Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords

Last summer, I wrote a blog post discussing an article on Slate by Ruth Graham. The article was entitled “Why Is the New York Times Crossword So Clueless About Race and Gender?”

So, what sort of progress has been made over the previous 365 days? Clearly not enough, given the title of an article published last week on The Outline, entitled “The NYT Crossword is Old and Kind of Racist.”

Adrianne Jeffries makes a strong case for how out-of-touch the crossword often seems these days:

…the Times crosswords, which have been edited by the famed crossword giant Will Shortz since 1993, are vexing for how outdated some of the clues and answers are, especially since in some cases the terms have been abandoned by the paper itself. The puzzle clearly isn’t seeking new talent or a new audience, and in its stodginess, it becomes clear that it is composed for a very particular reader with a very particular view of the world.

[Image courtesy of New York Magazine.]

She backs up her supposition with numerous examples of tone-deaf cluing and grid fill, like ESKIMO, Oriental, and SISSIES.

There is some overlap with Ruth Graham’s points from last year — including the reductive use of HOMIE regarding black culture and the clue “One caught by the border patrol” for ILLEGAL — and Jeffries went on to include examples of the issue I raised last year with the objectionable “This, to Juan” cluing style that abounds in crosswords.

But she takes things one step further than previous efforts by pointing out how the crossword is out-of-step with the rest of the New York Times newspaper, citing the year that various terms were marked offensive in the Times style guide. (“Oriental” as a descriptor, for instance, was banned in 1999.)

[This is oriental. People are not. Image courtesy of Rashid Oriental Rugs.]

It’s disheartening that articles like this are so necessary. Women and people of color deserve better representation in the Times puzzles, both as contributors of puzzles AND as subjects of clues and entries themselves.

Jeffries offered another damning example of dubious Shortzian editing:

I also found an exchange from 2011 illuminating. Shortz asked puzzle constructor Elizabeth Gorski to change an answer on her submitted puzzle. “There was one thing about the construction I didn’t like, and that was at 35 Down,” Shortz told The Atlantic. “The answer was LORELAI, and the sirens on the Rhine are of course ‘Lorelei,’ with an ‘e-i.’ Liz’s clue was Rory’s mom on Gilmore Girls, and I didn’t think solvers should have to know that.” He had the constructor revise the answer to make it 1) more old and 2) refer to mythical women who are so distractingly beautiful that they cause men to crash their ships on the rocks, instead of, a cool mom from a television show that millions of women (and some men) love.

[Image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.]

Even as a (relatively) younger voice in puzzles, I can’t deny many of her points. Puzzles should do a better job of acknowledging modern culture, of serving as a tiny, daily time capsule of our world.

As I said last year, crosswords are a cultural microcosm, representing the commonalities and peculiarities of our language in a given time and place. They represent our trivia, our understanding, our cleverness, our humor, and, yes, sometimes our shortcomings.

One year later, I wonder if progress will continue to feel so gradual, or if, sometime soon, we’ll begin to feel the cultural quakes and shifts that indicate real change is approaching.


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The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns tomorrow!

That’s right! Tomorrow, June 3rd, will mark the third annual edition of the tournament, and although registration is closed (because the event is full!), you can still participate from home for only $10! Click here for details!

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

I expect great things from the immensely talented team of constructors and directors they’ve assembled: Tracy Bennett, Erik Agard, Angela Olson Halsted, Andy Kravis, Paolo Pasco, Allegra Kuney, and Neville Fogarty. With a curious time-centric theme, 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!


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Presidential Puzzling

The New York Times Crossword celebrated 75 years of puzzles back in February, and ever since, they’ve been commemorating that puzzly milestone with a series of established constructors collaborating with celebrity guests to create special monthly puzzles.

It started on February 15th, the 75th anniversary, with a collaboration by Patrick Blindauer and actor Jesse Eisenberg offering some food for thought.

On March 20th, astronomer and affable Pluto slayer Neil deGrasse Tyson joined Andrea Carla Michaels in creating a punny look at the stars.

Classical pianist Emanuel Ax teamed up with Brad Wilber to pen a music-minded puzzler on April 19th.

