Getting Started with Crosswords

We spend a lot of time talking about crosswords here on PuzzleNation Blog, and rightfully so.

For more than a century now, crosswords have been the standard-bearer for paper-and-pencil puzzles. From your local paper to The New York Times crossword, from online solving to puzzle apps like our very own Penny Dell Crosswords App, crosswords sit comfortably at the apex of the proverbial puzzle mountain, atop worthy also-rans like word searches, cryptograms, and Sudoku.

[Apparently Puzzle Mountain is actually a place. Who knew?]

But in talking about crosswords, it’s easy to forget that not everyone solves them. In fact, plenty of people find them intimidating, given the mix of trivia, wordplay, and tricky cluing that typify many crosswords these days, particularly in outlets like The New York Times, The LA Times, The Guardian, and more.

So today, I thought I’d offer some helpful resources to solvers just getting started with crosswords.

First off, if you need help filling in troublesome letter patterns, Onelook is an excellent resource. Not only can you search for words that fit various patterns, but you can narrow your searches according to cluing, look up definitions and synonyms, and even hunt down phrases and partial phrases.

Along the same lines, there are websites like Crossword Tracker that offer informal cluing help culled from online databases. For something more formal, there’s XWordInfo, an online database of entries and cluing that also serves as an archive of NYT puzzles you can search for a small fee.

The NYT Wordplay Blog chronicles each day’s puzzle, including insights into the theme, key entries, and more, plus they’ve begun amassing helpful articles about crossword solving. Not only are there sample puzzles to download and solve to get you started, but there are lists of opera terms, rivers, and sports names to know to make you a stronger solver.

And if British-style or cryptic crosswords are your puzzle of choice, look no further than The Guardian‘s Crossword Blog, which frequently posts about various cluing tricks employed by crafting cryptic puzzle setters. Their “Cryptic Crosswords for Beginners” series of posts has discussed all sorts of linguistic trickery, covering everything from the NATO alphabet to elementary chemistry.

For other variety puzzles, our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles offer sample puzzles and helpful solving tips for many of the puzzles in their magazines. For example, you can find a sample Kakuro or Cross Sums puzzle on the page for their Dell Collector’s Series Cross Sums puzzle book, as well as a How to Solve PDF.

Is there a particular puzzle that troubles you, or one you find too intimidating to tackle, fellow puzzlers? If so, let us know! We can either point you toward a solving resource or tackle the puzzle ourselves in a future post to provide helpful solving tips!


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Cracking the GCHQ Christmas Card!

As you may recall, my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, a few months ago, a government organization in England called the GCHQ — Government Communications Headquarters — released a puzzly Christmas card designed to tax even the savviest puzzle solvers.

They’ve finally released the answers to this mind-blowing series of puzzles, and I’d like to go over some of them with you. Partly to marvel at the puzzle wizardry necessary to solve this challenging holiday gift, and partly to gloat about the parts I managed to solve.

So let’s get to it!


Part 1 was a logic art puzzle where you have to deduce where to place black squares on an open grid in order to form a picture.

Each column and row has a series of numbers in it. These numbers represent runs of black squares in a row, so a 1 means there’s one black square followed by a blank square on either side and a 7 means 7 black squares together with a blank square on either side.

This is mostly a deduction puzzle — figuring out how to place all the strings of black squares with white spaces between them within the space allotted — but no image immediately emerged, which was frustrating. Once the three corner squares started to form though, I realized the answer was a QR code, and the puzzle started to come together nicely.


Part 2 was a series of six multiple-choice brain teasers. I’ll give you the first three questions, along with answers.

Q1. Which of these is not the odd one out?

A. STARLET
B. SONNET
C. SAFFRON
D. SHALLOT
E. TORRENT
F. SUGGEST

Now, if you stare at a list of words long enough, you can form your own patterns easily. Here’s the rationale the GCHQ used to eliminate the odd ones out:

STARLET is an odd one out because it does not contain a double letter.
SONNET is an odd one out because it has 6 letters rather than 7.
SAFFRON is an odd one out because it ends in N rather than T.
TORRENT is an odd one out because it starts with T rather than S.
SUGGEST is an odd one out because it is a verb rather than a noun.

