The ACPT Returns This Weekend!


The 41st edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is this weekend!

Puzzlers from all over are sharpening their pencils and their wits as they gear up for what is affectionately known as the Nerd Olympics, and we here at PuzzleNation wish all of the competitors the best of luck!


Here’s hoping Puzzle #5 isn’t as diabolical as it has been in previous years!

There is a topnotch lineup of constructors to challenge this year’s competitors. Not only do we have Patrick Berry and Mike Shenk — perennial contributors to the tournament — as well as the prolific Zhouqin Burnikel and other ACPT stalwarts like Lynn Lempel, Sam Ezersky, Joel Fagliano, and Damon Gulczynski. Only Tracy Gray is a newcomer to crafting tournament puzzles. I can’t wait to see what they’ve concocted for this year’s tournament!

Good luck to everyone competing! And hey, if you need a pencil sharpener — or you’d like some terrific puzzly freebies and contests — we’ll be hanging out with our pals at the Penny Dell Puzzles table again this year! Be sure to stop by!

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: NCIS: New Orleans

Last week, a murder investigation turned into a puzzly treasure hunt for a group of NCIS investigators, a team who investigates criminal cases involving members of the military. So join us as we rundown the events of “Treasure Hunt,” episode 17 of season 4 of NCIS: New Orleans.

The episode opens during a pirate-themed festival, as two women search for the secret entrance to an exclusive costume party. Unfortunately, instead of drunken revelry, they stumble upon a dead body, strung up inside a warehouse on the waterfront.

The NCIS team soon arrives, and the coroner identifies the victim as an oceanographer, Lt. Commander Elaine Dodd. Dodd was beaten before her death, and her arm was partially skinned, perhaps as part of an interrogation.

Dodd’s oceanographic work centered around Grande Isle, the former stomping grounds of the infamous pirate Jean LaFitte. The team makes contact with Dodd’s father, Tom, a former Green Beret. He expected her to show up at his house in Florida after an excited phone call, but she never arrived. This leads the team to believe that Dodd’s death had something to do with a treasure hunt, one of the things she and her father bonded over.

Forensic analysis reveals that her arm was skinned to remove a tattoo, but they’re able to reconstruct the image: a simple compass and some coordinates. These confirm the treasure hunt theory: Dodd had apparently made some progress in locating the lost Napoleon Fleur de Lis, a jewel-encrusted emblem stolen by Jean LaFitte and hidden away.

Following the coordinates to a church, Special Agent Pride and lab tech Sebastian search the area, finding their way upstairs to a lofted storage area. But someone has beaten them to the punch, opening fire and sending the agents scurrying for cover.

Pride chases the two suspects, but they get away, and when he doubles back to the loft, he finds Sebastian examining a statue stored in the church attic. Once the statue is removed from its pedestal, a secret compartment opens, revealing a wooden puzzle book wrapped in cloth.

The puzzle book is marked with a fleur de lis and bears an inscription of Jean LaFitte’s signature. The investigation of Dodd’s murder has officially become a treasure hunt.

Back at the field office, Agent Gregorio would prefer to use a knife to crack open the book, but Sebastian insists on solving the cipher to open the book, as some puzzle books include a vial of acid inside that would destroy the book if tampered with.

While he works on the puzzle book, cameras outside the church help the agents ID one of the suspects, a mercenary for hire. Dodd’s father Tom enters the office, hoping for progress, and recognizes the suspect. He points the agents toward the mercenary’s usual employer, a specialist in deep-sea diving and sunken galleons. Dodd’s father offers to arrange a meeting, and the team is wary, but takes him up on his offer.

Meanwhile, Sebastian and Gregorio check Dodd’s phone records and find several calls to a local professor, Michelle Faucheux, an expert in LaFitte and pirate history, who they believe helped Elaine find the coordinates. But when they arrive at her home, it has been ransacked, the professor locked in a closet. After they release her and calm her down, she confirms she’d been talking to Elaine.

Tom makes good on his word and lures his contact to a bar with the agents in tow. But the man, Walton, claims he hasn’t worked with either of the suspects in months. He warns Tom and the team away from the treasure hunt, clearly spooked by the ruthlessness he’s observed.

