Apr 8, 2009

Interview with Dan Feyer

Dan Feyer is fast, very fast, one of the fastest (if not the fastest) crossword solvers in the US. His solving time for today's "Un-State-ly State" puzzle is 2:12.

Dan is the ACPT (American Crossword Puzzle Tournament) B Division winner this year. He is also the C Division winner in 2008.

We've heard from several constructors & our editor Rich Norris on crossword constructing and editing. I thought it would be interesting to glean some wisdom from a speed solver.

By the way, it's Dan who informed me last week that I made a mistake on LAT Sunday rating. Rich Norris later confirmed that difficulty level of Sunday puzzle is indeed similar to that of Thursday. So it's a 3 instead of 4.

Enjoy the interview. I hope you find his answers educating and inspirational. Me? I am in "Shock and Awe".

What's your overall impression of LA Times Daily puzzles? How are they different from NY Times in terms of difficulty and cluing style? Those multiple words really give me trouble. We seldom encountered them in Wayne R. Williams edited TMS Daily puzzle.

Rich Norris's LA Times crossword is second only to the NY Times for its quality and entertainment value. I'm not sure I can describe a particular difference between the styles of Norris and Will Shortz, except for slight trends toward local-interest cluing. (E.g. more entertainment clues in LAT, more NYC-specific nuggets in the NYT.) The NYT is definitely more difficult; as a rough measure, they're about one day apart: LAT Tuesday = NYT Monday; LAT Saturday = NYT Friday. Roughly. This doesn't apply to the LAT puzzles we've had since the big switch, because Rich is taking is easy on his new solvers now.

I solved the TMS puzzles for a few weeks this year, and found them noticeably inferior to the NYT/LAT. I don't understand why Mr. Williams would outlaw multi-word phrases, or allow FOUR Roman numerals in a single grid! I know your readers were used to his style - and many still miss him, as those poll results indicate - but believe me, you all are lucky to have the LAT (or Newsday) puzzle now. I also encourage avid solvers to explore the other first-rate free puzzles out there, from the daily syndicated CrosSynergy to the weekly Chronicle of Higher Education and Wall Street Journal crosswords. Links can be found at Puzzle Pointers.

Can you give us an estimate of your solving times of LA Times (Monday to Sunday)? How do you normally tackle the puzzles? Do you use only Across/Down clues like some other speed solvers do for early weekday grids? Do you use Google to cheat immediately when the fill stumps you or you walk away and come back later with an inspired answer?

It's been a while since I couldn't finish a newspaper puzzle in one sitting. I almost never Google - when I get stuck on a really hard puzzle in a book, for instance, I'll come back to it later, and usually end up figuring out without "cheating". I have dabbled a bit with Downs-only solving, which is a fun challenge, in the pocket-size "Sit & Solve Crosswords" books. (Across-only solving is even harder and not recommended).

My LA Times solving times in Across Lite range from 1:30-2:00 on a Monday to 2:30-3:30 on a Saturday. Of course, sometimes they're tougher, but even a Saturday rarely takes me more than 4 minutes now. Sunday usually runs 5-6 minutes, but this past Sunday's by Will Nediger was my record at 4:17. If I'm solving on paper, it's at least 30 seconds slower (60 seconds on Sunday). I started keeping track of my times a few months ago on my "blog", so check in there if you're ever curious how fast I solved the day's puzzles. (Why you might be curious, I have no idea...)

The second most important tip for speed-solving is to use the letters you already have in the grid, because they can steer your brain toward a word even before looking at the clue. The most important tip is to solve truckloads of crosswords, because you'll learn all the strange fill words and cluing tricks until they're second nature.

What's your background? Who developed your interest in crossword solving? How many puzzles do you solve each day now?

Dad was born in Hungary, Mom's parents immigrated from Russia to New Jersey. Oh, crossword background? None to speak of. I enjoyed puzzle books and magazines as a precocious kid, and in college would solve the NYT Sunday crossword whenever I got my hands on a Sunday Magazine. In my 20s (I'm 31 now), I mostly forgot about crosswords until a friend gave me a NYT puzzle collection, which I'd work on every once in a while.

The spark for my current obsession was the movie "Wordplay", which I watched on PBS in October 2007. I quickly learned that the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was moving to New York City (where I live), and that there was a thriving online community of solvers. I bought the NYT crossword subscription, started solving all the daily puzzles, and read Orange's and Rex's blogs for more insight. Not only was I addicted to puzzles, but I was getting better and faster very quickly. Since the beginning of 2008, I've solved an average of 20-25 crosswords a day. (Which is a bit frightening, but many of those are on my subway commute, and a normal-sized puzzle usually takes me 2-3 minutes.) That's what took me from "fast" to "tied for the fastest in the country" in a year... that, and the right kind of brain wiring.

Who are you favorite constructors? Who gives you the most trouble? And why?

