Lollapuzzoola 2018 Recap!

W: Lollapuzzoola 2018 has come and gone and, wow, what an awesome and fun experience it was.  400 super-friendly, super-nerdy people in one room, an incredibly smoothly run event, and at least two puzzles referencing goths.  What more could you want?

A: Only the best crosswording partner to tackle the day with! AWWW. Having Will as my sidekick as we puzzled, goofed off, and met new folks made Lollapuzzoola that much better (and probably lowered my guard with regards to making weird comments that I wouldn’t normally make in public – apologies, new friends!). I noticed a lot of the pairs puzzling together were parents and their kids, husbands and wives, groups of friends… It turns out crosswording is the best niche social activity you could have dreamed of.

W: I’m just going to give a summary of the festivities here, but for more details on our reactions to individual puzzles and the event – check out the video below!  P.S. This was my first attempt at video editing since…well…ever so hopefully that’ll only get better from here on out *knocks on wood*.

A: Hey, I had to record all the videos since I’m the shorter one, so equal split of work here! Also, maybe video editing will become your competitive advantage for the next archival job you’re looking for. (Aside: Will needs a job! If you have a job, please give him one. He likes writing, history, and is currently working at the NY Philharmonic. Also, he’s in NYC.) Anyway, enjoy our first Respectable Tournament Times post-tournament video.


W: So, in terms of expectations – let’s just say I was really nervous heading into the day.  Angela and I can typically complete Monday-Friday and sometimes Sunday NYT puzzles with times we feel happy with.  But we’ve only finished a Saturday once – and it took nearly 90 minutes of solving while waiting in line for Carly Rae Jepsen tickets to get the job done.  If the Lollapuzzoola puzzles were as hard as that one, we’d be in trouble.

A: We had done a practice crossword the day before, but it was a Sunday and we didn’t get through it super fast. I was also dying of a deadly head cold, which I’m pretty sure I brought to all of New York and most likely Will. Will, I apologize in advance for what’s about to happen to you. Anyway, while I wasn’t nervous per se, I crossed my fingers that we’d have a good time and enjoy the day.

The Puzzles

W: Fortunately, those fears were mostly unfounded.  We were able to work our way through the first three puzzles fairly easily, using around half the allotted time for each.  The next puzzle though. Yikes. We were feeling pretty good about ourselves. I mean, we’d just eaten salads at lunch – which ought to be worth some amount of good karma, right?  But then Jeff Chen and Puzzle 4 stopped us dead in our tracks. Remember that feeling from school of getting handed an important test – feeling all confident – only to slowly come to the terrifying realization that you don’t know any of the answers?  Yeah, I thought I’d left that feeling behind when I took my last math class in 2014, but I was very wrong. We gave it our all, though, and managed to battle our way through 3/4 or so of the grid before the timer hit 0:00. Thank goodness Puzzle 5 was easier, and we were able to rebound well, finishing the day having completed four of the five offerings with plenty of time to spare.

A: I definitely hit my stride in Puzzle #2 after getting the theme almost immediately, after a slower start for both of us during Puzzle #1. I think Puzzle #2 was my favorite, if only for the sense that it was written by and for a Young Person™ (h/t Erik Agard, who I hear reads this blog! Celebrity name drop, check.). We usually chat during our joint puzzling — with one of us filling out the puzzle, which the one says answers out loud, so the more intense tournament environment where you don’t want to say the answers out loud was disorienting. After we started chat-whispering to each other, that went a lot better. Will did really well in Puzzle #3 (many music clues), we both died in Puzzle #4, and then the slightly-larger, Sunday-level, Puzzle #5, picked us back up after the trouncing we received from Jeff Chen’s puzzle.

We ended up placing 50th out of 63 Pairs teams, which I think is pretty solid, especially for never having been to a crossword tournament before. Our scores are here, if you need proof. I’ve been telling people we placed at the top of the bottom third, but they’ve mainly been tickled about the fact that I went to a gosh-darn crossword tournament. Well, you know what?! You can participate at home, too.

Tips for Your First Tournament

W: If I had to give any tips for prospective tournament competitors, I’d say to, first, practice with printed crosswords.  Angela and I always solve online – so making the transition to the good ol’ fashioned pencil and paper was a little difficult in the early stages of the tournament, especially when it came to cross-checking the clues with their location on the grid.  Practice on paper! Second, I would make it a habit to be checking on themes early-on in the puzzle. I usually have a lackadaisical approach to themes, tackling them only when I have to. But when time becomes important, taking a moment to really think about the “trick” behind the theme can really, I think, improve your overall speed.  I know this because…well, I rushed through all the themes last week, hardly understanding any of them, and then limping my way through certain sections of the puzzles. I’m lucky Angela was there to carry my dead-weight at those times, but – hey, not all of you might be so lucky.

