Crosswords as Pop Culture Shorthand?

In television and movies, there are a lot of different techniques for revealing character traits. While some shows spend time developing their characters and slowly revealing their traits to the audience, other shows rely on visual shorthand. You often see a letterman’s jacket for a jock, or glasses for a nerdy boy or a mousy girl.

The act of solving a crossword puzzle has also become visual shorthand in pop culture. Crosswords often serve as a universal sign of intelligence.

In an episode of Jimmy Neutron, Sheen is shown solving a crossword puzzle in ink. This is an instantaneous sign that his brainpower has increased. (And when Cindy points out that her dad does the same thing, Sheen one-ups her by saying the puzzle is from The Beijing Times.)

It could have been math or organization or memorization, but instead, they went with crosswords.

In The Wire, the show uses a scene with a crossword to reveal that there’s more to street-smart Omar Little than meets the eye. Before testifying at Bird’s trial, he helps the bailiff with a crossword clue, identifying the Greek god of war as Ares. The scene immediately punches holes in several stereotypes both characters and viewers might have about the character.

This also happens on Mad Men, where one of the founders of the company is solving a crossword, only to be corrected by one of the secretaries. For that brief moment, the playing field has been levelled.

And because crosswords are seen as this visual shorthand for intelligence, they’re also used as a intellectual measuring stick, for better or for worse.

Rachel on Friends struggled with a crossword for an entire episode to prove she didn’t need anyone’s help, but still has to obliquely obtain information from others to finish the puzzle.

In an episode of House, M.D., House goes speed-dating, and is initially intrigued by a woman who brought a crossword puzzle with her. But when he notices she’s filled in random words instead of actually solving it — in order to pass herself off as someone she’s not — he quickly bursts her bubble in typically acerbic fashion.

P.G. Wodehouse loved to reveal the intelligence — or lack thereof — of characters through the use of crossword clues as fodder for banter. And that’s because it works. The audience draws conclusions based on these interactions.

In a fifth-season episode of Angel, a doctor is shown asking his receptionist for random crossword clues, only to fail at answering several. This immediately colors the audience’s opinion of him.

Crosswords can also be used as a mirror to reflect differences between characters. On The West Wing, President Bartlet couldn’t get past his own presuppositions and assumptions to properly complete the puzzle, while the First Lady had no problem navigating the same puzzle because of her own diplomatic skills.

Similarly, the parents in an episode of Phineas and Ferb show off their dynamic while solving a crossword. The father implies that every answer is obvious, and then waits for his wife to actually provide the answer. It says volumes about him, her, and the two of them as a pair.

But all of this raises the question: is this fair? Is the one-to-one association of crosswords and intelligence in pop culture valid?

[Check out this stock image from Deposit Photo.]

Crosswords are, essentially, piles of trivia and information, crisscrossing vocabulary locked behind clever or vague cluing. But are intelligence and access to information the same thing?

I mean, we’ve discussed the issue of crossword accessibility in the past. Many female constructors, constructors of color, and LGBTQIA+ constructors are helping to change the language used in crosswords, but plenty of people still see them as the domain of older white men. Which implies it’s not actually intelligence, just what older white men deem to be reflective of intelligence.

For a long time, pop culture clues were considered unwelcome or verboten. Beneath the crossword, even. Different editors bring different definitions of what’s appropriate for the puzzle.

And if people associate crosswords with intelligence because of this visual shorthand, and they don’t see themselves reflected in the puzzle, then they suffer from that jagged flip side of the pop culture coin. They’re excluded because of the measuring stick.

I realize most of the examples I cite above are intended to be humorous. Bartlet’s wrong answers are meant to be funny, as is Rachel’s struggle or the dad’s inability to answer on Phineas and Ferb.

But it’s worth mentioning that anyone who feels like they’ve been rapped across the knuckles by the measuring stick carries that with them. I’ve seen it plenty of times when I tell somebody that I work in puzzles. If they “can’t do them,” they look down when they say it. They already carry that visual shorthand with them.

While it’s fascinating that crosswords are part of that immediately recognizable pop culture lexicon, I also kinda wish that they weren’t.


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Spies, Crosswords, and Secret Messages!

secret message

There are loads of ways to hide secret messages in puzzles. The field of cryptography is built around it. Many meta puzzles have a special secret lurking inside their clever constructions. Heck, our friends at Penny Press even have an entire word seek called Secret Message.

