How Far Crosswords Have Come (and How Much Farther They Have to Go)

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The battle to decrease gender inequality and increase representation in crosswords is ongoing. More people than ever are speaking up on behalf of women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ constructors, and non-binary individuals when it comes to who is constructing the puzzles (and being properly credited), as well as how members of those groups are represented by current grid entries and cluing.

Natan Last is one of many people standing up to make crosswords better, more inclusive, and more emblematic of a richer melting pot of solvers and constructors. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Last neatly encapsulates both the movement for a more inclusive crossword publishing community and the many obstacles that stand in its way.

He starts with a single example — a debut puzzle by a female constructor, Sally Hoelscher — and the conversation that ensued when one puzzle aficionado asked about the ratio of women’s names to men’s names in the puzzle.

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[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

Originally there were no men’s names. One entry was edited in. And a discussion about parity in puzzles followed.

Last uses this example as a springboard into the greater argument about how modern crossword editing (and editors) discriminate through gatekeeping under the guise of what’s “familiar” or “obscure.”

From the article:

Constructors constantly argue with editors that their culture is puzzle-worthy, only to hear feedback greased by bias, and occasionally outright sexism or racism. (Publications are anonymized in the editor feedback that follows.) MARIE KONDO wouldn’t be familiar enough “to most solvers, especially with that unusual last name.” GAY EROTICA is an “envelope-pusher that risks solver reactions.” (According to XWord Info, a blog that tracks crossword statistics, EROTICA has appeared in the New York Times puzzle, as one example, more than 40 times since 1950.) BLACK GIRLS ROCK “might elicit unfavorable responses.” FLAVOR FLAV, in a puzzle I wrote, earned a minus sign.

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[Image courtesy of CNBC.]

But what is kept out is only part of the problem, of course. Last goes on to mention many of the same insensitive and offensive clues and entries we (and other outlets) have cited in the past.

He caps off this part of the article by highlighting Will Shortz’s responses to these troubling questions:

But when prodded about insensitive edits, he denied them, adding: “If a puzzlemaker is unhappy with our style of editing, then they should send their work elsewhere (or publish it themselves to keep complete control).”

A pretty damning statement, to be sure.

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Turning away from the problems represented by the most famous daily crossword in the world, Last pivots, turning a spotlight on those who are helping turn the tide in terms of representation and inclusivity.

He shouts-out well-respected and innovative editors like Erik Agard (of USA Today‘s crossword), David Steinberg (of Andrew McMeel Universal’s Puzzles and Games division), and Liz Maynes-Aminzade (of The New Yorker crossword), heaping praise on a fresh constructor-editor partnership that encourages new voices and greater diversity of content.

Last also mentions worthy projects like the Inkubator, Women of Letters, and Queer Qrosswords, as well as the Women’s March crossword movement inspired by the work of Rebecca Falcon.

Across the entire article, Last highlights a system problem in crosswords, challenges those responsible to do better, and praises those who are working for the greater good. And he does so in about a dozen paragraphs. That’s all. It’s efficiency and flow worthy of a top-notch constructor.

You should read it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.


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Crossword Tournament From Your Couch Recap!

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This past weekend was supposed to be the 43rd year of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, but that event was postponed due to the ongoing public health crisis.

But something amazing arose from the ashes of those plans. A small, intrepid group of puzzlers worked night and day for more than a week, bringing an at-home crossword tournament to life: Crossword Tournament From Your Couch. (AKA #CouchWord on Twitter.)

And in doing so, they hosted the biggest crossword tournament in history. According to the Google scoresheet, more than 1,800 solvers took part in the event (with at least 1,300 tackling ALL of the puzzles).

Over the course of a few hours, and thanks to the Herculean efforts of a hard-working few, the puzzle community came together for an afternoon of fun, frivolity, and frantic puzzle-solving.

Oh, and in this recap, I will be discussing the tournament puzzles somewhat, so if you want to remain completely unspoiled, stop reading here. (Or better yet, click here to solve the puzzles for yourselves!)


Before I get into the event itself, I want to highlight the folks who made it all possible.

The initial idea belongs to Kevin Der, who put out the rallying cry to fellow puzzlers. He ran the tech side of the event alongside Finn Vigeland, coordinating each puzzle’s release, the overlapping livestreams, and the live-solving finals.

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Hosting duties were ably carried out by Ryan Hecht and Brian Cimmet, who kept the energy light, made sure the participants were well-informed, and even interviewed fellow constructors and event organizers in the downtime between tournament puzzles.

The tournament puzzles — 4 tournament puzzles, 1 championship playoff puzzle, and 2 warm-up puzzles — were constructed by Byron Walden, Rachel Fabi, Joel Fagliano, Robyn Weintraub, Patrick Blindauer, Finn Vigeland, Laura Braunstein, and Jesse Lansner.

