The Robots Have Come For Our Crosswords!

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Well, it was bound to happen. We’ve seen it in chess, and Go, and Scrabble. Now, crosswords are the latest pastime to fall to the inevitable machine takeover of civilization.

Okay, I’m being a tad hyperbolic here. Robots aren’t snatching crossword puzzles out of peoples’ hands and solving them, after all.

But we have reached a peculiar milestone in AI and crossword history: a computer program won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Sorta.

Dr. Fill, the crossword-solving creation of Matt Ginsberg, was able to balance the occasional solving mistake with a blistering solving speed in order to overtake any human competitors in its total tournament score.

But not by much. Former ACPT champion Erik Agard was only 15 points behind Dr. Fill on the seven tournament puzzles. Dr. Fill then went on to solve the championship puzzle in 49 seconds (while actual winner Tyler Hinman did so in three minutes).

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But, as it turns out, this isn’t the old Dr. Fill that has been competing in the ACPT for years. No, this year’s Dr. Fill is a curious hybrid of the original programming and a neural network known as the Berkeley Crossword Solver.

And this Frankenstein’s monster of puzzle-solving machinery is what toppled the competition in the first-ever virtual edition of the tournament.

According to an article on Slate:

An alliance came naturally. Ginsberg and the Berkeley crew started working together just two weeks before the tournament, plugging the latter system into the former, and the centaur program finally ran with just days to go.

The result, hastily constructed though it was, was a marvel, its pieces working hand in glove to solve crosswords. Ginsberg’s system handled the grid and the colder, mathematical side of things, searching and placing answers, while the Berkeley team’s system unriddled the hazier, “human” side of the language of the clues, crosswords’ music.

You know, it’s kind of reassuring that it took TWO computer programs working in tandem to best the top puzzle solvers.

Also, it’s not like Dr. Fill can actually win a tournament. Not until it can hold a marker and solve in person in front of everybody while Greg Pliska and Ophira Eisenberg crack wise about it, at least.

It does make next year’s tournament more intriguing. Will Dr. Fill perform as well “in person”? Or will the master cruciverbalists retake the title?

And hey, if anyone is building a body for Dr. Fill, please stop. Stop, rewatch every sci-fi movie about AI and robots, and then rethink your life choices.


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5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Mollie Cowger!

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!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the third edition of a new series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome Mollie Cowger as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Less than a year into her crossword career, Mollie Cowger has already built a reputation for creative themes, strong cluing, and well-constructed grids. Heck, she made my list of favorite clues of the year with “Protector of the crown?” for ENAMEL.

Her puzzles have appeared in Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest, Matthew Stock’s Happy Little Puzzles, and several times in the USA Today crossword, and that list will be growing by leaps and bounds in the near future.

Mollie 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 Mollie Cowger

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

My mom has always been an avid crossword solver, so I got started young. I’ve solved crosswords (originally just NYT, now many others) with varying degrees of regularity since at least high school (so, 2010-ish). I’ve been messing around with construction for a few years, but didn’t start devoting serious time and energy to it until summer 2020. My published debut was in October 2020 with a meta crossword for Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest.

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own?

I love a good a-ha moment; I love a puzzle that makes me laugh; I love seeing pop culture that’s in my wheelhouse; I love learning new things. There are so many ways a puzzle can be great! I also think “greatness” is a subjective judgment. I’ve solved many puzzles that are technically impressive and thoughtfully constructed that just don’t vibe with me for whatever reason. But that’s fine! Not everyone has to like every puzzle.

When I’m making a puzzle, I love having an entry where I know there’s great wordplay to be found, and then having my own constructor aha moment when I finally land on it. I try to put things in my puzzles that I would be excited to see as a solver, or that I can imagine someone else being excited to see.

I try to use “do I think people who know this will be happy to see it” as a guiding question for proper noun-ish fill and cluing, rather than “do I think everyone will know this.” As many others have pointed out more eloquently than I can, trying to guess what “everyone” will know tends to reinforce existing inequalities.

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others? Who inspires you as a constructor?

I don’t keep track of favorite clues, but I do keep a folder of favorite puzzles. Some recent-ish additions to that folder include Rachel Fabi’s June 1st, 2020 USA Today puzzle (“6/1”), Erik Agard’s February 1st & 2nd 2021 Universal puzzles, and Paolo Pasco’s blog puzzle “Entry-Level Stuff”. I don’t want to spoil them, so I won’t explain why they’re great. Go solve them!

