The other good news is that I seem to be getting faster, so despite having entered the first of the "old folks'" categories (solvers in their 50s), it appears that I haven't peaked in crossword puzzling ability just yet.

The bad news is that I had one error in one puzzle. I solved most of Puzzle 2 very quickly, but had one spot that I just couldn't get -- I came back to it multiple times as I was solving the rest of the puzzle, hoping something would occur to me, but I simply didn't know the words (or thought I didn't; more in a moment). Finally I just had one letter missing, and needed to solve C-RTANA (Windows assistant) and C-NTE (medieval tale). I thought about putting an "O" in that space, and even wrote it in, but then got to thinking about how the Across word looked like "COMTE," which definitely would not have been right, and started questioning myself. I had no idea what the Down answer was -- CORTANA and CARTANA seemed to be equally lame names. (Yeah, even though I'm an AI researcher, I never heard of it before. But I'm also a Mac person, can'tcha tell?) I got it in my head that maybe CANTE was Old English for a CHANT or CHANSON, and decided I should guess an A there, even though I was maybe leaning a bit more towards CORTANA than CARTANA in the other direction. Well, guess what? Yeah, it's CORTANA. Also, stupid me, I've talked to my opera-loving mom any number of times about how I've never seen Strauss's "The Tales of Hoffmann," aka LES CONTES D'HOFFMANN. So really, somewhere in my brain, I knew the right answer. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Here's a lesson in positive thinking for all of you kids out there. If you sit staring at something hard, and your brain is telling itself, "Arrghh! I don't know this! I'll never get it!" you're a lot more likely to get it wrong than if you stare at it thinking, "I am sure I can get this if I just relax and think about it in the right way." I am convinced that if I could have believed in myself and let my mind drift for a short while, free-associating, I would have thought of Hoffmann and his tales. Instead, I just thought repeatedly and hopelessly about how I was going to have to guess randomly -- and then I guessed wrong.

A brief digression for those of you who aren't familiar with ACPT scoring. Each correct word is worth 10 points. Each whole minute you finish before the time limit is worth 25 points, but one minute is deducted from your time bonus for every missing or incorrect letter. And a completely correct grid is worth 150 additional points. So getting ONE letter wrong means that you lose 150 points, plus a 25-point minute bonus, plus 20 points for the two words that are now wrong. That's 195 points. That's a LOT of points, nearly 8 minutes of solving time worth. It's damn hard to come back from one incorrect letter.

The good news is that other than that one fatal error, I had a blazingly fast and otherwise flawless year. So I ended up doing really well, and would have done PHENOMENALLY well if I hadn't made that mistake. Here are my times and scores on the puzzles, with commentary on relative speed:

- 1. Solved cleanly in 5 minutes (the fastest solvers completed this in 3 minutes). At the end of P1, I was tied for 24th place.
- 2. Solved with one letter wrong in 7 minutes (fastest time was 4 minutes). That one-letter error hurled me all the way down to #184.
- 3. Solved cleanly in 7 minutes (tied for 18th fastest; the fastest time was 4 minutes). At this point, I should have been #26, but was clawing my way back, and was now tied for #82.
- 4. Solved cleanly in 5 minutes (tied for 16th fastest; fastest time was 3 minutes). Still gaining a little ground, I ended up tied for #69.
- 5. Solved cleanly in 11 minutes. The fastest time was 8 minutes, but this puzzle deserves some more context. Puzzle 5 is often referred to as "The Dreaded Puzzle Five." It is always extremely hard, and always has a very tricky theme. I won't go into the theme here, just in case anybody is reading who has not yet tried their hand at the tournament puzzles. Suffice it to say that about 85-90% of the competitors were still sitting in the room trying to figure it out when the 30-minute time limit expired. I figured out the gimmick pretty fast, and just flew through the puzzle. Only SIX solvers solved this puzzle faster than I did, including the three people who ended up in the A finals. I was tied with three top-ten finishers, including 7-time champion Jon Delfin and 5-time champion Tyler Hinman. I gained back a LOT of ground on this puzzle, and moved up to #26 overall. If I had not screwed up P2, I would at this point have been in 13th place in the entire tournament, and 1st in the B division. For many years to come, I will relive the glory of walking out of the ballroom and seeing a mere handful of the fastest solvers at the tournament out there ahead of me.
- 6. Solved cleanly in 7 minutes (tied for 15th fastest; the fastest time was 5 minutes). Still in #26 overall.
- 7. Solved cleanly in 11 minutes (I was definitely sluggish on this one -- had a hard time getting started, and flailed around a bit in the middle. I was tied for 33rd fastest; the fastest time was 6 minutes).

My final rankings were:

- #26 overall (out of 575 solvers) (I was #25 as of the end of the day Sunday, but somebody must have had a scoring error corrected, because I'm now #26)
- #9 in B division (was similarly #8 for a brief while...)
- #7 for solvers in their 50s (was #6)
- #5 Mid-Atlantic region (was #4)
- #7 female solver (was #6)

In my fantasy world, where I can go back and change that "A" in P2 to an "O" after all, here's where I would have been (even after the #25 -> #26 fiasco):

- #15 overall
- #3 in B division. (I solved the final puzzle slightly faster than the winner, but who knows how I would have done standing on the stage and solving on a whiteboard.)
- #5 in 50s
- #2 Mid-Atlantic
- #3 female solver

Not too shabby for somebody with a mistake -- and there's always next year, right?

Regardless of outcome, the tournament weekend is always great fun. I rode up with fellow Mid-Atlantic contestants Scott Weiss and Alex Jeffrey, hung out with many old puzzling friends, and enjoyed immersing myself in puzzlegeekdom for a few days. The playoffs were thrilling as always, with a HUGE upset when Howard Barkin unseated six-time champion Dan Feyer, who has seemed unbeatable and unstoppable. Congratulations, Howard! Next year's facedown should be epic...