But have you ever noticed that there’s a strange fascination in pop culture with secret messages in crosswords?

No, I don’t mean constructors hiding quotations, poems, or word seeks in their crosswords, though those are impressive feats of cruciverbalism.

I’m talking about stories about actual secret messages concealed in crossword grids, meant to be hidden from even the most diligent solvers, only a special few possessing the keys to finding the hidden words.

Oh, believe me, it’s definitely a thing.

Look no further than the first Crossword Mysteries movie. The film opens with a murdered art gallery owner with a crossword in his pocket. And it turns out that a devilish criminal mastermind was submitting puzzles to Tess’s daily crossword that contained hidden instructions for robberies to be conducted that day. Diabolical!

You might laugh, but this is hardly the only time we’ve seen crime, secret messages, and crosswords combined. It was a plotline in the radio show The Adventures of Superman, and Lois Lane’s life once depended on Superman’s ability to solve a crossword puzzle.

There are any number of mystery novels, cozy and otherwise, that contain hidden messages in crosswords. Nero Blanc’s Anatomy of a Crossword and Corpus de Crossword come to mind, as do any number of murder mysteries where a strange message scribbled on a crossword grid turn out to be a pivotal clue to catch the killer.

And there’s an even more curious subset of this in pop culture: crosswords and spycraft.

I could give you a simple example, like Bernie Mac’s character in the Ocean’s 11 remake pretending to solve a crossword, but actually writing down key information about the casino for the upcoming heist.

But that’s not really a secret message IN a crossword. No, it’s more of a secret message ON a crossword, though it is a bit of decent spycraft.

CnwtMc9UMAAssmH

[From Spy vs. Guy.]

Let’s talk about spies and their crosswords, then.

In the TV show Burn Notice, former (and occasionally current) spy Michael Weston sometimes received hidden messages from his previous spy organization through the crossword, though we’re not given much info on how this is achieved.

In the James Bond prequel novel Double or Die, it’s actually the young Bond’s teacher who sneaks a secret message into a puzzle. He’s also a cryptic crossword editor, and he convinces his kidnappers to allow him to submit a crossword to the newspaper, because if he didn’t, it would let people know all was not well.

Naturally, the kidnappers didn’t spot the clues to his current location that the teacher had hidden in the puzzle. Bond, even in his youth, manages to do so with ease.

Rubicon-008

In the short-lived TV show Rubicon, crosswords are at the center of a fascinating unsolved mystery. An intelligence agent named Will finds out his mentor committed suicide after seeing a four-leaf clover.

He then finds a pattern across several crosswords that leads him to believe his mentor’s death is somehow connected to the pattern in the crosswords, and he tells his superior about it.

And soon after investigating it himself, Will’s superior is also found dead. Unfortunately, we never get a resolution for this story, but it certainly fits the bill.

So yes, the curious connection between secret messages and crosswords in pop culture is definitely a thing.

But did you know it also extends beyond fiction? Yup, I’ve got some real-world examples for you too.

Back in June of 1944, physics teacher and crossword constructor Leonard Dawe was questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph.

The words Omaha (codename for one of Normandy’s beaches), Utah (another Normandy beach codename), Overlord (the name for the plan to land at Normandy on June 6th), mulberry (nickname for a portable harbor built for D-Day), and Neptune (name for the naval portion of the invasion) all appeared in Daily Telegraph crosswords during the month preceding the D-Day landing.

So it was possible (though highly improbable) that Dawe was purposely trying to inform the enemy of Allied plans, and the powers that be acted accordingly. In the end, no definitive link could be found, and consensus is that Dawe either overheard these words himself or was told them by his students — possibly slipped by soldiers stationed nearby — and placed them into his grids unwittingly.

Yes, this was just a big misunderstanding. But sometimes, accusations like this have real-world consequences.

In Venezuela, a newspaper has been accused multiple times of hiding encrypted messages within their daily crossword puzzles in order to incite revolt against the government.

Another Venezuelan newspaper was accused of concealing messages ordering the assassination of a public official named Adan, the brother of President Hugo Chavez!

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Some of the answers considered suspicious in the grid included “Adan,” “asesinen” (meaning “kill”), and “rafaga” (which can mean either a burst of gunfire, or a gust of wind).

Apparently this confluence was considered enough to warrant a half-dozen members of the intelligence service visiting the newspaper’s editorial office.

