The New Capital of European Crosswords?

First, it was Lvov, Ukraine: a city that created a crossword spanning the entire side of a 100-foot-tall residential building.

Now, another country in Eastern Europe is making bold choices with crosswords in mind: Estonia.

estonia-map-boundaries-cities-locator

[Image courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica.]

Crosswords are a global phenomenon. We’ve featured puzzle books from Europe on more than one occasion. So, naturally, each country must have its own concept of crosswordese, the curious and strange vocabulary that seems to exist only in the world of crosswords.

In Estonia, the editors behind the puzzle magazine Nuti compiled a list of ten towns and villages that frequently appear in their crosswords. Names like Aseri, Uulu, Erra, and Leisi were among those chosen for the fan vote.

But the winner by a landslide (162 votes!) was…

Aa.

estoniaaa

[Image courtesy of Pohjarannik.]

Yes, that picturesque coastal village in the north of Estonia we all know and love. Where you can see such sights as the Aa manor house and, I kid you not, a sand beach.

According to the 2000 census, the population of Aa was 190. There were nearly as many votes for the village as there are people living there!

And yes, I’m still calling it a landslide victory. The next nearest place, Aseri, had 89 votes. That’s nearly half! The lowest, Erra, garnered only 17 out of the 517 votes cast. That’s a landslide in my book.

Congratulations to the people of Aa. Can’t wait to see how you change the world of Estonian crosswords!

[Check out the original post that inspired this one, a New York Times piece by the marvelous Deb Amlen.]


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We’re Not the Only Ones With Puzzles on the Brain!

newsboy

[A photo from the early days of PuzzleNation Blog, as one of our intrepid puzzleboys spreads the word of PuzzleNation far and wide. Image courtesy of Toledo’s Attic.]

I would love to tell you that PuzzleNation Blog is the only game in town when it comes to outstanding puzzle content, but that’s not the truth.

Sure, I think we put out some of the best writing in the puzzle business, but there are other outlets that also pen some marvelous stuff. Deb Amlen’s Wordplay blog on The New York Times website, for instance, is a treasure trove of great material, featuring breakdowns of NYT puzzles, interviews with constructors, and more.

The New Yorker recently posted an intriguing one-two punch of puzzle content. The main article was a meditation on crosswords — their potential, what they mean to a fan, and more — while the accompanying video featured an interview with constructor Natan Last (conducted by crossword editor Liz Maynes-Aminzade) about political entries in puzzles.

What’s slightly more surprising is that another popular Internet outlet has also had puzzles on the brain:

The Onion.

theonionheader

Three times in the past month or so, the satirical news outlet has posted some hilarious puzzle-centric content. On June 20th, one of their headlines read “Exhilarated Woman Discovers Last Person Who Used Jigsaw Puzzle Left Lots Of Pieces Sticking Together.”

Two weeks earlier on June 6th, the article “Maze With Cheese In Center Enters Human Trials Following Decades Of Testing On Mice,” which feels all too apropos after our post last week about corn mazes.

But the cream of the crop was undoubtedly the article posted on May 28th, “Will Shortz Frustrated That Police Yet To Crack Taunting Puzzles Revealing Locations Of 40 Years Of Murder Victims.”

In a hysterically brief send-up of both the famously mild-mannered Shortz and classic criminal masterminds in general (like the one in the Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode that also featured Shortz, or the one from the Hallmark Crossword Mysteries earlier this year), the article paints the crossword editor as a murderous genius who feels unappreciated in his efforts to play a game of cat-and-mouse with the NYPD:

“I naturally assumed that, at some point during the last four decades, at least one detective would be smart enough to solve the case,” said Shortz, who also implied that the geographic coordinates of the victims could be determined by analyzing the sudoku puzzles in the Sunday edition.

It was one of the funniest pieces of the year for The Onion, and further proof of just how ubiquitous crosswords truly are these days.


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Crossword Solving Advice, Tournament-Style!

With the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament looming large, newcomers to the tournament and experienced puzzlers alike are trading advice, looking for ways to improve their solving, and gearing up for the latest edition of the Nerd Olympics.

In a similar vein, Lifehacker recently shared a post with advice for how to get better at crosswords. And I thought, with the tournament a little more than a week away, we’d analyze Lifehacker’s suggestions for sharpening your solving game.

1.) Do puzzles every day.

According to article author A.A. Newton, “the only way to improve at crosswords is to do lots of them, and the best way to do that is to work them into your daily routine.” Now, since there is more than one entry in her list, clearly that’s not THE ONLY way to improve.

But this is still valuable advice, especially with the tournament coming up. You see, a fair number of crossword solvers solve them online, either through apps or website interfaces, rather than on paper. But since the tournament puzzles are solved on paper, it’s a good idea to practice the old-fashioned way for a few weeks before the competition, especially if solving time is a priority for you.

2.) Use an app.

Like I said, access to puzzles is a great thing; being able to solve crosswords for all sorts of skill levels at the touch of a button… you can’t beat it. It exposes you to different cluing styles, theme ideas, and all sorts of clever wordplay.

