Putting Clever Cluing to the Test?

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As a puzzler, there are few article titles that serve as more efficient clickbait than “6 CHALLENGING CROSSWORD PUZZLE CLUES THAT WILL LEAVE YOU CLUELESS,” so when I saw that title, fellow puzzlers, you know I clicked.

This article by the crew at Wealth Words claims to offer “the trickiest clues that have ever existed.” That is quite a bold statement. Shall we try our luck and see how we do?


Now, before we start, it’s worth noting that we’re at a huge disadvantage here, because any clue, easy or tough, can be made easier if you know some of the letters in the word thanks to words in the grid you’ve already placed that cross this particular entry. We don’t have any of those helper letters, so we’re going to have to rely solely on our sharp wits, wordplay skills, and love of punnery.

Okay, let’s get to it.

Clue #1: Leaning column? (9 letters)

Most crossword fans know that a question mark virtually always means there’s wordplay afoot, so you know you can’t take this clue at face value, which means anything relating to Pisa is probably out. If you focus on “leaning,” that could take you anywhere from Jenga to drunkenness, so let’s play with “column.” Other columns appear in graphs, Excel files, and newspapers.

A-ha. Newspaper column. And some of those “lean” to either the left or the right, depending on the author. This train of thought leads us to the intended answer OPED PIECE.

Grade: A- (It’s a solid clue where the answer doesn’t necessarily immediately jump out at you, but makes total sense once you’ve puzzled it out.)

Clue #2: Strips in a club (5 letters)

[Now, to be fair, “club” was capitalized in the clue on the webpage, but I felt like that was misleading, so I fixed it here. After all, capitalization can be used to great effect in crafty cluing — particularly if you conceal the capital word by making it the first word in the clue, which is always capitalized regardless — but here, it becomes an unnecessary red herring.]

This one is slightly harder, because you don’t immediately get the hint that there’s wordplay involved, since there’s no question mark.

This is one of my favorite kinds of clever cluing, the sort where our preconceived notions of word forms works against us. (Also, it sounds naughty, but isn’t, which I also quite enjoy.) At first glance here, the phrasing makes it sound like “strips” is a verb, when it’s really a plural noun.

And once you get into that mindset, you realize that we’re not talking about that kind of club, and the intended answer emerges: BACON.

Grade: A (Misdirection plus a tongue-in-cheek bit of lewdness? Great stuff.)

Clue #3: Group of crows (6 letters)

I have no idea how this one made it onto the list. Anyone who knows their animal groupings knows that a group of crows is a MURDER. There’s no tricky cluing or misdirection here, just something that might not be in the common knowledge. (But again, I think people are more likely to come up with this one that “exaltation of larks,” “smack of jellyfish,” or “parliament of owls.”)

Grade: D- (Could be difficult for some solvers, but only for unfamiliarity, not style.)

Clue #4: “Yep, perfectly clear” (7 letters)

Okay, this one has quotations around it, which both means it’s a spoken line and it’s likely non-standard, so you won’t find it in a dictionary. It’s probably a phrase, and used in casual conversation.

The answer, as it turns out, is I HEAR YA, which I don’t think any solver would come up with unless they had a few crossing letters filled in for them. The slangy spelling of YA and the informal wording altogether pretty much precludes this from being a “see-it-and-get-it” sorta clue.

Grade: C

Clue #5: [Boo-Hoo] (5 letters)

Brackets are used less commonly than quotation marks or question marks in crossword clue, so it’s more likely that a casual solver wouldn’t immediately recognize what to do with this clue. Usually, brackets indicate this is a non-traditional clue, either making an oblique reference to something or indicating it’s a non-verbal clue like a cough.

In this case, this is meant to be the actual sound of someone crying or something of that nature. So it could be something informal like CRYIN’ or TEARS (as opposed to the more traditional “in tears”) or something like that.

As it turns out, they were looking for I’M SAD. Which is pretty blah. It’s not a standard phrase, and comes off as a cheaply constructed way out of a bad corner, not a solid bit of fill to keep the puzzle interesting.

