Two Puzzly Events: One Soon, One Today!

If you’re looking for puzzly events in the very near future to keep your solving skills sharp, then this is the post for you.

After all, the 41st annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is only six weeks away! Yup, on March 23rd to the 25th, puzzlers shall descend on the Stamford Marriott Hotel once again to put their puzzly skills to the test in what is lovingly known as “the Nerd Olympics.”

I’ve attended the event for several years now, and it is always one of the highlights of the puzzle year. The tournament itself takes place over two days, with six puzzles to solve on Saturday, followed by one on Sunday. Then the top three finishers in the A, B, and C brackets solve the championship puzzle on whiteboards in front of the audience.

On Friday and Saturday night, there are puzzle events, demonstrations, and panels by top puzzlers and figures in the puzzle world as well.

It’s a terrific way to not only see how you’d fare in a tournament setting, but also to meet many of your fellow puzzlers, including prominent constructors and previous tournament winners!

(Click here to read our rundown of last year’s event, and click here to visit the Facebook page for attendees and new solvers to share info and learn more about the event!)

But maybe March is too far away for you. What if you’re looking for a puzzly challenge right now?

Well then, The World Puzzle Federation has you covered, because The WPF Puzzle Grand Prix returns today!

With similar rules to the Sudoku Grand Prix (which kicked off last month), the Puzzle Grand Prix consists of multiple rounds over the course of the year, spanning all types of puzzles, including kakuro, deduction puzzles, and more.

And although only members of the WPF are active competitors for those rankings, you can still solve each round’s puzzles and see how you fare against the best in the world!

The Turkish team have prepared the puzzles for Round 1, which will be available from noon on February 9, 2018 (GMT + 1 hour) to 11:59 PM on February 12, 2018 (GMT + 1 hour).

So what do you say, PuzzleNationers? Do you accept the challenge of the Puzzle Grand Prix?

Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you!


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The Robots Are Here and They Can Spell

[Image courtesy of World of Weird Things.]

I warned you, fellow puzzlers. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.

The robots are coming, and they want our puzzles and games.

Let’s look at the hit list:

  • Deep Blue defeated Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov under standard chess tournament time constraints
  • IBM’s supercomputer Watson bested previous Jeopardy! champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings to nab a million-dollar prize
  • An AI program called DeepMind taught itself to play several Atari games with superhuman proficiency
  • There are several robots constructed out of LEGOs that solve Rubik’s Cubes in seconds flat
  • Dr. Fill, the crossword-solving computer program, competes at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and in a matter of five years, it has jumped from 141st place in the 2012 tournament to 11th place in the 2017 tournament
  • Just last year, an AI developed by Google, AlphaGo (a product of DeepMind), twice defeated Ke Jie, the 19-year-old Go tournament champion ranked number one in the world

And Scrabble fans, you’re the next ones in the crosshairs of the machines.

During last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the Industrial Technology Research Institute out of Taiwan debuted the IVS Robot — aka The Intelligent Vision System for Companion Robots — a machine capable of defeating human competitors at Scrabble.

[Image courtesy of ABC News.]

Instead of tiles and a standard Scrabble board, the IVS reads letter cubes (similar to a child’s alphabet blocks) played on a slightly larger gameboard. But time limits for play and standard rules still apply.

From an article on Engadget:

It’s hard not to be impressed by all the moving parts here. For one, the robot has to learn and understand the rules of the game and the best strategies for winning. It also needs to be able to see and recognize the game pieces and the spots on the board. That means it can read the letters on the cubes and identify the double-letter and triple-word score spots.

And, last but not least, it needs the dexterity to place the pieces on the board and not disturb the existing letters — which is especially difficult when you’re laying down two words next to each other to rack up those two-letter combos.

A quick Google search confirms that the robot bested practically every reporter, tech-savvy or otherwise, that crossed its path.

In the video below, North American Scrabble champion Will Anderson teams up with reporter Lexy Savvides to battle the robot, but a technical error prevents the game from getting very far:

Still, you can see the potential here. I’m sure it won’t be long before the IVS Robot is making appearances at Scrabble tournaments, attempting to establish machine dominance over another puzzly activity.

