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this is going to be a long post, mostly to do with my ACPT recap, but i'm going to avoid puzzle-specific spoilers so that the at-home division solvers can feel free to read this. also, i'm making this week's variety puzzle free to the public; i had 350 copies out on the table in the marriott lobby this weekend and they all disappeared by saturday morning. next year i'll bring more copies, but in the meantime, if you didn't grab one in person, have at it now.

let's get the puzzle out of the way first: it's a siamese twins, written by me, with a twist, plus a metapuzzle and contest. instructions are on the puzzle itself. no online solving option for this one, so you'll have to print out the pdf. also, because it's a contest, i'll withhold the solutions until next monday. the deadline to enter the contest is sunday night at 9 pm eastern.

Variety Puzzle #15 PDF

happy solving, and good luck in the contest! new rows garden tomorrow.


now, on to the important stuff: ACPT weekend. i don't really know how to organize my thoughts here into a coherent post, so i'm going to try to say some things about the tournament itself from my perspective, some briefer thoughts about the weekend in general, and some things about this website.

the tournament was, as always, great. it was, in fact, greater than usual, for two reasons: one, howard barkin won the whole thing, which is making me so happy that i keep grinning as i write this. it was my seventh ACPT, and the first time i've ever seen anybody other than dan feyer lift the cup at the end of the tournament. as much as i like dan, who's an incredible solver and a class act, i was particularly overjoyed for howard. of all the wonderful people i've met in the world of crosswords, he's the absolute sweetest. i'm still heartbroken at the memory of watching him literally weep with frustration one year after being on stage by himself, solving for 3rd place and not quite able to finish one corner of a brutal puzzle 8. howard is not normally very demonstrative, so i don't know that any of us were expecting his full-body primal scream upon finally winning. (you can check it out at around the 1:50 mark of this youtube clip, although be warned that there are spoilers for the playoff puzzle.)

the other reason this was an unusually great tournament: i thought all 8 puzzles were excellent. they usually are, but this felt like a more elegant and entertaining set than even the typical high standard of ACPT puzzles. i got off to a rough start personally, as i missed the minute on puzzle 1 by two seconds, and on puzzle 2 by three seconds. kristian house's puzzle 1 was fun and fresh, but felt a couple notches harder to me than a typical 1, more of a wednesday level than a monday/tuesday. i stumbled a few times with clues i couldn't grasp on the first pass and three different wrong answers entered in the grid. overall, it felt more to me like a puzzle 4 than a puzzle 1; in fact, not only did i solve puzzle 4 considerably faster, but i am pretty sure i would have solved kristian's puzzle 1 itself faster if it had been #4 instead. i just wasn't prepared to solve a #1 that was going to put up any kind of resistance, and this one did.

patrick blindauer's puzzle 2 was breezy and i felt like i was racing through it fast enough, but ouch, when i looked up and saw :57 on the clock, i figured it was just not going to be my year. i thought i was keeping pace when i got in under 5 minutes on mike shenk's puzzle 3 (and i was relieved to have avoided an extremely common error on what amounted to something like a 70/30 guess), but it turned out both dan and david plotkin had broken 4. so going into lunch, i was 3 minutes behind dan, and two minutes behind david, howard, anne ellison, and tyler hinman.

considering how tough it is to gain ground on any of those five, i figured i was going to need a killer #5. but i had noticed a wrinkle in the tournament schedule and announcement: puzzle 5 is usually a 17x17, 30 minute puzzle, but this year it was listed as 19x19, still 30 minutes. i didn't know why that was, but if they made the puzzle bigger than usual but not longer than usual, i figured that had to mean it was easier than usual. all of this was bad for my chances, because my competitive advantage, if i have one relative to the other top 5 contenders, is on harder puzzles, and my disadvantage is on bigger puzzles. i didn't know what the reason for the change was, but it just seemed like one more data point to support the "not my year" idea.

