Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Stamford Experience (Part 5)

Part 5: "Breakin' the Law"

Alright, this is the final installment of my Stamford recap - events I'm writing about are now a week old and my memory is starting to get fuzzy. Luckily, this fuzzy feeling exactly mirrors how I was feeling right at the time I left off in the last installment - the middle of the afternoon on Saturday, just after Puzzle 5. I was happy to finish Puzzle 5 in a good time, but I thought it would be impossible for me to do yet Another puzzle, so late in the afternoon, after five reasonably tough puzzles. I was flagging. Plus, the end of Puzzle 5 was sad for me because my one faithful puzzle companion, Violet (aka "Ultra Vi") had to leave to get back to a concert in Boston later that day, and it wasn't clear whether she'd even be able to return for the final puzzle, Puzzle 7, the next morning. In the mayhem following Puzzle 5, I never actually got to see her or say goodbye. So that was a little depressing. Depression + tiredness -> didn't bode well for Puzzle 6.

The puzzle came from Maura Jacobson, the only constructor to have a puzzle featured in every Crossword Tournament since the event began in 1978. The theme was "What Are They?: Fictional people and what they stand for" and the theme answers were italicized names, none of them recognizable to me. The gimmick: the first name was that of a celebrity and the second was a synonym for an object, and you had to convert celebrity first name to celebrity last name and the synonym to the object it signified in order to get a familiar phrase, e.g.

82A: Edith Romano (head cheese) => Edith HEAD is a designer, romano is a type of CHEESE, hence HEAD CHEESE

89A: Geena Stein (Davis Cup) => Geena DAVIS is an actress, stein is a kind of CUP, hence DAVIS CUP

So despite the fact that the clues were utterly unfamiliar, once crosses allowed you to get the theme, you could whip through the whole thing with relative ease. I had one major problem with this puzzle, one that caused me to voluntarily eat up an extra minute of my time searching (in vain) for what I was sure was an error. For the clue 4A: Unkosher I had TREF. I had to keep it, because nothing else was making sense, and I'm glad I did, because it was right. Luckily, the first person I talked to when I left the room (a guy I'd sat with earlier in the day) was Jewish and could confirm that yes, that was the answer. Turns out my wife had heard of the expression before too, and she's not Jewish at all, so apparently I'm semi-alone in my ignorance. Wish I could get that minute back.

So that was it for puzzling on Saturday. It was chaos outside the ballroom, with huge crowds waiting for elevators to their rooms and scads of people making various dinner-type plans. I got overwhelmed and decided I would hide out and rest rather than foist myself on some pre-existing dinner party. So I retreated to my room only to find that at that Exact moment, of all the moments in the day, the cleaning crew was working on my room. So I sat down in the hallway like some kind of oddly placed panhandler and scribbled notes about my day in my Little Black Book. Two interesting things then happened. One, I smelled pot. The faint but unmistakable smell of pot. Two, Howard Barkin walked by - turns out not only was he on my hall, his room was only one number different from mine. So we chatted a bit and then he was off to his room and then god knows where. Once the cleaning crew left, I went into my lair, thought briefly of ordering a pizza so I wouldn't have to move, then decided moving might do my brain and body good, so I decided to take my chances and walk into downtown Stamford. I had no idea where I was going, but I figured I'd just follow people and cars and I'd be able to ferret out somewhere to get food. The most awkward part of this otherwise pleasant journey was seeing Amy and Byron cross the street about 100 yards in front of me. They were off to have a private dinner together and were headed in exactly the same direction I was. I didn't want them to feel in any way awkward about seeing me out by myself, scrounging for food, so I hung back and slowed down and pretended in every way like I didn't see them. God they walked slow. I had to keeping looking at various storefronts to keep from looking like a creepy loiterer. "O don't mind me, I'm just looking in the display window of this tacky furniture store. Ooh, here's a theater. Joy Behar is coming to town? How, er, interesting." Etc.

Finally found a rather delicious Thai restaurant, nearly empty. Walked in, ordered food to go, sat down at the bar and had The Best Tasting Beer Of My Life. Seriously, if I needed anything at that moment, it was silence and beer. Thai Beer. I drank it slowly, sitting there for many minutes even after my food had been brought out to me. I tipped everyone heavily and headed out.

I was going to just stay in my room all night, but I figured the least I could do was go down and watch the mini-movie of "Wordplay" out-takes and promotional stuff that director Patrick Creadon was screening for conference attendees. And so I did. I had seen much of the promotional stuff already, including Will and Merl's brief appearance on Oprah - which makes me cringe for some reason. Oprah doesn't usually make me cringe on her own, and crosswords certainly don't, but something about having something I love subjected to Oprah felt all wrong. Plus, the puzzle they did for her was so non-standard and so ... ridiculously clued that it gave a horribly skewed notion of what x-words (especially Shortz-era x-words) are all about. Not that the O-shaped puzzle wasn't clever in its way. I just wish it had been something closer to standard in format. And that Oprah hadn't done that horrible voice-over where she alleges that we are known as "puzzle-heads." W...T...F?!

