Read more about and listen to this episode at theallusionist.org/lollapuzzoola.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, discover language floating down the river in a basket.
Coming up in today’s show: the closest I’m likely ever to get to covering a sporting event.
Thanks to Blue Apron for supporting the Allusionist and supplying responsibly sourced meal kits. The other day my friend Kathleen tried Blue Apron for the first time, and the box arrived with all the ingredients portioned out and the easy to follow recipe card - and KAthleen’s 13-year-old daughter interest got piqued and she ended up preparing the family dinner all by herself, leaving Kathleen free to...do a load of work with spreadsheets. Adulthood: bet you can’t wait, kids! Blue Apron know you’re busy, so they now offer their usual farm-fresh ingredients in meals you can have ready in just thirty minutes! Or your resident teenager can. Check out this week’s menu and, if you’re in the contiguous USA, get your first three meals free - with free shipping - by going to blueapron.com/allusionist.
Quick note before we begin: today’s show was recorded on location; said location was full of people, hence there’s quite a bit of background hubbub. So let me remind you there are transcripts of each episode at theallusionist.org/transcripts.
On with the show.
HZ: It’s Saturday 19th August 2017, and I’m spending the day with my friend Bruce.
HZ: Bruce, where are we?
BRUCE: We’re in the Upper East Side of New York, at a unitarian church, for Lollapuzzoola 10 - an annual crossword puzzle tournament.
BRIAN CIMMET: Welcome to Lollapuzzoola 10. What are we doing today? Crosswords. We’re going to start soon.
BRUCE: It’s terrifically fun. 250 people will cram into the basement and not see daylight for six or seven hours while we do crosswords.
HZ: What’s your name?
STEVE: Steve Golden.
HZ: And have you been to Lollapuzzoola before?
STEVE: No, I’ve never been to any crossword tournament. I’m here to have fun. I’m excited to hear how this works.
HZ: How many of these have you been to before?
CHRIS 1: This is my fourth tournament. Been to two in CD, two in NYC.
HZ: Have you ever won?
CHRIS 1: No. I’m a middle of the pack kind of guy.
CHRIS 2: I love coming here each year. It’s consistently the best puzzles I solve.
BEN: I’m here to see my friends. I’ve probably been at this tournament five or six times.
JESSE: This is my fifth or sixth time.
HZ: Have you ever won?
JESSE: Not even close.
HZ: This could be your time!
JESSE: Only if everyone else doesn't come back from lunch.
HZ: You could poison their lunch.
JESSE: I’ve thought about it... No! Everyone’s very friendly here. I think even the top people are rooting for each other.
HZ: Have you done this before?
ERIK: I have done this before.
HZ: How did that go?
ERIK: First couple of times, real bad; then I managed a win.
HZ: This is Erik Agard, the 23-year-old who won Lollapuzzoola in 2016.
HZ: You’re a champion.
ERIK: I am a champion. I am the reigning champion.
HZ: How has your life changed in the year since you won?
ERIK: Power corrupts. You can’t see it on the podcast, but I’ve got a massive head.
HZ: And you’re wearing a crown.
ERIK: I’d say tiara.
BRUCE: I came here five years ago; the people were so nice; I didn’t win but I didn't finish last. I had so much fun I came back year after year, and started going to tournaments throughout the year - Los Angeles, Washington, all over.
HZ: There’s the Indie 500 in Washington DC; Bosswords in Boston; and the big one, held in Stamford, Connecticut with more than 600 competitors: the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, founded in 1978.
BRUCE: It’s run by Will Shortz of the New York Times. That has been a very longstanding tournament, and it’s the standard by which everyone judges who is greatest of year. It’s the big official tournament, but it also makes everyone stressed out because it’s the big official tournament. Lollapuzzoola is less serious - there are serious competitors, but it’s less stressful.
HZ: The New York Times crossword is still a major presence here at Lollapuzzoola. It’s what got a lot of the attendees into crosswords, and many of them solve that puzzle every day; some even take it further.
