no full-out hives breakouts. The showerhead was removable, resting in a high slot. I didn't like the spray and took down the nozzle and tried different settings, but I didn't like any of them. Negative points for Brooklyn shower.

I still couldn't sleep. This always happens. I get too keyed up and thoughts won't stop racing through my head. At some point they did stop, and I got about 5 hours.

That long, dreaded Saturday

Saturday at the crossword tournament is always long and stressful. Why do I do this?

I put on my red dress and glasses (secret weapon! or not so secret) and headed down to scope out a seat. I went back to Friday's area and looked for a seat under a light where I wasn't bumping into the table leg. I saved the adjacent seat for traditional seatmate Francis and nervously did puzzles. Erin ended up right behind, but I hardly talked to her (sorry! I'm a basket case while competing), and I apologize to the others around me for not being friendly.

Before sitting down, I had seen Dean near the door. One day we'll see his writings on these matters. And R from high school came over. She'd e-mailed me that she was competing and we arranged to meet for lunch. Saw Jim Jenista. I didn't think he could outdo himself, but he really outdid himself.

So much nervous energy. My letters were shaky like an 80-year-old but the morning went OK. I was slightly behind Francis, with our roles reversed from when I used to be his "pace car." Aww, my little boy is growing up and leaving the nest. I harassed the judge a bit, who wrote about it here, but this is necessary to insure times are not misread. I always stay in my seat and do puzzles afterward but heard about a few early errors among the top contenders (uh, can't say I was that upset). I'd find out later it was still pretty much a speed race which is not my forte, and I was 8th after the morning. I didn't want to look at the preliminary results but somehow they found their way to me.

R and I went over to Brooklyn Heights, where I wanted to find the Breukelen (mission accomplished; she took the picture in a previous entry), and then we ducked into a random coffee shop for lunch. I had spinach pie. I thought I'd written down walking directions there, but couldn't find them. I later saw the Post-It in my room key envelope.

The afternoon made me even more nervous, since there's the unknown of puzzle 5. Often that's been the positive turning point for me, but occasionally not; the prose article with words missing instead of traditional clues was especially bad. This year's puzzle 5 was just hard, and I never determined the theme while solving. I had trouble in the lower left corner and even considered handing it in with known errors, but somehow changed (trying to avoid spoilers here) a word meaning "not hot" to a word meaning "not soft" and finally it fell. I finished in the same minute as Francis and found out later we beat almost everyone. Huge applause for Maura. Results after 1-6 (out later in the evening) showed I'd moved up to 5th, tied with Roger ("Together at last!").

I went out to the lobby, said hi to Nicole and her sister at the NYT table, and looked at Emily Cureton's art. I wrote my name down for a tote bag with a Puzzle Palace drawing (not the one in Sundance but an Azteclike structure) but haven't heard back. Speaking of the Puzzle Palace, Patrick (who I managed to find right away on Friday; assistant TJ was there too) said that for "IOUSA" this year they stayed at the Debt Dungeon.

After the long day, I put back on my contacts (almost thought one was lost, but it was in the cap portion of the case). Based on Stella et al.'s guide, I wanted to eat at Taze, a Turkish restaurant. I found some people who had enjoyed the Greek place at Stamford (which was gone last year, alas) since the cuisines are similar. My walking directions found, we tried to follow them but they seemed really roundabout. Hopstop alleged these were walking directions, but maybe they were really for driving since it was definitely not the most direct route. We finally just asked someone. A subgroup that left the hotel after us was already there. The restaurant seemed slightly annoyed we hadn't called for a party of 8, but seated us. The food was delicious. I had chicken yogurt kebab and want to have it again soon from Turkuaz (but I think Taze was better). Definitely worth a return trip.

I was standing in back of the ballroom at the beginning of the night's entertainment but my legs were getting tired and I found a seat next to a random young guy who turned out to be the son of my fifth grade friend's college roommate (confusing, I know). We had all been at the Tribeca showing of "Wordplay" where I hadn't met him or his family but did see my old friend. He e-mailed me afterward to express interest in the tournament, and now he was here.

"Wordploy" had its moments and it was fun to see familiar faces. It could have used some editing (full songs weren't necessary), but we've gotten spoiled by the professional excellence of the real "Wordplay." I forgot about carrying the EDDDDDD banner; that was really funny. Ed is the person who made the RRRRRRIPSTEIN banner.

