Tackling the 2019 Indie 500 Puzzles!

June 1 marked the fifth annual Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, hosted in Washington, D.C., by constructors Erik Agard, Neville Fogarty, Andy Kravis, Peter Broda, and Angela Olsen Halsted. The first tournament had a racing theme, the second had a prom theme, the third had a time theme, the fourth had a fashion theme, and this year was travel-themed!

While I couldn’t attend the tournament, I did download the tournament puzzles, and last weekend I finally had the opportunity to sit down and tackle them. And today, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the event in the future.


Before the official tournament puzzles start, there’s a warm-up puzzle, a 15x grid entitled “Getting There” by Neville Fogarty. The hook is simple and accessible — forms of transportation found inside locations, like TRAIN in MOUNT RAINIER or BIKE in NAIROBI KENYA — and with easy fill and some fun cluing, this is the perfect puzzle to get your motor running for the tournament to come.

Interesting grid entries included I’M SORRY, AMNIO, and ONE PAGE. My favorite clue was “Org. with Magic and Wizards” for NBA.

person pulling travel luggage

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#1 Is There a Fee for Emotional Baggage? by Angela Olsen Halsted

The tournament opens with this smooth-solving entry by the ever-reliable Halsted. Loaded with shameless puns based on locations like MYSEOULMATE and OTTAWATCHIT, this fun crossword definitely builds any solver’s confidence for the challenges to come. The effortless fill is bolstered by great references in the cluing, citing The West Wing, The Lion King, Creed, and Shonda Rhimes. I blasted through this one quicker than expected, but I still really enjoyed it.

Interesting grid entries included CARDI B, STANDBY, ACELA, and ADONIS. My favorite clues were “Potables actually first brewed in England, for short” for IPAS and “Gosling of the ‘Hey Girl’ meme” for RYAN.

#2 Jet Set by Yacob Yonas

The second puzzle of the tournament was an ambitious 17x grid with lots of long entries and solid fill overall, tied together by theme of airplane/flight terms hidden in longer entries (like TAKEOFF in TAKE OFFENSE and FLIGHT in BEAM OF LIGHT). Overall, this was a very impressive grid, though not much harder than the first puzzle, making for another fairly quick solve.

Interesting grid entries included OVER HERE, ERASABLE, FIRE SALE, FAT CAT, PEBBLES, and the delightfully slangy HATERADE. My favorite clues were “Displays of pride” for PARADES and “Take up again, say” for REHEM.

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#3 Currency Exchange by Andy Kravis

Puzzle 3 was the first genuinely challenging puzzle of the tournament, a considerable jump in difficulty from the first two, and it takes the “word hidden in a longer phrase” gimmick to a whole new level.

The built-in ATM graphics in various grid boxes represent different currencies concealed in the theme entries; even across and down entries that share an ATM have different currencies, which is an immensely clever trick and a feat of grid construction I’ve never seen before. For instance, one ATM represents WON in SMALLWONDER and DINAR in ORDINARY.

This was easily my favorite puzzle of the tournament, and one of Kravis’s most diabolical and well-designed creations. Nicely done!

Interesting grid entries included CLAMATO, BALL HOG, END QUOTE, GAP YEAR, and PUMBAA. My favorite clues were “TV character described by Jon Stewart as ‘a fastidious, pigeon-worshiping felt tyrant” for BERT and “It’s three before November” for KILO.

#4 Travel Arrangements by Janie Smulyan

The toughest puzzle of the tournament for me (except for the final), this was a definite struggle, despite a well-constructed grid and a smart hook. The theme of this puzzle was a common phrase where the second half of the phrase was anagrammed into a form of transportation (for instance, MUSCLE STRAIN becomes MUSCLE TRAINS), tied together by the revealer TRANSFORMERS.

The anagram hook didn’t come to me quickly, making me work for every letter. Some of the clues as well, like “Japanese hog” for YAMAHA, took me an embarrassingly long time to unravel. Smulyan is clearly a devious constructor to watch out for.

Interesting grid entries included OPULENT, IBERIAN, ABSTAIN, and PIXAR. My favorite clues were “House payments” for ANTES and “Some are dry, some are magic” for SPELLS.

black vehicle parks near house under white sky

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#5 Four Plus One by Bryan Betancur

The final puzzle of regular tournament play, Puzzle 5 was an excellent closer, rewarding solvers with a breezy solve and a fun hook centered around travel phrases with circled bonus letters that spell out the word TIRE, a spare for the four circles/wheels already in the grid. (For example, STAR TREK becomes STAIR TREK and BUM A RIDE becomes BURMA RIDE, my personal favorite.)

Interesting grid entries included BOGUS, SWANKY, WALTZ, FAKING OUT, and ROBBERS. My favorite clue was “Pixar hero or Verne antihero” for NEMO.

#6 Final by Rebecca Falcon

A very tough closer designed to challenge the worthy top tournament solvers, Puzzle 6 was loaded with tough, long entries (AUDI DEALER didn’t occur to me for ages), and I would argue that TO A T (rather than TO A TEE) is questionable at best.

