Favorite Clues from CTFYC!

ctfccouch

Last week I sang the praises of the Crossword Tournament From Your Couch event, and rightfully so. The entire enterprise was delightful, and the puzzles were tricky and engaging in equal measure.

But I neglected to give the cluing their proper due, as many of the clever themes in CTFYC were bolstered by great cluing (and, occasionally, truly diabolical cluing).

What do I mean by that? Well, let’s look at a clue from the third tournament puzzle, Patrick Blindauer’s “Look Up.” This puzzle featured a clue that had numerous solvers asking for help upon returning to the livestream chat after solving.

The clue? “Response to teens, perhaps?”

The answer? BRR.

I confess, this one had me flummoxed as well. My initial answer was BRO, but that just didn’t seem to work with the crossings in that lower-left corner. Trusting the down entries more than this one, I left BRR in without getting the clue.

puzzle3grid

Of course, once I no longer had a timer lurking in my forebrain and a few seconds to think, I got the wordplay for “teens” — think temperature and not age — and the clue made total sense.

But given the response of some of the other solvers, I suspect this was the slipperiest clue of the entire tournament.

Which should come as no surprise given Blindauer’s pedigree as a constructor. That puzzle alone had a few more clever clues, including “Caught stealing, e.g.” for OUT and the much saltier “Smothers brother who isn’t a dick” for TOM.

As you can tell, I love a clue with some misdirection to it.

Robyn Weintraub’s warm-up puzzle “Get the Pillows Ready” had some notable examples. If you saw “Took the wrong way?” would you come up with STOLE? She clued TEETH with “Location of some crowns” and spruced up a classic crossword entry, NTH, with the clue “Advanced degree for a mathematician?”

Great stuff all around.

Problem-solving-crossword

But it’s not just tricky clues that pique my interest. The other warm-up puzzle, “Put Your Feet Up,” constructed by Rachel Fabi, had a few different styles of clue that caught my eye.

For instance, you can offer multiple clues or multiple examples for the same clue, which can lead to enjoyable wordplay. The clue “Hot thing to drink or spill” for TEA mixes a classic clue with a more updated, slangy use, making for a more interesting clue overall.

I’m also a sucker for a really wordy clue with personality, and Rachel didn’t disappoint. “Joke type that becomes a cellist if you repeat its first two letters instead of its last two” is an incredibly wordy (and very funny) way to clue the unusual entry YO MAMA.

yoyomama

The clues for OUT, NTH, and TEA are particularly great because those words appear in crosswords ALL THE TIME, and so at some point, you inevitably feel like you’ve seen every possible clue a dozen times over. So when somebody can find a new wrinkle or breathe new life into a tired entry, you rejoice.

Joel Fagliano’s clue “Thing that nobody ever wins” for TIE and “Manual’s intended reader” for USER from Laura Braunstein and Jesse Lansner’s tournament puzzle also fit the bill. I don’t think I’ve encountered either clue before.

bluesclues

[Wait, not that sort of clue…]

And here’s one more before I wrap this post up. Naturally, I’m returning to my favorite cluing style, misdirection, this time courtesy of Byron Walden from the CTFYC finals.

The clue: “Wanders around LAX?”

The answer: TSA

I read the clue three times before I got it, the perfect a-ha moment sort of clue.

What are some of your favorite clues, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Crossword Competitions: Cancelled!

fingerlakes

Originally, today’s post was going to be about the Eighth Annual Finger Lakes Crossword Competition happening this weekend.

I was going to wish the participants good luck and talk about crossword tournament protocol and advice.

But that’s all been rendered moot, as the Eighth Annual Finger Lakes Crossword Competition has been cancelled due to concerns surrounding gatherings of people during the ongoing Coronavirus situation.

And unfortunately, it’s not the only upcoming puzzly event that has been scuppered by preventative health measures.

acptlogo

Alas, the 43rd edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament has also been cancelled for health-related reasons.

Although Will Shortz is in discussion with the hotel and event organizers regarding potentially moving the tournament to later in the year, for now, ACPT won’t be happening.

I’m disappointed, of course, but I’m not at all surprised. With schools and libraries closing their doors for the time being, not to mention sporting events potentially being held in empty arenas, all sorts of gatherings are being cancelled or rethought in order to keep folks safe.

We here at PuzzleNation hope you and your loved ones are happy, healthy, and taking steps to stay that way.

Be well, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. (And in the meantime, now you’ve got more time to practice your puzzly skills for the tournament’s talent show.)