SHALLOT is our answer.

Q2. What comes after GREEN, RED, BROWN, RED, BLUE, -, YELLOW, PINK?
A. RED
B. YELLOW
C. GREEN
D. BROWN
E. BLUE
F. PINK

After playing around with some associative patterns for a while, I realized that somehow these colors must equate to numbers. First I tried word lengths, but 5-3-5-3-4-___-6-4 didn’t make any sense to me. But then, it hit me: another time where colors and numbers mix.

Pool balls. Of course, the colors and numbers didn’t match, because this is a British puzzle, and they don’t play pool, they play snooker.

So the colored balls in snooker become the numbers 3, 1, 4, 1, 5, -, 2, 6. The numbers of Pi. And now the blank makes sense, because Pi reads 3.1415926, and there’s no 9 ball in snooker.

So the next number in the chain is 5, and 5 is the color BLUE.

Q3. Which is the odd one out?
A. MATURE
B. LOVE
C. WILDE
D. BUCKET
E. BECKHAM
F. SHAKA

This one came pretty quickly to me, as the names Oscar Wilde and Charlie Bucket leapt out. And if you follow the phonetic alphabet, you also get Victor Mature, Romeo Beckham, and Shaka Zulu. (I didn’t get Mike Love, however.)

Since Shaka Zulu was the only one where the phonetic alphabet word was the surname, not the first name, SHAKA is the odd one out.

(The other three questions included an encryption puzzle, a number pattern (or progressions puzzle), and a single-letter puzzle.)

Granted, since you could retake this part as many times as you wanted, you could luck your way through or brute force the game by trying every permutation. But managing to solve most of them made this part go much faster.


Part 3 consisted of word puzzles, and was easily my favorite section, because it played to some strengths of mine.

A. Complete the sequence:

Buck, Cod, Dahlia, Rook, Cuckoo, Rail, Haddock, ?

This sequence is a palindrome, so the missing word is CUB.

B. Sum:

pest + √(unfixed – riots) = ?

This one is a little more involved. To complete the formula, you need to figure out what numbers the words represent. And each word is an anagram of a French number. Which gives you:

sept + √(dix-neuf – trois) = ?

Dix-neuf is nineteen and trois is three, so that’s sixteen beneath a square root sign, which equals four. And sept (seven) plus four is eleven.

The French word for eleven is onze, and ZONE is the only anagram word that fits.

C. Samuel says: if agony is the opposite of denial, and witty is the opposite of tepid, then what is the opposite of smart?

This is a terrific brain teaser, because at first blush, it reads like nonsense, until suddenly it clicks. Samuel is Samuel Morse, so you need to use Morse Code to solve this one. I translated “agony” and tried reversing the pattern of dots and dashes, but that didn’t work.

As it turns out, you need to swap the dots and dashes, and that’s what makes “denial” read out. This also worked with “witty” and “tepid,” so when I tried it with “smart,” the opposite was OFTEN.

D. The answers to the following cryptic crossword clues are all words of the same length. We have provided the first four clues only. What is the seventh and last answer?

1. Withdraw as sailors hold festive sing-song
2. It receives a worker and returns a queen
3. Try and sing medley of violin parts
4. Fit for capture
5.
6.
7. ?

Now, I’m not a strong cryptic crossword solver, so this part took FOREVER. Let’s work through it one clue at a time.

1. Withdraw as sailors hold festive sing-song

The word WASSAIL both reads out in “withdraw as sailors hold” and means “festive sing-song.”

2. It receives a worker and returns a queen

The word ANTENNA both “receives” and is formed by “a worker” (ANT) and “returns a queen” (ANNE, reading backward).

3. Try and sing medley of violin parts

The word STRINGY is both an anagram of “try” and “sing” and a violin part (STRING).

4. Fit for capture

The word SEIZURE means both “fit” and “capture.”