Nonetheless, it was a strong closer and featured diabolical cluing in both versions of the puzzle, the Inside Track and the Outside Track. (Although I tried to solve the puzzle with only the Inside Track (tougher) clues, I needed some help from the Outside Track to complete the puzzle.)

Interesting grid entries included ONOMATOPOEIA, SAFARI, ACHOO, HOTEP, and HOOPLA. My favorite clue was “With 46-Across, comforting words” for THERE. (Since that clue WAS 46-Across, the actual answer is THERE THERE. Fun stuff.)

Although that was the end of the tournament proper, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the bonus puzzles in the packet.

The Tiebreaker puzzle by Erik Agard was super tough, but clever and impressive, considering that the grid was constructed in the shape of a 5 (as this was the fifth edition of the tournament.)

Layering lots of long entries like SPLIT A CAB, I WANT OUT, DISGRACE, MAGNETRON, LPGA TOUR, and LESOTHO, it was a brain-melter of a finale to a tournament that swung between easy and challenging and back again.


Overall, this was the most inventive edition of the Indie 500 yet. The puzzles mingled the creativity of the previous four tournaments with particularly strong grid design, cunning clues, and some fun takes on classic crossword conventions.

The constructors made the most of the travel theme, incorporating anagrams, hidden answers, and the inspired ATM gimmick in puzzle 3. All in all, this was an engaging and worthy series of puzzles, designed to delight and challenge solvers in equal measure.

I look forward to its return next year, and hopefully some of you will join me in accepting the Indie 500 challenge!


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The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns tomorrow!

That’s right! Tomorrow, June 1st, will mark the fifth annual edition of the tournament! Although registration has been closed for weeks, you can participate from home for only $10! Click here for details!

Not only that, but they’ve whipped up a terrific meta-suite of puzzles to boot, and you can name your own price for it!

I expect great things from the immensely talented team of constructors and directors they’ve assembled: Erik Agard, Rebecca Falcon, Jenna LaFleur, Angela Olson Halsted, Bryan Betancur, Andy Kravis, Peter Broda, Yacob Yonas, Janie Smulyan, and Neville Fogarty. With a travel theme titled “Going Around in Squares,” topnotch constructors, and pie (there’s always pie), you can’t go wrong!

You can click here for the Indie 500 home page, and click here for a rundown of last year’s puzzles!

Will you be competing? Or participating from home? Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you!


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The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns soon!

Four years ago, a new crossword tournament joined the ranks of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and Lollapuzzoola, immediately carving out its own niche in the puzzle world. The Indie 500 offered topnotch puzzles and a pie-fueled solving experience both live in Washington, D.C., and for solvers at home.

And it’s back! The fifth edition of The Indie 500 is happening on Saturday, June 1, and this year, the theme is “Going Around in Squares.”

This year’s tournament follows the same format as previous years: five preliminary puzzles of varying difficulty, plus a final puzzle for the top three scorers in both divisions.

[There’s also a fair amount of slapstick.]

Registration is open for the tournament! They’re at capacity for attending in person (there is a waiting list in case anyone drops out!), but worry not, because solving from home is only $10!

Not only that, but there’s a travel-themed meta suite that lets you name your own price, as well as access to the previous tournament bundles for $5 apiece. Those are super-affordable prices for some outstanding puzzles!

Andy Kravis, Erik Agard, and Neville Fogarty all make their fifth appearance as veteran constructors — understandable, since they’re also event organizers — and they’re joined once again by Angela Olson Halsted and Peter Broda, as well as tournament constructors Jenna LaFleur, Bryan Betancur, Janie Smulyan, Rebecca Falcon, and Yacob Yonas!

And, of course, there will be pie.

You can click here for the Indie 500 home page, and click here for a rundown of last year’s puzzles!

Will you be competing, or participating from home? Let us know in the comments below!


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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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Delving into the 2018 BosWords Puzzles!

I finally had a chance to sit down and take a crack at the puzzles from the BosWords Crossword Tournament last month. Given the talent involved amongst the organizers, I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

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


Comedy Central by Andrew Kingsley

This unscored opening puzzle is a nice warm-up, getting everyone into the puzzly spirit and ready to solve. The revealer (INSIDE JOKE) explains the simple hook — words and phrases containing synonyms for “joke,” a la ACU”PUN”CTURE — and the easily-accessible fill entries make this puzzle a breeze.

Interesting grid entries included ZINN, YUAN, THE OC, and FAMOUS AMOS, and my favorite clues were “Ocean liner?” for SHORE and “Ending with ‘buck’ or ‘stink’” for AROO.

Puzzle 1: Cold Open by Laura Braunstein

For the second year in a row, Laura Braunstein constructed the opening puzzle of the tournament, and once again, she delivers a picture perfect appetizer for a day of solving. The cluing feels fresh and relevant, and the theme — phrases with a chilly starter, like ICY RECEPTION — is instantly gettable without feeling hackneyed or overdone. The grid fill is fun with hardly any crosswordese. A terrific start for the event.

