There’s a Little Something Extra in These X-Words…

Crossword constructors can be fiendishly clever, so there’s often something extra lurking inside a crossword grid, if you know where to look.

Sometimes it’s easy to spot. There are shaded areas or circled letters to reveal the hidden bonus answers that add a touch of pizzazz to a grid.

For instance, our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have a recurring crossword variant, Revelation, which conceals a quotation in a standard crossword grid.

The New York Times crossword has also featured this gimmick in puzzles plenty of times, perhaps most notably in a May 2015 puzzle where both poet WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS and the title of his poem THE LOCUST TREE IN FLOWER read down the sides of the grid, and the circled letters within the grid concealed the poem in full!

[Image sourced from Amy Reynaldo’s Diary of a Crossword Fiend.]

For his puzzle featured in an episode of The Simpsons, constructor Merl Reagle famously snuck a message into another New York Times crossword puzzle, allowing Homer to apologize to Lisa for his transgressions in the most public puzzly forum possible.

If you went diagonally from the upper left to the lower right of the grid, the statement “Dumb dad sorry for his bet” could be found.

[Image courtesy of The Guardian.]

Whether it’s a hidden quotation or a secret message hiding amidst the black squares and crisscrossing entries, these bonus answers offer a final little twist that wow solvers, leaving them shaking their heads at the cleverness and skill of constructors.

A puzzle in The Wall Street Journal recently reminded me of another surprise that a crafty constructor can spring on an unsuspecting solver.

This particular puzzle from September 28th of this year had instructions instead of the usual themed answers. If you read 22 Across, 61 Across, and 105 Across, you received the following message: Find the names of ten gems / hidden within the puzzle / grid in word search style.

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[Image courtesy of Reddit.]

Yes, the appropriately titled “Treasure Hunt” by Mike Shenk had jewels hidden among the answers in the grid, reading horizontally, vertically, and diagonally, just as they would in a word seek or word search.

Although this led to a few awkward entries — GOT ENRAGED is a bit clunky for an answer, even if the goal is to hide GARNET backwards within it — the grid is mostly great, and the spread of gems — from DIAMOND and EMERALD to ONYX and TOPAZ — is impressive. (I particularly liked RUBY reading out backwards in HURLYBURLY.)

I haven’t encountered many of these word search-style crossword surprises over the years, but there is one other prominent example that came to mind.

In his second appearance in today’s post, Merl Reagle constructed a special puzzle to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the crossword in 2013.

His puzzle was converted into a solvable Google Doodle — you can still solve it here! — and Merl added a crafty word search element by hiding the word FUN multiple times in the grid.

Why “fun,” you ask? Because that was the set word in Arthur Wynne’s original “word-cross” puzzle over one hundred years ago.

Believe me, constructing a great crossword grid is taxing enough. Adding touches and tricks like these just ratchet up both the difficulty involved and the skill level required to make the whole endeavor a harmonious success.

Kudos to those, past and present, who have pulled it off with such style.


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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.

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[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.)

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[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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Meet the Daily POP Word Search Constructors: Heather Phaneuf

One of the Daily POP Word Search app’s best features is the level of input from topnotch constructors. We’ve assembled one heck of a team when it comes to creating terrific, exciting, fresh, themed word search puzzles.

And over the next few weeks, we’d like to introduce you to some of them. Some names you may know, some you may not, but they’re all doing amazing work on these puzzles and deserve a little time in the limelight.

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For this installment, allow us to introduce you to puzzle constructor, mom, and music aficionado Heather Phaneuf!


How did you get started in puzzles?

I didn’t intend to get started in puzzles. I wanted to pursue a job in my degree: English, so when the opportunity came to be a copy editor, I jumped at it. Little did I know, I’d start off as a photocopy girl around the office, to a proofreader, then to an editor. It’s been a wild ride!

What do you enjoy about working on Daily POP Word Search?

Daily POP Word Search was a bit out of my comfort zone, my realm, but it was something new. As someone who accustomed to creating the same sort of puzzles day in, day out: trying something new was like a breath of fresh air. I love new challenges, they push me in a creative, thoughtful way.

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Is there a particular theme day that appeals to you most or that you enjoy working on?

The music theme appeals to me most. I just love the “vibe” of it, how it brings people together. I grew up in a very musical house, always something playing, and yes, I recall 8-tracks in my dad’s car, but…we all sang together, albeit out of tune. I can sing out loud a modern song just as easily as the Beatles or Jimi; damn hippie parents!

How is working on Daily POP Word Search different from constructing for some other outlet or magazine?

Working on Daily POP Word Search certainly is fun, it’s challenging, and I appreciate that. Anything that makes me open my eyes and experience something new or current: I’m game. Just be open-minded. To me, that’s growth; just be open minded. IT’S NOT THAT HARD! Try new things, live and learn!