I am not sure I have a constructorial "nemesis", aside from the folks who make hard puzzles as a matter of course: Bob Klahn, Byron Walden, Brad Wilber (a frequent LAT themeless Saturday creator), David J, Kahn. My favorites: Trip Payne, Matt Gaffney, Karen M. Tracey, Patrick Blindauer, Brendan Emmett Quigley, Doug Peterson, Barry C. Silk, John Farmer, I could go on for hours... Dan Naddor, who only contributes to the LAT, is incredibly creative and prolific. And there are three wordsmiths who I consider the best in the world: Patrick Berry, Frank Longo, and Henry Hook. Buy a crossword book by any of them, and you won't be disappointed! (You might be seriously stumped, however.)

What would people find one thing that's most surprising about you?

You've probably noticed this, but for a supposed word expert, I'm not a very good writer. My left brain (analytical) is very strong, my right brain (creative) not so much. Similarly, I play the piano and conduct and arrange music for a living, but I have no talent or interest in composing music!

Thank you, C.C, and I look forward to following your journey with LAT puzzles.

18 comments:

Dennis said...

Just a great interview, C.C., and very educational. It's interesting to see the techniques of a speed-solver, and read his perspective on the different editors/puzzles. Many thanks to Dan for doing this.

Dick said...

Very nice interview CC, and another good slant on the minds and ways of crossword solvers. You can put this interview on your list of excellent works by CC.

kazie said...

Very interesting, thank you! Amazing that he is so young! Puts me to shame!

Crockett1947 said...

Thank you C.C. and Mr. Feyer. It is nice to hear "The Rest Of The Story" from someone who' REALLY good!

Clear Ayes said...

I don't think the older solvers among us can ever hope to achieve Dan Feyer's puzzle solving acuity. As he said, he has the "right kind of brain wiring". But we can try to get better. Dan's interview certainly makes me want to stick with LAT and chip away at the tougher clues and fills.

It is such a treat to have the opportunity to get help and hints from a real expert. Thanks so much to both Dan Feyer and C.C. for the great interview.

Razzberry said...

I agree with Clear Ayes - we may never get to Dan's level, but a least with the LAT we have a shot at improving our skills.

Great questions, great answers, great interviewer, great interviewee.

Dan said...

Thanks for reading - if anyone has follow-up questions you can post here or e-mail me!

carol said...

C.C. Great job as usual!!

I will never be in his category, but I do strive to improve each day. It is nice to know how a speed-solver thinks.

Thanks again C.C. and thank you too Dan for allowing us to peek into your mind :)

Linda said...

Dan: What is your "day job?"...(since you commute...)

Anonymous said...

Where can we get the "old" style puzzles that our paper used to carry last month. These puzzles are just way too far out. They are not fun anymore!

IRISH JIM said...

CC, Thanks for a great interview.
Dan,thanks for your thoughts.
Many years ago riding the # 7 train from Shea to Grand Central I used to see this lady doing the N Y Post Xword. She would continously write until it was done. I was amazed as it used to take me a long time to complete. After I saw her I gave up doing the Post X word for many years.

Jimmy S Carolina

Argyle said...

Hi Dan,
I've wondered, when you fill in that last letter, do you consider the puzzle done and any mistakes are not taken into account?

Another thing; do speed solvers use a type of shorthand too write their letters? I take to much time making my letters, what with multiple strokes for dots and crosses. Perhaps there is a completed grid of hand written speed solver I can look at.

OnlyNightOwl said...

Thank you CC and Dan Feyer!

Very interesting and gives insight to how we might better our solving.

Dan said...

Linda: I don't have a day job other than music... when I'm working (which is rare these days, thank you economy), it's usually a half-hour ride to midtown Manhattan. Not exactly a "commute" like people with real jobs have...

Argyle: Most of my solving is on the computer, which tells me when the puzzle's done. On paper, I'll check the solution if there are answers I'm unsure of. I'm sure I've finished plenty of puzzles incorrectly and not known it...

There isn't much "handwriting strategy" among the fastest solvers - some people write all lowercase, some use lowercase Es, but mostly it's not worth the hassle of learning to write in a different "font". I just use basic caps... (my ACPT puzzles are posted temporarily here)

Crockett1947 said...

@oldsage I vote for your explanation of GITS. I still think it was quite a stretch. I don't think anyone would have gotten it strictly from the clue. I know I got it through the perps and still had to scratch my head and say "Huh?".

Mr. Huggles said...

Just to let you know - soda pop is called tonic in New England.

Crockett1947 said...

@robtheranter Wow! What an education is sailing terminology and technique. That's the second lesson today. I still am not convinced that I should go out and buy a hole in the water so I can throw money into it, though.

Argyle said...

I was surprised to see the ACPT puzzles have the theme shown and even explained somewhat. Is that usual?