The Times National Crossword Championship 2011

Three things immediately struck me when I arrived at the championship:

1) I was the youngest person by approximately one ice age.  And I am by no means in the first flush.  There were a few more under-40s by the time the contest started, but I was still decades below the average.  In rather bad taste, I hoped it might give me an advantage.  To show you had finished, you had to raise your number paper high above your head.  I’m still not sure how some of the old dears managed.

2) Wearing jeans and trainers, I was firmly in the minority.  There was a lot of tweed on display, at least one bow tie and one Oxbridge college tie.  If that sounds like a lot of men’s clothing, it’s because 80% of the competitors were men.

3) These people knew each other.  They took part every year.  One man I spoke to had been coming for 32 years, won once and been runner-up four times.  I recognised another as a contestant in a successful team on the BBC4 ultra-difficult quiz Only Connect.  In other words, they took this seriously.  And they were really, really good at it. Ulp.

I distracted myself by admiring the view.  We were in the lair of “billionaire tyrant” (his words) Rupert Murdoch.  Up on the 13th floor in Wapping, you could see straight across the bend in the river to Canary Wharf.  It was opulent.  And none of this “age of austerity” stuff.  I drank free coffee and ate free biscuits until I was buzzing with caffeine and sugar and had to avail myself of the (opulent) facilities.  I almost had to queue, in fact: we were warned several times over that while we could use the toilet during the test, IT WAS IN OUR BEST INTERESTS NOT TO.  Like children on a school trip, ranks of crossworders obediently trotted bogwards.

The test itself was very much like an exam.  On each desk lay a thick question paper, on which you had to write your name and candidate number.  Inside – three puzzles, with an hour to solve them.  Invigilators watched like a hawk in case anyone tried to sneak a peek.

At eleven sharp, the organiser said the magic words, and the room turned over and began.

I don’t know about you, but I zone out during exams.  I don’t notice the passage of time or the environment around me.  My strategy had been to try to do ten minutes on each puzzle then come back to the tricky bits in the last half hour.  In practice, I really don’t know what I did.  I remember there was a point after about 40 minutes when I realised that I had completed the second puzzle, and then five minutes after that I finished off the third.

It was the first of the three puzzles that I found trickiest by some way.  Most of the left-hand side resisted stubbornly until the fiftieth minute at least.  The last clue took at least three minutes all of its own.  Let’s just say there’s a certain cartoon dog who won’t be on my Christmas card list this year.

At 56 minutes I’d done it.  There were a good few clues where I was fairly sure I’d got the right answer but wasn’t quite sure why – a nagging condition which will be familiar to all crossworders, and for which there should probably be a German word.  But by that point I had, even in my little bubble of concentration, realised that an awful lot of people around me had finished quite some time ago, so it was time, as a poker player might say, to stick ’em in.

So how did I do?  I was delighted to find out that some of those prompt finishers had made a mistake or two, and in the world of the cruciverbalist, accuracy counts for more than speed.  I came 27th out of 76 in my heat, well outside the qualification time for the grand final (top 12 only), but just a hair’s breadth away from a free place for next year’s championship (top 25.)  In other words, I’m not Premier League, nor even quite Championship, but a force to be reckoned with in League One.  The Huddersfield Town of crosswords, if you like.  And that’s a result I am very happy with.  Until next year, natch.

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