A Puzzly Nom de Plume?

[Image courtesy of Writers Write.]

There was an intriguing blog post on The Wall Street Journal‘s website a few days ago about their crossword editor, Mike Shenk.

For those who don’t know, Shenk is a well-respected name in the world of puzzles who has contributed puzzles to numerous outlets, including GAMES Magazine, The New York Times, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and of course, The Wall Street Journal.

The blog post revealed that Shenk had published puzzles in the WSJ under pseudonyms in the past, but going forward, that would no longer be the case. In the spirit of transparency, any puzzles constructed by Shenk would appear under his real name.

Greater transparency in crossword publishing is definitely a good thing. If you recall, part of the issue with Timothy Parker’s tenure for the Universal Crossword involved other constructors’ puzzles being reprinted under Parker’s pseudonyms instead of the actual constructor’s name. Ben Tausig found one example, and further investigation turned up others.

From a FiveThirtyEight article discussing the story:

The puzzles in question repeated themes, answers, grids and clues from Times puzzles published years earlier. Hundreds more of the puzzles edited by Parker are nearly verbatim copies of previous puzzles that Parker also edited. Most of those have been republished under fake author names.

Obviously, no such accusations mar Shenk’s tenure at The Wall Street Journal. His reputation is pristine.

[Image courtesy of Politico.]

But it made me wonder. Last year, we discussed how many women were being published in various crossword outlets. From January 1st to April 29th of 2018, nine out of the 99 puzzles published by The Wall Street Journal were constructed by women. Were some of those actually Shenk under a pseudonym? (One of the noms de plume mentioned in the WSJ blog post was Alice Long.)

Naturally, this whole topic got me thinking about pseudonyms in general. In British crosswords, most constructors (or setters, as they’re called in the UK) publish under a pseudonym. Among loyal solvers, names like Araucaria, Qaos, Paul, Enigmatist, Shed, and Crucible are as familiar there as C.C. Burnikel, Jeff Chen, Brendan Emmett Quigley, or Patrick Berry would be here.

How common are pseudonyms in American-style crosswords, do you suppose? Has usage of aliases increased or decreased over the years? I might have to follow up on that in the future.

In the meantime, it’s intriguing to see one of the most respected crossword outlets in the market today, The Wall Street Journal, take a stand on visibility and transparency in puzzle publishing. Maybe it’s the start of something bigger.


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PuzzleNation Blog Looks Back on 2018!

2018 is quickly coming to a close, and as I look back on an eventful year in the world of puzzles and games, I’m incredibly proud of the contributions both PuzzleNation Blog and PuzzleNation made to the puzzle community as a whole.

Over the last year, we explored board games and card games, strategy games and trivia games, dice games and tile games, do-it-yourself puzzlers and pen-and-paper classics. We met game designers, constructors, artists, YouTubers, and creative types of all kinds.

We unraveled math puzzles and diabolical brain teasers. We pondered optical illusions, Internet memes, and more, even questioning our place in the world of puzzles as AI and solving robots continued to rise in capability.

We delved into puzzle history with posts about ancient board games from centuries ago, Edgar Allan Poe’s secret codes, and the legacy of influential female codebreakers and spymasters previously lost to revisionist history like Elizebeth Smith Friedman and the Countess Alexandrine. We brought to light valuable examples of puzzles in art, comic strips, animation, music, television, film, and popular culture.

We spread the word about numerous worthwhile Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns, watching as the puzzle/game renaissance continued to amaze and surprise us with innovative new ways to play and solve. We shared worthy causes like Queer Crosswords and Women of Letters, as well as amazing projects like new escape rooms, puzzle experiences like The Enigmatist, online puzzle quests, and long-running unsolved treasure hunts.

We celebrated International TableTop Day, offered up puzzly suggestions for Valentine’s Day, attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and dove deep into an ever-expanding litany of puzzle events like the Indie 500, BosWords, and Lollapuzzoola.

We found puzzly ways to celebrate everything from Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas to Star Wars Day and the anniversary of the Crossword, and we were happy to share so many remarkable puzzly landmark moments with you.

It’s been both a pleasure and a privilege to explore the world of puzzles and games with you, my fellow puzzle lovers and PuzzleNationers. We marked six years of PuzzleNation Blog this year, I’m closing in on my 1000th blog post, and I’m more excited to write for you now than I was when I started.