Stay strong, fellow puzzlers.


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The PN Blog 2017 Countdown!

It’s one of the final blog posts of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2017 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


#10 Farewell, David

I don’t mean to start off this countdown on a sad note by mentioning the loss of fellow puzzler and Penny Dell colleague David Lindsey. But it was an incredibly rewarding experience to talk to those who knew him better than I did, and put together a memorial piece in his honor. I learned so much, and it was a valuable part of the healing process for all of us. I had two different opportunities to get to know David, and that’s a rare gift.

#9 The Puzzle of the Bard

Puzzle history, codes, and wordplay are three common topics around here. So when I found a story that neatly covers all three, I simply couldn’t resist. Although this one is more conspiracy theory than verifiable puzzle history, it was great fun to do a deep dive into the ongoing debate surrounding Shakespeare’s identity and put a puzzly spin on the subject. The research alone made this one worthwhile.

#8 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#7 Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords

Sadly, crosswords in general, and New York Times crosswords in particular, have a reputation for being stodgy, steeped in arcane vocabulary, obscure facts, and antiquated cultural references. As part of the ever-evolving narrative surrounding cultural sensitivity — not just ethnic, but in terms of gender and sexuality as well — it’s important to do more than acknowledge the debate. You have to participate in it.

#6 Puzzles in Unexpected Places

One was tucked away on a university website. Another sat in plain sight on a tombstone. The third came to light in a music fan’s collection. What did all three have in common? They represented a simple fact: puzzles are everywhere, a part of the cultural fabric in innumerable ways. I’m cheating a bit by mentioning three posts here, but they all fit the pattern. And it’s so much fun to discover puzzles in unexpected places.

#5 Puzzles for Pets

April Fools Day pranks are an Internet tradition at this point. Some websites go all out in celebrating the holiday. (Heck, ThinkGeek has started using the holiday to tease the public’s interest level in “fake” products, going on to actually release some of those April Fools pranks as real items later in the year!)

So when the idea was floated for PuzzleNation to get in on the pranking fun, I couldn’t resist. The result — Puzzles for Pets — was as layered as it was silly, complete with fake quotes, splash pages, and more. I even got my own dog, Bailey, in on the gag.

#4 Design Your Own Escape Room

Bringing a puzzle-solving mindset into other social activities has always been a passion of mine. I’ve written in previous blog posts about using my puzzly experiences in designing murder mystery dinners and other events. This year, I had the opportunity to try my hand at designing an escape room-style experience for a friend’s birthday, and sharing some of what I learned with you was a genuine treat.

#3 ACPT, New York Toy Fair, and more

There are few things better than spending time with fellow puzzlers and gamers, and we got to do a lot of that this year. Whether it was supporting new creators and exploring established companies at New York Toy Fair or cheering on my fellow puzzlers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, getting out and talking shop with other creators is invigorating and encouraging. It really helps solidify the spirit of community that comes with being puzzly.

#2 Puzzle History

I mentioned puzzle history as a frequent blog post topic in #9, but recent revelations by government agencies in both the United States and Great Britain have allowed puzzlers greater access than ever before to the history of codebreaking over the last century or so.

In fact, so much information has come to light that I was able to do a three-part series on the history of the NSA and American codebreaking post-World War II. This was a labor of love that took weeks to put together, and I think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done for the blog.

#1 Daily POP Crosswords

There’s nothing more exciting than getting to announce the launch of a product that has been months or years in the making, so picking #1 was a no-brainer for me. It had to be the announcement of Daily POP Crosswords.

But it’s not just the app, it’s everything behind the app. I’ve had the opportunity to introduce you to several of the terrific constructors we’ve recruited to make the puzzles as fresh and engaging as they can possibly be, and you’ll get to meet a few more in the weeks to come.

It may sound self-serving or schlocky to talk about our flagship products as #1 in the countdown, but it’s something that we’re all extremely proud of, something that we’re constantly working to improve, because we want to make our apps the absolute best they can be for the PuzzleNation audience. That’s what you deserve.

