Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Stamford Experience (Part 2)

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...

25 comments:

Kitt said...

Rex: Thanks for sharing...the way you tell the story I feel like I was actually there!

Much appreciated--

Anonymous said...

Rex: Thanks for reconfiguring so I may post. I'm enjoying your Stamford story . Thrilled that you and Amy hang out. Is there a picture of the both of you?

johanna

Orange said...

No pictures from me—by the time I took my camera out midway through the weekend, Rex had become quixotically elusive. Although maybe someone else got a picture?

Howard B said...

Great writeup so far - thanks for sharing. One quick corretion before I disappear for the day - it was actually Dave that cracked NASA on the crypto, and having those common letters exposed cracked the thing wide open.

Too bad I can be so damned thorough - sorry about the misunderstanding of the rules. For what it's worth, I heard afterwards that a few others were confuzzled by the puzzles in the same way (at least those of us not accustomed to solving these sorts of meta-puzzles). My bad there. I think the first team in finished in something like 20 minutes, so we'd have been in the pack but not first. Oh well, one night in Stamford makes a puzzler humble. Or something like that.

Look at it this way - we managed to squeeze every drop of solving out of that as possible. More bang for our buck, as it were.

Time to go, my Inbox is calling :(

Ultra Vi said...

Howard!

A quick hello from Violet!

Evad said...

Thanks, Howard for setting the record straight on my one contribution to the 30 snap puzzles (NASA)...well, that and correcting Rex's logic mistake on the "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" one, but I won't rub that one in either.

I can assure you, any time I hear "A Beautiful Piece of Norway" again in my life, I will smile. Someone please set a date in their daytimer to call me on my 70th birthday (4/24/2030) and say this to me, so I can have a laugh. I'm sure I'll need it!

Anonymous said...

The 166th greatest crossword puzzle solver in the world certainly deserves a Single Malt rather than a blended whisky.

barrywep said...

As a teacher, Rex, I thought you would appreciate Will's lesson to always listen to the person speaking in the front of the room. I am sure Miss Norway's slipping several answers in her speech was far from accidental.

BTW, I did not notice the walls in the bar changing colors. Was I too drunk, or not drunk enough?

DONALD said...

Ditto "kitt" comment!

Howard B said...

Vi - was a pleasure to meet you, and solve (or do my best to solve) the Friday puzzles with you.

Rex - Thank you for posting the Trivial Pursuit card, instead of my horrendously botched Sudoku. Amazing what one small late error can do. No puzzle deserves the fate that poor paper endured.

Orange said...

"Whooo! That's a hot piece of...Norway."

Orange said...

P.S. You left out the part about how it was actually a bikram puzzle-solving session, with how warm it was in the ballroom. I might've stuck around if I'd found you guys, but strangers + heat = me in cool bar.

Wendy said...

Loving the detailed commentary, and I do want to work towards doing this next year. But can any one or more of you enlighten me as to when you crossed over from just wanting to complete the puzzle to wanting to complete them in record time? Or rather, what prompted the crossover? The only thing I'm envisioning right now is wanting to spend less time in my day solving, because I can see where this obsession could be (is) very time consuming!

Evad said...

Hi Wendy...well, for me I wanted to go to Stamford this year more as a social event than as a competition. (In fact, I first considered volunteering to be a judge until I found out this was something of an honor to be selected and one had to be asked.) But now that the weekend is over, I'm glad I solved all the puzzles--there's a camraderie among those of us who fought the good fight--whether we finished 166th or 666th, we all have our stories to share about what we figured out and what snookered us. From the best solvers on down, there was so much humility around, no one could ever feel intimidated.

Ultra Vi said...

Hi, Wendy--

Good question about competing.

Some people have the drive and the intelligence to compete, whether in a puzzle tournament or a completely different arena. I am in awe of those super puzzler competitors, like Amy and Rex and Howard B. Many of us at the tournament were not contenders at all - as I've noted many times, I am very slow at sloving! What made me attend was the notion of being in a room with 699 other people from all different professions but with one thing in common: an obsession with crosswords.

Dave and Howard B have it right - one night in Stamford might humble you, but it won't intimidate you. And yes, the walls in the bar REALLY did change color.

Ultra Vi said...

Excuse me - I am not slow at sloving.

I am slow at solving.

Howard B said...

Wonder what it takes to be an expert slover? I can be pretty slovenly, I dunno.

Probably not typical, but for me, I had no idea there was such a thing as speed-solving or tournaments. Once I eventually got the hang of finishing a puzzle (from Games Magazine, and later a book of NYTimes Monday-Tuesday puzzles) on my lunch hour, just for fun I then tried to see if I could finish two or three before I went back to work. I did this for the heck of it, just to challenge myself, and mostly to escape the daily hell that was my job at that time. I'm competitive with myself and a bit of a perfectionist, but that's just how I am with things sometimes.

Eventually a few months later, I happened to come across (via Googling something else) a charity tournament not 10 minutes from where I live, and since the entry fee was for a good cause, I went there on a lark, really. It was comforting and a bit disquieting all at once to see there were other fun people that did this sort of thing - I liked it right away ;). Scary to finish a puzzle, look up, and see someone at your table already done and deep into reading a novel he brought with him just for that reason.

Evad said...

Hi Vi! So glad to have met you and hope to see you in some local Boston Cru events in the near future!

Let us know when we can come hear you play the viola as well...just email Eric and he can notify the entire Boston Cru list of your performance schedule.

Kitt said...

....nose pressed against the front window of the Stamford Marriott...it's getting chilly out here. Should I look for a bellhop to see if he can find Rex?

When will we get to the part where Ellen and Amy drink too much and pass out in the hotel lobby??

Just kidding ladies...

And we're all anxious for Installment 3, Rex. When you get a minute...no pressure!

I wonder if there is a book in here somewhere--

Ellen said...

Kitt said:
When will we get to the part where Ellen and Amy drink too much and pass out in the hotel lobby??

Just kidding ladies...
* * *
I really hate drinking and everything connected with it. My characteristic quote is "Ick, drinking!"

But you had no way of knowing that.

Orange said...

And I max out at the second beer. Hell, I spent two hours in the hotel bar Friday night...drinking bottled water from the lobby shop.

Any time you see me write "Ick" about anything, it's an homage to Ellen.

Kitt said...

Ellen and Amy I REALLY REALLY was just kidding....

Trying to get Rex to write more...

Sorry, if I offended. It was surely not my intention. Please forgive.

Kitt

Rex Parker said...

Kitt - I'm pretty sure they're not offended. Don't worry.

RP

Kitt said...

Thanks for the reassurance, Rex. Being a "weekling" (posting here for less than a week) -- sure didn't want to be miffing folks off right away.


Kitt

Sobriquet Magazine said...

Being the Norwegian-speaking, composition-teaching, cruciverbalist that I am, I have to make one tiny correction: "crossword" is "kryssord" in Norwegian...the "ø" is a distinct vowel not to be confused with "o."