The Boswords Themeless League Returns Soon (Plus Some Puzzle Activism!)

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The Boswords summer crossword tournament has been a highlight of the puzzly calendar for years now, but during the pandemic, they also made a splash with their Fall and Spring Themeless Leagues.

And registration is now open for the Boswords 2021 Fall Themeless League!

If you’re unfamiliar, the Fall Themeless League is 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 consists of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you complete the grid.

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Each week’s puzzle only has one grid, but there are three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth is the least challenging, Choppy is the middle ground, and Stormy is the most challenging. (When solvers register to participate, they’ll choose the difficulty level that suits them best.)

Sign up, and you get two months of puzzly fun running through October and November!

Plus, they’ve already announced a dynamite lineup of constructors for this season’s puzzles. Here’s the full list: Evan Birnholz, Kameron Austin Collins, Mollie Cowger, Debbie Ellerin, Leslie Rogers, Quiara Vasquez, Byron Walden, Nam Jin Yoon, and the team of Angela Olson Halsted and Doug Peterson.

There’s a terrific mix of established names and up-and-coming constructors there, and I expect the season to be a terrific exploration of the best of themeless crosswords.

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The project is once again being spearheaded by the dynamic duo of John Lieb and Andrew Kingsley, and Brad Wilber will be the puzzle editor.

It’s only $30 to enter as an individual participant ($40 for Pairs), but there’s also a student/discount level for participants who may find the $30 price tag too steep. (There are also puzzle packets from the previous Themeless Leagues available for $10 apiece.)

The Boswords Seasonal Themeless League events have not only opened my eyes to the creativity and skill required for themeless crosswords, but they’ve become some of my favorite parts of the puzzly calendar.

Be sure to click this link for more information, sample puzzles, instructional videos, and more.

And you can check out our thoughts on both the 2020 Fall Themeless League and the 2021 Spring Themeless League for more info as well!


Puzzling and charitable acts often intersect. This is true of the Boswords team with their wonderful discounted option for participants, as well as their donation to Boston-based charities from the proceeds of their summer tournament

And while we’re discussing the intersection of puzzling and doing good, it’s worth mentioning that there are numerous examples of crossword projects working hand-in-hand with social activism for the greater good.

Queer Qrosswords, Women of Letters, and the charity puzzle packets organized by our friends at Lone Shark Games are only a few examples. All of them provide puzzle bundles for you to enjoy if you show them that you’ve donated to worthwhile charities and other helpful groups and causes.

But there’s another one you might not have heard about: These Puzzles Fund Abortion.

This puzzle packet, originally created to raise funds for the Baltimore Abortion Fund, contains the work of over a dozen constructors, and serves as a marvelous incentive to donate to abortion funds all over the country.

Please click this link hosted by Just Gridding for more information. It’s a terrific way to do some good.


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Delving into the 2021 Boswords Tournament Puzzles!

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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!


Practice Puzzle #1: One Direction by Ezra Lieb and John Lieb

The first of two unscored opening puzzles, this 16×14 grid was a terrific warm-up solve, designed to get the puzzly brain moving and kick off any solver ring rust that might be lingering about.

It was quick, accessible, and the grid fill flowed nicely. There were four themed entries, each containing the word EAST in some capacity (naturally, as a CT boy, PHINEAS T BARNUM was my favorite of the four). Plus, as the solver worked their way down the grid, EAST slowly migrated further east in each successive themed entry, which was a nice touch.

Interesting grid entries included JASON MOMOA, NAVAJO, DRECK, and THE FED, and my favorite clue was “Stamp with a raised design, like the Oreo’s fleur-de-lis” for EMBOSS. Seeing “Oreo” and “fleur-de-lis” together was a treat.

Practice Puzzle #2: Vowel Language by John Lieb

Boswords’ resident master of warm-up puzzles strikes again with a fun fill and a solid hook in this 16×15 grid. The themed entries were all two-word phrases where the words started with the same vowel (EARLY EDITION, e.g.), running through all five vowels (sorry, Y) as the grid was completed.

