The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament Returns This Weekend!

acptlogo

Hello fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!

Normally, this reminder post would go up on Friday, but since the deadline to register to participate in this year’s virtual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is noon tomorrow, we’re posting a day early.

Yes, the 43rd edition of the ACPT — jokingly referred to as the Nerd Olympics — has gone online this year (though some folks are still attending in person). But it’s not just the competition puzzles! Prizes, panels, and more are planned across the weekend.

A full slate of events has been scheduled for Friday through Sunday, including the Merl Reagle Award, puzzle workshops, trivia and games, and the live-solving finals, including commentary from Greg Pliska and Ophira Eisenberg!

But who is constructing this year’s puzzles, you ask? A fine question.

Constructors Sam Ezersky, Emily Carroll, Patrick Berry, Kevin Der, Lynn Lempel, Mike Shenk, Ruth Bloomfield Margolin, and Robyn Weintraub are all contributing puzzles to this year’s tournament.

You can click here to register and visit the ACPT website for full details!

Will you be competing, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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How Outdated Is Too Outdated in Crosswords?

One of the biggest complaints levied at crosswords in general involves the vocabulary often employed to fill the grid.

Whether you call it crosswordese, obscure trivia, outdated vocabulary, or intentional gatekeeping through language, it’s a problem some solvers never overcome, contributing to a negative, exclusionary reputation for crosswords.

Let’s talk about the two extremes first. I genuinely believe that there’s no intentional gatekeeping in crosswords. There are ongoing efforts to include more women, more voices of color, and more LGBTQIA+ creators in construction, and even constructing equipment is becoming more affordable through efforts like Crossworthy Construct.

But not knowing common crossword parlance is a barrier to enjoying crosswords.

There is work to put in for new solvers to get up to speed in crosswords. Those common crossword words and names that we take for granted — ETUI, ALEE, OLIO, ARIA, ICER, and more — represent the combined breadth and history of grid construction in crosswords. Those are the words you learn as part of your process to become a better solver, building a personal lexicon of crosswordese.

So where is the line? When does something pass from “charmingly difficult crosswordese” to “off-putting irrelevancy”?

In essence, how obscure is too obscure? How long can an old clue/entry linger without feeling outdated or exclusionary to new solvers?

It’s a good question, one that’s not not so easy to answer.

How long do we refer to “vamp” THEDA BARA, when her heyday was farther and farther back with every passing day?

How long do we continue to reference the Aral Sea, considering that there practically is no Aral Sea anymore? It’s mostly the Aralkum Desert now.

When it becomes part of history, is it acceptable? After all, calling Tokyo “Edo” or referring to Iran as “Persia, once” happens all the time.

Obviously, outdated terminology or obscure words aren’t as big an issue in crosswords as genuinely exclusionary and offensive entries, but it’s still a topic worth discussing, because it prevents the community from growing.

New entries, fresh entries, entries that speak to other members of the population… they have incredible value. Seeing yourself and your culture, your heroes, your history, your slang represented in crosswords builds a bond between you and the art of puzzling itself.

I’m sure outdated references and obscurities will never truly go away. Some of those letter combinations are just too valuable to constructors.

But it will be interesting to see how crosswordese and those potentially gatekeeping words change and evolve as we press forward.

Maybe in 30 or 40 years, “crosswordese” as a whole will feel more inclusive. One can only hope.


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5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Chez Knox!

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!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the fifth edition of our series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome Chez Knox as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

knox

It doesn’t matter if they’re squares or hexagons; if you’re talking grids of repeated shapes, Chez Knox has you covered.

Her debut crossword puzzle will be published by The Inkubator later this year, so you know her skills with squares are topnotch. And as for the hexagons, she recently contributed the Alabama hexagon to a crowd-sharing effort to complete a 50-states quilt. The national quilt museum even had exhibition space reserved for the quilt before COVID complications cancelled the exhibit.

And now, fellow quilting/sewing enthusiast Shannon Downey is taking this Internet-united work of quilt creativity around the country to share the power of art and craftivism, thanks to creative folks like Chez.

