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Guest Blogger: Angela Halsted’s Report from Puzzle Fest 2011

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Puzzlers from around the area descended upon the Central Library for the first annual Arlington Puzzle Festival to benefit the Friends of the Arlington Public Library, last Saturday, November 5.

The promise of New York Times crossword puzzles, Sudoku puzzles by Thomas Snyder, and an OCTO puzzle created by organizer Doug Gardner were used to lure participants in, but the biggest draw was definitely the opportunity to spend a day with other Puzzle Dorks (and I mean that in the nicest possible way). I’ve been to several crossword tournaments around the country in the last few years and what I’ve found is that puzzle people are the nicest, funniest, most welcoming people in the world. And the Arlington event did nothing to change my mind about that. 

The day began with a talk by Norton Beckerman, a Sudoku teacher who discussed how people learn to make sense of Sudoku rules in order to actually solve the puzzles. Next we heard from Matt Gaffney, a professional crossword constructor, who talked about the business of crosswords in general as well as specific issues related to constructing puzzles. He wound up his talk with some helpful tips for solvers which, as it turns out, came in handy over the next couple of hours (thanks, Matt!).

Then it was time for the puzzles.

The tournament didn’t run quite as smoothly as New York Times crossword editor’s Will Shortz’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, but Will has had 35 years to perfect the process. Doug did a great job moving things along and keeping everyone entertained. I must also compliment the volunteers who helped distribute and pick up the puzzles. That just can’t be an easy job, but Doug’s crew was smooth as silk. And I don’t think that was just because noted crossword constructor Barry Silk was part of the team!

Crossword Challenge, pt. 1

The puzzles we solved were the following week’s New York Times puzzles, which had been generously provided by Will Shortz. We were allowed 20 minutes for each puzzle and not everyone was able to finish in the allotted time. (I mention this to emphasize that you don’t have to be a speed solver to participate in a tournament. You really don’t.) After the first puzzle, a fun romp by Scott Atkinson, I mentioned to my friend Elizabeth that it had seemed a little too difficult for a Monday. (For those who don’t know, New York Times puzzles become progressively more difficult throughout the week.) She agreed with me and we heard some other people having the same conversation. When we had all settled back in for the next puzzle, Doug explained that he had, in fact, inadvertently given us Tuesday’s puzzle first. I was embarrassingly happy to learn that my “calibration” (as Doug called it) was Just That Good.

Crossword Challenge, pt. 1

Puzzle 2, then (which should have been Puzzle 1), seemed like a breezy wisp of a puzzle in comparison.

The last puzzle, by the sometimes diabolical Paula Gamache, was a complete disaster for me. I struggled mightily with the northwest corner and, in the end, had a mistake in a different section of the puzzle. I’m not sure if the mistake cost me a spot in the finals (honestly, I’m not 100% sure how the scoring worked), but it sure did make me mad at myself. That lasted, I don’t know, a few minutes. Then I was back to enjoying being around Puzzle People.

Round 2 winner
The author with her award for rounds 1-3 of the Crossword

The three finalists were identified and after lunch they solved the final puzzle on large easels in front of the room. I’m not going to lie to you, I took that time to solve the puzzle myself, so I can’t tell you much about how the finalists did. I can tell you that Tim Croce came up with a very tricky theme for this puzzle and it stumped me for quite some time. Of course, that’s what puzzles are all about, so no complaining here. [See the results of the Crossword competition (pdf)]

I stuck around for the Sudoku tournament even though I don’t really consider myself much of a Sudoku person. I mean, I know how to do them and I kind of go through phases where I’m more or less obsessed with them … okay, okay, I guess I am a Sudoku person. I probably don’t feel that way right now because I’m not in one of my obsession phases. But it was fun to try my luck at the three puzzles, two of which I had to completely erase and start over after several minutes. Argh. [See the results for the Sudoku competition (pdf)]

I didn’t think I was going to like the OCTO puzzle (not sure why), but it was actually pretty fun. It seemed to me to be more complicated than Sudoku and more linear than KenKen. (I mean, really, the turning corners thing? Too confusing! Give me straight lines!) I actually ended up downloading a few more OCTOs from Doug’s website when I got home and I’m pretty sure I’ll have to get one of his books. I can always use a different kind of obsessive puzzle phase. Just to mix things up a bit.

All in all, the day was a lot of fun. I will definitely be back next year, and if you are a Puzzle Person to any degree at all, you should try to be there too.

Congratulations to all the tournament winners and to Doug Gardner for putting together an awesome event.

Angela Halsted is a soccer mom who lives in Arlington with her husband and two children. You will occasionally find her writing about puzzles in the crossword blogosphere, where she is known as PuzzleGirl. 

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