To help you get psyched for this Friday's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, I'm rerunning the first puzzle I made for the ACPT back in '09. Consider it a tease if you have never made it down to Brooklyn for the event. Hey, they're still taking registrations, so it's not too late to sign up. And even if you can't make it, why don't you consider one of the at home versions? You can do it on the couch with a copy of "Wordplay" on loop. It'll be almost like you're there in person. Only the movie takes place in Stamford, not Brooklyn, Trip Payne has retired from speed solving, and Dan Feyer is nowhere to be seen. Other than that, practically the same thing.
Head honcho Will Shortz took a few minutes to rap with me about the tournament, my puzzle (I kept that stuff private so as not to spoil anything for the weekend,) and other stuff. This is how it went down:
BEQ: How many people are competing this year?
Will: 497 contestants and 41 noncompetitors. That's still a bit off from last year, but not by so much. But sign-up continues, and I expect the number will continue to grow.
BEQ: I hear that you plan on having the contestants guess the order of the constructors.
Will: Yes. I should do this every year, as it makes an interesting game.
BEQ: How do you go about selecting the puzzles used for the tournament?
Will: I specially commission all the puzzles except for #1 and #4, which are regular 15s. I try to get a mix of regulars and newbies, to keep things fresh -- but all of them New York Times contributors, and at least two women (more, if possible). Since this is a very select group of eight, I focus on constructors who are good clue-writers in addition to expert grid-makers.
Once the commissioned puzzles are in, I look through my daily Times files to pick Puzzles #1 and #4, looking for easy/medium crosswords that I especially like whose themes will complement those of the other puzzles. Of course, I ask the constructors for #1 and #4 if they're willing to have their work used in the tournament instead of The Times. The answer is almost always yes.
BEQ: How does your editing style differ for the Tournament versus the Grey Lady?
Will: For the tournament I tend to edit the clues a little less than I do for The Times, because the constructors are all experts. The amount of editing varies. Mike Shenk, for example, writes such good clues that I hardly change his stuff at all. This year I made significant changes to only five of his clues, and one of these was to avoid a duplication with another puzzle. By contrast, your crossword required somewhat more work. (Sorry!)
BEQ: So why no Merl Reagle this year?
Will: Merl is attending a newspaper conference next weekend, which, unfortunately, coincided with the ACPT for the first time. This is a critically important annual event for him, as it's his biggest source of new business for his self-syndicated crossword.
I figured as long as Merl wouldn't be at the tournament, this would be a chance for someone else to be represented. As much as possible I try to have the tournament constructors be people who'll attend the tournament, because it's more fun for the solvers that way.
Never fear. Merl will be back in the future.
BEQ: I hear that Matt Ginsberg's puzzle-solving AI Dr. Fill is competing again this year? How do you think it's going to do?
Will: I really shouldn't say. But I think he's going to get killed on one of the puzzles.
BEQ: I'll leave you with this, what were the last five records you played on your stereo?
Will: Lately I've been playing a lot of '60s LPs that I've picked up at used record stores. I think the last five were the Rolling Stones, "Out of Their Heads"; the Music Machine, "Talk Talk"; the Cyrkle, "Red Rubber Ball"; the Troggs, "Wild Thing"; and the Beatles, "Rubber Soul." For more current music I try to listen to "Little Steven's Underground Garage" on Sunday night -- the best music on broadcast radio.