Now, were these cases of genuine secret messages being passed through the crossword, or were these coincidental events that appeared credible because the crossword/secret message concept has been part of pop culture for decades?

I leave that question to you, fellow puzzlers.

Can you think of any examples of crosswords with secret messages in pop culture or intersections of crosswords and spycraft that weren’t mentioned here? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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The Boswords Themeless League Returns Soon (Plus Some Puzzle Activism!)

boswords new

The Boswords summer crossword tournament has been a highlight of the puzzly calendar for years now, but during the pandemic, they also made a splash with their Fall and Spring Themeless Leagues.

And registration is now open for the Boswords 2021 Fall Themeless League!

If you’re unfamiliar, the Fall Themeless League is a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consists of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you complete the grid.

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Each week’s puzzle only has one grid, but there are three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth is the least challenging, Choppy is the middle ground, and Stormy is the most challenging. (When solvers register to participate, they’ll choose the difficulty level that suits them best.)

Sign up, and you get two months of puzzly fun running through October and November!

Plus, they’ve already announced a dynamite lineup of constructors for this season’s puzzles. Here’s the full list: Evan Birnholz, Kameron Austin Collins, Mollie Cowger, Debbie Ellerin, Leslie Rogers, Quiara Vasquez, Byron Walden, Nam Jin Yoon, and the team of Angela Olson Halsted and Doug Peterson.

There’s a terrific mix of established names and up-and-coming constructors there, and I expect the season to be a terrific exploration of the best of themeless crosswords.

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The project is once again being spearheaded by the dynamic duo of John Lieb and Andrew Kingsley, and Brad Wilber will be the puzzle editor.

It’s only $30 to enter as an individual participant ($40 for Pairs), but there’s also a student/discount level for participants who may find the $30 price tag too steep. (There are also puzzle packets from the previous Themeless Leagues available for $10 apiece.)

The Boswords Seasonal Themeless League events have not only opened my eyes to the creativity and skill required for themeless crosswords, but they’ve become some of my favorite parts of the puzzly calendar.

Be sure to click this link for more information, sample puzzles, instructional videos, and more.

And you can check out our thoughts on both the 2020 Fall Themeless League and the 2021 Spring Themeless League for more info as well!


Puzzling and charitable acts often intersect. This is true of the Boswords team with their wonderful discounted option for participants, as well as their donation to Boston-based charities from the proceeds of their summer tournament

And while we’re discussing the intersection of puzzling and doing good, it’s worth mentioning that there are numerous examples of crossword projects working hand-in-hand with social activism for the greater good.

Queer Qrosswords, Women of Letters, and the charity puzzle packets organized by our friends at Lone Shark Games are only a few examples. All of them provide puzzle bundles for you to enjoy if you show them that you’ve donated to worthwhile charities and other helpful groups and causes.

But there’s another one you might not have heard about: These Puzzles Fund Abortion.

This puzzle packet, originally created to raise funds for the Baltimore Abortion Fund, contains the work of over a dozen constructors, and serves as a marvelous incentive to donate to abortion funds all over the country.

Please click this link hosted by Just Gridding for more information. It’s a terrific way to do some good.


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5 Questions for Author and Crucinova Editor Lisa Bunker

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 we’re excited to welcome Lisa Bunker as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Lisa Bunker is a lifelong puzzle fan and a constructor whose work has appeared in Games Magazine, The New York Times, and Simon & Schuster publications. Of course, this is in addition to her work as an author, an activist, and a representative for the state of New Hampshire.

But now having returned to the world of puzzles, Lisa is probably best known these days as the creator and editor of Crucinova, one of the most ambitious and innovative puzzle outlets on the rise in the puzzleworld today. (You might have seen them included in the Boswords puzzle packet, on r/crossword, or on Twitter!)

Lisa 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 Lisa Bunker

1. How did you get started with puzzles? Where did the idea for Crucinova originate?

Since infancy I’ve been fascinated by words, numbers, and the beautiful patterns that can be made with them. My childhood collection, still with me, was mechanical puzzles. My earliest memory of crosswords in particular is of becoming aware that my parents were interested in them, and then trying to make one for my father. I think this would have been when I was about eight.