i have no superstitions/rituals about where to sit or who to sit near at ACPT; this year i happened to be sitting in the row in front of anne, and we passed the time between puzzles pumping each other up with hamilton quotes. i don't know if it helped either of us, but it was fun! also, between rounds 2 and 3, i figured out a solution to the mild distraction of trying to write into a grid with my contestant label affixed to the back of the sheet: i just wouldn't put the label on until after i'd finished the puzzle. (i made a suggestion to will that they put the "affix label here" box behind the clues, not the grid, next year.) this is a tiny thing, but it can definitely slow you down by a couple of seconds if you're trying to write in the grid while reading the next clue. the little bump where the edge of the label is annoying enough that you might need to look where you're writing, which slows you down.

at this point i think i can call it an established pattern that i always solve better after lunch. part of that is that i'm just not a morning person; part of it is that i never go to bed early enough on friday night of ACPT weekend to get enough sleep, even though the puzzles don't start until 11 on saturday morning. (more on this later.) at any rate, the pattern held this year: i finished puzzle 4, a very classy zhouqin burnikel, in under 3 minutes. for once, i caught the right side of the minute: when i looked up at the end of the puzzle, i saw 17:08. that was only enough time to scan for blanks, and—hey!—i found one. i filled in the last letter and handed in my puzzle with 17:03 showing. i definitely caught some luck here—i didn't have time to read either crossing clue for that blank square, but i put in the only letter that turned the across entry into a recognizable word and it also worked with the down. (if it hadn't worked with the down, i would like to think i'd've held the puzzle into the next minute and figured out what was going on, but in the heat of battle, you never know. i've made dumber mistakes.)

then came puzzle 5. by now, you've probably heard that it was a patrick berry. it was 19x19 because he had constructed it thinking it was going to be #3, but after looking at it, will wanted to make it #5 instead. i felt reasonably comfortable with my speed on this puzzle; when i looked up, 7:47 or so had elapsed. i was a little disappointed, because while that is a fine time on a #5, it is not a time to beat the room, which is what i thought i needed to do. (last year, when i did beat the room on #5, it took me 6:00 exactly.) of course, what i had forgotten was that this was a 19x19, so i actually was solving very nearly as fast this year as last.

let me say before i continue: this was a brilliant puzzle. the theme is ingenious and the whole thing is elegantly crafted, not that you would expect any less. the fill is superb and the clues sparkle. on saturday night i finally had the chance to meet patrick berry in person, a first for me. i was only a little starstruck, but one thing i did say to both him and will was that speed-solving that puzzle was almost a shame, like speed-solving a picasso. imagine a contest held at the louvre to see who can look at the largest number of masterpieces in 30 minutes. that's kind of what this felt like. sometimes i wonder if the whole endeavor of competitive crosswords isn't woefully misguided.

anyway, the standings were definitely shaken up by puzzle 5. anne and dan had finished a minute ahead of me. francis heaney was the only other solver in my minute (under 8). david came out a minute later. howard and andy kravis were a minute after that. i was looking for tyler, but david mentioned that he had passed tyler on his way out and he had still been solving. when tyler did come out (under 11), he was ... well, he was tyler, with his usual "well, my tournament is over" melodrama. but some of us remember previous tournaments when he has said that and it has turned out not to be over at all; tyler in beast mode on sunday morning is becoming almost a tradition. i distinctly recall last year, when he was in 4th coming into puzzle 7, two minutes behind both me and howard who were tied for second, and, yes, he beat me by two minutes by solving in under 6 to make the playoffs. (it turned out that i also made an inconsequential careless error on #7.) so my favorite hamilton quote of the day was when i said to anne, "as long as he can hold a pen, he's a threat!" we both got a good chuckle out of that one.

puzzle #6 was a fun romp by joel fagliano on which the standings changed very little; david lost a minute to the rest of us, dropping him into a tie with me and howard for 3rd place. by tiebreaker rules, i was 3rd ahead of both of them by virtue of beating howard on #5 and david on #6, but it was the most tenuous of holds on a playoff spot. dan and anne were four minutes ahead of us and could not be caught, and tyler was only one minute behind. so if i lost a minute to any of howard, david, or tyler on puzzle 7, i'd be out of the finals.

