On Monday, July 14, at 11:59 p.m., I boarded a plane in Denver that was scheduled to take me to the greatest place in the world. I knew I was bound for the greatest place in the world because I had boarded similar planes (well, a car one year) every July for the past sixteen years and never failed to arrive that greatest place — a place anointed by members of the National Puzzlers’ League as the site of the annual convention, and a place that said members would make great through their presence. As certain as I was that I would soon be in my perfect place I had some distractions. This year my 13-year-old nephew Ian and his mother and grandmother were making a family vacation to the same place and, since Ian has developed puzzling interests, planned to drop in on the convention. Would Ian find the convention activities accessible and would I be able to reconcile my attentions to members of my first and second family at the same time? These are the questions that paced around my head as I settled into my aisle seat and went to sleep.
I woke up in Boston, transferred to a bus, and in two hours — 8 a.m. local time — I was in Portland, Maine! Given my early arrival time, both in terms of the day of the week and the time of the day, I knew that I was unlikely to run into fellow NPL members but I was determined to hit the ground running and make the most of a day of solo sightseeing. Jenn Braun, the convention host, composed a document of notable tourist attractions and eateries and I had sketched out a Tuesday itinerary that worked out very well. I walked from the bus station to Holy Donut and had a breakfast of bacon-cheddar-filled potato-flour donut and coffee with a dark-chocolate-sea-salt to go. That got me to the hotel where I was fortunate enough be able to check into my room at 9 a.m. (yay, Westin Harborview!) After a shower and change of clothes, I hiked a mile up Congress Street to the Portland Observatory, joined its first tour of the day, and got some great views of the city and Casco Bay. After the tour I marched over to Maine Mead Works in time for its initial tour of the day and a free mead tasting. With two bottles of mead in tow I opted to head back to the hotel for a quick lunch and a power nap. By the time I set out for afternoon touring I realized that I had missed the last narrow-gauge rail excursion but had enough time for a tour of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow childhood home (incredible, historical artifacts but a bit overpriced and the tour docent was a bit lets-get-this-over-with). For dinner, I started with the raw bar at Eventide Oyster Co. and then bolted through the rain for chowder at Gilbert’s. I wanted to have a third course at Portland Lobster Company but was feeling full so strolled around Old Port and eventually made it back to the hotel for a nightcap at Top of the East Lounge. I met the lounge manager, Taylor, and assured her that the incoming convention group would do good business through the weekend. Trip Payne arrived later — he wasn’t surprised to discover that I had found the bar — and became the first of many people I would hug in Maine.
I managed to get up early on Wednesday and walked to another spot Jenn Braun recommended: OhNo Cafe. My breakfast was proscuitto and Tabasco on a maple bagel, black coffee, and a Dan Katz cryptic crossword: a fantastic way to start any day! Back at the hotel I found a good group of NPL members arising and arriving. I joined a small group for lunch at Otto pizzeria and then joined Trip for a tour of the International Cryptozoology Museum with a fun museum puzzle tour provided by Jenn Braun and Scott Purdy. In the afternoon I invited some friends to my room to sample the mead purchased the day before. The evening activities started with a welcome picnic, moved indoors due to inclement weather. Jenn Braun catered the picnic with blueberries, Whoopie pies and Moxie soft drink, and Adam Cohen presented a mixer bingo game where I proved useful as a person who arrived Tuesday or earlier, a contributor to PBS and NPR, and a person who knows the meaning of the word “ucalegon.” The post-picnic activity was a puzzle pub crawl called “Solve a Puzzle, Take a Drink” devised by Roger Barkan, with stops at eight local beer halls. Each stop on the crawl featured a puzzle, with a final answer to be extracted at the end. Stops on the crawl included a converted church, a German biergarten with hipster musicians, and a dive bar that we barely managed to reach before last call. I had beers at five of the eight locations (skipping the crowded Corner Room, the frat-laden Oasis, and the closed In’Finiti Fermentation & Distillation bar) while kibitzing on the crawl puzzles and introducing friends Kevin Wald and Katie Hamill to the Sondheim Rhyme game. I was good and toasted by the crawl’s end, along with a few solvers who didn’t skip drinks at any of the locations, so we stopped on the way back at Nosh for sober-up food.