It was a free-form vocabulary-style puzzle, and I recall my young brain delighting in discovering how you could cross two words at a shared letter, and then add more words and build something. By high school I had a hand-drawn grid in the back of a notebook that I would work on when I was bored in class, so by then I was figuring out how interlocking fill worked. I erased some squares so many times that I wore holes in the paper.

Crucinova arose out of several factors. One was my frustration at being unable to place unconventional puzzle ideas with any of the mainstream outlets. Also, on the solving side, my wife and I started doing the New York Times puzzle every day, and while we enjoyed it and still do, they did all seem to fall within narrow conventions with regard to themes, grid design, and cluing – the same conventions I remembered from twenty years ago.

I’ve always been interested in reinventing things, so I started thinking, surely there are other constructors with creative ideas they’re having trouble placing, and surely there are other solvers who would enjoy exciting new solving experiences. And when I found out that there was now a platform available that empowered anyone to offer online solving – PuzzleMe, from AmuseLabs – the last piece fell into place.

2. You have recently returned to constructing after a hiatus. How has the puzzle world changed over time? As you start to interact with the puzzle community at large again, what have you learned along the way?

I hesitate to set myself up as an expert on the Crossworld of yore, but obviously the Internet has changed everything. Back in 2006, the last time I was active nationally, most puzzles were still printed in daily publications rather than posted online, and submissions to the Times were still by snail mail. If there was online community around solving, I was not aware of it.

Now we have not only online solving from all the major outlets (including new ones like the Atlantic and the New Yorker), but also several indie subscription services and dozens of free personal constructor blogs, a thriving solver’s blog scene, indie tournaments, and abundant spaces on social media platforms for both constructors and fans to gather and share their enthusiasm. There are even Twitch TV channels where you can watch live solving, which I love. As an editor I find it so valuable to be able to witness someone solving a grid I edited.

What I’ve learned along the way is that the denizens of the Crossworld are truly lovely humans, generous, smart, funny, and kind. I’ve learned that there is a wonderful tribe to which I didn’t even know I belonged. What a delightful discovery!

3. Over the last few years, there has been a push for greater representation in crosswords for women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. And there has been some movement forward, particularly for women in constructing and in editorial positions. How do we keep this momentum going? What are some useful things that allies can do to assist?

One way, obviously, to keep the momentum going is by supporting and celebrating diverse creators. As a Rainbow Human myself (I identify as trans, non-binary, and queer), I took inspiration from The Inkubator‘s mission to feature the work of female-identified constructors and to include more diverse content in fill and clues.

I’m also impressed with Sid Sivakumar’s new Juggernaut puzzles, which specifically foreground South Asian culture and content, and by the Queer Qrosswords project, which has sought to raise money for LGBTQ+ causes. I think there’s a ton of room for more culture-specific work like this, created by people from the cultures in question.

Another thing we can all do to help is to continue to encourage more new diverse folk to get involved in constructing. I would estimate that three quarters of submissions to Crucinova still come from straight white men. All submissions are welcome…but what can we do to empower everyone else? How do we continue to deconstruct unspoken assumptions about who is and isn’t allowed to do this work? It’s an endless project in which we are all involved.

[The diabolical grid from Michael Buerke’s Quadripoint puzzle,
one of the free sample puzzles on the Crucinova website.]

4. What’s next for Lisa Bunker? What’s next for Crucinova?

Crosswords are actually not my main gig. I’m a writer first and foremost. At the moment I have two books out on submission, one a Young Adult fantasy with gender-revolutionary elements, the other a pointed political novel for adults about what we all went through together in the year 2020.

I also have an exciting new collaboration in the works about which I’m not yet at liberty to say anything specific, and I have ideas for three or four more books in the pipeline. So, my plan for the foreseeable future is to just keep writing, while also keeping Crucinova humming along, turning out an excellent puzzle each week.

As for Crucinova, it is still in its early stages, so for now the plan is to keep trying to grow the business. I’ve committed to paying my constructors, so I need a certain number of subscribers to break even, and so far we are some hundreds of memberships away from that goal.

Long term, if we manage to become self-sustaining, I can imagine putting out books of Crucinova grids, and possibly some special projects – spearheading the effort to get a crossword emoji, for example. Crucinova is a business, and I think it’s crucial for businesses to find a way to give back, so as soon as we have any profits to share, I’ll be wanting to find a way to share them.

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

To solvers I would say, please consider paying for your puzzles. I know that many excellent constructors are offering their work for free, which is their right and which benefits us all, but at the same time, constructing is an art, and I think artists should be paid for their work.

