Let’s Talk About Cheating in Crosswords!

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[Image courtesy of Getty Images.]

I think most people who solve crosswords already know this, but for anyone who doesn’t, I’ll make this very simple for you.

Unless you’re in a tournament or competition setting, there’s no such thing as cheating at solving crosswords.

Are we cool? Sweet. *checks watch* Outstanding! Shortest blog post ever.

Okay, I’ll elaborate.

Recently, a high school friend of mine “confessed” on Facebook that she had never completed a crossword puzzle where she “didn’t cheat.”

I replied, “It’s not cheating. It’s learning new words so you can get better later.”

And her mother replied, “Don’t encourage her!”

I was a little baffled.

Crossword.

I mean, obviously you get better the more you solve crosswords, but if you keep coming across the same clues (or various clues for the same word) and you don’t know the word, how are you ever going to learn it if you don’t look it up?

You’re not going to suddenly KNOW a word or a person or a phrase if you don’t know it. As much as crosswords are about building skills like wordplay and figuring out what words fit different letter patterns, it’s also about building a personal lexicon and adding to your arsenal as a solver.

The average person does not know ETUI. If they see the clue “needle case,” they’re not going to suddenly know it. Even having one or two correct answers crossing it is not going to magically impart knowledge of the word ETUI.

It’s not cheating if you look up answers. You’re cheating yourself by NOT doing so.

Sure, in a tournament setting or a timed setting, it’s cheating. But in general solving, it’s just prep work that sets you up for greater success down the line.

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So, once more for those in the back or those who really want explicit permission:

Once you’ve tried your best, once you’ve filled in as many entries that cross it as possible, once you’ve wracked your brain, taken time away from it, and returned to try again but not succeeded, I hereby give you permission to “cheat.”

Okay? Okay. Happy solving, everyone!

[Oh, and just for clarification, this applies to solvers. There is absolutely cheating in crossword constructing. It’s called plagiarism, and it will not be tolerated.]


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Crimes Against Crosswords!

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[Image courtesy of Goodreads.]

I know what you’re thinking. “Crimes against crosswords? Isn’t that a bit dramatic?”

Sure it is. You might think it’s over the top to shudder every time someone promises a crossword but publishes a crisscross instead.

But it’s true. There are numerous ways people can transgress against the noble crossword, harming both the body and the spirit of the crossword itself.

For instance, check out this picture of a crossword from The Los Angeles Times,  republished in a local newspaper, which was shared on reddit:

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Look at it! They cropped all four sides of the puzzle in order to fit the available space. Good luck figuring out which across word is clued by “mesake of a ed ratio” or one of the many other mangled clues along the left-hand side of the puzzle.

That is a crime against crosswords.

They’re not always so obvious and clumsy, though.

No, sometimes, a crossword is harmed by crummy fill or an abundance of nonsense abbreviations or numerous Naticks formed by crossing obscure words with other obscure words.

Granted, these are far rarer in the major outlets. (Unless you’re checking out r/crossword or reading Rex Parker’s blog, where they find so-called crossword indignities by the dozens. Good lord.)

But in reality, the vast majority of crossword venues won’t publish puzzles so undermined by careless choices.

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Yeah, you noticed I didn’t say “all crossword venues.”

This unfortunate grid was published by Vox, but it was later deleted, as reported on Twitter by constructor Evan Birnholz:

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Evan is an avid follower of the Vox crossword, but not because he’s a fan. No, Evan has been dunking on the Vox crossword for what feels like forever. He’s not doing it to make his own puzzles look better by comparison; as a top-flight constructor, he doesn’t need to.

His criticisms are never unfair or mean-spirited; on the contrary, they’re founded in trying to make the puzzle better by pointing out poor choices.

They’re also founded in defending the work of fellow constructors. Evan’s keen eye has caught more than a few questionable examples of clues that seem to have been pilfered wholesale or altered slightly by Vox constructors.

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Now, the first puzzle I posted was silly. Sure, it made the crossword nigh-unsolvable, but there’s no malice there. The second puzzle, the one with the unpleasant pattern, doesn’t deserve the same benefit of the doubt. It was a poor choice, and a puzzle that never should have made it to solvers.

But as for stolen clues, that’s something else entirely. If that’s what is happening here — and Evan makes a fairly compelling case — that’s not just a crime against crosswords, it’s a crime against fellow constructors. It’s a sign of disrespect.

I love shouting out smart clues by constructors, not only so other people can enjoy the wit and wordplay, but so that the right person gets the proper credit. The crossword community is a brilliant group of people; they’re clever and hardworking and constantly innovating.

And it sucks to see some members of the community take advantage of others. It hurts the community as a whole, far more than any bad cropping of a puzzle ever could.


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Famous Director Stumbles Into Trivia Trap!

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[Image courtesy of Buzztime.]

It’s no secret that I love trivia. I enjoy bar and pub trivia nights, I compete in an online trivia league (Learned League), and I’ve served as a quizmaster myself. I delight in slipping trivia into puzzles — from encrypted content to tricky crossword clues — and I happily peruse trivia books whenever I find them.

Recently I was reminded of one of my favorite trivia stories, and I thought I’d share that story with you today.

It all starts with a few tweets by filmmaker Rian Johnson, director of Brick, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Knives Out.