Grade: F

Clue #6: They come in last (3 letters)

This clue is fairly tough, because it’s both vaguely worded and has a curious letter count. It’s plural phrasing (with “they”), so that immediately makes you want to tack an S onto the end of the word. But it’s also such a short entry that a two-letter word plus S doesn’t seem to fit the clue.

So what comes in last? “End” would fit, if not for the plural phrasing. “P.S.” comes in last, but “P.S.’S” is really clunky, and I don’t recall ever seeing that pluralized.

So what were they looking for? XYZ. Ah. Alphabet entries. You’ll usually see entries like this centering around the first three letters (ABC) or a random string (“RST” seems to come up more often than most), and XYZ certainly fits the bill. But, in the end, it’s not a real entry, and it feels a little cheap, despite the decent wordplay involved in the cluing.

Grade: C-


So, what did I think of the Wealth Words “6 CHALLENGING CROSSWORD PUZZLE CLUES THAT WILL LEAVE YOU CLUELESS” challenge?

I thought it started off very strong with two clever, slippery clues that required you to play with the words and come at them from several angles before stumbling upon the correct solution, and I quite enjoyed those clues.

But the quiz took a real nose dive in quality starting with Clue #3, which had no wordplay at all. #4 and #5 relied heavily on being slangy non-standard verbiage rather than adept cluing or creative fill, and #6 was a bit of a cop-out, even if the cluing quality rebounded nicely.

All in all, I thought the specious entries outweighed the clever cluing on display early on, making for an underwhelming set of clues.

Final grade: C+.

What did you think of these group of challenging clues, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Did you enjoy them or find them wanting? Let us know in the comment section below, we’d love to hear from you!


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Final Jeopardy for James Holzhauer

Alas, all great runs must come to an end, and so it is with a heavy heart that I report that James Holzhauer — sports gambler, trivia whiz, and Jeopardy! champion — has been defeated, relinquishing his title as champion after 32 days.

He amassed an impressive total of $2,464,216, the second highest in game history during regular-season play. And his impressive daily totals have yielded some impressive stats. He now holds 21 of the top 25 spots on the show’s list of the highest single-day winnings.

Only $58,484 separated him from Ken Jennings’ long-standing total of $2,520,700, which was amassed in 74 games back in 2004.

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Holzhauer was complimentary toward both Jennings and his Jeopardy! opponent Emma Boettcher on social media, stating, “CONGRATULATIONS to Emma on a world-beating performance. There’s no greater honor than knowing an opponent had to play a perfect game to defeat me.”

He then cited one of the predictions as to how his reign would end, quoting, “James will eventually beat himself by flubbing one of his big bets,” before responding, “Nope, James got his ass kicked straight up by an elite player who nailed her own big bets.”

Naturally, the buzz around social media regarding this unexpected turn of events is mixed. Some viewers are glad to see a new champion crowned, while others are sad to see Holzhauer go.

There are also a few conspiracy theories brewing. Some viewers believe that James intentionally threw this match, citing slower reaction times, gimme questions being missed, and a general lack of energy from the normally bullish champion. He went into Final Jeopardy in second place.

The capper for many was his performance in Final Jeopardy where he made an uncharacteristically low wager (only $1300 or so, when he was at $23k), meaning that despite his correct answer, he wouldn’t defeat his rival for this game. (Emma Boettcher, on the other hand, bet $20k on Final Jeopardy, perhaps anticipating a similarly aggressive bet from Holzhauer.)

But Holzhauer has already explained his unexpected move, telling The Atlantic that, “By the time Final Jeopardy rolled around I knew my goose was cooked if Emma answered correctly. It’s a little like needing a team to miss a last-second field goal ― nothing you can really do but watch. I made peace with my fate before the clue for Final was even revealed.”

Holzhauer seems pleased with his Jeopardy! performance despite not dethroning Jennings. “My only real goals were: Win $110,914 on an episode to honor my daughter’s birthday, and play my absolute best every game. I achieved both, and I’m very proud of myself for that.”

