Emmy-Winning “Queen’s Gambit” Ignores Actual Grandmaster’s Legacy?

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The popularity of chess goes through ebbs and flows over the decades, but there’s something universal about the game that ensures it will never go away.

Right now, chess is going through something of a pop culture resurgence thanks to the popularity of the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, a show that won eleven Emmy Awards just this weekend.

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The show depicts the journey of fictional chess player Beth Harmon. As Beth rises to prominence, she gains the attention of the world through her masterful playing style while dealing with a secret dependence on drugs.

Beth is a fictional character, but she’s often navigating the historical record of the actual chess world, one steeped in pride and impressive accomplishments by men and women alike.

And one of those women takes umbrage at how she has been depicted in the show.

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Meet Nona Gaprindashvili, the fifth women’s world chess champion, and the first woman to be named Grandmaster by the International Chess Federation. This Soviet and Georgian woman played in the Women’s Chess Olympiads across four decades (from the 1960s through the 1990s), winning numerous championships, and having success against both male and female opponents.

Not only did the show misidentify her as Russian, but she was said to have never played against men, unlike the fictional Beth who regularly competes against men.

Gaprindashvili considers the comment grossly sexist, and claims in her lawsuit that by 1968 — the year depicted in the series — she had already defeated many male players, including ten grandmasters. Gaprindashvili herself pointed out in an interview with The New York Times the cruel irony in the show celebrating a fictional trailblazer by disregarding an actual trailblazer.

She is suing Netflix for false light invasion of privacy and defamation, seeking $5 million dollars in damages.

Netflix seems optimistic that the lawsuit has no merit, and they may be right, but it is amazing how easily this could have been avoided. You could have simply not mentioned Gaprindashvili at all, or focused on making Beth’s accomplishment a huge achievement for American women at the time.

Some fans of the show are twisting themselves in knots trying to ignore the contradiction, some saying that since this is a fictionalized story, they have a fictional version of Gaprindashvili in the show who DIDN’T accomplish what she did in real life. This is arguably more insulting than the show’s treatment of the Georgian grandmaster.

It will be interesting to see how things proceed from here. If nothing else, it will hopefully give more attention to the genuine accomplishments of a legendary female chess player who certainly deserves some of the spotlight.


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Another Brain Teaser Submitted by Readers For Your Puzzly Pleasure!

[Image courtesy of SharpBrains.com.]

When’s the last time you had your brain properly tied in knots by a riddle?

That’s a pretty common occurrence around here, honestly. In our puzzly explorations of the world, we stumble across all manner of brain teasers, riddles, logic puzzles, math problems, mind ticklers, deduction games, and wordplay-fueled bits of linguistic legerdemain.

Sometimes, we even receive them directly from our fellow PuzzleNationers!

And on those occasions, we happily share them with you, dear reader, so that you can also enjoy the challenge of unraveling whatever fiendish puzzly conundrum has been placed before us.

This time around, a solver named Bethany submitted this riddle she found online. It’s known as the Peppermint Patty Riddle.

Let’s see how we do.


The Peppermint Patty Riddle

You’re facing your friend, Caryn, in a “candy-off,” which works as follows: There’s a pile of one hundred caramels and one peppermint patty. You and Caryn will go back and forth taking at least one and no more than five caramels from the candy pile in each turn. The person who removes the last caramel will also get the peppermint patty. And you love peppermint patties.

Suppose Caryn lets you decide who goes first. Who should you choose in order to make sure you win the peppermint patty?


Now that’s interesting, because it doesn’t ask us specifically HOW to achieve victory. But the question basically demands that you not only achieve victory, but figure out how to do so with your very first move.

Tricky indeed.

Will you be accepting this puzzly challenge from a fellow PuzzleNationer? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Spies, Crosswords, and Secret Messages!

secret message

There are loads of ways to hide secret messages in puzzles. The field of cryptography is built around it. Many meta puzzles have a special secret lurking inside their clever constructions. Heck, our friends at Penny Press even have an entire word seek called Secret Message.

