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October 25th 2015
Last Saturday was my big crossword adventure, as I journeyed to Times HQ in London to compete against fellow cruciverbalists in seeing which of us could fill in the little white squares with all the right letters in the fastest time. Which, I know, sounds like the kind of thing that a suave international man of mystery might do - you're probably picturing a veritable who's-who of James Bond lookalikes - but in fact appeared mostly to be done by middle-aged men with nary a martini in sight. I don't think I was the youngest there, but I wasn't far off.
There was space for 100 people in each of the semi-finals - the 50 fastest entrants from 3 different crosswords, plus the top 25 from each of last year's semi-finals - but on the day there were only 83 people in my semi-final and 90 in the other. Sitting in rows of numbered desks, we had up to an hour to complete three crosswords, with the instruction to hold up our number "with both hands" if we finished before the time was up (there was no indication of what would happen if we held our number aloft with a single hand. Maybe the idea was to discourage holding up the number while still surreptitiously filling in the grid with the other hand? Makese sense). The whole thing felt very exam-like, with six invigilators spread across the room, and the firmly-relayed message that anyone whose phone rang would be disqualified immediately - although would still be allowed to complete the crosswords for fun, if they wanted to. At the front of the room, several screens showed a large clock to let us know how much time was left.
This was my first time at the competition, but the Times had printed previous years' crosswords and I'd remembered from one year that the three were given in order of difficulty, so I decided to tackle them in the order 2, 1, 3. I figured that this meant I'd be able to have a slightly easier bit in the middle of the competition, before tackling the toughie at the end. In the event, though, I think the second one might have been the easiest, and I managed to finish it off in 10 minutes, a very gratifying start to the competition - particularly as there are some crosswords where I'm halfway through the clues before I can solve any, and I'd dreaded that happening in competition mode.
Moving onto the first crossword, the difficulty level didn't increase too much, although there were a few that I left to come back to later, including 13ac: "Sailing boat, in practice, turned left (4)". I had it as ?A?L and was confident that I was looking for a three-letter word meaning 'practice', which should be reversed ('turned') and put before before the L ('left'), to give a type of sailing boat. Eventually it was a case of running through the alphabet to see if anything clicked - hey, only 676 possible combinations - and, just when I was getting worried, I realised it was YAWL. There were a couple of others in that one which caused me problems, and it was a while before I got the intersecting clues 1dn ("That is partly written up, including good summary (6)" D?G???) and 12ac ("Lay state protection around US city (10)" ??C?L?R?T?). I'll leave those as problems for the reader.
Moving onto the third crossword, and it was definitely that hardest of the three. In most clues, across all three puzzles, I worked out fairly quickly what I needed to do even if I couldn't do it immediately - for example, in the YAWL clue I knew what I was looking for, and just had to find the right word meaning 'practice' - but there were one or two in the third puzzle where I was completely off base. For example, 25ac: "Refuse to move round secondary piece of Putney Heath, perhaps westward (8)". I was confident that 'secondary piece of Putney' meant U, but I spent some time looking for a something meaning 'refuse to move' - e.g. SITIN - and wondering if the definition could be 'perhaps westward'. It was only when I worked out that the last letter was S (from AENEAS) that I realised I'd been getting the whole thing wrong, and that the answer was DETRITUS (STIR + TED backwards around U; the definition was 'refuse'; 'to move' = STIR & 'Heath, perhaps' = TED).
Having dotted back and completed the first puzzle, I was eventually left only with 1dn in the third puzzle, "Mushroom whorl? (6)", which had to fill S?I?A?. At the time I could only think of two words that fit (SPIRAL & SPINAL), and while I didn't know what 'whorl' meant - always a drawback - it looked similar enough to the word 'whirl' that I thought I'd give SPIRAL a crack and hope for the best. Holding up my number with about 13 and a half minutes left on the clock, I just hoped that the real answer wouldn't strike me as I sat there for the remaining time. When the clock had run down to zero, and the remaining papers had been taken in, we were able to pick up the answers to the crosswords outside and the first thing I did was check 1dn - and SPIRAL stared back at me from the answer sheet. Result! That was the only one I was really concerned about, but I did quickly check through the rest to make sure I hadn't made any mistakes elsewhere; then, confident that I'd got them all right, I had only to wait until they announced the results to see how high up the leaderboard I'd come. I knew that I hadn't made the grand final, as that was only for the top 12 in each group and they had already been announced, but I had some hope of making the top 25 and therefore getting free entry to next year's competition.
Since there was an hour between my semi-final and the grand final, and the results from our session apparently weren't going to be ready for almost that full hour, I went down to a local pub where people from the 'Times for the Times' crossword blog were apparently going to be meeting socially. It's a blog that I check sometimes, particularly in the weeks leading up to the championship as I'd been timing myself every day, but I hadn't posted for years until I wrote a message a couple of days before the tournament when I said I'd try to drop in. Drop in I did, and I met a few fellow crossworders - and a crossword setter for the Independent - although I don't think I've formed any firm friendships. Probably a combination of me not being great in social situations, and everybody else seemingly knowing each other and keen to catch up. Anyways, maybe next year.
From discussion in the pub it seemed that the 12th fastest person to qualify for the final from my session had been around the 40 minutes mark, so I had hope that my 46-something time would be enough to get me into that top 25. Picking up the score sheet (replicated here) on my return to Times HQ - right next to the Shard, if you're interested - I saw that I had indeed been successful, being the 19th fastest of the 26 people who got them all right. Apparently three others had been faster than me but made a mistake; another six had submitted early and made one or two mistakes; none of the people who took the full hour had got fewer than two wrong. One has to feel for Oli Grant, who was the only person to get all the answers right without qualifying for next year.
Happy in my success - and, for a first time, I think it was a success - I then sat in on the grand final, where we were given the three puzzles that the finalists were attempting, to see how we would have got on. There was a steep increase in difficulty compared to the semi-final, and I didn't manage to complete any of the three puzzles in the given hour, although naturally I wasn't giving it the same level of dedication as I had when I was in competitive mode. Anyways, the winner was - as ever - Mark Goodliffe (who had actually been sitting right next to me in my semi-final, as I realised when he stuck his number in the air after about 20 minutes), and after he had been presented with the trophy and a Guinness World Record certificate, we all went off in our separate ways. In fact, I went off to celebrate my friend Victoria's 30th birthday, which was great fun even if I had to head off after only an hour to grab my train.
All in all I had a fun day out, and I'm looking forward to repeating it next year and, hopefully, for many years to come. If you'll forgive my own assessment of my abilities, I think that I am actually good at this at a national level. No better than good, yet; but, crucially, no worse. It's a good feeling. #humblebrag

what was I listening to?
Drivin' With Johnnie Walker - Various Artists
what was I reading?
Us - David Nicholls
what was I watching?
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