OK, so the little movie was fun, especially the part where the adorable Maura Jacobson is shown just outside the ballroom listening in when her name is announced as the puzzle author and the room Erupts in applause. The pleased look on her face was very sweet. The worst part of the evening for me was when Will did his radio puzzle live for the room - but since there were like a billion super-fast puzzlers in the room, doing the regular puzzle was kind of pointless, so he did it backwards. I can't remember the format exactly, but I believe that he gave a synonym for a 7-letter word wherein removing first and last letters would result in a new 5-letter word. So when he said his word people were supposed to call out a definition for that resulting 5-letter word. I know I'm not relaying this very well. The one example I vaguely remember had Will giving a synonym for "abandon" and the clue that the audience was supposed to shout back was "Monopoly railroad" or something like that (for B AND O). I would have shouted "Slugger Sal" if I'd been anywhere near as fast as the Rain Men who surrounded me. Seriously, freakishly fast puzzle people. Not like sitting in on a game. More like sitting in a very crowded special disease ward of the hospital. Compulsive answer shouting. I was siting near a woman who not only shouted the answer to practically every question, but who earlier could not keep from interrupting the conversations of people around her if there was anything they appeared not to know. Under ordinary circumstances I would have thought this rude - but at Stamford, it's just puzzle people being puzzle people. Oh, I almost forgot - before the movie screening, Vic Fleming presented a musical number, which was: opening scenes of "Wordplay" if "Wordplay" were adapted into a musical. Very cute, if mildly painful. Loved his song "If You Don't Come Across I'm Gonna Be Down" from "Wordplay." Very talented guy. Apparently he knows Bill Clinton.

And so to bed.

Got up early on Sunday for the 9am puzzle. Got down to the lobby and who should come rushing in the front door of the hotel but Violet, who had driven all the way Back to Stamford from the Boston-area just to be able to do Puzzle 7. She and Dave Sullivan and I all sat together in the Pavilion area (not a closed room, open to the lobby) of the hotel. On Saturday I would not have wanted to sit with friends, but on Sunday it was just what I needed. I panicked a bit when I realized that it was 15 minutes to 9am and I had had Nothing - absolutely nothing - to eat. Brain needs food. So I decided to grab a couple of apples at the little shop off the lobby. And I did grab them. And then I waited in a sizeable line. And I waited. And waited, and assessed the line, did some math ... and then ... realizing I didn't have time to buy the apples, I sort of ... walked away. With the apples. Well, one was already in my belly by that point. And the other was half way there. I had every intention of going back after the puzzle and paying for those apples. And, as far as anyone knows, that is just what I did.

I smoked Puzzle 7 - a big 22x22 puzzle from Bob Klahn. But, as Dave will be only too happy to tell you, I made a mistake and therefore ended up with a worse score than Dave himself even though I beat him to the finish line by something like eight minutes. Ugh. After I finished, I sat there solving lame puzzles out of some book we got for free from "Kappa" publishing (I inserted an "R" between the "K" and "A" on my book - because sometimes I enjoy acting like I'm 10). I liked looking around and seeing other people solve - we were all at round tables as opposed the long rows of rectangular puzzles in the ballroom. My favorite moment came when I watched David Quarfoot finish his puzzle, raise his hand, and get No reaction from the judge standing ten feet in front of him - DQ didn't appear to see the judge approaching him from behind, so he began anxiously signaling the judge in front of him, including snapping his fingers as if he were an impatient customer in a French restaurant commanding the "garçon" to come and deal with the fly in his soup.

I was going to check out, put my stuff in my car, and then rush back in to get a good seat for the Finals, but Vi convinced me just to ask the hotel to extend my check-out time, which they did, so no rush. We got OK seats for the Finals (somewhere in the middle of the room, near the central aisle). We were all given copies of the C, B, and A versions of the puzzle (same grid, very different clues for each puzzle). I solved along with the C folk and beat them all (easy to do when you are Not the one on stage, I realize). Byron Walden won the B Final, which was pretty exciting. Neal Conan was commenting on Byron's solving strategy and suggested that solving on the left side of the grid first might make the puzzle open up more readily since you'd be revealing the first parts of answers that would then cut across the grid. Is this a real strategy? It sounded good. Anyway, it was close for a while, but Byron won, hurray. Of course Howard Barkin should have been in the Finals, and then who knows what would have happened. But I was (and am) very happy for Byron.