But have you ever noticed that there’s a strange fascination in pop culture with secret messages in crosswords?

No, I don’t mean constructors hiding quotations, poems, or word seeks in their crosswords, though those are impressive feats of cruciverbalism.

I’m talking about stories about actual secret messages concealed in crossword grids, meant to be hidden from even the most diligent solvers, only a special few possessing the keys to finding the hidden words.

Oh, believe me, it’s definitely a thing.

Look no further than the first Crossword Mysteries movie. The film opens with a murdered art gallery owner with a crossword in his pocket. And it turns out that a devilish criminal mastermind was submitting puzzles to Tess’s daily crossword that contained hidden instructions for robberies to be conducted that day. Diabolical!

You might laugh, but this is hardly the only time we’ve seen crime, secret messages, and crosswords combined. It was a plotline in the radio show The Adventures of Superman, and Lois Lane’s life once depended on Superman’s ability to solve a crossword puzzle.

There are any number of mystery novels, cozy and otherwise, that contain hidden messages in crosswords. Nero Blanc’s Anatomy of a Crossword and Corpus de Crossword come to mind, as do any number of murder mysteries where a strange message scribbled on a crossword grid turn out to be a pivotal clue to catch the killer.

And there’s an even more curious subset of this in pop culture: crosswords and spycraft.

I could give you a simple example, like Bernie Mac’s character in the Ocean’s 11 remake pretending to solve a crossword, but actually writing down key information about the casino for the upcoming heist.

But that’s not really a secret message IN a crossword. No, it’s more of a secret message ON a crossword, though it is a bit of decent spycraft.

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[From Spy vs. Guy.]

Let’s talk about spies and their crosswords, then.

In the TV show Burn Notice, former (and occasionally current) spy Michael Weston sometimes received hidden messages from his previous spy organization through the crossword, though we’re not given much info on how this is achieved.

In the James Bond prequel novel Double or Die, it’s actually the young Bond’s teacher who sneaks a secret message into a puzzle. He’s also a cryptic crossword editor, and he convinces his kidnappers to allow him to submit a crossword to the newspaper, because if he didn’t, it would let people know all was not well.

Naturally, the kidnappers didn’t spot the clues to his current location that the teacher had hidden in the puzzle. Bond, even in his youth, manages to do so with ease.

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In the short-lived TV show Rubicon, crosswords are at the center of a fascinating unsolved mystery. An intelligence agent named Will finds out his mentor committed suicide after seeing a four-leaf clover.

He then finds a pattern across several crosswords that leads him to believe his mentor’s death is somehow connected to the pattern in the crosswords, and he tells his superior about it.

And soon after investigating it himself, Will’s superior is also found dead. Unfortunately, we never get a resolution for this story, but it certainly fits the bill.

So yes, the curious connection between secret messages and crosswords in pop culture is definitely a thing.

But did you know it also extends beyond fiction? Yup, I’ve got some real-world examples for you too.

Back in June of 1944, physics teacher and crossword constructor Leonard Dawe was questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph.

The words Omaha (codename for one of Normandy’s beaches), Utah (another Normandy beach codename), Overlord (the name for the plan to land at Normandy on June 6th), mulberry (nickname for a portable harbor built for D-Day), and Neptune (name for the naval portion of the invasion) all appeared in Daily Telegraph crosswords during the month preceding the D-Day landing.

So it was possible (though highly improbable) that Dawe was purposely trying to inform the enemy of Allied plans, and the powers that be acted accordingly. In the end, no definitive link could be found, and consensus is that Dawe either overheard these words himself or was told them by his students — possibly slipped by soldiers stationed nearby — and placed them into his grids unwittingly.

Yes, this was just a big misunderstanding. But sometimes, accusations like this have real-world consequences.

In Venezuela, a newspaper has been accused multiple times of hiding encrypted messages within their daily crossword puzzles in order to incite revolt against the government.

Another Venezuelan newspaper was accused of concealing messages ordering the assassination of a public official named Adan, the brother of President Hugo Chavez!

