Part 1: "Arrival"
I drove out to Stamford from the made-up town of "Confluence, NY" at about 1pm on Friday, hoping to make it there by just after 4pm, which would give me more than enough time to check in, unpack, perhaps have a shower, and then get down to the lobby to find Amy Reynaldo, with whom I would be sitting at the special "Cru" dinner on Friday night (The "Cru" are just a sizeable group of solvers who frequent the NYT Puzzle Forum, I believe).
The drive went smoothly - superfast, except for the last five miles, which were a crawl through early rush-hour traffic on northbound I-95. Mapquest was perfect ... until I actually got into Stamford, and then the wheels came off. I got lost and had to call the hotel from my car. A very nice woman at the front desk reeled me in, staying on the phone with me and directing me back to the hotel (this was the first time I'd ever driven while talking on my cell phone, as I think it is possibly the most assholish activity that otherwise decent people engage in on a regular basis). With my car safely ensconced in the hotel parking ramp, I wheeled my suitcase through the front doors of the Marriott and immediately recognized Merl Reagle among a gaggle of folks schmoozing in the lounge. It was an odd feeling - walking onto what was essentially the movie set for "Wordplay." Despite the fact that I write in a rather confident, even imperious voice on my crossword blog, I am in reality quite shy and not that great at socializing with folks I don't know at all. Adding to the weird butterflies in my stomach was the anticipation of being "recognized" by "fans" of my blog (sounds preposterous, I know, but it happened). I found myself mildly embarrassed that I had created this fake name - the whole conceit started feeling somewhat juvenile to me all of a sudden. The idea of having this weird, very minor celebrity was stressing me out a bit.
I settled into my room and finally made my way back to the lobby to find and introduce myself to Amy for the first time. She walked past me in the hall and I said "Amy?" but she didn't hear me. So I went to get my name tag (with my real name on it) and then found Amy in a little circle of people in the middle of the lobby. I walked up and introduced myself and there was this very, very awkward moment where she looked at me like I was some random stranger and then it was unclear whether we should hug or shake hands (we had never met, but we talk via email literally every day). So we ended up shaking hands with all the warmth and comfort of, I don't know, let's say Sadat and Begin before Carter got involved. Conversation was a bit awkward, and for the first few seconds there, I felt generally like Quasimodo at a cocktail party. I can't remember if Amy introduced me to Byron Walden or if I just turned to my left and he happened to be there, but he and I started talking and things got very normal very quickly. He was quite easy to talk to - very charming, and quite handsome, especially for a mathematician (no offense, Andrew).
The rest of Friday night was great - in fact, I'd say Friday night was the most enjoyable part of the tournament, in that the tournament hadn't started yet and there was nothing to do but socialize and have fun. Even the games later that night were more like play than serious competition (though some people did "win" those games, I guess - more on that later). Oh, I forgot to mention that while I was talking to Byron, Ellen Ripstein marched right over and introduced herself and was very chatty and kind and told me she knew that I was "Rex Parker" and that she found out about my blog because she had heard Will laughing while he was at his computer once and she had asked him what what he was laughing at. Very flattering. It was so nice to be greeted so warmly, especially by fairly well-known crossword types (Ellen is one of the featured contestants in "Wordplay," in case you didn't know; and Byron is one of the greatest crossword constructors around, and the author of last year's infamous tournament Puzzle #5, which was so brutal that most people could not even finish; I solved a bootleg copy of it earlier this year and it took me 80 minutes - tournament contestants were given only 30).
As for Amy - any awkwardness in our interaction was my fault. I am overly sensitive, and if people aren't actively, demonstratively solicitous of my attention, I tend to think that they wish I would go away. And so I do. As I told her later, I was concerned that I would be an annoying hanger-on (she's quite a star in the world of crosswords, after all), and so eventually I became a conspicuous hanger-off - disappearing shortly after Saturday night's screening of "Wordplay" outtakes and missing my opportunity not only to socialize more with Amy and others, but to socialize with Captain Shortz himself. The next morning Amy said "Will was asking where you were last night." But I'm getting Way ahead of myself. The truth is that Amy looked out for me and repeatedly sought me out during the weekend to see how I was doing and to pass along news / gossip / scandal / horror stories / etc. She gave me access to the inner world of the tournament that I Never would have had otherwise. Ooh, and at the St. Martin's table in the vendors' area, there was a cool little promotional display for Amy's forthcoming book on how to conquer the NYT crossword. We took multiple pictures.
So, the "Cru" dinner on Friday night was adequate, food-wise, and ample, dessert-wise. While waiting in line to get into the dinner, a very gregarious man named Michael (last name now forgotten by me) accosted me and said "Hey, Rex Parker." He was very warm and welcoming and said nice things. Most people I met were like this - just very decent, kind people. That was the overwhelming impression I got of the tournament crowd. There were some noticeable exceptions, but not among any people I spent any significant amount of time with. Had dinner at a table with Amy and Ellen among several others, including two people I'd end up spending a lot more time with that weekend: Howard Barkin and Dave Sullivan.
Howard is one of the greatest solvers in the country - he had the same scores as 3-time champion Tyler Hinman on five out of the seven puzzles, and he had the highest scores in the "B" category, though a judge's error meant that he was erroneously excluded from the "B" finals! Scandal! Error was not discovered until after the 3 finalists had been announced. But Howard is happy with how the whole fiasco was settled - because he is Howard, and while he is a very driven solver, he is amazingly gracious, conciliatory, and shockingly non-competitive. He gave me lots of helpful advice throughout the weekend, both about solving and about enjoying the whole tournament experience.
Dave Sullivan - a friend of Amy's and a (very) proud member of the Cruciverbalists of Boston - was another supernice person, as well as a great solving companion. He was more in my league, solving-wise, than Amy and Howard and Byron, so talking with him about my struggles with the various puzzles felt less ... what's the word? ... oh, yes: humiliating. We both ended up finishing in the top half of contestants as rookies, so hurray for us.
After the "Cru" dinner, we made our way back to the lobby where there was much milling about before the night's main festivities - a Norwegian-style crossword (I only wish I had a scan of the puzzle, because it was Rich) and a team game competition featuring 30 "snap" puzzles (in honor of the tournament's 30th year). Before the festivities commenced, I looked across the gigantic ballroom and noticed Howard directing a woman's attention my way. That woman was none other than Violet Ray, a constant commenter on my blog (as Ultra Vi) whom I'd been eager to meet. I recognized her from a picture I'd seen earlier that day on her faculty webpage (she's a professional violist with a well known quartet as well as Chair of the Music dept. at a major university). I went over and gave her a big hug and somehow, within seconds, we had ourselves a "team" for the night: me, Vi, Dave, and Howard. More on our awesome team in the next installment of "The Stamford Experience."
End Part 1
Tomorrow, Part 2: "A Beautiful Piece of Norway"