The Great Crossword Debate: Overused Vs. Obscure

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Making a great crossword puzzle is not easy. Heck, making a GOOD crossword puzzle is not easy.

You want the theme to be creative, innovative even, but still something that can be intuited from a clever title and crafty clues.

You want the clues to be engaging, challenging, funny, tricky, and loaded with wordplay and personality.

And you want the grid fill to be fresh and interesting, yet accessible. You want to avoid obscurities, abbreviations, nonsensical partial-phrases, and the dreaded Naticks where two difficult entries cross.

But you also want to add to the lexicon of grid fill, leaving behind the tired vowel-heavy words that have become cliche or crosswordese.

Even if you accomplish all that, you also want your puzzle to have an overall consistent level of difficulty. Having a bunch of easy words in the grid only highlights the hard words necessitated when you construct yourself into a corner. A sudden spike in vocabulary and eccentricity is always noticeable.

So completing every grid becomes a balancing act between new and old, pop culture-loaded and traditional, obscure and overused.

This raises the question posed in a Reddit thread recently:

Which bothers you more, words that you probably wouldn’t know without a dictionary OR filling out OLEO and ARIA for the millionth time?

Both options had their proponents, so I’d like to give you my thoughts on each side of this cruciverbalist coin.


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Obscure Over Overused

A well-constructed grid can overcome the occasional obscure entry. After all, since you have Across and Down entries, several accessible Across answers can hand you a difficult Down answer that you didn’t know.

You can assist with an informative clue. It might get a little lengthy, but like a well-written trivia question, you can often provide enough context to get somebody in the ballpark, even if they don’t know the exact word or phrase they need. If it FEELS fair, I think solvers will forgive some peculiar entries, as long as you don’t go overboard.

Also, if you’re a crossword fan, you’re probably a word nerd, and who doesn’t like learning new words?

As one contributor to the thread said, “I’d rather eke out a solution than fill in EKE OUT or EKE BY again.”


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Overused Over Obscure

The very nature of crosswords demands letter arrangements that are conducive to building tight grids. Your vowel-heavy entries, your alternating consonant-vowel ABAB patterns, the occasional all-consonants abbreviation or all-vowels exhalation or size measurement… these are necessary evils.

But that doesn’t mean the cluing has to be boring. I absolutely love it when a constructor finds a new twist on an entry you’ve seen a billion times. I laughed out loud when Patti Varol clued EWE as “Baa nana?” because it was a take I’d never seen before.

Here are a few more examples of really smart ways I’ve seen overused entries clued:

  • “It’s never been the capital of England (and it surely won’t be now)” for EURO (Steve Faiella)
  • “Name-dropper’s abbr.” for ETAL (Patrick Berry)
  • “It’s three before November” for KILO (Andy Kravis)
  • “Fix plot holes, maybe” for HOE (Peter Gordon)
  • “50/50, e.g.” for ONE (Michael Shteyman). This one really plays with your expectations.
  • “Hawaiian beach ball?” for LUAU (George Barany)

Still, this is no excuse for going incredibly obtuse with your cluing just to be different. Making an esoteric reference just to avoid saying “Sandwich cookie” for OREO might be more annoying to a solver than just the overused answer itself.

On the flip side, you can treat them as gimmes, cluing them with familiar phrasing and letting them serve as the jumping-off points for longer, more difficult entries or the themed entries the puzzle is constructed around. Some familiar words are always welcome, particularly if a solver is feeling daunted with a particular puzzle’s or day’s standard difficulty.

(One poster even suggested pre-populating the grid with common crosswordese like OLEO, kinda like the set numbers in a Sudoku. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that approach before.)


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So, have we come to any conclusions today? Probably not.

As I said before, it’s a tightrope every constructor must walk on the way to finishing a crossword. Every constructor has a different method for getting across, a different formula for success. Some even manage to make it look effortless.

What do you think, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Do you favor overused entries or obscure ones? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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The Hunt for New Crossword-Friendly Vocabulary!

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Epee. Etui. Acai. Amie. Anoa. Oleo. Iota.

We’ve seen a lot of curious words in crosswords over the years. Some of them are blips on the radar, appearing for a bit then vanishing without a trace. Others become part of the fabric of crosswords, forever synonymous with those enigmatic black-and-white grids under the banner of “crosswordese.”

It does make me wonder, though. What words haven’t we seen yet? What curious combinations of vowels and consonants await solvers in the future? Will they be blips or will they be the stuff of legends?