Sebastian and Gregorio bring Michelle back to the office, and she’s stoked to see the puzzle book. The cover of the puzzle book is encrypted, and they have to turn a dial in order to unlock it. But they need a key word to help solve the cipher. After trying out various words, they focus on LaFitte’s brother, Pierre — the most likely person to be hunting for LaFitte’s treasure. This leads them to try the word “Cabildo,” the jail in which Pierre had been incarcerated.

Using that as the key word — and a Vigenere cipher to crack the code — leads them to the answer “fleur de lis”, and they unlock the puzzle book’s cover. The iris in the center opens, revealing a latch, and they open the puzzle book.

On the left page is a clock puzzle, and on the right is a map with smaller code dials beneath it, along with a plate reading BLF6.

Agent Pride calls them, informing Gregorio that the two suspects are camped out right down the street from the office. He and the team are en route, but they expect trouble soon.

Oddly enough, the suspects simply hang back and wait as the team reunites. The agents suspect the mercenaries are waiting for the team to lead them to the fleur. So the team focuses on the riddle, hoping for a chance to gather more info on whomever is bankrolling the gun-toting baddies.

The riddle “Move as the clock” offers a hint for how to find which code letters to enter, but they’re not sure where to start. Pride theorizes that BLF6 could point toward Barthelemy Lafon, an architect and city planner from the 1700s who also palled around with the LaFitte brothers. He is buried in a local cemetery, in a crypt located at F6 on the map.

Gregorio, Sebastian, and Michelle head to the crypt while Agents Percy and LaSalle keep their eyes on the suspects, getting close enough to clone their phones and gain access to their calls and text messages. Pride and Dodd’s father are back at the field office, trying to figure out who would literally kill to have the artifact.

The puzzle book trio spot an engraved fleur de lis over the letter L in “Lafon”. They try “moving as the clock” by moving clockwise to the next crypt. Another fleur de lis over another crypt engraving gives them the final letter they need, unlocking a compartment in the book and revealing both the suspected acid vial and a piece of paper. It’s a partial map with another riddle written in French. Michelle quickly translates it as “enter this last crypt to find the fleur de lis” and runs off.

At this point, all of the viewers become very suspicious of Michelle. I mean, come on, the riddle was four lines long, and given how tough the puzzle book had been to crack thus far, this seemed too easy.

Meanwhile, the suspects leave after receiving a text that the fleur is NOT in the cemetery. As you might have suspected, Michelle texted the suspects and has been behind everything the whole time. But the viewers are clearly one-up on the agents, who blindly follow Michelle to another crypt, where Michelle traps them inside and runs off.

We get some unnecessary backstory on Michelle involving a dead brother and being scammed out of treasure by the Spanish government, but who cares, what about the treasure hunt?

Pride and Tom go after Michelle while Percy and LaSalle hunts for the easily bamboozled agents, who are trapped in the crypt and running out of air. Pride and Tom head out to Fort Macomb, a repurposed, then abandoned, base which was formerly known as Chef Menteur. (It’s unclear whether they solved the map clue that Sebastian photographed and sent them before being trapped or if they just followed the hired goons.)

But nonetheless, they’re en route to the treasure while Gregorio and Sebastian set a fire inside the crypt, hoping the smoke will escape and lead their fellow agents to them before they suffocate. Their plan works, and they’re rescued.

At Fort Macomb, Pride orders Tom to stay with the car, and heads into the fort, getting the drop on Michelle. Unfortunately, her goons capture Tom, and Pride loses the standoff. In classic villain fashion, Michelle has Pride dig up the treasure for her.

At her moment of triumph, Tom puts his Green Beret training to work, taking out one of the hired thugs as Pride dispatches the other. Since we’re running on full cliche at this point, Tom has a chance to kill the woman who killed his daughter, but spares her after a speech from Pride. The better man and all that.

The episode closes with the team admiring the bejeweled source of everyone’s consternation. Tom decides to donate the fleur to the city, because that’s what his daughter would have done. Nice closer.