A: Will and I received a few tips for solving from the pros that were there, such as “did you look at the theme yet?”, which seems obvious, but isn’t when you’re nervously participating in your first tournament. While we were doing a warm up puzzle, this random guy walked up behind us and started looking over our shoulder as we were doing it. At first, I was confused why he was there, and I figured he was judging our not-extremely-respectable crosswording. He expressed some interest, then walked away, then came back after we finished the puzzle to chat about it. It turns out, he MADE the puzzle we were doing! It was LA Times crossword constructor Jeffrey Wechsler, who 1) reminded us that themes are probably a good thing to figure out ASAP 2) informed us that the LA Times crossword was free, and that the NYT Crossword is a gateway drug to other “indie crosswords” and 3) provided critical commentary during the final round to help us understand why so-and-so was able to fill out squares faster than someone else. In effect, our own personal live crossword commentator. Thanks for taking us under your wing, Jeffrey.

Meeting the Crossword Community

W:  All in all, I had a blast solving on Saturday.  But even better were the interactions Angela and I had at the tournament with our fellow solvers and members of the crossworld.  We launched this blog literally the week of Lollapuzzoola – and didn’t even post our first puzzle recap until Thursday.  With that newness in mind, it was AMAZING having people introducing themselves to us, giving us advice, complimenting our (two-day old!) blog, and just all around being welcoming and friendly to two, wide-eyed youngsters on the crossword scene.  A big thanks to everyone who said hello and put up with our enthusiasm and endless questions last weekend. We hope to see all of y’all again soon – and meet even more of the awesome people who’ve reached out to us on social media thus far!  U rawk! And thanks for the swag, NYT!

A: I really want to get to know some of these folks who are going off and winning crossword competitions in their free time like a badass. Like, look at this tweet from Lollapuzzoola champ Stella.

After bursting onto the tournament scene, Will and I are ready to travel the crosswording circuit next year. Though it’s the off-season now, we’re going to train up and come back next season better than ever. We look forward to an exciting puzzling career.

Removing the competitive aspect from it (lol), we’re really excited to have found such a friendly community, and we can’t wait to continue to chat with these lovely people online and in-person in the near future. I think Will is already planning to go to another crossword tournament in Bryant Park in a few weeks, though I sadly can’t make it. In fact, shouldn’t there be a tournament in Chicago? Is that something we can do? Can someone reach out to me please??

Overall Reactions

W: We can’t recommend this tournament enough to anyone who’s a crossword fan.  The atmosphere was warm and fun – I was nervous about being overwhelmed by the puzzles – but those worries were totally unnecessary.  Every single person I spoke with – from table-mates to tournament champions – was respectful, approachable, and filled with enthusiasm for this semi-niche hobby.  In fact, that sense of shared passion was palpable throughout the day. I had a moment during the finals – as 400 people, myself included, sat silent and spellbound while watching three competitors solve on giant whiteboard grids – where it struck me just how wild it was that so many people can bond together over the love of these little puzzles.  And that, I think, is just one of the coolest things in the world.

A: We’re getting into it early, so when we’re old and wizened and wise in the ways of this world, we’ll have had many awesome years of being able to participate in this incredible community. And we’ll be able to say things like “50 years ago, at my very first Lollapuzzoola, I knew this was the semi-niche hobby for me…the palpable sense of shared passion had me silent and spellbound…who are you again?…oh yes…Will!…you continue to be an incredible friend and crossworder even after 50 years…”

W: Oh yeah!  One last thing – for bonus content like our attempt at live-blogging, or behind the scenes footage of, say, me eating a cheesepuff (!!!) – follow us on Twitter!  We’re @rttpuzzles and, honestly, I’m super excited to start tweeting nonsense about crosswords without (further) alienating the followers on my personal account.

A: True, we’ve been spamming our friends, family, and co-workers with crossword content lately. You thought it was just a phase, but we’re just getting started. And we won’t stop until we achieve respectable tournament times.

That’s it for now – check back later this week for another puzzle video, and we’ll leave you now with a quick photo gallery from the tournament.  Puzzle on!

