How Will Shortz Works

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[Image courtesy of Lifehacker.]

Last week, Lifehacker posted the latest edition of their How I Work series, which takes readers behind the scenes and into the workspaces of all sorts of experts, scientists, creators, and pop culture icons to see how they do what they do.

And New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz stepped into the spotlight to share his average workday and what his job is really like.

It provides an interesting snapshot of a job most people know very little about. (And, sadly, thoroughly debunks the glamorous crime-solving editorial life Lacey Chabert portrayed in A Puzzle to Die For earlier this year.)

Will talks about going through submissions, editing and polishing crosswords, working on clues, interacting with his assistants, and takes us into his workplace itself, including his reliance on book sources over Internet verification. He also namedrops his table tennis club (always table tennis, never ping-pong), and gives a well-deserved shout-out to XWordInfo.com as a world-class database of NYT crossword data.

But there’s one line in particular from the interview that stood out to me, and I suspect it stood out to other puzzlers as well. When discussing the editorial process for each Times-approved crossword, Shortz stated:

“I don’t think any other puzzle in the country goes through such rigorous editing and testing before publication.”

Now, I like Will. I do. I’ve interviewed him, and chatted with him at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament on more than one occasion. Hell, this year, I purposely lassoed him and pulled him aside so fans could grab photos with him before the tournament started AND still managed to work in a joke or two about the Crossword Mysteries movie.

But, man, there’s putting over your own product, and then there’s just stepping in it.

There are SO MANY great editors in the crossword market today. Off the top of my head, I can mention the editors at The Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Higher Edition, The American Values Club, The Universal Crossword, and The Crosswords Club, not to mention special projects like Women of Letters and the Indie 500, all of which provide wonderful, insightful feedback and attention to detail during the editorial process.

Sure, those puzzles might not all get the attention of ten test-solvers before publication, as Will claims each NYT crossword does. But then again, if you ignore those test solvers, as Will did in January when he used the word BEANER in a grid, that number doesn’t really matter much.

No, this isn’t always the case, obviously. Just two weeks ago, the Twitter account The Truth About Nursing praised Shortz “for allowing Howard Barkin’s description of nurses as ‘Pro caregivers, for short,’ implying expertise & autonomy. This contrasts with the 2007 clue ‘I.C.U. helper’ & the 2009 clue ‘hospital attendant’.”

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If you click through to the actual article, Howard does get the lion’s share of the thanks, as he should, given that the tweet shortchanged him a bit. But you also get more backstory on how the team at The Truth About Nursing spoke out against tone-deaf cluing regarding nurses:

Both of those clues led the Truth to protest to longtime Times puzzle editor Will Shortz. We explained to him in detail why the common misconceptions of nursing that the clues reflected were damaging, in light of the global nursing shortage and the proven influence that the media has in shaping public attitudes toward the profession… Shortz never responded directly to our concerns.

Yes, the NYT crossword gets more criticism because it is the flagship. But if you’re the flagship, you’re also supposed to set the tone, and with a track record of tone-deaf entries like ILLEGAL and HOMIE, as well as clues like “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM or “Exasperated comment from a feminist” for MEN, criticism is well-deserved.

The line between tooting your own horn and overplaying your hand is a very fine one, and undoubtedly, people are bound to disagree on which side of the fence this statement lands.

Some may say that Will deserves all the accolades and horn-tooting he wishes, given the subscriber numbers the NYT crossword garners. Others may take umbrage at Will seemingly dismissing the terrific work done by crossword editors around the country (with fewer resources, it must be said). I mean, Will himself mentored some of those editors!

I can’t speak for any of those editors, and I won’t. But, for me, as someone who has had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and getting to know so many of those creative, qualified, hardworking, and giving editors, methinks he doth toot a bit too much.


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Two Upcoming Crossword Tournaments for Summer 2019!

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If you’re a crossword solver, the next few weeks will have loads of opportunities for you to show off your puzzly chops and meet some fellow cruciverbalists!

Next weekend, the third annual edition of the BosWords crossword tournament will be running on Sunday, July 28th from noon to 5 PM!

With three divisions to choose from — Red Sox (Expert), Paw Sox (Amateur), and Pairs — puzzlers of all ages and experience levels will have the opportunity to test their puzzly wits.

Tournament organizers Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb have gathered a murderer’s row of talented constructors for this year’s puzzles. The five themed puzzles in regular competition (as well as the championship final) will be constructed by Laura Braunstein, Claire Rimkus, Finn Vigeland, Ross Trudeau, Paolo Pasco, Joon Pahk, and David Quarfoot.

You can click here for more information!

But that’s not all…

Just a few weeks later, the twelfth edition of Lollapuzzoola will be held in New York City on Saturday, August 17th from 10 AM to 4 PM!

Yes, the greatest crossword puzzle tournament ever held on a Saturday in August returns once again to challenge solvers with some of the most innovative and creative crosswords of the year.

Tickets for solo competitors (Express for top solvers, Local for average solvers, and Rookie for newcomers) and Pairs Division are available here (as well as the at-home division for solvers who cannot attend).

And for those who reach the top of mountain, “winners in each division are awarded prizes, which could range from a box of used pencils to a brand new car. So far, no one has ever won a car.”

Are you planning on attending either BosWords or Lollapuzzoola (or maybe both)? Or will you be solving either from home? Let us know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!


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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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