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Crossword Tournament 2011: Saturday Report

Live from Brooklyn, puzzlemaster Brendan Emmett Quigley is providing exclusive commentary from the 2011 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.]

And it's all down to four. Defending American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champion Dan Feyer of New York holds the pole position after the first day of solving. His lead is roughly four minutes over his nearest competitor, Anne Erdmann of Champaign, IL, last year's third-place finisher. Tied for third is Brooklyn's Francis Heaney, the third-place finisher from 2009, alongside recent five-in-a-row champion and Wordplay star Tyler Hinman of San Francisco. Both are one minute behind Anne. One more round, a Sunday-sized test, will determine which three are in the final round.

Hinman, a regular in the Finals board, might remain in fourth place — and once again on the outside looking in — unless he gets lucky. "It's a drag," he says about being almost out of the running. "I'd rather be tenth."

Feyer feels pretty confident of his chances of defending his crown on the big boards, as his comfortable cushion should be enough time for him to check his work to make sure it's clean. When Feyer's not speed solving puzzles (he averages well over 10,000 a year), he is a musician. And presumably he's also a nightowl, as he claims, "the most annoying thing [about Puzzle #7] is having to be up at 9 a.m. "  When asked if he's worried about the content of the puzzles, he plans to "bone up on my mathematical terms," as Mike Nothnagel, one of the constructors whose puzzles have yet to be solved, tends to include them.

Sixty hundred and fifty-five speed-solvers are competing in this year's ACPT, held once again at the Brooklyn Marriott. That's down a bit from the record 699 that showed up in 2008, but the tournament still manages to attract puzzling pilgrims of all ages. The solvers' ages range from sixteen-year-old Ben Pall of Franklin Lakes, NJ, to Rose Stuber of Avon, OH, 89 years young.

The competitors have already raced through six specially constructed puzzles by some of the nation's best constructors. In one of the trickier ones, "Counter Offer" by Pete Muller, solvers had to figure out the missing ingredients as well as the steps necessary to make a BROOKLYN EGG CREAM. In another, solvers had to endure a series of so-bad-they're-good puns from the punmaster himself Merl Reagle, here's two: THE WURST IS BEHIND US and THE HOARSE WHISPERER.

Really, only one puzzle was hard enough to slow any of the top solvers. That's to be expected, as Puzzle #5 is annually designed to spread out the pack. Mike Shenk, the Wall Street Journal puzzle editor, did this year's honors with one that didn't disappoint. Entitled "Crossover Hits," the crossword was a beautiful test of trivia as well as unconventional thinking. All the theme entries were popular songs by artists ranging from as many eras as the ACPT contestants themselves: Ted Lewis, The Monkees, Boyz II Men, and Green Day to name a few. The trickiness was that the theme entries not only "leaped over" a black square, but also some of their letters overlapped. Confused by that explanation?  Imagine the look on solver's faces who had to accept that consecutive gibberish answers HAPPYTOGETH and EROSE were in fact totally correct (that's The Turtles' HAPPY TOGETHER and Bette Midler's THE ROSE). Heaney, an editor and musician, made swift work of the puzzle, and his blinding speed was enough to thrust him into contention, saying, "Good job, Mike Shenk, for writing a puzzle for me."

Stay tuned tomorrow for Brendan's report on the final results!

ACPT attendees work in teams during Saturday's Games and Quizzes Night.

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Our preview of the 2011 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
How Dan Feyer emerged as a puzzling powerhouse last year.
A blow-by-blow of Tyler Hinman's dramatic fifth win in 2009.