Fiend Mailbag

Chris in Connecticut writes:

Are there any crossword compilation books you recommend for ACPT prep? I think I’ve done all the Friday-Saturday Times books. While I’m not the fastest, I can invariably complete them correctly. At this point in my puzzle career, the only one that gives me big problems still is the Saturday Stumper. Anything else you’d recommend from Amazon? I still prefer pen and paper.

The best books for training are Will Shortz’s past collections of ACPT puzzles, but unfortunately those are out of print. (I’d love to see the publishing rights to those books and Patrick Berry’s Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies revert to Will and Patrick, respectively, and for these gents to be able to release the books again.)

For $20 per year, you can buy a packet of ACPT puzzles from 2005 to 2014. I don’t see many people springing for $200 for 80 puzzles, but if you’ve never done ACPT puzzles, you’d do well to solve a couple of recent years’ packets. (And Will, how about another book collection with 2005+ ACPT puzzles? Or a discount on buying multiple years’ worth from the ACPT site?)

I know some people plow through Simon & Schuster crossword collections, for two reasons. First, the books contain puzzles in those in-between sizes seen at ACPT—the 17×17 and 19×19 formats. Second, some of the puzzles have kinda rough fill, and it’s good training to learn how to muscle through seemingly impossible crossings.

People used to also train on Maura Jacobson’s New York magazine puzzles, but Maura has retired from making an annual ACPT puzzle. Merl Reagle often makes a big ACPT puzzle, so any of his various volumes of Sunday crosswords is a good bet.

What are you folks relying on for your ACPT training? Please tell us what’s worked for you in the comments.

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2 Responses to Fiend Mailbag

  1. Bencoe says:

    Last year, I did indeed do a whole book of Sunday Merl Reagles in preparation for the ACPT. Good suggestion.
    I also, once I get the names of the constructors, like to go back in the archives and check their puzzles out to get a sense of their style again.
    It’s a good bet that Patrick Blindauer and BEQ will be constructors, so it’s good to keep up with them.

  2. Andy says:

    Above all else, I recommend subscribing to (and buying previous years of, where possible) Fireball Crosswords and the AVCXword. If there’s anything I’ve learned from 4 years at the ACPT, it’s this: You live and die by Puzzle 5. And while there’s very little you can do to prepare for the vicissitudes of the Cruelest Puzzle, one thing you absolutely can do is solve as many rule-bending puzzles as you can get your hands on. Fireball and AVCX deliver that, and if you solve them on a regular basis, it becomes much more likely that you’ll be able to quickly recognize a puzzle’s quirks (especially if another constructor has done the same trick before).

    Second, solve as many puzzles as you can handle. Amy’s point about muscling through rough crossings is well taken. You’ll have fewer rough crossings if you recognize more of the short, gluey fill that comes up from time to time (thanks to Amy, Team Fiend, and Rex for teaching me the canon of crosswordese). When you do have a rough crossing, there’s something to be said for having the wisdom to make your best guess (using linguistic fraud or context clues) and move on. Occasionally, there won’t be any substitute for real-world experience (see, e.g., last year’s crossing at the J of JESSA [a character on “Girls”] and JANSPORT [a popular backpack brand]), but there’s not much you can do about that.

    It already sounds like you’re solving mostly on paper, which I can’t recommend highly enough. I do almost all of my solving electronically, but I switch to about 75% paper solving starting in January. Solving on paper requires a different kind of muscle memory: the clues and grid are in a different configuration, there’s no automatic highlighting, and frankly I don’t do a lot of handwriting in my day-to-day life. If I haven’t been building up that routine, I find it very difficult to speed solve on paper–to find clues and entries quickly, and to stay focused without losing concentration for very long–especially on a Sunday-sized grid.

    I also think Ben’s right on the money with his suggestions above, especially w/r/t solving puzzles by the ACPT constructors. I saved a bunch of Merl’s Sunday puzzles and printed them out a couple months before last year’s tourney, which I found very helpful. I also printed out and solved every puzzle from the NYT archive (since 2007 or so) by last year’s 8 constructors. It’s also nice that many semi-regular ACPT constructors (notably BEQ and Blindauer) have a wealth of free puzzles on their sites, all of which Amy has thoughtfully collected links to.

    Occasionally, that strategy isn’t particularly helpful. Last year, MaryEllen Uthlaut had only had one previous NYT puzzle, and Kelly Clark’s most recent puzzle prior to ACPT ran in 2006 and wasn’t much like what you’d see at an ACPT. But it seemed likely given their previous work that they would have Puzzles 1 and 4 (the two easiest puzzles of the tournament), and so I just solved some early-week puzzles from the NYT archive and from NYT books. This will usually be the case when you see a constructor on the ACPT list who hasn’t been published much: I can’t think of a time when Will has entrusted any of the larger or more challenging puzzles to a novice constructor (though to be fair, my institutional memory is not as deep as much of Team Fiend).

    Finally, unless you’re one of the nine people solving on the big boards on Sunday, the only themeless puzzles you’ll solve all week are the newspaper puzzles. There are some benefits to solving themeless puzzles (e.g., they can be good practice for breaking into wide open corners; occasionally their fill is so constrained that sections have to be held together with strange 3- and 4-letter entries that might come up), but mostly I don’t think their value-above-replacement-puzzle is very high w/r/t ACPT prep.

    Of course, the above is all fairly picayune compared to the most important part of ACPT, which is having fun, challenging yourself, and meeting crossword people. I know this advice isn’t exactly pertinent to your question, but I posit that if ACPT prep or worrying about doing well is getting in the way of your enjoyment of the tournament, then you’re doing it wrong.

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