Sometimes, You Can’t Trust the “Rules” of Crosswords

There are a lot of things you learn as you solve more and more crosswords.

You learn vocabulary, both words that are simply new to you AND words that are common to crosswords. You learn cluing tropes, like question marks indicating wordplay or quotation marks indicating informal speech or exclamations.

You also start to learn some of the constructors’ tricks.

Now, there are all sorts of ways that constructors can play with solvers, but all told, they seem to fit into three overall categories: clue trickery, theme gimmickry, and grid manipulation.

We’ve spoken about clue trickery loads of times in the past, and no doubt will again. And theme gimmickry will be the subject of a future post.

But today, we’d like to focus on grid manipulation.

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So, what do we mean by that? Well, essentially, grid manipulation is our catchall term for the most devious arrow in the constructor’s quiver. It’s when the standard accepted rules of crosswords no longer apply.

No matter what sort of symmetry is involved or how the grid is constructed, there are generally three accepted rules of crosswords:

  • Across words read across.
  • Down words read down.
  • One letter per square.

These are the fundamental rules, Newton’s three laws of crosswords. They’re the rules every solver expects to be in play when they sit down to solve a crosswords.

But that’s not always true.

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Over the years, crafty constructors have found ways to push the boundaries of what you can do with those iconic grids of black and white squares.

Some constructors have literally gone outside the box, creating puzzles where letters of answers are placed beyond the grid itself, as in Sid Sivakumar’s American Values Club crossword “Bursting With Pride” a year or two ago (with the letters LGBTQIA+ appearing in sequence).

Byron Walden’s Fasten Your Seatbelts puzzle from the AVC crossword in 2019 also extended beyond the grid. Extra letters served not only as “bumps” along the otherwise smooth sides of the grid, but spelled out various bumps, like RAZOR, SPEED, and GOOSE.

Other constructors find fresh ways to pack more into a grid than expected.

The most common form is the rebus puzzle, whether multiple letters can be placed in a single grid square. Sometimes, it’s only a single square in a themed entry where multiple letters fit. Other times, you can get whole strings of them. The exact puzzle escapes me, but I can remember a crossword where two down entries all had rebus squares, so instead of one film title in that down entry, two would fit in each.

One impressive example that comes to mind is Andy Kravis’s “Currency Exchange” puzzle from the 2019 Indie 500 puzzle tournament.

The puzzle actually had little ATM graphics in various grid boxes, and they represented different currencies concealed in the theme entries. Plus, the across and down entries that shared an ATM had different currencies in their entries. For instance, one ATM represented WON in SMALL WONDER and DINAR in ORDINARY.

Other puzzles, known as quantum puzzles, feature multiple possible answers in the same space.

1996 election puzzle gif

The most famous example is the 1996 Election Day crossword. The puzzle “predicted” the outcome of the election quite cleverly by allowing for either CLINTON ELECTED or BOB DOLE ELECTED to read out, depending on how the solver answered seven down clues.

Arguably the most impressive one I’ve ever seen was published in 2014. Constructors Kacey Walker and David Quarfoot combined some considerable Scrabble skills and a dynamite crossword grid to create an amazing puzzle.

You see, clues 26-Across, 36-Across, and 44-Across all featured seven letters, like a rack in Scrabble. It was up to the solver to find the anagram of each rack that fit the grid. Walker and Quarfoot designed the puzzle so that each of those clues had three possible correct answers — for 26-Across: ROWDIER, WORDIER, and WORRIED all fit the down clues — meaning there were a staggering 27 possible correct solutions!

Still, those puzzles followed the standard across and down rules. But other puzzles don’t.

In those puzzles, entries don’t go the way you’d think, bending or taking unexpected twists in the grid. One example was Patrick Berry’s brain-melting Puzzle 5 from the 2016 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, “Changing Lanes,” where answers zigzagged across the grid.