Chez 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 Chez Knox

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

The Sunday newspaper was a bit of a ritual around my house growing up. My dad and I always read the comics and did the word puzzles together.

2. As you start to interact with the puzzle community at large, what have you learned along the way? What has been the most surprising part of the process for you?

Everyone genuinely wants to help a constructor succeed. I think I’ve been most surprised at the size of the cruciverbalist community – there are a lot of people out there into this kind of work!

What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle?

A great puzzle has a very clever theme connecting dots I’ve never before connected.

A good clue gives me so much joy! Lately I like finding puzzles with a well-executed clue echo. There’s a hint of nuance to this technique that makes me smile. (A clue echo is when the same clue is used twice in a puzzle. It is usually one word or a very short phrase. The answers contrast each other but connect through the clue.)

One example might be: 2D and 34A may both be clued as “Green” and the answers might be ENVIOUS and UNSEASONED.

What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own?

I try to avoid crosswordese – common fillers like ENO, OLIO, EKE, etc. But sometimes they are little words that sneak into a grid fill so that the sanity of the constructor is saved.

adventureImage-image-1512060253232-superJumbo

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others? Who inspires you as a constructor?

My favorite themes are ones that highlight words inside of theme words/phrases. It could be a hidden word that plays on the meaning of the theme entry word or a handful of theme entries containing a common word among them. In the grid design, squares that make up this word would be shaded or circled.

An example of this kind of theme is given in Patrick Berry’s Crossword Constructor Handbook.

Theme entries:

  • CLAUDE MONET
  • MADE MONEY
  • SIMON DEMONTFORT
  • DESDEMONA
  • PANDEMONIUM

Do you see the common word here? (It’s DEMON)

I find Erik Agard’s puzzles to be particularly eloquent and clever. They challenge me in a new way and I love that! That’s the kind of feeling I want my puzzles to give people.

4. What’s next for Chez Knox?

The day-to-day answer is more puzzle construction practice. My goal is to get to a place where one of my puzzles is being published once a month.

Zooming out from the day-to-day, I’ve had a lot of change in my life recently so I don’t want to think about anything new for a while! My husband and I are settling into a new house while I’m setting into life as a Waldorf class teacher after 20 years in the field of IT. I have a class of first graders that I will teach all the way through eighth grade! (How fun is that?!)

Meanwhile, daily crossword puzzles keep me grounded and in connection with my love of the English language. I am SO EXCITED to be a boring person who delights in making a home, teaching, sewing, and solving/constructing crossword puzzles!

5. What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow solvers, aspiring constructors/setters, and puzzle enthusiasts?

There are lots of free constructing resources available but if you’re serious about creating your own puzzles, you’ll need to pay for things like software and word lists.


A huge thank you to Chez for her time. You can follow her on Instagram for all of her creative endeavors, and be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her Inkubator debut! I can’t wait to see what she creates next!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

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!

Ask a Puzzler: What’s your puzzly pet peeve?

pet-peeves

Originally this post was going to be a nitpicky little thing where I focused on one of my puzzly pet peeves.

But it occurred to me that this might not just be a pet peeve of mine. It might similarly irk other puzzle people I know.

I then reached out to some of the constructors I know to ask what their puzzly pet peeves are. And, as it turns out, there are lots of silly little things in crosswords and other puzzles that catch the ire of constructors and puzzle-minded folks.

So please join us as we kvetch and complain a little bit and let off some steam about one of our favorite pastimes.

Welcome to Ask a Puzzler: What’s one of your puzzly pet peeves?


crossword mug

Constructor Joanne Sullivan:

The myth that solving in pen is the highest achievement.

Winners of the ACPT have told me that they never solve in pen. Almost all solvers (including the expert speed-solvers) use pencils at crossword tournaments. You could write a whole article on serious crossword solvers’ pencil preferences–wood vs. mechanical, .5 mm vs. .7 mm lead, disposable vs. refillable, etc.

When I’ve worked as a judge at crossword tournaments, I’ve been irked by solvers who solve in pen and then wrote over their original answers when they made mistakes because they couldn’t erase them. If they insist on using pens, at least they should use ones with erasable ink. Sloppy handwriting in tournament puzzles is also a pain for judges. What’s worse than mere sloppy handwriting is inconsistency. If a contestant always uses the same squiggle to represent a certain letter, it’s easier to determine their intent, but if they form the same letter different ways in different squares, it can be maddening for judges.


