Here are some convention reports from NPL members Artistry and Twisto.
John Wayne Airport. Tuesday evening. Bartok sits opposite me in the airport lounge. A Samuel Adams lager sits between us. $1.00 more gets me an upgrade to 20 ounces. I really need this beer right now. I'll need several more before the week is over.
Bartok and I are on our way to the 2000 NPL Convention in San Francisco. It will be my first. Were I awake, I would be positively tingling with anticipation. As it is, however, I am still recuperating from a weekend in Laughlin, Nevada. Sea-Doo- ing on the Colorado River, drinking, gambling, $1.99 steak and eggs at 1am, a four hour drive home which does not end until 5:30am Monday. This is probably not the best way to prep oneself for successive days of intense mental activity.
We arrive at SFO to be greeted by my good friend David, who whisks us off to a late supper at a place called El Bobo. Only in San Francisco could you find a small corner bar which serves Belgian Trappist ales on draught, braised lamb shanks, and the best steak sandwich you've ever tasted. Things are looking up.
David drops us off in front of the Canterbury Hotel. I go to the front desk to check in. Bartok immediately spots over a dozen familiar faces (familiar to Bartok, at any rate) in the lobby, intensely engaged in games of all sorts. They greet him warmly, with a sense of recognition and camaraderie unaffected by the long year since they have seen each other. They all dive right back into their games with an energy which appears slightly unnatural for midnight on a Tuesday. I would grow accustomed to this phenomenon in very short order.
Bartok and I drop our bags in our room and promptly dash back down to the lobby to join in the activities. Bartok brings with him a game of his own invention, tentatively titled “WordSmart”. It is a bit like Scrabble played with cards rather than tiles, in which players attempt to build on other players' words, which can be reversed if the player wishes. Atlantic, Atom, and I are Bartok's first guinea pigs, and the game goes quite well considering the fact that the hour is well within the single-digit range.
Wednesday morning. Bartok and I eschew breakfast in favor of a trip to the Cartoon Museum with newly-arrived Krewe. It is a small museum devoted almost entirely to a very touching temporary exhibit honoring the late Charles M. Schulz. Bartok and I separate from the rest of the group to enjoy a wonderful lunch of tapas, paella, and beer before heading back to the Canterbury. We arrive in time to greet Bluff and Sheila, two comfortingly familiar faces from Los Angeles who are the first people I have recognized so far. We agree to rendezvous in the lobby for the trip to Trazom's house, where the traditional meet-and-greet party is being held this year. In the interim, Bartok and I decide to check out the hospitality suite, which is already bustling with activity despite having just been opened. Bartok, Atom, Dart, and I play a highly competitive round of “Bali” as we watch Trazom single-handedly bring in load after load of yummy-looking snacks and refreshments. As Trazom beats a hasty retreat to his digs to prepare for his guests, we see that it is time to head to the party.
Bluff, Sheila, Bartok, and I hop a streetcar to Trazom's and are among the first to arrive. This is good news to me, as I am allowed a brief respite before meeting the Krewe en masse. I seat myself at the piano and regale Sheila with my bargain- basement lounge-lizard rendition of several Randy Newman tunes.
The Krewe arrives. I am not prepared. My first introductions are to Ucaoimhu, BanterWeight, and QED. I am immediately overcome by a feeling I have not felt since high school: Always being in the “smart kids” class, but always being the stupidest kid in the class. These guys are brilliant. I don't mean brilliant in the “I love what you've done with your living room” sense … I'm talking brilliant in the “I love what you've done with Fermat's Last Thereom” sense.
Pizza arrives. It is all topped with either mushrooms or tomatoes. I hate mushrooms and tomatoes. Why then was this pizza so incredibly good? I'm still working on an answer.
More mingling. More Krewe. More quadruple-digit IQs. More beer, please. (Thankfully, there is plenty.)
A quick game of “Fluxx” with Treesong, Panther, Phantom, D. Ness, and Bartok, then I am off to meet a Swedish film student for drinks. I met her on my previous visit to San Francisco a month earlier, and was taking advantage of my current stay in the city to get to know her a little better. We go out for beers. We drink. We talk. She is very definitely not digging me.
I crawl back to the hospitality suite, where I find Bluff playing his infamous game “WordBluff” with two more familiar L.A.-area Krewe: Kegler and Elfman. Playing with them is /dev/joe, just in from Massachusetts. I lick my wounds as I try to second-guess Elfman in determining what words can be made with a J, a Q, a K, and a lot of blank tiles.
