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Notes from a no-hoper at the Times Crossword Championship

Crossword-solving is, on the hipness scale, closer to train-spotting than to snow-boarding. It's not a hobby you're likely to admit to in circles where you value your street cred. However, every week, there are tens of millions of people on the planet who spend at least some of their time carefully entering letters into a grid, and experiencing the exultation or despair that comes with a right or wrong solution. You can't say the same about Morris dancing.

Cryptic crosswords are the most intellectually stimulating variety of crossword, and the gold standard of cryptics - at least in the UK - is that contained in the Times newspaper. Though by no means the hardest cryptic around, nor even necessarily the best compiled (a highly subjective discussion), the Times crossword has the reputation of being the "best" - especially among those members of the population who don't do crosswords. At any rate, it is the only one for which a championship is regularly held, and it was in pursuit of the title of Times Crossword National Champion 2010 that about 160 people descended, pencils sharpened, on Cheltenham College Junior School on an autumnal Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago. I was one of them.

My background in crosswords came about in the same way as it no doubt has for many other puzzlers. We took the Telegraph as our daily paper when I was a child, and after my father had completed the cryptic crossword, I was allowed to attempt the non-cryptic puzzle beneath it. Even when my vocabulary was still sufficiently small to make the non-cryptic a challenge, I would glance at the grid above and marvel at the answers my father had written in. Occasionally I would ask him to explain a particularly mindboggling one and, in so doing, I slowly picked up the techniques needed to parse and solve a cryptic clue.

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However it was only when I went to university, and had free access to all the daily papers in the common room, that my crossword education went into overdrive. First I practised until I could regularly complete the Telegraph, before moving on to the Times, with infrequent forays into the Guardian and Independent. Once graduated, time and funds forced me to limit myself to just the Times. I was usually able to complete the puzzle correctly each day, and my average solving time dropped to around half an hour. Feeling that I was now competent enough that I wouldn't severely embarrass myself, in 1998 I decided to chance my arm in the Times Crossword Championship.

At that time, there were sufficient funds in the Times' coffers to produce a much grander competition than exists nowadays. Initial qualification was via a harder-than-average puzzle published in the paper. Competitors had several days in which to attempt the puzzle and could use any reference sources they saw fit. Qualifiers from this stage would then be invited to one of a series of regional finals around the UK, which in turn produced a select few for a grand final in London. The regional finals and grand final all followed the same procedure. Competitors would have 4 30-clue puzzles to complete, separately, with a maximum of 30 minutes allocated for each. On completing a puzzle, the competitor would hold their answer sheet up in the air, whereupon a volunteer would collect the sheet and record the time taken to complete the puzzle. The score for an individual puzzle was determined by awarding a point for each correct answer and, if all 30 answers were correct, a time bonus equal to the unused minutes. If any answers were wrong, no time bonus would be added. So completing a puzzle correctly in 22 minutes would result in a score of 38 (30 for the 30 correct answers, and 8 for the unused minutes), but completing a puzzle with one mistake in 8 minutes would only produce a score of 29 (29 for the 29 correct answers and no time bonus) - meaning that correctness took priority over quickness. A competitor's total was arrived at by summing their scores for each of the four puzzles.

I only have vague recollections of the 1998 championships. The majority of competitors were at least two decades older than me, with a male/female ratio that reminded me of Maths lectures at university. Though I do recall completing one puzzle in six minutes, and the attendant thrill of being one of the first in the hall to hold up my answer sheet, I only finished one other puzzle correctly (in fifteen minutes), making one mistake in the third, and two in the fourth. With qualification for the grand final requiring not just 100% completeness, but a decent time bonus to boot, I was well off the pace for retaining any competitive interest, coming in 52nd (out of 161) in my regional final. Note that there were as many competitors in just this one regional final in 1998 as there were in both semi-finals combined in 2010.