A less complex puzzle with a similar gimmick appeared in the 2019 Boswords tournament. “Spill the Tea” by John Lieb and David Quarfoot featured longer entries than would fit in the given spaces. The trick was to shorten in by removing a brand of tea from the answer, and letting it read down off that across entry, rather than inside it. So, for instance, HOTEL CHAIN read HOTELCN across, because CHAI was reading down from the C instead.

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Lieb and Quarfoot incorporated five such “spills” in the grid, and clued each tea reading down simply with “Oops.” It was an immensely clever way to utilize the across and down entries in a unique, unexpected way.

As you can see, puzzle innovation can come in virtually any form, and often, the very foundational rules of crosswords can be bent or broken to create an ambitious, brain-twisting, and (ultimately) satisfying solve.

So be on the lookout, fellow puzzlers. You truly never know how constructors will challenge you next.


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Delving into the 2020 Boswords Crosswords!

boswords online

I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hand at the puzzles from the Boswords Crossword Tournament. Given the talent involved amongst the organizers and constructors — as well as the reliable puzzles featured in the previous three tournaments — I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

So let’s put those puzzles under the microscope and see what’s what!


[Boswords 2020 Comedy Opener from Boswords on Vimeo.]

 

Warmup 1: On the Move by John Lieb

The first of three unscored opening puzzles did a nice job of loosening up solvers (whether they’re practiced or rusty) and getting them ready to solve. The five related entries all had the letter chain STU in them, and the letter grouping moved diagonally to the left with each successive entry. (This was explained by the clever revealer RV TRIP in the corner, as the letters between R and V made the journey across the grid.)

Although I struggled a bit with the lower-right corner of the grid, I found this 15x puzzle served its purpose nicely, offering an easily grasped theme to warm up solvers.

Interesting grid entries included WINNIPEG, OPEN BARS, RUN DMC, and DEATH STAR, and my favorite clue was “Some ‘The Mandalorian’ characters, for short” for ETS. (Though, since none of the characters are from Earth, I suppose we would consider ALL of them ETs. But I digress.)

Warmup 2: Act I by Andrew Kingsley

I’m not entirely sure if this 15x puzzle was a smoother solve than the previous crossword or if I was just more warmed up. This puzzle’s theme entries all started with an EYE sound, but spelled differently (AY CARAMBA, AYE AYE CAPTAIN). The revealer (EYE OPENER) not only explained this, but referenced the title. Nicely done overall!

This was a fun concept (despite one very obscure theme entry), and playing on pronunciation is a less frequently used gimmick in crosswords, which made it a nice treat.

Interesting grid entries included IMPOUNDS, BAT SIGNAL, and ONCE-A-DAY, and my favorite clue was “Change ‘chagne’ to ‘change,’ say” for EDIT.

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[Crossword street art at Heilig-Sacramentstraat 9000 Gent, Belgium]

Warmup 3: Starting From Scratch by John Lieb

Our warmup master Mr. Lieb returns with a well-constructed 15x puzzle that had the best flow of the three. Any solver would feel pumped and ready for the tournament after this one.

The theme entries were all phrases where the first word could be preceded by BANK (as explained by the revealer BANKSY). And I quite enjoyed having RUHROH from Scooby-Doo as the first entry across. It shows off the playfulness you can expect from Boswords tournament puzzles.

Interesting grid entries included AQUA NET, ROXANE, MARLOWE, and HEADBUTTS, and my favorite clue was either “Casino conveniences” for ATMS or “How Boswords 2020 puzzles will *not* be solved” for IN PEN.


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Puzzle 1: Gather Round by John Lieb and Andrea Yanes

The tournament proper launched with this great starter, a snappy 15x puzzle with a tightly-constructed great and a plethora of theme entries to hook solvers. All the theme entries were round or circular items — LIFESAVERS, FULL MOONS, BULLSEYE — which fit both the title and the revealer CIRCLE TIME in the grid.

