Farewell, Keith.

The puzzle world is a relatively small one, and sadly, it grew smaller last week, as friend of the blog Keith Yarbrough passed away.

On more than a few occasions, I’ve asked my fellow constructors and cruciverbalists for their help on blog posts, whether the topic was advice for solving crosswords, constructing puzzles, or writing dynamic clues. Keith was often the first person I would turn to for help.

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A long-time member of the Penny Dell Puzzles family, Keith specialized in crossword/variety magazines, blending a knack for charming and clever cluing with eclectic themes for the many variety puzzles he crafted and edited. His varied interests ensured that he never ran out of ideas for interesting themes or intriguing twists on worn-out crossword tropes.

Keith was equally at home in a classroom, in an orchestra, and in a crossword tournament, a true lover of both the arts and the sciences. His affection for music was well-known — many bands, including The Optics and The Gene Gnomes, can attest to his skill playing the tuba — and yet, he could unravel a deduction problem or a fiendish math puzzle as easily as he could read the notes on sheet music.

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Having worked together for more than a decade, I struggle to recall all of the topics we covered in conversation together. We talked Nobel Prize nominees and quantum physics one week, then Looney Tunes cartoons and silent comedy film shorts the next.

We would dissect the minutiae of Breaking Bad and Twin Peaks, share stories about our dogs (I prefer labs and retrievers, Keith loved his poodles), or recount entire George Carlin routines from memory. When he found out I was a wrestling fan, he laughed and told me about the time he met Mighty Igor outside a sandwich shop. (He grew up in North Carolina, a hotbed for wrestling in decades past.)

And, of course, we talked about puzzles. Keith was a pro at whipping up new clues for crosswords, and they were often as immensely clever as they were completely inappropriate for a family-friendly audience. Several of the funniest clues that I’ve featured in previous blog posts were his — and he was always striving to find new ways to clue tiresome words or to push the boundaries of humdrum constructing and “appropriate entries”. (Just last week, he had to re-edit a puzzle of one-word film titles because he tried to sneak “Caligula” past the censors. *laughs*)

One time, while trying to fix a submitted crossword, he turned to me and asked with a smile, “I know this is a long shot, but is there a non-offensive way to clue ‘witch hunt’?” (The best we could come up with was “pressing engagement.” And no, that would never ever make the cut.)

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I’ll miss his humor, his wit, and his friendship. And I know that I’m far from the only one who feels that way.

Kind words have been pouring in for days now, as people share photos and memories of Keith. The Winston-Salem Symphony dedicated a concert in his memory a few nights ago. (I pilfered several of the photos in this post from those I’ve seen shared.)

It was my privilege to work with Keith for over a decade, and I’ll miss him very much. I’ll miss the fascinating, weird, unexpected bits of trivia he’d throw my way. I’ll miss the music references he would gamely try to explain to me. I’ll miss the way he was always a half-step faster than me on brain teasers and word puzzles. I’ll miss the sly ways he pushed the creative envelope. I’ll miss him a different way every day.

Farewell, my friend. Farewell, Keith.


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A Women’s March for Crosswords

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For years now, we’ve been discussing the gender gap in crossword construction and representation of women in published outlets. Heck, in 2018, we even shared detailed statistics on the percentage of women published by major outlets, thanks to the research of Patti Varol and Erik Agard.

Since then, we’ve seen projects like The Inkubator and Women of Letters highlighting female constructors, and there’s been a concentrated effort in the puzzle community (if not the major outlets) to support, foster, and cultivate more minority voices in crosswords.

And this month in particular has seen three different projects dedicated to female constructors come to fruition. Although many voices have been involved in these efforts, a huge chunk of the credit definitely belongs to constructor Rebecca Falcon, who pushed for outlets to publish only female constructors for an entire month.

The goal? A Women’s March.

The Wall Street Journal sought to meet Falcon’s request, but they didn’t have enough submitted puzzles to do so. They did do a week of female-constructed puzzles, though, including the traditional Friday contest puzzle with a meta solution, constructed by Joanne Sullivan.

Users of The New York Times Crossword app can also enjoy the fruits of these creative labors, as a Women’s History Month pack of 20 puzzles is available through both the App Store and Google Play as an in-app purchase! This project, accomplished in partnership with The Inkubator, features puzzles by Rebecca Falcon, Joanne Sullivan, Stella Zawistowski, Wendy L. Brandes, Rachel Fabi, Juliana Tringali, Annemarie Brethauer, Martha Jones, Wyna Liu, and Mary Lou Guizzo.

