Sunday 27 December 2015

At the Indian Crossword League 2015 Finals

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.

IXL 2015 Finalists Wordle

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.

Shashwat, Anirudha
The youngest of the gang – Shashwat Sinai Salgaocar and Anirudha Sundaresan

Mohan Chunkath, Rishikesh, Subba Raman
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

Before IXL 2015 Finals
(L to R) Shashwat Sinai Salgaocar, C G Bhargav, S. Venkatesh, Vinayak Rao Ekbote, C G Rishikesh, Deepak Gopinath

Prelim Round

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.

IXL 2015 Onstage Finals
(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.

IXL 2015 Final Onstage 2 Round - Crossword Grid

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.

IXL 2015 Scores

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.

IXL 2015 Final Burst

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!

More Photos…

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 All
IXL 2015 Finalists and Organizers

Colonel Gopinath, Ramki Krishnan
All IXL winners till date ;-) Colonel Gopinath (2013), Ramki Krishnan (2014, 2015)

Ajeesh IXL 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.

IXL 2015 After Lunch
Staying put (L to R): Ramki, Anish, Prithwiraj, Mohan, Ajeesh, Shashwat, Mohsin, me.

In Closing

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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Kishore said...

Great and quick reporting there! Horrorscope indeed

Chaturvasi said...

Very good reporting with first-hand knowledge of previous events and with an eye for detail. Also, it's an outsider's account that is impartial and contains a critical input with the writer having been a keen crossword enthusiast for the past several years. I enjoyed reading the article.

Vasant said...

That was great reporting!could visualise everything..the drama..the tension..the denouman..Great Work...
Congratulations to Ramki & all those who made it to the podium

raju umamaheswar said...

Amazing report with all graphic details and pics ! How do you manage such good work and compilation within such a short duration? Thanks for the virtual attendance given to us.

Deepak Gopinath said...

Great report, as usual Shuchi. You should become a freelance journalist in addition to your current profession. How about an article on your current location which we can use as a guide if and when we visit Indonesia

Shuchi said...

Glad you all enjoyed the report.

@Colonel: A guide for Indonesia - that's a fun idea :-) I can certainly email you on interesting experiences from my stay fact I have been writing to Kishore about some quirks of the language (such as air = water of THC11579 26d), and I can include you in the correspondence. Like India, Indonesia is vast and diverse - I have seen only a fraction of it. But even that fraction has been fascinating!

Naryan said...

Nicely done Shuchi

C.G. BHARGAV said...

Enjoyed reading the crisp report. Where to start, what to say, how much to say, you know it all !

Ramki Krishnan said...

Thanks Shuchi for the crisp but comprehensive coverage of the event!