A grander venue, many first-time finalists, a bigger audience, a new "buzzer" round in the on-stage finals – IXL 2015 finals took things up another notch this year.
Many of the top rankers could not attend the finals this time – this led to an opportunity for others on the leaderboard to participate in the event.
The youngest of the gang – Shashwat Sinai Salgaocar and Anirudha Sundaresan
Mohan Chunkath (aka THC setter Mover; IXL finalist), C G Rishikesh (aka THC setter Gridman) and Subba Raman (IXL online participant) chatting before the game
(L to R) Shashwat Sinai Salgaocar, C G Bhargav, S. Venkatesh, Vinayak Rao Ekbote, C G Rishikesh, Deepak Gopinath
The prelim round had two 15x15 crosswords to be solved in 60 minutes. The top six from this round would enter the on-stage finals. Ranks would be ordered by accuracy of answers followed by speed.
Most solvers fared well with Prelim-II; Prelim-I proved to be their nemesis. 10d was left unsolved/wrongly answered by nearly all finalists - not hard to see why:
10d: Moistened gently to remain within an act (7) BEDEWED
The prelim solutions were submitted in this order: (1) Venkatraghavan S. (2) Ramki Krishnan (3) Sanjay Vinoo (4) everyone else when the timer stopped.
Ramki Krishnan and Sanjay Vinoo had all-correct entries; the others in the top six cracked 60 or more out of 64 clues. The prelim ranks were:
(1) Ramki Krishnan
(2) Sanjay Vinoo
(3) Venkatraghavan S.
(4) S. Venkatesh
(5/6) Mohsin Ahmad & Narayan Mandyam [tie]
Close contenders: Mohan Chunkath, Prabhanjan M, Lahar Appaiah.
On-Stage Round: Grid Solving
The shortlist of six finalists had to solve two crosswords on screen, one clue at a time, in infinite bounce format. A direct answer earned the solver 15 points, a passed answer 10 points. The Across clues were displayed in sequence and had to be cold-solved. The Down clues had to be solved similarly but with all the checkers in place.
(L to R) Sanjay Vinoo, Venkatesh S, Mohsin Ahmed, Narayan Mandyam, Ramki Krishnan, Venkatraghavan S.
As it happens in this format, the Down clues were sometimes sitters with the Across clue answers filled in already. For example, in the grid below, 2d is obviously IMPOUNDS – this was answered even before the clue came up on the screen.
On-stage grid-solving showed Narayan Mandyam in top form. The style with which he cracked some of the clues (MILIEU comes to mind) was the stuff a more rambunctious audience would have whistled and cheered for.
At the end of grid solving, Narayan had a 20-point lead over Ramki.
On-Stage Round: Final Burst
A new round was introduced this year. In this round, one clue at a time would be displayed on screen; any of the six finalists could attempt it. The solver who "pressed the buzzer" first – i.e. called out his name* first – would be offered the chance to answer. The right answer would get the solver 20 points, a wrong answer would take away 10 points.
[*Anchor Ochintya considerately suggested that S Venkatesh could refer to himself as "Doctor"]
"Chief Arbiter" Colonel Gopinath was called forward to decide cases of dispute over who pressed the buzzer first.
No dispute took place though.
There were six clues to be solved in all.
Ramki got the first – a charade for PORT BLAIR.
Mohsin answered an anagram clue - SHINWEAR was his answer for a definition of garment, which sounded plausible but turned out incorrect. The right answer was SHERWANI.
Venkatraghavan beat Narayan to the buzzer for SHOWSTOPPER. This was the only clue of the Final Burst round that had two takers.
An inadvertent error happened with one of the clues in this round – the answer slide got displayed before the participants could take a shot at it. The clue was abandoned, which cut down the count of the Final Burst clues to five.
When the final clue of the contest came up on screen, Narayan and Ramki both had 115 points. The last clue tipped the scales – a confident COMPLIMENTARY from Ramki declared him the IXL winner once again.
After The Contest
Several interesting points were raised by the organizers in the speeches towards the end. I will briefly touch upon what was said, what I think about what was said - and then move on to non-contentious matters.
There was advice not to be "dogmatic" about crossword rules. Specific instances were cited, such as objections to obtrusive connectors and the anagrind "tumblewash" in one of the prelim clues. The setter need not always look for the most deceptive synonym for a definition, it was said: if some deviations from rules made crosswords more accessible to a larger audience, participants should be fine with them.
In making clues easy with less deceptive definitions, I appreciate the IXL's point of view. I differ with the rest. Obtrusive connectors and other such deviations as seen in IXL make the clues easy for the setter to write, not for the solver to solve. If the solver must ignore some words arbitrarily from a clue in order to justify its answer, then those words do not improve the clue's solvability or entertainment value.
With the argument that indicators need not come out of a fixed list, there should be room for creativity – I strongly agree. But the objection to indicators like "tumblewash" is not because they are new, it is because they do not clearly indicate rearrangement of letters/words (why wash?). Also, the concern is not only about fitness of indicator meaning but also indicator grammar - to take one example:
Give a name to foundation beset with pitfalls (7) BAPTISE
Not objecting the join between "pit" and "falls", but to the misaligned tense of "falls": BASE needs to be beset with "falling" or "fallen" PIT.
IXL is positioned as a tournament for the best crossword minds of the country. It gets wide media coverage, it has crossword enthusiasts participating from the world over. Should it not aspire to higher setting standards? Higher setting standards do not automatically mean more difficult crosswords for solvers (though they probably mean more work for the setter). We do not have to look far for evidence that easy, entertaining crosswords can also follow standard conventions – we can see such crosswords set by the top two on the IXL 2015 Leaderboard!
After the speeches, the results were announced, prizes and mementos were distributed, group pics were clicked – and then we headed off for a late but delicious lunch.
IXL 2015 Finalists and Organizers
All IXL winners till date ;-) Colonel Gopinath (2013), Ramki Krishnan (2014, 2015)
One happy star performer with his Certificate of Honour
After lunch, a group of us sat around for a leisurely conversation that went on for a couple of hours. The restaurant staff cranked up the AC, raised the volume of music to deafening levels (in an effort to make us leave, or so we morbidly surmised) but we did not let such hurdles mar our enjoyment.
Staying put (L to R): Ramki, Anish, Prithwiraj, Mohan, Ajeesh, Shashwat, Mohsin, me.
My thoughts return to that clue in the Final Burst round which had to be discarded due to a freak error. That had forced an unplanned change into the game, nullifying the potential effect of +20/-10 points. What if that clue had got played? What if Narayan had solved it? This might easily have happened – and IXL 2015 would have ended with a different winner.
If you believe in the power of planetary influences over life, then the Final Burst incident will perhaps validate your belief. The answer to the fateful clue was HOROSCOPE.
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