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REVIEW: Indie 500 Tournament Puzzles (Spoilers)


I didn’t attend last month’s Indie 500 crossword tournament in person but I ordered the puzzles to solve at home. Now that a few weeks have passed and other home solvers have had the opportunity to work on the puzzles I’m ready to share my experience with the puzzles, with spoilers. A few disclaimers: I solved the puzzles shortly after receiving them by email on the morning of Sunday, May 31. Later that day the organizers sent a follow-up email with another set of puzzles attached. The email explained that the first email contained early drafts with a different ordering and some different (presumably harder) clues than the ones used in the tournament, and the follow-up email contained the correct versions. I didn’t spend much time examining the two puzzle sets to compare clue difficulty and in this review I will use refer to the puzzle versions and order that I solved. Also, in both emails the organizers sent both PDF and PUZ versions of all six tournament puzzles. They encouraged solvers print and solve the PDF version if the solvers were interested in evaluating their performance. I opted to solve the PUZ versions and did not use a timer, and I doubt I have any readers who were curious how I would have ranked under tournament conditions. Finally, these puzzle are still for sale on the tournament website, so if you haven’t done so please go to the site and support the tournament organizers by buying the puzzle set before reading my review.

1 – Welcome to DC by Erik Agard
The theme entries are all clued by color-coded lines of the Washington Metro. In the PDF, which I looked at later, the clues include the circular symbol of each line — a nice aesthetic touch. The theme answers are interpret the colors and “line” in alternative ways, so {Silver Line} leads to STATISTICS, as in the occupation (line) of Nate Silver. Some of the interpretations are stretchy, e.g. {Blue Line} for NINEONEONE, the telephone number (line) for the police (blue), but the theme is fun play on a D.C. area institution. The puzzle includes some less than common entries like NIQAB {Garment that covers the face} and YOUSEGUYS {Y’all’s cousin}. It also exhibits the indie cluing style more so than the other tournament puzzles with some indelicacies ({Take a leak} for PISS}), side observations ({Katniss’s love in the “Hunger Games” franchise (their celebrity couple name is…unfortunate)} for PEETA), and meta humor {[SOMETHING SELF-REFERENTIAL ABOUT OUR SCORING SYSTEM. DON’T FORGET TO WRITE THIS CLUE]} for LAP). I finished the grid with no errors but noted the unusually high level of difficulty. A tournament usually opens with an easy puzzle, so I was a bit concerned about what was to follow.

2 – A Cute Puzzle by Andy Kravis
Theme entries add the letter “e” — specifically an “é” — to familiar phrases: {Billiards shot with a nuclear amount of english?} clues ATOMICMASSE and {Cry after being turned into gold by an epée?} clues MIDASTOUCHE. This is a breezy puzzle with a simple but solid theme. Among the rest of the fill I liked {Talked like Cindy Brady} for LISPED and {Layers of rock?} for MASONS. Some on-site solvers commented on social media that “Puzzle 2” involved a judging controversy over certain squares, and I initially assumed that the judges might have marked accent-less E’s as incorrect. I later learned that a different puzzle was presented in the #2 position at the tournament.

3 – Looseness of the Vowels by Peter Broda
Several entries contain theme squares with slashes. These squared could be filled with a pair of vowels to two different words/phrases that, when read together, fit the clue. {With 20-Across, Bikini Bottom resident’s kitschy decorated minerals} clued P [A/E] TR [I/O] CKS (PATRICK’S PET ROCKS). The multi-vowel squares worked with the entries in both directions. The puzzles has great tricky clues ({School house?} for FISHTANK and {Cubes and others} for NISSANS) and some indie fare ({Model Munster who started the #effyourbeautystandards movement} for TESS and {With 46-Across, brief accidental defecation?} for SH [O/A] RT). The PUZ version does not contain the slashes in the theme squares and my solving program registered errors in the a few of these squares when I completed the grid. I shrugged it off as a quirk of converting the rebis theme to PUZ and credited myself with a clean puzzle, but I later learned that this was the tournament’s Puzzle 2 with the scoring controversy. Apparently, a solver who entered, say, SH [A/O] RT for 46-Across was charged with an error, because the vowels order suggests the entry SHART SHORT and does not satisfy the clue.

4 – Swap Meet by Neville Fogarty
The grid contains several pairs of intersecting antonyms. The clues for these entries are swapped and generally involve meanings not related to the one that forms the antonym. THIN {Numbskulled} intersects THICK {Dilute}. HELP {Wrong} intersects HARM {Its US cover features “NVUJ” in code. The puzzle is beautifully designed and reminiscent of an ACPT “Puzzle 5” in theme and difficulty. I struggled with the bottom right corner but finished error-free.

5 – Candy Bars by Finn Vigeland
The grid contains several instances of two black squares side by side where the black squares represent the letters C and Y. The down entries preceding the squares are missing a terminal C and Y and the down entries following the squares are missing an initial C and Y. Also the across entry next to the bar was a standard phrase that was clued punnily as if the letters D and Y were appended. So {Interstellar distance} and {Unwavering} clued the entries above a bar PARSE(C) and STEAD(Y). The entries beneath the bar, (C)LEAR and (Y)EATS, were clued by {Acne-free} and {“The Tower” poet}. The across clue {Character who would have dramatically changed the ending of “Pride and Prejudice”?} leads to GAYDAR followed by the CandY bar, thus GAY DARCY. In the PDF version these special squares are represented by candy bar images, and presumably solvers added the letters C and Y inside the bars. The  The PUZ version did not include any visual indication of the hint. Interestingly, the beheaded and curtailed down entries always formed legitimate entries — a nice touch. This was an an extremely impressive construction and I regretted that by solving the PUZ version I missed out on the production values until after I was done.

6 –  The Final Lap by Evan Birnholz
The Indie 500 offered two solving divisions: Inside Track for solvers who “finished in the top 25% of the field in a crossword tournament with published standings in the past 5 years” and Outside Track for everyone else. I’m not sure what division I would have been in if I had competed on-site. I competed in Lollapuzzoola in 2013 but can’t recall my placement and don’t know if the standings are currently “published” (I don’t know where they are). The top finishers in each division competed against each other on Evan’s playoff themeless. The fill is the same in both versions but Outside Track finalists received an easier clue set. I chose the Inside Track clue set and found the puzzle tough but well constructed. I basically worked from the top down but got stuck by 31-Across with the clue {Stunned expression}. I thought Evan might have gone indie bold and seeded the puzzle with WHATTHEFUCK, but it turned out to be WHATONEARTH. The grid contains some nice trivia ({Like Pasolini’s “The Canterbury Tales,” originally} for XRATED) and deceptive clues {Place some people go after boarding?} for PENALTYBOX).

The tournament puzzle set was well designed and presented, and surprisingly mainstream. Based on the nature of the tournament and conversations with the constructors beforehand I expected more gimmicks and alternative culture references, but the puzzles were generally just as accessible as the ones offered at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. The scoring system also resembled ACPT with roughly the same equivalent-time penalty for a grid mistake. My sense is that the organizers set the tone for the tournament about halfway between ACPT and Lollapuzzoola with a bit of the pie-in-the-face silliness but largely structured to give skilled solvers a traditional tournament experience.


One thought on “REVIEW: Indie 500 Tournament Puzzles (Spoilers)

  1. Pingback: No puzzle today | Devil Cross

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