My advice to constructors comes from what I’ve learned transitioning from constructor to editor. When you’re making puzzles, you are free to imagine all kinds of wild and amazing things. Coolness of concept can become an end in itself, and I totally get that. But when you are selecting and editing puzzles, you have to think about giving solvers a satisfying puzzle experience. I get so many submissions to which my response has to be, I’m amazed by what you’ve made here, but I can’t see how to turn it into something fun and fair for my subscribers. So the advice is, think of the solver.

To puzzle enthusiasts everywhere, of whatever stripe, I would simply say, I feel you. I share your geeky joy. Let’s keep doing what we love, and keep lifting each other up.


A huge thank you to Lisa for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for updates on all of her various projects, and be sure to check out Crucinova for some very cool, experimental, and outside-the-box puzzles. Whatever she and the Crucinova constructors cook up next, you know it’s going to be great.


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Younger Solvers and Constructors Building Online Crossword Communities!

It’s a dynamic, fluid time for crosswords. It feels like we’re on the cusp of a sea change.

Women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community are featured more often, although we still have a LONG way to go on all of those fronts where representation is concerned, both for constructors and editorial staff.

Younger voices are rising up the ranks, and helping to influence the direction of crossword language through projects like the Expanded Crossword Name Database. Online resources like more inclusive word lists, free or discounted editing software (often constructed by younger solvers!), and words of guidance from online crossword collaboration groups are more available than ever.

Recently, these topics were tackled in The New York Times itself in an article about younger crossword enthusiasts penned by freelance writer and reporter Mansee Khurana.

mansee

Her article is a terrific snapshot of the modern crossword world.

It discusses the divide between older solvers and younger, and how the content of crosswords doesn’t always serve both sides. It tackles the concept of “evergreen puzzles” — crosswords edited for timeless reprint value, eschewing up-to-date and provocative references that would appeal to younger solvers and underrepresented groups for the sake of republication later.

The article mentions the many virtual and online spaces that are now comfortable haunts for younger crossword fans. Facebook forums, Discord chats, Zoom solving parties, Crossword Twitter, r/crossword on Reddit, and even Tiktok accounts dedicated to crosswords got some time in the sun, and it’s really cool to see how these new spaces have emerged and grown more influential.

[A solve-along video from YouTube, Twitch, and Crossword Tiktok user
Coffee and Crosswords. Actual solving starts around 10 minutes in.]

Several names familiar to crossword solvers were cited as well. Constructors like Sid Sivakumar (mentioned just yesterday in our Lollapuzzoola wrap-up), Nate Cardin, and Malaika Handa were all quoted in the piece, reflecting many of the same concerns we’ve heard from new and upcoming solvers in some of our recent 5 Questions interviews.

I actually remember the author’s post reaching out to the contributors and readers of r/crossword a few months ago, and I was glad to see the subreddit getting some mainstream attention. Yes, like any internet forum, it can be combative and argumentative at times, but that’s a rarity.

Most of the time, it’s a supportive community for crossword fans and aspiring constructors, a place where they share questions, bravely offer up their first attempts for input and criticism, and discuss all things puzzly. It’s genuinely inspiring to see new solvers on a near-weekly basis reaching out and being embraced by fellow solvers and cruciverbalists-in-progress.

I highly recommend you take the time out to read Mansee’s piece. She captures a true sense of not just where crosswords are now, but where they’re headed. And if these young people have anything to say about it, it’s headed somewhere very bright indeed.


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Delving into the Lollapuzzoola 14 Puzzles!

lolla-logo

The fourteenth edition of Lollapuzzoola, as is tradition, arrived on a Saturday in August, but for the second year in a row, it was hosted online to allow tournament solving from home.

I was not in virtual attendance, but I did sign up for the Next Day Division 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 “This Time, It’s Virtual… Again.” Every puzzle had something to do with social media, social distancing, or some other aspect of virtual life that emerged during the pandemic, and the constructors were clearly inspired in all sorts of ways. Let’s take a look at what they came up with.


hit-me-up

Two rehearsal puzzles served as a warm-up for this year’s tournament crosswords. The first was constructed by Brooke Husic and Sid Sivakumar and entitled “Hit Me Up!” This puzzle immediately reminded solvers that anything could happen at Lollapuzzoola.