I had been briefly e-mailed about the "1 vs. 700" game but didn't hear anything further so wasn't sure I was supposed to be up there. Seeing everyone on the panel I decided to go up after the first round. Someone hoisted over a chair, which I proceeded to trip over in my haste to push it in place. Klutz! I assured everyone I was OK (really, this stuff happens all the time), apologized for disrupting the game, and it continued. Doug should have come up too (there was also some miscommunication with him), but no biggie. The questions were tailored to the group and I might have gotten the Merl "Wordplay" URINE question wrong if ENEMA had been a choice - even after seeing the movie 30 times or so. Greg and John were polished hosts. Someone should give these guys a real game show. I guess the radio one's a start. Oh, and it looks like Greg and Jessica's family will be growing: Congrats!

I was told Amy needed me to sign a poster, and she was in the bar along with Dean and some others. Didn't talk to anyone because, ick, bars (shudder). We quickly left and I signed the poster outside in the lobby.

All day, I asked guys with shaved heads if they were Jon who was getting my book, but no luck. He was listed in the results so was definitely there, but we were not crossing paths.

I consented to play one "Jeopardy!" game (Noam's Brooklyn version) and my opponents were formidable: John Beck who was a real "Jeop!" champ, Jeremy who I'd first met at Sundance (friend of Byron) and seemed to have quiz bowl experience, I forget the rest. People seemed surprised I knew Hazelden. I don't remember the results but I think I bet wrong on FJ.

By this time, puzzle 1-6 results were in and we looked at them on people's iPhones. I also examined them on the wall. Wow, Howard B. and John Beck were doing REALLY well, as was Rex Parker (huge jump from last year). Even if I screwed up on puzzle 7 (and I hated even thinking that, lest it jinx me to screw up), it looked like I could stay in the top 10. That felt good, but didn't make me any less nervous.

I did not hang out late and learned later the hotel would not let you hang out late even if you wanted to. Giving up on the shower, I took a bath. That always makes me feel soapy so I then used the shower nozzle to rinse. Reset the alarm (and got a back-up wake-up call), and again remained awake until drifting off for another 5 hours.

Sunday ACPT and jiggety jig

This year there wasn't the usual anticipation of seeing the results Sunday morning since we already knew them. There was, however, the anticipation of Operation Trogdor. Trip had written some top solvers, noting Tyler's "prowess...comes from one thing and one thing only: his black Trogdor t-shirt. The only way to defuse this power is for all of the main contenders to wear Trogdor t-shirts ourselves." This suggestion was met with universal acclaim (even from me, who normally wouldn't wear such apparel) and we all ordered shirts and prepared to psych out Tyler. The prank was further complicated because Trip and Tyler roomed together. I got downstairs and didn't see any Trogdors milling around the hallway, but finally found them outside. Tyler had already seen them, so I missed his initial reaction. Still, LOL, loved it.

Our seats were still available (since seats aren't assigned, there's always the danger of losing your desired seat on Sunday), and I went back to nervously doing puzzles, now just left with the Dell book. Having not found shaved-head Jon, I asked Will to make an announcement. He did, but since I left the room after finishing puzzle 7 this didn't help. I found out later that though Jon didn't hear the announcement, he had seen me at other times but thought I looked too busy to interrupt. Dude, I carried the book around all weekend, you should have interrupted! (I'll mail it next time I go to the P.O.)

We were filmed during puzzle 7 and I didn't even notice (aagh, glasses, and my part looks like a bald spot). I confidently filled in 1-Across using an abbreviation (trying not to spoil), saw it was wrong, but soon saw my idea was right, just not the exact spelling. I felt slightly slow but wanted to be careful as it would be easy to make mistakes executing the theme. Whew! Phew! Another year over.

I went up to pack and put on my lenses, after having to unpack the lens fluid and case I'd just packed. I brought down my bag and coat, and checked them in the lobby. No sooner had I done that when I found out that Janet and Joe were indeed driving back, so we'd have the traditional Stamford car ride home. So I stood on the concierge line again and got back my stuff (tipped them anyway even though they had it for all of 15 minutes). Joe's car was close by in the parking garage and we loaded it for a quick exit later.

An uncomfortably large mob milled around waiting for the ballroom to open. When it did, we rushed up and found Janet had already saved seats. She must have been right next to the door.

Tyler's parents (who prove genetics works) were there, and it looked like their trip wasn't for naught. Barring mistakes, we were about to see Tyler, Howard (welcome to the A's!) and Francis up there. The finalists were announced. As usual, rookies hijacked the C finals from the real C's (except for nonrookie Emily O'Neill). Since most rookies are really E-level, ranking them as C's is the best compromise, but you'll always have ringer rookies in the C finals. There was a tie in the B's that kept out Todd. I hadn't examined the scores closely so didn't stop to wonder what happened to John Beck.