A huge thank you to Heather for her time! Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles in the Daily POP Word Search app, free to download for both iOS and Android users!

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Delving into the BosWords 2019 Crosswords!

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I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hand at the puzzles from the BosWords Crossword Tournament last month. Given the talent involved amongst the organizers and constructors, I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

So let’s put those puzzles under the microscope and see what’s what!


Leading Ladies by John Lieb

This unscored opening puzzle served as a fun and pleasant warm-up, getting everyone into the puzzly spirit and ready to solve. The theme entries were five films with female leads (like CLEOPATRA, FOXY BROWN, and CAT BALLOU), and the revealer TITLE NINE nicely tied the five films together through their nine-letter titles.

With good flow and an accessible theme, this is a great confidence booster and a solid puzzle to shake off any nerves going into the tournament.

Interesting grid entries included SAMOANS, ZOWIE, DEEP-SIXED, and LANDO, and my favorite clue was “Got to square 100 first in Chutes and Ladders, e.g.” for WON.

Puzzle 1: Central Intelligence by Claire Rimkus and Andrew Kingsley

As you might expect from the first puzzle in the tournament proper, this puzzle was a fairly easy start, combining an accessible theme with interesting fill. Each of the three-letter words at the center of the theme entries spelled out a different degree one could earn, a la VET reading out in LONG LIVE THE KING.

The circles for the three middle letters in each themed entry are almost unnecessary, as between the title and the themed entries themselves, you could suss out the theme without much trouble.

(But then again, I’m a sucker for circles in a crossword grid, so I liked having them there.)

One of the theme entries was more obscure than the other three, but this was still a breezy solve to get the tournament going.

Interesting grid entries included THE UK, OBERON, SOIREE, and MASHUP, and my favorite clues were “Hacker’s problem?” for COUGH and “You don’t want to be under it” for ARREST.

[Image courtesy of SharpBrains.com.]

Puzzle 2: Don’t Strain Yourself by Ross Trudeau

Normally, you’d expect the difficulty to ratchet upward a bit for puzzle 2, but this one was pretty much on par with the first puzzle. The revealer NO FILTER explained the link between the theme entries (things like EMAIL SPAM and INSTANT COFFEE), but overall, I was a little underwhelmed by this one.

That’s not to say the puzzle wasn’t otherwise well-constructed, because it was. The longer down entries linking the themed entries were executed with finesse, and other than one tough entry (ILLINI), the fill was fair and the cluing solid.

Interesting grid entries included DOOMSDAY, TO THE MAX, IOLANI, AL EAST, and DALLIANCES, and my favorite clue was “Turns into a screenplay, perhaps” for ADAPTS.

Puzzle 3: Plus or Minus by Joon Pahk and Laura Braunstein

The increase of difficulty I was expecting in puzzle 2 arrived with gusto in puzzle 3, as the solver must figure out how to either add or remove a number from the theme entries. With the subtraction clues, it was easier, because you had the number spelled out in the entry (like STONE AGE DOOR, where the -1 in the clue indicates that the word ONE should be removed, making the more familiar STAGE DOOR).

With the addition entries, you had to get a little more creative. For instance, the entry PAT PENDING becomes PATENT PENDING when you add the +10 from the clue. It’s a clever hook, and certainly not the last time we’ll be seeing some puzzly math in this puzzle set.

Interesting grid entries included SEA MONKEYS, SQUEAK, UMAMI, and SAYSO, and my favorite clue was “Something that won’t stay hot” for FAD.

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Puzzle 4: Spill the Tea by John Lieb and David Quarfoot

My favorite gimmick from the tournament puzzles appears in puzzle 4, which took me longer to figure out than it probably should have. In this puzzle, longer theme entries are shortened by having a brand of tea contained in the answer reading down instead of across. So, HOTEL CHAIN reads HOTELCN across, because CHAI is reading down from the C instead.

This sort of visual gag in a crossword is hard to pull off, but Lieb and Quarfoot do so nicely, having five “spills” in the grid. (Cluing each tea reading down as an “Oops” was a nice touch, as was the Boston Tea Party reference in the tagline at the top of the page.)

Interesting grid entries included AP CALC, WIN BIG, UNCLE SAM and X-ACTO KNIFE, and my favorite clue was “Charlatan exposer of film” for TOTO.

Puzzle 5: Get the Picture by Paolo Pasco

The regular tournament concluded with puzzle 5, and Pasco ably brought it home with this film-centric puzzle where the theme entries all ended with synonyms for part of a film (SHOT, SCENE, FOOTAGE, TAKE, and CLIP). The theme is quickly uncovered, but the puzzle is by no means a cakewalk, as solid, creative fill makes for a more challenging solve than you expect.