As Boswords puzzles don’t tend to be as difficult as those at Lollapuzzoola or the Indie 500, this was the perfect representation of a Boswords Puzzle #1.

Interesting grid entries included GROVES, VOLDEMORT, ROMCOM, and CHALLAH, and my favorite clue was either “National dance of the Dominican Republic” for MERENGUE or “‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ has over 800,000 of these” for CELS. I love learning things from crosswords!

Puzzle 2: Two Across by Andrea Carla Michaels

Puzzle #2 really stuck the landing in this thoroughly enjoyable solve. A fun, accessible hook — naming two of the characters in famous trios and cluing each theme entry with the third — was made evident by the revealer THREE’S A CROWD, and the trios were well-chosen for maximum pop culture familiarity. (Though I suspect I got the Ron-Harry-Hermione trinity slower than most solvers.)

I found this puzzle right on par difficulty-wise with Puzzle #1, making for a breezy solve and some delightful cluing.

Interesting grid entries included ISHMAEL, CD TOWER, and THE SEA, and my favorite clues were “Nursery purchase” for SEED, “Pronoun containing another pronoun” for SHE, and “K-I-S-S-I-N-G in a tree, for short” for PDA.

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Puzzle 3: Mass Mayhem by Rob Gonsalves and Jennifer Lim

Bosword tournaments tend to have jumps in difficulty rather than a gradual increase, and this year was no exception. Puzzle #3 offered a boost in difficulty from the previous two puzzles, though I suspect cryptic solvers might have cottoned onto the theme faster than other puzzlers. Each theme entry was a “villain” whose description was an anagram of a Massachusetts locale (SILVER MOLE for “Graying double agent from Somerville,” GRID BUSTER for “Crossword puzzle vandal from Sturbridge”).

I figured out the entries without the anagrams, but getting the clues last is always the worst feeling. The “from” phrasing probably made the gimmick obvious to others, but I was a little slow on the uptake with this one.

Interesting grid entries included DEVITO, NAIROBI, BRAHMS, and MEMBRANE, and my favorite clue was either “First word spelled out in a lunchmeat jingle” for OSCAR or “Tea at the Boston Tea Party, effectively” for JETSAM.

Puzzle 4: Water Picks by Amanda Rafkin

For the second year in a row, Puzzle #4 featured my favorite gimmick from the tournament. Rafkin concealed different kinds of apples in zigzagging patterns throughout the 17×21 grid, allowing the letters in the entry to bob up and down. This fit the bonus entries HALLOWEEN PARTIES and BOBBING FOR APPLES elsewhere in the grid.

A delightful hook with a clever visual element, really fun cluing, and strong fill? It comes as no surprise that this was my favorite puzzle from the tournament by a long shot, despite being the largest.

Interesting grid entries included FEARSOME, EVAN HANSEN, GALLERIA, LOONIE, and ZORRO, and it was impossible for me to narrow down my favorite clue in this one:

  • “Foot work?” for POEM
  • “Without pier?” for ASEA
  • “Page in a screenplay?” for ELLEN
  • “One in a batting lineup?” for EYELASH
  • “Vessels that are often blown up” for RAFTS
  • “Org. with Sarah McLachlan (AND HER VERY SAD SONG) as a spokesperson” for ASPCA

(Unfortunately, I must also deduct points for referencing Dave Matthews Band in a clue. Sorry, Amanda, them’s the rules.)

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[There really ARE stock photos for everything.]

Puzzle 5: The A’s Have It! by Sid Sivakumar

The tournament puzzles concluded with a very satisfying solve from Sivakumar, whose choice of theme must’ve made for some fun constructing. Puzzle #5’s theme entries featured the letter A as every other letter in each entry (BANANARAMA, PANAMA CANAL), tied together with the revealer FIVE-SECOND RULE referencing the cavalcade of A’s in the grid.

All those A’s allowed for some long crossings, and the constructor made the most of them, using a number of 9- and 10-letter entries to tie the grid together nicely.