it was basically a much shakier version of the same situation i'd been in the previous year: in playoff position, but having to hold off three solvers who are all better sprinters than me on a 21x21 easyish puzzle. i was mentally resigning myself to the same fate as last year (although i was hoping to at least avoid the inconsequential error this year). but then saturday evening, two bombshells hit.

first, we found out that anne had an error on #5. this was heartbreaking for anne, and for me. i mean, i don't have to tell you guys that anne is really fast, but i'm not sure how many people realize: anne is absolutely as fast as anybody, including dan. her tournament solving times over the last couple years are right there as proof of this. (i don't think there is anybody else in the field who can consistently hang with dan over the course of 7 puzzles.) for whatever reason, she has yet to display a signature performance on the big boards, which is why i think some people are sleeping on her chances to win, but to me it's only a matter of time.

anyway, the effect of anne being out of the running on my own chances was scant consolation; instead of having to hold off all three of dan, howard, and tyler, now i could "afford" to drop a minute to one but not two of them. that didn't seem like a big difference to me; i fully expected them to all solve #7 in under 7 minutes, which is something i'd never done. hell, i was still spooked by tyler getting in under 6 last year, and i was certainly conscious of the possibility that he might reprise the performance.

after dinner, though, the other bombshell hit: tyler had an error way back on puzzle #2 that had gone uncaught at the time. i don't know whether it was self-reported or just something that the judges caught upon regrading; either is entirely possible. i do know that the judges went over all of the top contenders' puzzles over and over to make sure they had the scoring right. (by the way, now would be a great time to say hats off to mike nothnagel and everybody in the judges' room for their outstanding behind-the-scenes work!) i never looked at my own scans, so i wasn't going self-report an error unless i had been conscious of making one that had gone uncaught. but tyler obviously did not know during the day that he'd erred way back on #2.

anyway, my odds had definitely tilted now: with both anne and tyler out of contention, i was only competing against david and howard for the two spots in the playoffs up for grabs (dan, of course, had the other one locked up). all three of us were tied, and the tiebreak order was me-howard-david, but again, i was pretty sure i would have to break 7 minutes to hold them off, and i'd never done that. did i mention i'm not a morning person? puzzle 7 starting at 9 am has always been a bane for me, especially those two years where we also lost an hour during ACPT due to daylight savings. but i decided that i would never have a better chance, and for once i would try going to bed at a reasonable hour on saturday night. i was not going to throw away my shot!

here's what happened sunday morning: i crushed #7, a delightful lynn lempel puzzle with a theme that i found to be very favorable for my solving strengths. lynn is the best monday constructor around, and this felt like a giant monday. my goal all along had been to get in under 7, and when i looked up, 6:34 had elapsed and i breathed a sigh of relief. i spent 20 seconds idly glancing around my grid making sure i hadn't done something really dumb, and then turned it in. anne, once again in the row behind me, gave me a huge hug as we walked out of the ballroom together. we both really thought i had finally broken through.

but when i got out to the hallway, david and howard were both already there waiting. incredibly, they'd both gotten in under 6. they were both making the usual caveats about going all-out for speed and having no time to check, but i knew it wasn't likely, and i also didn't even want that to have happened. as much as i'd love to win ACPT one of these years, or at least make the finals, i'm never going to root for one of my friends to make an error. i just need to be fast enough to earn it on my own terms. this year, i thought i was. in some ways, although it is ridiculous, i still do; as i said to some people on sunday morning, "it's not my fault 7 minutes wasn't good enough. blame those guys for breaking 6!"

well, you guys know how it turned out. howard won, dan was second, and david finished third. when you consider that howard had to break 6 minutes on #7 just to get into the finals and then solve the brutal mark diehl playoff puzzle under 8 minutes (at the big board!) to take out the 6-time defending champ, who was by no means slow... it's by far the greatest clutch sunday performance i've ever seen at the ACPT. (there are plenty of people who have been coming to the tournament a lot longer, though; maybe they can recall some great comebacks from before my time.)