And it should come as no surprise that the ambitious and well-connected David Steinberg, editor of the Universal Crossword, succeeded in amassing the talent necessary for a full Women’s March.

As David said in the FB post announcing the project:

Each of the 36 Universal Crosswords this month has been constructed by a different woman or pair of women, and—to my knowledge—10 of the puzzles will be their constructors’ world debuts! Some of the puzzles’ themes are easy, some are a bit tricky, and a few are unlike anything I’ve seen in all my years of editing. One thing I noticed across all the March puzzles, though, was a refreshing woman-centric voice, both in the clues and grids.

Women’s March will continue into April for a few days, since so many women submitted excellent puzzles that the original 36 slots I’d allocated weren’t enough. As I see it, this event is not so much a Women’s March as the beginning of a Universal Crossword Women’s Movement, and I hope the puzzles this month inspire more women to construct for Universal as well as for other markets.

Andrew McMeels Universal put together a graphic celebrating all of the women involved in the project:

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It’s so cool to see so many deserving constructors represented, not to mention all of the newcomers to the puzzle community! Here’s hoping that Women’s March is the start of equal puzzle representation across the board. That would be something truly special.

Are you aware of any other crossword outlets participating in Women’s March, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section! We’d love to hear from you AND spread the word!


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Puzzles in Pop Culture: DiscWorld

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[Image courtesy of Blizzard Watch.]

There are many strange worlds in the realms of fantasy literature, crafted in loving detail across dozens of novels and stories. But no fictional world is as hilarious, as thought-provoking, as sincere, as strange, or as endlessly inventive as the DiscWorld.

DiscWorld is a pizza-shaped planet that rests on the backs of four giant elephants that themselves stand atop the shell of a giant turtle that swims through space. The masterful creation of author Terry Pratchett, DiscWorld is a beloved universe of stories that encapsulates social commentary, parody, and epic adventure, all told through the lens of classic fantasy tropes turned on their heads.

And when you have a world that encompasses everything from witches and golems to time travel and Death himself, you’re bound to encounter a puzzle or two.

In today’s edition of Puzzles in Pop Culture, we’re looking at the colorful ways that Terry Pratchett incorporated puzzles into one of the most singular, expansive worlds in fantasy literature.

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[Image courtesy of The Daily Star.]

There are numerous capable puzzle solvers in the DiscWorld novels. Across several novels, Commander Vimes of the City Watch cracks both criminal cases and elaborate conspiracies thanks to his street smarts and years of detective work. Career criminal-turned-postmaster Moist Von Lipwig unravels several criminal conspiracies on his journey from miscreant to hero. Even Death, alongside his granddaughter Susan, takes a turn testing his puzzly might over the holidays when they uncover why the Hogfather (DiscWorld‘s version of Santa Claus) has gone missing.

But you cannot talk about capable puzzlers in DiscWorld without mentioning Lord Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician of the fabled city of Ankh-Morpork.

A trained assassin and mastermind who pulls puppet strings all over the city, Vetinari is both hero and villain, doing whatever he deems necessary to keep the city running smoothly.

As you might expect, he’s quite a fan of puzzles. (He plays games as well, like Thud and Stealth Chess, but we’re going to focus on puzzles today.)

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[Image courtesy of VS Battles Wiki.]

He’s something of a whiz when it comes to decoding and decrypting messages. At the Blind Letter Office in the Post Office — where letters unable to be delivered end up — Vetinari sometimes tests his wits by unraveling the near-gibberish found on some of the letters.

For example, Vetinari encountered a letter addressed to “Duzbuns Hopsit pfarmarrsc” and offhandedly explained that the letter was intended for “K. Whistler, Baker, 3 Pigsty Hill.” How, you ask? By decoding the above into the much-more coherent “Does Buns Opposite the Pharmacy.”

Although the regular employees of the Blind Letter Office manage to translate five out of every six addresses that cross their desks, they view Lord Vetinari’s puzzly skill with awe.

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

When it comes to British-style/cryptic crosswords, he brings equal skill to the table. In fact, the only discernible sign that Lord Vetinari is drunk is when it takes him 15 seconds longer than normal to solve The Ankh-Morpork Times‘ daily crossword puzzle.