MICHAEL SHARP: My name is Michael Sharp.
HZ: And you write a column about crosswords.
MICHAEL: I do. It’s all about the New York Times puzzle, under the pseudonym Rex Parker - it’s called Rex Parker Does the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.
HZ: What kind of things are you looking for in order to write about them?
MICHAEL: Every day I look at the puzzle: do I think it’s any good? Is it entertaining? Sometimes it’s a solving diary where I talk about where I messed up; I write about my life in relation to the puzzle; it’s a combination of analysis and like a diary.
HZ: When did you start coming to Lollapuzzoola?
MICHAEL: Seven or so years ago? It’s my favourite tournament. This is the one I’ve been going to longest that I like the best.
HZ: Why is it the best?
MICHAEL: It’s fun! They want it to be fun. It’s a very serious tournament - the puzzles are absolutely top notch - but at the same time, people are coming and paying to come to have a good time, so they put emphasis on that element, that everybody, not just the fastest people to solve puzzles, has a good time.
BRIAN CIMMET: Starting in ten mins...
HZ: How do you train for a crossword puzzle tournament?
JESSE: I don’t, actually. Every year I think I should do more puzzles on paper to practice and work on speed, then I forget about it and just show up.
HZ: Did you train for these contests?
ERIK: All the training is doing. I’ve done fifty puzzles in a day.
HZ: Wow. Why?
ERIK: For funsies.
HZ: How long did that take? Ten minutes?
ERIK: Eleven, twelve minutes.
HZ: No training?
MICHAEL: None. Zero. We drank tequila last night, that was our training.
HZ: True athlete.
HZ: How do you prepare?
BRIAN: Practice. An app allows me to do 1-2 a day. It’s an addiction.
HZ: A reasonably healthy addiction, I hope?
BRIAN: I think so. If you talk to the people here, it’s a really interesting bubble. Lots of overlapping interests.
BRUCE: Crossword people run the gamut: the people here are very interested in words, but they’re also interested in a broad range of trivia, and general knowledge. So you can attack this from a word-centric perspective or a trivia perspective, and you kind of need both.
HZ: The tournament is about to kick off. The basement of the Unitarian Church For All Souls is full of 257 competitors, seated at round tables like they’re at a wedding where there are pens instead of flower arrangements. To one side of the room are long tables where thirty teams of two will compete in the pairs division. At the back is a vast array of snacks. At the front, two huge timers, which will tick down the minutes and seconds for each round.
BRIAN CIMMET: Everyone’s going to do five puzzles tournament-style today, so that means you’ll be scored on speed and accuracy. The speed part is like this: you get 3000 points if you’re the first person to finish, and you get five points less for every place lower than that that you finish. So I would get no points, because I would be last.
HZ: Brian Cimmet, one of Lollapuzzoola’s founders, is hosting the tournament.
BRIAN CIMMET: It doesn’t matter what time you finish, just what order you finish. Then, accuracy: for every square you leave blank or incorrect, you lose ten more points off that pristine score. If your puzzle is perfect, you get 100 more points, because we like you better than everyone else.
BRUCE: My goal for the day - and my goal for every tournament, I know I can’t possibly win - my goal is to do all of the puzzles with no errors. Which is surprisingly hard to do.
HZ: So really you’re competing against not these people here, but your own human fallibility.
BRUCE: I am competing against my own standard, which is if I can solve all the puzzles reasonably quickly with no errors, I will consider that a success. I am yet to do that in my four Lollapuzzoolas; the fifth one might be the charm.
HZ: I’m rooting for you, Bruce. I just want you to beat Bruce.
CHRIS 1: I’m a 50th percentile kind of guy, so my only goal in this tournament is to be higher than 50%. I’m shooting for the top half.
HZ: What would constitute a victory for you?
LAURA: Not coming last.
BRIAN CIMMET: A lot of tournaments start with the easiest puzzle. We didn’t. Please don’t get discouraged; this is not the easiest puzzle of the day. It’s not the hardest either.
