Interviews

A Way With Words: An Interview With Brian Cimmet

Puzzle tournament with personality
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Brian Cimmet and Patrick Blindauer are set to bring Manhattan area and at-home solvers a sixth year of the crossword puzzle tournament, Lollapuzzoola, held this Saturday at 10 a.m. EDT.

Portrait of Brian Cimmet

The free-spirited tournament will feature 6 puzzles by those that have constructed for the New York Times, like Kevin Der, Joon Pahk, and Zoe Wheeler. Registration for the live event is $25 and a solve “At-Home” division will run $10, though “At-Home” solvers will not be privy to the rumored Oreo cookies.

Cimmet has been apart of Lollapuzzoola since its humble beginnings, when the number of attendees could still be counted on two people’s fingers and toes. With the help of Blindauer and Ryan Hecht, the group has grown this puzzle contest with personality into the 500+ solver event that it is today. Puzzle Pile talked with Cimmet about his life, the universe, and everything Lollapuzzoola.

Puzzle Pile: Can you share a little bit about your background? What’s been going on in the life of Brian Cimmet?

Cimmet: I’m currently teaching in the Drama Department at Syracuse University. I teach musical theater performance, musical theater history, music theory, audition technique, and I work as director and/or music director for the mainstage musicals we produce. This is sort of my second life — I moved to Syracuse in 2010 from New York City, where I had been working for fifteen years as a freelance pianist.

Aside from all that, I’m also a new father — my son Oscar is six months old, and my wife and I are loving the world of new parenting (especially in the significantly calmer lifestyle Syracuse has offered).

Puzzle Pile: What are your puzzle accomplishments, how would those in the puzzle community know you?

Cimmet: I’m probably best known in the crossword puzzle community for two things. One is Lollapuzzoola, the annual summertime crossword tournament I’ve been running since 2008. The other is the three-year run of my crossword podcast, “Fill Me In”, which ran (almost) weekly from 2008-2010.

Both of these were started with my good friend Ryan Hecht, without whom I’d never be a part of this community. Ryan first introduced me to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT), and it was with Ryan that I started blogging and podcasting about puzzles. Before too long, we were “those guys who do that podcast — which of you is which?”

I’ve written four puzzle books (not all are in stores yet) — one logic puzzle book, and three word search books. I got to know Peter Gordon (former New York Sun crossword editor, and top dog at Sterling Publishing), and got some work testing, proofing, editing, and eventually creating puzzle books there.

Puzzle Pile: What are the top 3 items on your puzzle bucket list?

The three puzzle things I’d like to do before I die…? I’ve done more than I ever thought I would, so thinking of three more things sounds greedy. How about… I’d like to someday publish a book of Lollapuzzoola puzzles, the best of the best of the first twenty-five years of Lollapuzzoola, something like that.

Oh, and I’d like to someday participate in the MIT Mystery Hunt. That would be fun, if a little scary. And how about a ridiculous pipe dream one — I’d like someone at a big radio station to discover the old podcast and hire me and Ryan to do “Fill Me In” as a paid gig.

Puzzle Pile: How were you first introduced to puzzles? Can you go into what that experience was like and what part puzzles have played in your life? In what ways has your background as a pianist and composer contributed to your puzzle life?

Cimmet: I first started doing puzzles with my mother. I remember from a very young age always having puzzle books and word games around the house. I played Boggle and Scrabble and did the Jumble in the newspaper. She taught me how to do logic puzzles (the kind with clues and a grid), and I remember she’d buy books of logic puzzles and solve them herself on a separate sheet of paper so I could solve them in the book. My mother was an amazing influence on my life, and since she and I had a love for games in common, it was only natural for me to ultimately find my way into a puzzling world.

The connection between music and puzzles (if there is one) (and there probably is) I think has to do with the ability to process a lot of different things at once — in music, it’s notes, rhythms, harmonies, dynamics, tempos, phrasing, etc. In most puzzles, there are several different things going on at the same time — whether it’s across and down clues in a crossword, or the logic required to deduce what digit goes into a Sudoku grid, or using shape and color and pattern to find the next piece in a jigsaw puzzle.

Of course, it’s worth noting that there are many brilliant puzzle people who aren’t musicians, and many brilliant musicians who aren’t puzzle people, so maybe the connection is a bit of a reach. It’s also worth noting that two of the winningest competitors at the ACPT (current reigning champion Dan Feyer and seven-time winner Jon Delfin) are both brilliant pianists, so maybe it’s not so much of a reach after all.

As far as combining music and puzzles, one of my favorite accomplishments is a song I wrote with my friend Amanda Yesnowitz called “A Way With Words.” I wrote the music, Amanda wrote the lyrics — and they’re full of wonderful wordplay, puns, references to games and puzzles. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve written.