Those four answers read out like this:

WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE

And with three more answers to go, it seemed only natural that three more seven-letter answers were forthcoming. Plus, when you read the words spelling out downward, you notice that the first four letters of WASSAIL, ANTENNA, STRINGY, and SEIZURE were spelling out.

If you follow that thought, you end up with the start of a 7×7 word square:

 WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE
ANNU___
INGR___
LAYE___

And the only seven-letter word starting with INGR that I could think of was INGRATE.

WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE
ANNU_A_
INGRATE
LAYE_E_

And if the last word is LAYERED…

WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE
ANNU_AR
INGRATE
LAYERED

Then the missing word must be ANNULAR. The original question asked for the last word though, so our answer is LAYERED.


This brings us to Part 4, Number Puzzles, where I must confess that I finally tapped out, because I could only figure out the first of the three progressions involved.

Fill in the missing numbers.

A. 2, 4, 8, 1, 3, 6, 18, 26, ?, 12, 24, 49, 89, 134, 378, 656, 117, 224, 548, 1456, 2912, 4934, 8868, 1771, 3543, …

B. -101250000, -1728000, -4900, 360, 675, 200, ?, …

C. 321, 444, 675, 680, 370, 268, 949, 206, 851, ?, …

In the first one, you’re simply multiplying by 2 as you go.

2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, and so on.

But you begin to exclude every other number as you move into double-digits, triple-digits, quadruple-digits, and beyond.

2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, and so on.

So the answer, 512, becomes the real answer, 52.

But, as I said, I couldn’t crack the other two, and I’m already exhausted just running through these four sections!

And, based on the answers they released recently, Part 5 only got more mindbending from there.

As a matter of fact, not a single entrant managed to get every answer in Part 5 correct. Prizes were awarded to the three people who came closest however, and it turns out a staggering 30,000+ people made it to Part 5. Color me impressed!

This was, without a doubt, the most challenging puzzle suite I have ever seen, and I offer heartfelt kudos to anyone in the PuzzleNation Blog readership who even attempted it!

You’re welcome to try it out for yourself, though. I highly recommend using this link from The Telegraph, which allows you to skip to the next part if you get stumped.


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PuzzleNation wordplay = Now radiant puzzle ploy

[Alternate anagrams include “Puzzle patron, now daily” and “Plow into any rad puzzle.”]

Anagrams are a cornerstone of modern pen-and-paper puzzling.

They make frequent appearances in cryptic (or British-style) crossword clues, and many puzzles and puzzle games — from Anagram Magic Square and Text Twist to Secret Word and Bananagrams — rely heavily on anagrams as an integral part of the solve.

I’ve written about them several times in the past, but for the uninitiated, an anagram is a reordering of the letters in a word to form a new word or phrase. PEALS anagrams into LEAPS, PALES, LAPSE, SEPAL, and PLEAS.

As the old joke goes, “stifle” is an anagram of itself.

But the best anagrams rearrange the letters in a word into something related to that word. Fans of The Simpsons may recall that Alec Guinness anagrams into “genuine class.”

There are numerous examples of great anagrams all over the Internet. Here are a few classics:

  • The eyes = they see
  • Clint Eastwood = Old West action
  • Eleven plus two = Twelve plus one
  • Dormitory = Dirty room
  • A decimal point = I’m a dot in place
  • A gentleman = Elegant man

One of the best online anagram programs out there is hosted by wordsmith.org, and at the top of their page, they remind us that “internet anagram server” anagrams into “I, rearrangement servant.”

You can find some unexpected surprises when you play with anagrams. Did you know that William Shakespeare anagrams into both “I am a weakish speller” and “I’ll make a wise phrase”?

There are entire forums online dedicated to terrific anagrams, some fiendishly clever, others impressively insightful. (Of course, sometimes crafty punctuation makes all the difference.)

Madame Curie becomes “Me? Radium Ace.”

Monty Python’s Flying Circus becomes “Strongly psychotic, I’m funny.”

The possibilities seem endless when you delve into longer phrases. I’m going to close out this tribute to anagrams with two of the most amazing ones I’ve encountered during my time as a puzzler.