HZ: What do people stand to win?
CHRIS 1: Fortune and glory, fortune and glory.
BRUCE: Of course, I’m not competing for top spot; I’m competing for my mediocre perfection.
HZ: That’s the thing with Lollapuzzoola. Unlike some of the other tournaments, you’re not competing for a big cash prize or a grand trophy. This year’s victors stand to win a $25 Amazon gift card each and a 2007 World Almanac. So the real prize really is triumphing over your peers or yourself - achieving personal goals like Bruce’s mediocre perfection.
BRIAN CIMMET: Does anyone have a reason we cannot start puzzle one? In that case, we’re going to begin this 30-minute puzzle. 30 minutes on the clock. Good luck everyone. On your mark. Get set. Go.
HZ: Puzzle 1: Let the Games Begin, by Paolo Pasco. Grid size 23x13. Word count: 108. Subtitle: "We wanted to start off with some fun, but some of the game pieces may have gotten misplaced."
3 down. Barry Humphries character with an honorific name. Dame Edna.
80 across. Occasion after which you can’t wear white. Labor Day.
49 down. ___ Speedwagon. REO.
54 across. Caitlyn of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. What? I know that’s Jenner, but there are only four squares in the grid for that answer, so what is going on with this puzzle?
BRUCE: It’s always challenging when you know an answer, but it doesn’t fit in the slot. You know something’s gone seriously awry. And that was the trick in this puzzle.
HZ: There’s a trick in the puzzle?
There’s a trick in the puzzle. There’s a trick in all the Lollapuzzoola puzzles.
Back in episode 8 of this show, I learned about how British crosswords are constructed. We have more of a tradition of cryptic clues than American crosswords; but while the clues in Lollapuzzoola’s puzzles were mostly general knowledge, there’s a cryptic element to each crossword as a whole. Puzzle one contained five clues which were just, “Let the games begin!” and the relevant squares in the grid were circled. And in keeping with the theme of Lollapuzzoola 10, the Olympic Games -
BRUCE: - they would spell out ‘tennis’ or ‘archery’ or something. The letters of that sport were circled, and they would remove them from answers in other sections.
HZ: Oh, come on!
BRUCE: So they were real words; just not the words you thought they were.
HZ: The clue was in the puzzle’s subtitle - “some of the game pieces may have gotten misplaced”. I don’t know how many hours or days it would have taken me to realise what that meant. But only eight minutes into the thirty minute solving time, several competitors had completed the crossword.
BRUCE: That was challenging. The first puzzle is usually really easy, so you cruise through it and it’s your warm-up and you’re like, “Oh, I feel really comfortable.”
HZ: But you should know better than to feel too comfortable during Lollapuzzoola’s puzzles.
CHRIS 2: They try to break boundaries each year.
MICHAEL: They recruit some of the best constructors, and they’re very creative. So there’s a really creative theme, playful, witty, something that makes you legitimately laugh, answers and words you’ve never seen and never thought you’d see in a puzzle.
HZ: As I learnt during puzzle 2, the 78-word 15x15 grid titled 'Crossword De-cat-hlon'. As the twenty minute solving time began, the room was quiet save for the scribbling of pens on paper. Then, after a few moments:
COMPETITORS: Meow! Meow meow! Meow! Meow! Meow meow meow! Meow!
HZ: Mewing broke out around the room, as one by one the contestants reached clue 17 across: “Do this - out loud! - nine times, once per life.” The clue was in the puzzle’s name, De-CAT-hlon. I should have spotted the feline theme. Lollapuzzoola is renowned for such performative elements. For instance one year, someone’s phone kept going off - phones are usually prohibited, but the disapproval evaporated when contestants realised the ringtones were actually clues to the puzzle they were doing.
BRUCE: You can do puzzles online; you can buy books of puzzles to do in the privacy of your own house; but there’s something fun about doing crosswords in a room with 225 people meowing and pretending to scratch the table.