– Angela and Will



Thursday, August 16, 2018

Hi y’all!  Thanks for checking out our first video-post on Respectable Tournament Times!  Here’s a video with commentary, or you can scroll down for our write up.

Warning: spoilers below!


Will:  Angela and I decided to do a Thursday this week – and we feel pretty good about how it went, finishing with a time of 22:34.

Angela:  We started in the right hand side of the the puzzle, and we filled in the top and middle right sections relatively quickly. After that, we did the rest, only getting stumped at the end with COMEDY CLUB.  Our physics backgrounds are a bit weak, so we had AMPETER instead of AM METER for a while, which we corrected after we realized COMPEDO CLUB wasn’t, in fact, some cool Spanish club that we hadn’t heard of.  That made us feel better about YOW instead of the non-word OOW, though I’m pretty sure that no one says YOW either.

Crossword Theme

W:  The theme of today’s puzzle was – at first glimpse – some mystery movie man.  Once the ING of RAGING BULL revealed itself though, we were able to figure out ROBERT DENIRO, the glue holding the puzzle together.  Now, I know basically nothing about Mr. DeNiro, other than 1.) His name rhymes with Al Pacino, 2.) I get the two of them confused all the time, and 3.) Middle-aged men are always trying to convince me he’s great.  Regardless, given that I spent my teen years trolling around IMDB trying to make myself “cooler” and “more cultured,” most of the titles here were somewhat-recognizable.

A: I don’t think I’ve actually seen any of the movies in the puzzle, which is somewhat embarrassing, because I feel like it’s part of the “cultural lexicon” or something. (Or maybe that’s what middle-aged men are trying to convince me of!!) In any case, it’s entirely possible to have a passing familiarity with titles of things and still do crosswords well. I mean, I know what GOODFELLAS is – it’s the movie where that mafia dude says “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” I kid, I kid.

Favorite Clues

W:  As for my my favorite clue of the day – that goes to DEERHUNTER.  No, not because of the time I rented Bobby D’s three-hour opus from my local Family Video store…. only to return it unwatched a week later.  But rather for the Georgia-based indie rock group of the same name who I, in a rad coincidence, have tickets to see this week! I’m linking my fav DH track, Desire Lines, here, but their records Halcyon Digest, Monomania, and Cryptograms all rip from front to back.

A:  My favorite clue was ARNE, for the Chicago connections. Previous Education Secretary (under President Obama) Arne Duncan is from Hyde Park, which is where our alma mater UChicago is. He went to Lab Schools and worked for Chicago Public Schools for a long time. He also played basketball in the exact place we started our tradition of crosswords! Wait, what? Let me explain. When I was in my second year of college, I worked as a book scanner at the undergraduate library. I scanned books for 7 hours a week, which meant I listened to a TON of podcasts, including the Chicago-homegrown podcast The Axe Files, where David Axelrod interviews all sorts of political figures. I happened to listen to an episode when Arne Duncan talked about playing basketball in Bartlett Gymnasium as a kid. And you know what happened between when Arne Duncan was a kid and today? The university converted Bartlett Gym to Bartlett Dining Hall. And Bartlett Dining Hall had free copies of the New York Times with free copies of the New York Times Crossword. Boom. Mind blown.

Additional Reactions

W:  Angela and I ultimately had fun with this puzzle – I mean, c’mon, BURRITO was an answer (so was BRRR, but it loses points for not being a Gucci Mane reference).  But we were also left a queasy by some of the answers. Like, why did TEAT have to be here in the first place, and, more importantly, what is it doing right next to ASS in the grid??  The last thing I want to do when solving is get all hungry thinking of a BURRITO and then have my stomach turn over at the prospect of an ASS TEAT.  You a weird dude, Mr. Arbesfeld.

A:  Not to mention that the very first clue in the puzzle was CLOG, which is yet another gross thing that reminds me of all the times I’ve had to pull hair out of a drain. Ew. No thank you.

W:  So with that lovely topic closing us out – we wanted to thank y’all again for checking this out!  We plan on updating at least once a week, hopefully more as our schedules permit. In exciting news, we’ll be at LOLLAPUZZOOLA in NYC this weekend!  Which we can’t wait for, and hope to get some hot tips from our boi Rex Parker on how to conquer the Internet crossword game.  So stay tuned for some dispatches from the World’s Second Largest Crossword Tournament – and then weekly updates from there on out!

Solved Crossword



— Will and Angela



Welcome to Respectable Tournament Times!

