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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5 Questions with Comedian, Animal Activist, and Puzzler Elayne Boosler!

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Elayne Boosler as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

If you haven’t heard of Elayne Boosler from her decades-long stand-up career — including being named one of Comedy Central’s Top 100 Comedians of All Time — you’ve certainly seen her work in radio, television, movies, and print. Elayne is a triple threat — comedian, actress, writer — and the founder of Tails of Joy, a non-profit organization dedicated to rescuing and caring for animals.

She became a quadruple threat last year when she added her first New York Times crossword to her accolades in a collaboration with constructor Patrick Merrell. (Of course, she’s also appeared as an answer in the NYT crossword over 30 times. In her words, “Yes, it’s cool. But one day when I’m really famous, I’m going to be 18 Down, and then 22 Across is going to say, “See 18 Down”.)

Elayne 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 Elayne Boosler

1. How did you first get into puzzles?

I’ve always had a touch of dysgraphia/dyslexia; my cursive writing (as they called it back in the 1800s) was always illegible, and when banks still checked signatures on checks I’d get about five calls a day. “But they are written on the same day, three checks in a row, and the signatures don’t match at all.” I know. I can read and write upside down and backwards. I remember driving in the car with my parents when I was really little, and reading a sign. I said, “Bar. R-A-B. Bar.” I can also sing any song you can throw at me, backwards, which once saved my life when I went to a school to talk to twelve-year-olds. I guess wordplay was the natural next step.

2. Now that you’ve made a New York Times-level crossword of your own, what was the most surprising part of the process for you? What did you enjoy?

I never passed any year of math in my entire life, and basically, making a crossword is math. The gentleman I made the puzzle with, Patrick Merrell, was a saint. If they threw some hyperactive puppy at me who thought she knew how comedy worked and said, “Write comedy together!”, and she emailed useless things to me three times a day, I’d kill her. Patrick was an unbelievably patient, wonderful, and talented teacher.

Though I’ve done crosswords all my life, as a layperson I never got the nuance of just how specific the theme clues have to be. It was mind-boggling. I think I sent Patrick clues and answers for a full month before he finally got to spell “water” in my hand. As an added bonus, Patrick wasn’t just brilliant about the words, he’s a crossword artist. His desire for grid symmetry and beauty was fascinating. I enjoyed all of it. Even the frustration.

Do you ever see yourself collaborating on or constructing another crossword?

I would love to collaborate on another puzzle. As you can imagine, after several months of thinking of nothing but themes, clues, and answers, I could not just turn my “crossword mind” off. So I have a LOT of lists of themes, clues, and answers, and I hope I get another opportunity to use them.

3. Many people know you from your trailblazing stand-up comedy career, or your appearances on shows like Night Court. But these days, you’re more synonymous with your charity work protecting animals. How did you get started with Tails of Joy?

I’ve always loved animals. I always knew I wanted to be a rescuer. Being on the road for forty-six years, I got to meet lots of rescuers in different states, and looked for a way I could have the most impact. What I learned was, three old ladies in Ohio will save more cats and dogs in a year than the entire bloated, overgrown Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) which has $300 million and is NOT a rescue organization! I knew the “little guys” needed someone to keep them from falling through the cracks.

So I founded Tails of Joy twenty years ago, and that’s what we do. We’re a nationwide and beyond, all animal (dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, sea life, wildlife, snakes, bunnies, big cats, primates, elephants, bears, everybody!!) rescue and advocacy group, which provides “Little Guy Grants” to the smallest, neediest rescue groups or individuals all across the country. If you’re reading this and you need help with an animal, contact us! All my money goes there. Every time a dog walks by my husband says, “There goes our beach house.”

4. What’s next for Elayne Boosler?

Thanks for asking. I have a boxed set of four of my specials, plus a new CD — Timeless — coming out on Comedy Dynamics on August 31st. I’m featured in the new season of “CNN’s History of Comedy”, Sunday nights at 10pm, and I’m featured in HBO’s new documentary, “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind”. I have a new piece up at CNN.com, “Elayne Boosler: Saying ‘Joke’ is no Excuse for Offensive Behavior.” And I spend hours every day doing rescue.

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

I’m sure they already know this. When you look at a puzzle and you can’t fill in even one word, and you walk away, you come back later and sit down and fill it all in in five minutes. What does that tell you? The subconscious is always working, it’s always carrying out your directives, conscious or not.

So it’s very important to always try to speak in the positive, because you are actually giving your brain orders. In comedy, I have never said “I killed” or “I died”. I don’t say that. If you want to remember your keys, don’t say “I hope I don’t forget my keys”, because your mind hears “forget my keys”. You have to say, “I hope I remember my keys”. In essence, the subconscious has no sense of humor, so be careful how you program it.