So I decided to try out different words that were either heavy on vowels or had strange letter patterns to see which ones had appeared in The New York Times crossword and when, according to the database on XWordInfo. And I turned up some curious results.

COOEE hasn’t appeared since April 1996. FLYBY hasn’t been in since 2007. QWERTY has only appeared twice, and not in almost a decade.

And yet, equally strange words like VORPAL and CRWTH haven’t appeared at all.

It’s hard to predict what odd vocabulary will strike a chord with constructors.

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I mean, sure, there’s a whiff of disdain surrounding crosswordese, but surely as former obscurities become more familiar, crosswordese must evolve and move forward as well. What will be the new crosswordese?

It’s not like we’re going to have new rivers, mountains, bays, or other geographical areas, for the most part. (True, the Aral Sea is pretty much the Aralkum Desert now, but that hasn’t stopped constructors from continuing to reference it.)

But I’m getting off-topic. Where would we find this new potential grid fill?

There are some delightful nuggets of linguistic oddness lurking in old dictionaries that have promise as part of a new generation of crosswordese. I mean, ECHO and OCHO are all well and good, but what about OCHE?

That’s the line behind which a darts player must stand, by the way. Zero hits in XWordInfo.

You need peculiar letter combinations to help fill your grid? How about BADAUD, UGHTEN, YERK, CAGG, and BORT? I could easily see these weird words getting constructors out of some jams when it comes to grid construction.

Sure, we’d have to educate solvers on these words, but if we can make ETUI a well-known form of crosswordese, why not these?

(Yes, I know, you want definitions. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. A badaud is a dimwitted gossip-spreader who believes just about anything. Ughten is morning twilight, the light that appears in the sky before the sun rises. To yerk is to beat someone vigorously and with rapid efficiency. A bort is a poor-quality diamond or a fragment of such a diamond (as well as a license plate that commonly runs out at Itchy and Scratchy Land). A cagg is a solemn vow not to drink for a certain amount of time.)

None of those words have appeared in the Times according to XWordInfo. Except BORT, but even that hasn’t appeared since 1993. Which is amazing, because the BORT joke on The Simpsons I referenced above happened in October of 1994. Come on, constructors, don’t leave us hanging. BORT did not have to lapse into irrelevance.

Speaking of words that have fallen by the wayside, I decided to try lost positives next.

Lost positives are words that were previously commonplace, but have been lost to time, while words with negative connotations based on them have survived. You know inept, inert, disheveled, uncouth, unkempt, and inane, but how often do you see ept, ert, sheveled, couth, kempt, pecunious, or ane?

Thus, lost positives.

So what happened when I checked them against the XWordInfo database?

EPT has appeared in the Times — as slang or a joking reference — but ERT hasn’t (except as a Scottish word). Nor has SHEVELED. KEMPT isn’t exactly common, but it has appeared in the last five years. COUTH hasn’t since 2003.

ANE, meanwhile, has hundreds of appearances, but as a hydrocarbon suffix, a Wheel of Fortune reference (“an e”), or as part of Sue Ane Langdon’s name.

So there’s some potential here.

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[Image courtesy of A Date With An Amateur.]

Hey, ERT gives me an idea. If we’re really going to discover some exciting, strange, and unexpected new grid fill, I think we have to look toward other languages.

All sorts of words that originate in other languages end up as part of the expansive English vocabulary. As James Nicoll once said, “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

Why not continue on in that fine tradition and add to the potential puzzle word lexicon?

In the last few years, the concept of hygge has grown in popularity. Hygge is a Danish and Norwegian word for a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment. You can see how people would latch onto the concept for themselves.

So I was surprised to discover that hygge hadn’t appeared in the NYT. That’s a letter pattern begging for crossings.

Personally, I think we should start with words like hygge. A word that exists in another language to describe a concept that there simply isn’t a word for in English.

Saudade, while a bit long for casual grid use, is another word that has started making the transition into English vernacular. Saudade is a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for and/or loves.

There is a world of vocabulary out there waiting to be harnessed for crossword obscurity, and there’s even a website dedicated to it.

If you check out Eunoia, you’ll find hundreds of foreign words to encapsulate moods and ideas, feelings and expressions that can plug holes both in your vocabulary and your grids.

Crossword.

