Indie 500


I attend the National Puzzlers’ League convention every year and I make an appearance at a fair number of puzzle hunts across the country but I haven’t competed in a crossword tournament in several years. Traditional crosswords are not my favorite puzzle type and my Salieri status as a competitor is established. Still, I was missing the interactions with friends who limit their puzzle event attendance to crossword tournaments so I decided to plan a return trip to Lollapuzzoola for August and a first-time trip to the Indie 500 the first weekend June. The organizers of the tournament — Andy, Angela, Erik, Neville, and Peter who did a marvelous job — asked the participants to withhold revealing comments about the tournament for two weeks in respect of the at-home solvers who has not seen the puzzles. If plan to solve the tournament puzzles in the future and do not want to be spoiled, please read no further.

I planned a weekend visit with Dave Tuller in Maryland and the two of us took the train into D.C. on Saturday morning to join the other crossword solvers at George Washington University. We reached the registration desk early and I spotted Angela, Erik, Peter, and a long-maned Neville setting up. Sam Ezersky was among the early arrivals. I had only known him from Internet excahnges but he is just as charming in person and I wished him well on his new position at the New York Times. Throughout the afternoon I caught up with so many people that I hadn’t seen in years. Brian Cimmet told me more about family life in Syracuse and his project to listen to 100 previously unheard musical cast recordings. Evan Birnholz got down to the city after a choral rehearsal of Carmina Burana. Amy Reynaldo offered some health updates and news about Crosswords with Friends. Tony Orbach compared solving notes and shared some family memories (it’s all I can do not to break into an a cappella rendition of “Try to Remember” when I see Tony). Andrew Ries mused on the challenges of making a living in the puzzle industry. New acquaintance Laura Radloff explained how to charm yourself into the NMAAHC without a reservation. And Ade Koiki weighed in on the question, “Which sport requires the most puzzle-solving ability?”

Time, the theme of this year’s tournament, was present in the themes of  all the puzzles. Angela Halstead’s opener “Before and After”  featured long entries made of a word that could precede TIME and a word that could follow TIME to make phrases, e.g. HAMMERBANDITS. The theme was explained by a tl;dr clue in the southeast and I turned in my completed puzzle without understanding the theme. I figured out what was going on just before receiving the second puzzle, “Jam Session” by Paolo Pasco. The unusually wide grid included bigram rebus squares that compacted terms for time durations (SECOND, MINUTE, DECADE, etc.) into half the required grid squares. I was not tripped by the somewhat obscure fill entry ALIPASHA ({Ottoman ruler also referred to as Aslan}) but I hit a blind crossing in the lower left and, due to a poorly drawn Ripstein mark, turned in puzzle with a careless error. “This Mashup’s for the Byrds” by Tracy Bennett included interpretations of archly altered lyrics to the song “Turn, Turn, Turn”, as in {A time to gather stoners together} for BURNINGMAN. The “pack separator” in fourth position was a Benjamin Button themed puzzle by Erik Agard ft. Allegra Kuney titled “Non-Linear Narratives.” The long down answers were based on phrases that contained the names of animals, but the animal named needed to be replaced with the juvenile term of the animal (or vice-versa) and spelled backwards, so {1940 musical about a sleazy nightclub habitué (hopper)} produced the entry PALOORAGNAK. Once this theme was grokked the rest of the grid was relatively gentle. Neville Fogarty’s capper “In Search of Lost Time” was constructed around a substring transfer theme using ERA. So ANTONIOBANDS ({Music groups featuring the merchant of Venice?}) partnered with SHOERACKTREATMENT ({Therapy for a closet organizer?}).

Chris King and I sat at the same table during the tournament. Chris is a character and his upbeat antics crack me up and set the right tone for a puzzle event. I discovered that Chris and I share an interest in the BBC quiz show Only Connect. This discovery came after Chris and I teamed up with Peter Gordon and Ben Smith for a time-killer game led by Neville, also an OC fan, and based on the Sequences round. Our foursome outscored the ballroom, with Ben earning MVP status by recognizing song clips from musicals broadcast live on FOX. Chris would go on to win the Joon Pahk Award for Worst Handwriting. He accepted the medal with pride, but later picked up his note-taking sheet from the Only Connect game, thrust it in my face, and said in his delightful Carolina drawl, “See, Todd! That’s rea-uh-ble!”

The finalists were announced and the Inside Track threesome comprised Roger Barkan, Katie Hamill, and Dave “He-Wouldn’t-Have-Even-Been-There-If-I-Hadn’t-Come-Sorry-About-That-Fourth-Place-Sam-Ezersky” Tuller. After the finalists were ushered out of the room, constructor Andy Kravis explained the special gimmick of his playoff puzzle: The solvers would start with the down clues only! A hint in the grid gave instructions how to receive the across clues. Tournament assistants provided solvers the across clues when they followed the instructions or when nine minutes elapsed, whichever came first. The gimmick befitted a tournament that celebrates the spirit of the independent crossword community, but it led to problems in execution. The grid hint was a set of long Across entries reading THE ACROSS CLUES / CAN BE FOUND ON THE / BACK OF THE BOARD. Unfortunately, the room set did not allow the solvers to actually reach the back of the board, so the assistants simply handed the clues to the solvers when prompted. On top of this, the playoff grids were smallish printouts that spectators and commentators Brian Cimmet and Jeremy Horwitz had trouble seeing, and the finalists solved with Sharpies making grid errors more of a danger. Andy’s puzzle was pleasant but the gimmick forced the overall clue difficulty to be reined in. So the finals were a bit off the mark but I was very happy to see Katie take top honors.

For the wrap-up dinner I had pub fare with Dave, Katie, Kevin Wald, Dustin Foley, and another new acquaintance Giovanni Pagano. We laughed and drank beer and talked about escape rooms, and NPL inside jokes, and absent friends. Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” was not among the temporal references of the official tournament events, but the sentiment of that song is palpable when a puzzle gathering comes to a close.