ACPT 2019 Wrap-Up!

The 42nd 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, arriving with plenty of time to spare to prep our spot in the puzzle marketplace and say hello to friends and puzzly acquaintances. This year, I was joined at the Penny Dell Puzzles booth once again by my friend and partner-in-promotion Stacey Scarso.

The Penny Dell crew 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. They were also running a kickass promotion offering half-price on a year’s subscription to Crosswords Club, which is a great deal.

The Penny Dell Store also returned for the first time in a few years, as puzzle books (including a collection of Daily POP Crossword App puzzles!), tote bags, travel mugs, and coffee mugs were for sale. The Word Nerd mugs were a big hit!

PLUS we held a contest to win a bundle of PDP puzzle swag, including a mug, a tote bag, coffee fixin’s, and a bunch of puzzle magazines! All you had to do was solve a marvelous crossword variant puzzle cooked up by Eric Berlin.

And, yes, in their downtime between tournament puzzles, many competitors DO solve other puzzles.

At 9 AM, the tournament was two hours away, but the marketplace was up and running.

There were puzzle books galore from Will Shortz and Merl Reagle, ACPT shirts and cards from Elena Powell Abrahams, and a massive uber-crossword from T. William Campbell, which definitely caught the eye of some solvers:

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, 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 200 first-time attendees and enthusiastic rookies, mixing with current and former champions, and all sorts of puzzle enthusiasts of all ages.

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, puzzle ties, and other grid-heavy accoutrements.

One of the attendees even offered to buy the Crossword Puzzle Junkie shirt off my back! I assured him that that would work for him and literally no one else in attendance.

But I digress.

Many of the top constructors in the business were there, names like David Steinberg, Evan Birnholz, Joon Pahk, Erik Agard, Peter Gordon, and more, along with former champions and first-rate competitors like Dan Feyer, David Plotkin, 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 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.

Attendance jumped again this year, which meant not only was the main ballroom absolutely jam-packed with competitors, but an overflow room was once again needed to accommodate the more-than-700 solvers in Stamford!

When Puzzle 1 arrived, most competitors found Kathy Wienberg’s puzzle to be quick and fair, on par with Monday NYT puzzles.

Although there was no sub-2-minute time like last year, the top solvers still blasted through this one.

Puzzle 2, constructed by prolific puzzler Joel Fagliano, surprised some solvers with a clever little trick at its core. This is consistent with the last few years, where Puzzle 2 has surprised the competitors. I think many solvers forget that, given how legendarily difficult Puzzle 5 is every year. It’s easy to forget other puzzles can offer quite a challenge along the way.

About this time, scores started trickling out for Puzzle 1, and many of the expected names were at the top: Feyer, Pahk, Plotkin, Zawistowski, Sanders, Kravis, Ryan… but two big names were missing.

Former 5-time champion (and perennial top contender) Tyler Hinman was not attending the tournament this year, and Erik Agard, last year’s champion, had a mistake in Puzzle 1, which would seriously hamper his efforts to repeat last year’s success.

Puzzle 3 was constructed by Patrick Berry, and served as a well-received, smooth-solving palate-cleanser before the lunch break.

          [Even empty, all the dividers make the room feel packed…]

Solvers scattered to the four winds in order to grab a bite to eat before returning by 2:30 for Puzzle 4, while the tournament officials were still hard at work tabulating scores:

After 3 puzzles, Dan Feyer was on top of the rankings, followed closely by Pahk, and then a three-way tie among Kravis, Plotkin, and Zawistowski for third.

But it was time to kick off the second half of the day with Puzzle 4.

Last year’s fourth puzzle had a visual element that tripped up some of the competitors, and this year’s Puzzle 4 (by constructor Jeff Stillman) was also harder than expected. The fill featured more obscurities than solvers anticipated, and several competitors commented on it on Twitter:

Oh, and by the way, thanks to his puzzly skills and blistering speed, Erik Agard had worked his way back up to 7th place after completing Puzzle 4. Amazing.

Finally, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Evan Birnholz (not Birnholtz, as it was misprinted on his name tag) 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.

Even the officials noticed:

After the diabolical Puzzle 5, it was Dan Feyer, Joon Pahk, David Plotkin, Stella Zawistowski, and… Erik Agard.

Competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6, constructed by Lynn Lempel (she also contributed Puzzle 6 last year), 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 after Puzzle 6. Erik has worked his way back to 4th. Was a comeback story in store for Day 2?]

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

Puzzle 7, constructed by Mike Shenk, was what you might expect from a constructor of his caliber: elegant fill, little crosswordese, and great fun.

But Shenk’s name being announced for Puzzle 7 also meant a puzzly milestone for the Finals:

Yes, Robyn Weintraub’s tournament constructing debut would be the final hurdle for the competitors! Fantastic news!

Dan Feyer remained at the top of the leaderboard, having maintained a great solving pace, followed closely by Joon Pahk and David Plotkin.

But it was not meant to be, and the final three came down to Dan Feyer (7-time champ, looking for a record-breaking 8th title), Joon Pahk and David Plotkin (two familiar names in the top ten).

[Image courtesy of Dave Mackey.]

The top three competitors for each live-solving division were:

  • A: Dan Feyer, Joon Pahk, David Plotkin
  • B: Matthew Gritzmacher, Brian Fodera, Arnold Reich
  • C: Brian Kulman, Lily Geller, Claire Rimkus

Lily Geller won the C division, and Brian Fodera won B. Congrats to the winners!

And, finally, it was time for the A Block.

You can watch the final puzzle being solved below, courtesy of Ben Zimmer:

Dan Feyer crushed the A clues in under 7 minutes. Joon Pahk was a strong runner-up at 9:05, and David Plotkin placed third with a very respectable showing of 11:13.

[Image courtesy of ACPT.]

As he had done all tournament, Dan solved with undeniable speed and precision, claiming his eighth tournament victory!

And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 21st, David Steinberg placed 26th, Angela Halsted placed 94th, Vega Subramaniam cracked the top 100 with 98th, and Patti Varol placed 113th out of a field of 741 participants. (And even with one eye tied behind his back, Keith Yarbrough managed an impressive performance as well!)

There were also some wonderfully heartwarming stories to emerge from the tournament, like this multi-generational solving success story:

In the end, Jenna LaFleur (aka daughter) placed 33rd! Awesome job!

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.

Of course, everyone should make sure to check their puzzle vaults when they get home:

We’ll see you next year!


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The ACPT Returns This Weekend!

acptlogo

The 42nd 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!

acpt72016

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

There is a topnotch lineup of constructors to challenge this year’s competitors. Not only do we have Patrick Berry and Mike Shenk — perennial contributors to the tournament — but there will also be puzzles from ACPT stalwarts like Lynn Lempel and Joel Fagliano, as well as tournament puzzle debuts for Evan Birnholz, Robyn Weintraub, Jeff Stillman, and Kathy Wienberg! I can’t wait to see what they’ve concocted for this year’s tournament!

Good luck to everyone competing! And hey, if you need a pencil sharpener — or you’d like some terrific puzzly merch, contests, and a few freebies — we’ll be hanging out with our pals at the Penny Dell Puzzles table again this year! Be sure to stop by!


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A Puzzly Nom de Plume?

[Image courtesy of Writers Write.]

There was an intriguing blog post on The Wall Street Journal‘s website a few days ago about their crossword editor, Mike Shenk.

For those who don’t know, Shenk is a well-respected name in the world of puzzles who has contributed puzzles to numerous outlets, including GAMES Magazine, The New York Times, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and of course, The Wall Street Journal.

The blog post revealed that Shenk had published puzzles in the WSJ under pseudonyms in the past, but going forward, that would no longer be the case. In the spirit of transparency, any puzzles constructed by Shenk would appear under his real name.

Greater transparency in crossword publishing is definitely a good thing. If you recall, part of the issue with Timothy Parker’s tenure for the Universal Crossword involved other constructors’ puzzles being reprinted under Parker’s pseudonyms instead of the actual constructor’s name. Ben Tausig found one example, and further investigation turned up others.

From a FiveThirtyEight article discussing the story:

The puzzles in question repeated themes, answers, grids and clues from Times puzzles published years earlier. Hundreds more of the puzzles edited by Parker are nearly verbatim copies of previous puzzles that Parker also edited. Most of those have been republished under fake author names.

Obviously, no such accusations mar Shenk’s tenure at The Wall Street Journal. His reputation is pristine.

[Image courtesy of Politico.]

