ACPT Reflections

This year was my fourth competing in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and the first time they’ve taken it online. Each year up until this point I’d done better than the previous one, both in terms of overall ranking and in percentile. This year, however, there are ~1000 competitors (versus 740 in 2019), so the competition was quite a bit stiffer. I also have family visiting, two large dogs and a baby, so finding a silent, focused space in the house wasn’t really possible. Nevertheless, I had hoped that for once I would get through with all perfect puzzles and show strongly. Last tournament (2019, they had to cancel 2020 due to Covid) I made a mistake on the second puzzle and fought my way back to the 38th spot, but it was rough.

I am not a particularly tech-savvy person. I use Firefox as my browser generally, but it’s decided not to play youtube embedded videos any more. When I logged into the tournament on Saturday morning, of course I saw that the livestream was via youtube, so I opened Chrome to log in, but was still concerned about the differences from my ordinary solving approach/environment, so I decided to solve the puzzle in Firefox.

I felt like the first puzzle (always one of the easiest of the tournament) was a little slow for me; it took around 4 minutes, which is slower than my normal Tuesday time in the New York Times (about the level of difficulty that they aim for). I hadn’t made a mistake yet, though, so I felt good about that.

The second one felt like I was improving, relatively speaking. I finished around the 6 minute mark (with a total limit of 25 minutes, v. 15 for Puzzle 1) and I caught an error before submission. Considering that I had yet to complete all 7 puzzles perfectly in a tournament, I was pleased with that outcome.

At this point they’d posted the results from Puzzle 1, and I had a zero. Apparently because I switched browsers the system didn’t register my score. I could spot the solved puzzle in Firefox and submitted a request for assistance, but I was a little agitated.

Puzzles 3 and 4 went fairly well, but uneventfully. I had worked my way up to around 600th place based solely on the strength of the three scored puzzles, and I was hopeful that puzzle 5 (notoriously the hardest of the tournament) would help me advance further.

I’ve always felt a little bit in limbo in crossword circles. I don’t read crossword blogs, I’ve only participated in the national tournament (and a local one), I rarely do any puzzles other than the New York Times, and so when comments about “Boswords” or specific constructors’ styles pop up in the chats, I tend to feel out of my league. At the same time, I do enjoy it. And I’m pretty good. The ACPT awards prizes for the top three finishers in each “division” as well as the top two in each geographic region and top 10 “rookies.” My first competition was in 2017, and I placed 7th among rookies (despite the disastrous mistake of handing in a puzzle with blank squares that I’d overlooked). This year they announced that they would give out a book of puzzles to each of the top 3 finishers by geographic region. This year there were about a dozen “B” or “A” division competitors (those who’ve done particularly well in previous years’ tournaments- I’m in division “B”) from Upstate New York, so I figured that was my core competition, and that once I got my score on puzzle 1 I should be barely second place in the group, just a few spots behind the lead.

Then puzzle 6 hit. It wasn’t a terribly hard puzzle, but had a down-clue related to Saudi currency in the upper right-hand corner, five letters. My first instinct was “Rial,” but since that wasn’t five letters I went with “dinar.” The crossing clues included a lung-related medical term (Lobad?) a boxer (Tunnen?) and “small duck with green markings” (Tear?). Time was running out on the round minute (which counts for 25 bonus points), so I submitted, and immediately saw that I had three mistakes. The currency was RIYAL, for LOBAR, TUNNEY and TEAL. I felt foolish for the error, and new this would drop me, but I wasn’t sure by how much.

At the end of Saturday’s competition I had dropped well below the leading competitor in Upstate New York, but I was narrowly in third place, about 2 minutes ahead of the 4th-place competitor in the region, and 1 minute behind the second-place competitor. I knew I couldn’t afford to make a mistake again, but I also needed to gain a little time to have my best finish (by geography) ever. Fortunately, the theme of the 7th puzzle came to me fairly quickly and I was able to post a time that (on that puzzle alone) would have placed me in 25th-place overall.

When the dust settled, I wound up in 45th place for the tournament (out of 1030 competitors), and second in the up-state region. I wasn’t able to continue advancing in total place, but at least my streak of finishing in a higher percentile remains intact, I’ll get a book prize, and I know if I can through all 7 puzzles without error next year that should boost me another 10 spots or so on its own.

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