Congratulations to James Holzhauer for a very notable run as champion, and congratulations to Emma Boettcher for proving to be a more than worthy champion in her own right.

And now, there’s really only one way to conclude a saga like this, and that’s with a song. Take it, “Weird Al”…


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Daily Double Trouble for a Long-Standing Jeopardy! Record?

It’s been a few weeks, so it’s time for a Jeopardy! update.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (specifically a rock with no wi-fi, morning news coverage, or game show fans nearby), you’re probably aware of James Holzhauer, the Jeopardy! contestant who has been dominating the scene for more than a month.

After a two-week hiatus where Jeopardy! aired episodes centered around teachers as contestants, sports gambler and trivia master Holzhauer has returned to continue his reign of terror over Alex Trebek’s domain. His undefeated streak now stands at 29 consecutive victories.

Holzhauer is only the second person in history to pass the million-dollar mark on the show, and his success has fans anxiously eyeballing the money-winning record set by Ken Jennings more than a decade ago. That sense of anticipation is only growing stronger.

Holzhauer’s total thus far is $2,254,938.

As of last night’s performance, Holzhauer is a mere $265,762 away from Ken Jennings’ total for highest winnings in regular season play. (Jennings has won additional money in tournament play that isn’t counted in this total.)

Now, granted, that’s a lot of money. But it’s worth noting that $265,762 is only $4613 higher than Holzhauer has won on his two highest-scoring games combined. So, essentially, if he performs to the absolute best of his ability, he’s three wins away from overtaking Jennings. (Even if he’s not performing at his best, his average money won per game ($77,756) means that he’s only four average wins away from overtaking Jennings.)

Oh, and that average money per game statistic? It’s worth noting that the previous single-game record for the show was BELOW that, clocking in at $77,000 dollars.

Have you been keeping up on all the trivia excitement? If so, what do you think, folks? Is Holzhauer going to make history by surpassing Ken Jennings in less than half the time? Is Jennings’ 74-day winning streak also within reach for the bold betting master?

Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns soon!

Four years ago, a new crossword tournament joined the ranks of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and Lollapuzzoola, immediately carving out its own niche in the puzzle world. The Indie 500 offered topnotch puzzles and a pie-fueled solving experience both live in Washington, D.C., and for solvers at home.

And it’s back! The fifth edition of The Indie 500 is happening on Saturday, June 1, and this year, the theme is “Going Around in Squares.”

This year’s tournament follows the same format as previous years: five preliminary puzzles of varying difficulty, plus a final puzzle for the top three scorers in both divisions.

[There’s also a fair amount of slapstick.]

Registration is open for the tournament! They’re at capacity for attending in person (there is a waiting list in case anyone drops out!), but worry not, because solving from home is only $10!

Not only that, but there’s a travel-themed meta suite that lets you name your own price, as well as access to the previous tournament bundles for $5 apiece. Those are super-affordable prices for some outstanding puzzles!

Andy Kravis, Erik Agard, and Neville Fogarty all make their fifth appearance as veteran constructors — understandable, since they’re also event organizers — and they’re joined once again by Angela Olson Halsted and Peter Broda, as well as tournament constructors Jenna LaFleur, Bryan Betancur, Janie Smulyan, Rebecca Falcon, and Yacob Yonas!

And, of course, there will be pie.

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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On Jeopardy!, It Pays to Know Your Trivia

Whether you’re a casual game show watcher or a dedicated trivia buff, you’ve probably heard the name James Holzhauer by now.

The professional sports gambler has dominated Jeopardy! for weeks now, increasing viewership and sparking debate with his aggressive play style and confident wagering. By going after the highest-value questions first and purposely bouncing around the board in search of Daily Doubles to pad his bankroll, he appears to have “cracked” the Jeopardy! code unlike any other contestant in history.

Holzhauer has amassed 20 consecutive victories as of last night, becoming only the second contestant in history to pass the million-dollar mark on the show. His winnings currently stand at $1,528,012.

