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.

crossword1

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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How Will Shortz Works

shortzoffice

[Image courtesy of Lifehacker.]

Last week, Lifehacker posted the latest edition of their How I Work series, which takes readers behind the scenes and into the workspaces of all sorts of experts, scientists, creators, and pop culture icons to see how they do what they do.

And New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz stepped into the spotlight to share his average workday and what his job is really like.

It provides an interesting snapshot of a job most people know very little about. (And, sadly, thoroughly debunks the glamorous crime-solving editorial life Lacey Chabert portrayed in A Puzzle to Die For earlier this year.)

Will talks about going through submissions, editing and polishing crosswords, working on clues, interacting with his assistants, and takes us into his workplace itself, including his reliance on book sources over Internet verification. He also namedrops his table tennis club (always table tennis, never ping-pong), and gives a well-deserved shout-out to XWordInfo.com as a world-class database of NYT crossword data.

But there’s one line in particular from the interview that stood out to me, and I suspect it stood out to other puzzlers as well. When discussing the editorial process for each Times-approved crossword, Shortz stated:

“I don’t think any other puzzle in the country goes through such rigorous editing and testing before publication.”

Now, I like Will. I do. I’ve interviewed him, and chatted with him at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament on more than one occasion. Hell, this year, I purposely lassoed him and pulled him aside so fans could grab photos with him before the tournament started AND still managed to work in a joke or two about the Crossword Mysteries movie.

But, man, there’s putting over your own product, and then there’s just stepping in it.

There are SO MANY great editors in the crossword market today. Off the top of my head, I can mention the editors at The Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Higher Edition, The American Values Club, The Universal Crossword, and The Crosswords Club, not to mention special projects like Women of Letters and the Indie 500, all of which provide wonderful, insightful feedback and attention to detail during the editorial process.

Sure, those puzzles might not all get the attention of ten test-solvers before publication, as Will claims each NYT crossword does. But then again, if you ignore those test solvers, as Will did in January when he used the word BEANER in a grid, that number doesn’t really matter much.

No, this isn’t always the case, obviously. Just two weeks ago, the Twitter account The Truth About Nursing praised Shortz “for allowing Howard Barkin’s description of nurses as ‘Pro caregivers, for short,’ implying expertise & autonomy. This contrasts with the 2007 clue ‘I.C.U. helper’ & the 2009 clue ‘hospital attendant’.”

nursingtruth

If you click through to the actual article, Howard does get the lion’s share of the thanks, as he should, given that the tweet shortchanged him a bit. But you also get more backstory on how the team at The Truth About Nursing spoke out against tone-deaf cluing regarding nurses:

Both of those clues led the Truth to protest to longtime Times puzzle editor Will Shortz. We explained to him in detail why the common misconceptions of nursing that the clues reflected were damaging, in light of the global nursing shortage and the proven influence that the media has in shaping public attitudes toward the profession… Shortz never responded directly to our concerns.

Yes, the NYT crossword gets more criticism because it is the flagship. But if you’re the flagship, you’re also supposed to set the tone, and with a track record of tone-deaf entries like ILLEGAL and HOMIE, as well as clues like “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM or “Exasperated comment from a feminist” for MEN, criticism is well-deserved.

The line between tooting your own horn and overplaying your hand is a very fine one, and undoubtedly, people are bound to disagree on which side of the fence this statement lands.

Some may say that Will deserves all the accolades and horn-tooting he wishes, given the subscriber numbers the NYT crossword garners. Others may take umbrage at Will seemingly dismissing the terrific work done by crossword editors around the country (with fewer resources, it must be said). I mean, Will himself mentored some of those editors!

I can’t speak for any of those editors, and I won’t. But, for me, as someone who has had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and getting to know so many of those creative, qualified, hardworking, and giving editors, methinks he doth toot a bit too much.


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And… Repeat

repetition

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

I’ve had repetition on the brain lately. Repeatedly. How apropos.

I was talking about plagiarism with a friend of mine recently — a teacher who has dealt with her fair share of plagiarized essays from students — and I quickly summarized the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal from 2016 for her.

She was understandably surprised that plagiarism was a thing in the crossword world — a thankfully rare one — and it got me thinking about intentional repetition vs. unintentional repetition.

When it comes to the Uclick scandal, it was pretty obviously intentional repetition.

crossword-finals-shady

But unintentional repetition happens more often than you’d think. The very rules for creating a traditional themed crossword lend themselves toward duplication, unintentional and otherwise.

Grid layouts, for instance, get reused all the time. When I started constructing, I actually assembled a stack of different grid patterns for 13x and 15x puzzles that I could use, organized by how the theme entries were arranged on the page: 9-13-9, 11-15-11, etc.

Despite the virtually infinite number of ways you could build a 15x grid, you see, when it comes to theme entries — particularly grids with diagonal symmetry and theme entries of matching length — there’s a finite number of ways to build a functioning grid.

So, we know that grids can easily be similar, but what about themes?

There are all sorts of ways that wordplay can inspire crossword themes — anagrams, sound-alike puns, entries reading backwards or being mixed up in a grid, portmanteaus, letters being removed from common phrases (and sometimes placed elsewhere in the grid), etc. — and if more than one constructor comes up with the same idea, you could have repeated entries with no malice or plagiarism involved.

Let’s say multiple constructors are working on puzzles with a similar theme, as they would for some of the tournaments hosted throughout the year, like Lollapuzzoola or the Indie 500. If the tournament had a time theme, it’s reasonable that more than one constructor could come up with a hook like “Time Flies” and look for entries that combine travel and time, coming up with NONSTOPWATCH or LAYOVERDUE.

raven

[Image courtesy of DnD Beyond.]

Constructor Matt Gaffney actually wrote about a case of unintentional theme repetition for Slate years ago, discussing how he and Mike Shenk independently came up with puzzles where the word RAVEN was hidden in longer entries, and four of the five theme entries in the puzzles were the same AND placed similarly in the grid.

It’s a fascinating read that reveals a lot about grid construction, theme design, and puzzle mechanics. It’s the ultimate puzzly example of “great minds think alike.”

So, how do you avoid repeating a theme? Well, a little due diligence can go a long way. Sites like Xwordinfo and Crossword Fiend are great resources for searching theme answers to see if they’ve been done before.

Constructor Patrick Blindauer also offered some advice for coming up with new themes: solve more puzzles. He said, “Solving other puzzles is a good source of theme ideas for me. I try to guess the theme early, sometimes based only on the title; if I turn out to be wrong, I’ve got a new idea to play with.”

In this case, he avoids repetition through imagination. It’s a cool idea, one that will no doubt lead to some terrific new puzzles.


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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

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

#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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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

#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

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

#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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