my own perspectives on #8 aren't so relevant, but here: i solved it in 7:47 on paper, but i ended with an error, in the same square that tripped up multiple B/C finalists. it was the last square i filled in, and i didn't feel great about it, but since nothing was at stake, i just stopped. anyway, obviously i wouldn't have beaten howard or dan with that time; it would have been at least 9 or 10 minutes once you adjust for the whiteboard, plus either an error or however long it would have taken me to run the alphabet to find the right letter if i'd been steely enough to do that with the pressure on.

i was solving during the C final so i could concentrate on watching the A final. i went to the front of the room and set up on howard's side of the stage so i could watch him. as much as i love dan and tyler, who are both great champions and great guys, i always root for howard and anne when they are up there. (and david, too, now—he's younger than the rest of us and this certainly isn't the last time he'll be on stage!) but when howard had not managed to string two answers together after a minute, minute and a half of the puzzle had elapsed, with dan and david both making great inroads right away, i was not feeling it. but once he started, he was unstoppable. the whole thing was incredible to watch, and i think i was the one screaming second-loudest in the whole ballroom when he won.

last note about my own tournament solving: i can't help thinking about next year. i'm going to give it my best shot again, of course, but i'm a realist. i know that i'm not a favorite to make the finals in any particular year; dan and anne will assuredly be in the finals if they're clean (and perhaps even if they're not!), and i'm just one of the folks in the mix for the other spot. i need to be a little sharper on saturday morning, maybe catch some breaks with respect to being on the right side of the minute mark, and most importantly i need to have a favorable #5. this year, i can check probably only one of those three boxes. next year, who knows? two out of three might be enough for me, maybe not.

yikes, that ended up being way longer than i intended. hopefully some of you will find it interesting reading.

more general weekend thoughts, and this will be brief:

it's great to see this group of amazing people once a year. i had so much fun playing many great games: peter gordon's celebrity: get a clue, jeopardy!, neville fogarty's diabolical and delightful only connect game, and anything else i've forgotten. i didn't play eric berlin's escape room on friday night, but i had been a test-solver for eric and i know those puzzles were great, so i was utterly unsurprised to hear that people found them delightful to solve at the actual event. i was happy to meet some folks in person i'd "known" for years through social media and solving their puzzles.

as i mentioned above, i went to bed before 1 am saturday, much earlier than usual for me. i wasn't really feeling great to begin with (i'm still shaking off the effects of a cold) and i needed sleep. in some sense, it worked, because i did much better than usual on #7 sunday morning; in a slightly larger sense, it didn't, because that wasn't enough; but overall i think it was nice not to be tired and cranky and still sick on sunday, so overall i'm going to call that a success. i'm sorry i didn't get to spend more time hanging out saturday night, though.

i don't say this enough: everything about ACPT is better because my wonderful wife caroline is there with me every year (except 2013, when she was 9+ months pregnant with our daughter leah). and sure, caroline is the one person at ACPT i get to see the other 362 days of the year, too; but being able to share this activity and this community with her is really important to me.

last of all: many of you lovely subscribers came up to me during the weekend and introduced yourselves and had kind things to say about this site, which was immensely gratifying. i'm really grateful to all of you for making this possible. a puzzle constructor without a solver base is a sad thing. i'm really happy to be making these puzzles for all of you.

if you've made it this far, thanks for reading! i'm going to allow spoilers for tournament puzzles in the comments to this post, so if you're waiting for the puzzles by mail, don't click on the "show comments" button. (i don't know if anybody else will leave comments, but i'll have a couple things to say about specific clues and answers later on monday.) conversely, though, please don't leave spoilery comments about the siamese twins puzzle on this post. after the contest ends, i'll post the solutions next monday and you can comment there.


  1. Joon Pahk

    Joon Pahk on #

    for those who are interested in my error on #8: in square 42, i ended up with R instead of P. earlier in that corner i'd tried out ROTGUT, which didn't work, but i never got around to erasing the R. i didn't know a golfer named RAVIN, but i don't know all the golfers, and it seemed like it *might* be a name, so i just kind of shrugged. this was dumb. in fact, it's the same dumb error i made on my unofficial #8 solve last year. if i'd run the alphabet, i would have recognized the name PAVIN because i know corey pavin is a golfer... and perhaps i have even seen POT ALE, but it didn't register with me from that clue.

    i'm glad these mistakes don't count, but a little less glad that i don't seem to be learning from them.

