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72-word themeless today. I’ve kept it in storage for a while (almost a year, in fact), but since I had a pretty busy week and didn’t have a whole lot of time for creating something brand new, I figured…. to the storage room!

In other puzzles-that-I-wrote news, be sure to check out the spring edition of Will Shortz’s WordPlay magazine. I have a variety A to Z puzzle in it, and there are some other fun variety types by many other constructors I know.

Enjoy the puzzle. There will be a new one on April 11.

ACPT Recap

(NOTE: The following contains spoilers about this year’s ACPT puzzles. Solve them first before reading on if you don’t want them ruined for you.)

“Here’s hoping I do better than I did last year.”

I wrote that last week. And oh yes, I certainly did. Way better than I expected. I don’t attend the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament to compete against anyone else — I’m just not fast enough. The real reason I go (and the same is true for a lot of people, I imagine) is to hang out with friends and make new ones in the puzzle universe. In fact, in many ways the actual tournament puzzles are the worst thing about the ACPT: the pressure of solving against the clock can be stressful, and if you make one or two tiny mistakes, you may be kicking yourself over it for the rest of the weekend. The puzzles are often quite good and clever, and that’s true no matter how well you do on them — still, the best part is the post-puzzle experience when you can chat with other word nerds. At least if you make a mistake, you can always commiserate with others who may have made the same error, or get some sympathy pats from those who didn’t.

But for some reason, I had a remarkably good solving weekend. Through lunch on the first day, I had three mistake-free puzzles, even though it required a bit of intuition and luck. Merl Reagle‘s Puzzle #3 had a particularly difficult crossing of [“C’est Si Bon” singer] and [Antiaircraft fire], which looked like _ITT crossing AC_ACK in my grid. I did an alphabet run and put in a K, thinking the singer was Eartha Kitt — and it was.  But you could be forgiven if you put in something like P, because PITT sounds like it could be a singer (who knew Brad had such talents?) and AC-PACK totally could be a military weapon, right? Weirder still, between Puzzle #2 an #3, while one of those two is meant to be maybe mediumish in difficulty, the other one is often intended to be challenging — it’s not the hardest puzzle of the tourney, but it’s still pretty tough. In the last two years, I hadn’t solved a Puzzle #3 with much time remaining on the clock. This time, I managed to leave the room with maybe 17 or 18 minutes to spare. So perhaps I could have sensed I was in for a better day than before.

I once again had a clean solve on Puzzle #4, but then came Puzzle #5, a.k.a. the Unholy Bastard that Eats Children and wrecks everyone’s ACPT dreams. Will Shortz stepped to the microphone and said that this year’s Puzzle #5, called “Attention, Newbies!” by Jeff Chen, would be on the easy side relative to most other Puzzle #5s. In three previous tournaments, I’d never successfully finished one in the time limit, so of course I didn’t trust Will’s reassurances. What makes Puzzle #5 so tough isn’t just that the theme is difficult to figure out; it’s that they ratchet up the difficulty big-time on every other filler clue. So you naturally start hacking away at little bits and pieces of it, hoping that the real a-ha will dawn on you before time runs up.

This time, however, I had a pretty strange (and incomplete) way of getting the a-ha moment. I had most of the letters of 76-Across, clued as [Expedition], and found that the word CELEBRITY could plausibly fit there. But of course, the clue made no sense. So I left it alone. Then, I noticed that I had most of the letters of 35-Across [Hit one out of the park], and saw that it could be HOME-BRED. I figured, well, it’s mostly HOMERED, so the game is adding B’s into normal words, right? Right! Let’s do this! After getting that click, I was off and running…, more like wandering and plodding. Because again, the remaining filler clues are still really hard to suss out (my favorite, in retrospect, was [Rockets take people here]…..the answer was NBA DRAFT). But amazingly, I managed to fill in the final letters of the grid and get out of the room with 7 minutes remaining. I had finally conquered a Puzzle #5 for the first time!

The reason I say my a-ha was incomplete is because I never actually understood the title of the puzzle while solving it. Someone had to explain to me that “Newbies” should be understood as a pun on “New B’s.” Ohhhh. Didn’t matter, I still solved the grid anyway. The other scary-ish moment of Puzzle #5 was another deadly crossing, this time between [Arabic “la” and Hebrew “lo”] and [Flonase competitor], which looked like _OS crosing AFRI_. Well I had no idea what the nasal spray brand was, so I put in an N. That turned out to be correct, but not for the reason I thought. I thought the Arabic “la” and Hebrew “lo” referred to numbers, so NOS would be the abbreviation, right? It did not occur to me that they could be the Arabic and Hebrew words for “no,” so technically, I lucked into the right answer — and with that, a perfect grid. But even if it weren’t a completely clean solve, I didn’t care. Just making it out of there before time was up was a thrill enough for me.

I managed to wrap up Puzzles #6 and #7 in decent time, and when the final standings came out, I found myself finishing the ACPT in 70th place, and was one of only 39 solvers to finish all seven puzzles with perfect solutions. Do you know how stunned I was to finish in 70th? My best finish at the ACPT was the year prior……. in 187th. And so often, what brings you down in the rankings is that tiny little error or blank square you accidentally left in. It didn’t happen this year for me. Yeah, I was really surprised too. I may never make it up to solve the puzzles on the big boards….but hey, didn’t I just say last week that I was only hoping to do better than I did the year before? So who knows; I may get there one day. I did just “graduate” to the B division, though, so unless I manage to speed past everyone else who’s still much faster, I’ll probably still be on the ground during the finals. Speaking of which: if you haven’t read about what happened, it was by far the most intense finish I’d ever seen (here’s a recap from Eric Berlin).

Obviously I plan on going back next year. At this rate, since I finished in 187th in 2014 and 70th in 2015, I should be in the negative numbers by 2016. That means I’d be so fast I’d finish the puzzles before the constructors make them.

Update 4/4/2015 @ 2:45 pm ET: It’s kinda unconscionable that I forgot to mention that this year was the first year I brought my wife to the tourney! She didn’t compete, but we got to play Cards Against Humanity and eat all-you-can-eat sushi with puzzle friends afterwards. In previous years, they’d held the ACPT during her birthday…..let’s just say I’m really grateful that didn’t happen this year.