National Puzzlers' League -- 1996 Convention Reports

Here is a convention report for the 1996 convention from Tyger.

From Tyger

My husband Andrew (Lambo), 11-year-old daughter Rose (Smedley, but re-enrolled now as GVB), and I arrived at the Newark airport about an hour early for our 8am flight on Wednesday, and were pleasantly surprised to meet Atlantic there, on his way back from a visit to family in NJ. He was seated on our Kiwi flight directly behind us; a little switching got him across the aisle. The flight was delayed because the pilot just discovered that the plane's radar didn't work. Atlantic and I started a Scrabble game, and ended it when we were abruptly notified a little after 9:00 to get off the plane and wait for another one. GVB asked what one could expect from an airline named for a flightless bird. The second plane left after 11:00; after a breakfast of small stale blueberry muffins (while the pilot and crew ate full meals of bagels and eggs!), we started a 4-person Scrabble game, which ended when we reached the airport and the pouring rain. (Hang on, it'll get better.)

We checked in at the Allerton, then took a cab to the Chicago Historical Society, and ate lunch in the Big Shoulders Cafe there – cheap compared to some other meals we had on this trip. I had bratwurst, which tasted like Italian sweet sausage, and roasted vegetables. We then saw the special exhibit “Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America,” which was marvelous in its depth, and the rest of the museum, which includes the table on which the Appomattox surrender was signed. Funny, only recently at the Smithsonian's traveling show at the NY Coliseum, we also saw the table on which the Appomattox surrender was signed, and they didn't look similar! (Hmmm…I wonder how many of those tables there are…)

Because of the driving rain, much of our afternoon plan had to be scrapped or postponed, and we spent more money because of taking cabs instead of walking or riding the bus.

We took a cab to the Lincoln Park Conservatory, not far from the Historical Society and took some pictures of each other in the Palm House, then another cab back to the Hotel.

There was quite a gathering of Krewe in the lobby by 4:00; we kissed, chatted, and eventually made it upstairs to the hospitality suite, where Minimus and Brillig prepared a wonderful spread of food, and the view was tremendous even with the rain. The Chicago pizza was good but, for nostalgic reasons, I could never prefer it to what I grew up with as a Brooklyn Italian (ok, half-Italian). I took a bunch of pictures (which I continued doing until Saturday when the film ran out) and enjoyed wonderful conversation with Uncanny, Eric, Manx, Wolverine, and so many others – it was like “The Big Chill.” Loophole solicited me for co-solving Ai's Cnvntnl Crsswrd handout, and we were joined by Brillig, Shrdlu, and probably others. I enjoyed the company immensely, but was disappointed at not being able to complete the puzzle. With all this co-solving, we still had 3 holes when we broke up at about 2.

Thursday morning, I gave Lambo his nomtag when he awoke. He put it on, and, wearing nothing else but blue boxers, lay back down in bed. He really did like it and wear it, even if no one else saw.

Fortunately, he'd bought umbrellas the night before, so he and I and GVB were able to walk the roughly 9 blocks to our best breakfast in Chicago, at the small Ohio House Coffee Shop. We all had some variation of eggs, toast, bacon, and/or pancakes. Here I first experienced the Chicago phenomenon of being given half-and-half in coffee unless one specifically requests milk. In New York it is just the opposite.

We walked down below the Chicago River, and wanted to head for the bus to the Museum of Science and Industry, but the rain increased to torrents, so we took another cab. GVB liked this Museum, but Lambo and I found it dark, crowded, noisy, and overly commercial. The things we would have liked, we felt weren't done well here; eg, the “Main Street” exhibit had an old-time movie theatre showing 12 minutes of silent films, but the Chaplin short they showed was such a weak one, that we left after about 5 minutes. Also, there was an interactive sonar exhibit that was supposed to let you steer a submarine around obstacles, but the steering mechanism didn't work. The whole experience was disappointing, because we'd heard from a few people in the past how much they'd enjoyed this museum.