Interesting grid entries included IXNAY, MOVIE NIGHT, RAMIS, and KODAK, and my favorite clue was either “Chapter in a history textbook, say” for ERA or “Promoter of chess?” for PAWN.

Championship Themeless by Sam Trabucco

After two years of championship puzzles being shepherded by the ambitious grids of David Quarfoot, and Finn Vigeland offering an intimidating themeless championship puzzle of his own last year, Sam Trabucco stepped up to the plate with a suitably challenging finale to the day’s proceedings.

Absolutely packed with 8- and 9-letter entries, this grid was very tightly constructed, but included enough unexpected vocabulary to make solvers truly earn their completed grids. (My only qualm was reusing I in three entries — I TELL YA, I’VE GOT IT, and I’LL TAKE IT — but I’m probably in the minority on that nitpicky point.)

Interesting grid entries included TEXAS TEA, SNAPCHAT, SOYLENT, JANIS IAN, and STAGE MOM. Both the easier and tougher sets of clues had some gems, so I’ll list them separately below:

Easier clues:

  • “Lamenting some shots, perhaps” for HUNGOVER
  • “Like the origins of each day of the week” for PAGAN
  • “Like many colorful characters in ‘Reservoir Dogs'” for CODENAMED

Harder clues:

  • “Paying for a lot of drinks, perhaps” for HUNGOVER
  • “Vegan food named for a decidedly non-vegan ‘food'” for SOYLENT
  • “Put in charge?” for IONIZE
  • “Sounds Jazz fans love to hear?” for SWISHES.

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Overall, I was fairly impressed by the array of puzzles assembled for this year’s tournament. There were tricky themes, visual themes, and even an auditory theme, all of which made great use of both the cluing and the grids themselves. Yes, one or two puzzles didn’t resonate with me as strongly as the others, but the tournament puzzles as a whole were challenging and creative in their design without being off-putting or getting too esoteric.

BosWords remains the perfect tournament to introduce solvers to tournament-style puzzling, making up for difficulty with accessibility, playfulness, and straight-up solid grid construction.

It’s the right mix of challenge and creativity for solvers accustomed to NYT-style solving, and I think the constructors and organizers did one heck of a job putting together the tournament, especially with the trying circumstances this year. I heard nothing but good things about the online solving experience, and I credit the hardworking organizers for pulling this all off!

And I can’t wait to see what they cook up for us next year.


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Lollapuzzoola? BosWords? Updates on Several Crossword Events!

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Over the last few years, crossword fans have been absolutely spoiled by an abundance of terrific crossword tournaments. Between the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the Indie 500, Lollapuzzoola, and BosWords (not to mention smaller local tournaments), in past years, there has always been something to look forward to.

As you might expect given the current circumstances, 2020 hasn’t been nearly so kind. ACPT’s original date in March was cancelled, and the tournament has since been rescheduled for September.

The Indie 500 was also cancelled, though the organizers are hoping to host a solve-from-home event in its place. (Whether it will bear any similarity to the wonderful Crossword Tournament From Your Couch event back in March, we cannot say.)

And recently, we got updates on two other beloved events on the crossword calendar.

Last Thursday, Brian Cimmet and Patrick Blindauer reached out to Lollapuzzoola fans to sadly announce that Lollapuzzoola 13 will not be happening this summer.

Like the Indie 500 crew, our friends at Lollapuzzoola are hoping to host some sort of virtual event, but no decisions have been made yet.

Knowing that registration for BosWords opened around this time last year, I reached out to the organizers of BosWords to find out what we might expect regarding their event.

It turned out my timing was spot-on, as the next day, John Lieb confirmed (via email and social media) that BosWords 2020 will be an online tournament this year, and they have a date set: Sunday afternoon, July 26.

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For current plans and future details, be sure to visit the BosWords homepage.

