Speaking of the puzzlemakers, it takes them probably four to five hours to make the puzzle that the top solvers are going to fill in in less than five or six minutes. The judges get to pore over each and every square to make sure they're filled in accurately. I guess it's probably not unlike correcting papers for those who are teachers. Though, since these things are filled in so quickly, the handwriting has often yielded some brand-new-never-before seen characters, and for that matter, never before seen words. I guess that's where the “judging” comes into play. You might ask your fellow judge, “What letter do you think this is?”
“You mean that cuneiform-looking scribble?”
”Is this entry even written in English?””Looks like it says GFESDES to me.”
The killer puzzle in the tournament is always puzzle number 5. It separates the contenders from the pretenders. That one is designed to not be finished. It also makes the judge's job a living hell. There's probably a pretty good chance that the grid is riddled with wrong letters, cuneiform and otherwise. Basically, nobody can speed through correcting that one.
The first year I was a judge in 1998, god-among-puzzlemakers Mike Shenk made number 5, and it is in my humble opinion the greatest puzzle I've ever seen. It was called “Landslides” and the gimmick was that in the long entries any letter combination that spelled out the name of a country swapped places with either the entry that appeared just above or below it. So the answer to one of the theme entries SCUBA DIVES since it had the letters CUBA in it, those letters were swapped with the entrry HILT that appeared below it. So the theme entry correctly filled in appeared in the grid as SHILTDIVES. Clear as mud? Even if you got the thing filled in correctly, the whole grid looked riddled with inaccuracies. Great times. Just about everybody at the Tournament hated Mike for that one.