The rain was over by noon, and we walked around the Hyde Park neighborhood, stopping in at a large bookstore, and ending up at the address in the Frommer's guide where we were supposed to find a Middle Eastern restaurant named University Gardens. Instead there was a Turkish restaurant, with a more exotic name which I forget. We went in anyway, since the price range was as low as hoped, and enjoyed a meal that was surprisingly good, especially considering we were the only ones in the place.

More walking, this time to the Regents Park apartment building near Lake Michigan, where we followed the guidebook's advice to visit their Bergen Garden, a 1.3-acre formal garden built on the flat roof of their 3-story parking garage. The guidebook said “self-guided tours are available to the public.” Lambo was embarrassed, but I went up to the security guard, who directed me to the concierge, who called the rental office on the third floor to tell them we were coming. The nice woman in the office opened up the door there leading to the garden. It was beautiful, a mini-botanical garden with trees, flowers, bushes, ponds (3” deep but painted black to look deeper) with wooden footbridges to cross them, a fountain, and a small waterfall. A bus right outside the building got us downtown in about half an hour.

Back at the hospitality suite, I cosolved QED's handout with Hot, who is always a pleasure.

For dinner, I took a long (14 block) walk with Catty, Jrman, Lyric, Poi, Quip, and Teki to Klay Oven, an Indian restaurant. Treesong joined us after a bit, having stayed a little longer than planned at – where else? – a bookstore. We enjoyed a wide variety of appetizers, breads, and entrees, and walked back for the evening games.

I'm sure the games – Limer-wrecks by Chainsaw, Jeopardy Chicken! by Fraz, and Transdeletion Twins by Aesop on this night – will be described in detail by someone in Enigma, so I wont go into detail here. My favorite this night was Chainsaw's icebreaker, where we had to find the 3 other people with the first 4 lines of the same limerick, then write a 5th line. It was more fun than the usual “compose something” games, maybe because it was so short and because it was the first game while I was still awake enough to “compose something.” After the games, Squonk and I co-solved 2 of the 5 contest puzzles before my brain shut down. I chatted a while, then went up to the hospitality suite to play “Movie Buff,” but had to quit for sleep after 15 minutes.

On Friday, Lambo and GVB and I ate brunch at a gourmet bakery/deli inside Water Tower Place, an office building/shopping mall just north of the Allerton on the Magnificent Mile (Michigan Ave). We then walked up to the very very cool International Museum of Surgical Sciences. We saw surgical instruments going back to Caesar's time (I took a picture of a more recent amputation kit), paintings of all kinds of gruesome medical procedures, a pharmacy complete with wax pharmacist, a room full of statues of famous physicians, and a whole mess of x-rays.

This was the place I'd most like to re-visit if I ever return to Chicago.

GVB and I then entered Squonk's puzzle scavenger hunt, where we were teamed up with Maelstrom. Called Tempus Fugitive, the hunt involved solving a packet of hard puzzles which would then tell you where to go to find words/phrases. We were given a shopping map for the Magnificent Mile, where all the sols would be; then we were to find the sols, alphabetize them, and insert them in a code included in the packet (the code was like 1st sol, 2nd letter; 8th sol, 4th letter; etc). The code would tell us what to do to figure out where Squonk and his co-constructor friend Norman Eliaser were hiding; the first to find them would win.

Our team found the puzzles very hard, since we had essentially 2 solvers, whereas others had 3 or 4. GVB was bored during this part, but she knew it would get fun soon. While solving, I noticed a couple of numbers as answers in these puzzles, but they didn't seem to lend themselves to anything (yet). Of the 9 puzzles, we were able to get 1 of the sol words without travelling: Fullerton, the subway station. For the rest we had to boogie. I drew up a list in order, based on where I believed everything would be, to minimize walking, and we headed north.

First, we had to find the colorful namesake of the luggage store at Water Tower Place: hmmm, the building directory said Greene luggage, but the game rules specified first and last names of all people. We asked the security guard if he knew who the luggage store was named for, and he advised us Jack Greene. Here we learned that our way was a little easier for being late, since some of the resource people had already found the answers for earlier groups. Stop #2: the John Hancock building, not the 96th floor observatory, but the top floor of the parking section, which we found was on the 12th floor – these security guards seemed weary. We found the sign on the pole near the doors to the elevator - it said “small car only.”

