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Crossword Tournament 2010: Saturday Report

Live from Brooklyn, puzzlemaster Brendan Emmett Quigley is providing exclusive commentary from the 2010 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 one of the puzzles.]

So far, so good for the pre-tourney favorite. After six puzzles at the 33rd American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Manhattan's own Dan Feyer holds a solid lead over Howard Barkin of Hillsborough, NJ. Anne Erdmann of Champaign, IL and last year's winner, five-in-a-row champ Tyler Hinman of San Francisco, lie in wait tied for third in the point standing. If the finals were held now, Anne would get the last playoff spot on tie-breaker rules. One puzzle to go before the finals, and like last year's exciting finish, we could be in for another nailbiter.

Dan's dominance should come as no surprise to those who follow the speed-solving scene, as the myth of his Wilt Chamberlain-esque numbers of crosswords he's solved these past few years grows and grows.  And when I say "grows," I mean both the legend and his reported figures. Some estimates have him solving nearly 35 a day.  I should know, as he routinely posts on his blog his blinding times on all of my puzzles. (Actually, Dan says he's only been solving 25 a day. He's eased off his torrid pace, saying, "I was more unemployed then.") Dan was in first place at the end of Saturday's action last year, but he ended up coming up short on Sunday's Puzzle 7 and just missed the finals. "Glad I have a bigger cushion this year," Dan says.

Howard came in third in the finals two years ago, so he's no stranger to the top. He's got his strategy worked out this year: "I can't be too careful. Be aggressive, but not stupid." Anne's speed has always been impressive, but it's her accuracy that has kept her out of the finals. Going into Sunday, Anne is wary of Tyler's standing in fourth place, right where he was last year after six puzzles before vaulting into the finals on his way to his fifth consecutive victory. Anne calls Tyler "Mr. Nine Lives, like a cat who never dies." Tyler, for his part, is sounding quite feline: "It's all laid out for me. All I have to do is beat Howard or Anne by 1 minute [in Puzzle 7] and I'm in."

Will Shortz keeps an eye on the competitors.

The puzzles, as always, were commissioned by New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, showcasing the country's finest puzzlemakers. Puzzles 1, 4, and 6 were easyish romps, with Puzzles 2 and 3 presenting more of a challenge. And then there's the super-tough, wheat/chaff-separating Puzzle 5. This year it was written by yours truly, and it was so bogglingly difficult, only a small percentage of the nearly 650 contestants managed to finish it. For the crossword's theme, I turned the cross-referencing clue tradition on it's head. (You know the type: "Go, with 76-Across" and it's partner "See 19-Across.") It was only when solvers realized you had to include the word "with" in the clues that progress was made. In my example, 76-Across was THE FLOW, which, when put into the original clue (Go, with THE FLOW) clued CONFORM. Though Dan and other top finishers weren't fazed by the tricky theme, it essentially delivered a haymaker to perennial contender and three-time champion Trip Payne of Boca Raton, FL.

Stay tuned for Brendan's report on what is sure to be a thrilling conclusion on Sunday!

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