But it made me wonder. Last year, we discussed how many women were being published in various crossword outlets. From January 1st to April 29th of 2018, nine out of the 99 puzzles published by The Wall Street Journal were constructed by women. Were some of those actually Shenk under a pseudonym? (One of the noms de plume mentioned in the WSJ blog post was Alice Long.)

Naturally, this whole topic got me thinking about pseudonyms in general. In British crosswords, most constructors (or setters, as they’re called in the UK) publish under a pseudonym. Among loyal solvers, names like Araucaria, Qaos, Paul, Enigmatist, Shed, and Crucible are as familiar there as C.C. Burnikel, Jeff Chen, Brendan Emmett Quigley, or Patrick Berry would be here.

How common are pseudonyms in American-style crosswords, do you suppose? Has usage of aliases increased or decreased over the years? I might have to follow up on that in the future.

In the meantime, it’s intriguing to see one of the most respected crossword outlets in the market today, The Wall Street Journal, take a stand on visibility and transparency in puzzle publishing. Maybe it’s the start of something bigger.


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ACPT 2018 Wrap-Up!

The 41st 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, arriving with plenty of time to spare to prep our spot in the puzzle marketplace and say hello to friends and puzzly acquaintances. This year, I was joined at the Penny Dell Puzzles booth once again by my friend and partner-in-promotion Stacey Scarso.

The Penny Dell crew 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. They were also running a kickass promotion offering half-price on a year’s subscription to Crosswords Club, which is a great deal.

Plus we had a terrific sample puzzle for the Daily POP Crosswords app, constructed by the marvelous Angela Halsted! You can click this link for the answer grid AND a bonus offer for anyone who missed our ACPT tournament puzzle!

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 marvelous crossword variant puzzle cooked up by the folks at Penny Dell. (Though I did have a hand in writing some of the clues.)

And, yes, in their downtime between tournament puzzles, many competitors DO solve other puzzles.

At 9 AM, the tournament was two hours away, but the marketplace was up and running. There were puzzle magazines galore from the Village Bookstore (as well as a table of Merl Reagle’s puzzle books), a booth loaded with Nathan Curtis’s various puzzly projects, and ACPT-themed jewelry, key chains, teddy bears, magnets, 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, 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; apparently, contestants ranged in age from 17 to 92(!), and there was a 90-year-old rookie competing this year!

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.

One of the attendees even offered to buy the Crossword Puzzle Junkie shirt off my back! I assured him that that would work for him and literally no one else in attendance.

But I digress.

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 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.

Attendance jumped again this year, which meant not only was the main ballroom absolutely jam-packed with competitors, but an overflow room was needed to accommodate the nearly 700 solvers in Stamford!

When Puzzle 1 arrived, most competitors found Tracy Gray’s puzzle to be quick and fair. One solver in particular, constructor Erik Agard, delivered an absolutely blistering time, solving the puzzle in under 2 minutes! (A feat not seen since Dan Feyer did so in 2015.) It immediately rocketed Erik to the top of the leaderboard in impressive fashion.

Puzzle 2, constructed by prolific puzzler Zhouqin Burnikel, surprised some solvers with its difficulty. Then again, Puzzle 2 has been on the tougher side for at least the last few years, but I think many solvers forget that, given how legendarily difficult Puzzle 5 is every year. It’s easy to forget other puzzles can offer quite a challenge along the way.

Puzzle 3 was constructed by Mike Shenk, and served as a well-received palate-cleanser before the lunch break. Solvers scattered to the four winds in order to grab a bite to eat before returning by 2:30 for Puzzle 4.

[Even empty, all the dividers make the room feel packed…]

And what a Puzzle 4 it was. Constructed by Damon Gulczynski, this puzzle had a visual element that tripped up several top competitors. (An unclear blurb “explanation” didn’t help matters, and several competitors told me they would’ve been better off with no blurb at all.)

The judges were forced to actually explain the puzzle before competitors began Puzzle 5. It was a disappointing way for the second half of the tournament day to kick off.

Not only that, but one solver was mistakenly given Puzzle 5 to solve INSTEAD of Puzzle 4. He managed to solve it in the shorter time allotted, but couldn’t fairly solve Puzzle 4 afterward because of the explanation. I haven’t been able to follow up and find out what exactly happened to his score.

Finally, after the unexpected drama of Puzzle 4, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Joel Fagliano 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. (Apparently, computer solving program Dr. Fill failed to complete puzzle 5, one of its few slip-ups in an otherwise impressive year for the program.)