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A PuzzleNation First Look: Setka

Making a new puzzle is challenging. You have to strike a balance between established solving styles (those that are familiar and effective) and innovative twists, mechanics, and variations, all without making the puzzle too convoluted, too tedious, too easy, or too hard.

In the world of crosswords, some variant success stories include Double Trouble, cryptic crosswords, Brick by Brick, and diagramless. With Sudoku, there are variants like Extreme Sudoku (aka X-Sudoku or Diagonal Sudoku), Samurai Sudoku, and Word Sudoku.

I’m always on the lookout for new puzzles and variations to try out, so when the folks behind Setka contacted me, I was more than happy to try out their puzzle brand and explore their signature attempt to combine Sudoku and clued-puzzle elements.

setka1

In short, Setka puzzles start with a single word. The consonants of that word not only form the answers to the clues, but also provide the letters to place in the accompanying grid.

For example, if the starting word was INFORM, the key letters would be N, F, R, and M. Every clue answer would feature one or more of those letters. The answer words, like the starting word, ignore the vowels. So you could have answers like NeaR, MoRoN, or MaiNFRaMe. (In the case of duplicate letters, like ReRaN, any duplicates are dropped, so the key letters here would be RN.)

And since there are four letters, there would be an accompanying 4×4 grid for you to fill in, where no letter is repeated in any row or column, Sudoku-style.

To place the letters, the clues are numbered, and the relevant cells in the grid are numbered to match. So, for NeaR (let’s say it’s clue 2), there would be two neighboring cells in the grid with a number 2 in them, and you could place the letters as RN or NR. Words that are three letters or above can read backward, forward, or in an L-shape in the grid.

This mechanic separates Setka from other clued or letter-placement puzzles, because you need both the clue answer AND the Sudoku no-repeats rule in order to complete a grid. Without the clue answers, there can be alternate solves where grid letters swap. And without the Sudoku-style placement, it would be virtually impossible to actually place the answer letters into the grid, because there’s more than one way to do so.

setka2-1

The cluing style alternates between standard crossword-style clues (but usually longer and a little more conversational or trivia-based) and fill-in-the-blank clues. The clues also fit the theme established by the starting word. For instance, the clues above all have to do with kids, which fits the puzzle’s theme word, CHILD.

It takes time to get used to seeking out answer words from the given consonants (since you have to supply any vowels or duplicate consonants missing in order to come up with the correct answer word), but once you’re a few puzzles in, it becomes second nature and a fun component to the solving experience.

Setka puzzles range in size from 4×4 to 7×7, with its signature size being 5×5. Honestly, 5×5 is really where it becomes a proper puzzle. With a 4×4 grid, once you have a few letters placed, it becomes an elementary logic puzzle and you don’t really need the clues.

setka3

[A selection of Setka sizes and themes.]

The puzzle itself is reminiscent of another puzzle we tried late last year — Cluedoku — but Setka’s letter-based theme and smaller grids make for a far more sustainable puzzle going forward, and the mechanic of placing the words in the grid (rather than just individual letters/numbers) adds an intriguing wrinkle to the solve.

All in all, I enjoyed trying out Setka — I solved a half-dozen or so puzzles to get a feel for different sizes and difficulties — and I think they’ve forged an engaging and clever combination of crossword-style cluing and Sudoku-style solving.

You can try Setka for yourself on their website, either playing interactive versions of Setka on the site or printing and solving PDF copies of Setka puzzles. They also offer a subscription where you can receive a Setka puzzle each week along with news and updates.

What do you think of Setka, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you.


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The Decade in 10 Words?

botd

[Image courtesy of TV Guide.]

For the last few weeks, we’ve all been awash in lists. Whether it’s covering the year or the decade, there are Best Of, Worst Of, Most Influential, Most Scandalous, Most Underrated, Most Overrated, and many many more.

Heck, we’ve had a bit of fun with year-end lists ourselves in the last week, though we tried not to overdo it.

Smithsonian Magazine even got in on the trend with a recent article. They summarized the 2010s through ten words that made their debut in The New York Times crossword this decade.

It’s an intriguing hook for a list, offering context and brief histories for words like MEME, SEXT, TWEET, BARISTA, and LGBT while discussing their greater social and cultural impact.

Sadly, there were a few times that I felt like the article came up short when representing both crosswords and the puzzle audience in general.

lolmeme

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

I mean, come on. LOL? Yes, the entry appeared a staggering 48 times during the decade, but it’s been around since the ’90s! This was like IPOD finally making it into crossword grids just in time for iPods to not be a thing anymore. (Thankfully, IPADS salvaged some of those grids.)

