How to Get Started in Cryptic Crosswords

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[Image courtesy of Amazon. The Times Cryptic Crossword Book.]

On Twitter yesterday, Oliver Roeder from FiveThirtyEight asked, “If one wanted to learn/practice solving cryptic crosswords, with what puzzles should one begin?”

Most of the replies mentioned different cryptic crossword outlets to try out, like The Nation, Harper’s Magazine, and The UK Times Quick Cryptic Crossword Book. The Nation in particular was recommended as a good starter cryptic.

Monthly offerings from constructors like Andrew Ries and Cox & Rathvon were also mentioned, though I would add Patrick Berry’s Son of the Crypt cryptic collection to the list of suggestions. (I would normally also recommend The Guardian because of their great cryptics, but they’re pretty tough, particularly for beginners.)

This, of course, presumes that Roeder meant which cryptic puzzles one should start with.

cryptic

[Image courtesy of The New European.]

It occurred to me that he might be asking what OTHER puzzles are good for beefing up your cryptic crossword solving game.

Given the different kinds of clues used in cryptic crosswords, I have a few suggestions.

1. Anagram puzzle

Anagrams are a staple of cryptic cluing, and any puzzler looking to get into cryptics should have some facility with them. There are plenty of ways to practice — the Jumble, Anagram Magic Square and other puzzles from our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles, and even Bananagrams, Words with Friends, or Scrabble will help build your anagram skills.

2. Rebus

Rebus puzzles are all about adding and subtracting letters to form words or phrases, and there’s plenty of that in cryptic cluing. This is a good way to get used to breaking down longer words into abbreviations, anagrams, and so on in order to puzzle out the answer to a cryptic clue.

3. Brain teaser/riddle

Many cryptic clues rely on words with multiple meanings, as well as words that serve as both instructions and hints. Brain teasers and riddles employ similar wordplay, and they can help you develop a proclivity for looking at words from a new point of view.

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[Image courtesy of Eastern Daily Press.]

Of course, if you want help learning to decipher the many variations on cryptic crossword cluing that you’ll encounter, there are some great resources out there.

Penny Dell Puzzles has a PDF containing examples of the most common cluing tricks, and you can bolster that with similar insights from Wikipedia and The Nation.

If you’re looking for deeper dives into all sorts of cryptic cluing, my one-stop shop for insight is The Guardian’s crossword blog. They offer regular features breaking down various kinds of cryptic clues.

In the last few weeks alone, they’ve covered cycling clues, “stuttering” in clues, and how the points of the compass can be used in cluing, and there are dozens of similarly illuminating posts in their archive.

It’s a terrific resource for newbie cryptic solvers and established puzzlers alike.

And it’s worth getting into cryptic crosswords, if only for the occasional subversive little Easter egg like this one from yesterday’s The Guardian cryptic:

brexit

Did I miss any resources or outlets for great cryptic crosswords? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!


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How Far Away Are Computer-Generated Crosswords?

[Image courtesy of ESLTower.]

There’s no denying that computers play a large role in the world of crosswords today.

Some companies use computer programs to generate their unthemed crosswords, no human intervention necessary. Computer programs like Crossword Compiler aid constructors in puzzle design and grid fill, allowing them to build and cultivate databases of words with which to complete their grids.

And, of course, with those little computers in your pocket, you can solve all kinds of crosswords (like those in our Daily POP Crosswords and Penny Dell Crosswords apps).

Heck, computers are even getting pretty good at solving crosswords — just look at Matt Ginsberg’s evolving crossword program, “Dr. Fill.

An article in Smithsonian Magazine posed the question, “why haven’t computers replaced humans in crossword creation?”

The answer, as you’d expect, is simple: computers are just fine at plugging words into established grids and generating basic, unthemed crosswords.

But unthemed is the key word there.

When people think of The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The American Values Club, The Crosswords Club, or any of the other well-respected crossword outlets in the market today, I doubt unthemed puzzles are what comes to mind.

And when it comes to creating themes, innovating, and playing with the conventions of crosswords in order to create puzzles that surprise and challenge solvers, computers simply don’t have the chops.

They might be able to solve puzzles, but as far as I can tell from my research, there’s no program out there capable of generating and executing a theme with any sort of wordplay element involved.

[Image courtesy of Crossword Compiler.]

There is an art to creating an exciting grid, an intriguing theme, or a new puzzle mechanic that solvers have never seen before. The creativity of constructors is truly boundless.

And, it seems, the potential for crossword grids is just as boundless.

Recently, Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight challenged the puzzle fans in his readership to calculate how many different crossword puzzle grids were possible.