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Some of the answers considered suspicious in the grid included “Adan,” “asesinen” (meaning “kill”), and “rafaga” (which can mean either a burst of gunfire, or a gust of wind).

Apparently this confluence was considered enough to warrant a half-dozen members of the intelligence service visiting the newspaper’s editorial office.

Now, were these cases of genuine secret messages being passed through the crossword, or were these coincidental events that appeared credible because the crossword/secret message concept has been part of pop culture for decades?

I leave that question to you, fellow puzzlers.

Can you think of any examples of crosswords with secret messages in pop culture or intersections of crosswords and spycraft that weren’t mentioned here? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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The Rapid Advancement of Wooden Puzzles!

The essential elements of puzzles are centuries old. The knot to be unraveled, the wordplay to be processed, the pieces to be reassembled, the message to be decoded, the inconsistency to be spotted.

And yet, puzzles continue to evolve, finding new ways to express and employ these ancient components into fresh, satisfying solving experiences.

We recently discussed the evolution of Rubik’s-style twisty puzzles thanks to 3-D printing and computer modeling, and the same is true for an even older puzzle style: wooden puzzles.

Wooden puzzles frequently adhere to one of several formats:

Many of these puzzles are still effective and satisfying challenges today. If you’ve ever tried to hold four pieces in place at once in order to assemble a wooden camel, or suss out the dozen or so steps to open a himitsu-bako (or Japanese puzzle box), you know what I’m talking about.

Of course, like their twisty counterparts, these puzzles have only grown more complex over time.

And a relatively recent addition to the arsenal of wooden puzzle designers and creators is at-home laser cutters allowing for efficient production of puzzles and pieces at an affordable rate.

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Over the years, we’ve seen projects like Cirkusu and the Baffledazzle line of specialized jigsaw puzzles, as well as the hit Kickstarter project Codex Silenda (which even appeared in an episode of NCIS: New Orleans), thanks to crowdfunding campaigns and affordable laser cutters.

Check out some of the most recent wooden puzzles I’ve encountered, created through laser cutter design:

Martin Raynsford’s Antikythera Tablets

This collection of five puzzle tablets, each themed around different aspects of Greek mythology, create a beautiful and well-constructed narrative chain that feels brilliantly unique and immersive.

iDventure’s Cluebox Escape Rooms in a Box

These multi-stage puzzle boxes are completely self-contained. You need to explore every inch of its surface to find clues and tools to unlock each stage of the puzzle box and reveal further challenges!

The field has advanced so far in just last few years, so who knows where wooden puzzles will go in the future?

Have you seen any mind-blowing wooden brain teasers that you’d recommend, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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The Boswords Themeless League Returns Soon (Plus Some Puzzle Activism!)

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The Boswords summer crossword tournament has been a highlight of the puzzly calendar for years now, but during the pandemic, they also made a splash with their Fall and Spring Themeless Leagues.

And registration is now open for the Boswords 2021 Fall Themeless League!

If you’re unfamiliar, the Fall Themeless League is a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consists of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you complete the grid.

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Each week’s puzzle only has one grid, but there are three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth is the least challenging, Choppy is the middle ground, and Stormy is the most challenging. (When solvers register to participate, they’ll choose the difficulty level that suits them best.)

Sign up, and you get two months of puzzly fun running through October and November!

Plus, they’ve already announced a dynamite lineup of constructors for this season’s puzzles. Here’s the full list: Evan Birnholz, Kameron Austin Collins, Mollie Cowger, Debbie Ellerin, Leslie Rogers, Quiara Vasquez, Byron Walden, Nam Jin Yoon, and the team of Angela Olson Halsted and Doug Peterson.

There’s a terrific mix of established names and up-and-coming constructors there, and I expect the season to be a terrific exploration of the best of themeless crosswords.

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The project is once again being spearheaded by the dynamic duo of John Lieb and Andrew Kingsley, and Brad Wilber will be the puzzle editor.