With BosWords tentatively set for July, ACPT for September, and both Indie 500 and Lollapuzzoola hoping to host online events this summer, it could quickly prove to be a delightfully busy few months for crossword fans.

We’ll keep you posted on all of these events as more details emerge, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. In the meantime, stay safe, stay healthy, and keep puzzling!


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Missing This Year’s Indie 500 Crossword Tournament…

Originally, this post was scheduled to hype up the return of one of the most inventive and enjoyable crossword tournaments in recent memory, the Indie 500.

Scheduled for June 6th, the sixth annual edition of the tournament would have featured clever clues, some dynamite puzzles, and pie. (There’s always pie.)

Unfortunately, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has scuppered many events large and small over the last few months. Crossword fans missed out on the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament back in March, though many of them — 1,815 solvers! — enjoyed the wonderful Crossword Tournament From Your Couch event that was organized in its stead.

The organizers of the Indie 500 posted back in March that they were working on a solve-at-home event to be held this summer, but as of this posting, no further details have emerged.

But do not fret. If you’re looking for some puzzly challenges to dive into over the weekend, the Indie 500 team have made the tournament puzzle packs for ALL FIVE previous tournaments available for free on their website, which is an incredibly generous and kind gesture.

And if you’re looking to get a sense of what sort of challenges and delights the tournament has to offer, we have write-ups covering each of the five previous editions of the tournament for you to check out.

Here’s hoping we still get to indulge in some fresh Indie 500 treats this summer. It truly has become one of the highlights of the puzzly calendar, one that I look forward to every year.


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Puzzle Tournaments Loom Near!

[Solvers gather for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.]

Tomorrow is the 21st annual Westport Library Annual Puzzle Contest, and I consider Westport the unofficial start of the year’s crossword-y festivities.

Sure, the obvious start is the weekend of March 20-22, when the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament descends upon Stamford, CT, and puzzlers from all over test their puzzly mettle against some devious and delightful crosswords.

Then, after the big event in March, it’s a few months’ wait until summer, when there’s at least one proper tournament every month. We’ve got the Indie 500 in June, BosWords at the end of July, Lollapuzzoola on a Saturday in August, and Bryant Park in September.

But that ignores all the smaller tournaments and events in between. Libraries and rec centers all over the country host puzzly events that get less press than the famous ones.

For instance, did you know that on March 14th, you can attend the Eighth Annual Finger Lakes Crossword Competition?

I bet you didn’t.

So, in case you’re not traveling to one of the more well-known tournaments, keep your eyes peeled for smaller, but no less enjoyable, puzzle events happening throughout the year.

And good luck to all those headed to Westport for some Will Shortz-fueled cruciverbal adventures! Happy puzzling!

Are you attending any puzzle events this year, big or small? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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A Clued Sudoku Puzzle? It’s More Than Meets the Eye

cryptic

The hunt is always on for the next big puzzle idea.

Sometimes, it’s an old idea that gets repackaged and catches fire. That’s what happened with Sudoku, a puzzle that had been around since the late ’70s, but only rose to prominence decades later.

Other times, it’s a combination of different puzzle types that yields something special. Our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles, for instance, have a popular puzzle called Anagram Magic Square, which combines crossword-style cluing, anagrams, and the mathematical element of a magic square to create an engaging puzzle experience you can solve from several angles.

Whether a puzzle is destined for superstardom or not depends on a lot of factors: difficulty, the type of solving it involves, how intuitive the solving is (i.e. needing a lengthy explanation vs. getting the gist of the puzzle from a glance), visual aesthetics, and more.

As a puzzler, it’s always exciting to try out a new puzzle. Wholly original ideas are rare, to be sure, but even a single twist on an old classic can be enjoyable if executed well.

Today, we’re taking a look at a puzzle that combines Sudoku with cryptic crosswords (aka British-style crosswords). It’s called Cluedoku, and it was created by cryptic constructor Charlie Methven, better known in solving circles as Chameleon, a contributor to British puzzle outlets like The Guardian.

cluedoku

[Just a sample of the puzzle. Check out the entire puzzle here.]