He offered the following conditions:

  • They are 15-by-15.
  • They are rotationally symmetric — that is, if you turn the grid upside down it appears exactly the same.
  • All the words — that is, all the horizontal and vertical sequences of white squares — must be at least three letters long. All the letters must appear in an “across” word and a “down” word.
  • The grid must be entirely connected — that is, there can be no “islands” of white squares separated from the rest by black squares.

Now, obviously, all of those rules can be violated for the sake of an interesting theme. We’ve seen grids with vertical symmetry, islands of white squares, and more. Heck, plenty of grids allow words to go beyond the grid itself, or allow multiple words to share puzzle squares.

[“Cutting Edge” by Evan Birnholz. A puzzle where answers extend
beyond the grid. Image courtesy of The Washington Post.]

But assuming these rules are standard, what total did solvers come up with?

None. They couldn’t find a total.

One solver managed to calculate that there were 40,575,832,476 valid 13-by-13 grids following the above conditions, but could not apply the same technique to 15-by-15 grids.

40 billion valid grids. For a comparison, there are 5,472,730,538 unique solutions for a 9×9 Sudoku grid, and I previously calculated it would take 800 years to use every possible 9×9 Sudoku grid.

Of course, that’s 40 billion 13-by-13 grids. The number of possible 15-by-15 grids must be orders of magnitude larger.

Consider this: There were 16,225 puzzles published in The New York Times before Will Shortz took over the NYT crossword. The current number of NYT crosswords in the XWordInfo database is somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 puzzles.

And they’re one of the oldest crossword outlets in the world. Even when you factor in the number of newspapers, magazines, subscription services, and independent outlets for crosswords there are these days, or have been in the past, we barely scratch the surface of a number like 40 billion.

Maybe by the time we’ve run through that many, AI constructors will have caught up.


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Puzzle Plagiarism: One Year Later

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This weekend marked the one-year anniversary of one of the biggest stories in puzzles: the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal, aka #gridgate.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can click here for more detail, but here’s a quick rundown of what happened. Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

crossword-finals-shady

The story originally broke on data analysis website FiveThirtyEight.com thanks to Oliver Roeder, but the real credit belongs to Tausig and Pwanson. The article sparked an investigation, and a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that Parker had agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.

We were among the first to report that constructor Fred Piscop would serve as editor in the interim, but after that, the story went quiet for two months.

Then, in early May, Roeder reported that Universal Uclick had completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’d confirmed some of the allegations of puzzle repetition, they were only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

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The puzzle community was unhappy with the reaction, and USA Today and Universal Uclick soon felt the pressure from constructors and content creators alike.

Among the most vocal was Mike Selinker, puzzle constructor and president of Lone Shark Games, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken:

Up until now, we liked USA Today. We thought that a newspaper of its size would be violently opposed to plagiarism. But they do not appear to be. It’s way past time for USA Today and Universal Uclick to take a stand against plagiarism and for creators’ rights, and maybe it takes some creators to stand up for those. So we’re doing it.

Many other game companies and constructors joined in the boycott, and less than a week later, Gannett (who publishes USA Today) declared that “No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.”

We’d never seen anything like this. Not only did it galvanize the puzzle community like nothing before, but it raised the very important issue of creator’s rights when it comes to puzzles. After all, plagiarism isn’t tolerated in publishing or college term papers, so why should the efforts of crossword constructors be considered any less sacrosanct?

And except for the occasional joke on Twitter (or scathingly clever puzzle) referencing the story, that was it. As far as anyone knew, Parker was still employed by Uclick, and they wouldn’t confirm or deny his involvement in any non-USA Today and Gannett-published puzzles in the future.

So naturally, as the one-year anniversary of the story loomed in the distance, I got curious. What had become of Parker? Was he still involved with Universal Uclick?

Sadly, I have no new answers for you. I reached out to Universal Uclick for comment, and they declined to reply. Parker was similarly difficult to reach.

But even without new threads to follow, this is an important story to revisit. It represents the solidarity, pride, and support of the puzzle community. It represents the rights of creators to be respected and to have their hard work respected. It represents the power of concerned citizens speaking up.

It reminded people that crosswords represent much more than a way to pass an idle Sunday morning.


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Puzzle Plagiarism, Part 3: Parker Out

After months of nothing, things are suddenly moving forward with the Universal Uclick/USA Today puzzle plagiarism scandal.

A quick recap: Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

Parker “agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords” in March.

Last week, there was finally a new development, as Universal Uclick stated that they’d confirmed “some” of the allegations against Parker, and he’d be taking a three-month leave of absence.

That underwhelming semi-admission of Parker’s guilt led Lone Shark Games and Mike Selinker to call for a boycott of USA Today and Universal Uclick, and many other game companies and puzzle constructors have followed suit.

