# Tackling the GCHQ 2021 Christmas Card!

Every year, one of the puzzliest challenges many solvers will encounter all year descends upon the world, as the GCHQ issue their Christmas card.

The GCHQ — or Government Communications Headquarters — provides security and intelligence services for the British government. Back when they were known as GC&CS — Government Code and Cypher School — they were responsible for funding Bletchley Park and its successes cracking the German “Enigma” code during World War II.

This year’s Christmas card was directed toward solvers with a secondary school education (essentially solvers age 11 and up), and was less complicated than offerings in previous years, but still offered an engaging challenge.

Here’s the link in case you’d like to try it for yourself.

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Last chance before we walk through the solution!

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Okay, ready? Good! Let’s do this!

Clue number one is an easy one, as you simply read the first letter of each word in the message. Your solution is CHRISTMAS.

Clue number two is a simple 4×4 across-and-down grid where 1-Across and 1-Down are the same word, 2-Across and 2-Down are the same word, and so on. The completed grid reads:

T H I S
H O O T
I O W A
S T A G

And the letters in THIS are highlighted in the grid, so the solution is THIS.

Clue number three is a complete-the-sequence puzzle where the names of the Hogwarts houses from Harry Potter are listed, but each house in the sequence has more letters missing from the beginning and end of the word. Slytherin is the missing house, and with three letters missing from the beginning and end of the word, your solution is THE.

Clue number four is a Blackout! or Minesweeper-style puzzle where you deduce the location of bombs in the grid according to numbers in the neighboring squares. Once you’re marked off each of the bombs, the remaining spaces form letters and spell out a word. Your solution is SAFE.

Clue number five is a mnemonic device, and solvers must puzzle out what chain of related words is represented by the device. In this case, the major taxonomic ranks that are used to organize related living things are represented, and the word Kindly points toward the second word in the taxonomic ranks, so your solution is Kingdom.

Clue number six has three overlapping circles, each with letters inside, and you have to figure out not only what the words are, but what missing six-letter word would sit in the middle of this Venn diagram.

I found this to be the hardest puzzle in the card by far, as I tried and failed in numerous attempts to anagram the letters into recognizable words. Finally, I decoded the shortest word — LEEDS — only because I remembered that this is a British organization and I have friends who live in Leeds.

Leeds led me to unraveling the other two answers — MANCHESTER and NEWCASTLE — and my meager knowledge of European football provided the missing six-letter word. The solution is UNITED.

Clue number seven is a simple cryptogram, and is quickly decoded to read “This is the 7th question: people born between nineteen forty-six and nineteen sixty-four are commonly known as baby what?”

The solution appears to be BOOMERS, but there is an additional instruction to follow after decoding the message, and you must encode the answer. Following the same letter-substitution rule, BOOMERS becomes KEEPING, and that is your solution.

Now each word must be placed in order on the tree for your message to properly read out.

• The word BABY in clue 7 points toward the stroller icon, so our message begins with KEEPING.
• The lightning bolt icon refers to Harry Potter, so the word THE from clue 3 goes next.
• The soccer ball icon points to clue 6, so the word UNITED continues the message.
• The word KINGDOM from clue 5 aligns with the crown icon, so that’s our fourth word.
• The lock icon is most closely associated with SAFE from clue 4, so that’s next.
• At first, I thought the image of the Stag was a Harry Potter reference, but I then realized that STAG was one of the answers in clue 2’s grid, so this was the place for THIS.
• Finally, the present is the perfect spot for clue 1’s solution, CHRISTMAS.

And the message is revealed, celebrating the mission of the GCHQ itself: Keeping the United Kingdom Safe This Christmas.

Did you unravel this festive puzzly challenge, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.

Treat yourself to some delightful deals on puzzles. You can find them on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

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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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