After the diabolical Puzzle 5, competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6, constructed by Lynn Lempel, 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.

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

Puzzle 7, constructed by Patrick Berry, was what you might expect from a constructor of his caliber: elegant fill, very little crosswordese, and great fun.

Erik Agard remained at the top of the leaderboard, having kept a great solving pace after his outstanding performance on Puzzle 1 — a nice redemption for him after a heartbreaker last year, when an error dropped him out of finals contention after a strong performance overall.

So the final three would be Erik, Dan Feyer (7-time champ), and David Plotkin (a familiar name in the top ten).

Thankfully, this year, there was no repeat of last year’s flub where the B-level finalists got the A-level clues or anything like that. And there were no distinct time advantages among the top solvers.

It was simply a match-up of some of the fastest, sharpest puzzlers. (Including 2 rookies in the C-level final!)

You can watch the final puzzle being solved below, courtesy of Ben Zimmer:

Erik Agard would complete the puzzle first, solving it in under 5 minutes. By comparison, huge swathes of Dan and David’s grids were still empty at this point. It was a stunning showing for a very well-liked member of the puzzle community!

Dan Feyer would wrap the puzzle up in 9 minutes, with David Plotkin following at around 13.

As he had done all tournament, Erik solved with incredible speed and precision, claiming his first tournament victory!

And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 14th (up from 18th last year!), David Steinberg placed 23rd (up from 28th!), and Patti Varol placed 74th (up from 103 last year!) out of a field of almost 700 participants. (And even with one eye tied behind his back, Keith Yarbrough managed an impressive performance as well!)

[I wonder how many competitors this tweet applies to…]

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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Constructors’ Favorite Crosswords from 2017!

Yesterday, I wrapped up my efforts to celebrate 2017’s contributions to the long, marvelous legacy of puzzles and games.

But before saying goodbye to 2017, I reached out to other constructors and puzzlers to ask them if they had any favorite crosswords from 2017, either of their own creation or those made by others.

So let’s check out the favorites from some world-class constructors in their own right.

Note: Wherever possible, I’ve included links to the puzzles, but for the most part, the links included filled-in grids, so if you want the full solving experience, scan for dates, outlets, and names to hunt down copies for yourself.

And remember: every single person who replied stated that there were other puzzles they loved that they knew they were leaving out, so don’t consider this in any way to be an exhaustive list. 2017 was a dynamite year for crosswords!


We’ll start off with some of crossword gentleman Doug Peterson‘s favorites:

– Monday, May 8 NY Times puzzle by Zhouqin Burnikel aka CC Burnikel. It’s an LGBTQ theme executed so nicely for a Monday. Difficulty and theme are spot-on for an easy puzzle. Lots of fresh, colloquial fill. CC is the master.

– Saturday, July 22 LA Times themeless puzzle by Erik Agard. All of Erik’s themelesses are fun, but this one stood out a bit more for me. SHIRLEY CHISHOLM, KITE-EATING TREE, TOOTHBRUSHES stacked on top of ORTHODONTISTS. Fun stuff everywhere you look.

– Wednesday, August 9 AVCX puzzle “Birthday Bash” by Francis Heaney. Broken PINATAs that have dropped their candy into the grid. It doesn’t get much better than that. 🙂 OK, slight ding for having one PINATA filled with ALTOIDS, but this was still a blast to solve.

[Image courtesy of Party Cheap.]

Several constructors, including Joanne Sullivan and Patrick Blindauer, heaped praise upon the puzzles from this year’s Lollapuzzoola event, and rightly so. They always push the envelope in terms of creativity with Lollapuzzoola, and folks went all out for the tenth year of the tournament. Blindauer cited Paolo Pasco’s tournament opener in particular as a delight.

Patrick had several other recommendations:

It’s no surprise to see New York Times puzzles getting a lot of love. George Barany cited David Steinberg’s June 8th puzzle as particularly clever. Definitely not surprised to see those words associated with David.

[Image courtesy of Snark Squad.]

David Kwong sung the praises of Mark Halpin’s Labor Day Extravaganza — which doesn’t contain any crosswords, but it is still very worthy of mentioning — making a point of mentioning that “the meta puzzle involving the spider’s web was so expertly constructed.”