All in all, I was a little underwhelmed by the episode, because the plotline twists failed to keep up the same interest level that the treasure hunt did. Once they were done with the puzzle book, the cliches rapidly took over.

Who stops in the middle of a treasure hunt to tattoo a clue on themselves? Why wasn’t the tattoo artist a suspect? That would have been a nice touch. Also, Michelle’s transparent villainy wasn’t nearly as fun as her geeky schoolgirl excitement at cracking puzzles alongside Sebastian. That was easily the show’s highlight.

I do want to give a special shout-out to the Codex Silenda team, who created the specially weathered-looking puzzle book for the episode. I wrote about them back in August of 2016 when their wildly-successful Kickstarter campaign originally closed. They’ve been busy fulfilling orders for Kickstarter backers ever since, and they were clearly excited to see one of their puzzle books on a national stage like this.

What’s more amazing is that the puzzle book cracked by the NCIS team in this episode was only a few pages deep. The full Codex Silenda is much larger and more intricate! No doubt the real Jean LaFitte would’ve splashed out for the complete Codex in order to bamboozle potential treasure hunters.

Still, it’s always nice to see crime shows explore the possibilities that puzzles offer. Splicing up the occasional murder with a puzzle (or better yet, a treasure hunt) is a pleasant change of pace for the procedural genre. Nicely done, NCIS: NO.

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PuzzleNation Product Review: Chessplus

Chess is one of the all-time classic games. Alongside Checkers, Go, Tic-Tac-Toe, and mah-jongg, chess is one of the cornerstones of the genre, one of the first games we’re introduced to, and one of the formative games upon which we build concepts of strategy, timing, and opportunity.

Over the centuries, there have been numerous attempts to reinvent chess or find new ways to play. We’ve talked about puzzly variations on chess in the past, all of which can be played with a standard chess set. (Except for that guillotine set we featured last year.) But if you’re looking for a truly unique chess experience, the team at Chessplus have a simple, elegant game for you.

Chessplus is played under standard chess rules, but with one crucial difference: you can combine your pieces into more powerful ones.

Do you want a pawn that can make less-expected moves, or a knight that can play conservatively? Combine a knight and pawn into a single piece with the abilities of both. Do you need to keep your queen where it is, but still want a versatile piece that can command the board? Easy. Combine a rook and a bishop, and you’ve got a new piece that works just like a queen.

[Only the king is a solid piece. Every other piece can be combined with others.]

Merging pieces not only allows you to take advantage of each component’s abilities, but it can also allow you to more swiftly transport pieces across the board. Instead of a pawn crawling across the board one square at a time, combine it with a rook who can send it straight across the board, where it is then promoted to a queen! Or combine two pawns so you only have to escort one piece across the board safely, then split them again and voila! Two pawns promoted into new queens.

Oh yes, merging the pieces doesn’t link them forever. You can split them at any time. That feature adds another layer to your gameplay, since putting one merged piece into play deep in your opponent’s territory can suddenly become two separated pieces again.

Now, this piece-combining mechanic is a double-edged sword. Yes, you have a more powerful, mobile game piece. (I was very excited to try out combining a knight and a queen, just to make the queen even more dangerous.) But if someone takes a merged piece, you lose BOTH halves, making them as vulnerable as they are valuable. Imagine an opponent capturing my merged knight/queen, so I lose a knight AND a queen in one turn. That could be a devastating loss.

As you’d expect, it took a little while to grow accustomed to these new variant pieces. With so much to keep track of during a normal chess game, pieces with greater mobility make strategy — both offensive and defense — a bit more complicated.

But it was also great fun. Early Chessplus games tend to be faster, more aggressive, because of the greater mobility allowed by some of the merged piece combinations. But once you’ve played a few games, your more traditional chess mindset settles in, and gameplay tends to become more measured and tactical.

Just imagine. A single change that offers a world of new possibilities and challenges. That’s brilliant, in my estimation. Chessplus is a wonderful way to reinvigorate chess if the game has lost its luster for you. And if you are a dedicated player, I think Chessplus will prove to be a welcome change of piece from the traditional game.