Puzzle Pile: What are your favorite puzzles? Do you mainly stick to crosswords, or do you venture out into other forms like Hidato, Masyu, or mechanical puzzles?

Cimmet: My favorite kind of puzzles are big collections of puzzles that some sort of connective theme or meta-puzzle tying them all together. People like Patrick Blindauer, Trip Payne, Eric Berlin, Mike Selinker — they’ve made these elaborate puzzle suites where there’s ten puzzles, and then you figure out that there’s something from each of the ten that make up the final puzzle, and you have to solve that to get the ultimate answer.

I made one once for the 100th episode of “Fill Me In”, where I had ten crosswords, and if you laid out the paper in the right configuration, there was a 100-letter theme entry snaking through all ten puzzles.

I’ve done a lot of jigsaw puzzles (my mother owned hundreds of them), and I used to be a bit better than average with a Rubik’s cube. But mostly I like pencil and paper puzzles. I enjoy unusual word searches — the kind with no list, or secret themes or words that twist around the grid.

I got a little burned out on sudoku, but I like some of the other Japanese logic puzzles like Nurikabe and Hashiwokakero (nikoli.co.jp is a great site for exploring non-sudoku puzzles of that ilk). I had a love affair with cryptic crosswords for a while a few years back (once I learned how they worked). And I enjoy double crostics a lot, though I don’t do them as much as I’d like.

Puzzle Pile: How did Lollapuzzoola come to be and why did you decide to host a puzzle tournament?

Cimmet: Through “Fill Me In”, we had built up a small fan base. Almost out of the blue, Ryan suggested that we try to run a tournament of our own, something more like us than like the ACPT, something for people who aren’t experts, who get stuck and need to Google an answer. We started plugging this unnamed tournament on the show, and my friend Amanda Yesnowitz (brilliant wordsmith and fan of the podcast), came up with “Lollapuzzoola”.

We asked through the podcast if people wanted to make puzzles for us, and got a handful of submissions — including from Doug Peterson and Mike Nothnagel, who have constructed for Lollapuzzoola every year. We’ve grown from 23 contestants the first year to nearly 500 now (which includes an At-Home Division for people who can’t make it to NYC). It’s clear that Ryan’s vision to have a tournament was a great idea.

When Ryan retired from Lollapuzzoola, I wasn’t sure whether the tournament should even go on. He was such a vibrant part of what made it so much fun. But when I decided to try to keep things going, I knew I needed a new partner in crime, and turned to Patrick Blindauer.

Patrick is a constructor and editor (Ryan and I are neither of those things), so he was able to bring an amazing wealth of knowledge and skill to Lollapuzzoola. I think Patrick’s biggest influence on the tournament has been a big step up in the quality of the puzzles themselves. Themes are cleverer, grids are tighter, clues are more even. And Patrick is another former E Division winner at the ACPT (like me and Ryan), so it makes perfect sense!

Puzzle Pile: Lollapuzzoola is a non-traditional, puzzle tournament. Why was the decision made to alter the format from the usually hushed crowded halls, to free-wheeling antics, like holding impromptu games of Twister for bonus points?

Cimmet: We made the tournament to match our podcast, which itself simply matched our personalities. Neither of us is a hushed crowd kind of guy. We both have theater backgrounds (incidentally, so does Patrick), so we found outlets for that in the podcast and tournament. If we’re ad lib kind of guys, if we’re goofy and quirky and do things differently, why not allow that personality to come out at Lollapuzzoola?

The first year of Lollapuzzoola, yes, we had the Twister thing. That was a puzzle designed by Mike Nothnagel, where there was no apparent theme until after the puzzle was done, and we would tell solvers “3-Down, 26-Across, 34-Down!” (which would be ‘right hand red’ or something). That was fun and weird and we’ve never done it again since.

But that first year, we also had a “Name That Tune” puzzle (constructed by Dan Feyer), where I played melodies on a keyboard, and those were the theme entries. Doug Peterson made a puzzle where three entries (CHI, PSA, and HOY) when strung together spelled CHIPSAHOY, and as part of completing the puzzle, solvers had to ask me for a cookie.

Some other highlights include Peter Gordon’s puzzle that was full of entries that were a letter and a word (like A-FRAME or C-CLAMP). There was an alphabet printed at the top, and if you crossed out each of the letters used in the theme words, the leftover letters could be unscrambled to spell the name of a famous piece of music — which we played while people solved.

Tyler Hinman did a puzzle that was all seven-letter words, and they wrapped around the edges of the grid — they’d go off the right side and continue on the left again, and also off the bottom and back in on the top. Amazing construction.