Constructor Brendan Emmett Quigley did an entire post highlighting his favorite puzzles from the previous year, which marked the only overlap between today’s entry and my list of puzzles yesterday. As it turns out, we both enjoyed his “Next Level Shit” puzzle from November 2nd. He cited “Party Line” from September 28th and “We Have Achieved Peak Puzzle” from November 9th as two other favorites.

[Image courtesy of Arrested Development Wiki.]

To close out today’s rundown of killer puzzles, we’ve got a murderers row of recommendations from Evan Birnholz of Devil Cross and The Washington Post crossword:


Thank you to all of the fantastic constructors who offered their favorite crosswords from 2017! Please check out both these constructors AND the constructors they recommend! There are so many great puzzles out there for you if you bother to look!

Here’s to a terrific, challenging, baffling, and creative new year of puzzles to come!


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5 Questions with Crossword Constructor Joanne Sullivan

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Joanne Sullivan as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

[Joanne stands beside fellow constructor Tracy Bennett at this year’s Indie 500 tournament.]

Joanne is a terrific constructor whose puzzles have appeared in The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and numerous other outlets. One of her puzzles is now featured on The New York Times‘ Wordplay Blog as one of their 11 Remarkable Crosswords for New Solvers (each hand-picked by Will Shortz). Her puzzle with Erik Agard at the 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, “Do I Hear a Waltz?”, was one of my favorite crosswords last year.

She often spends her time teaching crossword classes, spreading not only the love of crossword construction and wordplay to others, but hard-won knowledge and experience from a fun and innovative constructor.

Joanne was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Joanne Sullivan

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I’ve enjoyed a variety of puzzles and games ever since I can remember, but I had avoided crossword puzzles for decades. When I was a young adult, I would occasionally take a stab at The Sunday New York Times crossword and would manage to get only a couple of answers after reading every single clue. I was amazed that my father could routinely complete the whole puzzle. I didn’t aspire to match his achievement because I thought that crosswords were filled with useless, arcane information.

When I subscribed to GAMES Magazine, I solved all the puzzles in it except for the crosswords because I had the mistaken assumption that all crosswords were dry and boring. I now realize that I missed out on a lot of fun. The high-quality crosswords in GAMES were part of the new wave of puzzles that were filled with current references and lively phrases.

Many years later an office mate encouraged a group of our fellow coworkers to solve The New York Times crossword together each weekday. I never really enjoyed the computer programming work that I was supposed to be focusing on so I welcomed the diversion. I immediately was surprised at how clever and entertaining the crosswords were.

Like the character in Green Eggs and Ham, I learned that I actually liked the nourishment that I had assumed would be distasteful. In the beginning, my coworkers would pass around the newspaper, and we’d each fill in an answer or two until we managed to complete the whole puzzle. We relied heavily on Google by the time we got to Friday. Solving late week puzzles without help seemed like an impossible dream, but before long that dream became a reality.

[One of Joanne’s New York Times-published puzzles. This one makes excellent use of the black squares by incorporating some of them into the themed entries.
Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle?

I personally love puzzles with inventive, tricky themes and clues. Crosswords have been around for a long time so it’s hard to come up with a new theme or a tricky clue that misdirects the solver in a different way. Even new themes and clues tend to be variations on something that has been done before so I appreciate crosswords that are truly original.

What do you most enjoy — or most commonly avoid — when constructing your own?

Here are crossword constructing tasks in descending order of my preference:

  • Coming up with a theme and finding answers that fit it.
  • Writing clues / Arranging the black and white squares in the grid. (Two very different tasks that I find equally enjoyable.)
  • Filling the grid with non-theme answers.
  • Adding new words to my database of potential crossword answers and rating those words in order of desirability.

Maintaining a good database of potential crossword answers can greatly facilitate crossword construction, but I find database maintenance time-consuming and dreary so I avoid it. I try to rationalize my negligence by telling myself that it’s impossible to add words and assign values to them that will be valid for all audiences.

For example, the word UGLY would be a perfectly fine answer in any mainstream newspaper, but I would try to avoid including it in a personalized puzzle that I was making as a birthday gift because I wouldn’t want the recipient to interpret it as an insult. But deep down I know that my rationalization isn’t valid, and I’m just too lazy to properly maintain my database.

What do you think is the most common pitfall of constructors just starting out?