Jeremy Horwitz, Natan Last, and Ellen Ripstein were credited as test-solvers, and Jeff Davidson, Stephanie Yeung, and Vincent Siao were credited as tech support/magic gurus.

The Inkubator was credited as tournament sponsor.

Assembling and running this event was a monumental, complex undertaking, and my sincerest appreciation and utmost respect (and AWE) goes out to everyone involved in making CTFYC possible.


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[Image courtesy of @ladywinifredcat.]

So, how did the tournament itself go?

Well, participants logged into the website and selected one of three divisions in which to compete:

  • The Chesterfield Division (for individuals who in the past few years have finished in the top 20% of a major crossword tournament)
  • The Futon Division (for all other individual participants)
  • The Love Seat Division (for two participants who want to solve together)

Upon logging in, a warm-up puzzle created by Robyn Weintraub awaited solvers. “Get the Pillows Ready” allowed solvers to get familiar with the online solving interface and start getting in a tournament mindset.

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The tournament itself was set to begin at approximately 1 PM with the livestream of Ryan and Brian, our amiable emcees who covered the rules, other tournament info, and so on.

The livestream was warm and welcoming, and the accompanying chat area was packed with new faces as well as familiar puzzlers. The usual suspects from ACPT were all there, alongside constructors, puzzle enthusiasts, and top-notch solvers. It was genuinely heartwarming to see so many names I recognized from the puzzle world participating.

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Soon, a second warm-up puzzle became available — Rachel Fabi’s “Put Your Feet Up” — a small, Saturday mini-sized puzzle that still managed to be tricky. (And I personally loved the Fleabag reference.) It was a great way for solvers to get their pre-tournament juices flowing AND served to ensure that all of the tech was working for the organizers.


From the livechat:

“Changed my system font to Papyrus so that I could win Worst Handwriting.” — Neville Fogarty


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[Image courtesy of @vickieastus.]

The first tournament puzzle was scheduled for 1:30ish, and to the credit of the organizers, we only started a few minutes late.

Puzzle #1, “Hollywood Ending” by Joel Fagliano, was a 15x puzzle with a 15-minute time limit.

In all, it was a really fun starter with a good hook — entries that end with items found on a Hollywood set, a la JAVASCRIPT. I got stuck in the upper right corner for about two minutes, because I didn’t want to make a mistake, but doing so slowed me down considerably.

With the online solving, results were tabulated much faster than you’d expect from past tournaments, so you could view the leaderboard and see who was on top quite quickly.

At the end of puzzle 1, many of the usual suspects were on top, along with rookie (and bewilderingly constructor) Will Nediger:

leaderboardafterpuzzle1

After solving, competitors were welcome to return to the livestream chat and treat the chatroom like the lobby at the ACPT, sharing thoughts and commiserating on their solves.

Puzzle #2, “Raise the Roof” by Laura Braunstein and Jesse Lansner, was a 17x puzzle with a 25-minute time limit.

This puzzle had a solid punny hook, phrases where the letter T became P, so you had PICKLE ME ELMO instead of TICKLE ME ELMO. This was accompanied by great fill, although some were tougher entries (like SEZ WHO and NEOPET). I made one dumb mistake, leading to my only error of the tournament, but otherwise, I enjoyed the puzzle.

(I also enjoyed the conversation about The Westing Game in the livestream chat kicked off by the entry RASKIN.)

leaderboardafterpuzzle2

Errors by Dan Feyer and Erik Agard opened up a few spots in the top 15, so at least I was in good company with my own error.

At this point, players were invited to take a break before the next two puzzles. The tentative time for that was around 3 PM.

As I surfed the livechat during the break, the feedback for the tournament was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone was enjoying the communal puzzling, and compliments for both the constructors and organizers were plentiful.


From the livechat:

“Yeah, the bad news for the organizers is that this is working so well we’re all going to come to expect it now. :)” — Steve Thurman


Before Puzzle #3, Brian and Ryan had video interviews with Joel, Laura, and Jesse about their puzzles. It was a very cool touch to hear the constructors talk about the origins of each puzzle and how they ended up in the tournament. More of this in the future, please!

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[Image courtesy of @tinmanic.]

Soon, we were back, and it was time for the second half of the tournament.

Puzzle #3, “Look Up” by Patrick Blindauer, was a 15x puzzle with a 30-minute time limit. So everyone was expecting some trickery afoot.

Blindauer didn’t disappoint, naturally, offering up a clever hook that took entries in a different direction, mixed with lots of long crossings which made getting into the puzzle difficult. All in all, it was a worthy tournament puzzle.

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I managed to capture this screengrab of the top 15 after Puzzle 3 before the leaderboard went down. As you can see, the blistering speed of Erik Agard and Dan Feyer had them back in the top 15.