He is routinely challenged by “Puzzler,” the setter for The Ankh-Morpork Times. Naturally, his begrudging respect for the skilled constructor leads him to pursue the secret identity of Puzzler.

In a later DiscWorld novel, Vetinari believes that fellow trivia enthusiast and pet-food shop owner Grace Speaker could be Puzzler. He puts her under observation when it’s revealed she is one of five people in the city who correctly answers the trivia question “What is, or are, Pysdxes?”

(For the record, the other four are Vetinari himself, his assistant Drumknott, Puzzler, and the Curator of Ephebian Antiquities at the Royal Art Museum.)

Later confirming her secret life as Puzzler, Vetinari continues to welcome her challenging puzzles, even if entries like “snarkenfaugister” leave him exasperated at her fiendish and obscure vocabulary choices. (Apparently crosswordese is a thing on DiscWorld as well…)

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[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

In the novel Making Money, a cryptic crossword clue is presented for the reader to solve as well: Shaken players shift the load (9)

Later in the novel, the answer is revealed. Did you figure it out?

The answer is CARTHORSE. The word “shaken” implies that some letter-mixing is involved, and if you shake up ORCHESTRA (the “players” from the clue), you get CARTHORSE, a device which allows you to “shift the load.”

Naturally, this clue was no match for Vetinari.

[Screenshot from the Penny Dell Sudoku App!]

It’s worth noting that Sudoku has also made its way into DiscWorld, though in a tongue-in-cheek dismissive fashion. In DiscWorld, it is called Jikan no Muda, which is Japanese for “waste of time.” Lord Vetinari considers Jikan no Muda puzzles far easier than the crossword, and therefore less worthy of his attention.

As you’d expect from a master manipulator like the Patrician, he enjoys crosswords more because they allow him to comprehend how another person’s mind works when actively trying to mislead.

In the capable hands of a world-class storyteller, little puzzly details like this don’t simply add color to an established character; they can set the tone for the adventures to come.

In Making Money, for instance, mentioning both crosswords and Jikan no Muda is no coincidence. The entire novel is built around the battle between those who prefer to deal in words (Vimes, Vetinari, Moist) and those who prefer numbers (Mr. Bent, who runs the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork).

One of my all-time favorite series even before I compiled these puzzly moments, the DiscWorld books make the most of every story element involved, whether it’s witchcraft, magic, misunderstandings, fiendish plots, or simply one city official’s penchant for puzzles.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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[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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A Month of Puzzly Celebration!

January is a good month for puzzles and puzzly pursuits. Not only is National Puzzle Day coming up soon, but there are two delightful anniversaries for us to celebrate.

Two years ago this month, one of the newer parts of the puzzle community was founded: The Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory.

This Facebook group is part gathering place for established and aspiring constructors and part resource for constructors of all skill levels.

People post and share information about everything from grid construction, editing programs, and cluing advice to networking, test-solving, and encouraging feedback.

Inexperienced and aspiring constructors meet and collaborate with established names. Obstacles, problems, and questions are handled with equal care and support. Heck, some constructors even post rejection notices they’ve received in order to share the valuable feedback it contains.

It’s become a hub for discovering and supporting underrepresented voices in puzzles as well, not only encouraging valuable new partnerships, but hopefully recruiting the next generation of constructors for all backgrounds.

It’s been a pleasure to watch this community grow and evolve as newer constructors become more confident and established voices launch new puzzly projects. I can’t wait to see what emerges from this marvelous endeavor in the months and years to come.

The second anniversary to celebrate this month belongs to domino master, kinetic artist, and friend of the blog Lily Hevesh, aka Hevesh5, who is celebrating 11 years as a domino artist and YouTuber.

Over the past decade, Lily has evolved from a foundling YouTuber with a few dozen dominoes into an influential member of the world domino community. She has designed works of kinetic art for films, TV shows, and special events, as well as Guinness World Records and collaborations involving hundreds of thousands of dominoes.

Continually pushing the boundaries of what you can do with dominoes — from chains and Rube Goldberg devices to literal works of art — Lily has amassed more than two million followers on YouTube and transformed a small hobby into a thriving business and contributing member of her community.

I’m overjoyed to see her ambitious plans for the future, especially after being a fan for so long. Every new video shows off her incredible range and talent, and I look forward to seeing what new wonders she has in store for us all in the future.

Happy Anniversary, Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory!
Happy Anniversary, Lily!