It’s only $30 to enter as an individual participant ($40 for Pairs), but there’s also a student/discount level for participants who may find the $30 price tag too steep. (There are also puzzle packets from the previous Themeless Leagues available for $10 apiece.)

The Boswords Seasonal Themeless League events have not only opened my eyes to the creativity and skill required for themeless crosswords, but they’ve become some of my favorite parts of the puzzly calendar.

Be sure to click this link for more information, sample puzzles, instructional videos, and more.

And you can check out our thoughts on both the 2020 Fall Themeless League and the 2021 Spring Themeless League for more info as well!


Puzzling and charitable acts often intersect. This is true of the Boswords team with their wonderful discounted option for participants, as well as their donation to Boston-based charities from the proceeds of their summer tournament

And while we’re discussing the intersection of puzzling and doing good, it’s worth mentioning that there are numerous examples of crossword projects working hand-in-hand with social activism for the greater good.

Queer Qrosswords, Women of Letters, and the charity puzzle packets organized by our friends at Lone Shark Games are only a few examples. All of them provide puzzle bundles for you to enjoy if you show them that you’ve donated to worthwhile charities and other helpful groups and causes.

But there’s another one you might not have heard about: These Puzzles Fund Abortion.

This puzzle packet, originally created to raise funds for the Baltimore Abortion Fund, contains the work of over a dozen constructors, and serves as a marvelous incentive to donate to abortion funds all over the country.

Please click this link hosted by Just Gridding for more information. It’s a terrific way to do some good.


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5 Questions for Author and Crucinova Editor Lisa Bunker

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And we’re excited to welcome Lisa Bunker as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Lisa Bunker is a lifelong puzzle fan and a constructor whose work has appeared in Games Magazine, The New York Times, and Simon & Schuster publications. Of course, this is in addition to her work as an author, an activist, and a representative for the state of New Hampshire.

But now having returned to the world of puzzles, Lisa is probably best known these days as the creator and editor of Crucinova, one of the most ambitious and innovative puzzle outlets on the rise in the puzzleworld today. (You might have seen them included in the Boswords puzzle packet, on r/crossword, or on Twitter!)

Lisa was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Lisa Bunker

1. How did you get started with puzzles? Where did the idea for Crucinova originate?

Since infancy I’ve been fascinated by words, numbers, and the beautiful patterns that can be made with them. My childhood collection, still with me, was mechanical puzzles. My earliest memory of crosswords in particular is of becoming aware that my parents were interested in them, and then trying to make one for my father. I think this would have been when I was about eight.

It was a free-form vocabulary-style puzzle, and I recall my young brain delighting in discovering how you could cross two words at a shared letter, and then add more words and build something. By high school I had a hand-drawn grid in the back of a notebook that I would work on when I was bored in class, so by then I was figuring out how interlocking fill worked. I erased some squares so many times that I wore holes in the paper.

Crucinova arose out of several factors. One was my frustration at being unable to place unconventional puzzle ideas with any of the mainstream outlets. Also, on the solving side, my wife and I started doing the New York Times puzzle every day, and while we enjoyed it and still do, they did all seem to fall within narrow conventions with regard to themes, grid design, and cluing – the same conventions I remembered from twenty years ago.

I’ve always been interested in reinventing things, so I started thinking, surely there are other constructors with creative ideas they’re having trouble placing, and surely there are other solvers who would enjoy exciting new solving experiences. And when I found out that there was now a platform available that empowered anyone to offer online solving – PuzzleMe, from AmuseLabs – the last piece fell into place.

2. You have recently returned to constructing after a hiatus. How has the puzzle world changed over time? As you start to interact with the puzzle community at large again, what have you learned along the way?

I hesitate to set myself up as an expert on the Crossworld of yore, but obviously the Internet has changed everything. Back in 2006, the last time I was active nationally, most puzzles were still printed in daily publications rather than posted online, and submissions to the Times were still by snail mail. If there was online community around solving, I was not aware of it.

