National Puzzlers' League -- 1997 Convention Reports

From Qaqaq

After a 10-hour drive from Atlanta to DC, I was ready for a relaxing Wednesday night, and that's what I got: a few handout puzzles to solve with friends, nice conversations at George Groth's house, some rounds of charades, and a relatively early bedtime of 4 AM or so.

Thursday began with 'The Hexphiles', which was very good. Our team solved the puzzles qickly but slowed down while trying to find the reqired exhibits in one of the museums, and ended up second among the Thursday teams by ten minutes. Sqonk and Al DeSuda are really getting good at multi-puzzle games, and I hope that one of these years they'll do the Saturday-night extravaganza. That evening's games started with the nom-city- and-whatever-else-WILLz-thinks-to-add introductions, as usual; this year's whatever-else was 'surprising fact about yourself', which led to some pretty funny moments. I was happy to think of my story about how a member of Congress forced me to learn the macarena.. I was sure I'd be a finalist in Fraz's 'Spelling Bee', whose first round included ten hard-to-spell normal words and four hard-to-spell unusual words, but I only got ten of fourteen; I missed all three words I'd never heard of, and his first ten hit one of my weaknesses, 'carburetor', which I always have to look up (just did again). 'We Love Fortune' was well titled, and a fun creative competition; my team started slowly with few ideas, but we were zipping them out by the end.

I liked the concept of 'Tripods' a lot: compose three-word clues for any word or phrase that fall over if any leg of the tripod is removed. Give your teammates all three words of the clue, alphabetized; give each of your three opponents one of the three possible two-word subsets of the clue, alphabetized. (For example, I and my other teammate received CORNER/GO/OPPOSITE from Ember; the other side got CORNER/GO, CORNER/OPPOSITE, and GO/ OPPOSITE). If no one on the other side gets the answer from a two-word subset, your side receives points if your teammates guess the word from the full three-word clue. The above clue was perfect; it stumped the other side, and Ucaoimhu and I both came up with 'Free Parking'. Most three-word clues have two tough subsets and one weak point, it seems. Mine was 'A/AFTER/IT'S', which worked. I would have done 'AFTER/IT'S/ONE', except that the rules disallowed numbers in the clues, or 'AFTER/IT'S/MARCH' (figuring that people would see MARCH/AFTER… rather than …AFTER/MARCH), except that someone spoiled it by asking if you could disguise punctuation by writing the clues in all-caps. I'm glad my teammates correctly guessed 'B' rather than 'priori'. :)

The overnight competition was composed of four cryptics, the best of which I thought was Harth's. I think it might be about time to have another creative-competition overnighter as well; it seems like it's been a few years.

More charades that night. I was trying to submit shortish medium-difficulty ones like 'honey-roasted peanuts' and 'Advance token to nearest utility'. Lots of song lyrics, lots and lots of animated-TV qotations, a fair amount of short-attention-span stuff. Again an almost complete lack of fine arts; one of these days someone's going to exploit this by submitting a bunch of hard plays and paintings (fair warning). At some convention, maybe at next Stamford, I'd like to try a charades session with a lower maximum word limit, say five words. My hunch is that this would make for more interesting submissions on a wider variety of subjects; I usually find long song lyrics and such to be pretty dull fare.

Friday began with a trip to the National Cryptological Museum. I was really hoping to buy a T-shirt like 'My Parents Went to the National Cryptological Museum and All I Got Was this XFBYLS QYJRER KLSDFJSD' or 'If You Can Read This, SDHXW PFER LWEJDSQ: The National Cryptological Museum'. No such luck; it wasn't a particularly humorful place. I was excited to see some of the exhibits, including some KGB interceptions of coded Manhattan Project reports, and in particular the Enigma machine. I'd seen it before on TV and wondered how anyone could have broken it. I still don't fully understand how it was broken, but who cares; the important thing was that they let us play with it. You could set the rotors, type something in, and watch the corre- sponding ciphertext letters light up, which you then transcribed. When you were done, you would reset the rotors, type in the ciphertext, and watch your message light up on the letterboard. After an hour or so, I had finished with the exhibits and went poking in the library with XEIPON and George Groth. They had lots of code books, most of which gave meanings for five-letter seqences–things like 'FLUUV = ship arrives at three PM'. I decided to find out what QAQAQ meant in any code. We went through practically every volume they had without success. We found QAGAQ, QAQAR, QAQAT, and a number of other close calls, with meanings like '214« pounds' and 'The owner will not be responsible'. Frustrated, I started checking for PAYNE or even GROTH, but the closest I got was PAYNI.