Yes, we managed to break the leaderboard on Google Sheets at this point. (This just made the design for the solving interface even MORE impressive, because it never broke down, even with more than a thousand solvers using it at the same time.)

I was ranked 292 after Puzzle 3, which I felt pretty good about.


From the livechat:

“Hmm, I can play the ‘where would I be if not for the silly error’ game.” — GP Ryan


After a short break, the final puzzle of regular tournament play was upon us.

Puzzle #4, “Naysayers Only” by Finn Vigeland, was a 19x puzzle with a 40-minute time limit.

This was a strong finisher for the tournament, combining clever cluing with a tough theme where the clues referred not to the answers you filled in, but to what the answers became if you followed the rule in the revealer GET OUT THE VOTE. (For instance, you filled in the answer VAMPIRE SLAYER, but the clue “Camera for a photo shoot with Dracula, in brief?” referred to VAMPIRE SLR, since you would remove “AYE” when you get out the vote.)

Yeah, I completed the grid first and had to go back and reread the grid and clues to actually understand the theme.

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Going into the live playoff final, the top 15 reshuffled a bit. (The board was constantly updating. At one point, I was ranked 283, then 312, then 314. I stopped checking there, because I’m a nerd for Pi.)


From the livechat:

“Shout out to the 11 Davids who are ahead of me in the rankings. Watch your backs.” — David Whyte


After Puzzle #4, Brian and Ryan attempted to interview Patrick, but that didn’t go so well, because the audience couldn’t hear Patrick. The interview with Finn went much better.

Then they announced the finalists for each division who would be participating in the live playoffs.

In the Chesterfield Division, it would be Paolo Pasco, David Plotkin, and Tyler Hinman.

In the Futon Division, it would be Will Nediger, Jason Juang, and Ricky Liu, the top three rookies.

As the top 3 competitors in each division were “sequestered” during the prep for the live playoffs, the playoff puzzle was released for non-finalists to enjoy.

The playoff puzzle, “Couch Your Words” by Byron Walden, was a themeless 15x puzzle with a 15-minute time limit. It also had two sets of clues: the difficult Chesterfield set, aka the A level clues, and the somewhat easier Futon set.

I looked at the Chesterfield clues, but I quickly bailed to try the Futon set. And honestly, even with the Futon Division clues, I found the puzzle pretty tough with ALL the long crossings. As you’d expect from Byron, it was a terrific, well-constructed grid, a very worthy choice to close out the day’s events.


From the livechat:

“Puzzle 5 in this tournament is so hard it doesn’t exist.” — Natan Last


The Futon Division solvers went first, and the three rookie solvers acquitted themselves well.

futonlivescreamfinalsbetter

[Image courtesy of @tinmanic.]

Each solver’s time was linked to when they clicked “Start” and when they clicked “I’m done”, so you couldn’t immediately tell who won based on who finished first, because with the livestream lag, it was hard to tell who started first.

In the end, Will completed the puzzle in 4 minutes flat, Jason wasn’t far behind with 4:48, and Ricky closed out the trio with 6:20. Impressive efforts all around!

There were a few more technical issues before the Chesterfield Division playoffs could begin but eventually the tech team got things sorted and the main event started.

During both the prep and the solving, Brian and Ryan interviewed Byron about the finale puzzle and about constructing and cluing in general. It was a terrific bonus mini-seminar on puzzling!

Finally, all was ready and the top three solvers took center stage.

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The final was over in less than six minutes.

Tyler, as you might expect from the five-time champ, blasted through the grid, completing it in 4:07. Paolo wasn’t far behind with 4:41, and David, a perennial top finisher, closed out the trio with 5:57.

Again, we had to wait for the official times due to lag, but it was worth the wait.


Here are your Crossword Tournament From Your Couch results:

  • Chesterfield Division: Tyler Hinman, Paolo Pasco, David Plotkin
  • Futon Division: Will Nediger, Jason Juang, Ricky Liu
  • Love Seat Division: Sam Ezersky and Madison Clague, Justin Werfel and Marta Herschkopf, Mike Berman and unnamed partner

After announcing the winners and finalists — and giving another well-deserved shout-out to all of the organizers and folks who made the marvelous event possible — the livestream chat was left running so that participants could talk and enjoy a virtual happy-hour mixer.


From the livechat:

“Anyone else never been to ACPT or Lollapuzzoola, but getting an itch to go after today??” — Josh Beu Forsythe


Even if it hadn’t been the biggest crossword tournament in history, Crossword Tournament From Your Couch would still have been a fantastic success.

More than just a tremendous stand-in for ACPT, CTFYC brought together established puzzlers and newbies for an afternoon of much-needed distraction. (According to the organizers, it was the first tournament for more than 1200 of the participants!)

