Monday, May 28, 2018

2018 ACPT Recap


At long last, I did it -- I had a year with no regrets, no "what ifs," and trophies! I have trophies!

Overall results:

  • B champion (finished first in the main tournament and first in the playoffs) -- you can watch me in the finals!
  • #1 of solvers in their 50s
  • #2 in the mid-Atlantic (behind only the tournament champion, Erik Agard -- but WAY behind Erik, 26 minutes behind (across the first 7 puzzles), to be exact... you can watch Erik in the A finals to see just outclassed I am)
Also, I was one of 61 solvers to solve all 7 puzzles correctly -- and I beat Dr. Fill (who finished in 55th place) again!

Puzzle results:

  • Puzzle 1: 4 minutes (time limit: 15 minutes; fastest time of any solver: 2 minutes (I am not making that up)). Originally my puzzle was marked incorrectly, with a 5-minute time instead of 4 minutes.  That messed with my scores all day, but in a perverse way, I think it made me solve better because I knew I was always going to be ahead of where I showed up in the rankings.
  • Puzzle 2: 6 minutes (time limit: 25; fastest time: 4 minutes)
  • Puzzle 3: 9 minutes (time limit: 30; fastest time: 5 minutes)
  • Puzzle 4: 5 minutes (time limit: 20; fastest time: 3 minutes)
  • Puzzle 5: 19 minutes (time limit: 30; fastest time: 5 minutes -- again, I am not making this up). I was actually pretty disappointed with my time on this puzzle, but it turned out to be fast enough...
  • Puzzle 6: 7 minutes (time limit: 30; fastest time -- 5 minutes)
  • Puzzle 7: 11 minutes (time limit: 45; fastest time -- 6 minutes)
  • Puzzle 8 (B finals): 5 minutes, 51 seconds
I came into the tournament on a complete adrenaline high, after my interview at Simmons on Thursday and Friday (which went really well, as you can see!). I think that the energy and excitement of the interview carried over into the weekend, and partly accounts for my amazing tournament year.

I took the early train down to Stamford on Saturday morning, arriving in time to mingle a bit and settle in to a solving seat. They had redirected me (based on contestant number) to overflow seating in the basement, which I was a little annoyed about first, but then decided it was my lucky spot, and stayed down there for all seven puzzles.  It was better because all of the A solvers were upstairs, so I didn't have to be distracted by the door opening and closing (on most puzzles, I got to be the distraction...).

As of Sunday morning, with the time correction on puzzle #1 in place, I was in 1st place in B, 1st place in Fifties, 2nd place in mid-Atlantic, and 17th place overall.  So I knew I had a good shot at keeping those positions if I was fast and clean (no mistakes) on the Sunday morning puzzle #7.  I was especially glad to be in the overflow room in the basement again, since I didn't want to see or talk to anybody I knew and I feel like "good luck!" would jinx it -- I just wanted to stay calm and focus on the puzzle.  It went really well -- I finished in 11 minutes (with 34 minutes left on the clock for the 45-minute Sunday-size puzzle).

I had the chance to meet and talk to all of the other top B and 50s competitors after #7, and they were all 1-3 minutes slower than me, so I knew that if I solved it cleanly, I'd maintain my spot in all of those categories.

To clear my head, I went for a long walk inside the mall across the street (too cold to walk outside for long!), sat over there and did a few large-grid puzzles to get in that habit, and went back for the talent show -- but sat in the back so I wouldn't see too many people I knew.  After the end of the talent show, they set up for the finals and started making the announcements.  They start with the 'least competitive' awards (best handwriting, top 10 rookie solvers) and work their way 'up', skipping over any awards that will be won by somebody who's won a 'higher' award -- ending with the A (elite) finalists.  When they skipped over the mid-Atlantic category entirely, I was pretty sure that things had gone well and I was going to be in the finals.  (The #3 solver in the mid-Atlantic wasn't in contention for any other awards, so the fact that her name wasn't announced meant I probably had maintained my spot.  She barely beat me out last year for that #2 mid-Atlantic spot, based on the final puzzle (I had been ahead of her before that), so now we're even. 😁) Sure enough, they got to the B category, announced the #3 and #2 finalists, and then Will Shortz said, "And number one in the B division, with 11,530 points, 1st in Fifties, 2nd in mid-Atlantic, and in 15th place overall:  Marie desJardins."  He even pronounced my name correctly. 😄(Note that I am actually in 14th place -- my position changed due to a scoring error that was corrected after the tournament, but it wouldn't have affected the other results.)

It's hard to describe how amazing it felt to finally be called up as a finalist, after ten years of gradually increasing my ranking, by fits and starts.  For years, I really never considered I would ever be competitive for the B finals (but I was a little too good to qualify for the C finals).  Then I started getting faster and better, and people started occasionally noticing me.  A few years ago, I was out in the hallway after finishing puzzle #1 in 4 minutes (one minute behind the fastest solver, and with maybe 20 other solvers finishing as fast as me), and I could see the A players thinking, "Now who the hell is this?" -- but I still wasn't nearly fast enough or competitive enough on the really hard puzzles (#2 and #5) or on the large puzzles (#7) to get near the B finals.  So I started doing more of those puzzles, and developing better mental strategies to avoid careless mistakes.  This year it finally paid off and everything just came together like magic.