[Chessplus sets start at $35.95 (for just the pieces) and are available from the shop on]

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It’s Hashtag Game-Mania! Let’s Get Ready to Raaaamble!

Oh yes, it’s that time again! It’s time to unleash our puzzly and punny imaginations and engage in a bit of sparkling wordplay!

You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie, hashtag games on Twitter, or @midnight’s Hashtag Wars segment on Comedy Central.

For years now, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellPuzzleSlogans, mashing up Penny Dell puzzles with advertising slogans, jingles, catchphrases, and more!

Examples include: Here and There’s the Beef, The Quicker Picker Upper, and A Diamond Rings is Forever.

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!

Snap! CRACKERS! Pop! (Rice Krispies)

Every Little Puzzler Helps (Tesco)

Betcha can’t eat just One and Only / Betcha Can’t Eat Add One (Lays)

Can you Here and There me now? (Verizon)

One for all and all four one. (Three Musketeers)

There’s no Right of Way to eat a Reese’s. (Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups)

Double Up your pleasure, Double Trouble your fun / Double Trouble Your Pleasure, Double Trouble Your Fun / Double your Delight. Double your fun. (Wrigley’s Doublemint gum)

Good to the Last Drop-Ins (Folgers)

Reach Out and Touch Sum Triangles (AT&T)

Say It With Flower Power (FTD)

The Happiest Places, Please On Earth (Disneyland)

What’s In and Around Your Wallet? / What’s Left in your wallet? (Capital One)

Don’t Leave Home Runs Without It / Easy Crossword Express: don’t leave home without it! (American Express)

Tastes Great, Less Fill-In (Miller Lite)

Calgon, Give and Take Me Away! (Calgon)

Time to Make the Connection (Dunkin Donuts)

You sank my Battleships! (Battleship)

Silly Dillies! (Bud Light)

License Plates to grill (Chili’s)

Get the Door. It’s Domino Theory / Get the Door. It’s Missing Dominoes (Dominos Pizza)

All the News That’s Four-Fit to Print (New York Times)

Because you’re wordsworth it. (L’Oreal)

Have it your Which Way Words. (Burger King)

He’s the most interesting puzzler in the world. (Dos Equis)

Once you daily pop crosswords, you can’t stoplines. (Pringles)

Take-a-break me off a piece by piece of that KitKat bar. (KitKat)

Give me a Brick by Brick. Give me a Brick by Brick. Break me off a Piece by Piece of that Kit Kat Bar. (KitKat)

Two at a Time for me. None for you. (Twix)

Good to the last Drop-Ins. (Maxwell House)

Me Want Honeycomb! (Honeycomb)

The toughest four Letter Perfect word on wheels. (Jeep)

Head for the Borderline. / Make a run for the Borderline. (Taco Bell)

Bubbles wobble but they don’t Spelldown. (Weebles)

Only you can prevent Fancy Fives. (Smokey the Bear/US Forest Service)

What happens in V-Words, stays in V-Words. (Las Vegas Tourism Board)

Like a good neighbor, Mystery State is there. (State Farm)

It takes a licking, but keeps on Tick-Tock Word Seeking. (Timex)

Quotefall into the Gap (The Gap)

We sell no End of the Line before it’s Two at a Time. (Paul Masson Wine)

You can’t win if you don’t Word Play. (Powerball)

I’ve Quotefallen and I can’t get up! (MedicAlert)

ABCs is for apple, J is for jacks, cinnamon toasty Crackerjacks (Apple Jacks cereal)

I can’t believe I AtoZ the whole thing! / I can’t believe I ate the Bowlgame thing! (Alka-seltzer)

You’ve got Ringers around the collar! (Whisk)

Who’s Calling? I just called to say I love you (Ma Bell)

Syllability rabbit, Trix are for kids (Trix)

Clap on! Clap off! Clap on clap off…the clapboard! (The Clapper)

I’m a Puzzler, you’re a Puzzler, he’s a Puzzler, she’s a Puzzler, wouldn’t you like to be a Puzzler too? (Dr. Pepper)

There were also a few submissions that deserve its their section, as several of our intrepid puzzlers went above and beyond.