They would have been better off including BAE, which is not only more modern (making the first of 10 NYT appearances in 2017), but feels significantly less eyeroll-worthy in this day and age.

I was also less-than-impressed by this statement, which accompanied the entry N.L. EAST:

“Jeopardy!” contestants are notorious for their aversion to sports, a weakness shared by many members of the cruciverbal clique. As it turns out, sports are a big part of American cultural life and have been for quite some while…

This is an embarrassing, reductive cliche that feels straight out of Revenge of the Nerds. There are plenty of sports-savvy constructors and solvers (which explains how N.L. EAST and A.L. EAST ended up in the Times crossword twenty times in total).

The idea that crosswords and sports are mutually exclusive domains isn’t just ridiculous, it’s insulting.

crossword1

I don’t mean for this post to feel like a takedown of the Smithsonian Magazine piece, because for the most part, it was a breezy examination of the decade through the lens of crosswords.

I appreciated the spotlight put on clues for the entries LGBT/LGBTQ, though perhaps a more illuminating glimpse into growing representation of the LGBTQIA+ community would have been mentioning Ben Tausig’s quantum puzzle from September of 2016, which introduced the entry GENDERFLUID to the Times crossword.

Although the entry itself has only appeared twice in the Times thus far, its inclusion in Tausig’s puzzle was noteworthy because it not only introduced the word to new eyes, but deftly explained the idea itself through its theme.

The letter variability — allowing for M or F to appear in a grid square and still fit the definition, a la FIRE/MIRE — is a wonderful metaphor for the fluidity of gender, especially in the limiting, but generally accepted, binary concept of male or female.

To have a puzzle not only debut an important new word, but to provide such valuable context for it in a clever, kind, fun mechanic represents not just where crosswords as a whole are going, but how they can help push us in a better direction in a unique way.

That feels like a more worthwhile note to conclude the decade on than 48 LOLs.


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Delving into the Lollapuzzoola 12 puzzles!

The twelfth edition of Lollapuzzoola arrived, as expected, on a Saturday in August, and it did not disappoint. The largest annual crossword tournament in New York (and the second largest in the world) has become not only one of the highlights of the puzzle calendar, but an institution at this point.

I was not in attendance, but I did sign up for the Solve At Home puzzle packet. Last weekend, I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hands at this year’s tournament puzzles, and I was not disappointed. Lollapuzzoola continues to push the envelope with inventive themes and unique spins on how to bring crosswords to life.

This year’s theme was “Be Part of the Future!” so every puzzle had something to do with time periods or the future in general, and the constructors were clearly inspired in all sorts of ways. Let’s take a look at what they came up with.


Warm-Up: Twinlets by Brian Cimmet

This puzzle felt more like hitting the ground running than warming up, but it definitely got the creative juices flowing. The solver is presented with two identical grids and two sets of clues, and you have to figure out which grid each answer applies to.

This was complicated by the fact that several of the clues were the same for multiple entries. For example, the clue to 1 Across for both grids was “Popular Nabisco cracker brand.” The grids themselves also made for a tough solve, since there were several sections only connected by a single word, so you had fewer ins to tell you which answer applied.

Overall, this was a tough but fair way to open up the tournament, despite a few oddball entries (like YES OR NO).

Interesting grid entries included SOFT TACO, SUDOKU, ZYGOTE, and RAGTIME, and my favorite clues were “Pace rival” for ORTEGA and “Actress Gadot who has done lots of great things, but listing them isn’t going to help you get the answer (which you’ve probably already written in anyway, so really what’s the point)” for GAL.

tensesit

[Image courtesy of Wrong Hands.]

Puzzle 1: Tense Situation by C.C. Burnikel

The competition puzzles kicked off with this gem, a terrific 15x opener that properly set the tone for the rest of the day’s puzzles with a fun hook and solid fill. The themed entries all involved verbs where the tense had changed from the traditional phrasing, so TURKEYSHOOT became TURKEYSHOT (“Picture of a Thanksgiving entree?”) and NANCYDREW became NANCYDRAW (“Command to Mrs. Reagan to use a crayon?”).

Packing 6 themed entries into a relatively small grid didn’t hamper the grid construction at all, making for relatively little crosswordese and a smooth solve overall.

Interesting grid entries included STONE COLD, BYZANTINE, and BYRDS, and my favorite clue was “Prepares to sing an anthem” for RISES.