And it’s part of the evolution of PuzzleNation and PN Blog. Even as we work to ensure our current products are the best they can be, we’re always looking ahead to what’s next, what’s on the horizon, what’s to come.

Thanks for spending 2017 with us, through puzzle scandals and proposals, through forts and festivities, through doomsday prepping and daily delights. We’ll see you in 2018.


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PuzzleNation Blog Looks Back on 2017!

2017 is quickly coming to a close, and as I look back on an eventful year in the world of puzzles and games, I’m incredibly proud of the contributions both PuzzleNation Blog and PuzzleNation made to the puzzle community as a whole.

Over the last year, we explored board games and card games, strategy games and trivia games, dice games and tile games, do-it-yourself puzzlers and pen-and-paper classics. We met game designers, constructors, artists, and creative types of all kinds.

We unraveled math puzzles and tackled the Crossword from Hell. We accepted the challenge of diabolical brain teasers, optical illusions, Internet memes, and more, even pondering our place in the world of puzzles as electronic solvers like Dr. Fill and AlphaGo rise in capability.

We delved into puzzle history with posts about the legacy of female codebreakers in World War II, game dice from centuries ago, theories about Shakespeare’s secret codes, and the long history of cryptography and the NSA. We brought to light valuable examples of puzzles in art, popular culture, famous quotations, and even the natural world as we pondered whether bees are verifiable problem-solvers like crows and octopuses.

We spread the word about numerous worthwhile Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns, watching as the puzzle/game renaissance continued to amaze and surprise us with innovative new ways to play and solve. We shared worthy causes like Puzzles for Progress, as well as amazing projects like new escape rooms, dazzling corn mazes, and the ongoing Kubrick’s Game interactive experience.

We cheered the 75th anniversary of the New York Times Crossword, and chronicled the many celebrations that marked the occasion, from guest crossword constructors like Bill Clinton and Lisa Loeb to a puzzle-centric cruise across the Atlantic!

We also mourned as friends and fellow puzzlers passed on. We said goodbye to David Lindsey and Raymond Smullyan, two underappreciated giants of the field. The pun-fueled show @midnight this year, which inspired our monthly hashtag game, also closed up shop, sadly.

We celebrated International TableTop Day, made puzzly bouquets in honor of International Puzzle Day, marveled at the records broken at the Rubik’s Cube World Championship, attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and New York Toy Fair, and dove deep into an ever-expanding litany of puzzle events like the Indie 500, BosWords, Lollapuzzoola 10, and Crosswords LA.

We found puzzly ways to celebrate everything from Pi Day, the Super Bowl, and Star Wars Day to Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and we were happy to share so many remarkable puzzly landmark moments with you. We even discovered Puzzle Mountain!

It’s been both a pleasure and a privilege to explore the world of puzzles and games with you, my fellow puzzle lovers and PuzzleNationers. We marked five years of PuzzleNation Blog this year, I recently penned my 800th blog post, and I’m more excited to write for you now than I was when I started.

And honestly, that’s just the blog. PuzzleNation’s good fortune, hard work, and accomplishments in 2017 went well beyond that.

Every month, we delivered quality content for the Penny Dell Crosswords App. From monthly deluxe sets and bonus boxes to Dell Collection sets and holiday bundles, dozens upon dozens of topnotch puzzles wended their way to our loyal and enthusiastic solvers.

And just last month, we launched our newest puzzly endeavor — Daily POP Crosswords — bringing you fresh, up-to-date cluing and relatable themes in world-class puzzles created by some of the industry’s best constructors! (Many of whom you’ve gotten to know in our recent interview series, Meet the Daily POP Crosswords Constructors!)

But whether we’re talking about the Penny Dell Crosswords App or Daily POP Crosswords, I’m proud to say that every single puzzle represents our high standards of quality puzzle content crafted for solvers and PuzzleNationers.

And your response has been fantastic! Daily POP Crosswords is thriving, the blog has over 2200 followers, and with our audience on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms continuing to grow, the enthusiasm of the PuzzleNation readership is both humbling and very encouraging.

2017 was our most ambitious, most exciting, and most creatively fulfilling year to date, and the coming year promises to be even brighter.