A huge thank you to Elayne for her time. You can follow her on Twitter (or visit her website, Elayneboosler.com) for updates on her many MANY ongoing projects, and be sure to visit Tails of Joy to explore all of the wonderful work she does for animals.

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Plus Will Shortz!)

[Image courtesy of FOX.com.]

In our Puzzles in Pop Culture series, we’ve featured shows as diverse as Gilmore Girls, NCIS: New Orleans, The West Wing, Hell’s Kitchen, and Parks and Recreation.

But oddly enough, the puzzliest show in the series has proven to be Brooklyn Nine-Nine, FOX’s hit sitcom about a New York precinct and its oddball collection of detectives. Not only did they pose a diabolical seesaw brain teaser in one episode, but crosswords were at the heart of another key moment in the show just last year.

And today’s post marks the show’s third appearance. Join us as we delve into “The Puzzle Master,” episode 15 of season 5.


The episode opens with detective Amy Santiago passing the sergeant’s exam and doing a dorky dance. Good start.

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Her fiance, fellow detective Jake Peralta, has a doozy of a last case for he and Amy to solve as detectives. He presents her with a serial arson case that seem to be connected to the Saturday crossword puzzle. Amy, as a crossword fiend, is overjoyed.

Two different buildings have been set ablaze on two consecutive Saturdays, each with a puzzle left at the crime scene. The only other clue is a note sent to the puzzle’s “author” — not constructor, oddly — Melvin Stermley.

Amy immediately geeks out, mentioning that Stermley once created a puzzle where every word in the grid was the word “puzzle” in a different language. Jake then mentions that Stermley himself is coming in to help them with the case.

[Image courtesy of Brooklyn Nine-Nine Wiki.]

While Jake expects Melvin Stermley to be “a massive dork,” he turns out to be a handsome Hollywood tough guy type. Jake is instantly jealous. (For a nice bit of insider fun, Stermley is played by David Fumero, the husband of Melissa Fumero, who plays Amy Santiago.)

Amy has set up a display with both of Stermley’s puzzles connected to the fires, and the trio begin searching for leads. When Jake asks if he has the typical physique of a puzzler, he mentions that each puzzle only pays a couple hundred bucks, so he makes most of his money modeling. (No doubt a common response you’d get from any top constructor, right, folks?)

They read over the arsonist’s letter again: “Your clues I discombulate, to teach you to conjugate. The fool who fails to validate will watch as I conflagrate.”

Stermley suggests that they look at the answer grids of his puzzles for clues. Amy then jumps to anagramming some of the answer words. (The puzzler notes that Amy Santiago anagrams to “o, nasty amiga” and Jake Peralta to “eat a jerk, pal.”) Amy and Vin decide to split up the odd and even clues, leaving Jake out.

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Getting nowhere with the anagrams, they wonder if “conjugate” in the arsonist’s letter means they should focus on the verbs, “the second best form of speech, after prepositions.” Jake suggests a different path, starting with possible suspects who don’t like Stermley, and the puzzler mentions the crossword night he’s hosting at a local bar. “It’s a total puz-hang,” according to Amy, and a good place to start looking.

While waiting in line outside the bar, Jake is disappointed no one is dressed like The Riddler. Amy points out someone wearing crossword-patterned pants. (Again, a common sight at the ACPT.) They chat with one of the other people in line, a woman who jokingly refers to Stermley as her future husband.

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Before anyone can enter, they have to solve one of Stermley’s puzzles. Amy is tasked with anagramming the phrase “MEET A BRAINIER STUD, A” into the name of a place in the world. (Jake’s jealousy is piqued by the anagrammed message, of course.)

She quickly solves it — UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — and heads inside. But when Jake tries to follow, he discovers he has to solve a puzzle of his own to get in. The phrase “SAD ANUS LOSER, I GO IN” must be anagrammed into a film based on a classic book. Cut to Jake sneaking into the bathroom, because he couldn’t solve the anagram.

(It was DANGEROUS LIAISONS, by the way.)

While Jake waits in the bathroom for his pants to dry — he stepped into the toilet while climbing down from the window — two puzzle fans come in, discussing Stermley’s mad puzzle skills and how “Sam” must be pissed, as Stermley replaced him doing the Saturday crossword, bumping him down to work in Parade Magazine.

They mention Sam’s toughest clue, “a 5-letter word for a game popular in nursing homes,” to which Jake replies “BINGO.”

[Image courtesy of AV Club.]

Jake mentions it to Stermley, who says Sam Jepson is one of his best friends and has been out of town for weeks. Jake still thinks Jepson is a solid lead.