Thursday was a planned road-trip day, and I set off in the morning with Trip Payne, Scott Purdy, and Katherine Bryant for the Funspot arcade in New Hampshire. The arcade boasted a miniature golf course, dozens of classic arcade games I remembered from my youth, a huge pinball machine that used a cue ball, a snack bar with delightful, borderline food offerings, and an electronic advertising screen that occasionally flashed Ayn Rand quotations. Chad Brown, Tanis O’Connor, and Sean Molley met up and we had giddy day plunking tokens and cursing ineffective putts. On the drive back to the hotel, Trip, Katherine, and passed the time with group solving of cryptics from Adam Cohen and Ben Smith. By the time we got back to Portland we had minimal time to get dinner before the opening night of the program started. I opted to grab a bite at Top of the East and, while scarfing down a lobster roll, spotted my nephew peeking into the bar.
Ian was apparently confused by the room-key specifics of the hotel elevator but I got his attention and found out that my family was having dinner in the lobby restaurant. I met them downstairs and, once they were through, managed to set up a ballroom table with my family, my friend Andrew Greene and his family, Jan O’Sullivan, and my hotel room mate Patrick Berry. I opened the program with a “get acquainted” game called Meet Your Match based on anti-match games. Trip Payne followed with a well-received mixer called Ten Clued Very Much. Ian and I teamed up for the game, which gave him the chance to meet some great puzzle people and gave me the chance to choke by not being able to conjure the answer word JAWBREAKER with every available hint. Nathan Curtis wrapped up the evening with the challenging word optimization game Par Fours. Ian and I made a decent score, as did my sister Martha who partnered with Patrick and my mother Sybil who partnered with Jan. It was a solid opening night program but I couldn’t tell if Ian was getting much enjoyment. I joined some friends at the bar after the program and then, missing opportunities for after-hours slots, opted to turn at a relatively early hour.
Friday started with a return breakfast to Cafe Ohno with Patrick Berry. The midday activity was a short road trip with my family to Portland Head Light, a lighthouse in Cape Elizabeth. When we returned, I managed a sixth-place finish in Adam Cohen’s excellent Jeopardy! game (ah, well, losing is the new winning) and some more bar time before the Friday night program. Ian and I tackled Mark Oshin’s On Beyond Initials first and Ian snagged a fairly good score for our team by finding the name Albu(s) Dum(b)ledore for the initials S B. Jonathan Berkowitz and Fraser Simpson presented a clever trivia game with answers that varied before and after the year 1980. My team, which included my family and Nancy Coughlin, achieved an average score — we saw through the geography questions, such as the largest African country in area and the closest capital city to Luxembourg, but tanked on the Broadway musicals question that we assigned for a “daily double.” The evening concluded with Scott and Susan Weiss’s delightful presentation of Snake Oil, a game in which players seek particular customers to sell unusual products. Sybil and Martha sat out and the nature of the game meant that Ian and I would be separated as the game progressed, but Ian had no qualms about being a new face in a room full of seasoned puzzlers and successfully sold a Turtle Tub to a High School Dropout.
In the after-hours I tried Twins Jeopardy! written by brothers Bruce and Roy Leban and lost to trivia maven but wonderful guy Eric Berman (I should have taken a chance on that Rime of the Ancient Mariner question). I also formed a team with Mark Halpin and Miriam Nadel for a difficult but satisfying Con version of the BBC game show Only Connect, presented by Darren Rigby. Our team floundered the first two rounds but demolished The Wall and made nearly caught up in the Vowels round. I then secured a seat on a team with Kevin Wald, Katie Hamill, Tom Gazzola, and Jimmy Williams for a brand new multi-round trivia game called World Cup of Pub Trivia. Game inventor Todd Etter led us through various trivia rounds with mechanisms inspired by the progression of the World Cup: qualification, group stage, knockout, etc.The rounds were beautifully designed and our team emerged victorious!