Washington Post Crossword editor Evan Birnholz:

A pet peeve of mine is the tendency to refer only to classical or Romantic-era music pieces when writing clues about keys (A MINOR, C MAJOR, etc). Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin are great, but there are other genres and musicians who used those keys, too.


Universal Crossword editor David Steinberg:

I’d say my puzzly pet peeve is when a crossword has too many cross-reference clues (like “See 19-Across”), since it’s always sort of frustrating to be sent all over the grid.


Constructor Doug Peterson:

Clues that want me to think the answer is a “good name” for a certain profession.

For example STU as a [Good name for a cook?] or SUE as a [Good name for a lawyer?]. OTTO for a chauffeur, OWEN for a debtor, PHILIP for a gas station attendant. The list goes on and on. I love third grade riddles as much as anyone, but for some reason these stick in my craw. =)

In my opinion, this sort of thing only works for pets. OREO is a great name for a black-and-white kitten!

oreo


Fireball Crosswords constructor Peter Gordon:

The best I can come up with is when someone feels the need to cross off the clue number after filling in the answer. Why bother doing that?

[PN Blog: I confess. I do this.]


Wordplay blogger Deb Amlen:

It took me a really long time to understand when there was a rebus element in a puzzle. I spent a lot of time cursing at my empty grid before I realized that something must be up.


Daily POP Crosswords constructor Robin Stears:

Puzzle books for little kids, particularly the ones in the dollar stores.

Very often, they’re nothing more than scaled-down grids with clues written for adults. And for some reason, they all contain the word ARIA, which I doubt children even know, unless Peppa Pig has a friend named Aria. I actually saw one with a Blackjack clue for ACE! Are these kids today playing poker on the playground? At my school, we didn’t learn how to count cards until the eleventh grade. 😉


Constructor Neville Fogarty:

My biggest pet peeve in the world of puzzles is actually in the world of cryptics — indirect anagrams! I can’t stand when a clue involves rearranging letters that you aren’t given. That’s just not fair; there are too many possibilities!

Fortunately, most publishers of cryptics edit these out, but I still see these on occasion from newer setters and indie sites. Yikes!


Oh, and what was the pet peeve that inspired this entry in the first place?

When people call things crosswords that aren’t crosswords.

I get it. You see a clued puzzle where words cross, and you think crossword. But it’s not. It’s a crisscross. It’s a perfectly valid puzzle, but it’s not a crossword.

Perhaps the most egregious example recently was featured on the Hallmark website page for the Crossword Mysteries series of films. They advertise a crossword tie-in to each show. And when you click on it, you get this:

crisscross

That’s not a crossword. And this happens all the time. a blog page or an activity book or a tie-in product related to some pop culture property, you’ll be told there’s a crossword to solve…

And you get a crisscross instead.

Several of my fellow puzzlers chimed in on this topic when I mentioned it as my example of a puzzly pet peeve.

Joanne Sullivan: Oh, don’t get me started! Criss-crosses being passed off as crosswords are bad enough, but I think it’s even worse when clueless designers try to emulate real crosswords but make all kinds of mistakes like lack of symmetry, noncontiguous white squares, unchecked squares, and worst of all, nonsensical numbering. I can’t stand it when fake crosswords in cartoons or fabrics have numbers thrown in them willy-nilly.

Robin Stears: Dang it, you stole my pet peeve. I was just complaining to someone the other day about a book cover with a pseudo-crossword grid that wasn’t really a crossword puzzle at all!

Oh, and puzzle books for kids very often try to pass off criss-crosses as crosswords, too. It’s not just Hallmark — that new People crossword game is not a crossword either. Six words that vaguely overlap do not a crossword puzzle make, and you can quote me on that.


Did you enjoy this fun little venting session, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below, and we might do another Ask a Puzzler post in the future! (But not too often. I don’t want them to start dreading emails from me.)

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

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!

