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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5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Malaika Handa!

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!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the sixth edition of our series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome Malaika Handa as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

You have to be fairly ambitious to get into constructing crosswords, but Malaika Handa is setting the bar pretty high.

Less than a year into her cruciverbalism career, she’s already been published in outlets like Grids These Days, Matthew Stock’s Happy Little Puzzles, and the American Values Club Crossword.

But she’s best known as the creator and curator of 7xwords, an attempt to create a puzzle for every possible 7×7 crossword grid in a single year. If that’s not impressive enough, she launched 7xwords after having only constructed crosswords for a few months!

Malaika 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 Malaika Handa

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I started solving the New York Times puzzle about two years ago, when I got a job that had a commute. Eventually, we switched to working from home, but I still would solve the puzzle every morning. I didn’t realize regular people could make puzzles (“crossword constructor” felt akin to “astronaut” in terms of attainability) until a crossword blogger I liked refilled a corner as an example of how to make it better. That blew my mind! I started making mini puzzles in Excel, and then finally bought Crossfire around October 2020. Hand gridding is not for me, I’ve learned!

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle?

I really don’t think there’s such a thing as a canonical great puzzle– or if there is, I am frankly uninterested. Appealing to every single solver seems like an impossible task, and a good way to end up with a puzzle that’s a little flat and lifeless. I like to solve puzzles that are fun for me, Malaika Handa, to solve! (I hope that framing doesn’t seem selfish.) Puzzles with pop culture references that I know, computer / math stuff, make-up / fashion stuff, Twitter slang.

Adam Aaronson had a puzzle with SYNTACTIC SUGAR in it, and I plunked it in with no crossings. I solved the rest of the puzzle floating on a cloud. I love that term so much– when I was a teaching assistant in college (one of my favorite jobs I’ve had) I taught it to my students, and I think it is a lovely and evocative phrase. I bet a lot of people had never heard of SYNTACTIC SUGAR before, so maybe that was really tough for them, but that’s okay. We don’t have to have the same opinion on everything.

What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own? 

When I write puzzles, I like to use fill and clues that make me really excited, even if it’s things other people might not have heard of. (I think that’s called “voice,” by the way.) Once I clued ISLA as [Stephanie Perkins’ heroine] and all my test solvers said they had never heard of that reference. I kept it in the puzzle anyway.

Then my older sister solved it and when she got to that clue, she texted me with a zillion exclamation points and we freaked out over how good Stephanie Perkins’ books are. My number one advice to other constructors is: If a particular entry doesn’t make you excited, what is it doing in your puzzle? (By the way, sometimes the answer is “it’s holding in place three other entries that make me excited” and I think that’s fine.)

Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others?

I love hearing people’s favorite clues. Mine are Robyn Weintraub’s [Batting equipment?] for FAKE EYELASHES, and Mollie Cowger’s [“Thank God it’s Friday”?] for SHABBAT SHALOM, both of which I, no exaggeration, think about probably once a week. My favorite clues that I’ve written are always clues from my most recent puzzles. So right now there’s 50-Across from this puzzle ((Editor’s note: Great clue, but NSFW)), or [Wireless device] from this puzzle.

3. Your 7xwords puzzle blog has become something of a sensation in the puzzle world, shouted out by fellow constructors like Erica Wojcik, Kevin Trickey and May Huang. Where did the concept for 7xwords come from? What have you learned from the project so far? Will 7xwords reach its ambitious goal by week 52?

The site started with the discovery that there are 312 legal 7×7 crossword grids, which works out to a six-days-a-week midi puzzle. (I talk more about the 7xwords origin story and the math behind it in this episode of Fill Me In, at around 24:30. And if you’re curious about the code I used to build the grids, feel free to message me on Twitter!)

I’ve learned so much from this project, I don’t even know where to start. Stuff like “How to make an html page exist on the Internet instead of just locally on my computer” and “Having a separate email address for a project like this will make your life one hundred times easier.” I’ve also gotten a lot better at articulating why a particular clue or crossing feels like it needs improvement. That’s a skill that has come from copy editing *checks notes* about 150 midi puzzles. Back in January, I was operating mostly under vibes (“this feels like it could be better”) but now I can usually identify what needs fixing, and how to fix it.

As for whether we’ll reach the goal… I do have a constructor locked down for every single grid. So it feels very promising. I have also seen that final grid, with no black squares, and it exists. So, even more promising!

4. What’s next for Malaika Handa?

The most concrete thing coming up is my puzzle in the Boswords summer tournament! Registration will open on July 1. Join us!! It’s going to be a super fun time.

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

I would love for solvers to remember that just because they personally didn’t like a puzzle doesn’t (necessarily) mean the puzzle should not have been published. (Sometimes it does, of course. Like Woody Allen tribute puzzles– we can just stop with those.)

Also, when you’re solving, look up entries that you don’t know! It’s a game, not a test.


A huge thank you to Malaika for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for all of her crossword endeavors, and be sure to check out her 7xwords puzzle site for both the 7×7 puzzles and her other crosswords! Whatever she does next, I’m sure it will be brilliant!

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