And honestly, that’s just the blog. PuzzleNation’s good fortune, hard work, and accomplishments in 2018 went well beyond that.

Every month, we delivered quality content for both the Penny Dell Crosswords App and Daily POP Crosswords. Whether it was monthly deluxe sets and holiday bundles for PDCW or the world-class topical puzzles by some of the industry’s best constructors for Daily POP, hundreds of topnotch crosswords wended their way to our loyal and enthusiastic solvers.

And a little more than a week ago, we launched our newest puzzly endeavor — Wordventures: The Vampire Pirate — bringing you a unique, story-driven puzzling experience, complete with gorgeous visuals, atmospheric music, and an immersive mystery to keep you solving!

But whether we’re talking about crosswords, Sudoku, or Wordventures, I’m proud to say that every single puzzle represents our high standards of quality puzzle content crafted for solvers and PuzzleNationers.

And your response has been fantastic! Daily POP Crosswords is thriving, we’re very excited about the response to Wordventures, the blog has over 2300 followers, and with our audience on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms continuing to grow, the enthusiasm of the PuzzleNation readership is both humbling and very encouraging.

2018 was our most ambitious, most exciting, and most creatively fulfilling year to date, and the coming year promises to be even brighter.

Thank you for your support, your interest, and your feedback, PuzzleNationers. The new year looms large, and we look forward to seeing you in 2019!


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Take Puzzles to the Next Level with a Puzzly Experience!

Hey there, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. It’s the day after Thanksgiving, and naturally, our thoughts turn toward the upcoming holiday season. (Particularly with all the Black Friday advertising!)

Sure, we could use this opportunity to talk about our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, which went live Tuesday and features all sorts of marvelous games, puzzles, and products.

We could also talk about our fantastic lineup of apps, from Daily POP Crosswords and the Penny Dell Crosswords App to Penny Dell Sudoku and Classic Word Search. Of course we could do that.

But instead, today we’d like to talk about puzzly experiences.

If you’re looking for an engaging and interactive puzzly adventure to share with the puzzlers in your life, there are all sorts of options available to you.

There are yearly puzzle hunts like BAPHL, the Boston Area Puzzle Hunt League. There are crossword tournaments like Lollapuzzoola and the Indie 500 (plus local ones all over the country!). Murder mystery dinners, scavenger hunts… not only are there places that host all of these, but there are even kits available online that let you host your own!

More Escape Rooms pop up every year — from Breakin Escape Rooms in London to our friends at Escape 101 in Connecticut — and one near you is just a Google search away.

But there’s one particular puzzly experience I want to highlight as an option for you this holiday season.

Magician and crossword constructor David Kwong is launching a one-of-a-kind puzzle experience, The Enigmatist, at the High Line Hotel in New York City during the month of January.

Advertised as “an immersive evening of puzzles, cryptology and illusions,” the show is based on the experiences of William and Elizebeth Friedman’s work at Riverbank, a peculiar hotbed for codebreaking in the early days of the twentieth century.

David is a master at melding the world of puzzles with illusions, magic, and sleight of hand, deftly employing both humor and skill to wow audiences, and I expect he has outdone himself with this show.

The Enigmatist sounds like a unique and amazing puzzly experience, and if you’re interested, you can get tickets here.

For full details, visit the Enigmatist website. I think the show will be something truly special.


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A puzzler, by any other name…

Fake names, stage names, noms de plume… they’re more common than you might think. Authors, musicians, actors, and performers of all sorts can take on new identities, either to make themselves more marketable, to build a brand, or simply to create a public persona in order to keep their private lives separate.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, crossword constructors in the UK (known as setters) also employ pseudonyms, literally making a name for themselves as they create challenging cryptic crosswords for their solving audience.

Evocative names like Araucaria, Gordius, Crucible, Otterden, Anax, Charybdis, Tramp, Morph, Paul, Enigmatist, Hypnos, Phi, Nutmeg, Shed, Arachne, and Qaos grace the puzzles in England’s The Guardian newspaper.

That made me wonder… if American constructors were given the same opportunity, what UK-style names would they choose?

So, I reached out to some of my fellow puzzlers, and as I compiled their replies, some curious patterns emerged. I thought I’d share their responses with the PuzzleNation readership.

