The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament has come to an end, and with it the end of Tyler Hinman's amazing five-year reign as champ. Meet the new alpha dog of the crossword world: the one and only Dan Feyer. Puzzlemaster Brendan Emmett Quigley joins us again with his wrap-up of the action from Brooklyn.
From wire to wire at the 33rd American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, there was zero doubt as to who the best crossword solver was: Manhattan's Dan Feyer. Inevitability is a word that came to mind this year. Dan probably should have been the champion last year, but by playing conservatively in the penultimate puzzle, Dan slipped from first to fourth and out of the championship round. This year, however, after every puzzle Dan held the pole position. Any threat of a race was rendered moot. Heck, it had the feeling more like a victory lap from the word go.
The championship puzzle was a beautiful themeless concoction from Mike Shenk, one of the country's top constructors and the puzzle editor for the Wall Street Journal. For the final round, solving became a spectator sport. A crowd of 600 people cheered on the top three contestants of three different skill levels, while NPR's Neal Conan and puzzlemaster Merl Reagle provided play-by-play commentary. Though this puzzle was clued on the practically unfair side, Dan cruised through this one. He confidently began with the seemingly arcane trivia of "Chuck's sister on NBC's 'Chuck'" (that would be ELLIE) and appeared unfazed by brutally obtuse clues such as "One unlikely to open wide" (ART FILM) and "Flower's bud" (BAMBI). Wow.
In just three short years, Dan has thrust himself into the spotlight among the best of the best. And he's not alone. This year's second-place finisher, Howard Barkin of Hillsboro, NJ, was making his second appearance in the finals in his five years of competition. And third-place finisher Anne Erdmann of Champaign, IL has been in the top 10 for three of her four years. It's as if the old-school regime represented in Wordplay, the 2006 hit documentary about the ACPT, has been supplanted.
"The clichéd answer is that this is the changing of the guard," Howard said after the finals. "But everybody is still there, though."
Indeed. Coming in at 4th and 5th places were two of the Wordplay stars: the reigning five-peating champion Tyler Hinman and his rival Trip Payne, a three-time winner. Tyler's body of work stands for itself. Since stealing the show in the documentary, he became the contestant who couldn't lose while his competition made careless mistakes. Those five years of finals appearances were some of the most entertaining, and the audience acknowledged that fact with a euphoric standing ovation.
"In retrospect, it would have been nice to have gone up against Tyler on the stage," Dan said, "but it still counts. I'm sure we'll have a showdown down the line."
Really, this new blood hasn't replaced the old favorites. If anything, the room at the top has just become more log-jammed. Consider the top rookie of the year, Joon Pahk of Somerville, MA. Joon showed up unannounced and walked away with the B Division championship and 16th place overall. That would be seven whole spaces ahead of another Wordplay star, former seven-time champion Jon Delfin. Newcomers and old hands are jostling in the new crossword order.
So while Dan is clearly the favorite going into 2011, the old school might still have something to say about that.