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Sadly, work and personal movements then took me out of the UK for the next dozen years, during which time I rarely attempted a Times crossword. The championship lost its sponsor, and in fact was shelved for five years at the beginning of the noughties. When it was restarted - still without sponsorship - it was much smaller in scale. The first round of qualifying was still via a puzzle in the paper but, to weed out the weaker entrants, potential competitors had to state how quickly they had solved the qualifier. Successful competitors would then take part in one of two semi-finals, with the top twelve people from each semi-final progressing to a grand final - the semi-finals and grand final were all held on the same day. The format for the semi-finals and grand final would consist of three puzzles, with a combined maximum of one hour to solve all three. A competitor's score was calculated by summing the correct answers for each of the puzzles and, in the event of having everything correct, adding on a time bonus equivalent to the unused minutes. The major difference between this and the format when I had last entered was that any time bonus would be wiped out by a mistake in any one of the three puzzles, hence there was even more of a premium on correctness.

Having returned to the UK on a (for now) permanent basis in December 2009, it was by chance that I happened to buy a copy of the Times in May in which one of the qualifying puzzles was printed. My time was fast enough to take me through to the semi-final stage. Though I had barely touched a Times crossword for over a decade, I practised for the semi-final by buying two 80-puzzle compilations from recent years and working my way through them. Statistical analysis of my times showed that I would be most unlikely to complete three puzzles correctly in one hour, so it was with the philosophy of "It's the taking part that counts" that I boarded a train to Cheltenham. My experiences there will be related in journal form.

I wander into the leafy environs of Cheltenham College Junior School for 10AM precisely and register for my semi-final. As further contestants roll in, I'm surprised that I can recognise a number of faces. Despite the intervening years, my experiences at the 1998 regional final clearly imprinted a few people on my brain in a way I didn't realise at the time. The demographic is roughly similar to before, just shifted on by twelve years. As once again one of the younger entrants, and not having any of the relationships that seem to exist between many of the other competitors, I loiter on the periphery until it's show time and we enter the hall.

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Taking the desk corresponding to my parents' house number, I mull over what I can reasonably expect from myself in the competition. Anything less than one correct puzzle will be disappointing, but my previous form suggests that two correct ones will be a stretch. Three will require divine intervention. Knowing that the best puzzlers rarely take more than ten minutes over a puzzle of any level of difficulty, I conclude that something beyond divine intervention will be needed to post a decent time bonus as well. But what is there beyond divine intervention?

My thoughts are interrupted by the opening address delivered by David Levy, the championship organiser. Apart from a welcome and recapitulation of the rules, he states that anyone criticising the competition online may be barred in the future. I assume that this is in response to an actual abusive incident but, not being a regular on any online crossword forums, I have no idea what precisely is being referred to. Even so, this rather heavy-handed statement jars with the civility and genteelness that one would normally associate with the world of crosswords. Richard Browne, the Times crossword editor, then says a few words of a more amiable nature. Levy then comes back on the mike and the clock starts.

Opening up the crossword booklet, I feel a small rush of excitement. Competition nerves are likely to make my solving times even slower than usual, so I'm thrilled to enter a few answers immediately in puzzle 1. In fact, I'm on a roll for the entirety of that puzzle, and it's complete in about seven minutes. There are only two answers I've never heard of before. One is the musical HALF A SIXPENCE however it's clued as an anagram so I'm fairly confident I've got it right, given the checking letters. The other is RUMMER, apparently a kind of drinking glass, however it fits the cryptic part of the clue so I'm also pretty happy with it. I move on to puzzle 2, emboldened.

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Puzzle 2 starts off in a similar vein, but I become bogged down about half way through. Twenty minutes go by and I still have four answers left to fill in. I ink in CANNAE with some misgivings, a word I've never heard of in the context of being a battle, however it fits the other two parts of what appears to be a (highly uncommon) triple definition clue. I move on to puzzle 3, intending to return to number 2 with (hopefully) a fresh look.

