Word Routes

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Crossword Tournament 2012: Saturday Report

Live from Brooklyn, puzzlemaster Brendan Emmett Quigley is providing exclusive commentary from the 2012 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Brendan's got the scoop on all the action at the end of the first day of competition.

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

He's baaaack! Tyler Hinman, computer programmer from San Francisco, will be familiar to anyone who saw the documentary Wordplay, which captured the first of his five mind-boggling consecutive wins at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. But the past two years, he's watched as Dan Feyer has ascended as the new seemingly unbeatable champ. This year, however, after the first day of the tournament, Tyler is sitting pretty in the pole position, having solved puzzles 1 through 6 cleanly.

Behind Tyler in second place is upstart David Plotkin, the entomology student of Mississippi State fresh off his exciting photo-finish in last year's B Finals. And where's "Steely" Dan Feyer? Two rookie mistakes in puzzle #3 (not confirming a dodgy entry by using the crossings, as well as leaving a different square blank), would have been enough to eliminate mere mortals. Instead, he mounted an incredible comeback. He has used his legendary speed to recover and already managed to leap six contestants in the last three puzzles to remain in the hunt, holding steady in third place. Meanwhile, fan favorite Anne Erdmann, a geologist from Champaign, IL, finds herself in fourth place, hoping to work her way into the Division A Finals as she did the past two years.

Quite possibly the most highly scrutinized "contestant" this year is Matt Ginsberg's crossword-solving A.I., Dr. Fill. Matt, a computer scientist from Eugene, OR, has put in countless hours writing code that has figured out how to "solve" puzzles. Simulations had Dr. Fill winning previous ACPT contests outright, but this year has been a comedy of errors for the good Doctor. Two wordplay-heavy themes did it in. One, "Going Underground" by Patrick Blindauer, had theme answers that started across, continued diagonally down then continued in a different new row. Along those diagonals were the letters ANT, so in effect the answer grid was transformed into an ant farm filled with seemingly gibberish answers. The other was by Patrick Merrell's masterpiece titled "Boustrophedon." To help those unfamiliar with that expression, its definition was also given: "having alternate lines running from left to right and right to left." It's answers did just that, one row left to right, the next right to left, and so on through the grid. Dr. Fill had no shot.

The punchline was that Matt had already programmed Dr. Fill how to understand many tricky themes, going over every puzzle that has run in the New York Times. But he had neglected to program Dr. Fill to pay attention to a theme that also had answers alternating forward and backward rows. Matt falsely assumed that Will Shortz, ACPT director as well as the Times puzzle editor, would never repeat such a distinctive theme.

This is the fifth year that the ACPT has been held at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott. A total of 594 competitors have arrived, some as far as Australia, to throw down in the premier crossword event. Two puzzles are left: a Sunday-size puzzle to whittle down the top 3, and the Finals puzzle, a themeless puzzle, emphasizing fresh fill and diabolical cluing. Stay tuned.


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