Analyzing American Crossword Puzzle Tourney

By Vic Fleming

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – It’s crossword tourney time again, and here I am at the 35th installment of the world’s oldest event of its kind – the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Last year, I wrote that after puzzles 1-7, “last year’s winner, Dan Feyer, was in first, with last year’s third-place finisher, Anne Erdmann, and five-time winner, Tyler Hinman, on his tail.”

I hardly have to change that sentence today. After seven puzzles, on March 16 and 17, Hinman is leading, Feyer is second and Erdmann is third. Amazing how they got here, though! Consider that of the 575 or so competitors, only 20 or so have, as Eric Berlin so aptly put it in his blog, “the blazing speed and nimble brains necessary to make it to the winner’s circle.”

The top three scores before this final round starts are 12,365, 12,260 and 12,220. Arnold Reich, in 20th place with 11,690, is within six percentage points of the lead. Now consider that, somehow, Dan left a blank square and had an incorrect letter in puzzle 3 – a mental blip that cost him 230 points – putting him in 12th place almost halfway through the tourney.

Meanwhile, Anne self-reported an error she had made on puzzle 1, the easiest offered. I sat on a panel of judges last night (’til after midnight) that reviewed the top contestants’ solutions on Saturday’s six puzzles. We all thought a certain letter on Anne’s puzzle 1 solution was an “O.” She convinced us it was a “D” and that she should be docked 195 points.

That put Anne in fifth place rather than first, before puzzle 7, a 45-minute puzzle that she finished with 38 minutes to spare. Dan had finished it a few seconds before she did. Carefully proofreading, Tyler coasted in on that puzzle one minute after Anne.

This is my eighth trip to the ACPT. The rule, rather than the exception, is that the A-Division finalists are error-free on puzzles 1-7. This year, though, two made costly errors early on. And, somehow, have blazed their ways back into contention.

Looking at the scores, I believe at least a half dozen of the top 20 have perfect scores; they just weren’t fast enough. In fourth place, David Plotkin is five points behind Anne.

On to the final round: The crowd favorite, Anne, repeats her third-place finish from the past two years, evoking comparisons to Al Sanders (several finals, no wins) and Ellen Ripstein (several finals, one win). She competently solves the puzzle, but never really threatens to win.

Tyler, though, races off to an early lead, then writes AD EXECS where the clue, “Programming pros” calls for TV EXECS. This causes a couple of crossers not to work, and 60 precious seconds tick off as he works out this glitch.

Meanwhile, Dan (who test-solves “I Swear” puzzles before they’re published) methodically solves this difficult crossword, writing down no wrong letters, and finishing a couple of minutes ahead of Tyler, who finishes a minute or so ahead of Anne.

Congrats to all three! Join me again next year for another recap.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at