Puzzle 3 proceeds at a snail's pace all the way through, one of those dispiriting situations where the compiler and oneself are on completely different wavelengths. Further pressure comes early on in the form of papers going up around the hall as the fastest finishers start to hand in their answer booklets. I use up about 25 minutes of my remaining time and still have two clues unanswered.

Levy then announces that there's five minutes to go before the end of the hour, adding the intriguing comment that - at that point - twelve completely correct solutions have not yet been handed in, i.e. there's at least one place in the Grand Final still up for grabs, giving hope to those slowcoaches among us. (This turns out to be slightly misleading, as he forgets to add the caveat "and marked" at the end of his announcement - subsequent analysis suggests that twelve completely correct solutions in fact HAD already been handed in, but one (or more) of them hadn't yet been marked.)

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Puzzle 3 is stumping me with "Go down with disease when in trouble" (6), for which I have A_S_I_, and "From entrance turned left regularly for church gallery" (4,4), for which I have _O_D_O_T. With time running out, I put in a panicky ASSAIL for the first, which doesn't fit the clue at all and of course turns out to be wrong (should have been ABSEIL), and take a stab at ROOD PORT for the second, which partly fits the clue but is also wrong (the correct answer being ROOD LOFT, which was eminently gettable from the wordplay, even though I'd never heard of the phrase itself).

With just seconds left, I return to puzzle 2, quickly solve one of the recalcitrant clues, and ponder "Employed to keep books, wife started probably illegally" (3-5), for which I have _O_-W_R__, and "My bill goes down a bit, but debt collector gets nothing back", which is an unhelpful __N_I_ starting with the final letter in my first unsolved clue. I have no idea about the former, due to being fixated on the first half of the clue being the definition - I keep thinking it must be BOX something (it's actually HOT-WIRED). The second, I'm assuming from the first half of the clue is a bird, however the "gets nothing back" part seems to indicate it will end with LIN - I don't know any birds that are __NLIN, to add to the frustration of not knowing any debt collectors (the answer is DUNLIN).

Levy announces the hour is up, and the noise in the hall rises from silence to a hubbub as the competitors start to dissect with each other difficult clues or pitfalls that they had encountered. The correct answers are immediately available and, after a minute of scanning them, I think that I've only dropped points on the four answers I was already aware were wrong/missing. That's one more wrong than I got in FOUR puzzles in 1998, which seems to represent a regression, but I remind myself that the allocated per-puzzle time has been cut by 33% since 1998, plus I've only been getting back into the Times crossword for a couple of months after many years away. Whatever, a place in the Grand Final won't be mine, which is confirmed moments later when Levy reads out the twelve qualifiers from my semi-final.

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I can't see much point in hanging around for the second semi-final, though I intend returning in the afternoon to watch the Grand Final, so I amble back into the centre of Cheltenham to grab some lunch and engage in some self-reflection about the morning's events. My assessment is that I made stupid mistakes for ABSEIL and HOT-WIRED, and should really have bagged ROOD LOFT, but I'm a little annoyed about DUNLIN. One of the boons of a cryptic clue is that even if you don't know the word that's the solution, the wordplay of the clue should enable you to figure it out, however you're screwed if the wordplay itself contains an obscure word - in this case, I'd never heard of either DUNLIN or DUN. However one consolation is that I was actually quite fast with filling in the grids, and probably spent a good fifteen minutes or so purely on these four clues. There would appear to be some hope for next year.

Cheltenham is clearly home to some very wealthy people, judging by the many expensive cars that I see on its streets. It's also awash with what I can only describe as posh totty. The town centre is an anonymous crush of stores but, once away from the weekend hordes of shoppers, there's some pleasing Regency architecture to catch the eye. My Antarctica radar starts pinging, due to Cheltenham being the birthplace of Edward Wilson, a member of Scott's ill-fated polar expedition, but I don't have the time to fully investigate just what the town has made of one of its most famous sons. However I think life in York has spoiled me for pedestrian-friendly places, as Cheltenham seems to have an excess of traffic and I constantly find myself having to wait impatiently to cross a road, as the BMWs and Benzs stream by.