5 Questions for Crossword Constructing Duo May Huang and Kevin Trickey!

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!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the fourth edition of a new series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome May Huang and Kevin Trickey as our latest 5 Questions interviewees (and our first duo interview)!

Kevin and May - crossword background

For many modern constructors, making crosswords isn’t simply about building grids or writing clues. It’s also about contributing to the greater crossword community in a meaningful way.

And you’d be hard-pressed to find two people making bigger strides in that direction than constructor May Huang and programmer Kevin Trickey. They have launched their own free puzzle site, Crossworthy, to share a new puzzle every week, and May’s puzzles have found their way into outlets like The Inkubator.

But they’ve gone above and beyond by creating a free-to-use crossword construction tool, Crossworthy Construct. With the price of quality crossword-constructing software often proving a major hindrance to new puzzlers, Crossworthy Construct is an amazing resource for any aspiring cruciverbalist to try out.

May and Kevin were gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for May Huang and Kevin Trickey

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

In the early months of quarantine, May started playing the NYT minis and eventually began making her own minis that she would send out to friends and family throughout the month (her newsletter was called “May’s Minis”). As Kevin watched May iterate through fills on Microsoft Word, he started writing an algorithm that could churn out larger grids more quickly. In June, we started Crossworthy, a website for publishing our algorithm-generated and hand-made grids.

Unlike some constructors we know, we didn’t start out as avid crossword players before starting to make our own puzzles. But the creative and technical challenges of crossword construction align with our mutual interests — May is a literary translator who enjoys wordplay, while Kevin is a casual programmer who fancied a challenge. Now, of course, we love both playing crosswords as well!

2. You have your own puzzle website (and editing software!), in addition to publishing through outlets like The Inkubator. As you start to interact with the puzzle community at large, what have you learned along the way? What has been the most surprising part of the process for you?

When we first started making puzzles, we didn’t expect this hobby to really take off, but it really has! We went from constructing puzzles using Microsoft Word (a good learning experience, but not sustainable) to developing our own software that streamlines our construction process.

Along the way, however, we were surprised to see how many resources already exist — tools and communities we wish we had known about sooner! We sometimes tweet about our construction questions and we’re always heartened by how instantly helpful fellow constructors can be. The best thing we’ve learned is that the crossword community can be a very kind and welcoming place.

Crossworthy Construct page

[Crossworthy Construct, May and Kevin’s crossword custom editing
software. Click here to check it out for yourself.]

What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own?

A great puzzle, to us, is both personal and accessible; it should have words and clues that really resonate with the constructor, as well as elements that will speak to any player. Because we have different interests, however, we often clash over clues.

For example, most of May’s pop culture clues fly over Kevin’s head, whereas the biology terms Kevin tends to include are equally obscure to her. In this way, we keep each other in check, and try to produce well-balanced puzzles. Nonetheless, we’re still rookies in the field: we’re still learning about what makes a theme set stand out and which words make for sparkly fill.

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others? Who inspires you as a constructor?

Recent puzzles we’ve really enjoyed include Paolo Pasco’s “Busting Moves” puzzle (January 3rd, 2021) as well as Matthew Stock’s “Karaoke Bars” (February 21, 2021). Malaika Handa’s daily 7×7 project is fantastic, and Evan Birnholz’s meta puzzle “5×5” in the Washington Post was super eye-opening. We’re inspired by too many constructors to name — Barbara Lin, Caitlin Reid, Natan Last, Ross Trudeau, Kam Austin Collins…the list goes on!

We tend to like puzzles with themes that make us smile, and reveal an aspect of the constructor’s personality. Some of our own puzzles that fall into our category include “Valentine Poem,” whose theme words spell out a crossword-themed love poem, and “A President’s Ponderings,” a puzzle that includes presidential puns in its theme set.

crossworthy valentine

4. What’s next for May Huang and Kevin Trickey?

While we plan to continue publishing weekly puzzles on Crossworthy every Sunday, we also hope to start publishing more puzzles in other venues (May has a puzzle coming out from the Inkubator soon!).