Then we had to look for a statue called “Closing a Deal” and look for the 4th item on a “to do” list; since Squonk had mentioned that one of his answers had moved since he wrote the puzzle, and I knew that the Museum of Contemporary Art had recently moved, we headed there and found that I had outsmarted myself – no such statue. Then it dawned on me that I had seen the statue “Closing a Deal” earlier in the day as we'd walked up to the museum. We found the statue in front of the chic shopping mall at 900 N. Michigan: a bronze woman on a bench, holding sunglasses and writing a to-do list. #4 was “Have roof leak fixed.”

Inside N. Michigan were 2 more items: the name of Lynn Antoz's fiance, to be found at Bloomie's bridal registry, and the shop on top of a store whose name was an Elvis tune with an additional letter in front. To the top floor we went, where the woman in the bridal registry pointed out a sign on the wall over the computer search screen that said “Fantle Barry,” and asked genially what was going on. We explained; we found out later that earlier groups had encountered an irate man at the registry (“We're trying to run a business here!”) who apparently put up the sign to avert further inquiries to the staff. The fiance, a friend of Norman, was actually Barry Fantle; this held us up for a little while later when we were trying to decode the message, but we would have been way too late even without this small obstacle.

The Elvis store was a little harder, since we misread the instructions and thought we were looking for a store on the top floor. We walked around the top floor a few times in vain, then stopped in the bakery to get a lunch of brownies, which we ate later outside. Coming out of the bakery, we saw an information stand, where the wonderful, sweet, elegant woman on duty helped us find Glove Me Tender, and the answer word, the store just on top of it, Pavo Real. (It seems like half the fun of a scavenger hunt is the reactions of the uninvolved.)

Figuring we were done with the North End of Michigan Ave, we headed downtown, to 669 N. Mich, to find out the word on the benches on the 5th floor at Niketown. The word was “Niketown.” Duh!

Several more blocks later, we arrived at the Tribune Building, which contains stones from famous buildings and edifices all over the world embedded into its stone face. We were to look on the East Illinois side of the building for the origin of a stone from Rhode Island, and found it easily: Gaspee Point.

Then across the street, we were to find the last 3 words on the Wrigley Building directory. Easy: “Handicapped Washroom Available.” Squonk later advised us of a contradictory sign we'd missed: “No Public Restrooms.”

With well under an hour left, we looked for One Magnificent Mile, the last stop. The numbers go up as you go north on Michigan, so OMM should be at its southern end, right? Wrong! The map Squonk gave out clearly showed OMM, an even posher mall than the last one, at the northern tip of the Mile. Exhausted, we took a cab to get the name of a store there that I forget, on the directory outside. We tried to finish the puzzle on top of a garbage can, but the wind kept blowing our papers around. OMM proved very user-unfriendly, with no public seating that we could find.

We walked to 900 N. Mich, sat down, decoded the message, and found out that we were supposed to look for a phone number in the puzzles, by taking the hidden number in each puzzle and putting them in order via the alpha-order of the puzzle's answer word. By calling the number, we would get the address where we would find Squonk and Norman. We got the first 4 numbers, obviously 1-312, but had trouble finding some others. Since time was just running out, and we got discouraged, we went back to the hospitality suite. We figured out the numbers about 15 minutes past deadline, and called: it was Carson Pirie Scott, a department store in the Loop. A sigh of relief, the puzzle solved! A hearty round of applause for Squonk and Norman at the debriefing session!

Dinner was a nice buffet in our dining room on the next-to-top floor, near the game rooms. Fraz, who was at my table, handed out “Wordplay Analogies,” which Willz, who sat to my left, invited me to cosolve. Fun, and most of them hard: one of our last sols was “SHOT & UNDERWEAR are to _ _ _ _(4) as CUT & STOP are to _ _ _ _ _(5). [long,short] After dinner, Squonk and I cosolved Slik's contest puzzle and started Beacon's.