HZ: And that’s part of the appeal, rather than doing crosswords alone at home, of coming to a tournament like Lollapuzzoola to solve crosswords alongside hundreds of others.
ADESINA: I love the communal feel. It’s one of those situations where I’m with a group of people who I like, I appreciate, I want to get to know; and we like crosswords and we’re doing nothing but crosswords, this is a bonus. So if anything, the competitive nature drops for me, because I love the people here, and I love solving crosswords.
KATIE: It seems like a very solitary activity, but it’s a good way to get to know other people who like the same thing. You meet people this way - I met my boyfriend through trivia.
HZ: Tell me more!
KATIE: One night there was a pub trivia quiz in town and I wanted to go, and I posted on Facebook, “Can I glom onto someone’s team?” and I glommed onto a friend’s team and so I met my boyfriend through that.
HZ: That’s beautiful. Did he impress you with a knack for puzzles?
KATIE: He is a terrific puzzler and a great constructor of cryptic crosswords.
HZ: Crossword columnist Michael Sharp has embraced the communality of the tournament to the extent that this year he is competing in the pairs division with his wife, Penelope Harper.
MICHAEL: I never thought I would enjoy solving with anybody else, but I’m in the pairs division here with my wife, and just that sense of community, seeing how other people solve - mostly you don’t see how other people solve; it’s weirdly voyeuristic. It’s a solitary endeavour. So it’s interesting to see how fast people are; to talk to people immediately after solving - usually no opportunity to process what you’ve just solved and break down what you like and didn’t like, with other enthusiastic solvers. That’s another thing - a tournament provides that sense of community and fun.
HZ: How is it solving with your wife rather than on your own?
MICHAEL: It’s different! I’m not kidding - this is the only circumstance in which this happens. Actually solving a puzzle in real time, on paper together, never. So it’s actually fun because I’ve never done it before. Where do you put your hands, who solves what, and at what pace?
PENELOPE: It actually takes the pressure off a lot in a tournament, having someone you can trust to do the puzzle with you. For me, it destresses the whole thing, it makes it fun.
HZ: This is Michael Sharp’s wife and co-competitor, Penelope Harper.
HZ: Have you competed solo before?
PENELOPE: Yes. I have. I tend to angry when I’m solo. Because I’m not as good as I think I should be. And then I have to tell myself it’s just a puzzle tournament - chill out. When I’m doing it with Michael, it’s automatically the stakes are so much lower and it’s just about having fun.
HZ: How have you divided up the labour?
MICHAEL: We’re basically working on opposite sides of the grid and sharing information when it seems pertinent to the overall solve.
HZ: Michael and Penelope first competed as a pair at last year’s Lollapuzzoola.
PENELOPE: We came second.
HZ: That’s very good!
PENELOPE: Well, no, because even though I’m like “Chill, chill,” I really wanted to come first.
HZ: Low stakes, though, just about having fun.
HZ: How did the first half of this day go?
PENELOPE: I think we might actually have done really well. I don’t know if anyone finished ahead of us. I think we’re doing really well as long as we haven’t made an error, so it’s actually quite nice.
HZ: Three puzzles down, and it’s time to break for lunch.
BRUCE: What’s kind of encouraging, when you look around this room, is there are old folks, and there are a lot of young folks - this is not some dying thing, “Kids these days are not interested in this” - there are folks in here who are 80, and folk in here who are 20, and probably some who are under 20. Over there, Neville who is a maths professor in Kentucky, is in the pairs division with his mum. Which is cool! I’m a little envious.
NEVILLE: I’m Neville Fogarty. This is my mom.
C: C Fogarty.
HZ: Do you compete together often?
C: This is our first time.
NEVILLE: This is our first tournament competing as a pair, but my mom taught me how to solve crosswords about ten years ago. This is her first tournament though.
HZ: How are you finding it so far?
C: Very nerveracking!
HZ: And yet you seemed to finish that round fast, in a few minutes.
C: He’s very good.