So where are we now?

Well, as reported by Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight, Christopher Mele of the New York Times, and Deb Amlen of Wordplay, Timothy Parker is out as editor of the USA Today crossword.

According to Gannett, who publishes USA Today:

No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.

This still leaves some important details up in the air. For one thing, Parker is still employed by Universal Uclick, even if USA Today and Gannett won’t be using any puzzles he’s touched.

We also don’t know who will be taking his place providing puzzles for USA Today and other Gannett publications.

According to Oliver Roeder:

Fred Piscop, who has been interim editor, told me that his position was temporary unless he was officially informed otherwise, and that there was nothing else he could tell me at this point. A call to Universal Uclick was not returned.

Clearly things are far from settled for Parker, Universal Uclick, and USA Today.

Regarding the #gridgate boycott, Mike Selinker and the team at Lone Shark Games had this to say:

As far as we can tell, USA Today and its parent company Gannett just vowed not to use puzzles edited by Timothy Parker ever again. That bold statement — sure, months late, but welcome nonetheless — was all we were looking for. If they stick to their word, we’ll stop our boycott. We can’t claim credit for the result, but we can say that our friends shining a flashlight on the wrongdoing did help get USA Today to speak out publicly and settle the score.

We’re maintaining the boycott of Universal Uclick, though. They’re continuing to employ someone they’ve admitted is a plagiarist—someone who apparently plagiarized our friends’ work. And just because USA Today isn’t buying Parker’s puzzles doesn’t mean no one else will. We can’t even be sure if the person editing the puzzles isn’t Parker, because he’s made a habit of hiding behind pseudonyms. So we’ll keep this boycott going until we’re sure they’ve got a plan for puzzles that aren’t edited by someone they think is a plagiarist.

Uclick, the ball’s in your court.


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Puzzle Plagiarism, Part 2: Uclick Responds

It’s Follow-Up Friday, but it doesn’t feel right to open this post with our usual exuberant intro.

Today, I’m returning to the subject of Timothy Parker and the USA Today/Universal Uclick plagiarism scandal.

crossword-finals-shady

You know, when I first wrote about this topic, I suspected I’d be returning to it in Follow-Up Friday fashion, and sadly, that’s proven true.

If you don’t recall, or you hadn’t heard, here’s a quick rundown of what happened. Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

Back in March when I first blogged about this, Parker “agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.”

usa-today-crossword-online-puzzle-5

Well, Oliver Roeder from FiveThirtyEight has reported that Universal Uclick has completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’ve CONFIRMED some of the allegations of puzzle repetition — they don’t explain which allegations they’ve confirmed — they’re only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

According to the Universal Uclick press release:

During his leave, Mr. Parker will confirm that his process for constructing puzzles uses the best available technology to ensure that everything he edits is original. We will work with Mr. Parker on this effort and redouble our editorial process so that there is a stronger second level of review.

Roeder points out that Universal also doesn’t say if the last two months count toward Parker’s three-month leave of absence, since Fred Piscop has been serving as interim editor since the scandal broke.

As you might expect, some in the puzzle-game community are underwhelmed, to say the least, with Universal Uclick’s decision.

For instance, Mike Selinker, puzzle constructor and head honcho of Lone Shark Games, sent out a release last night regarding Parker’s situation, stating that he and his team will boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick.

From their Tumblr post:

But USA Today and Universal Uclick, two important providers of puzzles to the world, have abandoned all pretense that originality and credit for content is important to them. So we’re abandoning them. As of today, we’re boycotting both companies.

Up until now, we liked USA Today. We thought that a newspaper of its size would be violently opposed to plagiarism. But they do not appear to be. It’s way past time for USA Today and Universal Uclick to take a stand against plagiarism and for creators’ rights, and maybe it takes some creators to stand up for those. So we’re doing it.

I suspect Mike and the wonderful crew at Lone Shark Games won’t be the only ones giving USA Today and Universal Uclick the cold shoulder. Kudos to them for taking a stand against plagiarism and standing with friends and colleagues in the puzzle community.

You’d think a major publication like USA Today would be against plagiarism instead of downplaying it like this. I doubt they’d tolerate plagiarism anywhere else in their paper.

It will certainly be interesting to see where the story goes from here. Here’s hoping Universal Uclick does the right thing and stands with content creators, not against them.

I’ll conclude this post the same way the team at Lone Shark Games concluded their release:

If you share this on Twitter or Facebook, please tag @usatoday and @UniversalUclick to tell them that you stand with the puzzlemakers, and add the hashtag #gridgate. Or, if you want to talk to USA Today directly, send them a note addressed to Reader Feedback/Letters saying that you find plagiarism in any department unacceptable. Now would be awesome.


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