We paused for the Evening Games at 8:00. There was Manx's “Hear Here!” in which crossword clues were read “allowed,” and each team could pick any 3 clues to read in each round. Manx did not tell which clues he was reading, so you only knew the location of the clues your team requested. This puzzle ended up taking a long time, and my eyes glazed over long before the winners were declared. My apologies to my teammates, Wombat, Ai, and Atlantic.

For the next game, Maelstrom's “Balancing Act,” I was teamed with Squonk, Wolverine, and Aesop. We had fun coming up with words to fit all the categories, even though we finished nowhere near the winners. For part 2 of “Transdeletion Twins,” I paired off with Squonk, which was convenient, because when it was over we finished Beacon's puzzle, and did most of the hardest contest puzzle, by Harth.

Up in the hospitality suite, Squonk joined a game, while I finished the puzzle, ending at about 2:00. This year was probably the first time I finished a contest puzzle at convention, and together with Squonk, completed all 5. I drifted down to the game room and back upstairs again, eventually helping expedite Minimus's completion of the Harth puzzle.

Minimus and I then chatted for what must have been over an hour but seemed much shorter – it reminded me of November 1991, when he and Momus introduced me to the NPL at the last Long Island crossword tournament. Even though Minimus and I had just met, we sat in the lobby bar and talked for just as long back then. This time, we stopped at about 5 a.m. when we noticed the gorgeous sunrise over Lake Michigan. Believe it or not, I was not sleepy, and if it were Sunday morning, I would have stayed up, but decided to squeeze some sleep in to get me through another day of Con.

Saturday I woke up a little after 10 to find myself alone, since Lambo and GVB went sightseeing for the day. I figured, no problem, I can shower and read the paper, and still get down in time for the business meeting which is supposed to start at 11, right? Well, by the time I got down there it was almost 11:15, and the business meeting was long finished, having in fact started at 10. I was told I didn't miss much. I waited upstairs in the suite until noon, chatting, and after lunch cosolved QED's cryptic puzzle with Wolverine. We continued cosolving it in between the afternoon puzzles.

The first puzzle, a uniquely clued “Fore-and-Aft Crossword” by Rain Man, was especially elegant, and solved alone. Squonk's “Stop, Drop, and Roll” transposal puzzle was more difficult, but just as enjoyable. I solved that and the flats with 100 Down. We got stuck on most of the flats this year, all 2-letter-rubric rebuses. The past 3 years, I seem to remember solving at least 75%, but this year we didn't even get half.

At the beginning of the afternoon puzzles, it was announced that Ditto contributed a MW International Dictionary (since it's the 1 before NI1, someone quipped it should be called NI0, rather than the less-definitive-sounding I). Incredibly, no one claimed it by the end of the competition, so I did. My husband carried that suitcase around the Chicago and Newark airports on the way home – true love!

Posing for the Convention photo was claustrophobic and hot, but the shooting was well conducted, and someone thought to pass sign-up pads at the end so no one would have to guess who's who.

After dinner, a group of us played the Celebrity Taboo game I'd bought, no scoring since the flow of team members was rather liquid. The game is like regular Taboo, except the answer words are all famous people or characters. You have to give clues for your team to guess the person on the card, but you can't use the words on the card. For example, the card for Lucille Ball might list Ethel, Ricky Ricardo, and Desi Arnaz as words you can't use. Celebrity Taboo showed early on that it encouraged doing impressions of the voice (no sound effects allowed), and Jrman proved the best impressionist.