When you make into the A or B finals, you have to leave the room with an escort right away (for me, after running back to my seat to get my reading glasses, which was a good idea because although the whiteboard you solve on was plenty visible, the clues would have been a bit blurry without the glasses).  You go downstairs into a holding room and sit nervously chatting with the other five A and B finalists.  I went down to the bathroom, chatted, smiled, showed off my cool crossword sneakers, and breathed deeply.  After about 15-20 minutes, when the C finalists have finished, they bring you upstairs and you wait outside for a few minutes, then are brought inside.  The names are announced again, from 1st to 3rd, and you're placed at the corresponding whiteboard, in front of an audience of about 800 people (most of the solvers (except those who have left) and various guests).  The top finalist is at the center board, so that's where I stood.  You have to put in earbuds and then big noise-cancelling earphones, and you have a tape player that's playing loud white noise (static/storm sounds plus an overlaid sound track of voices at the UN assembly, so you can hear murmuring and voices in the distance but can't hear the room noise at all -- except when they laugh or groan loudly, when the background noise gets just a little louder).  You test the markers (three brand-new markers), decide if you want to hold something to erase the board or just use your hand (I experimented and decided to hold a tissue in my left hand along with the clues), and practice writing a few letters on the grid just to get the hang of it.  I also wrote along the side margin, a few scribbles and "HI MOM". 😊)

Then they tap you on the shoulder when it's time to start solving -- the first player gets a few seconds of headstart over the 2nd, and the 2nd over the 3rd, based on how much higher your score is.  I just waded in and followed my usual strategy (start with the shorter words, look for the longer word crossings, fill them in quickly if you can but otherwise move on for more fertile ground, follow the filled-in pattern across the grid, mostly doing the shortest words first because they're the easiest and give you clues for the longer crossing words, don't get stuck and panic but don't jump around from one part of the board to the other).  It's hard to look at the big board and the clues, so in the video, you can see me using my finger to scroll down the clues and locate my place.  I really never slowed down during the whole solve, though there are a few places where you'll see me looking back and forth between the puzzle and the clues several times -- usually that was when there were a couple of possible answers to some clues, and I was using the crossing words to figure out which one to fill in -- so then after I started writing, I'd write two or three words in rapid succession.  

I finished up, stepped back to thoroughly check the grid for completion and sense-making, turned around and (as you are required to) said, "Done."  I had been able to see the other two contestants out of the corner of my eye, so I knew they hadn't finished yet, but I had no idea how close we were (I couldn't see their boards at all, only edge-on).  I also couldn't see the clock until I stepped back, but later I learned I had finished in 5 minutes and 51 seconds.  When I looked back at the boards, I could see that one of my competitors was only about half done, and the other one still had a quarter to a third of the grid left.  So I was pretty far ahead of them.  But I still didn't know with 100% certainty whether I was clean or not -- it looked that way but there could have been a mistake somewhere (which is why the #3 competitor kept steadily solving until he was positive he was done and clean).  We all had clean solves, so I won the whole thing.  

It was just the way I had always hoped it would go if I ever got into the B finals.  I wasn't sure whether I'd start second-guessing or overthinking the process, being rattled by having to solve in front of a room full of people -- but I didn't.  I just stayed focused and was nearly as fast as I would have been if solving on paper under ideal circumstances.  The white-noise headphones really helped to tune out the fact that people were watching me -- I just didn't think about that except in the very back of my mind.  (At several points I had a letter or two wrong, and I could hear the background noise pick up when I erased and corrected those errors, possibly the crowd reacting to that -- though the same reaction happens when a solver goes the other way and changes a right letter to a wrong letter, or when the announcers make a bad joke!) 

Ophira Eisenberg (host of NPR's "Ask Me Another" trivia show) and polymath crossword puzzle constructor Greg Pliska provided the color commentary that you can hear on the video.

After the tournament ended, I hung around the hotel for a few hours because my train didn't leave until 4pm.  A lot of people came up to congratulate me, especially other women who were very happy to see a woman not only in the finals but actually winning.  The gender statistics at the tournament are very skewed -- the very top solvers are almost all men, with just a few women in the top echelon.  It's gradually changing, though, and I think in the next generation there are more really strong female solvers.  There were three women who were ranked higher than me.  One thing I've noticed is that there are several elite male solvers who do puzzles for a living and who spend hours every day doing puzzles and (in part) training for the competition.  The women tend to have other lives and interests outside of puzzling.

Many A solvers came up to me to congratulate me, welcome me to the A division, and express their condolences that I am now with most of them in "the A ghetto" (meaning that most A solvers are very unlikely to make the A finals, but aren't eligible for B finals until they "time out" again after 7 years -- part of the reason I was able to get into the B division this year is that there were no recently-timed-out A solvers competing). I'm OK with that, though -- it takes all of the pressure off of getting into the finals!

See you all next year!