Puzzle 2: Wormholes by Stella Zawistowski

The difficulty increased with Puzzle 2, as Zawistowski tested solvers with an enjoyable swapping puzzle. In this puzzle, the theme entries each mentioned a unit of time, but it was swapped with another theme entry’s unit of time. So GLORYDAYS and MODELYEAR became GLORYYEAR and MODELDAYS. These unfamiliar phrases, when paired with straight-forward cluing, made for a solve that keeps you on your toes.

When paired with some tough fill — entries like OPCIT, SYLPH, and UNAGI — you’ve got a recipe for a puzzle that probably slowed a few puzzlers down in competition.

Interesting grid entries included EL CAPITAN, LAYLA, ON A BREAK, and MARILU (plus a nod to the absolutely horrible B-movie THE CAR), and my favorite clues were “Ran in the rain, say” for BLED and “Many a Comic-Con event” for PANEL.

Fountain of youth concept.

[Image courtesy of Burke Williams Spa.]

Puzzle 3: “If I Could Turn Back Time” by Paolo Pasco

At the halfway point for the regular tournament puzzles, our constructor took our time gimmick into the future in a delightfully fun way. In Puzzle 3, all of the celebrity names in the themed entries really needed the revealer (FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH), because they’d aged in punny fashion. JULIA CHILD became JULIA ADOLESCENT, HARVEY MILK became HARVEY CHEESE, JOEY FATONE became KANGAROO FATONE, and so on.

Six themed entries plus a revealer made for a very busy grid, but the fill complemented the puzzle nicely, making for one of the quickest and smoothest solves of the day.

Interesting grid entries included XANAX, FIJI, THE CURE, STIMULI, and OH HELL, and my favorite clues were “Musical key dreaded by racecar drivers?” for AFLAT, “Redding who made lots of green singing the blues” for OTIS, and the pairing of “Length of your friend’s one-man version of ‘Cats,’ seemingly” for EONS and “Casual answer to ‘Do you want to see my one-man version of ‘Cats’?” for NAH.

Puzzle 4: Saving Face by Maddie Gillespie and Doug Peterson

Although Puzzle 3 was the most fun to solve, Puzzle 4 was my favorite when it came to the grid construction and overall concept for the puzzle. You see, many of the across entries had letters missing, letters that had been shoehorned into their clues (and fit between the other letters in broken grid boxes).

So while DENALI was spelled DEALI in the grid, the missing N found its way into the clue “Alaskan national park with many nice walls for climbers.” [Bolding is my own to highlight the added letter.]

The missing/repurposed letters spelled out three words reading down — WATCH, SUNDIAL, and CLOCK — all time-keeping artifacts hidden between the lines. A completed grid also reveals the instructions for the solver to follow, reading GATHER THE PIECES and FIX THE TIMELINES down the grid.

There’s a lot going on in this puzzle, and it all works together nicely. Not unlike some of the missing artifacts, when properly maintained.

Interesting grid entries included ECSTASY, LIME WEDGE, XBOX, AMBASSADOR, and IDEA MEN, and my favorite clues were “Group with an electrifying stage presence” for ACDC and “Gendered term that 26-Down should be able to improve upon” for IDEA MEN. (This was, naturally, 26-Down.)

hottubtime

[Image courtesy of The Verge.]

Puzzle 5: Movie Theater Time Machine by Robyn Weintraub

The regular tournament puzzles wrapped up with this 21×21 puzzle, which expanded on the time-shifting gimmick of puzzle 3 with movie titles as the themed entries. For instance, instead of SUNSET BOULEVARD, we had SUNRISE BOULEVARD. Instead of BOOGIE NIGHTS, it was BOOGIE AFTERNOONS. With entries shifting backward and forward in time, there was plenty of opportunity for some fun wordplay.

The larger grid allowed for longer themed entries and longer fill entries as well, adding loads of clever vocabulary to a well-constructed grid. This was the perfect capper to the traditional tournament puzzles, making for a fair and engaging solve to close out the day.

Interesting grid entries included GENERATION X, SPIDER-SENSE, LET’S DANCE, JETTY, and ONE-ACT PLAY, and my favorite clues were “It’s frequently in a sonnet?” for OFT and the clever trio of “Go with the flow, figuratively” for ADAPT, “Go with the flow, e.g.” for IDIOM, and “Go with the flow, literally” for DRIFT.

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Puzzle 6: Finals by Mike Nothnagel

As always, there were two sets of clues for the Finals puzzle, the Local and the more difficult Express clues. No matter which clues you were working with, you were in for a terrific tournament finale.