When I bite into a Penny Press Patchwords, I get the PuzzleNation . . . (York Peppermint Patties)

If you have Fill-Ins Fill-Ins Fill-Ins, in the bipad bipad bipad, then you will like it like it like it on your iPad iPad iPad. (Libby’s)

My crossword has a first name, it’s P-E-N-N-Y. My crossword has a second name it’s P-R-E-S-S. I love to solve them every day. And if you ask me why say, Cuz Penny Press has a way with W-O-R-D-S! (Oscar Mayer)

Hold the Pick-ture This, hold the Lett-er Boxes, special orders don’t upset us, all we ask is that you let us have it your Word Ways (Burger King)

Have you come up with any Penny Dell Puzzle Slogan entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

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The AWS Puzzle Hunt!

The crew at Lone Shark Games are responsible for some outstanding puzzles. Long-time readers no doubt remember The Maze of Games, the interactive puzzle novel / labyrinth, which is just one example of the elaborate puzzly challenges they’ve created. They’ve also hidden puzzles in numerous board games and card games, including Get Lucky and the recently released Apocrypha.

And now, they’ve masterminded an online puzzle hunt on behalf of Amazon Web Services. It’s called AWSQuest, and it’s all about saving a delightful little LEGO robot!

From the announcement email:

AWSQuest concerns a lovable tech writer named Jeff Barr and his even more lovable robot Ozz (pronounced the same as “AWS”). Ozz is made out of Amazon orange LEGO bricks and has a delightful smile.

Which means it’s all very tragic when he explodes into a million pieces. Jeff is distraught, but Ozz left rebuild instructions in the form of hidden puzzles on the AWS blog site and elsewhere. Ozz 2.0, if he can be built, will be quite the technological upgrade from the original. But first Jeff needs to find all the components…

So if you’re looking for a new puzzly challenge that will test your ingenuity and craftiness, AWSQuest might just be for you!

And if you do accept the challenge, let us know! We’d love to hear from you about the puzzle hunt!

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Elizebeth Smith Friedman, Codebreaker and Scourge of Nazi Spymasters

[William and Elizebeth Smith Friedman, hard at work.
Image courtesy of National Geographic.]

Last year, I rather ambitiously attempted to summarize the early history of American codebreaking and the NSA in a series of blog posts spanning World War II through the modern day. One of the names I cited in that series, William Friedman, is synonymous with American cryptography, thanks to his contributions to the cracking of the German ENIGMA code and his efforts to establish the National Security Agency.

Unfortunately, there is a gaping hole in the narrative I constructed. Because none of my sources made any reference to another crucial Friedman: Elizebeth Smith Friedman, William’s wife and partner in code-cracking.

Yes, she was name-dropped in my post about the book Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, but she had to share those pages with a host of underappreciated women who were codebreaking geniuses.

[Image courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.]

As The Woman Who Smashed Codes explains, she wasn’t just a talented codebreaker. She literally wrote the book on it. Eight of them, in fact. The Riverbank Publications — although often credited to her husband — covered new codebreaking techniques in rich detail, and they are still referred to today as part of the foundation of modern cryptography.

She also started the first and only American codebreaking unit ever run by a woman, serving as Cryptanalyst-in-Charge while jointly working for both the Treasury and the Coast Guard during and after World War II.

A history of American codebreaking without Elizebeth Smith Friedman is woefully incomplete, and in today’s post, I hope to rectify that oversight.

[Image courtesy of the Marshall Foundation.]

Elizebeth’s work with codes started in a most peculiar way. While seeking a job as a librarian after college, she was recruited by eccentric millionaire George Fabyan to live and work at Riverbank, his palatial estate that doubled as a self-funded research center for all sorts of scientific endeavors.

Elizebeth’s deep knowledge of Shakespeare was put to work attempting to prove Fabyan’s theory that there were secret messages encoded in the writings of Shakespeare. Although her work failed to uncover any hidden pattern in Shakespeare’s words or font choices, it did lead to two unexpected developments: a career in codebreaking and a budding romance with fellow Riverbank recruit William Friedman, whose own interest in codebreaking was sparked by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Thanks to the proliferation of radio, there was a seismic shift in how information was being passed between military units, governments, and other organizations, so the ability to listen in on one’s enemies (and allies) was not only a new strategic opportunity, but it was a relatively new science.