And for the May installment of this celebrity series, none other than former president Bill Clinton tried his hand at creating a crossword alongside judge and constructor Victor Fleming for the May 12th edition of the puzzle.

The puzzle was offered free online by The New York Times. Although the Friday puzzle is usually themeless, there was a link between three of the main answers, DON’T STOP, THINKING ABOUT, and TOMORROW, which of course spell out the title of his campaign song.

Will Shortz offered further details on the creative process:

In the case of today’s puzzle, Judge Fleming constructed the grid, with some input from Mr. Clinton. The president wrote most of the clues. When the judge proposed tweaks to certain clues, Mr. Clinton objected: “Too easy and boring. Might as well print the answers in the puzzle.”

I found it to be a pretty fair solve, although there were a few outlier answers that were much, much tougher than the rest of the field. (Either that or I need to bone up on my Indonesian geography.)

Shortz also offered a glimpse of the celebrity constructors to come, teasing readers with mentions of “a pop singer with a No. 1 hit, a noted fashion designer, a standup comedian, a venerable TV journalist, a morning TV host, a six-time Emmy-winning actor, and a sitting U.S. senator, among others.”

It’ll be interesting to see which celebrity solvers have accepted the challenge of constructing a puzzle of their own.


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Delving into the 2017 ACPT puzzles!

One of the highlights of the puzzle year is the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and the impressive, challenging, and well-constructed puzzles awaiting solvers there rank among the craftiest you’ll ever see.

So let’s put them under the microscope and see how I did!


Puzzle 1: Mystery Initials by Bruce Haight

The opening puzzle in this year’s tournament was certainly an interesting way to kick off the event. Puzzle 1 usually eases solvers into the experience, but this time around, it was more challenging than I think anyone expected. The theme of MI phrases (MORE INFO, MENU ITEM, etc.) was accessible and clued in a straightforward manner.

Interesting grid entries included MWAHAHA, DASH CAM, UHURA, and HI MOM, and my favorite clues were “Option from a list” for MENU ITEM and “’All ears’ or ‘lay eyes on’” for IDIOM.

Puzzle 2: One Dozen by Patrick Berry

Berry’s contribution to the tournament was a very smooth puzzle with great fill and fun wordplay. The theme of sound-alike phrases, but where the T is dropped (AMBIEN NOISE instead of AMBIENT NOISE) was very clever. My only issue with the puzzle was that the two long down entries didn’t adhere to the theme, so I found them tougher to unravel than expected. Otherwise, this was a great hook executed nicely.

Interesting grid entries included LAB RAT, ONESIE, COOLIO, and FABIO, and my favorite clues were “Scientific subject” for LAB RAT and “Shipping order?” for AVAST.

Puzzle 3: On the Table by Brendan Emmett Quigley

Much like Puzzle 1, Puzzle 3 was more challenging than many solvers expected, but the theme — common items or phrases where the initials are swapped for the element on the Periodic Table using that abbreviation (like PLATINUM CRUISER for PT CRUISER) — was really tough, but pulled off with great style.

With elements like Erbium, Moscovium, and Praseodymium getting namechecked, your knowledge of high school chemistry was really put to the test here. That being said, one or two fill entries really flummoxed me, particularly DO TO A TEE, which I had a hard time parsing out even with the section filled in.

Interesting grid entries included ASTARTE, OY VEY, MR. ROARKE, and ABSENTIA, and my favorite clues were “Makes calls” for REFS, “Title that’s shortened by removing its middle letter” for MADAM, and “It takes the edge off” for EMERY.

Puzzle 4: Body Doubles by Julie Berube

This was a nice break after the challenge of Puzzle 3, and several tournament competitors suggested that this should have been Puzzle 1. A relatively smooth solve with body parts hidden in larger entries (revealed by black boxes in the grid), there was one crossing that gave me pause, as ALII crossing ERIE PA was much tougher than any other crossing in the puzzle.

I was also surprised at allowing two phrases starting with “I’m” both reading down in the same corner, with I’M GONE and I’M A LOSER together. But other than that, this was a quick solve with plenty of French offering an international flavor.