There are so many constructors I admire and am inspired by that it feels foolish to try to name them all. It’s phenomenal how many people are making puzzles these days, and it seems like the community is only continuing to grow, which is wonderful.

[Her tag team solving is next-level.]

4. What’s next for Mollie Cowger?

Puzzling, gardening, maybe finishing knitting a half-done scarf that’s been taunting me for years (that one’s pretty aspirational), getting that sweet sweet COVID vaccine needle into my arm as soon as I’m eligible. In the longer term? Who knows!

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

If you’re thinking of diving into constructing, you should absolutely do it– the community is filled with kind people who will help you along. And, more broadly, don’t forget to have fun.


A huge thank you to Mollie for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for all of her crossword endeavors, and be sure to check out her puzzle blog Crosswords From Outer Space for new puzzles every other Monday! Whatever she creates next, I’m sure it will be terrific.

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5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Erica Wojcik!

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!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the second edition of a new series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome Erica Wojcik as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Erica has only started constructing crosswords over the last year, but she’s already making waves. Most notably, she has spearheaded the Expanded Crossword Name Database, a resource for constructors where the crossword community at large can submit the names of women, non-binary individuals, trans individuals, or people of color that you’d like to see in crosswords.

She currently has a puzzle up on Matthew Stock’s Happy Little Puzzles, and we’ll start seeing her creations in outlets like The Inkubator in the coming months. I have no doubt her byline will be appearing elsewhere soon!

Erica 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 Erica Wojcik

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I used to do morning crosswords with friends in college, but only sporadically. In 2015, my husband got me hooked on the NYT crossword and ever since, our daily routine involves solving the Times puzzle together and reading Rex Parker’s blog. I study language development as a professor of psychology, and crosswords perfectly combine my interests in language and problem solving.

I’d been curious about constructing for a while, but finally decided to try it out in February 2020. I tweeted something about wanting to construct and tagged Anna Shechtman and Erik Agard on a whim, and they both gave super advice and other constructors chimed in as well. I was so shocked and delighted by how nice and helpful everyone was!

But, it was February 2020 and before I could actually dive in, the pandemic struck and I was stuck juggling a job, a toddler, and a newborn. I got my head above water in November, downloaded Across Lite, read Patrick Berry’s Handbook, got hooked up with a mentor via the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory and very quickly became obsessed.

2. You have a puzzle in the pipeline with The Inkubator and you’re awaiting feedback on submissions to several of the major outlets. As you start to interact with the puzzle community at large, what have you learned along the way? What has been the most surprising part of the process for you?

Oh man, I’ve learned so, so many things from so, so many people! The most surprising part of constructing has been discovering the fun, welcoming online crossword community. I had no idea! It’s been such a delight to chat and joke and learn from so many folks. The most important (and most cliche) thing I’ve learned is to ask for help when you have a question. So many folks are willing to collaborate or share tips.

What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own?

I love puzzles that have personality and teach me something new, which usually means crosswords that have colloquial/contemporary phrases and avoid common crosswordese. Of course, I’ve learned that this is SO HARD to do. I end up ripping up entire grids because I have AMTOO and OSHA gnawing at me. But it’s worth it when you fill a grid that is just so clean and fresh throughout.

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others? Who inspires you as a constructor?

There are WAY too many constructors that I admire to list here! But in recent memory…. I absolutely loved Nam Jin Yoon’s Saturday NYT puzzle at the end of January. So many good phrases. Such clever cluing on the shorter fill. I’m also a huge fan of Malaika Handa’s 7×7 blog. Those make me laugh out loud all the time.

4. What’s next for Erica Wojcik?

I’ve gotten so much positive feedback for the Expanded Crossword Name Database, and one thing that several people have asked about is whether I can create a similar database for cultural things (teams, places, organizations etc.) So I’ll be getting that up soon!

I’m such a n00b at constructing, so I’m still just constantly playing around with themes and grids and trying to really find my voice. I love love love collaborating so I hope to do more of that, too!

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

Read Patrick Berry’s Handbook and join Crossword Twitter 🙂


A huge thank you to Erica for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for all of her crossword endeavors, and be sure to contribute your ideas to the Expanded Crossword Name Database! I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing what she creates next.

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Who Do You Want to See in Crosswords? Make Yourself Heard!