That evening started with Beat the Champ, which I still think is a great game, but am starting to tire of–this is the third time in five years, after all. Maybe it's finally time to revive Haggle? '15 to 1' was fun if a little long, and 'The M&M Game' could have used a little fine-tuning, particularly to remove a really long (and perhaps unnecessary) voting session on letter assignments.

The after-hours session finally introduced me to Mafia, which was the convention highlight for me. After two days of playing it, I'm already calling it one of my ten favorite games of all time; it's far better than other good games I've played in recent years like Once Upon a Time and From A to Z. Everyone is dealt a card face-down, which they secretly look at. If played with nine people (which seems ideal), two will have black cards, which makes them Mafia; the others will have red cards, which makes them Citizens. One of those will be a red jack, which makes that person the Knight Commandant (a Citizen with extra privileges). The point is to completely eliminate the other side. Each round of play has two halves. In the first half, everyone must vote to kill one player (simple majority wins the vote); the first person who dies reveals his/her card and becomes the Moderator for the remainder of the game. In the second half, everyone closes their eyes and hums annoyingly, and the Moderator asks the Mafia to open their eyes, spot each other, and silently agree on someone to kill; they point to that person, the Moderator asks them to close their eyes again, and then asks the Knight (if still alive) to open his or her eyes. The Knight points to a person and the Moderator nods if the person is Mafia, and shakes his/her head if the person is a Citizen. Soon everyone opens their eyes, the Moderator announces who the Mafia killed that round, that person reveals his/her card, and the game goes back to the majority-vote-to-kill-somebody phase. This goes on until one side is completely eliminated.

The point to the Knight is that s/he can tell the other Citizens what s/he learned about who's in the Mafia, assuming s/he can convince them s/he's not bluffing. But this has to be timed well, because the Mafia obviously wants to kill the Knight more than any other Citizen.

The only way to decide who to kill is to openly discuss who seems suspicious, who seems to be protecting someone else, who is acting differently than in previous games, who seems qiet…maybe too qiet; and so on. It's practically all psychology, which is what makes it so great; it seems to have an even greater psychological component than poker or Diplomacy. And just sitting back qietly, while seeming like a good strategy, doesn't work; ve have vays of making you talk. Heh heh heh. I can't wait for another chance to play this game–how many months till Stamford?

The business meeting featured the long-awaited 1998 Atlanta bid, which passed (hurrah!). Qiz put in a very funny proposal for Kansas City '99.

The individual competitions started with 100-year-old flats that felt like 100-year-old-flats. Inversions many they included. At least Will<font size=-2>z</font> avoided some of the monstrosities of the era–50-line flats based on 'i/u-s' or '(t)he', for example.

The forms went well, I thought. Trazom compared it to a crossword tournament, which seems an apt analogy, and was maybe why I enjoyed it. It wasn't the best competition ever, but it was far from the worst.

The photo session. What can be said? Painful. Sqinty. Awful. Having the Washington Monument in the background better be worth what we went through out there.

'Spy Vs. Spy' ended the competitions. I ended up with a killer team–Bactam, Jo the Loiterer, and Philana. We took a lot of shortcuts and managed to come in first. Philana said she normally tries to do all the puzzles and doesn't try to speed- solve these games, but she got caught up in our energy and was as frantic as the rest of us.

Afterwards, more Mafia, more charades, more conversation. The usual good-byes and missed good-byes. Another 10«-hour drive.

The day after convention, I signed the '98 contract with the Terrace Garden Hotel. Next up: getting the photographer!