The A Finals were exceedingly exciting and very very tight. Tyler Hinman got a two second head start on Al Saunders and Francis Heaney. In the end, Al finished about five seconds (or so it seemed) ahead of Tyler, but Al had an error on an very hard crossing - an error that Everyone on stage had at some point; Tyler eventually caught his. The crossing was

28A: Secesh (reb)
30D: Carpenter's tool (bevel)

Everyone on stage at some point had LEVEL for the carpenter's tool. It took me a while to figure out what "Secesh" meant (short for "secessionist," I guess). Anyway, super rough crossing. Francis was unable to complete the grid in time, so Tyler won, Al was second, and Francis third. The End. I gave Violet a big hug goodbye and went back to my room and got my bags and got in my car and drove off. Didn't really say goodbye to most people. Don't really like goodbyes at all. Thankfully, with my x-word blog, it's like all my crossword friends are my damned neighbors anyway. Squawk squawk squawk.

I canNOT wait for the tournament in Brooklyn next year. I will parlay it into a grand NYC vacation and a visit to my good friend Kathy (who lives in Brooklyn), and on the drive out I will listen to The Beastie Boys' "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" over and over again to psyche myself up.

Until then,



Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your dispatches and am eagerly awaiting the novelization. For future reference, if you ever see me on the street and it's time to eat and/or drink (meaning between 7am and 3am), just flag me down, capisce?

Orange said...

As your blog picture suggests, you have the wily private-eye skill of skulking about undetected (and stealing apples)—I had no idea you were back there. Stealthy! Next year, you are not to wander around alone and hungry—you gotta make meal plans, man. (Are you free for Saturday lunch?) I did the alone-and-hungry bit my first time at the tournament, and that part was miserable.

"They're called puzzle-heads," indeed. I Googled the term and came up with character Rubik's cubes—including Bart and Homer.

Byron's waiting for the novelization? Me, I'm holding out for the graphic novel. I can't wait to see how I'm drawn.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the low-down on the tournament. As to "Tref" that sounds unkosher to me. I observe the kosher dietary rules and am aware of the word which is Yiddish. However, it usually is spelled "treif" or "treyf." It's from the Hebrew "treifa" (ripped, torn) which refers to an an otherwise kosher animal (for example a sheep) which has been torn apart by wild animals and therefore no longer kosher as it was not properly slaughtered. It was adopted into Yiddish (sort of a Jewish-German) to refer to any food that is not deemed kosher (e.g., pork, cheese burgers, not properly slaughtered cows, etc.). It was also extended to non-food items and then to anything that doesn't seem proper or kosher. HOWEVER, KOSHER AND NOT KOSHER HAVE BEEN POPULAR IN ENGLISH FOR A WHILE. Only recently has "TREIF " BEEN MAKING APPEARANCES IN ENGLISH AND NEVER AS"TREF."


Anonymous said...

When "The Experience" (as I think it should be called...let people figure out what's it about after they buy it) comes out as a novel, I think a chapter should be devoted to the good luck charms competitors bring with them to the solving table. (Did you mention your feather in your write-ups? When I first saw it, I thought you were doing Jon Stewart one better and solving by quill.)

At puzzle 7, the woman next to me had many stuffed animals placed strategically around her. The toy closest to me was a small horse that had blue number 10 on his saddle and an odd piece of surgical tape around his right hind ankle.

"Oh, that's Barbaro," she told me as the puzzles were being handed out. "He used to have a cast, but I took that off when he had his removed." I wondered why he wasn't currently in a makeshift coffin (reminding me of at least one of Maura Jacobson's morbid puns I missed: ONE MEGA HEARSE, clued as something like [Paul Bunyan's funeral transport]), but maybe that will be next year's prop.

Orange said...

(Dave, Cathy Millhauser was the one with the deadly puns.)

From a crossword standpoint, one can disregard all standard spellings of "treyf" and so on—TREF is the most common spelling in crosswords.

Anonymous said...

Oh, thanks Or...I couldn't believe someone as sweet as Maura J. would inflict those deadly puns on us!

Anonymous said...

Rex, thanks for all the work you put into this saga. What a roller-coaster! I have a total feel for how it would be should I decide to go. I like the idea of Brooklyn; it's a happenin' place these days and the site of some geneological research I need to do anyway.

Howard B said...

I did the same thing last year; I wandered over to the mall food court after realizing that I just needed to get out of the hotel for a bit, of course to wander into another small crowded restaurant in a shopping mall. Go figure.

This year I did the Zen head-clearing Saturday Stamford downtown walkaround - the fresh air was a good thing after OD'ing a bit on the hotel crush of humanity. So you weren't alone, so to speak.

Howard B said...

Oh - so, have they cast roles for the movie version of your story yet?

Anonymous said...

Rex -

I'm a recent regular reader of your Crossword blog, but I hadn't read your Stamford entries until now because I wanted to do the "home version" of the tournament, which I heard about through your blog, of all things. I finished it this weekend and mailed it off today and so I turned to your entries.

Very interesting stuff...I can't believe you're so shy in person. Kind of reminds me of myself, but I didn't think other people were as insecure as me.

Anyway, thanks for all the great information. Keep it up!