Part 3: "It's Like The Super Bowl"
OK, where was I? Oh, right. And so to bed. Woke up and decided the IHOP trip was impossible and so breakfasted with everyone in the Marriott restaurant instead. When I got down to the lobby (8-ish), there were many people already milling about. The first set of three puzzles didn't get under way 'til 11am, so all was still calm. The puzzle organizer folk (or fairies, I don't know for sure) had made copies of that day's actual Saturday NYT puzzle, and when I walked in to the lobby Amy and Howard were already busily working on it. I thought a little pre-tournament puzzle action would be good for the ol' brain and so started in on the puzzle myself. Minutes later I had filled in nothing. Thankfully, at some point during my failed attempt to solve, Amy said something about how brutal the top half of the puzzle was, so I didn't feel so bad. Maybe she was just being kind, who knows? Finally I got down to a clue about the PINA COLADA song and managed to finish a whole quadrant of the puzzle off of that. Then I said "screw this, I don't need the stress" and put the puzzle away to finish later.
Once everyone got over the disappointment of missing out on IHOP, we entered the restaurant and sat ourselves, as there appeared to be no hostess on duty. Only there was a hostess on duty and so we sat without menus for a while until I went and alerted the hostess to our presence. The menu was limited. I got the breakfast bar with omelette option - the omelette cook was nice and managed to keep five different orders in his head at once, AND (more importantly) managed to produce a vegetable omelette that was not at all runny. One thing Amy and I have in common => runny eggs = vomit. My favorite moment of the breakfast was when the food came and Amy's side of scrambled egg, singular, arrived as scrambled eggs, plural (what were there, like a dozen eggs in that thing?) and a huge mound of hash browns to boot. "But I just wanted a single egg." "That's how our side of eggs comes." Etc. I was a little afraid Amy might hurl the whole plate at the unyielding and only semi-competent waiter, but luckily for us all, that didn't happen.
Between breakfast and the competition, I perused the vendors who were camped out in the Pavilion hawking their wares: puzzle books (including "x-rated" ones - no offense, but gross), pencils, coffee mugs, unappealing T-shirts (something like "Crossword Constructors Think Outside the Box" and "Crossword Solvers See the World in Black and White" - hackneyed phrases, the latter of which is not something I'd ever be proud to say), other games, a print of a desk with a NYT puzzle on it and pencils and pens and what I believe was the most ridiculously used and abused-looking dictionary in humanity - artful enough, but only the most pretentious person in the world would be caught dead with that in his house - a crossword coffee table that Will had signed, proceeds from which were going to some charity I forget ... eventually the "Wordplay" people were there, selling promotional mugs or something. Fewer vendors than I would have imagined. I bought nothing. As I said in an earlier post, the highlight of the vendor section was seeing the little promo poster for Amy's book. I only wish I'd known her earlier so that I could have found a way to get myself mentioned in it ... somehow.
At 11am, the competition began. There were so many participants that the Grand Ballroom would not hold us all, so 1/3 of the contestants were down in some mythical underground lair I never actually saw because I was with the end-of-the-alphabet people, and we were in the Grand Ballroom all Saturday long. Then, when it would have been our turn to go to the mythical underground lair (Sunday morning), that lair was occupied by some other group so we solved in "the Pavilion," which was open to the whole downstairs of the hotel, which was horrible, but that's later.
Choosing seating. I figured I didn't really want to sit with friends - needed to stay focused. Imagine row upon row of skinny rectangular tables with giant pieces of folded yellow construction paper at each seat acting as makeshift dividers (you know, so you don't cheat). I hated these dividers as the triangular space they created did not fit the rectangular shape of the puzzle well, if at all. So I pushed my triangle wide open and invited everyone around me to cheat away.
I was surrounded by very affable people: an older gentleman, a youngish guy who looked Just like a very good former student of mine, and then, across from me, a very nice young woman from, I'm gonna say Long Island, who had been given a trip to the tournament as a gift from her brother (because she's "the one in the family who's good with words"). She was chatty and friendly, but her pre-game patter was unintentionally hilarious to me. My favorite bit of commentary from her, which I made a point of scribbling down seconds after she said it, was the following:
"The games here have been tight, down to a 10th of a second - it's like the Super Bowl."
I think she was just nervous. She made this and other random utterances as she manically anointed her eyes with Visine. She would later explain that she'd awoken on Friday morning with "blocked tear ducts" and her eyes swollen shut. She said it as if this was just bad luck, something that might have happened to anyone, as opposed to one of the most freakish medical mysteries I've ever heard of.