Again, I'm sure Enigma will give a much better description of Mob Scene, by Irbs, Jo the, and Manx; I'll just say that I (as Godmother) was a proud member of the winning “Meathook Mob” whose other members were Coach (Flankenstein, the only one in our mob who based his game nom on the mob name), J-9 (Typo), and Famulus (Puzzy). A wonderfully lucky combination, even if Coach and Famulus were “hit” 3x between them by other teams, meaning they had to stop solving our puzzles, and go into a separate room to solve puzzles which led to acrostic clues to benefit all the teams. The hardest puzzle for us was the art puzzle; even thought we matched up the artists to the paintings pretty quickly, we couldn't figure out what was needed to get the answer word. My favorite puzzle was the word matches, where a deck of cards was dealt, with words on each of the 4 edges of reverse. You had to arrange the cards in a square so that words on adjoining edges formed common phrases. We then had to turn the cards over to find the row with the best poker hand.

Afterwards, I played Scrabble with Aesop, Shrdlu, and Brillig; don't remember who won, or if I was awake for it, but it sure was fun, like everything else that weekend.

Sunday morning, I got to breakfast, and tried to cosolve with 100 Down, but we were too burned out to get more than a couple, with hints from Ai, Arbutus, and mehitabel. My favorite non-prize mention at the awards awarding was Maelstrom for best mob nom the night before: Fast Eddy, a synonom. I got a dark chocolate handgun for being a member of the winning mob, and picked up 2 “C” prizes as well: the board game Cornellopoly, which I haven't opened yet but had to have (I'm class of '83), and a thick paperback book of crosswords, acrostics, and variety puzzles that GVB picked out. It takes her hours to do a 15×15, but that's what summer is for, right?

Eventually, I tore myself away from the goodbyes, and left with GVB and Lambo for a short walk in the rain to the North Pier, another mall but with plenty of entertainment. We played skeeball and a video game at an arcade, then 18 holes of miniature golf. We had lunch at a Tex-Mex place with an all-you-can-eat menu (they called it “grazing”) featuring terrific muffins, chili, potatoes, salad, etc, etc. The ladies' room had a chalkboard where one was invited to write the name of “the biggest jerk I ever dated.” Of course I did.

The rain stopped, so we took a bus to Lincoln Park to see the zoo, which we'd missed in the rain on Wednesday. It was fun, especially the farm-in-zoo with the suckling pigs and the other farm animals. We also saw the beautiful park building housing the Cafe Brauer, with a party of well-dressed people outside. It reminded me of Tavern on the Green in Central Park.

We then walked to Dearborn Street, near the Historical Society, and embarked on the best part of our sightseeing: the Dearborn Garden Walk. Every year, a few dozen of the residents of this extremely ritzy neighborhood open their gardens to the public for one afternoon. The fee (I think it was $10) supports their non-profit neighborhood association. These gardens were spectacular, not just for the flowers but the decorations. One artists condo had a garden that went up 4 stories, along the wooden decks and outside staircases, with tiles, sculpture, oh it was just beautiful. My favorite 1-level garden, about 15×20 feet, featured a model train that ran around the entire perimeter; the section near the garden door, which led into a common alley, was hinged so it could swing up to let people through.

We walked back to the hotel through the hopping Near North Side, which reminded me a little of Greenwich Village, except more mainstream in its youth and hipness. We found a novelty chocolate store where we made some yummy purchases including a chocolate keyboard and monitor for Boffin, who minded our cats and hedgehog back home, and a white chocolate airplane for Andrew. (With both the chocolate airplane and the chocolate gun in the same carry-on bag, we were thankful it wasn't inspected too closely on the way home – that would have been some explaining!)

We ate a late (seated about 9pm) dinner near the Loop at Shaw's Blue Crab Lounge–crabcakes, soft-shell crab, and key-lime pie – and I went to bed before midnight!

Monday morning we took a bus to Lou Mitchell's, billed as “one of Chicago's great breakfast spots.” The owner greeted us in a manner not unlike a don or godfather, sat us down, and plopped down a giant basket of donut holes for munching, which he took away a minute later for the next new arrival. He also gave GVB 2 small boxes of Milk Duds “for your little boy.” I think I annoyed him, after hearing him speak in what I thought was Italian to a waiter (it was Spanish), by asking “Sei tu paesan'?” He gruffly, almost angrily informed me that he was Greek. I think if I had told him that GVB was a girl, he would have slapped me. The food was very good, but not better than the Ohio House, and priced about 50% higher for the same items.