Whereas several UK setters have employed the names of former members of the Inquisition and other nasty sorts — like Torquemada, Ximenes, and Azed (which is Deza backwards) — to highlight the torturous challenges solvers could expect, some of their American counterparts prefer to highlight the playful, tricky aspect of constructing.

Constructor Robin Stears would publish under the name Loki or Anansi (citing two famous mythological tricksters), while meta-puzzle master Matt Gaffney would ply his craft under the name Puck. (He actually played Puck in sixth grade in a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

[Loki, as played by Tom Hiddleston in the
Marvel cinematic universe, seems to approve…]

Other constructors embraced wordplay involving their names, like Brendan Emmett Quigley who chose Beck (his initials pronounced phonetically) or Penny Press variety editor Cathy Quinn, who chose the nom de plume Sequin (for C. Quinn).

Still others revealed their feelings about those curious words that are only found in crosswords. Variety editor Paula Curry opted for the name Ese-Averse to show her disdain for crosswordese, while puzzle historian and constructor David Steinberg selected Osier, both for its crosswordese appeal and its homophone pronunciation (OCR, representing the Orange County Register, for whom David has served as crossword editor for years).

[This crossword features several infamous crosswordese
clues as entries. Do you recognize them all?

Naturally, my fellow puzzlers at Penny Press had some of my favorite puzzly stage names. Will Shortz’s WordPlay editor Leandro Galban sets himself firmly against the heroic solver by choosing Grendel, while variety editor Andrew Haynes opted for either Bob the Settler or The Flying Penguin. (He feels that “the” adds a certain arrogance to the pseudonym, and Bob has that delightfully bland palindromic quality.)

Editor Ariane Lewis would be known simply as Dub, leaving interpretation up to the solvers, while editor Maria Peavy offered a plethora of possible pennames, including Pushkin, Excelsior, Kutuzov (in the spirit of Torquemada), Sphinx (another famous riddler) or Grail.

Or you could adopt a full false moniker like variety editor Keith Yarbrough did, and go by Rufus T. Firefly.

As for me, I haven’t decided if I want something esoteric like Syzygy (alluding to the rare alignment of both planets and quality crossword grids), something obscure and wordnerdy like Snurp or Timmynoggy or Interrobang, or something meaningless but fun to say aloud, like Skylark or Guava.

So watch out, UK setters, because one of these days, you might see names like Sequin or Osier or The Flying Penguin baffling your solvers with cryptic crossword cleverness.

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Crosswords, Cryptics, Constructors, and… Setters?

One of the privileges of writing two or three posts a week for this blog is that it pushes me to expand my own horizons when it comes to puzzles. I reach out to puzzlers, game designers, and pop culture personalities of all sorts; I try out new games and puzzles; I obsessively scour the Internet for new projects, new products, and new stories that involve puzzles.

Oftentimes, that continuous search takes me beyond the borders of the United States, allowing me to explore what puzzles mean to other countries and cultures. And I am forever intrigued by the differences in crossword puzzles between America and the UK.

The world of cryptic crosswords (or British-style crosswords, as some call them) is a bit different from the world of American crosswords. Instead of constructors, they have compilers or setters, and while constructor bylines and attributions were a long time coming on this side of the Atlantic, setters in the UK have been drawing loyal followings for decades, thanks to their unique and evocative pseudonyms.

While Will Shortz, Merl Reagle, Patrick Blindauer, Brendan Emmett QuigleyPatrick Berry, Trip Payne, Matt Gaffney, and Bernice Gordon represent some of the top puzzlers to grace the pages of the New York Times Crossword, names such as Araucaria, Qaos, Arachne, Crucible, Otterden, Tramp, Morph, Gordius, Shed, Enigmatist, and Paul are their word-twisting counterparts featured in The Guardian and other UK outlets.

In fact, beloved setter Araucaria will soon be the subject of a documentary. For more than 50 years, he challenged and delighted cryptic crossword fans, amassing a loyal following. In January of 2013, he even shared his cancer diagnosis with the audience through a puzzle in The Guardian.

While the Wordplay documentary, as well as interviews on PuzzleNation Blog and other sites, have given solvers some insight into the minds and lives of constructors and setters, it’s wonderful to know that the life of a fellow puzzler will be chronicled in so intimate a format.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out our library of PuzzleNation apps and games!