Thank you for your support, your interest, and your feedback, PuzzleNationers. The new year looms large, and we look forward to seeing you in 2018!


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Delving into the BosWords puzzles!

I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hands at the puzzles from the BosWords Crossword Tournament earlier this month. Given the talent involved, I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

So let’s put them under the microscope and see what’s what!


Homeroom: Circles of Friends by John Lieb

The unscored opening puzzle in this year’s tournament was a warm-up to get everyone in the mood to solve. Its theme was simple and accessible: The circled letters in each long answer — the first two letters and the last two letters — spelled a synonym for “friend” (DU and DE in DUAL ACTION BLADE).

Interesting grid entries included OLD ELI, TREVOR NOAH, LEMUR, and PONY UP, and my favorite clues were “One taken for a ride” for SAP and “Luke Skywalker saw two from Tatooine” for SUNS.

Puzzle 1: Summer Vacation by Laura Braunstein

A very smooth, very fair solving experience, Puzzle 1 is exactly what the first scored puzzle of a tournament should be. It sets the tone, the difficulty, and whets your appetite for more. The clever use of SCHOOL’S OUT as a revealer for the game — phrases where SCHOOL has been swapped for OUT, as in SECONDARY OUT — even has the pleasant side effect of getting the song stuck in your head.

Interesting grid entries included TROTSKY, CAT SCAN, and X FACTOR, and my favorite clues were “‘Ghostbusters’ vehicle, before it was Ecto-1″ for HEARSE and “They might get smashed at parties” for PINATA.


I have no notes for Puzzle 2, because it wasn’t included in my Solve at Home packet. The puzzle, constructed by Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb, was used in the tournament with Will Shortz’s permission (as it was already earmarked for The New York Times).

The puzzle was published on Wednesday, August 16, if you’re interested.


Puzzle 3: Trade Schools by Brendan Emmett Quigley

It appears that Puzzle 3 will be BosWords’s version of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament’s infamous Puzzle 5, as this was the toughest themed puzzle in the set. However, as you’d expect from a Quigley puzzle, there was lots of intriguing fill, and a diabolical theme: long phrases that included the name of a college, but the college was swapped with the name of another college in another themed entry.

For instance, the answer THIN WHITE RICE would normally read THIN WHITE DUKE, but Duke was transferred to another line, where instead of BROWN-EYED GIRL, the answer was DUKE-EYED GIRL. All four theme entries had the name of a different college substituted in for the college that would normally appear in that phrase.

I confess, it took me a while to unravel just how this theme worked. Factor in the longer fill entries crossing those themed entries, and you’ve got a tough, topnotch puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included MALFOYS, DAME EDNA, CASSINI, DEEP FRYER, and EPONYM, and my favorite clues were “Egg foo yung, essentially” for OMELET and “It may be used by Colonel Mustard” for ROPE.

Puzzle 4: Why You Failed English by Joon Pahk

This puzzle, which played on those books we were all required to read in school, was lighter than Puzzle 3, but still kept solvers on their toes with engaging fill. (Likening “Of Mice and Men” to “Stuart Little” is hilariously audacious.)

Interesting grid entries included MONSANTO, FAN MAIL, BANFF, and HOHOS, and my favorite clues were “Paper tigers, perhaps” for ORIGAMI and “Long line at a wedding reception?” for CONGA.

Tiebreaker by Andrew Kingsley

This themeless puzzle — intended to settle any ties going into the final — had some impressively long entries crossing at the corners, making for a great solve overall.

Interesting grid entries included CRAPSHOOT, RECHERCHE, PLOT TWIST, EVANESCE, POKEMON, and ARIGATO, and my favorite clues were “Paris was too much for him” for ACHILLES and “Set back?” for SCENERY.

Championship: Final Exam by David Quarfoot

A themeless challenging enough to rival Quigley’s themed Puzzle 3, this tournament closer was well constructed and engaging, really testing solvers’ creativity, wordplay, and vocabulary. I don’t think I would have completed it in the time allotted, let alone fast enough to do well against fellow solvers.