Interesting grid entries included ANTIMATTER, ASAHI, and EYE CHART, and my favorite clues were “Prepare to race” for GET SET and “Apple standard” for IOS.

Puzzle 5: Splice of Life by Mike Shenk

At last, the always daunting Puzzle 5 arrived, and this one did not disappoint. Once you’ve figured out that each themed entry has the letters DNA stuffed into a single box, you really start rolling on the puzzle.

But not long after that, you realize there’s something else at work here as well, since parts of the themed answers are jumbled with each other. Instead of BORIS AND NATASHA, you get BORIS AND NAMES, since NATASHA is paired with UNITED in another entry. (This is confirmed by the revealer RECOMBINANT in the lower left corner.)

The two-step hook makes for a challenging solve, but a very satisfying one, once you’ve sussed out Shenk’s tricks.

Interesting grid entries included ZAPPA, SUSPENSE FILM, OVIEDO, and SUN RA, and my favorite clues were “Hit close to home” for BUNT, “One might be responsible for a reduced sentence” for EDITOR, “Dressing for bowties, e.g.” for SAUCE, and “Give up possession of, in a way” for PUNT.

Puzzle 6: Field Trip by Lynn Lempel

The final puzzle on Saturday was a nice palate cleanser after Puzzle 5, employing a hook based more on cluing wordplay than any trickery in the grid. All of the clues played with baseball terminology: “One touting pain pills?” clued RELIEF PITCHER, for instance. This was a solid way to close out the day’s solving, with very little crosswordese and a balanced fill.

Interesting grid entries included SOIREE, IRON MAN, CORONET, and KANSAN, and my favorite clues were “Apple on a teacher’s desk” for IMAC and the themed clue “Two square dancing needs?” for SWING AND A MISS.

Puzzle 7: Rebranding by Joel Fagliano

Sunday morning’s puzzle was all about the cluing as the constructor peppered the grid with the names of famous companies and offered alternate sales pitches for them in the clues. (For example, “Now we sell chess pieces!” was new advertising for WHITE CASTLE.) The associative cluing style felt different from all of the other puzzles in the tournament, giving this one a fun energy and making for an enjoyable solving experience.

Interesting grid entries included I’LL PASS, CARNITAS, ROGER MOORE, NBA TEAMS, and SENESCED, and my favorite clue was “Woman’s name that sounds like two letters of the alphabet” for EVIE.

Puzzle 8: Last Words by Michael Shteyman

And then, we were down to one. The final puzzle of the tournament offered three sets of clue difficulties (A for the top performers, B for the solid performers, C for everyone else). And with no theme and plenty of long entries crossing in this grid, there were fewer giveaway words to get you started.

I attempted the A-level clues, but I struggled mightily with them. I did successfully solve the puzzle with the B-level clues, but honestly, that just gave me more respect for the B-level finalists who were mistakenly given the A-level clues at the tournament this year, because they all still managed to complete the puzzle! Wow.

With unusual entries like AQUAPLANE, INDOJAZZ, LEO VI, and FLESHPOT, Shyetman did an impressive job cramming all 26 letters of the alphabet into this pangram puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included PUZZLE MUG, MOON UNIT, and AL-JAZEERA, and my favorite clues were “50/50, e.g.” for ONE — very nice math cluing there — and “Knife handle?” for X-ACTO.


Overall, I think this year’s tournament puzzles were tougher than those in previous years. That being said, there was a lot of ingenuity and creativity involved in these eight puzzles, and I never cease to be amazed at how fast and how clever so many of my fellow puzzle solvers are, blasting through these crosswords at unbelievable speeds.

ACPT, I’ll see you next year.


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ACPT 2017 Wrap-Up!

The 40th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this weekend, and puzzlers descended on the Stamford Marriott Hotel once again to put their puzzly skills to the test in what is lovingly known as “the Nerd Olympics.”

The tournament takes place over two days, with six puzzles to solve on Saturday, followed by one on Sunday. Then the top three finishers in the A, B, and C brackets solve the championship puzzle on whiteboards in front of the audience.