After breakfast, we took a train to Oak Park to see the homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It turned out I picked the wrong train line, so we had quite a bit of walking to get to the historic district. We bought a map at the visitors' center and commenced our self-guided tour of the core group of homes, all grand and beautiful, but many with signs in the windows indicating they weren't keen on tourists. I can understand signs near the doors saying we are private homes, no restrooms, don't ring the bell if we dont know you, but it saddened me to see such beautiful buildings marred by the ugly and unfriendly signs – why buy a showcase home in a landmark district and then purposely detract from its appearance? We decided against visiting the Wright home, due to the price. We ate a nice light lunch near the proper train line and headed back.

We were thinking of visiting some botanical gardens along this train line, but when we asked some transit workers which stop to get off at, they advised us to stay on the train, since the neighborhood was very dangerous – Chicago's South Side. Once the train passed through there, we saw and believed. Lots of burned out buildings, with not a lot of people hanging around.

Instead, we got off at the Loop and walked around looking for outdoor sculpture listed in one of the guidebooks. It was pretty futile – most of the sculptures were a block away from the place indicated on the map, or nowhere to be found – but we had fun wandering the business district.

We ate dinner at the hotel – big mistake! (let's leave it at that) – and saw Eddie Murphy's The Nutty Professor afterwards at Watertower Place's cinema.

Tuesday morning, we checked out, left our bags with the bellhop, and ate our last breakfast in Chicago at the Billy Goat Tavern. The Billy Goat served as the model for the old “cheeseburger/no Coke, Pepsi” sketch on Saturday Night Live. It was on the lower level of Michigan Ave, and was therefore dark and windowless, but with a certain greasy charm. (Many of the streets near the confluence of the rivers just above the loop are double-decker; you use stairs to go from one to the other. I have no clue how cars manage to go between levels.) They had the only Sanka in Chicago, much better than the brewed decaf most of the other places were selling, and the egg-on-a-roll variations which constituted breakfast were so cheap, who can mention quality?

We then walked to the Shedd Aquarium, which was fun for all – lots of fish, otters, dolphins, and a special, well-catalogued exhibit of frogs.

Outside the museum, we bought some fresh roasted almonds and walked up the lakefront as far as the art museum, at which point we turned, exhausted, to Michigan Avenue, and took a cab to the Big Bowl Cafe, on W. Erie. We had some interesting California-style variations on Chinese dumplings and lo mein, and the best homemade ginger ale I've ever tasted.

We walked to an expensive bookstore that specialized in Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, where Lambo found a few books that weren't too dear, then to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. Actually, the main reason I wanted to go there was not the contemporary art, but a loaned painting by Nicholas Poussin (17c. French), whom I love, which was there to show the alleged inspiration of one of the more recent artists. We got out at about 3:30, sat in a small park for a few minutes, then walked over to 900 N. Mich to see the fancy shops in a more relaxed mood than during Friday's scavenger hunt. We didn't buy anything this time. We got brown-bagged dinners at a deli, and picked up our bags at the hotel. The bellhop grabbed all 4 of our bags from the room, ran down the stairs with all at once, and deposited them in the trunk of the next cab in line in front of the hotel.

We got to the airport almost 2 hours early, and were glad we did, since our flight was cancelled, and the one before that was delayed. We checked almost all our stuff, and awaited takeoff, which ended up being not long before the originally scheduled 7:30 departure time.

The next day while unpacking, I found that my camera (bought only in May) and Walkman, which had been packed in the soft dirty laundry in the biggest bag, were no more. I'll never know whether it happened while in the bellhops' care or at the airport during the wait for the plane. My brother gave me his old camera – it's the real deal, a 35mm with all the attachments and nothing automatic – and I hope I can take a night course on photography this fall, so I'll learn how to use it in time for the Stamford crossword tournament next March.

cons/1996/conreport1996.txt · Last modified: 2006/12/12 03:42 (external edit)
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