A Happy Ending and A New Beginning for the Universal Crossword!

Some stories have happy endings, eventually.

In one particular case, it took nearly three years for the satisfying resolution to arrive.

Allow me to explain.

In March of 2016, programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which were edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in The New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

The troubling pattern uncovered by Tausig and Pwanson sparked an investigation, and a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that Parker had agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.

We were among the first to report that constructor Fred Piscop would serve as editor in the interim, but after that, the story went quiet for two months.

Then, in early May, Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight reported that Universal Uclick had completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’d confirmed some of the allegations of puzzle repetition, they were only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

The puzzle community was unhappy with the reaction, and USA Today and Universal Uclick soon felt the pressure from constructors and content creators alike.

Among the most vocal was Mike Selinker, president of Lone Shark Games and puzzle constructor, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken.

Many other game companies and constructors joined in the boycott, and less than a week later, Gannett (who publishes USA Today) declared that “No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.”

Parker was out as far as USA Today went, but his relationship with Universal Uclick was still unclear. (Even now, despite inquiries, I’m unable to determine if he’s still associated with Universal Uclick.)

We’d never seen anything like this. Not only did it galvanize the puzzle community like nothing before, but it raised the very important issue of creator’s rights when it comes to puzzles.

And, as I said, the story has a happy ending. Constructor David Steinberg has been named the new editor of the Universal Crossword and Universal Sunday Crossword!

Although this means the end of The Puzzle Society Crossword that Steinberg was previously editing (as it is being folded into the Universal Crossword), there is a bright side, as it guarantees fresh, well-vetted puzzles for many more solvers from a young, respected voice in the field.

David’s resume is impressive, as the youngest constructor to be published in The LA Times crossword, and the second-youngest to be published in The NY Times. He was also named the crossword editor for the 24 newspapers associated with The Orange County Register.

Between those accomplishments, his work with the archival Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, and his prolific and creative crossword output, it’s obvious why Universal Uclick (now Andrew McMeels Universal) would want him for the job.

Several puzzles under his stewardship have already appeared, featuring constructors like Jim Peredo, Doug Peterson, and Samuel A. Donaldson!

David offered some details in an announcement email:

Each week I’m publishing eight themed Universal crosswords—seven 15x15s and one 21×21. Puzzles appear in all venues that formerly ran the Universal Crossword, as well as in those that ran the Puzzle Society Crossword.

Among the many new venues that run the 15x15s are The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Seattle Times; new venues that run both the 15x15s and the 21x21s include The Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Daily News, and The Miami Herald. The Universal Crossword is also truly universal, appearing in countries as far-flung as China, India, and Saudi Arabia!

We wish David the best of luck in his latest puzzly endeavor. We know the Universal Crossword is in great hands!


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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: The Sequel

It’s a new year, and many folks treat the new year as a clean slate, a jumping-off point from which to launch efforts at self-improvement. They embark on new endeavors, hoping to complete resolutions made in earnest.

Others use the first few days or weeks to try to set the tone for the rest of the year by establishing new routines or breaking from old routines.

Unfortunately, The New York Times crossword is not off to a good start.

We’ve discussed in the past how The NYT crossword has a less-than-stellar reputation for cultural sensitivity, and Tuesday’s puzzle was, for many solvers, more of the same.

Here’s the grid from January 1st:

[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

One of those entries, 2 Down, leapt out at many solvers. Yes, it was clued innocently as “Pitch to the head, informally.” But, for millions of people, that word has a far more unpleasant, insulting, and flat-out racist meaning.

It’s natural for people to want to explain this away as unintentional. That becomes harder to accept when it has happened before.

Will Shortz had the following to say in The New York Times Wordplay blog from 2012, after a similar incident involving the answer word ILLEGAL:

Thanks for your email regarding the clue for ILLEGAL (“One caught by border patrol”) in the Feb. 16 New York Times crossword.

At the time I wrote this clue (and yes, it was my clue), I had no idea that use of the word “illegal” in this sense (as a noun) was controversial. It’s in the dictionary. It’s in widespread use by ordinary people and publications. There is nothing inherently pejorative about it.

Still, language changes, and I understand how the use of “illegal” as a noun has taken on an offensive connotation. I don’t want to offend people in the crossword. So I don’t expect to do this again. Fortunately, there are many other ways to clue the word ILLEGAL.