Not only were the theme entries reading down — which isn’t that weird, but it’s fairly uncommon — but there were animated GIFs as clues for three of the answers. The theme was fairly accessible: phrases that started off with a method of communication like ZOOM or TEXT, confirmed by the revealer CONTACT HIGH (since the method of contact was the highest part of the down entry). All in all, a puzzle with a solid hook, complimented by good grid fill. Exactly what you want from a warm-up.

The second rehearsal puzzle was constructed by the same duo (but with Sid leading off the byline this time) and entitled “Box Score.”

This was a strong follow-up, featuring the word WIN as a rebus-style single-box entry, which allowed for some devious crossings (like ENTWINE crossing RAW INGREDIENTS). The fill was smooth and I learned that KOREA is the home of the Baekdu-daegan mountains. Neat!

casual

Puzzle 1: Extremely Casual Friday by Robyn Weintraub

The tournament puzzles kicked off with this enjoyable opener, a 15x grid with clean fill and quite the appropriate theme for a virtual tournament.

Each theme entry was a phrase starting with a type of pants — SWEAT, PAJAMA, YOGA, and hilariously, NO — tied together with the answer word PANTS in the bottom-right corner.

Well constructed, humorous, and a great solve… it’s the recipe for an ideal Lollapuzzoola puzzle #1.

Interesting grid entries included REPLY ALL, SLOPPY JOES, and BEST BET, and my favorite clue was “This puzzle was constructed by Brooke Husic, e.g.” for LIE.

debamlen

[Here, Deb Amlen (blue checkmark and all) demonstrates Twitter tagging.]

Puzzle 2: Tag! by Amanda Rafkin

This 17x puzzle embraced the social media theme by embedding @ symbols in the grid as starters for the theme entries (where @ represented AT, like in @ASTANDSTILL), allowing for some fun crossings.

The theme was encouraged further by the revealer TWITTER MENTIONS, as well as a blue checkmark next to Amanda’s byline. (For the uninitiated, the blue checkmark, aka the blue tick, is used on Twitter to indicate someone is a verified user. It’s often a source of some small social media clout as well.)

With strong fill and some signature Rafkin flare — it’s very Amanda to have a Sondheim reference — this was a great confidence-building solve with a heap of style. I quite enjoyed this puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included AW NUTS, EYE DOC, and STAYED INSIDE, and my favorite clue was “Sound that might drown out some $%!#ing bad words” for BLEEP.

textspeak

Puzzle 3: Get the Message by Sid Sivakumar

This 19x grid with vertical symmetry was a definite step-up in difficulty after the first two puzzles, but it’s also a strong puzzle with a great design.

The theme for this one involved chat/texting slang like TTYL and ROFL, and like the second rehearsal puzzle, it had a rebus element where those abbreviations were contained in a single box, used by two crossing entries. This was supported not only by the cluing — which included a fake username and comment to indicate some chat or textspeak was involved — but the revealer CHATBOX in the middle of the grid.

I probably wouldn’t have realized as quickly that there was a rebus involved if I hadn’t had rebuses on the brain after solving the rehearsal puzzles. But even without all hints, this was a fairly tight grid that made the most of its theme. (I wasn’t a huge fan of IN appearing three times in the grid, but that might be seen as a nitpick.)

Interesting grid entries included PRESS KIT, SASHAY AWAY, SIERRA MIST, and EVIL ONE, and my favorite clue was “Bar, barn, or barrel” for UNIT.

200

Puzzle 4: Connecting… by Brooke Husic

Okay, here we go.

Puzzle 4 was a 15x grid with one doozy of a gimmick. Most of the down clues were replaced with an animated GIF of three dots moving (like the one above), the instantly-recognizable image of a message either being typed or incoming, but that hasn’t arrived yet. (For Next Day Division solvers, there was no animation, just three dots, but the message was still clear.)

All the across clues were still there, and SOME of the down clues as well. The remaining down clues were long, and almost felt like the clues from a cryptic or British-style crossword, because they didn’t seem to quite fit the answers in the grid.

I can only imagine the baffled terror I would have felt in the moment during the tournament if I tackled this puzzle live. I imagine it would have been similar to this poor soul’s experience:

tim pierce

Thankfully, I finally realized what was going on. The down clues weren’t just for their particular coordinate, they were for all of the words in that column. For instance, 55-Down was clued “A+ hosts,” and the answer to 55-Down was MCS. That could fit. But only “hosts” applied to 55-Down. “A” and “+” were the clues for the two down entries above 55-Down: 1-Down ALPHA and 32-Down AND.