Here’s a small sampling of words I found on the site that might help cruciverbalists who have constructed themselves into a corner:

Resfeber is a Swedish word for “the feeling of excitement and nervousness experienced by a traveler before undertaking a journey.”

Ubuntu is a Zulu word for “a quality that includes the essential human virtues, a combination of compassion and humility.”

Mångata is a Swedish word for “the road-like reflection of moonlight on water.”

Wegbier is a German word for “a beer you’re having on your way somewhere (i.e. a party).”

Karelu is a Tulu word for “the mark left on the skin by wearing something tight.”

Rauxa is a Catalan word for “sudden determination or action.”

Umay is a Tagalog word for “getting tired of a certain food.”

To Fernweh is to have a yearning to see distant places (in German).

Either half of wabi-sabi, a Japanese word meaning “finding beauty within the imperfections of life and peacefully accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay” could prove handy in a grid.

So I put the question to you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. What words would you like to see appear in crosswords more? Where do you think we should look for fresh, new, peculiar crosswordese? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Delving into the Lollapuzzoola 13 puzzles!

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The thirteenth edition of Lollapuzzoola, as is tradition, arrived on a Saturday in August, but for the first time ever, it was hosted online to allow tournament solving from home. As one of the highlights of the puzzly calendar, I was glad to see it make the virtual jump, as Boswords did before it.

I was not in virtual attendance, but I did sign up for the Next Day Division 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 “Don’t Touch That Dial!” so every puzzle had something to do with television or TV channels, and the constructors were clearly inspired in all sorts of ways. Let’s take a look at what they came up with.


Instead of Brian Cimmet’s usual Twinlets puzzle as a warm-up, this year featured two practice puzzles. The first, constructed by Patrick Blindauer and entitled “I Want My MTV,” allowed solvers to hit the ground running.

The accessible theme — adding the letter M to established TV shows, a la SCOOBYDOOM or AMERICAN MIDOL — is the sort of fun and frivolous idea to spark solver imaginations and ready them for a proper day of puzzling.

Interesting grid entries included DATUM and I’LL BE BACK (as well as some nice misdirection with YEE-haw instead of HEE haw), and my favorite clue was “Traffic cop?” for NARC.

The second practice puzzle, a themeless mini constructed by Brian Cimmet, offered a slight uptick in difficulty and a nice preview of the sort of solving tournament attendees would see in the final.

Interesting grid entries included BOBA TEA, ORCHESTRATE, and ROLLED R (as well as tournament constructor STELLA Zawistowski getting referenced!), and my favorite clue was “One of three in ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day'” for COMMA.

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Puzzle 1: Soap Operas by Brooke Husic

The competition puzzles kicked off with this terrific opener, a 17×13 grid that showed off the flexibility and creativity of construction and grid design that keeps Lollapuzzoola fresh. (Also, I’m a sucker for a punny start to a tournament, so the theme was a plus for me.)

The themed entries featured commercial soap brands as part of common phrases (like IVORY TOWER and DOVE TAILED), which were then clued as “soap operas” for viewers.

It was a nicely constructed grid that flowed well, and it’s exactly the sort of puzzle to introduce new solvers to tournament puzzles while entertaining the established vets.

Interesting grid entries included DIWALI, ACADIA, and HOPE SO, and my favorite clue was “Card game that can go on and on and on and on and on and on and on, like this clue” for WAR.

Puzzle 2: The Final Countdown by Sid Sivakumar

This tall, thin 12×25 grid (coupled with THAT title) virtually guaranteed that Europe’s faux-epic anthem would be stuck in your head for a good chunk of the tournament, but I’ll forgive Sid, because I really enjoyed this puzzle’s hook.

The theme entries all began with a number (like 4 LETTER WORDS or 3-D TELEVISION), and as you expect, they counted down until reaching the climactic pronouncement AND WE’RE LIVE at the bottom part of the grid. It’s a fun idea that was complimented nicely by the unusual grid, and the puzzle flowed nicely from top to bottom as the entries counted down.

Interesting grid entries included PEARLED, RETURN KEY, MR SULU (which, before I looked at the clue, I kinda hoped would be MR. SHOW), and BUNGALOW. My favorite clues were “[Feed me! Pet me! Feed me! Play with me!] … or actually sometimes [Leave me alone!]” for MEOW and “‘Do not feed the ____’ (advice for bridge travelers and internet users)” for TROLL.