NEVILLE: I think we just work well together as a team. I’ve come to a few of these.
HZ: Have you ever won?
NEVILLE: No! Not even close.
HZ: With your mom here, this could be your day.
NEVILLE: Quite possibly. It’s the best chance I ever stood.
HZ: She’s making a face that suggests it’s not your day. That’s not the kind of confidence of a winner!
NEVILLE: I don’t think we’re really here trying to win; we’re here to have fun.
C: And to make a memory. It’s been going fairly well so I’m scared.
HZ: Lunch over, everyone’s back in the basement for puzzles four and five, which will determine the finalists who will compete in the sixth round.
BRIAN CIMMET: So this puzzle takes forty minutes. Fourth puzzle is the hardest one. So this puzzle takes forty minutes to finish about a third of it, and then you’ll all have to give up. Alright, all set. On your marks. Get set. Go.
HZ: Puzzle 4. 'New Biathlons' by Francis Heaney. "Two sports are better than one. Just be sure to contain your excitement." 40 minutes, 18x17 grid, word count 97. Alrighty.
7 down. Ailment that sounds like one pronunciation of a Persian Gulf country. Catarrh.
41 across. Nora Ephron’s sister and sometime collaborator. Delia.
20 across. Indian instrument + new biathlon = Caption of a photo in which reviewer Gene and an alien sit atop a carpet, next to a sailor. Er?
66 across. Front wheel adjustment + new biathlon = reason California’s largest city hosts a panel about a Chinese noodle dish.
I am way too jetlagged for this.
BRUCE: The end of puzzle four, the end of puzzle four… This was a tricky one.
HZ: Well, not all that tricky for everybody.
KATIE: Hi, I’m Katie Hamill.
HZ: Katie Hamill has been competing at crossword tournaments for about ten years - and a few weeks before Lollapuzzoola, she won the Indie 500 in Washington DC.
HZ: That was just a forty minute puzzle that you finished in how many minutes?
KATIE: About seven.
HZ: About seven.
HZ: So far, I’m not in danger of completing any of these puzzles in seven minutes. On a good round, I might get about five clues in seven minutes. But, several hours deep into Lollapuzzoola, I am noticing some improvement.
BRIAN CIMMET: Great; we’re going to start puzzle 5. On your mark. Get set. Go.
HZ: Puzzle 5: 'Stick the Landing', by joon pahk, forty minutes, 19x19 grid, 126 words.
1 Across: make your words stand out. Emboss!
1 down: praying hands or face with tears of joy, eg. Emoji!
88 Across: they get into hot water. Teabags!
103 down: short hairstyle. Bob.
BRIAN CIMMET: Time is up. If you’re still working, stop working.
HZ: I did it!! Admittedly only three minutes 22 seconds short of the forty minute time limit, but I completed that crossword. First time in my life. It’s very encouraging, but I’m not going to be troubling the finals any time soon. Or any time ever.
Now that the five rounds are done, we wait for the judges to check everyone’s grids for errors, combine that with their times, make any necessary point deductions, and compile the rankings.
HZ: So how are you feeling after all five puzzles are done?
CHRIS 2: I feel really great. They had a lot of great puzzles last year, and they somehow did better this year.
HZ: Chris found he’d inadvertently left two squares blank in his puzzle; but he’s not going to let that spoil everything.
CHRIS 2: Leaving two blank squares at one across is just hilarious. I wasn’t going to make the finals anyway; I was hoping for a clean solve, but I think I still hopefully finished top 10. It’s been a great day.
HZ: I’m glad the two blank squares didn’t undo the good stuff.
CHRIS 2: It happens.
HZ: You left two squares blank, but you filled in hundreds.
CHRIS 2: I didn’t have any wrong squares, I just didn’t have all the right squares.
HZ: The results are in. And despite not having all the right squares, Chris finished eighth out of 227.
CHRIS 2: I think it’s the best I’ve ever done at this tournament.
BRUCE: Did I make it, did I make it? 98th! I’m perfectly mediocre!