Overall, a good con in DC. I'm looking forward to the chance to see what I can do next year. Incidentally, Endgame has suggested two improvements to 'PeachCon': 'TaraCon' and 'conGA', the second of which I'm leaning toward.

P.S. Did you notice that all five Q members were present? Ours was the only letter with perfect attendance. Way to go, Q!

P.P.S. For anyone who cares, I realized that one of my Mafia-explanatory lines is vague: the group voted to kill someone in the first half of the round. The person who the Mafia selects to kill isn't revealed to be dead until after everyone opens their eyes again.

From Tyger

First off, to those who were on my teams or with whom I conversed during Con who are not mentioned below, my apologies. I didn't have an unhappy moment, it's just that I didn't write most of this down for about two weeks, and wasn't 100% sure on some of the noms, or which game we teamed on. And to those I didn't even speak to during Con, I wasn't trying to avoid you; there were just so many of us. (And where was Minimus? And Dada and Ubiq? And…)

My husband Andrew and I took the 8:05 train out of Penn Station on Wednesday, arriving at DC a little before noon. We rushed like crazy to the hotel to drop off our bags, and on to Alexandria VA, where we met my dear friend Tim, who was a grad student at Cornell when I entered as a freshman, and who ushered me through many crises with avuncular wisdom. We hadn't seen each other in 15 years, and our correspondence in the meantime was limited to letters at Xmastime, but it was as if only a day or two had passed. I was sorry when he had to leave for his 3:00 appointment.

Andrew and I walked around old town Alexandria, and toured two of the old restored homes, one of which was the childhood home of Robert E. Lee. We then made the hajj to the National Archives to see the Declaration and the Constitution. The line was fairly long, about a twenty-minute wait, and we wondered why the spectators were taking so long. Yet when we got to the front, we were awed and had to be told by the guard, just like everyone else ahead of us, to move along already.

We headed to Chinatown just a few blocks away, and had dinner at a place which advertised over twenty kinds of dim sum in the window. We liked it so much that we immediately changed our lunch plans for the next day. We then took a cab to the Washington Monument, but abandoned our plans to go up when we saw the line. At night, no ticket is required for entry because the crowds generally thin out by then; I guess the oppressive heat caused many people to delay their outings until the temperature dropped to 90 or so.

We walked around the tidal basin to the Jefferson, FDR, Lincoln, and Vietnam Memorials. We tried to find the Korean War memorial but were unsuccessful in the dark. I found the FDR Memorial very impressive: modern, yet as grand in its way as the other presidential memorials, and totally accessible to the disabled. One wall was covered with Braille, raised letters, and miniature reliefs of the life-size statues in the memorial park.

I thought Wednesday would be an early evening at the hotel, hopefully in the hospitality suite. But En and I found the suite locked, so we hung out in the lobby until other Krewe appeared. Treesong, who sported a button saying 'Ask me about my vow of silence,' described a variation of a drinking game that sounded so complicated and silly that the explainees decided they needed to be drinking before even considering it. Most everyone proceeded to the bar, while I joined WILLz and Evita on a trip to the airport to pick up Raffaele Aragona (puzzle-nom Argon, but we used his regular nickname, Lello), since I was the closest thing to an Italian speaker that they could scrape up. I had him call me Elena, since I couldn't remember the Italian for 'tiger' and didn't want to explain my nom. Long ago, I took courses in Italian and Spanish, and remembered just enough to mix them up; fortunately, Lello also spoke Spanish, a knowledge that came in handy when we found the Marriott overbooked and a Spanish-speaking employee arranged with him a gratis night at another location (Lord knows I couldn't have explained all that!).

Thursday morning, Andrew and I were up early for a White House tour, which was spectacular (I wrote our Congressman in May, so we got timed tickets and didn't have to wait in line.) We enjoyed a wonderful buffet breakfast (our favorite kind of meal) at Reeve's Bakery, and then visited Ford's Theatre, the house across the street where Lincoln died (the most moving place we visited), the National Portrait Gallery, and the Museum of American Art. After our Chinese lunch, we visited the National Gallery of Art on the Mall to see the Picasso and Cambodian exhibits.