There’s very little crosswordese — the grid instead focused on unusual entries in a well-constructed grid. (Heck, if Pasco had included J and X, this puzzle would have been a pangram as well!)

Interesting grid entries included SATYRS, CYBER, KAPOW, ME DAY, and GUIDE DOG, and my favorite clue was “Write this answer as EER, say” for ERR.

boswordsfinal

[Image courtesy of @StalkingSarah.]

Championship Themeless by Finn Vigeland

After two years of championship puzzles being shepherded by the ambitious grids of David Quarfoot, Finn Vigeland steps up to the plate with a very intimidating themeless grid loaded with lots of long entries. With 3 nine-letter words in each corner and 3 thirteen-letter entries stacked in the middle of the grid, this one would probably give any solver pause at the outset, let alone those solving on stage in front of an audience.

Those long entries were bolstered by a lot of terrific crossings that made use of the open grid, making for a mostly great solving experience, save one or two specious phrases (AREN’T I?, ick).

But the impressive ones far outweigh the occasional clunkers, and Vigeland’s first championship themeless for BosWords will most likely not be his last.

Interesting grid entries included PR FARM, FUTURAMA, I CAN’T EVEN, and ARMREST, and my favorite clue was “One of a breakfast trio” for SNAP.


Bonus puzzle: Do the Math by John Lieb

Although this wasn’t an official tournament puzzle, I have to mention it because this bonus grid was my favorite in the entire set. Treating common hyphenated phrases with numbers as if they were equations, the theme entries in this puzzle required a little outside-the-box thinking to come up with the correction solutions.

For instance, “Combo from Rocky Balboa” would normally be “ONE-TWO PUNCH,” but since we’re thinking mathematically, ONE minus TWO is NEGATIVE ONE, so our themed answer is actually NEGATIVE ONE PUNCH.

The revealer DIFFERENCE MAKERS was just the icing on the cake for a puzzle that took something in plain sight and turned it on its head in a clever way. It was the perfect conclusion to a day of enjoyable puzzling.

Interesting grid entries included ELIXIR, RELAXED FIT, YIKES, and K’NEX, and my favorite clues were “Pricey place for a fan” for SKYBOX and “Improvises musically” for VAMPS.


Overall, I was mostly impressed by the array of puzzles assembled for this year’s tournament. There were tricky themes, visual themes, and math themes, all of which made great use of both the cluing and the grids themselves. Yes, one or two puzzles didn’t connect with me as strongly as the others, but the entire gauntlet of puzzles were challenging and creative in their design without being off-putting or getting too esoteric.

BosWords is probably the tournament that is friendliest to new solvers in terms of puzzle difficulty — not nearly as challenging as those at Lollapuzzoola or The Indie 500, but increasingly just as experimental and inventive — while still remaining engaging.

It’s the right mix of challenge and creativity for solvers accustomed to NYT-style solving, and I think the constructors and organizers did one heck of a job putting together the tournament.

Can’t wait to see what they cook up for us next year.


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How Will Shortz Works

shortzoffice

[Image courtesy of Lifehacker.]

Last week, Lifehacker posted the latest edition of their How I Work series, which takes readers behind the scenes and into the workspaces of all sorts of experts, scientists, creators, and pop culture icons to see how they do what they do.

And New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz stepped into the spotlight to share his average workday and what his job is really like.

It provides an interesting snapshot of a job most people know very little about. (And, sadly, thoroughly debunks the glamorous crime-solving editorial life Lacey Chabert portrayed in A Puzzle to Die For earlier this year.)

Will talks about going through submissions, editing and polishing crosswords, working on clues, interacting with his assistants, and takes us into his workplace itself, including his reliance on book sources over Internet verification. He also namedrops his table tennis club (always table tennis, never ping-pong), and gives a well-deserved shout-out to XWordInfo.com as a world-class database of NYT crossword data.

But there’s one line in particular from the interview that stood out to me, and I suspect it stood out to other puzzlers as well. When discussing the editorial process for each Times-approved crossword, Shortz stated:

“I don’t think any other puzzle in the country goes through such rigorous editing and testing before publication.”

Now, I like Will. I do. I’ve interviewed him, and chatted with him at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament on more than one occasion. Hell, this year, I purposely lassoed him and pulled him aside so fans could grab photos with him before the tournament started AND still managed to work in a joke or two about the Crossword Mysteries movie.

But, man, there’s putting over your own product, and then there’s just stepping in it.

There are SO MANY great editors in the crossword market today. Off the top of my head, I can mention the editors at The Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Higher Edition, The American Values Club, The Universal Crossword, and The Crosswords Club, not to mention special projects like Women of Letters and the Indie 500, all of which provide wonderful, insightful feedback and attention to detail during the editorial process.