CHRIS 2: And you did it clean, too! Well done!
HZ: 98th and error-free: a personal triumph for Bruce.
BRIAN CIMMET: Top ten: if you finished in tenth to fourth place, we love you very much, we have no prizes for you.
HZ: In the sixth and final round, the top three from both the Local Division and the Express Division have to get on stage and complete a puzzle on enlarged grids on dry-erase boards.
BRIAN CIMMET: In the finals, this is how it works: we have one grid with two sets of clues. Easier clues go to the Local division, slightly harder clues to the Express division.
HZ: First the three Local finalists, then the Express finalists take to the stage wearing headphones playing white noise, so nobody can shout answers to them.
BRIAN CIMMET: Congratulations to all of our finalists. Our Express division third place, with an almost complete puzzle: Glen Ryan. Second, finishing 13 mins 7 seconds, Eric Maddy. First: 12 mins 6 seconds: Andy Kravitz.
HZ: The winners receive their medals, copies of the 2007 World Almanac, and $25 Amazon gift cards.
BRIAN CIMMET: In the pairs division: in second place in the pairs division, Neville and C Fogarty.
HZ: How do you feel? Your first tournament!
C: It’s marvellous. I’m really excited.
NEVILLE: We’re really thrilled, and I know we’re both happy about having every letter correct throughout the tournament. That was a personal goal.
BRIAN CIMMET: Congratulations, both of you. And in first place in the pairs division, and the tenth best overall score in any division, Michael Sharp and Penelope Harper. Michael is a former worst handwriting champion.
HZ: Penelope, congratulations!
PENELOPE: Thank you. How exciting.
HZ: Victory is yours.
PENELOPE: I know, and a medal and everything. I’ve never won anything. Michael won worst handwriting once, and best upstate new york. So this is very exciting because I never won anything.
HZ: What does it say about your relationship, that victory came when you worked in cooperation?
PENELOPE: Yeah! That we just trusted each other’s work, and didn’t get too frustrated with each other, and just let each other do what we needed to do. I couldn’t have done this by myself.
HZ: And as Penelope and Michael took themselves and their medals off to celebrate, the mood all round was pretty triumphant. For a competitor like Bruce, it really is not the winning but the taking part that counts.
BRUCE: I don’t get to participate in the same way in a piece of art or a piece of music. But these are pieces of art from words that I get to participate in and take part in. It’s a really fun interactive activity.
Thanks to Brian Cimmet of Lollapuzzoola, and all the attendees who didn’t mind me sticking a mic in their faces. In order of appearance: Steve, Chris, another Chris, Brian, Ben, Jesse, Erik, Michael, Laura, Adesina, Katie, Penelope, Neville and his mom C. And thanks most of all to Bruce Ryan, perfectly mediocre in crosswording, exceptional in his support of this show and Radiotopia, which is how we became friends, and how we ended up on a jaunt to Lollapuzzoola this year.
For more about crosswords, listen to episode 8 of this show, entitled ‘Crosswords’. Find it at theallusionist.org/crosswords or further along the feeds in the places you can hear the show - iTunes, RadioPublic, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, the seashell you’re holding up to your ear...
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The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts around. Find them all at radiotopia.fm, including The West Wing Weekly, an episode-by-episode examination of The West Wing by the actor Joshua Malina, who starred in the show, and our song exploding, namaste-hating friend Hrishikesh Hirway. Last weekend I went to their live recording of the finale of season 3, where they were joined on stage by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin AND some special guests I don’t want to spoil for you.
But it was very exciting to be in a roomful of people who love the podcast and, like crosswords, podcasts are usually a solitary pastime so opportunities to enjoy them communally are quite rare. Therefore I entreat you to come along to the live Allusionist at the London Podcast Festival mid-September, because I don’t do those often - and there are also shows by other Radiotopians including Criminal, The Memory Palace, Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything and The Bugle, in which I will be appearing as well. Tickets are on sale now at kingsplace.co.uk/radiotopia.
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