At the end of the post, Deb Amlen stated:

Should Mr. Shortz have been more aware of the current usage of the word? Sure, but no one is infallible, and I will give him points for stepping up. He is the captain of the New York Times crossword ship, and he owned his mistake. Not only that, but he has assured us that it will not happen again.

That’s evolution.

Well, it’s happened again.

And this time, being unaware is not an excuse. In Shortz’s apology for this latest mistake, he mentions not only discovering the pejorative meaning of the word in his own research, but that the issue was raised by fellow constructor and XWordInfo archivist Jeff Chen.

In his own take on the puzzle on XWordInfo, Jeff was incredibly kind regarding Shortz, stating:

I generally think Will does a great job in editing the NYT puzzle — hard to argue with results, with solvership exploding into the hundreds of thousands under his helm. This is one of the less than 5% of things that I strongly disagree with, though.

(Jeff then offers two easy fixes to remove the word from the puzzle, because Jeff is a pro.)

Again, unfortunately, we don’t know if this will lead to any changes at The New York Times. Shortz stated:

My feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that any benign meaning of a word is fair game for a crossword. This is an issue that comes up occasionally with entries like GO O.K. (which we clued last April as “Proceed all right,” but which as a solid word is a slur), CHINK (benign in the sense as a chink in one’s armor), etc. These are legitimate words.

That’s certainly one way to look at it. Of course, it’s not great that one of his examples was employed as part of a misunderstanding in an episode of Scrubs fifteen years ago to similarly unpleasant effect:

Shortz followed up by saying, “Perhaps I need to rethink this opinion, if enough solvers are bothered.”

In response, I think constructor Eric Berlin summed up the issue perfectly:

Perhaps a good rule for this sort of thing is, if you were looking *only at the completed crossword grid* and not at the clues, what would CHINK or GOOK call to mind first?

That’s what I thought, and that’s why I would never dream of using either word in a puzzle.

At least it’s still early in the year. Plenty of time to go onward and upward from here.


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A New Venue to Publish More Women!

Long-time readers know that one of my favorite things about the blog is that I can use it to spread the word about different worthwhile projects.

In the past, we’ve proudly provided a signal boost to folks adapting popular games for the visually impaired, game shops that could use more support, and campaigns to encourage and recruit constructors from more diverse backgrounds.

So when I heard about the Kickstarter campaign for The Inkubator, I knew it was another worthwhile project to put a spotlight on.

The brainchild of crossword constructors Tracy Bennett and Laura Braunstein, The Inkubator is a by-email subscription puzzle service where 100% of the puzzles will be constructed by women. (It follows in the footsteps of the wonderful Women of Letters project from last year.)

From the public announcement:

The editors invite women — cis women, trans women, and woman-aligned constructors — to submit themed and themeless crosswords or queries in any stage of development. (If you think you may be eligible to construct, but you’re not sure, you’re eligible to construct. Still not sure? Ask us!) If you’re new to constructing, we’ll make every effort to connect you with a collaborator.

Yes, The Inkubator is not only a publishing outlet for anyone who identifies as female, but it is intended to help and encourage new and inexperienced constructors, providing resources and advice in the hopes of publishing more women.

The Kickstarter has only been up for two days, and they’ve already passed their initial funding goal, proving that there is not only a market for women-driven puzzles, but a lot of support for female constructors as well. They’re currently brainstorming stretch goals for the project right now!

I wish The Inkubator not only luck, but success, and I can’t wait to see what new voices the project helps bring to the fore.

For more details or to donate to The Inkubator, check out the Kickstarter page for the project here.


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This New Puzzle Set for the Penny Dell Crosswords App Is Making Me Hungry!

Hello puzzlers and PuzzleNationers! Yes, we’ve got a second bonus blog post for you today, because there’s simply too much great stuff to announce today!

We’re excited to announce a new puzzle set for the Penny Dell Crosswords App

It’s the Breakfast Deluxe Puzzle Set!

Start your mornings right with a hearty breakfast and some terrific crossword puzzles, courtesy of your friendly neighborhood constructors at PuzzleNation!

Offering 30 easy, medium, and hard puzzles, plus 5 breakfast-themed bonus puzzles to sate your puzzly appetite, no matter what your skill level, the Breakfast Deluxe puzzle set is part of a well-balanced day of solving!

Plus it’s available for both iOS and Android users!

Happy puzzling, everybody!


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Delving into the Lollapuzzoola 11 puzzles!

The eleventh 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 puzzles. 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. (Although there was nothing as raucous as last year’s De-cat-hlon puzzle that had participants meowing aloud.)