Saturday’s afternoon program included two enjoyable pencil puzzles: Camouflage by Will Shortz and Opposable Sums by Mike Shenk. I finished both puzzles in the time limit but didn’t hand either in, which was just as well because I made an error on both. The flat competition, Starting Lines, was organized by Saxifrage and I co-solved with my usual partners Jeffrey Harris and Patrick Berry. The theme of the competition was flats (verse puzzles) that open with the line that opens a famous poem. The entries in the competition were great but the memorable element for me was that I discovered that my submitted flat and the flat submitted by Trip Payne both used the opening line from the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “We Real Cool.” And, back in the Funsport car trip from Thursday when Trip and I were in the same car, I asked flat competition organizer Katherine, the driver of the car, if there were any interesting duplications of opening lines. Katherine with a perfect poker face noted that there was such a pair and that the two submissions reach her inbox with hours of each other (she was referring to the flats from Trip and I). And, in the kudos competition for flats, Trip and I nearly tied for kudos, both ranking in the top five!
The Saturday night event was an extravaganza called Extravagawesome constructed by Rick Rubenstein, Joshua Kosman, Mark Gottlieb, Tanis O’Connor, and a slew of contributors. Ian was excited to try out an extravaganza, so I formed that included Patrick Berry, Eric Berlin (one of Ian’s favorite authors), and Roger Barkan and his wife Angela. Eric included his daughter Lea, close to Ian in age, and so we started with team that was an early favorite for the cute award. I prepared myself to cater more to Ian’s comfort than my own puzzle solving but Eric, an experienced puzzle popularizer in classrooms, was a perfect mentor for Ian and Lea. The two chose the puzzle that they wanted to work on and required only a small amount of supervision to reach the answers. A wonderful early moment of the solving came when our youngest team members were working on a spot the differences puzzle of a beach scene and Lea announced that the differences were a MAN, a HAT, and a TAN but couldn’t figure out the answer. Later Ian and Lea collaborated on an astronomy-themed word search and I felt a visceral tingle of excitement as these solvers discovered some extractions techniques such as rebus letters, messages in unused letters, and connect the dots. The meta puzzle of the extravaganza was brilliant: sections of a seemingly benign circuit path from a secondary puzzle were traced onto a piece of acetate to produce the letters of the final answer. Lea was in charge of the tracing while Ian and the rest reviewed the clue list to guide the orientation of the acetate. At one point Ian exclaimed, “Oh my God, this is so cool!” It was a sentiment that we all felt, but, perhaps due to our adult years or puzzle experience, restrained ourselves from actually stating out loud. Hearing a young puzzler gush his feelings without inhibition, like the child in the story of the emperor’s new clothes, was the perfect conclusion to the official program.
The after-hours activities in the wee hours of Saturday and Sunday morning included a seating in Tom Gazzola’s It Takes Two game, a rebranding of his celebrated Doubles Jeopardy! invention. I partnered with Trip Payne and we did fairly well in the early rounds, particularly in a challenge to mold partners into statues representing famous pairs. Trip and I made it to the finals but fell short in a concentration challenge and finish in third place. After a few rounds of Exquisite Fruit I watched a round the Makeshift Jeopardy! game presented by TK Focht. I had played this game at its premiere in Las Vegas last September and kept tight-lipped about its secrets and hilarious production value for almost a year, knowing that TK would want to bring it to a convention. Watching a new set of player make the discoveries that my group made back in the Coconuts Bar & Gaming room of the Embassy Suites was very satisfying. I volunteered to be the Jimmy Kimmel question presenter for the Win My, TK Focht’s, Ben Stein’s Money round and ended up singing a clip from a Beethoven symphony for reasons I don’t quite understand.
A few side notes: Ian was intrigued to discover the concept of a hidden contest. When I told him that the contest could be anywhere he squinted about the hotel lobby looking for anything unusual. Of course, the hidden contest was not in the lobby. It surfaced in the ballroom before breakfast on Saturday in the form of a clever word puzzle disguised as a discarded Jeopardy! clue sheet — Great job, puzzle creator Joe Cabrera! Ian was also very interested in the announcement Mike Selinker made about his book The Maze of Games. I bought Ian a copy at the Con and he is already further along than I am in navigating the puzzles of the maze (he keeps texting me and exhorting me to catch up). Last but not least, Jenn Braun did a fantastic job of hosting this year’s convention from providing sightseeing suggestions to arranging meals to assisting with hotel accommodations when the record turnout of our convention expanded beyond the Westin room block. Jenn did an awesome job and my family and I had a wonderful vacation due in no small part to her efforts.
Most of my return trip to Denver was dedicated to catching up on sleep, but I did place this question in the back of my mind, and I am still thinking about it: what would be a good nom for Ian Derrick Chaney?