Codecrafting with Crosswords!

We’ve discussed ciphers and codecracking numerous times in the past, and rightly so. It’s a style of puzzling that has literally affected the outcomes of battles, helped shape key historical moments, and changed the face of spycraft.

And it’s a puzzle form that continues to evolve to this day. We’ve moved far beyond the simple one-to-one replacement encryptions of your standard newspaper cryptogram, and intrepid solvers are always looking for newer and more devious ways to conceal their messages.

Tumblr user Cipherface has cooked up a pretty ingenious system that actually uses another style of puzzling in its execution: crosswords.


Here’s how it works. You write your message out in the open spaces of the crossword, ignoring the black squares.


Then, map out this diagonal path as the first step to encrypting your message.


Do the same with the puzzle’s answer key, and you’ve got your running key, the text used to substitute letters for the letters in your actual message.


Then you run your message through the tabula recta, a table where you use the letter you want revealed and the letter in your running key to pick the letter in your encryption.


Here, we can see Cipherface mapping out the encrypted message using this method.

From the Tumblr writeup:

The idea is to use a crossword puzzle for the transposition and the answers to the previous weeks puzzle as a running key. And the blank spaces are used to insert nulls into the final ciphertext. You then mail it to a friend who uses the date it was mailed to decide which puzzle to use for decryption.

It’s a pretty clever way to leave your encryption key in plain sight, and yet keep your messages secret. The running key keeps changing, so it’s more effective than traditional running keys, which stayed the same for longer periods of time.

Not to mention, using the puzzle’s publishing date? What a quick and easy way to keep your friend informed in an innocuous way. You’d just need to decide ahead of time which newspaper to use.

And it figures. The best way to make a puzzle better? Add another puzzle.

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The Diabolical Long Division Brain Teaser!

From time to time, I’ll receive an email with a brain teaser I’ve never seen before. Sometimes they come from friends, or fellow puzzlers. Other times, PuzzleNationers will ask for my assistance in solving a puzzle that has flummoxed them.

That was the case with today’s puzzle, and I’ll admit, this one was a bit of a doozy to unravel.


Yup, an entire long division problem with only a single digit set. No letters or encryption to let us know which digits were repeated, as there are in Word Math puzzles published by our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles.

Just a 7 and a bunch of asterisks. “Is this doable?” the sender asked.

Yes, this is entirely doable, friend. Let’s break it down step by step.

First, we need to know our terminology. The 8-digit number being divided is our dividend. The 3-digit number we’re dividing into it is the divisor. The 5-digit number on top is our quotient.

For the other lines, let’s label them A through G for ease of reference later.


There we go. Now, where do we go from here? We start with what we know.

We know that 7 is the second digit in our quotient.

So our divisor, times 7, equals the number on line C. That’s a 3-digit number, which means the first number in our divisor is 1. Why? Because if it was 2, 2 times 7 would give us 14, which would be a 4-digit number on that line.


That means the quotient is somewhere between 100 and 142. (Why 142? Easy. I divided 1000 by 7, and 142 is the last 3-digit number you can multiply 7 against and still end up with a 3-digit answer for line C. 143 times 7 is 1001, which is too high.)

What else do we know from the puzzle as it stands?

Well, look at lines E and F. We bring both of the last two digits in the dividend down for the final part of the equation. What does that mean?

Remember how long division works. You multiply the divisor by whatever number gets you closest to the given digits of the dividend, subtract the remainder, bring down the next digit from the dividend, and do it all over again until you get your answer.

You multiply the first digit of the quotient times the divisor to get the number on line A. You multiply 7 times the divisor to get the number on line C. You multiply the third digit of the quotient times the divisor to get the number on line E.

Following this route, you would multiply the fourth digit of the quotient against the divisor to get the number on line G. But bringing just one digit down didn’t give us a number high enough to be divided into. Instead of needing more lines (H and I, in this case), we bring the last digit of the dividend down and press onward.

That means the fourth digit of the quotient is 0, because the divisor went into the dividend zero times at that point.


And there’s more we can glean just from the asterisks and what we already know. We know that every one of those 4-digit numbers in the equation begin with the number 1.

How do we know that? Easy. That first number in the divisor. With a 1 there, even if the divisor is 199 and we multiply it times 9, the highest possible answer for any of those 4-digit numbers is 1791.

So let’s fill those numbers in as well:


Now look at lines D, E, and F. There’s nothing below the 1 on line D. The only way that can happen is if the second digit in line D is smaller than the first digit on line E. And on line F, you can see that those first two columns in lines D and E equal zero, since there’s nothing on line F until we hit that third column of digits.

That means the second digit on line D is either a 0 or a 1, and the first digit on line E is a 9. It’s the only way to end up with a blank space there on line F.


I realize there are a lot of asterisks left, but we’re actually very close to knowing our entire quotient by now.

Look at what we know. 7 times the divisor gives us a 3-digit answer on line C. We don’t yet know if that’s the same 3-digit answer on line E, but since it’s being divided into a 4-digit number on line E and only a 3-digit number on line C, that means the third digit in our quotient is either equal to or greater than 7. So, it’s 7 or 8.

Why not 9? Because of the 4-digit answers on lines A and G. Those would have to be higher than the multiplier for lines C and E because they result in 4-digit answers, not 3. So the digit in the first and fifth places in the quotient are higher than the digit in the third. So, if the third digit in the quotient is 7 or 8, the first and fifth are either 8 or 9.

So how do we know whether 7 or 8 is the third digit in the quotient?

Well, if it’s 7, then lines C and E would have the same 3-digit answer, both beginning with 9. But line C cannot have an answer beginning with 9, because line B is also 3 digits. The highest value the first digit in line B could have is 9, and 9 minus 9 is zero. But the number on line D begins with 1, ruling out the idea that the numbers on lines C and E are the same.

That makes the third digit in the quotient 8, and the first and fifth digits in the quotient 9.


We know our quotient now, 97809. What about our divisor?

Well, remember before when we narrowed it down to somewhere between 100 and 142? That’s going to come in handy now.

On line F, we know those first two digits are going to be 141 or below, because whatever our divisor is, it was larger than those three digits. That’s how we ended up with a 0 in our quotient.

So, the number on line D minus the number on line E equals 14 or below. So we need a 900-something number that, when added to a number that’s 14 or below, equals 1000 or more. That gives us a field from 986 to 999.

And that number between 986 and 999 has to be divisible by 8 for our quotient to work. And the only number in that field that fits the bill is 992. 992 divided by 8 gives us 124, which is our divisor.


From that point on, we can fill out the rest of the equation, including our lengthy dividend, 12128316.


And there you have it. With some math skills, some deduction, and some crafty puzzling, we’ve slain yet another brain teaser. Nice work everyone!

[After solving the puzzle, I did a little research, and apparently this one has been making the rounds after being featured in FiveThirtyEight’s recurring Riddler feature, so here’s a link.]

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