The first involves the iconic line as humanity took its first steps onto the surface of the Moon:

Neil Armstrong: That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind

anagrams into…

Thin man ran; makes (a) large stride, left planet, pins flag on moon! On to Mars!

[I’ve included both what Neil said and what was broadcast back to Earth. Hence, the A in parentheses in both versions.]

The second takes one of Shakespeare’s best known lines and offers some engagingly meta commentary on the play itself:

To be or not to be, that is the question, whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…

anagrams into…

In one of the Bard’s best-thought-of-tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten.

So whether you’re playing Scrabble or tackling David L. Hoyt‘s Jumble, anagramming is a worthwhile tool that belongs in every puzzler’s skillset.

Do you have any favorite anagrams, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let me know! I’d love to see them!

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A puzzler, by any other name…

Fake names, stage names, noms de plume… they’re more common than you might think. Authors, musicians, actors, and performers of all sorts can take on new identities, either to make themselves more marketable, to build a brand, or simply to create a public persona in order to keep their private lives separate.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, crossword constructors in the UK (known as setters) also employ pseudonyms, literally making a name for themselves as they create challenging cryptic crosswords for their solving audience.

Evocative names like Araucaria, Gordius, Crucible, Otterden, Anax, Charybdis, Tramp, Morph, Paul, Enigmatist, Hypnos, Phi, Nutmeg, Shed, Arachne, and Qaos grace the puzzles in England’s The Guardian newspaper.

That made me wonder… if American constructors were given the same opportunity, what UK-style names would they choose?

So, I reached out to some of my fellow puzzlers, and as I compiled their replies, some curious patterns emerged. I thought I’d share their responses with the PuzzleNation readership.

Whereas several UK setters have employed the names of former members of the Inquisition and other nasty sorts — like Torquemada, Ximenes, and Azed (which is Deza backwards) — to highlight the torturous challenges solvers could expect, some of their American counterparts prefer to highlight the playful, tricky aspect of constructing.

Constructor Robin Stears would publish under the name Loki or Anansi (citing two famous mythological tricksters), while meta-puzzle master Matt Gaffney would ply his craft under the name Puck. (He actually played Puck in sixth grade in a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

[Loki, as played by Tom Hiddleston in the
Marvel cinematic universe, seems to approve…]

Other constructors embraced wordplay involving their names, like Brendan Emmett Quigley who chose Beck (his initials pronounced phonetically) or Penny Press variety editor Cathy Quinn, who chose the nom de plume Sequin (for C. Quinn).

Still others revealed their feelings about those curious words that are only found in crosswords. Variety editor Paula Curry opted for the name Ese-Averse to show her disdain for crosswordese, while puzzle historian and constructor David Steinberg selected Osier, both for its crosswordese appeal and its homophone pronunciation (OCR, representing the Orange County Register, for whom David has served as crossword editor for years).

[This crossword features several infamous crosswordese
clues as entries. Do you recognize them all?

Naturally, my fellow puzzlers at Penny Press had some of my favorite puzzly stage names. Will Shortz’s WordPlay editor Leandro Galban sets himself firmly against the heroic solver by choosing Grendel, while variety editor Andrew Haynes opted for either Bob the Settler or The Flying Penguin. (He feels that “the” adds a certain arrogance to the pseudonym, and Bob has that delightfully bland palindromic quality.)

Editor Ariane Lewis would be known simply as Dub, leaving interpretation up to the solvers, while editor Maria Peavy offered a plethora of possible pennames, including Pushkin, Excelsior, Kutuzov (in the spirit of Torquemada), Sphinx (another famous riddler) or Grail.

Or you could adopt a full false moniker like variety editor Keith Yarbrough did, and go by Rufus T. Firefly.

As for me, I haven’t decided if I want something esoteric like Syzygy (alluding to the rare alignment of both planets and quality crossword grids), something obscure and wordnerdy like Snurp or Timmynoggy or Interrobang, or something meaningless but fun to say aloud, like Skylark or Guava.

So watch out, UK setters, because one of these days, you might see names like Sequin or Osier or The Flying Penguin baffling your solvers with cryptic crossword cleverness.

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