At this point, I noticed that both Puzzle 1 and 2 had an all-caps clue where the answer was a TV network. This feature continued throughout the tournament as a nice little through line, though its ultimate purpose wouldn’t reveal itself until after Puzzle 5. Stay tuned.

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[Image courtesy of Pixar.]

Puzzle 3: Flipping Channels by Rachel Fabi

A swapping-themed puzzle is practically a tradition at Lollapuzzoola at this point, so I wasn’t at all surprised to see that idea adapted for TV with Puzzle 3’s hook. Each pair of theme entries not only included the names of channel, but swapped the second halves of phrases including those channels. For instance FOXGLOVES and OXYGENMOLECULES became OXYGENGLOVES and FOXMOLECULES.

As I solved, I wasn’t sure if these would be random pairs swapped, mirrored pairs swapped, or a continuous chain of swaps throughout the puzzle, so it took me a little longer to complete the grid. This was a definite step-up in difficulty from Puzzle 1 and 2, but not excessively so. (Some of the vocabulary also slowed me down, since I didn’t know NITTANY or INFODEMIC.) Still, it was a solid puzzle and an appropriate challenge for the midway point of the tournament.

Interesting grid entries included NOGOODNIK, CHEETO, HOT POCKET, GO GREEN, and the aforementioned INFODEMIC, and my favorite clues were “Nanjiani’s ‘The Lovebirds’ costar” for RAE and “Bisexual Greta of Old Hollywood” for GARBO, two clues that felt very fresh and topical, particularly for entries that solvers have seen plenty of times before.

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[Image courtesy of Game Show Network.]

Puzzle 4: Deal or No Deal by joon pahk

A big jump in difficulty and complexity, Puzzle 4 was an immensely clever and well-executed grid that took a familiar crossword concept — removing or adding letters from entries — and mined it for unexpected depth. On the left-hand side of the grid, a letter was added to both the clue AND the entry. For example, “Entranced cover” clued DAWNING. [Bolding is my own to highlight the added letter.]

On the right-hand side of the grid (but in the same row, one black square away), that entry was complemented by the same letter subtracted from both clue AND entry. The example above, for instance, was matched by “Go _own a spout” cluing _RAIN OUT. [Again, spacing added is my own to highlight the missing letter.]

These letter trades — the deal or no deal of the title — were tightly executed and made total sense to the solver without any explanation needed. Not only that, but the added/missing letter was always taken from the same part of the word on the other side! (Third letter E in FREIGHT was the missing third letter in SH_ARING next door.)

It’s incredibly impressive construction that is nicely balanced by solid fill and strong cluing. This is easily my favorite joon pahk puzzle I’ve ever solved, and will no doubt make my list of top puzzles of the year.

Interesting grid entries included GONZAGA, MEERKAT, NIP/TUCK, TWYLA, and SCHLEP, and my favorite clues were “Slightly subpar, ironically” for ONE OVER, “Wednesday the third?” for SILENT D, and “Snow or paint, in certain arenas” for AMMO.

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Puzzle 5: Schedule Swaps by Stella Zawistowski

This 21x marked the end of the regular tournament puzzles, and it felt like a suitable final boss for most solvers in the competition. The grid was dense, well-constructed, and challenging, featuring another smartly-executed swapping gimmick. This time around, the theme was common phrases where one of the words was also a TV show, but that show was replaced with another TV show to make a new phrase.

For example, the phrase BIRTHING COACH became BIRTHING SCRUBS as COACH was relocated elsewhere in the grid. Fitting in all these themed entries — six of them! — plus their accompanying TV shows was no doubt a hefty challenge for the constructor, but Zawistowski made it feel effortless in this demanding but well-made puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included GALILEO, SAN PEDRO, DISCIPLE, PETSIT, AIRPOPS, and SO SUE ME (as well as the thoroughly baffling ONE O’ CAT, which I had to look up after), and my favorite clue was “‘Silver Springs,’ to ‘Go Your Own Way'” for B-SIDE.

As for the all-caps TV network clues we spotted earlier? They also appeared in Puzzles 3, 4, and 5, and it turns out, they were part of a clever little metapuzzle hidden in the tournament grids.

The five TV networks, one in each puzzle, turned out to be TBS, VH1, SyFy, ESPN, and TNT. And if you take the first letter of each, you get the hidden answer TV SET.

Very nicely done, constructors!