Now we have not only online solving from all the major outlets (including new ones like the Atlantic and the New Yorker), but also several indie subscription services and dozens of free personal constructor blogs, a thriving solver’s blog scene, indie tournaments, and abundant spaces on social media platforms for both constructors and fans to gather and share their enthusiasm. There are even Twitch TV channels where you can watch live solving, which I love. As an editor I find it so valuable to be able to witness someone solving a grid I edited.

What I’ve learned along the way is that the denizens of the Crossworld are truly lovely humans, generous, smart, funny, and kind. I’ve learned that there is a wonderful tribe to which I didn’t even know I belonged. What a delightful discovery!

3. Over the last few years, there has been a push for greater representation in crosswords for women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. And there has been some movement forward, particularly for women in constructing and in editorial positions. How do we keep this momentum going? What are some useful things that allies can do to assist?

One way, obviously, to keep the momentum going is by supporting and celebrating diverse creators. As a Rainbow Human myself (I identify as trans, non-binary, and queer), I took inspiration from The Inkubator‘s mission to feature the work of female-identified constructors and to include more diverse content in fill and clues.

I’m also impressed with Sid Sivakumar’s new Juggernaut puzzles, which specifically foreground South Asian culture and content, and by the Queer Qrosswords project, which has sought to raise money for LGBTQ+ causes. I think there’s a ton of room for more culture-specific work like this, created by people from the cultures in question.

Another thing we can all do to help is to continue to encourage more new diverse folk to get involved in constructing. I would estimate that three quarters of submissions to Crucinova still come from straight white men. All submissions are welcome…but what can we do to empower everyone else? How do we continue to deconstruct unspoken assumptions about who is and isn’t allowed to do this work? It’s an endless project in which we are all involved.

[The diabolical grid from Michael Buerke’s Quadripoint puzzle,
one of the free sample puzzles on the Crucinova website.]

4. What’s next for Lisa Bunker? What’s next for Crucinova?

Crosswords are actually not my main gig. I’m a writer first and foremost. At the moment I have two books out on submission, one a Young Adult fantasy with gender-revolutionary elements, the other a pointed political novel for adults about what we all went through together in the year 2020.

I also have an exciting new collaboration in the works about which I’m not yet at liberty to say anything specific, and I have ideas for three or four more books in the pipeline. So, my plan for the foreseeable future is to just keep writing, while also keeping Crucinova humming along, turning out an excellent puzzle each week.

As for Crucinova, it is still in its early stages, so for now the plan is to keep trying to grow the business. I’ve committed to paying my constructors, so I need a certain number of subscribers to break even, and so far we are some hundreds of memberships away from that goal.

Long term, if we manage to become self-sustaining, I can imagine putting out books of Crucinova grids, and possibly some special projects – spearheading the effort to get a crossword emoji, for example. Crucinova is a business, and I think it’s crucial for businesses to find a way to give back, so as soon as we have any profits to share, I’ll be wanting to find a way to share them.

5. What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow solvers, aspiring constructors/setters, and puzzle enthusiasts?

To solvers I would say, please consider paying for your puzzles. I know that many excellent constructors are offering their work for free, which is their right and which benefits us all, but at the same time, constructing is an art, and I think artists should be paid for their work.

My advice to constructors comes from what I’ve learned transitioning from constructor to editor. When you’re making puzzles, you are free to imagine all kinds of wild and amazing things. Coolness of concept can become an end in itself, and I totally get that. But when you are selecting and editing puzzles, you have to think about giving solvers a satisfying puzzle experience. I get so many submissions to which my response has to be, I’m amazed by what you’ve made here, but I can’t see how to turn it into something fun and fair for my subscribers. So the advice is, think of the solver.

To puzzle enthusiasts everywhere, of whatever stripe, I would simply say, I feel you. I share your geeky joy. Let’s keep doing what we love, and keep lifting each other up.


A huge thank you to Lisa for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for updates on all of her various projects, and be sure to check out Crucinova for some very cool, experimental, and outside-the-box puzzles. Whatever she and the Crucinova constructors cook up next, you know it’s going to be great.


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