Thursday morning. Bartok has just had what will turn out to be his only decent night's sleep all week. We get to the lobby just in time to meet up with some Krewe for a cable car ride to Pier 41, where we will be hopping a ferry to Alcatraz. At the ferry terminal, I stand in line with Panther and Phantom, who are thrilled to find the resident sea lions basking and (third-letter change) barking in the sun. Learning that I am from California, they ask me where to get some good seafood. I direct them to McCormick and Kuleto's in Ghirardelli Square, failing to inform them that I have never actually eaten there myself.
Qaqaq and Quip join Bartok and I for the cable car ride back to the hotel. The line for the cable car is moving inexplicably slowly. We see a street musician setting up to entertain the bored tourists. I had always thought that the phrase “crawling out of one's skin” was merely an expression. Qaqaq, however, did just that as he writhed in agony to the musician's medley of George M. Cohan songs, his epidermis puddled at our feet.
A surprisingly good Japanese meal next door to the hotel with Bluff, Bartok, Asobi, /dev/joe, and Lyric. A quick shower, and Bartok and I arrive for the first (THE FIRST?!?!?) official event of the Con. Willz steps to the microphone and has us all introduce ourselves in alphabetical order of our middle names. I am not happy about this. I am the only one of the Krewe with my particular middle name. I am probably the only person in the city of San Francisco with my particular middle name. The evening's games include games by Squonk and Cecil, Fraz, Wrybosh, and the ill-fated “Literature by Committee” by Rastelli (more on this last game later).
I am very impressed by the amount of preparation people have put into all of this, all for the benefit of others. It strikes me as an extraordinarily selfless and giving thing to do. My own preparation for the Con entailed little more than making sure I had enough clean underwear.
Another round of late-night games. Another round of beers, this time with my good friends Conundrum, Silence, and MOL. Another sleepless night for Bartok and I.
Friday morning. All right, maybe not exactly “morning”. Breakfast with Bartok at Boogaloo's in the Mission District. We co-solve one of the three competition cryptics over corn biscuits with vegetable-herb gravy. This one is called “Matchmaker”. It's by Qaqaq, who should receive some sort of award for his grid alone. We actually manage to make some progress.
We race across town to Golden Gate Park for the Orienteering event. Speaking of awards, Dandr and Hot receive my personal prize for “Best Way to Spend a Gorgeous Day in San Francisco”. In a nutshell, the event involved following a minutely-detailed map of the park to eleven different locations, each of which would yield a word which could be plugged into a flat. The word would then be transmogrified into another word, the odd letter then getting plugged into a grid. The grid then spelled out the final clue, “SEEKEYWORDS”. Bartok, Jrman, and I, with our Enigma-conditioned minds, attempt to do everything to this phrase short of cutting it into bits and pulling the pieces out of a hat. It is Jrman's wife, Sew Do I, who points out that the first location we visited was a statue honoring Francis Scott Key and “The Star Spangled Banner”. We waste no time congratulating her on her brilliant intuit as we sprint across the park to the statue, which happens to afford a wonderful view of an American flag next to the bandstand at the opposite end of the plaza. Another quick dash (pant pant) brings us to the flag, which bears one of those annoying “Want to Earn Extra Money Working From Home” flyers, complete with tearable phone number tabs at the bottom. We tear the tab, bring the phone number to Dandr, and are not surprised to learn that we are not the first to have completed this marvelous game.
A bus ride with Ucaoimhu, who is now painfully aware of just how bad I am at cryptics (the cryptic in this case being “Misquotation” by Harth), brings us back to the hotel. More official Con games (no pun intended). Tonight's games are by Chainsaw, Willz, and Hot (with assistance from the M&M/Mars candy people).
More late-night games. I watch a group play “Killer Charades”. Someone steps up. He mimes. “Album title.” Got it. “Seven Words.” Got it. “Second, fifth, and seventh words.” Got it. He falls to the ground. “Falls!” Got it. Someone shouts out, “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls!” Didn't get it. Total elapsed time: 8.7 seconds. I leave the room.