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Puzzle 6: Finals by Robyn Weintraub

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 12-letter entries from classic children’s television as anchors for the puzzle — MISTER ROGERS and BERT AND ERNIE — Weintraub delivered a tight grid with some strong fill and plenty of long, crossing entries in the corners to keep solvers guessing.

For me, this was a nice tournament landmark, as I powered through the Express clues and completed the grid without having to reference the easier Local clues once. I know this is commonplace for the top solvers, but it was a nice confidence boost for me as an enthusiastic solver, but hardly the fastest or the most competent.

It was a perfect final puzzle to wrap up one of the most consistent and enjoyable puzzle sets they’ve ever assembled for the tournament. With over 1,000 solvers participating through the online format, I can’t think of a better way to introduce them to the spirit and style of Lollapuzzoola than this year’s puzzles. Nicely done, team!

Interesting grid entries included WENT TO BED, SQUARE PEG, FALSE ALARM, PECOS, and NSFW. Both the Local and Express sets of clues had some gems, so I’ll list them separately below:

Local clues:

  • “Big cheese with the bacon” for CFO
  • “Escape room finds” for KEYS
  • “Month in which National ‘Twilight Zone’ Day is observed” for MAY
  • “‘____ Pressure’ (‘Baywatch’ episode with a punny title)” for PIER

Express clues:

  • “Place after place” for SHOW
  • “Canal zone?” for EAR
  • “‘Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Aina i ka Pono’ or ‘Excelsior'” for STATE MOTTO
  • “PBS ‘Viewers Like You'” for DONORS
  • “‘Panic at Malibu ____’ (‘Baywatch’ pilot episode) for PIER

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[Top(less) puzzlers.]

There was also a tiebreaker themeless mini by Amanda Rafkin (who we recently interviewed!). The mini was a quick and satisfying solve, loaded with great vocabulary, offering a nice cooldown after a strong tournament and several really engaging puzzles.

Interesting grid entries included MACARONI ART and SO EXTRA, and my favorite clue from the mini was “One paying dollars for quarters” for TENANT.


The puzzles at Lollapuzzoola always impress, and this year was no exception. The grids were tight, there was little crosswordese, and the creative themes, grid designs, and puzzle mechanics ensured that not only would fun be had by all, but that the puzzles would linger in your memory.

Mission accomplished, and congratulations on the competitors and the organizers who made it all happen, especially in a virtual format with so many additional solvers. Lollapuzzoola is only getting more creative, more groundbreaking, and more clever with each passing year, and it’s just awesome to watch it grow and evolve.

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


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5 Questions for Crossword Constructor and Wordplay Blogger Deb Amlen

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 Deb Amlen as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

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[Deb in the center, flanked by her fellow Musketeers.]

Deb is a talented crossword constructor, but these days, it’s more likely you know her for her role as the head writer and senior editor of Wordplay, the crossword blog and educational/humor column associated with The New York Times crossword puzzle.

One of the most public faces associated with the crossword, Deb entertains and informs across both the blog and its associated Twitter account, as well as hosting a live-solving show on YouTube with fellow constructor Sam Ezersky and celebrity guests!

Deb 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 Deb Amlen

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

Word games like “Ghost” were always my favorite things to play when I was a child, but I didn’t really get into puzzles until I was a young adult. I watched my father solve the New York Times crossword when I was really young, but I didn’t start solving on my own until I bought myself a subscription to New York Magazine after college and discovered Maura Jacobson’s puzzles.

I started constructing crosswords when my own kids were young because, as a stay-at-home mom, I desperately needed a creative outlet that didn’t involve Pokémon or Elmo. I read everything I could about puzzle making and learned how to make crosswords from Nancy Salomon. Nancy has mentored hundreds of constructors to publication.

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2. As the flagbearer for crosswords in the public eye, The New York Times crossword is often the most scrutinized when it comes to cultural sensitivity regarding entries and clues, and more than once, that has depicted the Times puzzle in an unflattering light.

As a very public figure for the brand — not to mention the de facto social media gatekeeper — this puts you in the unenviable position of being between the audience and the editorial team. How do you handle these situations, and as an enthusiastic solver yourself, how do you think the Times is doing in this arena?

The crossword does get a lot of flack, doesn’t it? Honestly, some of it is warranted, some of it is not.

There is definitely a need to bring the flagship puzzle into the 21st century in terms of diversity and representation. Like most large companies, however, sometimes change happens slowly at The New York Times.

