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Crossword Tournament 2012: A Three-Peat for "Steely" Dan

Early on in this year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, it seemed that Dan Feyer's stranglehold on the competition would finally come to an end. Instead, he mounted an unbelievable comeback to notch his third consecutive victory. Puzzlemaster Brendan Emmett Quigley joins us again with his wrap-up of the action from Brooklyn.

[Spoiler alert: For anyone solving this year's Tournament crosswords online or by mail, the following recap reveals spoilers for some of the puzzles.]

There's one thing that former American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champion Tyler Hinman can brag that he did competition-wise this year that the current, threepeat-and-counting champion Dan Feyer cannot: Tyler solved all eight puzzles cleanly. There's just this other thing that also counts in the ACPT, and that's speed. Sure, Tyler's fast. We've seen him plow through easy puzzles like he's taking dictation. It's just that Dan boasts speeds so fast that he can never be counted out. Ever. Dan is so fast that he could erase a nearly six-minute hole he dug for himself after committing two rookie mistakes in Puzzle 3 (leaving a square blank, and not checking his crossing answers). Ol' "Steely" treated that six-minute gap like it was six seconds. He only needed three more puzzles solved perfectly in that blinding speed to leapfrog nine contestants and into a potential Finals slot.

Anne Erdmann did practically the exact same thing, overcoming an early error to somehow make it all the way back to the final three. At the end of the night Saturday, Anne had been awarded a correct square in Puzzle 1 that originally was marked incorrectly. Come Sunday morning, however, she had a change of heart. Anne made a passionate case to the judges that, yes, they were correct in marking her wrong, and yes, please penalize her score to reflect that error. It took a while for them to be convinced, but they were and it plunged her to fourth place heading into Puzzle 7 (behind David Plotkin). After a Sunday-sized puzzle by the Wall Street Journal puzzle editor Mike Shenk, Anne and David swapped places. The Good Karma gods smiled on Anne and returned her to a spot on the stage.

But the smiling stopped at the Finals board. The three contestants were set: it was a repeat of last year's finals, only this time Tyler was the first seed and had earned a head-start of 12 seconds over Dan and 14 seconds over Anne. The Final was made by Merl Reagle, a star of the documentary Wordplay. Merl is normally known for outrageously funny themed puzzles, so it felt a little off that he was assigned the themeless final. No matter, he was allowed to show off his stuff. A small sample of the clues will suffice: "Like ABC or KLM" clued IN CAPS, "Exercise program using a vertical bar" gave you POLE DANCE, and my personal favorite, "Matching outfit" for EHARMONY.


Dan Feyer, Anne Erdmann, and Tyler Hinman get a chance to relax and talk about the final puzzle.

For a very brief moment, it looked like Tyler could have held the top spot pole to pole. The 14-second lead was enough for Tyler to start filling in the grid before Dan and Anne, but he found the entire east of the puzzle tricky to break into. The wall was hit, the opportunity presented itself, and the rest became academic for the machine-like Feyer to lay waste to the puzzle in 7 minutes and 47 seconds, and keep the trophy. And Dan clearly learned from his Puzzle 3 mistakes as he spent a good thirty extra seconds to assure the grid was completely filled and completely clean. Tyler and Anne duplicated their second- and third-place finishes.

Dr. Fill, Matt Ginsberg's crossword-solving A.I., fared much better in the last tournament puzzle.  After being brutally beaten down by the two hardest puzzles, Dr. Fill got the Sunday crossword all correct in three minutes.  Good enough for 141st place, had it been a proper competitor. That meant 140 real contestants (out of 594) won "I Beat Dr. Fill" buttons to brag they were better than the machine. For the record, ACPT director Will Shortz dodged a bullet as he had only 150 of these buttons made pre-tournament.

Check out the video of Dan's resounding win below. The play-by-play commentary this year was provided by Liane Hansen, former host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday," and composer and puzzlemaker Greg Pliska.


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