In short, America needed codebreakers who could crack the secret messages being transmitted (and intercepted). The military didn’t have them. The government didn’t have them.

But Riverbank did. And for the first eight months of World War I, the small group of William, Elizebeth, and those they trained handled ALL of the codebreaking for every part of the US government, from the State Department to the Army to the DOJ. William and Elizebeth began running a codebreaking school out of Riverbank, even embedding a secret message in a photo of the class taken on the last day of the course.

[Images courtesy of]

In the aftermath of the First World War, codebreaking had become so important that countries were turning to machines to help develop uncrackable codes. And yet, at this point, American cryptography as a whole consisted of about 50 people. William went to work for the government, establishing the American version of Bletchley Park — Arlington Hall — and setting the stage for the creation of the NSA.

Elizebeth, on the other hand, cracked codes from home. And she did so for both the Treasury Department and the Coast Guard, who would send her sealed packages of intercepted encrypted intel and communications. In her first three months hunting down rum-runners during Prohibition, she solved two years’ worth of backlogged messages.

During World War II, Elizebeth’s Coast Guard Cryptography Unit turned their attention from smuggling (which waned during wartime) to cracking German codes. Under her tutelage, they would crack three different variations on the Enigma codes, each more complex than the last. (The British also cracked ENIGMA, independently of American efforts.)

Sadly, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, the US military didn’t want civilians in charge of sensitive operations, so Elizebeth was demoted. Yes, she was no longer in charge of the group she started, trained, and cultivated, instead answering to a new boss of dubious cryptographic talents.

(Of course, the sexist dimwits making decisions like this had to grin and bear it when numerous other organizations and agencies continued to asked for Elizebeth’s assistance by name.)

And stealing Elizebeth’s credit was practically a cottage industry over at the FBI. We have them to thank for erasing Elizebeth’s role in particular — and the Coast Guard’s role in general — in hunting down, exposing, and compromising Nazi spy networks in South America, even though the FBI’s hamfisted blundering actually served to expose codebreaking operations in the past, forcing Elizebeth to crack new codes in order to regain the advantage the FBI had squandered.

Oh, yeah, did I mention that both during AND after World War II, Elizebeth continued to hound the Nazi forces in South America who sought to destabilize the region?

As one historian put it, referring to the thousands of pages of decryptions Elizebeth produced:

These pieces of paper saved lives. They almost certainly stopped coups. They put fascist spies in prison. They drove wedges between Germany and other nations that were trying to sustain and prolong Nazi terror. By any measure, Elizebeth was a great heroine of the Second World War.

The British knew it. The navy knew it. The FBI knew it. But the American public never did, because Elizebeth wasn’t allowed to speak.

[Image courtesy of Find a Grave.]

Even in their retirement, the Friedmans continued to contribute to the world of cryptography. They returned to the subject of Shakespeare with The Shakespeare Ciphers Examined, thoroughly debunking the whole idea of hidden codes in the Bard’s works.

When William died, Elizebeth even hid a secret message on his tombstone, for those who knew how to look. (It was Bacon’s cipher, something they both studied extensively during their time at Riverbank.) What a touching tribute to how she met her partner and husband.

And although the accolades and appreciation for Elizebeth’s incredible contributions have been slow in coming, they are trickling in. In the 1990s, the NSA renamed its auditorium from the William F. Friedman Memorial Auditorium to the William F. Friedman and Elizebeth S. Friedman Memorial Auditorium. A Justice Department building also has an auditorium bearing her name.

More information about the massive expansion of codebreaking worldwide is coming to light with every passing year. Hopefully that will mean greater attention for minds like Elizebeth, who used her puzzly mind to protect the world. That’s someone worth celebrating.

[Much of the information in this post comes from a wonderful book on Elizebeth, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone, and it’s well-worth your time to check out her story in full.]

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