Part 2: "A Beautiful Piece of Norway"
Our first taste of competition came on Friday night, when we amassed in the grand ballroom and were presented with a Norwegian-style crossword (or "Kryssørd," I think). This was immediately following a mini-lecture on Norwegian crosswords, and the crosswording habits of Norwegians, by a very nice lady (Berit Veiset) whose English was not very good - but it was better than my Norwegian, I guess. My team - me, Vi, Dave, and Howard - mostly tuned her out and talked amongst ourselves. It was all weirdly high school, actually; like we were at some assembly where we were supposed to be learning about fire safety or not doing drugs and instead we were whispering and giggling. We did learn that "Ø" is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the shortest proper noun in the world (it's the name of three rivers in Scandinavia, I think). And we learned that - and this is a direct quote - "Norwegians are the most newspaper-reading people in the world." Anyway, I think we should have been paying better attention, as at least some of what Ms. Veiset had to say ended up being relevant to the puzzle we then had to solve (specifically, we had to know how to spell "Kryssørd"!). Rather than spend a lot of time describing how Norwegian crosswords are different from American crosswords, I'll just tell you that Norwegian puzzles are a lot like "Pencil Pointers" such as one might find in Games magazine, and then I will direct you to a page with a definition of "Pencil Pointers." There, done.
The puzzle was in color - Norwegians need something to keep them happy during the long winters - and this one had a large color photo in the NW quadrant of a happy older couple in full traditional garb posing proudly in front of what we later decided was a fjord. Some in my group initially said "river," but eventually we agreed - fjord. The couple looks silly, standing there all alone in nature ... like they got separated from the parade and this was the last known photo of them. The long theme answer in the puzzle, which ran away from the picture in an "L" formation, down and then across the puzzle, was clued something like [What this picture shows], and the answer was "A Beautiful Piece of Norway." I assume that the "piece" refers to the countryside, because that would be an awfully disrespectful way to refer to the woman in the photo. The phrase reads like it was translated from the Norwegian - it's not terribly idiomatic, in English - but the puzzle was written by Frank Longo, who I'm pretty sure is fluent in English, so he has no excuse. Actually, overall, the puzzle was surprisingly fun, and I tore through it. It was nice to get a taste of timed puzzle action before the real event began.
When all the slow pokes had finally finished, it was on to the team competition: 30 "snap" puzzles (one for each year of the tournament's existence), to be completed within an hour time limit. Each puzzle was related to a specific year, beginning with 1978 and continuing through 2007; solving the 2007 puzzle was your final goal, but you needed to solve 1978-2006 (or, as we discovered, most of 1978-2006) to do it, because the code in the 2007 puzzle was clued to the answers for the other puzzles - you needed those answers to crack the code. So we went at the puzzles like sharks after chum, only with perhaps somewhat less efficiency ... there was a lot of flailing, though, so the metaphor kind of holds up. Here's one puzzle, cutely crafted in the form of a Trivial Pursuit card - note how I got GHOSTBUSTERS from "NY," "Bill Murray," "Phantom," and "Marshmallow," but then Howard went back and dutifully (and I might add, unnecessarily) answered the questions I had neglected to answer:
So each puzzle had an answer related to its particular year. For instance, the 1978 puzzle was all about the Sundance Film Festival, which debuted that year, and the answer derived from the puzzle ended up being "Garfield" (another 1978 debut). Some puzzles were easy - the 1978 puzzle just had eight former Sundance films written out, each with one of their words changed to mean its opposite, and then a number followed the fake title, and that number told you which letter of the real word would contribute to the answer you were looking for - So "The Day Listener (3)" ended up being "G" because the real word is not "Day" but "Night" and "G" is the THIRD letter of night. The next title provided "A" and on down until you had GARFIELD. Other puzzles - not so easy. There was one puzzle where two headlines from The Onion were encrypted, and you needed to decipher them in order to solve the "FINAL ANSWER" at the bottom (a "written work first published in 1988" - answer ended up being A Brief History of Time). This was where having Howard Barkin on our team came in handy. When I took a stab at those damned headlines, the only letter I could decipher was "E" - not a lot of help. Howard managed to figure out that "VJNJ" (all caps) had to be NASA, and steadily cracked it from there. This was the last puzzle we solved. However ...
There was some confusion about what being "done" with the puzzle meant. For instance, I had SOUT- in the 1997 puzzle when I realized that the answer was going to be SOUTH PARK - so I didn't bother figuring out why; I just wrote down SOUTH PARK and moved on. I mean, it's not a calculus test - I don't have to show my work, right? Well, not according to Dave and Howard, who were far more fastidious and wanted every detail accounted for. Vi and I were far less punctilious - get an answer, move on! But Howard in particular wanted all ducks in a row. So even when we Had The Final Answer Solved - an imaginary 2007 headline that read something like "Record Attendance at Crossword Tournament Causes Graphite Shortage" - we went back and bothered to solve the two stray years we hadn't figured out yet before turning our puzzle in. And you know what - turns out I was right and it Did Not Matter. Only the correctness of the Final Answer mattered. Thank god, because there's no way I could have showed my work on the 1980 puzzle, where I guessed "Who Shot JR?" with only the fragments R, SH, and TJ in front of me. 1989 was the easiest, as it involved spray-painted phrases that had been broken up and spread all over the page. The author of the graffiti was the answer to the puzzle - the font alone told me at a glance that the answer was BART SIMPSON. But was that good enough for my (male) teammates? Nooooo, they wanted every "i" dotted and "t" crossed. So we lost, I don't know, at least five minutes, probably more, doing work that didn't need to be done. And we still did better than most of the room. The great part was that we didn't have to rely on Howard for everything - each of us completed a significant amount of work, and the whole experience was actually a total blast. Howard was especially happy when one of the first puzzles we unearthed was Douglas Adams-related. I think he had it done inside a minute.
The rest of the night was spent in the bar with Amy and Vi and ... was it Dave? Maybe it was Howard? One of them, but not both. I forget! You'll forgive me for remembering the women who were present better than I remember the men. I hope. I was gonna have a Guinness but Vi ordered Johnnie Walker Red and despite the fact that it came in a fruity-looking snifter, I knew I had to have one. We chatted until just after 1am in this hipster-looking bar with walls that changed colors, and then it was time to try to sleep before the tournament really got underway the next morning. I had a trip to IHOP planned for a pre-tournament breakfast with Amy, Vi, Dave, and Howard, but Amy got me worried that I would lose my space in the parking ramp and then what would I do and would time be an issue and blah blah blah so I decided that night to cancel the IHOP trip (I get sad just thinking about it) and bought everyone breakfast at the hotel restaurant the next morning instead. And that's where Part 3 of "The Stamford Experience" will begin...
PS I've reconfigured this blog so that anyone can post a comment now, not just registered members...
Graywolf Press: Saying Yes When Others Say No
6 hours ago