I’d recommend an app that tracks your solving. Several apps like our very own Daily POP Crosswords app track data like your solving times, themes or categories you excel in, and even streaks of days gone without missing a daily puzzle!

3.) Know when — and how — to cheat

Now, this one is a little bit clickbait-y, since it’s only cheating if you look up answers during actual competition. I don’t consider it cheating to admit defeat on a clue you can’t get or a reference you don’t know, and looking it up in order to educate yourself.

Many apps offer hints — either by offering additional letters or entire words that are stumping you — which allows you to continue solving and get past a roadblock in your crossword knowledge.

And if you’re solving a paper puzzle, there are numerous crossword clue sites on the Internet with databases of previously used clues for you to peruse. Not only does this help you with the troublesome clue at hand, but it shows you the different variations of clues you might see for a given entry, which is helpful in the long run.

Of course, you can’t actually do this sort of thing at the ACPT. (Though you can utilize “Google tickets” at other tournament events like Lollapuzzoola, where instructors will silently provide an answer for you so you can keep solving.)

4.) Study up

There are all sorts of crossword resources out there. The article namedrops a few, like Rex Parker’s blog, XWordInfo, and several online guides to crosswordese.

I would also recommend Wordplay, the companion blog to The New York Times crossword. Not only does Deb Amlen break down each day’s puzzles, but there are articles collecting words that will help you become a better solver. Musical terms, authors, plants, opera terms, French rivers, characters from Greek mythology… the whole series is packed with common crosswordese and little obscurities that crossword solvers have come to know and, if not love, then at least tolerate.

But there is other tournament-specific advice I would offer:

  • Have pencils and erasers handy. Maybe a sharpener as well, though there are a few scattered around the competition space. (And we always have one available for use at the Penny Dell / PuzzleNation table in the marketplace!)
  • Bring a clipboard or other writing surface, since the solving space is often tableclothed, which can interact poorly with sharp pencils and paper puzzles.
  • Talk to fellow puzzlers. There’s nothing better than the experience of other solvers, many of whom are also constructors or tournament regulars.
  • Everyone approaches the actual solving process differently. Some people scan the clues for fill-in-the-blank clues or people’s names and fill those in first. Others read through the clues sequentially and fill in what they can. Some solvers even try to solve using only the Down clues, and then double-check their solve with the Across clues. My advice is to try different techniques and see what works best for you.

Whether it’s your first time attending a tournament or you’ve got a few seasons under your belt, there are always new tricks to learn and new techniques to try out.

Do you have any solving advice we missed? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: The Sequel

It’s a new year, and many folks treat the new year as a clean slate, a jumping-off point from which to launch efforts at self-improvement. They embark on new endeavors, hoping to complete resolutions made in earnest.

Others use the first few days or weeks to try to set the tone for the rest of the year by establishing new routines or breaking from old routines.

Unfortunately, The New York Times crossword is not off to a good start.

We’ve discussed in the past how The NYT crossword has a less-than-stellar reputation for cultural sensitivity, and Tuesday’s puzzle was, for many solvers, more of the same.

Here’s the grid from January 1st:

[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

One of those entries, 2 Down, leapt out at many solvers. Yes, it was clued innocently as “Pitch to the head, informally.” But, for millions of people, that word has a far more unpleasant, insulting, and flat-out racist meaning.

It’s natural for people to want to explain this away as unintentional. That becomes harder to accept when it has happened before.

Will Shortz had the following to say in The New York Times Wordplay blog from 2012, after a similar incident involving the answer word ILLEGAL:

Thanks for your email regarding the clue for ILLEGAL (“One caught by border patrol”) in the Feb. 16 New York Times crossword.

At the time I wrote this clue (and yes, it was my clue), I had no idea that use of the word “illegal” in this sense (as a noun) was controversial. It’s in the dictionary. It’s in widespread use by ordinary people and publications. There is nothing inherently pejorative about it.

Still, language changes, and I understand how the use of “illegal” as a noun has taken on an offensive connotation. I don’t want to offend people in the crossword. So I don’t expect to do this again. Fortunately, there are many other ways to clue the word ILLEGAL.

At the end of the post, Deb Amlen stated:

Should Mr. Shortz have been more aware of the current usage of the word? Sure, but no one is infallible, and I will give him points for stepping up. He is the captain of the New York Times crossword ship, and he owned his mistake. Not only that, but he has assured us that it will not happen again.

That’s evolution.

Well, it’s happened again.

And this time, being unaware is not an excuse. In Shortz’s apology for this latest mistake, he mentions not only discovering the pejorative meaning of the word in his own research, but that the issue was raised by fellow constructor and XWordInfo archivist Jeff Chen.

In his own take on the puzzle on XWordInfo, Jeff was incredibly kind regarding Shortz, stating:

I generally think Will does a great job in editing the NYT puzzle — hard to argue with results, with solvership exploding into the hundreds of thousands under his helm. This is one of the less than 5% of things that I strongly disagree with, though.

(Jeff then offers two easy fixes to remove the word from the puzzle, because Jeff is a pro.)