I spot Silence and MOL. I know that Silence is the world's greatest fan of kitsch. I tell her there is someplace I must take her. The three of us walk out of the hotel and up one of San Francisco's notoriously steep hills. We enter the glamorous lobby of the Fairmont Hotel and take an elevator below street level to the Tonga Room. The Tonga Room is the kind of place where you'd expect to see Major Nelson and Major Healey celebrating after a space flight on “I Dream of Jeannie”. The tropical cocktails are served in tiki-shaped glasses. There's a band that plays disco tunes. The band is in a boat. The boat is in a lake. The lake is in the middle of the room. As the band finishes their set, there is an indoor thunderstorm. I think Silence liked this place. I hope so.
Saturday morning. Breakfast and the annual business meeting. I'd like to give you a full report of each, but I slept through both.
Pretending to be awake, I sleepwalk into the ballroom to co-solve another cryptic … this time with Cazique, who has been looking for me for two days. This one is by Anomaly, and is entitled “Cable Car”. Cazique quickly joins the “now I know how bad Artistry is at cryptics” club.
Saturday afternoon. More official games by Evita, T McAy and Willz. Also the annual flat-solving competition, this year entitled “Poet's Nightmare”, compiled by Uncanny. (Again I marvel at the amount of time and effort people put into the Con. I vow then and there to at least attempt to contribute something in the future.)
Saturday night. It has become evident that the book containing Rastelli's aforementioned “Literature by Committee” is missing. At the time of this writing, it is missing still. Hopefully, I will soon have an online version of this game available on www.puzzlers.org. I will let you all know if I am able to get it working, so that you can all play. (To really work well, it will require many participants.)
It is now time for the annual extravaganza. The author of this year's event is Manx, with an assist from IRBS. It is entitled, appropriately enough, “Escape From Alcatraz”. I am really looking forward to this, as I have been ever since Bartok described the previous extravaganzas he had played in Montana and Atlanta. My heart is pounding. My mind is alert and ready. The fire alarm goes off. We spill out onto the sidewalk.
It turns out there is no fire. (There are rumors that it was a false alarm set off by Hot, Ember, or Pfire.)
Back in the ballroom again, the teams are assigned. My team consists of 100 Down, Eric, Shrdlu, Svenska, and Jangler. For those of you who don't know him, Jangler is 14 about years old, give or take. He is also a genius. I hate that about him. I take consolation in the fact that I far surpass him in my ability to grow facial hair. While my very capable teammates and I collectively solved the individual puzzles, it was Jangler who made about half of the intuits that linked one puzzle to another, earning us “keys” and “objects” which allowed us to successfully escape from Alcatraz. (From what I understand, this extravaganza was sort of a break with tradition in that the usual competitive element was abandoned in favor of constructing the game in such a way as to allow all teams to eventually solve, “escape”, and win.)
More late-night gaming. A large group of us head to the lobby for “Make-Your-Own Taboo”. Our large group turns out to be a little too large, so we split into smaller groups, prompting the spontaneous invention of “Steal the Other Group's Cards So You Don't Have to Make-Your-Own Taboo”. A very fun group of people for this game: Rastelli, Maelstrom, The Foole, Mooncalf, Wombat, Sidhe, and Saxifrage. We spontaneously invent yet another game called “Steal a Bunch of Snacks and Refreshments From the Hospitality Suite and Bring Them Down to the Lobby”.
Sunday morning. 5am. Bartok and I sit in our hotel room and spend an hour exchanging tales of our experiences of the past week. We agree that it has been an amazing experience. We agree that we will do it again next year. We agree that, as it is now 6am, sleep would be foolish. We decide to stay awake, shower, shave, pack, and get to the lobby early for breakfast. We both fall asleep immediately.
8:30am. Breakfast. I am now forced to use the eyelid-opening device from “A Clockwork Orange”.
10:30am. Prizes are awarded. I felt like a winner in every event just having managed to keep up with the brilliant Krewe.
Sunday afternoon. Farewells. Hugs. I am suddenly struck with the pleasant realization that there are no longer any unfamiliar faces.
Kegler, Asobi, Atlantic, [sic], Bartok, Kegler, Elfman, and I set out to find a downtown restaurant that is open on Sunday. We finally stumble upon an Indonesian restaurant that fits those requirements. Kegler does not appear thrilled. The lamb sate, however, turns out to be so good that even Atlantic, the sole vegetarian among us, is enticed to try some.