On Friday and Saturday night, there are often puzzle events, demonstrations, and panels by top puzzlers and figures in the puzzle world as well.

I made the journey down to Stamford myself Saturday morning. As I arrived at the hotel, I was unexpectedly greeted by an enthusiastic marching band and cheering fans!

As it turns out, they weren’t there for me (or any of the other puzzlers), as the Oregon women’s basketball team was also in attendance. But that was a pleasant, and slightly raucous, surprise. Go Ducks!

Once I had sidestepped the band and revelers and made my way into the hotel, I sat in with my friend Stacey Scarso at the Penny Dell Puzzles booth.

Our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles had a terrific setup as always, with a metric buttload of magazines to give away, including copies of The Crosswords Club and several flavors of Tournament Variety, Master’s Variety, and Dell Sunday Crosswords.

Plus we held a contest to win a bundle of PDP puzzle swag, including a mug, a tote bag, an umbrella, and a bunch of puzzle magazines! All you had to do was solve a Weaver Words puzzle. (And, yes, in their downtime between tournament puzzles, many competitors DO solve other puzzles. Madness!)

At 9 AM, the tournament was two hours away, but the marketplace was up and running. There were puzzle magazines galore (including a table of Merl Reagle’s puzzle books), developers showing off their puzzle app Word Squares, and ACPT-themed jewelry, key chains, and other items from All of the Things.

As competitors readied themselves for the day’s solving, I had plenty of time to see friends of the blog like Crosswords Club editor Patti Varol, constructor Ian Livengood, crossword gentleman Doug Peterson, constructor Joanne Sullivan, and Penny Press variety editor Keith Yarbrough!

Perhaps the best part of attending the tournament is getting to chat with so many members of the puzzle community in one place. There were first-time attendees and enthusiastic rookies, like the two lovely ladies wearing “Monday Puzzlers” t-shirts.

There were long-time puzzle fans who have been competing at ACPT for years, if not decades, many of whom were decked out in puzzle shirts, puzzle scarves, and other grid-heavy accoutrements.

And there were icons of the puzzle community, like NYT Wordplay blogger Deb Amlen, event organizer and made man in puzzles Will Shortz, and programmer Saul Pwanson, who helped reveal the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal last year.

Many of the top constructors in the business were there, names like David Steinberg, Evan Birnholz, Joon Pahk, Peter Gordon, and more, along with former champions and first-rate competitors like Dan Feyer, Tyler Hinman, Howard Barkin, Ellen Ripstein, and Stella Zawistowski.

Getting to connect faces and personalities with names I know from tournaments like the Indie 500 is a real treat, and so so many of the people in the puzzle world are genuinely nice, funny individuals. Not only that, but I also got to meet several fellow trivia fiends from the Learned League community!

The two hours before showtime passed quickly, and soon, the marketplace emptied and the ballroom filled as competitors took their seats for Puzzle 1.

A jump in attendance from last year saw the room absolutely packed with competitors. Will Shortz joked that there were 624 solvers and 625 chairs. I’ve certainly never seen the room that crowded.

When Puzzle 1 arrived, several competitors I spoke to were surprised at its difficulty. There would be no cracking this puzzle in under 2 minutes, as former champion Dan Feyer did in 2015. Most of the top competitors hovered around the 4 minute mark. And this wouldn’t be the only puzzle that kept solvers on their toes.

Puzzle 2, constructed by veteran puzzler Patrick Berry, received rave reviews for its cleverness and elegant fill, providing a nice counterpoint to Puzzle 1.

[The rankings after Puzzle 2 (posted as competitors were heading into Puzzle 4)]

Puzzle 3 was constructed by Brendan Emmett Quigley, and following the path set Puzzle 1, proved far more challenging than expected. At this rate, the always-dreaded Puzzle 5 was still looming, and some solvers were more apprehensive than usual about tackling it later in the day. That being said, several competitors were impressed with Quigley’s constructing. (Not a surprise, his puzzles are always excellent.)

Puzzle 4 was constructed by relative newcomer Julie Berube, who was in attendance and super-excited to see competitors tackle her puzzle. The general consensus of competitors was that this puzzle should have been Puzzle 1.