This year’s theme was “Back to School,” so every puzzle had something academic or el-hi about it, 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 “One party in an after-school one-on-one encounter.” 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.

Interesting grid entries included US OPEN, GLAIVE, STEVIA, and CAN IT BE, and my favorite clue was “Fit to finish?” for ATEE.

Puzzle 1: Back to School by Aimee Lucido

The competition puzzles kicked off with this gem — my first Aimee Lucido puzzle, if I recall correctly — a terrific variation on a 17×17 grid with a clever hook. The themed entries had 4-letter colleges hidden backwards inside them (inside shaded boxes), and those colleges reappeared elsewhere in the grid, this time reading the correct way.

With four themed entries and four repeated colleges in a tight space, you could’ve easily had some tough crossings and awkward fill, but instead, the solve was smooth and the grid construction tight. A really great starting puzzle overall.

Interesting grid entries included COSTCO, TAOIST, MALAWI, and AGITATOR, and my favorite clues were “Mac alternative?” for BUB, “Movies, and some comics, but *definitely* not video games, according to some” for CANON, and “Axle attachments that always make me think of the world record holder for the 100-meter dash” for U-BOLTS.

Puzzle 2: Going Off by Erik Agard and Yacob Yonas

The difficulty increased with Puzzle 2, as Yacob Yonas and ACPT champion and speed-demon Erik Agard tested solvers with this diabolical entry. This puzzle’s hook was a familiar phrase where the final letter was replaced by the word “ring” — for instance, LUNCH BUFFET became LUNCH BUFFERING — and this hook was revealed in the final themed entry, SAVED BY THE BELL.

You see, each of those missing letters was “saved,” spelling out the word TEST. Truly a time in school when you’d hope to be saved by the bell. It’s a clever hook, but one that wasn’t easily parsed, at first.

Interesting grid entries included SHINNYING, FEE WAIVER, LIE ABED, and YOU UP?, and my favorite clues were “Sewer’s terminus?” for HEM and “Wood-chopping site” for DOJO, which is on the shortlist for my favorite clue of the year.

Puzzle 3: Subject to Change by Patti Varol

A nice palate cleanser after Puzzle 2, Puzzle 3 featured three pairs of themed entries where common expressions and phrases that ended in school subjects had those subjects swapped. So, for instance, YOU DO THE MATH and MARTIAL ART became YOU DO THE ART and MARTIAL MATH.

This was a really fun solve, and the hook was both challenging but very intuitive. The themed entries were complemented by great fill and a lot of fun, accessible cluing. This easily could’ve slotted in as the first puzzle, but served as an excellent midpoint for the regular tournament puzzles.

Interesting grid entries included TERMINATOR, I DON’T GET IT, GIANNI, and ALL IN ALL, and my favorite clues were “Two out of nine, literally” for ENS and “Result of hitting a certain bar” for SPACE. (Also, points for a quality Simpsons reference with “KWYJIBO” in one of the themed entry clues.)

Puzzle 4: Roll Call by Jeff Chen

This hook took me longer to get than it should’ve — which was the story of my Lollapuzzoola solving experience this year — as parts of an actor’s name were literally inserted into other entries. But the clues only reflected the word without the insert, which added to the challenge. For instance, CONSUMES became CONSUMMATES with MAT inside, but it was clued “Depletes,” so it was up to you to figure out the longer entry.

And which actor was hiding within the themed entries? Well, quite appropriately, it was MAT/THEW/BRO/DER/ICK, who famously played lovable truant Ferris Bueller. Well played, Mr. Chen.

Interesting grid entries included RYDELL (referencing another famous school from a film), SAMOSA, LIP RINGS, and BEER STEIN, and my favorite clues were “Caesarian section?” for VIDI and the pair of “Org. concerned with millions of screens” for TSA and “Organizations concerned with millions of screens?” for TV NETWORKS.

Puzzle 5: Watch Your Tone! by Paolo Pasco

The regular tournament puzzles wrapped up with this 21×21 puzzle, which expanded on the trading-words hook we saw in Puzzle 3. But instead of school subjects, we were treated to the entire musical scale, as seven themed entries shifted letters. For instance, instead of DOCK OF THE BAY (which started with DO, the first note), we had TICK OF THE BAY (featuring TI, the second note).

That DO was swapped down to the next entry, where REMAINS TO BE SEEN became DOMAINS TO BE SEEN, and RE was the note sent down to the next entry. This formed a complete chain by the seventh themed entry, with the eighth themed entry serving as the revealer explaining what was going on in this class: PASSING NOTES.

