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Crossword Tournament 2011: Another Win for "Steely" Dan
Another year of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is in the books, and Dan Feyer has solidified his place as the seemingly unbeatable king of the crossword world. Puzzlemaster Brendan Emmett Quigley joins us again with his wrap-up of the action from Brooklyn.
The streak is now at two. New York City's Dan Feyer thoroughly dismantled the competition again at this past weekend's 34th American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. His training is legendary. The talent is jaw-dropping. He's so unflappable, the nickname "Steely" fits him like a glove. It's hard to imagine just how one would go about beating Feyer, as he shows no visible weaknesses. He is, in effect, the crossword Watson, IBM's "Jeopardy!"-conquering computer.
Then again, not too long ago, everyone in the crossword world was asking, "Who could beat Tyler Hinman?" As he racked up five championships in a row, it felt like he was never going to lose. So the room was abuzz when it was announced that Hinman had made it into the finals. It had all the appearances of a good battle. This was the matchup we were supposed to see last year, when Feyer was gunning to take Hinman's crown.
So more than a handful of the nearly 700 attendees talked themselves into the possibility of a battle royale between Feyer and Hinman. Alas, it was not to be. Once Feyer put marker to the board it looked as if he was taking dictation, solving more than three minutes faster than Hinman. Feyer finished in a blazing time of 6:33, with Hinman lagging behind at 9:43 — which under normal circumstances would be an excellent solving time for the finals. Afterwards, Hinman tweeted, "Just had the best solve I've ever had on stage... and still got my ass kicked by three minutes. Congratulations Dan!"
Anne Erdmann of Champaign, IL took third place, just like she did last year. Even though her underdog role has made her a folk hero in many people's eyes, and her speed-solving prowess is unquestioned, this is the second year she hasn't looked entirely comfortable on the big boards. Give her time.
The championship puzzle was constructed by regular New York Times crossword writer Mike Nothnagel. And as is the case each year, the top three solvers in the A, B, and C categories all do the same puzzle, just with different clues. For example, the A group have it tough: "What capital letters signify." B is slightly easier, but still tricky: "Far cry?" C gets it gift-wrapped for them: "Scream." (All are clues for SHOUT.) Virtually all of the A level clues were nasty: "Listing on paper?" (ITALIC), "Place for singles to gather" (TILL) and "Disobey an order?" (RANDOMIZE). It takes a certain mind to read through the intentionally misleading clues to see what the puzzle-maker is really getting at.
Tyler Hinman and Dan Feyer discuss the final puzzle with constructor Mike Nothnagel.
The B division finals proved to be the real nail-biter. David Plotkin and Ken Stern polished off their grids at the same time and then scanned them simultaneously, checking for mistakes. Everyone in the audience held their breath to see who would raise his hand first. Plotkin, a fresh-faced 21-year-old tyro, got his hand up just a moment before Stern did. Since they couldn't see or hear each other, they had no idea the finish was so close, and both were clearly bowled over by the crowd reaction to the thrilling conclusion.
The Sunday-sized puzzle earlier that morning was by ACPT newcomers Ashish Vengsarkar and Narayan Venkatasubramanyan: "Kangaroo Phrases." There wasn't much help in this one as the long entries were all clued "[See highlighted letters]". And sure enough, each entry read like a crossword clue (TWITTER USERS UPDATE and "PURPLE RAIN" COMPOSER) where the circled letters spelled a common crossword answer clued by that entry (TWEET and PRINCE, respectively). Thanks to his mind-melting speed, Hinman finished fast enough to knock Brooklyn's Francis Heaney out of the race. Visual Thesaurus regulars will be pleased to know that our own superstar made a cameo at 1-Across in the puzzle: "Language maven Zimmer," three letters!
You can watch Feyer's commanding victory in the following two videos. As in past years, the play-by-play is provided by Neal Conan, host of NPR's "Talk of the Nation," and Merl Reagle, crossword constructor (and punmeister) extraordinaire.