By 4:00 we were exhausted, and took a cab back to the hotel. Andrew vegetated in the room that night, getting room service and watching movies, while I found about sixteen other people who were interested in eating Indonesian food at the Sarinah Satay House in Georgetown. Conversation during dinner was pleasant and lively; Endgame told stories of the time he lived and worked in Indonesia.

During the introductions that night, before the evening games, WILLZ had everyone relate a surprising fact about temself. I revealed that, although I am now agnostic, in fact almost atheist, I used to be quite religious (Christian), even 'receiving the gift' of speaking in tongues. No doubt the most memorable story was Jo the Loiterer's: he got the urge to go streaking one night, which he did without getting spotted. On returning, he collapsed in exhaustion against the side of his house, only to find he'd leaned on the doorbell, which brought mom and grandma out to see who was ringing the bell in the middle of the night. Musta been some mother-son chat the next day, huh?

The first game, by Fraz, started as a spelling test, with fifteen very hard words, graded by the person next to you, just like in school. About a dozen people with the highest scores were called up to the front of the room for a spelling bee in which they not only had to spell the words backwards, but had to spell at the rate of one letter per beat, the beat being kept by everyone else in the room snapping fingers in cadence. This was a fun game because it involved words, the possibility of public humiliation, and the continued involvement of people who were eliminated.

The other two games that night were creative games, which required each table to split into two teams. The first, by Banterweight and Tilegod, involved construction of cookie fortunes using very tight restrictions, the best of which would be acknowledged during the awards ceremony on Sunday. The second, by Aesop, was called Tripods, and involved constructing a three- word crossword clue such that anyone could solve it with all three words but no one could solve it with only two words. The example given was 'black white bear' for 'panda.' The other team at our table came up with one that tested perfectly: 'egotistical French president' for 'de Gaulle'. My half of the table consisted entirely of people who didn't go for creative contests or, in Lello's case, didn't speak English well enough to participate. So we watched, or found other activities.

After the evening games, four contest cryptics were distributed, with the rules being that they had to be co-solved with four different partners. Lunch Boy and I finished one in a flash, and I lined up my dance card for two more with Wombat and Squonk for Friday, and settled down with Kannik for the fourth, by Fraz. While we were solving, Lello sat down with us and asked us to explain to him how cryptic crosswords worked (!). Kannik speaks fluent French, but he seemed to know even less French than I know of Italian. I tried to give a cursory explanation but he persisted until, about fifteen minutes later, he understood. He also had us explain to him where our noms come from. 'Kannik' is Inuit for 'snowflake,' easy enough to translate, but 'Tyger' comes from the fact that I share a birthday with William Blake, who wrote the poem 'The Tyger', plus I was born in the Chinese Year of the Tiger. This was a little more difficult, but at least took less time than explaining cryptics! With a little hint from Fraz to help us see something in the puzzle more quickly than we eventually would have, Kannik and I completed the puzzle that evening, and I stayed up as late as I could in happy conversation with Banterweight, Jo the Loiterer, and many more.

Friday morning, Andrew and I slept late and ate another breakfast buffet in the hotel restaurant. Andrew then departed for two days of museum-hopping and book-buying, while I went on Squonk and Al DeSuda's puzzle hunt.

Once the whole group of us, about a dozen, arrived at the old Post Office building, we split up into three teams, each with a helper (the third helper was Btnirn; this hunt was less intense and more hinty than the original hunt the day before). My teammates were Wrybosh, Ariadne, and 100 Down, and our advisor was Squonk. After we solved the puzzles, we split up to find the museum exhibits indicated by the puzzle solutions, and fill in the missing words from the placard next to the exhibit to reach an additional answer.


Wrybosh and I visited the museum of American History, where we detoured slightly so I could visit the giant dollhouse. (I was disappointed at the renovation of the museum; when I visited as a youngster, I remember it being much more quaint, and historical. Now it looks like the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, very high-tech, not appropriate for the content.) We also visited the Museum of Natural History to see the stuffed black bear and its placard. While we waited for the rest of our teammates in front of the Air and Space Museum, we bought very expensive ice cream and water, and ran into Lunch Boy and Ucaoimhu, who had done the hunt the day before, and were now seeing the mall museums the proper way.