We order a stretch limo to the airport. Disco lights and lots of buttons to play with. Much better than a cab. Everything is going great. Until …
We arrive at the airport. Five days of gorgeous blue skies have suddenly decided to turn gray and drizzly on the first day during which we will need aircraft. God does, indeed, have a sense of humor. One of the runways is fogged in. Flights are cancelled. Elfman left his house keys at the hotel. United Airlines staffers are being yelled at.
To make a long story one paragraph longer, Bartok and I spend four hours at SFO with Atlantic and Asobi only to learn that our flight is being rerouted to LAX. Finally on board the plane, I find that I cannot take my brain out of puzzle mode. As a sorry anticlimax to some of the most amazing, challenging, and entertaining games I have ever played, I am forced to do the United Airlines magazine crossword. I finish solving it over (fifth-letter change) Solvang.
For the first time in my life, I find that I am actually eager to go to Newark, New Jersey. I truly look forward to seeing you all next year. (And once again … thank you, Trazom!)
The only puzzle I have ever known to receive a standing ovation was “Escape from Alcatraz,” an irresistible tour de force by Manx, and the grand finale of this year's NPL convention entertainment. From a gathering that attracted the largest number of Krewe in League history, that was honor indeed, the more so since the general level of skill in both puzzle construction and solving has catapulted to new heights since the resumption of conventions in 1976.
“Escape from Alcatraz” divided the entire gathering of members and visitors into groups of a half-dozen participants. Each group-there were some 20 of them-solved a series of intricate puzzles, with speed and accuracy determining the winners, or more properly, the escapees. The activity created traffic problems from group leaders rushing to Manx's and IRBS's headquarters to have the accuracy of their answers checked, and then rushing back with additional puzzles to solve. The resultant traffic jams and attendant pandemonium added to the general excitement until winners finally emerged. Completion times varied from just a few hours to many, with a few determined solvers hanging on until early morning. The finale was acknowledged with thunderous applause on the sleepy Sunday morning session that ended the convention. The evening's activities could well have been subtitled, “The riddle of the Sphinx meets the 100-yard dash.”
In this controlled bedlam, many visitors became confirmed aficionados, joining the NPL on the spot, after finding irresistible the infectious fun of solving and winning, or, as well, solving and losing.
A record-breaking 129 NPL members attended the San Francisco convention, decisively surpassing the prior record of 120 set in Philadelphia in 1938, 62 years ago. Having been present at both these cons, I can, not without at least a modicum of authority and a touch of arrogance, judge this year's the more spirited and exciting of the two, delightfully raucous at its high points of hilarity.
Having so adjudged, let me add one more remarkable note. In my collection of miscellany regarding NPL activity, I found, just before beginning this article, the “official” photo of that 1938 convention. (I can be found sitting between Zoroaster and Boney.) The contrast to this year's photo is startling: all the men are properly formal in suits, complete with white shirt and tie, with conservative haircuts conventionally parted on the side (where there was hair left); the women demurely dressed and modestly bobbed, displaying a dignified demeanor. This is not to suggest that they resembled a funereal cortege. They were a witty and intellectually stimulating lot, even occasionally boozy in their Zem-Zem sessions of drinking and storytelling. But they were in so many ways a far cry from the young and sober conventioneers of the present day who dominate the League. There were never, in those days, any blue jeans in sight, and the speaker at the banquet, in 1938, was Morning Glory, a silver-haired ninety-year-old of truly spellbinding beauty.
I leave to other reporters further details of this year's activities. Willz, with his usual aplomb, presided as general factotum over a particularly exciting program of games and puzzles. Trazom, in turn, took the characteristic air of the master of the realm, upon whom all the tribulations of life fall, and for whom, hopefully, ultimate redemption awaits. And true to expectations, a generous Krewe gave Trazom an ovation that approached the wildest of jubilations, and which was, may I say, well-earned.
Let me just add that all those who attended these revels, members and visitors alike, enhanced even beyond all expectations San Francisco's salubrious and always indulgent climate during our all-too-brief stay. I have chosen to salute and thank them collectively to avoid this column's sounding like an extract of the telephone book.
So on to editor Xemu, with one final salute and farewell to the whole Krewe who gave the Golden Gate a special burnish, and with a wish that my own home town of New York will match these inspiring successes next year.
[Thanks, Twisto. I'd love to see that old con photo! Willz reports that there were also 25 guests at the San Francisco convention, bringing the total attendance up to 154-quite a crowd. -Ed.]