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Crosswords have long been considered the domain of older white men. It’s a stigma on the entire industry, one that has sadly been encouraged by years and years of non-inclusive thinking.

Thankfully, the wheels of change are in motion. We still have a long way to go, but the push for greater representation has never been more aggressive or possessed more momentum than it does right now.

Outlets like Queer Qrosswords, Women of Letters, and The Inkubator are all encouraging female constructors, constructors of color, and LGBTQIA+ constructors. Editors like Erik Agard and David Steinberg are actively recruiting new voices, while constructors like Rebecca Falcon continue to advocate for greater exposure.

But representation isn’t just needed behind the scenes. It’s needed within crosswords themselves. The cluing and the grid entries should also reflect our incredibly diverse, colorful, ever-evolving, spectrum-spanning society.

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We wrote about this in November when The Pudding published the results of a statistical analysis of commonly referenced people in crossword answers.

Well, now there’s a way for you to not only push for greater inclusion, but to actually make suggestions: The Expanded Crossword Name Database.

A Google Form has been created where you can submit the names of women, non-binary individuals, trans individuals, or people of color that you’d like to see in crosswords. They can be contemporary people or historical figures.

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This is one of the coolest things about the Internet. We can crowd-source our ideas and get feedback instantly.

I reached out to Erica Wojcik, who is spearheading the ECND, and she said that there have been over one hundred new submissions in the last week alone!

Click here to check out the form AND to submit your suggestions. You should only submit one name at a time, but you can submit as many times as you like!

I can’t wait to see what sorts of submissions are sent to the ECND. What a marvelous way for everyone to expand their vocabularies and work for greater inclusion in crosswords.

Who would you like to see appear as crossword answers, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to submit them to the ECND! We, and they, would love to hear from you.


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The Valuable Things (and Names and Places) We Learn From Crosswords

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I’ve learned a lot by solving crosswords. Honestly, it’s quite rare for me to solve a crossword and NOT learn something new. Sometimes, I am baffled by a reference I don’t know, and I end up finding out the answer only when the crossing entries are complete.

But that bafflement, that frustrating moment of ignorance, is soon mitigated, and I add a new fact to my ever-growing mental crossword library.

How many words have you learned by solving crosswords? How many geographic places do you know because of solving crosswords? How many actors, scientists, authors, musicians, and figures from pop culture do you know from solving crosswords? How many nuggets of trivia have you tucked away in the dusty parts of your brain that you picked up from an unexpectedly informative clue in a crossword?

Sure, we joke about the silent film stars and European rivers and African animals that often fall under the banner of crosswordese, but only because we’ve seen them enough to know them. We crave new entries, new peculiarities of language, and new crossword clue fodder to challenge and engage us in equal measure.

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A recent USA Today puzzle clued the word POEM with “Victoria Chang creation,” and a friend of the poet Victoria Chang, Nan Cohen, shouted out constructor Zhouqin Burnikel and editor Erik Agard on Facebook for including Chang in the puzzle.

Nan’s post went on to ask about how Chang ended up in the puzzle (though she thought it was cluing OBIT, Chang’s poetry book, instead of POEM, the actual answer):

I am curious, if you can share, how did you arrive at the cluing and decide it was accessible enough? (I love that it’s a new way of cluing OBIT, and of course that it represents an Asian American poet–cannot think when I have ever seen a contemporary Asian American poet in a puzzle, although Arthur SZE (who won the National Book Award in 2019) might be helpful to someone sometime).

The praise for both Burnikel and Agard is well-earned — Agard was quick to clarify that the clue was 100% Burnikel’s doing — but the discussion itself highlights an important issue in modern crosswords: the concept of who is “crossword-worthy.”

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Natan Last discussed this very topic in a brilliant piece in The Atlantic last year, citing the following troubling examples of “crossword-worthy” gatekeeping in major outlets:

Constructors constantly argue with editors that their culture is puzzle-worthy, only to hear feedback greased by bias, and occasionally outright sexism or racism. (Publications are anonymized in the editor feedback that follows.) MARIE KONDO wouldn’t be familiar enough “to most solvers, especially with that unusual last name.” GAY EROTICA is an “envelope-pusher that risks solver reactions.” (According to XWord Info, a blog that tracks crossword statistics, EROTICA has appeared in the New York Times puzzle, as one example, more than 40 times since 1950.) BLACK GIRLS ROCK “might elicit unfavorable responses.” FLAVOR FLAV, in a puzzle I wrote, earned a minus sign.