We’re Angela Li and Will Brown – two college friends who bonded over a shared love of crosswords.  We want to document our quest to post, in a paraphrase of a New York Times Crossword caption about Bill Clinton’s crosswording abilities, “respectable tournament times.”  

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This space will be our forum to work our way up the ranks from “morbid tournament times” to “mildly disappointing tournament times,” and perhaps on to “fine, I guess, tournament times,” before finally breaking the threshold at which Will Shortz, smiling, can say, “Wow, Mr. Former President Bill Clinton, that young duo sure can adequately solve my puzzles.  My, how I respect them.” Then, and only then, will we bask in the warm glow that only recognition from the world’s leading man-whose-name-that-appears-at-the-top-of-all-my-crosswords provides, and thus consider our mission complete.

So basically, if that last paragraph was too disorienting, we’ll be using this space – via videos and blog posts – to document our attempt to get better at crosswords.  Don’t expect blazing fast finish times or a lexiconographer’s grasp on crosswordese. We’re pretty okay, but we’re no Rex Parker.  What you can expect is 1.) fun commentary on this oft-ridiculous puzzle, 2.) weird, sometimes surreal anecdotes that this Crossword evokes, and maybe even 3.) frustrated and perhaps, if Will’s annoyed, profanity-laced, tirades about uncrackable clues.

But more than that, we want to build a community for people who love crosswords, but aren’t yet masterminds.  We want to show how much fun crosswording can be for people that are still finding their legs. (Hint: find a friend, and do it with them!)  And, yes, we want to be able to one day walk up to former President William Jefferson Clinton and say, “Hello, silver-haired sax man. We too can post respectable crossword tournament times.”  

Play us out, Bill.

Okay, now for some introductions.  Angela and Will met back in 2014 when we were first years at the University of Chicago.  As luck had it, we were both placed in Hoover House, a wing of the Max Palevsky East Residence Hall.  That was back when UChicago students still had “free” access to the New York Times, and so that – in combination with the house table, the house lounge, and schoolwork to be avoided at all costs – created a new dorm tradition: group crosswording.

At first, Angela and a few others would do crosswords during meals on an ad-hoc basis, but as more folks got interested, daily themes emerged, corresponding to the increasing difficulty level of the NYT weekly crosswords: Minute Mondays, 2 v 2 Tuesdays, Work Together Wednesdays, 3 or More Thursdays, and Eff it! Fridays.  At its peak, 2 v 2 Tuesdays was an epic experience, with 8-12 of us (some of whom may cameo on this blog) pairing up on a weekly basis and racing to finish the NYT Tuesday puzzle. Or, more realistically, race to come in 2nd to David Jaffe’s team. Sadly, the tradition graduated in 2016 with the upperclassmen who anchored the festivities, and Hoover House crosswording was largely a relic of the past.  

Well, that is until we crossed paths again studying abroad in Jerusalem during Spring 2017.  There, we started crosswording regularly before and after class, rediscovering just how fun and absurd the puzzles were.  It was also in Jerusalem that we completed the celebrity crossword puzzle that both inspired the name of this blog and set our aims upon becoming solvers who could complete puzzles “in times that would be respectable at a crossword tournament.”

Upon coming back to Chicago, we ate less falafel, but we kept doing crosswords together, making our hallowed pact to one day complete puzzles with speeds that’d make Will Shortz nod in approval.  We solved while stealing free food from CS grad seminars. We solved while procrastinating on our respective history and economics theses. We solved while road-tripping to Milwaukee, between sets at Lollapalooza, and – Will’s personal favorite – while waiting in line for two hours to buy Carly Rae Jepsen tickets.  

We both graduated in June 2018 and promptly moved away from Chicago.  Angela, to Durham for the summer (though she’s going back to Chicago soon), and Will, to New York.  Crosswording then became more than a fun diversion from the work we didn’t want to do: it’s the tie that binds our friendship together.  Crosswording gets us to talk every week about what’s new in our lives while trading quips and stories about whatever ridiculousness is in that day’s puzzle.  

And we’re aiming to keep things that way.  If our goal 1a is to create a community for new crossworders and company, then goal 1b to well – remain good friends.  And awww, c’mon that’s kinda cute.

So watch and read along!  We wanna make this fun for everyone involved – and we hope to send some others along with us in the quest toward respectability.  Leave us tips in the comments! Leave us your favorite anecdotes the puzzle brought to mind! Leave us, idk, NYC pizza recommendations – we wanna hear from you!

— Angela and Will