  2. Stephen  Grant

    Stephen Grant on #

    Where's the LIKE button? Great blog post, Joon. And great performance on the weekend (although we know that great isn't sufficient to make the podium where you are up against magna-great, awesome opponents)

    I would have loved to have been there. My last appearance was in 2009 (as the Exec Producer of the mobile NYTXW Puzzle app, I represented Magmic, the lead sponsor; I think that was the year before you started attending?) so I saw Tyler's last win; Dan won Div B.

    To paraphrase a cultural Easter/Passover seasonal wish: "Next year in Stamford!"

  3. Anne Ellison

    Anne Ellison on #

    Well, I'm gonna leave a comment! Thanks so much for the nice words, joon. Fast is... necessary but not sufficient. One also needs "correct". Since I haven't been able to pull that off the last two years, it doesn't matter how fast I am. Loved your discussion of the tournament, loved trading H quotes with you (and yes, that "hold a pen" one was brilliant!), and, please tell me you'll continue this puzzle series and blog next year!

  4. Joon Pahk

    Joon Pahk on #

    thanks, anne! yes, one does usually need "correct" (although i haven't forgotten 2012), but on the other hand, there are pikers like me who have never been one of the three fastest solvers in any acpt. it really sucks to have your only chance at the playoffs be a mistake by somebody you genuinely like.

  5. Joon Pahk

    Joon Pahk on #

    also, i'm certainly intending to continue into year 2 (and beyond) of outside the box puzzles. i can't 100% guarantee it at this point, because things can happen, but i have no plans to quit.

  6. Chris Cieslak

    Chris Cieslak on #

    One of these days, I'll be in the room where it happens. Not this year, though.

  7. Joon Pahk

    Joon Pahk on #

    over on david's facebook, we're having an interesting discussion about not reading all the clues while speed-solving. david mentioned this blog post and in particular my puzzle 4 guess, so i thought i'd elucidate on that here. the blank was in square 47, where 46a {Many a Lions Club fund-raiser} RAFF_E crossed 47d {Turner who turned heads} _ANA. i'm quite sure i saw the across clue earlier in the solve, with very few crossings in place (maybe just the terminal E), and wasn't able to instaget it. i don't know that i ever saw the down clue, which, in retrospect, seems even more dangerous now because 55a {Won an eBay item with a last-second bid, say} could conceivably have been SWIPED instead of SNIPED. anyway, looking at RAFF_E, there's really only one thing it can be, and it's pretty obvious without having to run the alphabet, so i just stuck the L in there. outside in the hallway after the round, i asked somebody, "what was the clue for RAFFLE?" i'm glad nobody felt like trolling me with a response of "you mean the clue for RAFFIE? yeah, i'd never heard of that either!"

  8. Tyler Hinman

    Tyler Hinman on #

    I certainly would have reported the error if I'd seen it, but I don't see how I ever would have. I checked the scan, saw no yellow, and moved on. The only reason I did eventually see it was an idle click after checking in on #3, for which someone else's scan was on my page for several hours (though my score was correct).

    Now to spend the next twelve months cursing the existence of Mr. T.

  9. steve smith

    steve smith on #

    What a great write-up, Joon. You really capture the spirit of the whole weekend--a fun weekend, with people and characters we all love, in compassionate competition with each other. For me, I always just want to be better than the year before. Didn't happen this year, as I got tripped up on the common error you mentioned, plus a couple of dumb inexcusable errors on #6. It was a whirlwind of a weekend and I saw you a couple of times, but I never got the chance to tell you how much I'm loving this site. I usually solve your RGs with my daughter, who absolutely adores them.

    I'm rooting for you to break through some year--it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

    By the way, I started working on a Boston tournament in the fall, aiming for Fall, 2017, then I got busy and had to back-burner it. I'll be in touch about it bc I still want to get it going.

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