Appropriately enough, Last’s piece mentions a puzzle by constructor Sally Hoelscher, and Sally herself replied to the Facebook post celebrating Chang’s inclusion in the USA Today crossword:

One thing I enjoy about the USA Today puzzle is that Erik and the constructors are intentional about lifting up and highlighting those who may not be deemed “crossword-worthy” by some publications. I was delighted to learn about Victoria Chang from this puzzle, and to learn about her book, OBIT, when I was researching her to write my blog.

I can’t say for certain how many solvers were already familiar with Victoria Chang or her works, but I suspect the majority of USA Today crossword fans learned something new that day.

That is reason enough to keep pushing the boundaries of what is considered “crossword-worthy.” Inclusion encourages visibility, which encourages greater participation in crosswords, which feeds into greater inclusion. And along the way, solvers are exposed to worthwhile individuals and ideas, learning more about the world we live in.

Sounds like a win-win to me.


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Representation in Crosswords: A Fresh Look

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We live in a data-driven world these days. Everything is quantified, analyzed, charted, and graphed. Your social media use alone is an absolute treasure trove of data that tells businesses all sorts of information about your activities, spending habits, and more.

So it should come as no surprise to you that the world of crosswords is no different. In recent years, we have been able to analyze decades of crosswords like never before, drawing important conclusions and uncovering trends both intriguing and shocking.

Back in 2016, the data analysis of programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which were then edited by Timothy Parker. Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

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This led to Parker’s removal from both the USA Today and Universal crosswords.

But the impact of data analysis in crosswords doesn’t stop there. In 2018, Erik Agard compiled stats on how often the work of female constructors appeared in the major crossword outlets across the first four months of that year. It was an eye-opening piece about gender disparity among published constructors, backed up by smart research.

And there has been a greater push for inclusion on the construction side of crosswords. Back in March, at the urging of constructor Rebecca Falcon, several outlets participated in Women’s March, a concentrated effort in the puzzle community to support, foster, and cultivate more minority voices in crosswords.

(It comes as no surprise that two of the voices encouraging female puzzle creators are Erik Agard and David Steinberg, both of whom stepped up massively in the wake of the Timothy Parker scandal and have been advocates for greater inclusiveness in crosswords.)

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[The list of all of the female constructors involved in Universal’s Women’s March project.]

This does raise the question, however, of inclusiveness when it comes to cluing and crossword entries.

And that question has been tackled quite brilliantly by Michelle McGhee in an article for The Pudding.

Striving to “better understand who is being referenced in crossword puzzles,” McGhee made a strong point about the influence crosswords have as a reflection on society:

Crosswords tell us something about what we think is worth knowing. A puzzle that subtly promotes the idea that white men are the standard, the people everyone should know about, is a problem for all of us (yes, even the white men).

A less homogenous puzzle would be an opportunity for many solvers to expand their worldviews. But more importantly, if you’re a solver like me, it’s meaningful to see yourself and your experiences in the puzzle, especially if they are often unseen or underappreciated. When I see black women engineers, or powerful athletes, or queer couples centered in a puzzle, it makes me feel seen and significant. It’s a reminder that I can be the standard, not just the deviant.

And she put the data to work to prove her point.

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Sampling tens of thousands of crosswords from Saul Pwanson’s puzzle database, she and her fellow researchers sorted people mentioned in crossword clues and used as crossword answers by race and gender according to US Census categories.

And their conclusion, sadly, was hardly unexpected:

We recognize that this is an imperfect method, but it does not change our finding: crossword puzzles are dominated by men of European descent, reserving little space for everyone else.

Not only did they chart the percentages of representation, but they also created charts illustrating the most commonly referenced people in crossword answers in the New York Times puzzle.

The goal? They wanted to quantify the concept of “common knowledge” in crosswords in the hopes of redefining it in a way that better reflects a true common knowledge, one that represents everyone.

I’m only scratching the surface of this article, which is a fascinating exploration of the history of crosswords, what they say about society, and what they COULD say about society. I encourage you wholeheartedly to read McGhee’s full piece here.

It’s the sort of journalism, commentary, and data analysis that helps push a problematic aspect of crosswords into the spotlight and keep it there. Yes, there have been great steps forward for representation in crosswords, both within the puzzles and in the realm of constructors, but we can do better. We must do better.

And work by folks like Michelle McGhee and her graph-savvy data miners is a valuable part of the process.


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