With a pair of 10-letter entries mentioning time as anchors for the puzzle — FINEST HOUR and MINUTE MAID — Mike delivered a tight grid with some terrific filler entries and impressive stacks of 7- and 8-letter words in the corners.

This was a final puzzle worthy of a tournament built around clever hooks, top-notch construction, and delightful cluing, and it delivered in spades. I certainly had to jump all over the grid to find places to get started, whereas the top solvers no doubt powered through with staggering speed.

Interesting grid entries included WAR DANCE, BEGUILES, YULETIDE, GROUP HUG, and AVALON, and my favorite clues were “Road trips to the big game?” for SAFARIS and “They may send your spouse to another room” for SNORES.

There was also a tiebreaker themeless by Brian Cimmet which was a quick and satisfying solve, and seemed to be going for the record for clue length with examples like:

  • “Actress Ronan of ‘Lady Bird,’ whose name has four vowels in it and is pronounced SEER-shuh, if that’s any help” for SAOIRSE
  • “Mother of the most famous television character played by 20-Across” for ELYSE (20-Across was, appropriately, MICHAEL J. FOX)
  • “It precedes Alaska in a horrible dad joke I learned as a kid” for IDAHO

The puzzles at Lollapuzzoola always impress, and this year was no exception. The grids were tight, there was little crosswordese, and the creative themes and puzzle mechanics — from hiding entry letters in clues to switching verb tenses and ages on the solver — ensured that not only would fun be had by all, but that the unique puzzles would linger in your memory.

Mission accomplished, and congratulations on the competitors and the organizers who made it all happen. Lollapuzzoola is only getting more creative, more groundbreaking, and more clever with each passing year.

I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year!


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How to Get Started in Cryptic Crosswords

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[Image courtesy of Amazon. The Times Cryptic Crossword Book.]

On Twitter yesterday, Oliver Roeder from FiveThirtyEight asked, “If one wanted to learn/practice solving cryptic crosswords, with what puzzles should one begin?”

Most of the replies mentioned different cryptic crossword outlets to try out, like The Nation, Harper’s Magazine, and The UK Times Quick Cryptic Crossword Book. The Nation in particular was recommended as a good starter cryptic.

Monthly offerings from constructors like Andrew Ries and Cox & Rathvon were also mentioned, though I would add Patrick Berry’s Son of the Crypt cryptic collection to the list of suggestions. (I would normally also recommend The Guardian because of their great cryptics, but they’re pretty tough, particularly for beginners.)

This, of course, presumes that Roeder meant which cryptic puzzles one should start with.

cryptic

[Image courtesy of The New European.]

It occurred to me that he might be asking what OTHER puzzles are good for beefing up your cryptic crossword solving game.

Given the different kinds of clues used in cryptic crosswords, I have a few suggestions.

1. Anagram puzzle

Anagrams are a staple of cryptic cluing, and any puzzler looking to get into cryptics should have some facility with them. There are plenty of ways to practice — the Jumble, Anagram Magic Square and other puzzles from our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles, and even Bananagrams, Words with Friends, or Scrabble will help build your anagram skills.

2. Rebus

Rebus puzzles are all about adding and subtracting letters to form words or phrases, and there’s plenty of that in cryptic cluing. This is a good way to get used to breaking down longer words into abbreviations, anagrams, and so on in order to puzzle out the answer to a cryptic clue.

3. Brain teaser/riddle

Many cryptic clues rely on words with multiple meanings, as well as words that serve as both instructions and hints. Brain teasers and riddles employ similar wordplay, and they can help you develop a proclivity for looking at words from a new point of view.

cryptic2

[Image courtesy of Eastern Daily Press.]

Of course, if you want help learning to decipher the many variations on cryptic crossword cluing that you’ll encounter, there are some great resources out there.

Penny Dell Puzzles has a PDF containing examples of the most common cluing tricks, and you can bolster that with similar insights from Wikipedia and The Nation.

If you’re looking for deeper dives into all sorts of cryptic cluing, my one-stop shop for insight is The Guardian’s crossword blog. They offer regular features breaking down various kinds of cryptic clues.

In the last few weeks alone, they’ve covered cycling clues, “stuttering” in clues, and how the points of the compass can be used in cluing, and there are dozens of similarly illuminating posts in their archive.

It’s a terrific resource for newbie cryptic solvers and established puzzlers alike.

And it’s worth getting into cryptic crosswords, if only for the occasional subversive little Easter egg like this one from yesterday’s The Guardian cryptic:

brexit

Did I miss any resources or outlets for great cryptic crosswords? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!


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