The 2021 Boswords Fall Themeless League: Looking Back

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After two months of challenging, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable weekly solving, the Boswords 2021 Fall Themeless League came to a close last week.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Boswords 2021 Fall Themeless League spreads out a tournament-style solving experience over nine weeks, one themeless crossword per week. Each puzzle is scored based on your answer accuracy (incorrect letters, empty squares, etc.) and how quickly you complete the grid.

While each week’s puzzle only had one solution, there were three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth was the least challenging, Choppy was the middle ground, and Stormy was the most challenging. (When solvers registered to participate, they chose the difficulty level that suited them best.)

Hundreds of solvers signed up for the challenge of two months of themeless puzzle solving and a bit of friendly competition, and now that it’s over, I’d like to share a few thoughts about my experience in the League.

With the previous two Themeless League events under my belt, I had a good sense of what to expect both from the puzzles and from myself.

Although I rarely solve online — and I solve themed crosswords far more often than themeless crosswords — I now have a good base to build on.

Unfortunately, I accidentally signed up for the wrong difficulty level this time around. The previous two seasons, I’d opted for the middle ground, Choppy. I signed up for Stormy by mistake, and didn’t realize my error until I logged in and prepared to solve the season’s first puzzle.

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As you might expect, being freed from the shackles of themed puzzle building allows constructors to really flex their creative muscle, indulging all sorts of curious and unexpected vocabulary as they cross long entries and employ fewer black squares in these impressive grids.

And since I’d mistakenly opted for the toughest level of cluing, I also saw the decidedly clever and devious side of each constructor as I navigated tricky wordplay and more challenging clue content.

The first puzzle of the season immediately showed me what I’d gotten myself into. I didn’t know the number of operas Beethoven had written, or who spoke what ended up being a Madonna quote, or what Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” was about.

I hit nearly half an hour with my solving time, which I think was a ten-minute increase from my performance in the previous League’s debut puzzle.

Although I would have better performances later in the season — my time averaged out to 24:48 across eight puzzles — that was definitely a shot right across the bow of my confidence.

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I could have contacted the organizers and asked to be moved over to Choppy. I’m sure they would have accommodated me; the Boswords team is terrific.

But instead, I decided to throw myself into the deep end and stick with Stormy and see how it went.

As I expected, it was quite a challenge. But I trusted my instincts more — filling in more guesses at the start, rather than letting them sit empty until crossing words offered confirmation — and overall, I enjoyed the experience. Sure, I was a little disheartened at how my season started, but knowing that I was competing — however slowly — at the steepest level available pushed me to keep going.

I’ve never been the fastest solver to begin with — doesn’t matter if it’s pencil and paper or on a computer — and I rarely time myself when I solve in my free time. But I kept setting different goals each week. If I had half the grid filled by a certain time, I’d set a time to beat based on that. I didn’t always succeed, but more often than not, I kept my time below whatever goals I’d set.

(Still, I dare not look at the times of the top performers, lest I despair once more. Heh.)

In the end, my individual rank was 220 (out of 303 Stormy solvers), and my overall rank was 251 (out of the 871 individual solvers). Not too shabby. A staggering 1253 people participated in this season’s event,

As for the puzzles themselves, they were solid. The vocabulary — particularly the longer entries — was incredibly creative and unexpected. And the constructors were fantastic.

Each brought their own style and flavor to the competition, and it was great to see well-established names like Byron Walden, Evan Birnholz, Kameron Austin Collins, and the dynamite duo of Doug Peterson and Angela Olson Halsted mixed with newer names to the field like Mollie Cowger and Quiara Vasquez.

All in all, I enjoyed the Fall Themeless League. (Although I was more comfortable with the solving interface and I had a better handle on themeless solving, given that this was my third go-around, I still felt like a rookie tackling the Stormy-level clues.)

I think when the Spring Themeless League rolls around, I’ll try Stormy again. Now that I have a baseline to compare it to, I’d like to see how I can improve.

And with the promise of future Boswords-hosted events in 2022 like the Winter Wondersolve event on February 6th and the Spring Themeless League, it’s nice to have exciting puzzle events to look forward to in the near future.

They’ve already announced the teams for each! The Winter Wondersolve will be constructed by Kate Chin Park, Christina Iverson, Adesina Koiki, and Matthew Stock.

The Spring Themeless League will be handled by Adam Aaronson, Wendy L. Brandes, Katja Brinck, Julian Lim, Frank Longo, the team of Sophia Maymudes & Kyra Wilson, Ada Nicolle, Robyn Weintraub, and one constructor to be named later.

(Yup, a mystery constructor. They’re actually selecting them based on an open submission process, the details of which will be announced tomorrow, Wednesday 12/8! How cool is that?)

Kudos to everyone who helped bring this marvelous project together, and kudos to everyone who participated. It was tough, but also a great deal of fun.


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