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June 13th 2015
Every year the Times National Crossword Championship is held in London, giving cruciverbalists from around the country a chance to pit their wits against each other and see who really is the best cryptic crossword solver in the land. And to discover that, yet again, it is a chap called Mark Goodcliffe. The fact that the tournament has been won by the same person every year since 2008 has not put people off entering, and if nothing else it should be an enjoyable day out and a chance to meet other crossword fanatics. That's what I'm telling myself, anyhow, as this year I have entered the Crossword Championship for the first time, and last week received a letter from The Times telling me that I have succesfully qualified for the finals! Proof is below.

A most exciting letter.

In order to qualify, you have to complete one of three crossword puzzles in the Times, and send in your solution along with how long it took you, with the 50 fastest people for each puzzle making the cut. I love the honesty-based system that means that, even if you took six days to finish, you can write down "3 minutes" and still make your way to the finals... although at that point you might be somewhat embarrassed when your shortcomings become apparent. I assume that any entries with unrealistically short times (say, less than a minute) are immediately rejected, but other than that they must be working on the basis that crossword-solvers are trustworthy, upstanding folk.
I have attempted these entry crosswords in previous years, but - although I have recorded some decent times - never bothered entering before, not least because they used to charge you just for submitting an entry. They don't tell you how quick you have to be to qualify, but I reckon a sub-10 minute time would usually put you in with a chance, so when I recorded a time of 6 minutes 43 seconds (I think - I forgot to write it down) I thought it was worth a try.
Having qualified, I decided to do some actual research on what I might expect, so I've turned to the webpage of former champion, current Sunday Times crossword editor and my unlikely Facebook friend Peter Biddlecombe. I already knew that the preliminary round involved solving three puzzles within an hour, with the 12 best solvers from each of the two heats going into a Grand Final that operates on the same basis. What I didn't know - although I could probably have guessed - was that the entrants have an average age of 50 (so I'm bringing down the average) and 80% of them are male (so I'm bringing up the average). The website also says that "the average solving time required to qualify for the Grand Final is usually between 9 and 15 minutes", which must be the average for each of the crosswords rather than for completing all three of them. Even Mark Goodcliffe isn't quite that good.
I am fairly confident that the entry crosswords that appear in the Times are easier than usual, to persuade more people to enter - certainly 6m 43s is comfortably below my average - but the puzzles on the day of the championship will be harder. I'm setting myself a goal of reaching the final, which I think will be quite a stretch - particularly as this is my first try - but not impossible. Wish me luck!

what was I listening to?
12 Songs - Neil Diamond
what was I reading?
Travelling to Work - Michael Palin
what was I watching?
Thelma & Louise
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