A lot of work is being done by the company and the puzzle editors behind the scenes, though, to increase diversity on their team and to be more aware of content that is inflammatory, and I think the recent puzzles reflect that. They have a ways to go, but the conversation is active and ongoing, and I’m very optimistic about the future of the crossword.

As far as social media goes, people tend to conflate “the Wordplay Twitter account” with “Everything The New York Times Does With Regard to Puzzles and Games.” So, since I run the Wordplay account and the puzzle editors are not really on social media, I tend to be the target of people’s complaints, which is hilarious because I’m just the columnist. Luckily, The Times has allowed me to expense a thick skin, so I’m doing OK. When I’m not, I take a break from social media, which I highly recommend and think everyone should do.

On the other hand, most people are well-wishers and are a lot of fun. They tweet their solving victories to me and I give them a gold medal emoji, which people really respond to. It’s very satisfying to be able to lift people up and encourage them, especially on social media, which can be very negative.

3. For the 75th anniversary of the New York Times crossword, constructors and celebrity guest puzzlers collaborated on numerous puzzles. Which celebrity constructors surprised you the most with their work, and who would you like to see as guest constructors in the future?

I’m not sure I was surprised by this, but I believe that Rachel Maddow’s crossword was one of the most popular, most downloaded puzzles we’ve ever had. Neil Patrick Harris’s puzzle had a very cool trick to it. And I can’t leave out the one I did with Natasha Lyonne, who was just brilliant to work with.

[Author’s note: When asked about her puzzle, Natasha said, “Working with Deb Amlen to create this puzzle has quite literally been a lifetime highlight for me.”]

4. What’s next for Deb Amlen?

Dinner, probably.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring constructors, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Enjoy yourself. This is not like sitting down to take the SAT; it’s a game. And games should be fun. Life is too short to sweat the crossword.


A huge thank you to Deb for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for updates on her puzzly and creative endeavors, and be sure to check out her work on the Wordplay blog and her very entertaining live-solving videos on YouTube. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.

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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Lollapuzzoola 13 Lands This Weekend! (Virtually!)

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Yes, “the best tournament held in New York on a Saturday in August” is bringing a New York Saturday in August to you, as Lollapuzzoola 13 goes virtual.

Whether you’ll be solving on that Saturday or as part of the Next Day Division, you’re sure to encounter some top-notch puzzles worthy of the Lollapuzzoola name.

Just look at the constructors involved in this year’s tournament! Stella Zawistowski and Robyn Weintraub return for the second year in a row, and they’ll be joined Rachel Fabi, Brooke Husic, joon pahk, and Sid Sivakumar (who just constructed for this year’s Boswords tournament). I can’t wait to see what they have in store for the competitors!

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Starting around 12:30pm Eastern, you can follow along on the Twitch livestream that will be running for the duration of the tournament. In addition to the five tournament puzzles and championship rounds, there will be bonus games and a virtual pizza party! (Be sure to bring your own pizza.)

This is not only another wonderful opportunity to bring the puzzle community together, it’s also a charitable event, as a portion of the proceeds from the tournament will be donated to Color of Change and the Save the Children Coronavirus Response Fund.

It should be a great time, either in person or for solvers at home. Lollapuzzoola is truly one of the highlights of the puzzle calendar.

You can click here for all things Lollapuzzoola, and to check out last year’s tournament puzzles, click here for our in-depth review!

Are you planning on attending Lollapuzzoola 13 or solving from home? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


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5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Amanda Rafkin

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 Amanda Rafkin as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

rafkin

When she’s not contributing to musical theater with her deft piano performances (or entertaining herself with various showtunes), Amanda constructs crosswords for various outlets including her own puzzle website, Brain Candy, where she posts a new puzzle every day. She also features other constructors, providing a valuable platform for her fellow cruciverbalists!

She has been published in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Universal, The Inkubator, and many other outlets, and recently contributed a puzzle to the 2020 Boswords crosswords tournament (which just so happened to be your lead blogger’s favorite puzzle from this year’s tournament).

Amanda 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 Amanda Rafkin

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I really started loving puzzles at some point in my pre-teen years when I would confiscate my mom’s half-finished puzzles when she would step out of the room. I think she eventually got so fed up with me stealing her puzzles that she bought me my own book of variety puzzles, and since then I’ve been off to the races.

I became interested in constructing a couple of years ago when I got more serious with my crossword solving and felt that crossword construction could fall in that blissful middle-of-the-Venn-diagram area between something I might be good at and something I might love. I guess who’s good at anything is a matter of opinion, but I’m happy to report that I was wildly correct about the love part.