Thank you once again to everyone involved in this brilliant endeavor. What a treat it was.

myresults


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We’re Not the Only Ones With Puzzles on the Brain!

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[A photo from the early days of PuzzleNation Blog, as one of our intrepid puzzleboys spreads the word of PuzzleNation far and wide. Image courtesy of Toledo’s Attic.]

I would love to tell you that PuzzleNation Blog is the only game in town when it comes to outstanding puzzle content, but that’s not the truth.

Sure, I think we put out some of the best writing in the puzzle business, but there are other outlets that also pen some marvelous stuff. Deb Amlen’s Wordplay blog on The New York Times website, for instance, is a treasure trove of great material, featuring breakdowns of NYT puzzles, interviews with constructors, and more.

The New Yorker recently posted an intriguing one-two punch of puzzle content. The main article was a meditation on crosswords — their potential, what they mean to a fan, and more — while the accompanying video featured an interview with constructor Natan Last (conducted by crossword editor Liz Maynes-Aminzade) about political entries in puzzles.

What’s slightly more surprising is that another popular Internet outlet has also had puzzles on the brain:

The Onion.

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Three times in the past month or so, the satirical news outlet has posted some hilarious puzzle-centric content. On June 20th, one of their headlines read “Exhilarated Woman Discovers Last Person Who Used Jigsaw Puzzle Left Lots Of Pieces Sticking Together.”

Two weeks earlier on June 6th, the article “Maze With Cheese In Center Enters Human Trials Following Decades Of Testing On Mice,” which feels all too apropos after our post last week about corn mazes.

But the cream of the crop was undoubtedly the article posted on May 28th, “Will Shortz Frustrated That Police Yet To Crack Taunting Puzzles Revealing Locations Of 40 Years Of Murder Victims.”

In a hysterically brief send-up of both the famously mild-mannered Shortz and classic criminal masterminds in general (like the one in the Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode that also featured Shortz, or the one from the Hallmark Crossword Mysteries earlier this year), the article paints the crossword editor as a murderous genius who feels unappreciated in his efforts to play a game of cat-and-mouse with the NYPD:

“I naturally assumed that, at some point during the last four decades, at least one detective would be smart enough to solve the case,” said Shortz, who also implied that the geographic coordinates of the victims could be determined by analyzing the sudoku puzzles in the Sunday edition.

It was one of the funniest pieces of the year for The Onion, and further proof of just how ubiquitous crosswords truly are these days.


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The New York Times Crossword Cruises and Celebrates!

A few months ago, we told you about The Crossword Crossing, a 7-night transatlantic journey aboard the Queen Mary 2, hosted by Cunard Cruise Line in honor of The New York Times crossword’s 75th anniversary.

Well, the cruise leaves tomorrow, and interest was apparently high, as it’s listed as “sold out” on the Cunard website!

Scheduled speakers include “Wordplay” blogger and crossword guru Deb Amlen, linguist Ben Zimmer, journalist Jane Corbin, historian Simon Newman, and crossword constructors Natan Last and Joel Fagliano.

This cruise caps off an impressive year of celebration for The New York Times crossword. Throughout the year, notable fans of the crossword have been paired with top-flight constructors to try their hand at constructing puzzles of their very own, and the results have been as intriguing as they are impressive.

The last four puzzles in the series in particular pushed the creative envelope in different ways.

Constructor Lynn Lempel tagged in comedian and “The View” host Joy Behar as a partner for the September 26th puzzle, and it was a punny delight. The names of various comedians served as the anchors for puns like PAW PRINZE and PRYOR COMMITMENT. Couple a great theme with interesting fill like DALAI LAMA, KOALA, RESCUE DOG, and BAMBI, and you’ve got a terrific debut puzzle.

October 18th marked not only Brendan Emmett Quigley’s 175th(!) NYT puzzle, but a collaboration with actor John Lithgow. Their puzzle redefined acting terms in clever ways, cluing entries like SUMMER STOCK and STAGE LEFT as “Accountant’s shares in a company?” and “Why one missed the coach?” respectively.

The grid was also loaded with additional thematic words like PROP, DRAMA, WALK-ON, and ACTOR, making for a puzzle positively bursting with style.

It was a marathon of a solve when game designer and puzzler Mike Selinker teamed up with NPR host Peter Sagal for a crossword that actually mapped out the New York City Marathon from Staten Island to the Bronx with entries like FERRY and CHEER. It’s a super-clever theme and layout, and an interesting use of grid space.

Venerated newsman Harry Smith worked with constructor Zhouqin Burnikel for the December 5th puzzle, where they playfully created their own news show. Clues like “Beat reporter?” and “Anchor man?” led to unlikely castings ALLEN GINSBERG and POPEYE THE SAILOR.

It’s been quite a year for what many view as the flagship daily crossword, and apparently there are still a few more celebrity collaborations to come!


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