Across-only solvers probably got farther than most with this one at the start, and I can imagine the grid would feel almost impenetrable if you didn’t figure out the gimmick.

But man, this is clever as hell and a solving experience nobody is going to forget anytime soon.

Interesting grid entries included HIGGS, OPEN SECRET, and SVELTE, and my favorite clue was either “A+ hosts,” as listed above, or “Get the picture SO much” because “SO” clued BOO and I thought the misdirect was very clever.

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Puzzle 5: You’re Muted by Patti Varol

After a brain-melter like Puzzle 4, Puzzle 5 was clearly designed as a cool-down puzzle before the tournament final. And I’m sure it served that purpose amiably for many solvers.

But for some reason, this theme took me the longest to get, and I felt so dumb when I realized how obvious it was.

This 21x grid featured theme entries where part of the phrase that sounded like “You’re” had been removed. For instance, JUNIOR EXECUTIVES became JUNE EXECUTIVES, and VEGETABLE PUREE became VEGETABLE PAY.

For some reason, the sound aspect of it just blew past me several times on the way to the forum, and I was done with the grid for MINUTES before it finally dawned on me. Patti is going to be so disappointed with me.

The theme is terrific and the grid fill is solid. This was a great capper for the tournament proper, helping bring (most) solvers back down to earth after the whirlwind that was Puzzle 4.

Interesting grid entries included SNIVEL, SINEWED, MOONSTRUCK, PHOTOBOMB, and ALL TIME LOW, and my favorite clues were “Dirt pie ingredient” for OREO and “Notable Ford of the 1970s” for GERALD.

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[The tournament finals, live on Twitch!]

Puzzle 6: Finals by Wyna Liu

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.

This themeless 15x was tough but engaging, featuring lots of long entries and unusual phrases crossing, making for a satisfyingly challenge finale and a suitable final boss for the top contenders. The entry NHL MVP tripped me up more than once, what a brutal combination of letters, but the tight grid and strong cluing for both the Local and Express solvers made this an excellent wrap-up to a great day of puzzling

Interesting grid entries included CRAFT VODKA, THE ROYAL WE, “I’M NOT A CAT” (referencing that amazing online legal proceeding debacle), ACID ROCK, Y-AXES, and LEO X. Both the Local and Express sets of clues had some gems, so I’ll list them separately below:

Local clues:

  • “Saved butt” for ROACH
  • “Ah, this is the life (to Mario and Luigi)!” for ONE-UP
  • “Ones for the books?” for SCHOLARS
  • “Moving parts of a painting on ‘Scooby-Doo'” for EYES

Express clues:

  • “What might require a blunt instrument?” for ROACH
  • “Congress, after adjourning?” for BREAKUPSEX
  • “Video game life form?” for ONE-UP
  • “Cabs, e.g.” for REDS
  • “Whence a popular countdown in Times Sq.” for TRL

There was also a tiebreaker themeless mini by Nam Jin Yoon. The mini was a quick and satisfying solve, anchored around the grid-spanning entries GATECRASHER and READ THE ROOM. Loaded with great vocabulary, this puzzle offered a nice wind-down after a strong tournament and several really engaging puzzles.

Interesting grid entries included RAHRAH and TOO SOON, and my favorite clue from the mini was “Some fishy characters?” for MERMEN.

[There was also a meta-puzzle suite AND a collection of ten mini-crosswords dubbed the Mid-Day Mini Meta which was constructed by a small army of strong up-and-coming constructors, both of which are absolutely worth your time.]


The puzzles at Lollapuzzoola always impress, and this year was no exception. The grids were neatly constructed, there was little crosswordese, and the creative themes, grid designs, clues, and puzzle mechanics ensured that not only would fun be had by all, but that the puzzles would linger in your memory. Especially Puzzle 4.

The puzzles were varied and engaging, and the Next Day Division solving experience is always a treat. Congratulations on the competitors and the organizers who made it all happen, especially in a virtual format with so many additional solvers. (Click here to check out the Twitch feed of the entire tournament!)

Lollapuzzoola is only getting more creative, more groundbreaking, and more clever with each passing year, and it’s just awesome to watch it grow and evolve.

I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year!


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