2. In addition to your crossword constructing, you’re also a musician, which seems to be a recurring theme among some constructors (Patrick Blindauer, Brian Cimmet) and tournament solvers (Dan Feyer, John Delfin). Do your musical skills ever influence your puzzling, or do you ever find yourself relying on your puzzly skills while performing or composing?

This is something I’ve heard many times (the relationship between crossword constructing and musicianship) to the point that I, myself, wonder if there’s something to it! If there is, it’s not something I’m aware of at all. For me, the two things are pretty separate experiences in my life.

The one exception to this I guess would be my theater-themed puzzles that I’ve grown so fond of. Every Thursday on my website is “Theatre Thursday”, where I post a midi-sized Broadway-themed puzzle, often accompanied by a bunch of relevant musical theater information that no one asked for. I also have a couple of Broadway-themed midi packs on the horizon. One is completed and will be released sometime in the (probably) not-too-distant future, and the other is a midi pack centering around each of Sondheim’s 19 major works, which I’m working on right now.

sondheim

[Sondheim constructed cryptic crosswords for New York Magazine,
so Amanda certainly finds herself in good company!]

3. To call the last few months tumultuous is an understatement, considering public unrest and pushback against infringements on civil rights. In a similar vein, there has been a more strenuous push in crosswords recently (Women’s March, for instance) for greater representation for women, people of color, and the LGBTQIA+ community. In your estimation, how are the major outlets faring regarding inclusion?

Well there’s a loaded question! The numbers will tell you that, by and large, they are faring rather poorly. There are of course some exceptions (notably, the USA Today, which publishes far more puzzles by women than men). If you’re looking at the major outlet (The New York Times), this can feel challenging to assess in some ways.

If we’re acknowledging a recent push for inclusion, then we also have to take into consideration the often 18-month delay between the time of construction and the time of publication. As a result, the things that are happening now may not reveal themselves to us until over a year from now. None of this is an excuse for not having implemented a more inclusive system long ago, but I do think that even the major outlets with a shorter queue than The New York Times may not reveal to us any of aforementioned representational shifts until months from now.

I hope this is something that we as constructors and solvers continue to keep our eyes on, so that we can continue to work on opening doors that may have previously felt closed, and offering equal opportunities to anyone and everyone interested in the endeavor of crossword construction.

I think, as a whole, the general industry is still struggling to understand the difference between “I personally don’t know this because of my own life experiences” and “This isn’t gettable/knowable/likeable for solvers”. Inclusion begets inclusion, as exclusion begets exclusion. By leaving certain things/people/customs etc. out of puzzles, we continue this cycle in perpetuity. The more different kinds of people we have making puzzles, the more likely it is that any given solver will be able to do a puzzle and see themselves within it. And, at least for me, that is a goal that I always try to keep in mind when constructing.

rafkat

[Solving runs in the family.]

4. What’s next for Amanda Rafkin?

I wish Amanda Rafkin knew the answer to that question as well. Given how things are going, it seems it will be a while before I’ll be doing much in the way of music again. So, for now, I’m going to continue to do what I’ve been doing for most of quarantine: making puzzles, putting them into the world, and hoping that they bring some kind of joy to folks during a time when joy can be a tricky thing to come by. Would it be awesome to be able to make a living solely from making crossword puzzles? HECK YES! So maybe that’s a goal for sometime in the future as well.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring constructors, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

No matter who you are, no matter how much you know, no matter where you went to school, no matter who your friends are, no matter the experiences you’ve had in your life, no matter how woke you think you are, you have blind spots. We all have blind spots. And sometimes, in the wake of these blind spots can come decisions that hurt other people. We are imperfect but lifelong students on this collective journey to betterment.

Be open to feedback, specifically from people who have had different life experiences than you. Feedback is not criticism; it’s the space from which we all grow. So get feedback on your work and actually listen. Resist the urge to be defensive. Collaborate with other people. If they differ from you in some way, even better.

Oh, and if you’ve been tossing around the idea of constructing for a while but haven’t actually taken the leap…jump. The kindest and most supportive people are on the other side waiting to catch you.


A huge thank you to Amanda for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for updates on her puzzly and musical endeavors, and be sure to visit her puzzle website Brain Candy for all sorts of puzzle goodness. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.

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