The Cheltenham Literature Festival, another Times-sponsored event, is just starting but I'm disappointed to bump into none of the many famous names who will be speaking/reading during the festival's weeklong duration. It seems like most of the guests in my B&B are in town for the festival. One man has brought various books with him, the authors of which he is hoping to waylay and force to sign. My own crossword hobby seems normal by comparison.

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I return to the Junior School mid-afternoon and see that the morning's results have been pinned up. I am right about my predicted score, which puts me 49th in my semi. Interestingly, the fastest person got three answers wrong, and in fact only fifteen people in that semi got all three puzzles correct. This was no doubt due to there being two clues that were of a type I don't recall ever seeing back in the 90s, where the wordplay indicates a word in which you have to change a letter in order to arrive at the answer. If you're not paying attention, it's easy to enter the initial word arrived at from the wordplay rather than that word with a letter changed, and I'll bet that's what happened in my semi. At the other end of the spectrum, there are entrants with such low scores that I can only assume they must have lied when they submitted their times for the qualifying puzzle back in May.

For the Grand Final, spectators have been allowed on the balcony overlooking the hall. The 24-strong field contains at least six previous winners, and at least five competitors who were in the Grand Final back in 1998. I'm humbled (make that depressed) to see at least three people who are much younger than me. The final begins, and all the spectators are issued with puzzle booklets so that we can "compete" with the finalists - it also helps to pass the time since nothing interesting is likely to happen for at least fifteen minutes anyway.

Puzzle 1 looks absolutely horrendous, and after making no headway on any of the clues, I retreat to puzzle 2 to lick my wounds. This comes out fairly quickly, and puzzle 3 is also not a real stinger. However I haven't yet finished it when the first hand goes up in the final - it's Mark Goodliffe, winner in 1999/2008/2009, and he has averaged less than nine minutes per puzzle. I haven't even finished two puzzles in that time, let alone three. However he will stand or fall by the correctness of his answers, not his speed, so he now faces an uncomfortable wait of over half an hour until he - and we - will learn if he is the winner.

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I finish puzzle 3 bar one clue, then gain some traction on puzzle 1. All the while, more hands are going up in the Grand Final. Puzzle 1 yields exceedingly grudgingly, and I'm still nine answers short of a complete solution when the hour is up - further evidence, if any were needed, of why I'm not in the Grand Final.

With most of the finalists having finished well in advance of the hour, there's a minimal wait before the results are announced. Goodliffe is the winner and in some style - in a tough final in which only six of the competitors completed all the puzzles correctly, his time average was five minutes faster than the second fastest solver. This is an absolutely staggering margin and no-one can possibly begrudge him the £1,000 winner's cheque and Championship cup. Given he is only in his mid-40s, and probably has at least another ten years of top-level puzzling in him, it will be interesting to see if anyone can challenge him any time soon.

As I make my way home from Cheltenham, I'm already thinking about how I can prepare for next year. At my age, and with my performances so far, I'm never going to win the competition outright, but I think the goal of simply appearing in a Grand Final is an achievable one with the right element of challenge to it. Most of the top puzzlers are heavily immersed in crosswords on a regular basis - not just the Times but also other dailies as well as hard weekly puzzles such as the Listener - so they are constantly honing their solving skills as well as increasing their vocabularies. Several of this year's finalists were also compilers. It suggests that, to move to the next level, I need to allocate more time in my life to crosswords.

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Which, of course, means becoming that little bit less hip than I am even now. Still, I hear that York railway station is one of the most popular in the country for trainspotting …

[Note: it's debatable whether this entry should be on a travel blogging site, but my blog here relates to any and all trips that I take away from home for whatever reason. As such, it qualifies. My apologies if you were hoping to read something useful about Cheltenham.]

Posted by mohn 13:35 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged times championship cheltenham crossword

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