But his single-game performances are just as impressive. Not only does he hold the top score for most money won in a single game — $131,127 — but he holds the top ten positions on the board for single-game winnings. (The amounts in the top ten range from his top score of $130k to $80,006.)

He is the only person to earn more than $100,000 in a single game. In fact, he has done so on FIVE separate occasions. (For some context, the previous single-game record was $77,000, a record which stood for nine years before Holzhauer obliterated it.)

How do I know all this? Easy. Jeopardy! has launched an official tracker to keep viewers up-to-date on his stats.

With an impressive amount of knowledge behind him, the guts to wager big money, and the rapid-fire reaction time to buzz in first more often than not, he is a Jeopardy! triple threat, a juggernaut that shows no signs of slowing down.

In an interview with The New York Times, he credited his profession with preparing him for game-show dominance:

The fact that I win and lose money all the time helps desensitize me, so I can write down $60,000 as the Final Jeopardy wager and not be trembling at the thought of losing that money.

But it’s not always big money that makes the difference. On Monday’s show, he won by a mere $18 in a heartstopper of a Final Jeopardy.

And, despite his mind-blowing performance thus far, he has awhile to go before he surpasses Jeopardy!’s top money earner, Ken Jennings.

Jennings holds the all-time record with $2,520,700, which he amassed over the course of 74 victories in 2004. But Jennings was more conservative in his wagering than Holzhauer, who has closed the gap between them to less than $1 million dollars in just 20 days. Statisticians postulate that he is on track to pass Jennings’s total after 34 games. (Fewer than half the number of games won by Jennings!)

What does host Alex Trebek think of all this? According to reports, he’s not a fan of Holzhauer’s Daily Double hunting and aggressive betting, but I suspect he’s more than pleased with the boost in ratings and notoriety for the long-running game show.

Of course, Alex might be miffed for another reason. On average, Holzhauer is making more money than the estimated $50,000 per episode that host Alex Trebek earns.

Holzhauer might want to start tipping the host from time to time, just to keep him happy.


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Delving into the 2019 ACPT Puzzles!

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One of the highlights of the puzzle year is the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. 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: And We’re Off! by Kathy Wienberg

The opening puzzle in this year’s tournament was a good smooth solve, easing solvers into the tournament experience. The theme of the word BATON being “passed” over a black square between longer entries was clever and accessible, easily cracked by tournament-puzzle standards, and the related phrases like FINISH LINE really sold the theme well.

Interesting grid entries included KOMBAT, ZAGAT, MAORI and AMOCO, and my favorite clues were “15 things in this puzzle” for ROWS and “Necessity for a farm team” for YOKE.

Puzzle 2: Following Orders by Joel Fagliano

Joel’s contribution to to the tournament was a fun reinterpretation of a song by The Doors, BREAK ON THROUGH TO THE OTHER SIDE, splitting up the theme entries so that the second part of the answer was a food. (Example: CAPRICORN becomes CAPRI CORN.) It was surprising to have two puzzles in a row that involved answers spanning black-square breaks between entries, but the revealer with The Doors added an extra touch to this one.

Interesting grid entries included UNHANDY, MY OH MY, SCHTICK, RICOH, and APOGEE, and my favorite clue was “Inspiring halftime speech, for a sports movie” for TROPE.

Puzzle 3: Added Time by Patrick Berry

The hook for Puzzle 3 was simple, but deftly executed, as the word AGE was added onto the end of established phrases like DOG POUND and CLASSIFIED AD to form new answers. But this was balanced by harder-than-expected fill, which definitely kept me guessing and ate up a great deal of the given time for solving.

Interesting grid entries included MAHLER, BIG DEAL, COLUMBO, MARS BAR, and MESMER, and my favorite clues were “Name-dropper abbr.” for ETAL and “Time or Money” for MAG.

[Image courtesy of How Stuff Works.]