Amy and Stermley, meanwhile, have realized that both targeted buildings were at the intersection of numbered streets, and those numbered intersections also point to letters in Stermley’s puzzles: M and A. They plan to build a trap into Stermley’s next puzzle to catch the arsonist.

When given a choice between Jake’s approach and Stermley’s, Amy opts to go with the puzzle trap.

Back at the precinct, Amy has determined that the most common letters in people’s names that follow MA are L, X, R, and T — Malcolm, Max, Mark, and Matthew, for example — so Stermley constructs a puzzle using only one of each of those letters. (A pretty daunting challenge, but definitely doable — especially if the cryptic-style crossword grid on the board behind Amy is the puzzle in question. It would have fewer intersections.)

Amy plans to stake out the intersections for each of those four letters, assigning one of them to Jake. (Jake, meanwhile, makes a secret plan to have Charles stake out Sam Jepson’s apartment.)

[Image courtesy of Spoiler TV.]

Charles spots Sam on the move — played by crossword guru Will Shortz, no less! — and Jake leaves his assignment to intercept. He and Charles follow Sam, who sits at a corner and eats soup, then calls his Mom. It turns out he has been out of town, only having returned tonight — and his marriage proposal was rejected. Bummer.

Jake returns to his assigned intersection, and the building is on fire. He has missed the arsonist.

Amy is understandably upset with Jake when they’re back at the office. Jake confesses he’s jealous of Stermley and doesn’t want Amy to wake up one day, regretting not marrying someone as smart as her. She reassures him that he’s a brilliant detective and that’s why she wants to marry him.

[Image courtesy of FOX.com.]

Jake has a epiphany, realizing that the arsonist’s name isn’t what’s being spelled out, it’s the word MARRY. (The word “conjugate” in the letter also pointed to marriage.)

And who wants to marry Stermley?

The woman in line at the bar on crossword night.

Jake and Amy bring the woman in, and it turns out the full message she intended to spell out with her fires was “MARRY ME OR ELSE I WILL KILL YOU, YOURS FOREVER, HELEN GERBELSON.”

That would take SO MANY FIRES. (I imagine she’d have to burn down several buildings more than once, given the sheer repetition of letters and the relatively few options for numbered streets.)

But, in the end, the arsonist has been caught, thanks to the power of puzzles and good police work.

[Image courtesy of Lauren Leti’s Twitter.]

Overall, I thought this was a very fun episode of the show. The anagram gags were the puzzly highlight, though I confess, I thought they’d do more with the Will Shortz cameo.

Here’s hoping there’s a crime at the Brooklyn Nine-Nine equivalent of the ACPT next year!

Also, as someone who has seen ARSON in a thousand grids, it is funny to see someone finally link the word and the act in a puzzly way.


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Meet the Daily POP Crosswords Constructors: Bonnie L. Gentry

One of the Daily POP Crosswords app’s best features is the level of involvement from topnotch constructors. We’ve assembled one heck of a team when it comes to creating terrific, exciting, fresh themed crosswords.

And over the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing 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.

In this installment, allow us to introduce you to constructor Bonnie L. Gentry!

How did you get started in crosswords?

I sold my first puzzle in 2003 to The Los Angeles Times after I discovered a community of crossword constructors on the website Cruciverb.com. It had style sheets and contact information so I gave it a shot.

I have since been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Crosswords Club, and several crossword books. I also construct a two-page newspaper crossword each Thanksgiving for numerous newspapers.

I’m only a casual solver. I enjoy constructing much more. I tried only twice to compete in a national crossword tournament (ACPT), but ranked miserably. Switching to judging was far easier.

What do you enjoy about working on Daily POP Crosswords?

I love doing the research. I learn something new for every theme I do. I like that it’s a learning experience for me as both a constructor and a solver. This is quite different than traditional crosswords that rely more on wordplay.

Patti Varol is an amazing editor. Her insight makes me a better constructor. Also the volume of work she does is just staggering.

I love that the majority of constructors are women, although there are some great men as well.

I also solve the puzzles on Daily POP Crosswords every day. They are simple enough for any level but they all give an “Aha Moment” when I solve them.

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

I enjoy sports themes the best. I’m a big fan of all sports and I’m an enthusiastic spectator. Football is probably my favorite sport.

When I do Book Smart themes, it introduces me to books I hadn’t thought much about and has led me to read new books.

I enjoyed learning new things about David Bowie in an upcoming puzzle I made. But the downside is a particular song keeps playing in my head. (But I won’t say which one, because it’s a spoiler.)


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

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Farewell, David.

The puzzle world is a relatively small one, and sadly, over the last month or so, it has grown a bit smaller.