And happy puzzling to you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!


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The Unexpected Return of Timothy Parker

Of all the names I expected to see pop up in puzzles in the new year, Timothy Parker wasn’t one of them.

For the uninitiated, Timothy Parker was the crossword editor for Universal’s syndicated puzzle and USA Today, both of which are owned by Universal Uclick. He touted himself as “America’s most solved crossword constructor.”

And almost four years ago, devastating accusations of plagiarism emerged regarding Parker’s conduct as a crossword editor. In a story broken by FiveThirtyEight.com, more than 60 puzzles were flagged for suspicious patterns of repeated entries, grids, and clues with previously published puzzles in The New York Times and other outlets. (Hundreds more showed some level of repetition.)

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Additionally, a pattern of puzzles re-published under fake names or Parker’s name — rather than the name of the actual constructor who submitted the puzzle — also emerged.

In response — eventually — Universal Uclick released a statement that Parker “agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.” The company later confirmed “some” of the allegations against Parker, and he was placed on a three-month leave of absence. He was soon removed as editor for the USA Today crossword. (The question of whether he was still employed by Universal Uclick would linger for years to come.)

After all the kerfuffle, Parker seemingly vanished. Except for the occasional joke on Twitter (or scathingly clever puzzle) referencing the story, that was it.

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[Image courtesy of Evan Birnholz.]

Until last week, that is.

In a promotional article on ExpoTor, Parker touted the strength and drawing power of his puzzle brand, taking the opportunity not only to toot his own horn, but to settle a few old scores.

From the article:

Thirdly, be aware of snakes in the grass. As you get more and more successful, there will be more and more snakes slithering around trying to degrade your work in hopes of boosting theirs. This is common in any industry but is particularly relevant in my industry. I once had a D-list constructor for the Washington Post actually convince a gullible major newspaper reporter that one of my family-oriented crossword themes contained a secret “rape” joke.

This preposterous and asinine assumption was then actually written up by a reporter who stated I had “hidden” a rape joke in my crosswords. Having a G-rated, family-oriented brand for 21 years, this could have been devastating to the brand. But in my case, solvers who have known my work for years came to my rescue, and not only chastised the D-list constructor responsible for this nonsense but also the reporter as well. The article stayed up for a couple of hours and was quickly removed.

Both the supposed “D-list constructor” and the supposed “gullible major newspaper reporter” gladly identified themselves, pointing out that the article — you know, the one that was quickly removed back in 2017? — is still up on HuffPost today.

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[Image courtesy of Huffpost.]

As for the secret rape joke, the grid contained the message “PSST HEY DOES THIS OLD RAG SMELL LIKE CHLOROFORM TO YOU.” The clue? “Run away from anyone who says this.”

Good lord. That’s about as overt a rape joke as I’ve ever seen that didn’t actually include the word “rape.”

Parker concludes the point with “The lesson learned here is rivals are rarely an asset to your brand.” You’d think a better lesson to learn — other than “don’t make offensive comments the centerpiece of your crossword” — would be “Don’t waste time in the middle of a promotional pitch grinding an ax that makes you look petty, incompetent, and insensitive.”

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[Image courtesy of biaphysio.]

Now, fellow puzzler, you might very well be asking yourself, “why waste blog post space on a topic like this?” That’s a fair question.

But I think it’s important to identify and call out problematic members of a community. Parker has never once admitted any fault or claimed any responsibility for the plagiarism scandal years ago. He has never apologized to the hardworking constructors whose work was stolen and/or reused without credit.

And for him to make such snide comments about another constructor — a well-respected one, I might add, with vastly higher standards for what constitutes a quality puzzle — reflects poorly on the entire field.

It’s been my privilege to meet and interact with dozens of top-flight constructors and puzzle editors. And the vast majority of them are good people, Evan included. They’re decent, creative, often brilliant, and frequently incredibly supportive of their fellow constructors.

Meanwhile, Parker claims that “Timothy Parker Crosswords is a brand that’s known worldwide.” That’s true, though DeLorean and Ponzi are also brands known worldwide.

Thankfully, USA Today and Universal Crosswords (part of Andrews McMeel Syndication) are both in more capable, reliable, and honest hands, being edited by Erik Agard and David Steinberg, respectively.

Here’s hoping the trend toward editors who support and respect both their fellow constructors and the crossword audience continues onward into 2020 and beyond.


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