Finally, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Mike Shenk did the honors, and according to competitors, it was as challenging as expected, really putting the craftiness and keen wits of the solvers to the test.

[One of the puzzly keychains offered by All of the Things. I suspect making it
“I finished Puzzle 5 in the time allotted” would limit the possible customer base.]

After the diabolical Puzzle 5, competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6 and declared it both fun and fair. The competitors dispersed to rest their brains (or solve more puzzles). We packed up the Penny/Dell table and headed for home.

[The standings at the end of the day on Saturday.]

And although I wasn’t present for Sunday’s tournament finale, I continued to get updates from friends and fellow puzzlers.

Going into Puzzle 7, constructed by Joel Fagliano, former champion Dan Feyer was on top of the leaderboard, followed closely by constructors Erik Agard and Joon Pahk, both of whom were chasing their first tournament victory, as well as former champion Tyler Hinman, who shared third place with Joon.

Not far behind them were familiar names like David Plotkin, Al Sanders, Francis Heaney, Stella Zawistowski, and last year’s winner, Howard Barkin.

Puzzle 7 was smooth, a good capper to the official tournament puzzles. But it would prove to be a heartbreaker for one solver in particular. An error by Erik Agard dropped him out of finals contention, opening the door for a former champion who missed out on the finals last year.

It would be Dan Feyer (6 time champion), Tyler Hinman (5 time champion) and Joon Pahk in the finals.

But first, there would be an Oscars-style flub for the B-level finalists, as they were given the A-level clues for the final puzzle.

A quick rundown of the finals: there are three sets of clues written for the final puzzle, labeled A, B, and C. The A-level clues are the hardest, and the C-level clues are the easiest. So the B-level contenders were given much harder clues than intended.

But guess what? All three competitors (including one rookie solver) completed the final, even with the harder clues! That is some impressive solving!

Naturally, this led to some discussion of how to make things tougher for the A-level competitors. I suggested that all their clues should be written in Esperanto, but perhaps the best suggestion came from Ophira Eisenberg, who suggested that we don’t give them any clues, and only reveal the Zs in the grid as hints. Fiendishly clever!

You can watch the final puzzle being solved below:

Tyler Hinman would complete the puzzle first, and by a fairly wide margin, but unfortunately he had an error in the puzzle.

In the end, Dan Feyer would reclaim the crown, tying Jon Delfin for most tournament wins with 7!

And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 18th, David Steinberg placed 28th, Patti Varol placed 103rd (up from last year’s showing!), Kathy Matheson 228th (also up from last year’s performance!), and Keith Yarbrough 238th (again, up from last year!) out of a field of over 600 participants.

It’s always great fun to spend time with fellow puzzlers and wordplay enthusiasts, immersing myself in the puzzle community and enjoying all the charm and camaraderie that comes with it.

We’ll see you next year!


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ACPT and New Puzzle Sets: A Perfect Crossword Pairing!

The 40th edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is this weekend!

Puzzlers from all over are sharpening their pencils and their wits as they gear up for what is affectionately known as the Nerd Olympics, and we here at PuzzleNation wish all of the competitors the best of luck!

Here’s hoping Puzzle #5 isn’t as diabolical as it has been in previous years!

And since we’re on the subject of crosswords, we’re happy to announce the latest additions to our lineup of terrific puzzle sets for the Penny Dell Crosswords App!

For prolific puzzlers and savvy solvers alike, we’ve got a puzzle bundle tailor-made for you. Collection 20 offers 150 easy, medium, and hard puzzles designed to challenge and satisfy any crossword enthusiast!

With bundles of puzzles organized by difficulty, no matter what your skill level, there’s something here for you!

You can’t go wrong with these awesome deals! PuzzleNation brings you the best puzzle-solving experience available, with topnotch puzzles right in your pocket, ready to go at a moment’s notice! That’s the PuzzleNation guarantee.

Happy solving, everyone! And stay tuned! Next week, we’ll have more terrific puzzle sets for your enjoyment! The April Deluxe editions are coming soon!


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