Puzzle 4: It’s the Law by Jeff Stillman

My favorite puzzle from the tournament, Puzzle 4 employed a brilliantly visual gimmick where two circles represented an apple and a head, with a series of I’s (and one V) forming an arrow between them. With themed entries ISAAC NEWTON, ROBERT HOOKE, and GRAVITATION, you’ve got all the ingredients for a science-themed puzzle with a very fun twist.

Interesting grid entries included GO BAG, PC GAME, TUBULAR, and ARTOO, and my favorite clue was “One who gets asked a lot of questions” for SIRI.

Puzzle 5: Trade Names by Evan Birnholz

Puzzle 5 is infamously the most difficult of the tournament, and this year’s entry was no exception.

I figured out the gimmick pretty quick — themed entries in the same row would swap words that were also names, so the answers LANDMARK and GRANTING were actually LAND GRANT and MARKING — but the tough cluing and crafty fill entries made this a challenging solve. It was definitely the puzzle I struggled with the most. Puzzle 5, you’ve done it again.

Interesting grid entries included SPEEDO, ORVILLE, OFF NIGHT, and NOOGIE, and my favorite clue was “1986 #1 hit ‘On My Own,’ e.g., ironically” for DUET.

Puzzle 6: Playing the Field by Lynn Lempel

The first day of tournament puzzles wrapped up with this smooth, well-constructed closer loaded with delightful football puns. It was the perfect palate cleanser after the battle I had with Puzzle 5, and Lempel once again displayed her impressive skill mixing interesting fill words and balanced grid work to create puzzles with terrific flow. Blazing through this puzzle was a nice confidence boost after some tough earlier puzzles.

Interesting grid entries included CITIZENRY, ARAL SEA, MULAN, and DAUPHIN, and my favorite clues were “Adams who got the picture” for ANSEL and “Helpful feature of a crossword solver’s pencil?” for EXTRA POINT.

Puzzle 7: Politically Correct by Mike Shenk

Day Two of the tournament kicked off with this diabolical entry where the letters PC were added to established phrases to form new entries. (For example, LOW RANKING became PLOW CRANKING, which was clued as “Starting up a farm machine by hand?”)

The theme entries made sense, but weren’t immediately intuitive, so I found them tough to come up with, even though I cottoned onto the hook pretty quickly. Combine that with creative fill entries and you’ve got a well-constructed obstacle before the tournament’s final puzzle. Devious Mr. Shenk strikes again.

Interesting grid entries included ASADA, SCHIRRA, KIM NOVAK, CAT LADY, and MONADS, and my favorite clues were “Dial in your home, perhaps,” for SOAP, “Welcoming sign” for OPEN ARMS, “They’re just over two feet” for ANKLES, and “Volume setting?” for SHELF.

Puzzle 8: Troublemaker by Robyn Weintraub

The finals puzzle for the tournament boasts a different set of clues for each of the three divisions — A, B, and C — where the competitors solve the puzzle live on stage, and Weintraub constructed a puzzle with loads of intriguing entries and personality to spare. When the puzzle both apologizes to you (2 Down was I AM SO SORRY) and checks up on you while you’re solving (50 Across: HOW DID IT GO), you’re in for a unique puzzling experience.

Confession: I attempted the A-level clues, but I struggled with some of them. I did successfully solve the puzzle with a mix of A- and B-level clues.

Interesting grid entries included CHANDELIERS, ICAHN, IT GIRL, and IN RETROSPECT, and the B-clues were undoubtedly my favorite, boasting gems like “Joins a union?” for WEDS, “Darn it!” for HOLE, and “One with a talent for hitting low pitches” for BASS.


Overall, I think this year’s tournament puzzles were not as consistently hard as in previous years, though a lot of individual fill entries were fairly obscure. I did get stuck on several puzzles, frequently outwitted by cleverly misleading clues or my own inability to come up with what would later feel like obvious answers. But, as always, I relish the challenge of trying my hand at these puzzles, even if it’s not under tournament conditions.

The ingenious and creative constructors once again brought their A-game to the table with this year’s 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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