In fact, apropos for a letter-based theme, this grid was nearly a pangram (only missing J and V). Creative and interesting fill helped elevate this puzzle nicely.

Interesting grid entries included ZESTY, KENNY G, I QUIT, and MYST, and my favorite clue was “Enjoy a certain 7-Eleven drink, say” for SLURP.

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Puzzle #1: Self-Contained by Malaika Handa

The tournament proper launched with this great 18×15 starter, packed with themed entries that both started and ended with the letter I. These entries were helped along by both the title (which I loved) and the revealer GIVES SIDE EYE.

Couple that with some clever cluing — both informative and wordplay clues abound in this puzzle — and you have a very strong opener to this year’s tournament.

Interesting grid entries included HYDRA, OBEY ME, SAY CHEESE, and LATVIA, and my favorite clues were “Org. that might investigate your case” for TSA, “Something popped by toasters?” for CHAMPAGNE, and “Heady challenge for Hercules?” for HYDRA.

Puzzle #2: For Your Amusement by Hoang-Kim Vu

The second tournament puzzle eschewed a wordplay-based book for a very cool visual element. This 15x grid had the word TEACUP six times in the grid, spelled out in circled loops in the grid, and even tied it all together with the word TEACUPS reading down the center of the grid.

This did mean for some difficult grid fill in order to suit the gimmick, but the puzzle remained a solid solving experience and a pleasant shift in style for a tournament that’s often quite wordplay-heavy in its themes.

Interesting grid entries included LUCIDITY, HETERO, I TRY, and ASANTE, and amidst a load of informative and colorful clues, my favorite was “Aging texting acronym that some in Gen Z replace with a skull emoji, as in ‘You kill me'” for LMAO.

Puzzle #3: Rise to the Occasion by Garrett Chalfin and Andrew Kingsley

This 17x grid utilized its themed entries’ crossings in an engaging visual manner, as the double O’s in each phrase were stacked vertically instead of being spelled out — turning DOOM AND GLOOM, for instance, into DOM and GLOM with double O-words crossing the puzzle at the O’s. This gimmick was smartly explained by the corner revealer STANDING O’S.

This was arguably the toughest puzzle of the tournament, mixing the visual element with some interesting grid fill to make Puzzle #3 a step-up in difficulty in vintage Boswords tournament style.

Interesting grid entries included PAR THREE, NO DICE, AGAWAM, and TIME WARPS, and my favorite clue was “Answer that doesn’t belong here among the Downs?” for UPS.

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Puzzle #4: Art Heist by Chandi Deitmer

This 18x grid featured the names of artists hidden within larger phrases — KAHLO inside HOOKAH LOUNGE, for instance — but added an additional twist to the solve by ignoring the letters in those artists’ names for the Down entries. So, while KAHLO filled the circled letters reading across, the answers reading down (as clued) would exclude those letters.

But, most importantly, those circled letters STILL formed words reading down, just not the one being clued. So, for example, 4-Down was clued “Comedian whose ‘seven dirty words’ spurred a 1978 Supreme Court ruling on media censorship” gives you the answer CARLIN, but if you include the letters of two artists’ names that the down entry crosses, you get CAROLINA.

It took a little while to get used to using the letters across and ignoring them down (or, at the very least, considering the clued answers down without them while still forming the longer down words), and this made for a fun, yet challenging solve. This was a very cool and well-executed hook for the puzzle that added a lot to the traditional word-hidden-in-phrase crossword theme.

For the third year in a row, Puzzle #4 features my favorite gimmick of the tournament. What a streak!

Interesting grid entries included BEER ME, ANO NUEVO, STUNT DRIVER, and ENGULF, and my favorite clues were “Cliff notes?” for YODEL, “What a designated driver shouldn’t have to pick up?” for TAB, and “Proud papa with a cygnet ring?” for COB.

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Puzzle #5: Hollywood Extras by Rob Gonsalves and Jennifer Lim

Gonsalves and Lim return to Boswords after a successful debut last year and close out the tournament’s open competition puzzles with a solid 18×17 grid, cooling the solvers down nicely after the one-two punch of puzzles 3 and 4.