The trade-off for this fun and ambitious theme was some pretty tough fill entries to make the grid work, but those difficult entries were mitigated somewhat by very solid cluing, making for a challenging, but ultimately fair puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included CD CASES, A JIFF, ELASTICITY, and AERO MEXICO, and my favorite clues were “’Look at that puppy!’” for AWW, “Crossword making, for one” for ART, and “’____, ____, Nanette’ (possible Russian remake of the ‘Tea for Two’ musical” for NYET.

Puzzle 6: Finals by Mike Nothnagel and Doug Peterson

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 two 15-letter entries crossing in the middle to build around, Mike and Doug delivered a tight grid with some terrific filler entries. As for the cluing, it felt like a summation of high school classes, with references to math, foreign languages, Greek mythology, and American history.

(That clue in particular shined in both versions of the puzzle. In the Local Finals, it read “American ship sunk in Havana Harbor… don’t you remember?” and in the Express, it was “Ship in 1898 headlines.” The answer? USS MAINE.)

This was a final puzzle worthy of a tournament built around clever hooks, top-notch construction, and delightful cluing, and it delivered in spades.

Interesting grid entries included HAVE A SNACK, EPIC FAIL, RENAULTS, and MEDEA, and my favorite clues were “Event at which you might stand for a spell?” for BEE and “Ikea’s AROD and KLABB, e.g.” for LAMPS.

There was also a tiebreaker puzzle which kept me guessing for a long while, especially with clues like “Mother’s father’s daughter’s son’s daughter” for NIECE and “’I have to write ____ on my blog tonight, mostly to complain about this atrocious partial in the Lollapuzzoola tiebreaker'” for A POST.


The puzzles at Lollapuzzoola always impress, and this year was no exception. The grids were tight, there was very little crosswordese, and the creative themes and puzzle mechanics — from swapping classes and passing notes to replacing missing letters with “rings” — 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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A 5-Letter Word Related to Crossword Skills? Try “Music”

A few years ago, I wrote a post discussing the curious intersection of music and puzzles. It centered around several studies about the effects both listening to music and performing music can have on individuals taking tests or solving puzzles.

There were two intriguing takeaways from these studies:

  • Both adults and children perform better on tests, puzzles, and problem-solving exercises when music is involved (ex.: if they listen to music before or during the test).
  • Children who are given music lessons often achieve greater heights in other subjects, including math and sports.

But it didn’t occur to me until much later that the connection between music and crosswords in particular has been in evidence for quite some time.

There are two 7-time champions in the history of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament: Dan Feyer and Jon Delfin. Think about that. Fourteen out of forty-one ACPT tournaments have been won by one of these men. Practically one out of every three!

And both of them have a musical background as pianists and music directors.

But they’re not the only ones. Constructor Patrick Blindauer, puzzler and actress Whitney Avalon, Lollapuzzoola co-founder Brian Cimmet, and even our own Director of Digital Games Fred Galpern are all musicians.

So what’s the connection between music and crossword puzzles?

No one can say for sure, but there are theories.

In the crossword documentary Wordplay (and quoted from the article linked below), former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent mentioned why he felt that musicians and mathematicians were good fits as crossword solvers:

Their ability to assimilate a lot of coded information instantly. In other words, a piano player like John Delfin, the greatest crossword player of our time, he sits down and he sees three staffs of music and he can instantly play it. He’s taken all those notes and absorbs what they mean, instantaneously. If you have that kind of mind, and you add it to it a wide range of information, and you can spell, you’d be a really great crossword puzzler.

Crossword constructor and psychology professor Arthur Schulman — known for a series of seminars entitled “The Mind of the Puzzler” at the University of Virginia — would agree with that statement. He posited a correlation between word puzzles, math, and music, in that they all involve a quick and intuitive understanding of symbols. It’s about “finding meaning in structure.”

In an interview with the New York Times, Dan Feyer built on this idea, stating that music, math, and puzzles all have pattern recognition in common, quickly recognizing combinations of blanks and spaces and mentally filling in possible answer words, even before reading the clues.

Now, clearly, musical skill and proficiency isn’t required to be a good crossword solver — I’d classify myself as a pretty good solver and I have an almost magical lack of musical talent — but it’s intriguing to ponder how puzzling could easily be wrapped up with a musical bow.

Do you know any other puzzlers with a musical background, or are you a lyrical solver yourself? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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