I think some new constructors might settle for mediocrity instead of pushing themselves to achieve more. I’ve heard that some constructors are afraid to arrange the black and white squares in a grid from scratch. They’ll only use sample grids that they copy from a crossword database. It might take a lot of trial and error, but you’ll probably come up with a better grid if you try to arrange the squares in a way that best suits your theme answers instead of grabbing a prefab grid. I’ll often experiment with dozens of different grid designs before choosing one that fits my theme answers best.

Constructors might also be satisfied with so-so fill (which are the non-theme answers) or clues. I can understand the urge to leave well enough alone, especially when submitting puzzles on spec. It can be really frustrating to spend a lot of time coming up with stellar fill and clues only to be told that your puzzle was dead on arrival because the editor didn’t like the theme. Instead of compromising their standards, constructors might try to seek out the few editors who are willing to preapprove themes. Or they may emulate the many excellent indie constructors who publish their puzzles on their own websites.

[A puzzle, mid-construction. Images courtesy of Crossdown.]

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others?

It’s hard to pick favorites because I’ve solved so many great puzzles and clues over the years so I’ll be self-centered and mention three of my own puzzles.

My Tuesday, February 23, 2010 New York Times crossword will always be close to my heart because it was my first published puzzle. Will Shortz picked it as one of the “11 Remarkable Crosswords for New Solvers,” but novices shouldn’t feel bad if they find it difficult. Most solvers found it harder than an average Tuesday puzzle.

Another special crossword is “Contents Redacted,” which The Chronicle of Higher Education published on October 16, 2015. I’m very grateful to Brad Wilber and Frank Longo for polishing it and working hard to present it in a way that stayed true to my vision. I also appreciate pannonica whose review on the Crossword Fiend blog was clearer and more insightful than any description that I could have written.

(Speaking of blogs, kudos to PuzzleNation Blog, CrosswordFiend, and similar blogs for helping us appreciate puzzles! Thanks for helping us understand the strengths and weaknesses of puzzles you review, explaining tricky themes and clues, and keeping us informed of news such as puzzle tournaments.)

One of my most satisfying experiences was co-writing “Do I Hear a Waltz?” with Erik Agard for the 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament. Working with Erik was a joy. He’s brilliant and extremely kind. You should interview him next!

One great thing about making a puzzle for a tournament was having the flexibility to make an odd-sized grid that best suited our theme. I find that tournament puzzles are often very creative, perhaps because the constructors don’t have the same editorial and size constraints that they do at most other venues. Some of my favorite puzzles came from The Indie 500 and Lollapuzzoola crossword tournaments.

As a solver, my favorite clues are the ones that make me think, “What on earth can this mean?” One recent clue that gave me that reaction came from Brendan Emmett Quigley’s 9/20/17 AV Club crossword (which is titled “The Lay of the Land”). At first, I couldn’t make sense of the clue [Like slightly firm elbows, e.g.] When I read it, I thought, “What the heck is a slightly firm elbow? … Hmm … AKIMBO doesn’t fit … Hmm …” Eventually I achieved a great aha moment — AL DENTE!

I also love clues that put a fresh spin on old crosswordese or teach me interesting pieces of trivia. I find that The Chronicle of Higher Education and Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords are particularly strong in that regard.

[Joanne poses with members of a crossword seminar,
showing off prizes from our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles.]

4. What’s next for Joanne Sullivan?

I’m currently focusing on giving crossword puzzle seminars. For years I had mistakenly assumed that crosswords were boring and impossible to solve. Now I enjoy showing skeptics how fun crosswords can be and giving people tips that help them improve their solving skills. I love hearing from novices who tell me that I inspired them to start solving crosswords and veteran solvers who say that my tips helped them tackle more difficult puzzles.

I recently taught my first children’s classes and was blown away by the kids’ intelligence and enthusiasm. I’m so glad those children caught the puzzle bug early and didn’t waste decades avoiding crosswords as I did.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring constructors, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Read Patrick Berry’s PDF publication Crossword Constructor’s Handbook. The former print version of that book (Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies) taught me more about constructing crosswords than any other source.

Cruciverbalists might find the information about crossword construction interesting even if they don’t aspire to create puzzles themselves. The book includes 70 crosswords by Patrick Berry (who many crossword aficionados consider the preeminent crossword constructor) so it’s worth the $10 for the puzzles alone.


A huge thank you to Joanne for her time. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles and her crossword seminars!

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