The placard words, properly arranged, directed us to the Library of Congress, quite a walk, on the other side of the Capitol. Wish we'd had time to stop in at the Botanical Gardens, which we passed on the way. The people at the Library were the most anal-retentive and suspicious of everyone we met that day, but we looked up the ISBN indicated by the solution, and found it to be Murder on Capitol Hill by Margaret Truman. Hence the final location was in the Capitol building. We stopped inside there to rest for a few minutes and take some team pictures, before heading back to the hotel.

I seem to remember a very interesting conversation in the hospitality suite with Munro, followed by a Krewe dinner of Marriott-style chicken which made me very happy that food was involved in the evening games. The most wonderful surprise: Eric, who had planned to skip this Con, appeared halfway through dinner, having decided that morning that he couldn't stay away.

The games that night were WILLz's old favorite, Beat the Champ; a trivia game by Manx in which each table formed a team and answered questions that would flummox most 'Jeopardy!' contestants, and the M&M game, by , which divided into teams of about four each based on such criteria as 'people who think the green ones are aphrodisiacs' or 'people who eat them two at a time.' My team was 'people who just want to eat them'. Each team got a small bag of M&Ms, and voted on which four letters of the alphabet each of the six colors could represent (M and W were wild). The idea was to then make up words using all of the M&Ms in the bag. On our team, Lunch Boy seemed the quickest to catch on to the concept of how to find words using very difficult letter frequency patterns.

After the official games, I went up to the hospitality suite for more snacking and playing a new team game, 25 Words or Less, in which one person from each team bids on how few words they can use to get their team members to say every word on a given list. If the lowest bidder is successful, ter team keeps the card; otherwise, it goes to the other team. Too much time taken in bidding, but otherwise a fun game. While this was going on, Wrybosh was teaching the game Mafia to a bunch of other people in the room. Qaqaq's report last month gives the details.

Saturday morning began with another wonderful breakfast buffet; I hung out, drinking decaf, and conversing with about three different groups of breakfasters that came and went at my table. (Well, OK, I also may have had an extra donut or two with the later groups; I confess!) Especially notable was the appearance of Slik, who had just stepped off the plane from another convention in progress, which he was running while attending the NPL Con. Glad he knew which one to pick to spend Saturday night with. The business meeting was the usual; I enjoyed lunch, both the conversation and the meal, which was roast beef on a salad (I like mixing cooked and raw foods, and even like putting hot food on cold salads).

The afternoon puzzles included both flats (from 1897) and forms, and I don't know how the people solving alone managed to do all the forms, because it took a long time for me to set up the half I was allotted while co-solving with 100 Down. Y'all already know that I was very happy about forms, and hope a lot more people were happy once they saw 'em.

I had some very very interesting girl-talk with Uncanny and G,Ames as we waited in the lobby for the go-ahead to go outside in the cruel sun for our official photo. I hope at least a few people were smiling and not grimacing to go along with the squinting. After the photo, I listened with Crax to duets, alternating round-robin, played on the lobby piano by En, Ulk, and Nucky. Dinner was not as pleasing to the senses, at least as far as the food went. The swordfish was pretty awful, and the rice a watery disaster, but the chutney on top was good. About half my table split for McDonalds; I would have joined them, but didn't want to risk being late for the speech (they did get back in time). Nucky, En, Shrdlu and some others stayed behind, and the marvelous conversation made up for the food.

Lello and his interpreter Susan Wranik (a grad student of George Groth's wife Dana) performed admirably in the after-dinner address, and even got some laughs at language-based jokes that originated in Italian. Their puzzles sound much less direct than ours, similar to the rebi in the Games contests, in which different parts of the answer are in a drawing, but you don't know where.

The team puzzle that night was Spy vs. Spy, by QED, Maelstrom, and the absent Gab-F, and lived up to the reputation of the NPL Saturday night extravaganza: lots of different puzzle types, all wonderfully intertwined. My team (Atlantic, Aesop, Abacus) stayed well past the winning team's finish, and were joined by Crax near the end. It's funny… I think Atlantic and I have been on a team together at least once at every Con I've attended. Our destinies must be linked, at least a little.

