From the Archive

Crossword Tournament Dispatch #8: How the tournament works

February 21st, 2010 at 7:16 pm ET

In a comment here, Brent Sleeper asks about timing and scoring. Here’s more about how it works:

  • There’s a big digital minutes-and-seconds countdown clock in the corner of the room. Every puzzle has a time limit (e.g., 20 minutes). Everyone starts at the same time, and the clock starts counting down. When you finish, you put up your hand and a roving official picks up your paper and notes how many full minutes you have left on the clock (e.g., 11 minutes if the clock says “11:15″). The officials are usually quite fast and are aware of the time you put up your hand, and there are only very rare disagreements.
  • Because early-completion bonuses are awarded based on full minutes left, handing in your paper at 11:55 and at 11:04 counts the same for your score, so we’re trained to use the full fractional minute we have left to check our work before putting up our hands. For some of us, taking an extra minute to try to find errors may be beneficial, if we finish near the minute boundary and/or it was a tough solve.
  • The scoring (which is explained here) counterbalances the need for accuracy against the need for speed. On the whole, according to how the scoring system is calibrated, accuracy is worth a lot of time: one is better served to take up to seven minutes longer to produce a clean solve, rather than a puzzle with as few as two wrong letters handed in earlier. At the high end of the scale, even more arcane rules come into play; for example, in the on-stage finals, extra time (in the form of an early start, by a margin of a few seconds) may be awarded to one or another of the finalists based on nearly microscopic differentials in their scores.
  • Whiteboard solving is hard. I’ve never done it, but I’ve seen a friend do it, and (to put it bluntly) he choked — I concurrently solved the same puzzle on paper faster than he could do it on the whiteboard, even though he’s a much better solver than I am. In the Division A finals, it probably doesn’t help that you have to wear headphones (pumping in God knows what) to prevent you from hearing the amplified play-by-play by Neal Conan and Merl Reagle that’s being broadcast to the audience sitting behind you.

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2 Responses to “Crossword Tournament Dispatch #8: How the tournament works”

  1. ennie Says:

    Yeah, I know about choking at the whiteboard (thus the 14 finals and only 1 win).

    The headphones pipe in “white noise” which is actually the babble of people speaking foreign languages at a U.N. event (recorded by a puzzle person who works there). It is surpringly soothing. You can sense loud bursts of applause from the audience, but can’t hear any of the commentary.

    –Ellen R.

  2. richmintz Says:

    Thanks! I always wondered whether the headphones are sound-tight — then again, if you’re up there, every second must count, so the last thing you have time to do is distract yourself paying attention to chatter from the room, right?

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