Sure, those puzzles might not all get the attention of ten test-solvers before publication, as Will claims each NYT crossword does. But then again, if you ignore those test solvers, as Will did in January when he used the word BEANER in a grid, that number doesn’t really matter much.

No, this isn’t always the case, obviously. Just two weeks ago, the Twitter account The Truth About Nursing praised Shortz “for allowing Howard Barkin’s description of nurses as ‘Pro caregivers, for short,’ implying expertise & autonomy. This contrasts with the 2007 clue ‘I.C.U. helper’ & the 2009 clue ‘hospital attendant’.”

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If you click through to the actual article, Howard does get the lion’s share of the thanks, as he should, given that the tweet shortchanged him a bit. But you also get more backstory on how the team at The Truth About Nursing spoke out against tone-deaf cluing regarding nurses:

Both of those clues led the Truth to protest to longtime Times puzzle editor Will Shortz. We explained to him in detail why the common misconceptions of nursing that the clues reflected were damaging, in light of the global nursing shortage and the proven influence that the media has in shaping public attitudes toward the profession… Shortz never responded directly to our concerns.

Yes, the NYT crossword gets more criticism because it is the flagship. But if you’re the flagship, you’re also supposed to set the tone, and with a track record of tone-deaf entries like ILLEGAL and HOMIE, as well as clues like “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM or “Exasperated comment from a feminist” for MEN, criticism is well-deserved.

The line between tooting your own horn and overplaying your hand is a very fine one, and undoubtedly, people are bound to disagree on which side of the fence this statement lands.

Some may say that Will deserves all the accolades and horn-tooting he wishes, given the subscriber numbers the NYT crossword garners. Others may take umbrage at Will seemingly dismissing the terrific work done by crossword editors around the country (with fewer resources, it must be said). I mean, Will himself mentored some of those editors!

I can’t speak for any of those editors, and I won’t. But, for me, as someone who has had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and getting to know so many of those creative, qualified, hardworking, and giving editors, methinks he doth toot a bit too much.


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And… Repeat

repetition

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

I’ve had repetition on the brain lately. Repeatedly. How apropos.

I was talking about plagiarism with a friend of mine recently — a teacher who has dealt with her fair share of plagiarized essays from students — and I quickly summarized the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal from 2016 for her.

She was understandably surprised that plagiarism was a thing in the crossword world — a thankfully rare one — and it got me thinking about intentional repetition vs. unintentional repetition.

When it comes to the Uclick scandal, it was pretty obviously intentional repetition.

crossword-finals-shady

But unintentional repetition happens more often than you’d think. The very rules for creating a traditional themed crossword lend themselves toward duplication, unintentional and otherwise.

Grid layouts, for instance, get reused all the time. When I started constructing, I actually assembled a stack of different grid patterns for 13x and 15x puzzles that I could use, organized by how the theme entries were arranged on the page: 9-13-9, 11-15-11, etc.

Despite the virtually infinite number of ways you could build a 15x grid, you see, when it comes to theme entries — particularly grids with diagonal symmetry and theme entries of matching length — there’s a finite number of ways to build a functioning grid.

So, we know that grids can easily be similar, but what about themes?

There are all sorts of ways that wordplay can inspire crossword themes — anagrams, sound-alike puns, entries reading backwards or being mixed up in a grid, portmanteaus, letters being removed from common phrases (and sometimes placed elsewhere in the grid), etc. — and if more than one constructor comes up with the same idea, you could have repeated entries with no malice or plagiarism involved.

Let’s say multiple constructors are working on puzzles with a similar theme, as they would for some of the tournaments hosted throughout the year, like Lollapuzzoola or the Indie 500. If the tournament had a time theme, it’s reasonable that more than one constructor could come up with a hook like “Time Flies” and look for entries that combine travel and time, coming up with NONSTOPWATCH or LAYOVERDUE.

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[Image courtesy of DnD Beyond.]

Constructor Matt Gaffney actually wrote about a case of unintentional theme repetition for Slate years ago, discussing how he and Mike Shenk independently came up with puzzles where the word RAVEN was hidden in longer entries, and four of the five theme entries in the puzzles were the same AND placed similarly in the grid.

It’s a fascinating read that reveals a lot about grid construction, theme design, and puzzle mechanics. It’s the ultimate puzzly example of “great minds think alike.”

So, how do you avoid repeating a theme? Well, a little due diligence can go a long way. Sites like Xwordinfo and Crossword Fiend are great resources for searching theme answers to see if they’ve been done before.

Constructor Patrick Blindauer also offered some advice for coming up with new themes: solve more puzzles. He said, “Solving other puzzles is a good source of theme ideas for me. I try to guess the theme early, sometimes based only on the title; if I turn out to be wrong, I’ve got a new idea to play with.”

In this case, he avoids repetition through imagination. It’s a cool idea, one that will no doubt lead to some terrific new puzzles.


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