Interesting grid entries included BINGE WATCH, IN LALALAND, DADBOD, TRUMP U, and TEA CADDY, and my favorite clues were “Eventful activities?” for DECATHLONS, “Common note designee” for SELF, and “Floral drawing?” for NECTAR.

There was also a fun, themed bonus puzzle, You’ll Have to Be There by John Lieb, included for At Home solvers, which serves as either a nice closer to the day’s solving or a second warm-up puzzle.


Overall, I was fairly impressed by the puzzles offered at BosWords. They weren’t as freewheeling as the ones typically offered at The Indie 500 or Lollapuzzoola. But they were a little bit easier than the offerings at The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which makes this a wonderful intermediate-difficulty event to introduce new solvers to a timed, tournament environment.

It seems like the right mix of challenge and creativity for solvers accustomed to NYT-style solving, and I think the constructors and organizers did one heck of a job putting together the tournament.

Here’s hoping next year’s BosWords is an even greater success.


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Puzzle(r)s in Pop Culture: Superhuman

Superhuman is a television show on FOX that combines elements of game shows and talent shows, wherein people with exceptional mental abilities are tested on the air, competing for a $50,000 grand prize.

The show has featured exhibitions of memorization, visual acuity, math and puzzling skills, and more, offering people the rare opportunity to show off the mind’s amazing capabilities. (It also bucks the trend of modern reality competition shows by not having the contestants judged by a smug British man.)

Actor Kal Penn hosts the show, and the three panelists who comment on performances and help choose the winner are boxer Mike Tyson, singer Christina Milian, and neuroscientist Dr. Rahul Jandial.

And on last week’s episode, “All Parts Extraordinary,” a face familiar to puzzlers and crossword fans appeared on the show: Tyler Hinman.

The former 5-time American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champion was pitted against four other contestants with impressive mental abilities.

Chris Authement, a math whiz, was tasked with adding up all the pips on giant dominoes as they fell, correctly counting 535 pips in the time allotted.

Tatiana Marquardt, a mother of three with impressive memory recall, was tasked with memorizing five days of scheduling for three different kids. Each day had four activities. The judges then randomly chose a child and a day of the week, and she had to pack their backpacks for each day’s agenda. And she nailed all three days.

Dave Farrow, a computer scientist with a focus on robots, memorized a grid of 108 blue and red balloons (laid out in an 18×6 grid). Then, based on the judge’s choices, he was asked to recall the color of a particular balloon, the pattern of a particular column of balloons, and finally, a particular row of balloons. Recited backwards. And he did so.

Luke Salava, a lawyer with a knack for facial recognition, had to learn the faces of 100 members of the studio audience. Then, three of those people were removed, and that entire section of the audience was reshuffled. His task was to identify the three new people in the crowd. And he did so with ease.

When it was Tyler’s turn to show off his puzzly skills, he had a serious challenge ahead of him.

This grid of crisscrossing 5-letter words can only be completed with the letters in a 9-letter word provided alongside the grid. But Tyler had five of these grids to solve, and he wasn’t told which of the five 9-letter words went with which grid.

Oh, and he only had 3 minutes and 30 seconds in which to solve all five grids.

He went right up to the wire, but solved all five grids, showing off not only his deductive reasoning, but his vast vocabulary and his speed-solving technique, honed by years of crossword solving and tournament competition.

After all five competitors had their time to shine, the judges narrowed the field to three: Chris, Dave, and Tatiana. And the audience voted electronically for the winner: Dave Farrow, master of balloons.

Honestly, I thought both the judges and the audience picked wrong. Tyler was the only one who really had to work out his technique in front of the crowd, showing missteps and false paths that he corrected on the fly.

He actually talked through the process as he solved, which to me was more engaging and interesting.

Don’t get me wrong, the acts of memorization were very impressive, but only Tyler and math whiz Chris were really under a time limit. (Tyler’s was literal, while Chris’s was kinetic, since the dominoes were toppling.)

Also, I can’t believe that Luke didn’t at least make the top three, let alone win. 100 faces to memorize and reshuffle in your head? That’s mind-boggling to me.

Alas, such is the flying fickle finger of fate. Still, it was a strong showing for a world-class puzzler, an exhibition of puzzly talent that did not fail to impress.


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