Liz Gorski made a puzzle that had a maze built into it, and to complete the maze, you had to find a path that didn’t bump into any snake names (things like BOA and PYTHON were in the grid).

And one year, I made a puzzle that had a 5×5 shaded section in the middle of the grid — and once you had finished solving, you used the 5×5 mini-grid as a Boggle board, and had to come up with as many words as you could in five minutes.

I have to say, I think one of my favorites has to be Todd McClary’s “Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds” puzzle. The theme entries in Todd’s grid called for solvers to make noises — cough, rustle the paper, tap feet on the floor, etc.

It was so much fun sitting there in a silent room — and hearing the room become gradually less and less silent as people solved the theme entries. Dan Feyer competed that year (and won, surprise, surprise), and he was the first to cough.

Then someone else did.

And within 30 seconds, it sounded like the entire room had emphysema. It was a riot. We made a recording of the first four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and that was Lollapuzzoola’s version of the famous John Cage piece.

I think we wanted to push the envelope. Let’s see what we can get away with. It surprises solvers, and it’s fun to come up with new ways to take the puzzle off the page a little bit. Lollapuzzoola puzzles are the kind of things you won’t typically find in newspapers, because they simply don’t work that way.

Puzzle Pile: How has the reception from attendees been to the difference in format?

Cimmet: Mostly very good. There have been things people didn’t like, and we take those comments and learn from them. People didn’t love listening to “Rhapsody In Blue” the whole time they solved Peter’s puzzle. We did one puzzle that was too complicated to explain, and took forever to get started, and some people got a little restless. And the Twister puzzle, I remember one solver got a little irked because he felt that the bonus points awarded skewed the scores too much.

Our scoring system is also different from the ACPT. We’re still about speed and accuracy, but the way we break it down isn’t quite the same. Instead of a set number of minutes being worth a set number of points, we rank the finishers in the order they finish. Also, we have a cheating system in place — Google Tickets. Players can get free answers for clues they don’t know. It costs some points, but it might make the difference between finishing and not finishing a puzzle.

Overall, I’ve heard almost exclusively positive feedback. Sure there are people who gripe now and then, but for the most part, people have really gotten into it. The ACPT is a wonderful event (I’ve gone for the last six years), but Lollapuzzoola is casual, it’s inexpensive, it’s all in one day — it’s a great bang for your buck. Plus, it’s in August, about six months away from the ACPT, so it’s a great time for a reunion of friends.

Puzzle Pile: You’ve had a well known line-up of puzzle constructors contribute to the event, what has the reaction been to having their work featured in this unique atmosphere?

Cimmet: At first, we didn’t know how to get puzzles. The first year, I made one. Dan Feyer (who, at the time, hadn’t won the ACPT and hadn’t been published in the New York Times) made one. We had made a few friends through the podcast, and after chatting online and on the phone with them a couple times, invited them to make puzzles. Mike Nothnagel, Doug Peterson, Barry Silk, and Ashish Vengsarkar all contributed that first year. After that, though, most of our puzzles have come from people asking us if they can contribute.

Crossword constructors love an opportunity to showcase their work, and we offer an opportunity to do something they can’t do in the New York Times, the L.A. Times, etc. We’ve been very fortunate to get to choose the best of the best for Lollapuzzoola.

Puzzle Pile: This will be your sixth puzzle tournament, what do you enjoy about the organizational end of the contest that has kept you coming back every year? What is your hands-down, all-time favorite experience from previous Lollapuzzoola tournaments?

Cimmet: I don’t quite know why I come back every year. I remember after last year’s tournament ended, I was having drinks with Patrick and a bunch of other people, and we were all on such a high from the success of the day that Patrick immediately started planning for this year.

Of course, that planning slowed down — a year is a long time, and we don’t really get things rolling until about three or four months before hand. But there’s such a great reward seeing everyone having fun, hanging out, playing games. I love watching the reunions of people who don’t see each other outside of these tournaments.

As an artist, my work is designed to evoke, provoke, but specifically in musical theater, it’s to entertain. I think Lollapuzzoola is the same thing. It’s once-a-year entertainment. And as long as people keep having fun, I’ll keep doing it.

Puzzle Pile: What do you have in-store for solvers for Lollapuzzoola 6, will the Twister mats be rolling out again?

Cimmet: I can safely say that there is no Twister this year. There’s rumor of a cheese ball eating contest, but I don’t know if it’s true or if it has anything to do with crosswords. Beyond that, who can say?

Puzzle Pile: Thanks for taking the time to talk and good luck with the upcoming crossword convention. Do you have final thoughts for our readers?

Cimmet: Final thoughts? Come to Lollapuzzoola! Or, if tournaments are kind of scary (as they are to me!), try the at-home version. Either way, it’s all fun and games, and I hope you’ll join us!

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