After the extravaganza, there were a couple of games going on in the main room (one being Mafia), but I joined the puzzle- free table for chat with Quiz, Eric, etc., Squonk's friend Andrew, Slik, and more…. I forget who, except I remember Wombat and his dear dear mother. She wasn't there but she'd given him a large bag of food and soda which he shared with us. I stayed until well past three, and understand at least some Krewe saw the sunrise, including Quiz, who made an appearance in his pajamas.

Sunday, Andrew and I packed and checked out, and left our bags with the bellhop. He went off to a buffet breakfast in the hotel cafe and to hide out in the lobby until I was done. I went to the ballroom for an unusual brunch that included eggs (absent the day before) but very little else that one would eat for breakfast: little Marriott pastry, carrot cake (possibly left over from one of our dinners), and weird entrees like noodles and asparagus. While I laud and applaud any effort by anyone who hosts a Con, including this one, I hope that we never have another one at Marriott, based on the meal situation–I'd thought it was just Stamford, but the food overall wasn't better at this one.

After the awards ceremony, I lingered as long as possible, with my official ending to Con being saying goodby to Eric– that's when I really feel Con is over. Andrew and I sat on the train home just behind G,Ames, Coach, Chainsaw, Storyteller, and J9, but there wasn't much conversation. Even in the cab home from Newark, which we shared with Chainsaw, I don't think ten words were spoken…we were half or fully asleep the entire ride.

When I got back to work two days later, I found that someone had added room numbers to all the doors off the main hallway, including the office for the Division I'm in, which takes up half the floor. Since we've been in the building three years without numbers on the doors, I started trying to figure out what game or trick was being played. I had to stop the thought process midstream and remind myself, this is no game, I'm home now, this is bureaucracy and real life, and the numbers don't mean anything. Right?

From Wampahoofus

The Thursday night dinner was lots of fun. The food was good, and I found out that JrMan shares another interest of mine, the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, a road-rally-on-paper held every winter in which you try to outwit fiendishly difficult questions regarding the course. (For information, write to Massacre, P.O. Box 53, La Canada CA 91012. The same outfit also runs a contest involving the World Almanac, called the 'Almaniac'.)

The spelling bee was especially fun, and also easy to describe to the outside world. 'Feuilleton', one of the words in the preliminary round, is one I have a special fascination with, since it arises from a Eu- ropean way of seeing things, which doesn't quite correspond to the American way of viewing the same phenomena. Another example is the British separation of lawyers into barristers and solicitors. Who's to say what's a feuilleton, or who's a barrister, in America?

The M&M's game was also lots of fun. Too bad there were none with the Presidential seal! (This is a reference to Clinton giving Newt Gingrich ordinary M&M's, but his favored guests special ones, on Air Force One.)

There should also be an updated 'tree' printout available each year for people to keep and make corrections. It might even serve as a recruiting device. I was almost able to convince someone to join the Krewe by showing her that my 'branch' on the tree so far had no offshoots!

I felt the time limit for the forms competition (even when extended to an hour) was unrealistic for ordinary mortals competing as individuals. I was zipping along at (my) top speed, not encountering much difficulty, but had to leave eight of them untouched, more unfinished, and all unchecked, when time was up. In contrast, I had time to read over all of the 100- year-old flats three times.

For next year, I propose a flat competition for which the Krewe vote, over the winter, for their five favorite types of flats other than rebi (since rebi were done in '96). The five winners would each be represented by five or so puzzles. My vote would go to letter banks and heteronyms, and maybe acrostical enigmas if the words weren't too obscure.

The cryptics and other handouts (especially Fraz's three-part 'It's in the Stars') were excellent. How- ever, my experience makes me wonder if there was any point to making the cryptics contest a team event. My partners and I all solved the puzzles on our own, and we compared solutions only after we had finished them, if then. Also, judging from the fact that more than 25 teams solved even Harth's puzzle, it appears that only the Cryptic from Hell (or the Listener) would stump the Krewe!

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