Upcoming Puzzle Events! The Spring Themeless League, Plus ACPT Going Virtual!

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Most years, the puzzle event season starts with the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in late March/early April, but 2021 is different. We already had the Boswords Winter Wondersolve event last month, and there are plenty of exciting puzzle events on the horizon!

Did you know that there’s still time to sign up for the Boswords 2021 Spring Themeless League? It starts Monday night, and you should check it out!

Last year, Boswords launched the Fall Themeless League, a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consisted of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you completed the grid.

Each week’s puzzle only had one grid, but there were three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth was the least challenging, Choppy was the middle ground, and Stormy was the most challenging.

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The Spring Themeless League follows the same format. Every Monday in March and April, a themeless puzzle awaits you!

Not only is there some serious talent among the constructors — Brooke Husic, Aimee Lucido, Rachel Fabi, Patti Varol, Ryan McCarty, Kevin Der, Peter Wentz, Ricky Cruz, and the duo of Brynn Diehl and Mark Diehl — but there’s a great community of solvers out there participating in after-puzzle chats and Twitch streams.

The Fall Themeless League gave me a new appreciation for what themeless crosswords are capable of, and I’m happy to be signed up for the Spring edition!

The Spring Themeless League will conclude with the championship puzzle on April 26th, which will make for a busy few days of puzzle solving, since another puzzle event is set for that very weekend!

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Yes, you might’ve heard that the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament will be hosted online this year.

The 43rd annual edition of the granddaddy of all crossword tournaments will take place April 23rd through the 25th. We’re awaiting further details, but hopefully we’ll know more soon!

So there you go, the next two months of puzzles all planned and set for you, with more to come this summer.

Will you be participating in either the Spring Themeless League or ACPT’s virtual event this year, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comment section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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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.

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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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The Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League Has Come to a Close!

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After two months of delightful weekly solving, the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League has come to a close.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League was a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consisted of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you complete the grid.

Each week’s puzzle only had one grid, but there were three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth was the least challenging, Choppy was the middle ground, and Stormy was the most challenging. (When solvers registered to participate, they chose the difficulty level that suited them best.)

Hundreds of solvers signed up for the challenge of two months of themeless puzzle solving and a bit of friendly competition, and now that it’s over, I’d like to share a few thoughts about my experience in the League.

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I confess, I was skeptical about entering the league. No, it didn’t have anything to do with the puzzles themselves. I knew the constructing team was top-notch, and with John Lieb, Andrew Kingsley, and Brad Wilber running things, I knew the competitors were in excellent hands.

I simply don’t solve themeless puzzles that often. In fact, this tournament probably marks the most themeless puzzles I’ve ever solved in this short an amount of time. They’re simply not part of my usual solving rotation, save for championship themeless puzzles in various tournament packets, and the occasional puzzle here and there (like Doug Peterson and Patti Varol’s Friday NYT themeless last week, congrats on your debut, Patti!).

But I really enjoyed seeing what creative constructors could do with crosswords once freed from the shackles of a theme. The long, crossing entries can certainly be intimidating at the start — especially if you read three or four clues in a row and feel like your brain has gone blank — but the sheer inventiveness of the entries you get to see, often stacked close together, is really cool.

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And, like a jigsaw puzzle, the solving experience sneaks up on you. You get a few words here, a few letters there, and suddenly everything starts to fall into place. Clues that eluded you make total sense on a second or third reading, or the now-obvious wordplay punches you in the face.

Eventually, you’re left with a full grid and a real sense of accomplishment. (Not to mention a growing sense of wonder that the constructor managed to make all those crossings work.)

This tournament showed me how much I’d been missing by not solving themeless crosswords more often.

And with the promise of future Boswords-hosted events in 2021 like the Winter Wondersolve and the Spring Themeless League to come, it’s nice to have exciting puzzle events to look forward to in the near future.

I ended up placing 85th out of 400 or so competitors, which I am pretty pleased with! And now I’ll try to do better in the next one. It’s always good to have goals.

Kudos to everyone who helped bring this marvelous project together, and kudos to everyone who participated. It was a blast.


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A New Weekly Crossword League Coming Soon!

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The internet puzzle community has done an impressive job over the last six months of adapting to the social distancing restrictions of the current COVID-19 crisis, with tournaments like Crossword Tournament From Your Couch, Lollapuzzoola, and Boswords successfully going virtual in 2020.

And now John Lieb and Andrew Kingsley, the creative team behind Boswords, have announced a new tournament-inspired online puzzle project to keep crossword fans engaged for the next few months!

It’s called The Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League, and every Monday night in October and November, a new themeless crossword will be posted for competitors to solve. That’s eight puzzles (plus a championship round to follow), along with a preseason puzzle to get people used to the format.

Although each week’s puzzle only has one grid, there will be three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. When you register to participate, you’ll choose the difficulty level for your clues.

From least challenging to most challenging, the ranks are called Smooth, Choppy, and Stormy. (Quite appropriate, given that we’re heading into unfamiliar waters here!)

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Each week’s puzzle will be accompanied by a Twitch stream where participants can follow along and discuss all things puzzly with their fellow crossword enthusiasts!

You can compete as an individual or as part of a pair, and with a one-time registration fee of $25 — or $5 for students and those in need — that’s very reasonable indeed!

Not only that, but they’ve already announced the team of constructors assembled for the League, and it is a stacked roster of talent.

Nate Cardin, Emily Carroll, Tracy Gray, David Quarfoot, Amanda Rafkin, Claire Rimkus, Sid Sivakumar, Yacob Yonas, and Stella Zawistowski are all contributing puzzles, and you won’t know ahead of time which constructor’s puzzle you’ll get on a given week, which keeps things interesting.

With experienced crossword constructor and editor Brad Wilber as the League’s puzzle editor and the dynamic duo of Lieb and Kingsley as assistant editors and League directors, I have high hopes for this project going forward.

Check out the full informational video on the Boswords homepage, as well as links for further info and registration! (Register by September 28th to participate!)

I think this is an incredibly cool and ambitious project, and a really neat way to bring tournament-style solving in a bite-size format to as many puzzlers as possible.

Will you be taking part in this exciting new puzzle challenge, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Delving into the 2020 Boswords Crosswords!

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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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BosWords Crossword Tournament Goes Virtual This Weekend!

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Sunday, July 26th, from 12:30 to 5, puzzlers from all over will log in for the first virtual edition of the BosWords Tournament (and the fourth edition of the tournament overall)!

If you haven’t signed up yet, registration closes tonight at 11:59 PM!

With two divisions to choose from — Individual and Pairs — puzzlers of all ages and experience levels will have the opportunity to test their puzzly wits.

Tournament organizers Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb have gathered a murderer’s row of talented constructors for this year’s puzzles. The five themed puzzles in regular competition (as well as the championship final) will be constructed by Andrea Carla Michaels, Amanda Rafkin, Sid Sivakumar, Andrea Yanes, Sam Trabucco, Rob Gonsalves, and Jennifer Lim.

For this virtual edition of the tournament, BosWords is asking for $10 for adults, $10 for pairs, and $5 for students to attend and compete, which is a serious bargain!

(And if you want to solve the puzzles but not compete, it’ll only cost you $5 for the puzzle packet, which you’ll receive Sunday night by email!)

You can visit the BosWords website for full details! And to check out our thoughts on last year’s tournament puzzles, click here!

Will you be virtually attending the BosWords tournament, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!


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