Interesting grid entries included AIR GUITAR, TACO TRUCK, LISZT, and DOODAD, and my favorite clues were “Medieval peasant (no, not ESNE!)” for SERF — a nice reference to common crosswordese there — and the pairing of “Much ____ About Nothing” for ADO and “‘Much ____ About Nothing’ (1996 ‘The Simpsons’ episode)” for APU.

Puzzle 2: Not Ready for “Prime” Time Players by Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb

This puzzle puts an interesting spin on the classic moniker for Saturday Night Live cast members by casting athletes from Boston-based teams whose jersey numbers are not prime numbers. (For instance, BOBBY ORR is “Bruins #4 who is an NHL and crossword legend.”) Although you need to know your Beantown sports figures for this one, the accessible fill makes it easy to cobble the names of the athletes together if sports isn’t your strong suit.

Interesting grid entries included BALL PIT, MASTER YODA, OPIUM, and BLUE MAN, and my favorite clues were “What this is” for PRONOUN, “What this entry isn’t” for ACROSS [this was a down clue], and “‘The Fast and the Furious’ films, e.g.” for OCTET.

Puzzle 3: Musical Guests by Brendan Emmett Quigley

Although Puzzle 3 was the toughest puzzle in last year’s BosWords tournament, this year’s contribution by Quigley didn’t have the most difficult theme of the day, but it did have the most challenging fill. (The crossing of VAPED and VSIX was particularly vexing.)

But the theme entries were very clever, concealing famous musicals within mashup entries — TRENTON OF BRICKS, which is TON OF BRICKS with RENT inside, for instance — all of which spanned the entire grid as 15-letter answers. Another topnotch grid and concept from one of the best.

Interesting grid entries included CUT BAIT, AFLAC, MINSK, and K-SWISS, and my favorite clue was “Like the main characters in ‘Scooby-Doo’” for NOSY.

Puzzle 4: Deep Thoughts by Joon Pahk and Lena Webb

This year’s toughest tournament puzzle — other than the actual championship themeless — Puzzle 4 had two tricks up its sleeve. First, the answer words in the bottom half of the grid extended beyond the grid itself, as the missing last letters in those Down answers spelled the word IDEA three times underneath the grid. (For instance, DALI, PACED, WEATHER VANE, and ONEIDA appeared in the grid as DAL, PACE, WEATHERVAN, and ONEID, and it was up to the solver to realize what was happening.)

But those missing IDEAs — the “deep thoughts” of the title — were also missing from the theme entries, so EUCLIDEAN GEOMETRY had to be written into the grid as EUCLNGEOMETRY. It was diabolical, and a masterful example of gridplay at work.

Interesting grid entries included BANTU, MAJORCA, ADONAI, MY BABY, and ROPE RUG, and my favorite clues were “Buster’s target?” for MYTH and “HAL 9000 adversary” for DAVE.

Puzzle 5: Celebrity Jeopardy! by Finn Vigeland

The tournament concluded with a fun, punny hook, as Vigeland paired six celebrity guest hosts with descriptors to create common phrases like VOLCANIC (Chris) ROCK and BURNED (Jeff) BRIDGES. After the challenge of Puzzle 4, this was a pleasant solve that still made you work for some of the obscure fill entries.

Interesting grid entries included TIMESUCK, FBI AGENT, EBATES, and I GOTTA GO, and my favorite clues were “The Great Wall of China is visible from space, e.g.” for MYTH and “Deal breakers?” for NARCS.

Space Walks by John Lieb and Andrea Yanes

This well-constructed tiebreaker puzzle abandoned the SNL theme for a sci-fi twist, and the resulting puzzle was very smooth, combining a good hook — eight phrases consisting of two B words — with a clever revealer: beloved Star Wars rolling droid BB-8. Although not strictly part of the tournament puzzles in either point value or style, this was a fun puzzle all around.

Interesting grid entries included MR. DARCY, OPEN BAR, BOO BERRY, and ACADIA, and my favorite clue was “Like inside-the-park home runs” for RARE.

Championship Themeless by David Quarfoot

The grand finale of the tournament was this fairly tough puzzle with lots of long entries crossing and some difficult cluing. Although well-constructed — particularly the corners with intersecting 8- and 9-letter entries — the inclusion of answers like H-TILE and ECON EXAM felt like a little bit of a cop-out, compared to the otherwise tight grid construction by the usually impeccable David Quarfoot.

Still, this outdid Puzzle 4 for toughest overall solve for the tournament. I don’t think I would have completed it in the time allotted, let alone fast enough to do well against fellow solvers.

Interesting grid entries included CHEMTRAIL, BOSOX, ARIOSO, TRAVEL BAN, and NEVERLAND, and my favorite clues were “Fitting position?” for TAILOR and “Pill-dropping alternative to Tetris” for DR. MARIO.


Overall, I would call this year’s array of tournament puzzles a rousing success. They clearly had fun with the Saturday Night Live-inspired hooks, and the puzzles were challenging and creative in their fill without being intimidating or getting too esoteric.

BosWords is probably the most new-solver-friendly tournament out there in terms of puzzle difficulty — not nearly as challenging or as experimental as those at Lollapuzzoola or The Indie 500 — while still remaining engaging.

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.

Can’t wait to see what they cook up for us next year.


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