Again, unfortunately, we don’t know if this will lead to any changes at The New York Times. Shortz stated:

My feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that any benign meaning of a word is fair game for a crossword. This is an issue that comes up occasionally with entries like GO O.K. (which we clued last April as “Proceed all right,” but which as a solid word is a slur), CHINK (benign in the sense as a chink in one’s armor), etc. These are legitimate words.

That’s certainly one way to look at it. Of course, it’s not great that one of his examples was employed as part of a misunderstanding in an episode of Scrubs fifteen years ago to similarly unpleasant effect:

Shortz followed up by saying, “Perhaps I need to rethink this opinion, if enough solvers are bothered.”

In response, I think constructor Eric Berlin summed up the issue perfectly:

Perhaps a good rule for this sort of thing is, if you were looking *only at the completed crossword grid* and not at the clues, what would CHINK or GOOK call to mind first?

That’s what I thought, and that’s why I would never dream of using either word in a puzzle.

At least it’s still early in the year. Plenty of time to go onward and upward from here.


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The New York Times Crossword, Accordion to Weird Al

 In February of 2017, The New York Times celebrated a landmark in the history of puzzles: the 75th anniversary of the NYT crossword.

And ever since, to commemorate that puzzly milestone, top constructors and Times favorites have been pairing up with celebrity fans and puzzle enthusiasts to co-construct puzzles for the Times!

This year, you might’ve encountered some of these collaborations, like news pundit Rachel Maddow’s March 2nd puzzle with constructor Joe DiPietro, or “How I Met Your Mother” star Josh Radner’s meditation-themed puzzler from January 31st with constructor Jeff Chen.

Over the last year, names as diverse as John Lithgow, Elayne Boosler, Joy Behar, Mike Selinker, Lisa Loeb, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Clinton have contributed their puzzly efforts to this marvelous project.

And yesterday, another famous wordsmith and master of punnery made his New York Times debut.

[Image courtesy of Instagram.]

Yes, the immortal “Weird Al” Yankovic teamed up with Puzzle Your Kids mastermind and friend of the blog Eric Berlin for a cheese-themed Wednesday outing that delighted fans and solvers alike.

Al has certainly been keeping busy lately, launching his Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour — his words, not mine; I loved the show I attended! — and working with Lin-Manuel Miranda to create The Hamilton Polka, an ambitious and hilarious take on the wildly successful musical.

The puzzle was Eric’s 40th Times puzzle, and Al’s first. Not only did the puzzle feature those signature cinematic cheese puns — like A FEW GOUDA MEN and THE PELICAN BRIE — but there was plenty of nerd culture featured in the fill and cluing.

Tom Lehrer and John Cleese were both name-dropped, as well as Legolas, Wile E. Coyote, WALL-E, Mr. Clean, and Bones from the original Star Trek.

Eric offered some insight into the puzzle’s creation while discussing the puzzle with Wordplay’s Deb Amlen:

My very first attempt at the grid included one of my favorites from his list, QUESOBLANCA. I was under the misapprehension that queso is not just the Spanish word for cheese but also a specific kind of cheese. Whoops, not quite. (This was entirely on me, I should note — Al, not knowing during his brainstorming that the end result would be restricted to specific cheeses, had several cheese-adjacent puns in his list, including FONDUE THE RIGHT THING and CHEESY RIDER.)

And appropriately enough, Al had a bit of fun promoting the puzzle on his Instagram, claiming, “If you’re REALLY good, you don’t NEED the clues!”

For the record, I needed the clues.


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An Amazing New Resource for Aspiring Constructors!

Just yesterday, I mentioned the accessibility of many modern puzzle constructors thanks to the Internet. Of course, I was referring to access to their puzzle content, but a new project has reminded me that many constructors are also very accessible when it comes to advice and encouragement.

Deb Amlen wrote an article about a new Facebook page, the Puzzle Collaboration Directory, that is encouraging new and aspiring constructors to reach out to established names in the industry and build an interactive community. This is an amazing resource for puzzlers whose enthusiasm might be undercut by lack of confidence or experience in crafting themes, building grids, and creating clues.

From the introductory post:

If you’re a puzzle constructor looking to collaborate or to be a resource to those seeking one, kindly add your name, contact info, and puzzle specialties to the file entitled “constructors list.”

If you’re here looking for someone to collaborate with, ask questions of, or something in that general vicinity, you can peruse the aforementioned file and reach out to any of the constructors listed – we’ll be happy to hear from you. If you have a question that everyone would benefit from hearing, or if you want to work with someone and you’re not picky about who, feel free to post directly in the group to that effect.

Terrific, innovative, and generous puzzlers like joon pahk, Erik Agard, Robyn Weintraub, Andy Kravis, Doug Peterson, Tracy Bennett, and more have all signed up to mentor aspiring constructors and answer questions.

This is just one more example of how awesome the puzzle community is. We’re all fans of puzzles and we’re more than happy to encourage others with the same passion. (Heck, a few years ago, we also shared some constructing advice right here on the blog.)

You never know where the next great puzzle theme will come from, or who will be wowing you with crafty clues and brain-melting themes in the future.

Good luck to all the constructors getting started there, and a hearty thank you to all the constructors who have already signed up to share their time, insights, and knowledge. I can’t wait to see what comes from this marvelous new resource.


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