She had been given "Wordplay" as a gift, too, but hadn't watched it, so a couple of us pointed out the stars of the film (several of whom, including Trip Payne, were seated right behind me). And then ... Puzzle 1, by Paula Gamache. Now, I went in thinking "Monday," as in, "You will ace this one." So I had so much nervous energy that I was Racing, but then I hit some words that were Not Monday, and ... well, I got panicky, and then with most of the puzzle done I had a tiny little section in the far North that just would Not come into view. And then people around me were finishing and getting up and leaving. O My God. I eventually hacked my way through it, finished, and exited the room Utterly demoralized. I realized instantly that I had to Stop worrying about time and Just worry about doing the puzzle correctly. Be methodical and relax. Actively trying to be speedy Really worked against me.
And that brings me to my first bit of advice for future rookies: it may seem counter-intuitive, but don't worry about time. Be methodical, keep moving forward, don't get discouraged, cross your i's, dot your t's, and you will actually optimize, rather than compromise your speed (not to mention your point score). My experience bears me out on this, because I tanked, Absolutely Tanked, Puzzle 1 (froze up, had a poor time, and had not one but two squares wrong!), and yet the technically more difficult puzzles 2 through 6 I totally aced, and in pretty decent times. All because I stopped caring. Woke up on Sunday morning in a shocking (to me) 149th place, started caring again, and ended up making an error, sending me plummeting to 166th. Two of the three squares I had wrong during the weekend were actually BLANK SQUARES, and the other was one I knew the answer to but had simply failed to correct or revise adequately. So, be methodical, and relaxed. But back to our original chronology...
The big killer in Puzzle 1 was, as I've said, the Due North, which looked like this
C A F E
O B I T
V E R Y A N G R Y
E D - M
- - - - A
As you can probably tell, it's all pretty ordinary fill except for one word: ETYMA (9D: Early sources of modern words). I knew ETYMOLOGY, but have never seen the word ETYMA in my life. Now, I could, and did, eventually, piece it together, but for the longest time 6A: Sidewalk eatery (CAFE) and 15A: Parting words? (OBIT) were eluding me. I had DELI and [nothing] respectively. DELI would NOT go away, no matter how much I tried to sweep it from my brain, despite the fact that CAFE is clearly the better word. The VERY part of VERY ANGRY was also troubling, because VERY seemed too innocuous or ordinary a word to be part of long phrase (I had not yet figured out that the theme was YIN AND YANG - or rather, I had, but I had not yet figured out what that meant; namely, that YIN and YANG were embedded in long theme entries, as in VER-YANG-RY, ugh). So that little section broke my back, slowed me down and flustered me so badly that I didn't bother to check the puzzle adequately, resulting in two errors.
Puzzle 2, by Patrick Merrell, was SO much better. A bigger puzzle with a trickier theme (a theme you Had to get to solve the puzzle) and yet I sailed through it fairly smoothly. I need to tell you that before Puzzle 2 started, I Swear To You that before we'd been told to begin, the man next to me on my left, clearly very anxious and high-strung, armed with a massive cache of pencils as well as a weighty Martha Grimes novel, Picked Up His Puzzle (which everyone else had face down on the table, like good girls and boys) and Held It Up To The Light To Try To Read Through It. Cheater! He then coolly put it down like nothing had happened. I literally laughed out loud at this guy, but he was oblivious. He appeared to be the most humorless man on the planet. I wasn't gonna bother calling him on his cheating. I figured I'd just write about it later. And here we are.
Somewhere between Puzzles 2 and 3, Tear Duct Girl lost her writing implement, and so I "lent" her a spare mechanical pencil (but not one of my beloved Pentel E-sharps - nobody touched those but me). I think I gave her some crappy Bic pencil. Anyway, when I'd finished Puzzle 3 and began leaving the room for the lunch break, she looked up at me and held out the pencil - as if I would take it away from her MID-SOLVE! Yeah, and I like to kick puppies, too. Come on! I told her she could keep it, with my compliments. She comically kept trying to give me the pencil back throughout the weekend, but when she'd look in her bag: no pencil. I kept saying "I can afford the 89 cents to buy a new one" but she wouldn't listen. In the end she accepted that the pencil was hers to keep (or lose, apparently) as she saw fit. She acted like I'd given her a kidney. Very sweet, slightly nuts. But back to Puzzle 3.
Puzzle 3, by Cathy Millhauser, was touted as one of the two "hard" puzzles of the tournament - theme answers were all death-related puns. I was so focused on its alleged level of difficulty, that I didn't get that the answers were simply puns for a while - I thought there had to be something more sinister at work (not that puns aren't sinister, but you know what I mean). Once I realized that it was only puns that I was up against, my brain unclenched and I tore through the puzzle. I TIED HOWARD BARKIN ON THIS PUZZLE. This will likely never happen again in my lifetime. It was Howard's worst puzzle (he had errors, I didn't, which is the only reason we tied) and it alone kept him out of the A Finals (scoring errors would keep him out of the B Finals, as you already know). After Puzzle 3 I was feeling good but tired, and went to my room to decompress. Later I would force myself to eat a protein bar and drink a Snapple, just so I'd have some energy for the grueling afternoon, which would include the dreaded PUZZLE #5. More on Saturday afternoon tomorrow.