Like Sudoku, Cluedoku involves placing the digits 1 through 9 into each row, column, and 3×3 square in the grid. But unlike Sudoku, there are no set letters.

Instead, you have 81 clues, one for every cell in the grid, utilizing cryptic-style cluing to hint toward which of the nine numbers goes in a given cell.

Once you’ve unraveled a clue and placed a number in the grid, standard Sudoku rules apply: that number will only appear once in a row, column, or 3×3 square.

But that’s easier said than done. These clues run the gamut of slyly clever to almost baffling. Even when you consider that there are only nine possible answers for each clue, it’s still a challenge. (Plus, not all of the clues adhere to the standard cryptic cluing mechanic of having both a definition AND a wordplay clue included.)

That being said, you’ll find lots of traditional cryptic cluing tricks at play here.

Now, we’re going to be discussing specific clues and answers from this puzzle, so this is your spoiler warning.

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Last chance to solve without spoilers!

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Okay, here we go.

In terms of traditional cryptic cluing gimmickry, we see hidden words, anagrams, homophones, word reversals, and more.

In clue 6 — Axis revolves without beginning to accelerate — we revolve (aka reverse) axis to spell SIXA, and then drop the A (“without beginning to accelerate”) to spell SIX.

In clue 8 — Prime cut from sloth reeks — the answer hides in plain sight, as a prime number (three) reads out in sloTH REEks (and can be cut out of it).

In clue 22 — Scenes in X-Men Origins reveal how many claws Wolverine has! — the phrase “origins reveal” points towards the first letters of the words that precede it proving the answer, meaning that SIX is the number of claws Wolverine has (three on each hand).

There is a similar game in clue 67 — With only seconds remaining, Officer Columbo outwits crook — which has the second digits of “Officer Columbo outwits crook” spelling out FOUR.

In clue 27 — UFO demolished third of Parliament Square — the letter R (“third of Parliament”) gets mixed up with UFO to make FOUR, a square.

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But other clues would be familiar to crossword solvers in America.

Clue 29 — Number of Romans in the New Testament? — is simple wordplay for 6, since Romans is the SIXth book. (Similarly, clue 62 — Number of lines taken by bar staff — is a reference to the FIVE lines that make up a staff in sheet music.)

Clue 34 — Top score in Scrabble — is a bit more devious, requiring you to know that T is worth 1 point, O is worth 1 point, and P is worth 3 points, making the correct answer FIVE.

Clue 48 — Man’s arms’ legs’ digit — feels like a clue you’d see at the Indie 500 or Lollapuzzoola, because it’s initially baffling, but then reveals itself as merely clever and challenging. You see, there are THREE legs on the coat of arms for the Isle of Man. But that’s concealed by the wordplay involving three different words that don’t mean what you’d think.

This mix of American and British-style clues made for a fun solve that mixed and mingled two worlds of cluing nicely.

I think my favorite clue was Clue 39 — 192+284 — because it was built like one of those magazine word puzzles, the ones where “rockcaughthardplace” means “caught between a rock and a hard place.” In this case, you have “2+2” literally in 1984. And for anyone familiar with George Orwell’s famous novel, 2+2 in 1984 equalled FIVE.

Although obviously Cluedoku isn’t really sustainable as a recurring puzzle — you’d burn out your anagrams and homophones pretty quickly, as Chameleon himself stated in an interview — it is an impressive marriage of two different puzzles that rarely interact otherwise.

But he did raise the possibility of another variation in the future:

If I did another Chameleon cluedoku, I think I’d use the seven colours of the rainbow plus black and white, as solvers could then colour in each square as they solved. How’s “Cry over Norwich’s core Canary”?

That sounds like a fun follow-up to an interesting puzzle.

What did you think of Cluedoku, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you.


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