We’re also spending a lot of time building out new features for Crossworthy Construct, our own free construction software. Our goal is to reduce the barriers to entry for new and aspiring constructors like us. Currently, anyone can use our site to construct their own puzzles, and we’d love to hear from as many people as possible about their ideal construction software.

5. What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow solvers, aspiring constructors/setters, and puzzle enthusiasts?

Kevin’s advice: Find an angle that interests you the most. Like everything else in life, crossword constructing is the convergence of many disciplines, and you can choose to play to your strengths. For me, it was the technical challenge of coding that got me started, and it’s kept me invested a year later.

May’s advice: Don’t be discouraged if you have trouble solving the NYT puzzle; in fact, look beyond the NYT! There are so many more crossword publication venues and indie sites out there making great puzzles. There are many diverse voices in the crossworld and you can definitely be one of them.


A huge thank you to May and Kevin for their time. You can follow them on Twitter for all of their crossword endeavors, and be sure to check out their website Crossworthy to solve puzzles and try out their crossword constructing software! I cannot wait to see what they cook up next!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

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!

5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Mollie Cowger!

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!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the third edition of a new series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome Mollie Cowger as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Less than a year into her crossword career, Mollie Cowger has already built a reputation for creative themes, strong cluing, and well-constructed grids. Heck, she made my list of favorite clues of the year with “Protector of the crown?” for ENAMEL.

Her puzzles have appeared in Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest, Matthew Stock’s Happy Little Puzzles, and several times in the USA Today crossword, and that list will be growing by leaps and bounds in the near future.

Mollie 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 Mollie Cowger

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

My mom has always been an avid crossword solver, so I got started young. I’ve solved crosswords (originally just NYT, now many others) with varying degrees of regularity since at least high school (so, 2010-ish). I’ve been messing around with construction for a few years, but didn’t start devoting serious time and energy to it until summer 2020. My published debut was in October 2020 with a meta crossword for Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest.

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own?

I love a good a-ha moment; I love a puzzle that makes me laugh; I love seeing pop culture that’s in my wheelhouse; I love learning new things. There are so many ways a puzzle can be great! I also think “greatness” is a subjective judgment. I’ve solved many puzzles that are technically impressive and thoughtfully constructed that just don’t vibe with me for whatever reason. But that’s fine! Not everyone has to like every puzzle.

When I’m making a puzzle, I love having an entry where I know there’s great wordplay to be found, and then having my own constructor aha moment when I finally land on it. I try to put things in my puzzles that I would be excited to see as a solver, or that I can imagine someone else being excited to see.

I try to use “do I think people who know this will be happy to see it” as a guiding question for proper noun-ish fill and cluing, rather than “do I think everyone will know this.” As many others have pointed out more eloquently than I can, trying to guess what “everyone” will know tends to reinforce existing inequalities.

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others? Who inspires you as a constructor?

I don’t keep track of favorite clues, but I do keep a folder of favorite puzzles. Some recent-ish additions to that folder include Rachel Fabi’s June 1st, 2020 USA Today puzzle (“6/1”), Erik Agard’s February 1st & 2nd 2021 Universal puzzles, and Paolo Pasco’s blog puzzle “Entry-Level Stuff”. I don’t want to spoil them, so I won’t explain why they’re great. Go solve them!

There are so many constructors I admire and am inspired by that it feels foolish to try to name them all. It’s phenomenal how many people are making puzzles these days, and it seems like the community is only continuing to grow, which is wonderful.

[Her tag team solving is next-level.]

4. What’s next for Mollie Cowger?

Puzzling, gardening, maybe finishing knitting a half-done scarf that’s been taunting me for years (that one’s pretty aspirational), getting that sweet sweet COVID vaccine needle into my arm as soon as I’m eligible. In the longer term? Who knows!

5. What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow solvers, aspiring constructors/setters, and puzzle enthusiasts?

If you’re thinking of diving into constructing, you should absolutely do it– the community is filled with kind people who will help you along. And, more broadly, don’t forget to have fun.


A huge thank you to Mollie for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for all of her crossword endeavors, and be sure to check out her puzzle blog Crosswords From Outer Space for new puzzles every other Monday! Whatever she creates next, I’m sure it will be terrific.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

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!