I know some of you are already aware of the passing of Raymond Smullyan, the mathematician and puzzlesmith who popularized, among other things, the logic puzzle known as “The Lady or the Tiger?”

What you may not know is that a long-time member of the Penny Dell Puzzles family also passed recently.

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A Yale-educated lawyer, David Lindsey was a fixture at Penny Press for decades, but his influence on the world of puzzles extends back years before he joined that company.

The earliest editing credit I’ve been able to track down is a 1967 edition of Webster’s Crosswords, published by Merit, which is also one of the few publications where I’ve seen him credited under his real name. So, if you’ve ever enjoyed a puzzle credited to Dee Stewart or George Spelvin (a famous pseudonym from the American theater), you have David to thank for it.

Penny Press president Peter Kanter associates David with puzzles as far back as the early 70s, though it’s unclear when exactly David began working for Penny Press on a part-time basis. (I suspect it would have been around the time the Merit brand was acquired by Penny Press.)

img_20170309_142647758

He signed on full-time in 1987, and served as a puzzle editor, though perhaps his greatest legacy was the role he played in establishing its acquisitions department, the route by which outside puzzle creators and constructors could have their work featured in Penny Press magazines. David set quality standards for the puzzles that would be accepted, and served as the gatekeeper for all sorts of new puzzles.

He is also credited with creating or popularizing puzzles that are synonymous with Penny Dell Puzzles to this day. Secret Word, Chess Words, Chess Solitaire, Weaver Words, Diagramless Fill-In, Word Games Puzzles, and more flourished under his watchful eye and exacting attention to detail.

He would work the entire editing process, from concept to the final tweaks. At one point, David introduced a new type of puzzle in every issue of Variety Puzzles and Games, a Herculean feat.

His “Lindsey Lessons” — meetings where he would introduce and explain the nuances of puzzles — were invaluable to fellow editors, taking challenging puzzles like Word Math and making them more accessible, stripping away the mysteries that might have made them daunting to those who were unfamiliar with that sort of puzzling.

He even participated in a potluck-style puzzle group outside the office that would create and workshop new puzzle ideas together.

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[A photo from David’s 80th birthday celebration.]

But when I asked people about David, it wasn’t his work in puzzles that left a lasting influence on them. It was his strong sense of self, a quiet confidence that he was who he was, uncompromisingly. He was at home with his choices, his quirks, and his beliefs.

There were stories about the injured coyote he cared for, stories about him jogging shirtless in winter, and stories about the snacks he brought into the office, the fruits of his many experiments with the food dehydrator given to him by members of a cardiac rehab exercise class he conducted.

David said, “I never eat sugar”, but curiously enough, he was always first in line when cookies or cakes were about.

He was never without one of his signature bowties, and he actually taught Peter Kanter how to tie one. (To this day, Kanter still uses the instructions David gave him, on the rare occasion he has to tie a bowtie.)

He was a pillar of his community, singing in a men’s chorus, participating in Daffodil Days events for the American Cancer Society, contributing recordings to some of the first Reading for the Blind programs, and even doing the Penguin Plunge well into his 80s to raise money for the Special Olympics.

It was my privilege to work with David for over a decade, and I’ll miss him very much. And I know that I’m far from the only one who feels that way.

Farewell, David.


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The Art & Design of a Geometric Puzzle

It’s rare to get a glimpse inside the puzzly creative process.

Sure, plenty of crossword constructors are happy to share how particular puzzles of theirs came to be, but many constructors and designers, whether we’re talking mechanical puzzles, pen-and-paper puzzles, or electronic puzzles, keep their techniques and tricks secret. They’re like magicians that way.

So when a puzzler takes you behind the curtain, it’s a rare and special treat. The website Gamasutra recently hosted such an event when app designer and puzzler Paul Hlebowitsh explained in detail how he designs the puzzles for his app RYB.

In Paul’s words, “RYB is very similar to ‘Minesweeper’ or ‘Hexcells,’ but instead of using numbers or symbols, it uses colors. The colored dots inside of a shape tell you how the neighboring shapes are colored.”

I love the devilish simplicity behind the solving. It’s so universal that it transcends the language barrier. Simply show another person the first step, and they’ll pick it up immediately.

Paul goes on to explain how one particular puzzle evolved as he sought the perfect mix of puzzly challenge and unique solvability.

He took this:

and eventually ended up with this:

It’s a fascinating read, one I can’t do justice to with a brief summary, so I suggest everyone check out the full post to watch an impressive constructor at work. Being walked step-by-step through a build by the designer is a delight.

I also have to praise the puzzles themselves. The mix of geometric shapes and colors creates a truly striking image. I think I’m gonna get a print made of this one and put it on my wall:


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