Then the A's. Will said the third-place person had been in many finals, and my heart stopped for a second thinking it might be me, but it was Trip. Someone made a mistake. Unfortunately, it was Francis, leaving in PROLIFE without checking the crossings (and maybe it was even on film). I hadn't gained ground on time (though a minute faster on puzzle 7 would have put me in the finals instead of Trip), so I could only have made the finals if a second person made a mistake. I didn't know any of this at the time, but figured it out later.

The C finals started and I began doing the A clues. I filled in the entire right fairly quickly and then got stuck. Leslie seemed to be busily writing, and I assume she was doing A's. Uh oh. VERY glad I wasn't up there. I took so long pondering that the B finals started, and I heard an answer in the commentary. Oh well. I filled that in and since it was shot anyway, looked at the B clue for 1-Across. So I eventually solved the left but not legitimately. Not sure I could have stared long enough to get any more just using A's.

The real A's had much less trouble, even Howard, who although he apparently suffered first-time playoff nerves, still managed to finish most of the puzzle. Trip was soooo close. He didn't have time to consider that maybe his choice of fill wasn't the greatest (and had not heard of the entry that was just wrong). Tyler's reaction to realizing he wasn't second was priceless. Why are all these people applauding? Because you WON! For the fourth time, yet. Still, he must be stopped. More Trogdors in 2009?

After the round, R outside wondered if she had a chance for Best Handwriting (she'd competed in an early U.S. Open and won it there). She hadn't registered for the banquet but thought she might go if she was winning the award. We asked around and found out Peggy Rosen decided this, but couldn't find her. Meanwhile, C winner Dan mentioned he had an extra banquet ticket from friends who weren't staying, so she took it and that problem was solved. They never collected the tickets anyway, at least at our table.

Inside the room, I didn't sit with my carpool mates since I'd be seeing them in the car, and R and I found seats with ticket benefactor Dan, Patrick B., Electra, Andrea and Ulrich. Apologies to them all since we spent the entire luncheon gossiping ("Who did you have a crush on in high school?"). As expected the meal was underwhelming but I like having the whole experience (and it's deductible). I guess better food would be even more costly.

The awards were announced with record speed. Someone else won handwriting. Our table was busy collecting prizes, with Patrick winning E and Dan winning C and rookie prizes. As the names were announced going higher and higher, I knew I was either 11th (having made an unknown bad mistake) or 4th, so luckily it was the latter, with Al moving up to 5th and Roger to 6th (oops, he should have gotten the Trogdor memo).

With 3 trophies (4th, 50s and NYC) and 3 books, I was glad I had a ride back. We made record time (23 minutes) and it was jiggety, jig, another year. Happy. Relieved.

My sister had left a phone message saying she hoped I hadn't disgraced the family, and I was able to assure my nephews Joel and Jeffy that I hadn't (they were KIDDING - or were they?). Called my mother. Then realized there was no one else to call. Got a few congratulatory e-mails. And life goes on.

(no subject)

I haven't had a chance to decompress, since I've been working nonstop since the weekend. Today I've done nothing except update my blog. I needed the down time.

This week at the Times was like last week, where we processed the Sunday puzzle on Wednesday and the dailies Thursday. The Thursdays came late enough that I was able to have lunch with puzzlers.

I recently finished these books:

"Sit & Solve Travel Cryptic Crosswords" by Henry Hook - I actually did most of these while traveling (on trains) and they suited that purpose. I'm bad enough at cryptics that I sometimes looked at answers I was too impatient to ponder.

"People Puzzler Book" - A beautiful, glossy book with new crosswords like the ones in People magazine, and a few reprints. I found some errors, but it wasn't too bad. My fastest time on the 13's was 2:10.

"Have You Found Her" by Janice Erlbaum - I got this through Library Thing's Early Reviewers group (thank you!) and wrote this review:

Janice Erlbaum briefly lived in a homeless shelter when she was a teen and wanted to give back 20 years later. As the "bead lady" she brought craft projects to the residents but soon became attached - WAY too attached - to one girl in particular. Supporting Sam as she went from the shelter to hospitals and other facilities, Janice shared her ups and downs and found that all was not as it seemed. This reads like a novel, but life doesn't always wrap up loose ends neatly.

I'll add that being the goody-goody I am, I wasn't thrilled with the author's constant pot smoking even while she was helping drug addicts. She claims at the end of the book that she stopped. I don't even like when fictional characters do this stuff.