This movie-themed puzzle added a letter to film titles — THE BOOK OF ELI becoming THE BOOK OF DELI, for example — and the bonus letters spelled out DRIVE, making the revealer DRIVE-IN MOVIES tie the whole puzzle together nicely.

It’s a really fun, accessible theme that allowed for some fun cluing — I particularly enjoyed MONA LISA SIMILE — and served as a nice capper for the event before the final puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included BOUGIE, GIBRALTAR, CRETAN, and LET’S EAT, and my favorite clue was “Dwarf planet beyond Pluto” for ERIS, because I will forever stand up for Pluto and Eris as planets.

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Puzzle 6: Championship Themeless by Wyna Liu

For the third year in a row, a different constructor tackled the challenge of creating the final boss for Boswords, and Liu absolutely smashed it. This was a terrific 15x themeless grid, jam-packed with interesting fill and great crossings.

The strong construction was highlighted by two sets of solid clues — both the MILD and the SIZZLING clue sets had some clever entries for solvers to unravel — and all in all, this was a worthy obstacle for the eventual winners to overcome.

Interesting grid entries included UNO CARD, BLOBJECT, SUSHI CHEFS, ARTIVISTS, and BIKE RIDE (which I KEPT trying to make BICYCLE to my continuing dismay).

As for favorite clues, here’s a list:

  • MILD: “Academic fire safety?” for TENURE
  • SIZZLING: “Lift a paddle?” for BID
  • SIZZLING: “Keeping track?” for TENURE
  • SIZZLING: “Place to see a metal band?” for RING FINGER
  • SIZZLING: “Number of syllables in ‘Milano’ or ‘Napoli'” for TRE

Overall, Boswords continues to impress. Between the summer tournament and the seasonal themeless leagues, Boswords has really stepped up their game over the last two years, and as always, I was impressed by the array of puzzles assembled for this year’s tournament.

There were tricky themes, visual themes, and even a teacup ride, all of which made great use of both the cluing and the grids themselves. Every puzzle made an impact, and the tournament puzzles as a whole were challenging and creative in their design without being off-putting or getting too esoteric.

While I do think this year’s tournament was a bit harder overall than previous years, 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.

Once again, I cannot wait to see what they cook up for us next year.


But then again, we don’t have to wait that long for more Boswords fun! At the end of the broadcast for this year’s summer tournament, they announced the roster of constructors that will be contributing to the upcoming Fall Themeless League!

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That is one heck of an all-star team to look forward to! See you in October and November for this year’s Fall Themeless League!


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The Boswords Crossword Tournament Returns This Weekend!

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Yes, fellow puzzlers, it’s tournament time again!

This Sunday, July 25th, from 1 PM to 6 PM Eastern, the Boswords Crossword Tournament returns! The fifth edition of this event will be contested online for the second year in a row, so it’s the perfect opportunity to test your puzzly skills.

If you haven’t signed up yet, registration closes tomorrow at 5 PM Eastern.

With two divisions to choose from — Individual and Pairs — puzzlers of all ages and experience levels are welcome to enjoy some challenging and clever crosswords in a day of puzzly fun and camaraderie.

Tournament organizers Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb (along with talented puzzle editor Brad Wilber) have gathered a diabolical Ocean’s Eleven-style crew of terrific constructors for this year’s puzzles. The five themed puzzles in regular competition (as well as the championship themeless final) will be constructed by Malaika Handa, Andrew Kingsley, Chandi Deitmer, Wyna Liu, Hoang-Kim Vu, Rob Gonsalves, and Jennifer Lim!

Boswords is asking for $25 for adults, $35 for pairs, and $5 for students to (virtually) attend and compete, which is a real bargain! (Also, for anyone with financial difficulties, there is a discounted rate available.)

If you want to solve the puzzles at your leisure and outside of the competitive setting, it’ll only cost you $10 for the puzzle packet, which you’ll receive Monday by email.

To check out the full details of this year’s event, click here! (And for our rundown of last year’s tournament puzzles, click here!)

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


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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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