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He then shared this text from Wikipedia:

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Yes, as many fans and readers had commented, keen-eyed Columbo viewers had discovered the name “Frank” on Columbo’s ID, but the famous detective’s first name was never spoken or mentioned onscreen.

I had encountered a similar problem with a trivia game years ago that asked for the first name of the character Gilligan from the TV show Gilligan’s Island. I had no idea, and got the question wrong.

But as it turns out, Willy, Gilligan’s first name, was never mentioned on the show. The show’s creator always envisioned the character with that name, but it was never officially canon. (Bob Denver, who played Gilligan on the show, often joked that the character’s name was actually Gil Egan, but it ran together when yelled, as it so often was.)

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[Image courtesy of Gilligan’s Island Wiki.]

As far as I know, the Gilligan error was simply that, a mistake. But the Columbo error, as mentioned in the Wikipedia article, is an example of a copyright trap.

A copyright trap is an intentionally false, seemingly trivial piece of information in a larger work, intended to help demonstrate plagiarism if the larger work is ever stolen or copied. (After all, anyone who had done their own research would have discovered it was incorrect and left it out, or at the very least, not included it as part of a wholesale act of plagiarism.)

And the more you learn about copyright traps, the more ridiculous and intricate they become.

There have been:

  • false cities (aka paper towns) on maps, like Agloe, New York, and the paired cities of Beatosu and Goblu in Ohio, as well as trap streets, fake mountain peaks, and more
  • false dictionary entries (like esquivaliance in the second edition New Oxford American Dictionary)
  • false encyclopedia entries (like the story of a photographer named Lillian Mountweazel who exploded on a shoot for Combustibles magazine)
  • false movies (like Dog of Norway, a fictional film mentioned in The Golden Turkey Awards, a book I actually own, alongside its sequel, Son of Golden Turkey Awards)
  • a false member of the German parliament
  • false Google searches (which were used to purposely expose the search engine Bing for copying Google’s search results)

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[Image courtesy of RadioTimes.]

Although Mr. Worth’s Columbo trap did reveal the thieving nature of the designers of the original Trivial Pursuit, it failed to protect him. It also failed to protect trivia fans, as this and other spurious bits of trivia continue to percolate throughout trivia books, webpages, and other sources. (I’ve found easily misproven false trivia everywhere from IMDB to Ripley’s Believe It or Not books.)

So enjoy your trivia, but keep your eyes peeled, fellow puzzlers and trivia-hounds. You might just get tripped up by a copyright trap one of these days.


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The Unexpected Return of Timothy Parker

Of all the names I expected to see pop up in puzzles in the new year, Timothy Parker wasn’t one of them.

For the uninitiated, Timothy Parker was the crossword editor for Universal’s syndicated puzzle and USA Today, both of which are owned by Universal Uclick. He touted himself as “America’s most solved crossword constructor.”

And almost four years ago, devastating accusations of plagiarism emerged regarding Parker’s conduct as a crossword editor. In a story broken by FiveThirtyEight.com, more than 60 puzzles were flagged for suspicious patterns of repeated entries, grids, and clues with previously published puzzles in The New York Times and other outlets. (Hundreds more showed some level of repetition.)

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Additionally, a pattern of puzzles re-published under fake names or Parker’s name — rather than the name of the actual constructor who submitted the puzzle — also emerged.

In response — eventually — Universal Uclick released a statement that Parker “agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.” The company later confirmed “some” of the allegations against Parker, and he was placed on a three-month leave of absence. He was soon removed as editor for the USA Today crossword. (The question of whether he was still employed by Universal Uclick would linger for years to come.)

After all the kerfuffle, Parker seemingly vanished. Except for the occasional joke on Twitter (or scathingly clever puzzle) referencing the story, that was it.

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[Image courtesy of Evan Birnholz.]

Until last week, that is.

In a promotional article on ExpoTor, Parker touted the strength and drawing power of his puzzle brand, taking the opportunity not only to toot his own horn, but to settle a few old scores.

From the article:

Thirdly, be aware of snakes in the grass. As you get more and more successful, there will be more and more snakes slithering around trying to degrade your work in hopes of boosting theirs. This is common in any industry but is particularly relevant in my industry. I once had a D-list constructor for the Washington Post actually convince a gullible major newspaper reporter that one of my family-oriented crossword themes contained a secret “rape” joke.

This preposterous and asinine assumption was then actually written up by a reporter who stated I had “hidden” a rape joke in my crosswords. Having a G-rated, family-oriented brand for 21 years, this could have been devastating to the brand. But in my case, solvers who have known my work for years came to my rescue, and not only chastised the D-list constructor responsible for this nonsense but also the reporter as well. The article stayed up for a couple of hours and was quickly removed.

Both the supposed “D-list constructor” and the supposed “gullible major newspaper reporter” gladly identified themselves, pointing out that the article — you know, the one that was quickly removed back in 2017? — is still up on HuffPost today.

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[Image courtesy of Huffpost.]

As for the secret rape joke, the grid contained the message “PSST HEY DOES THIS OLD RAG SMELL LIKE CHLOROFORM TO YOU.” The clue? “Run away from anyone who says this.”

Good lord. That’s about as overt a rape joke as I’ve ever seen that didn’t actually include the word “rape.”

Parker concludes the point with “The lesson learned here is rivals are rarely an asset to your brand.” You’d think a better lesson to learn — other than “don’t make offensive comments the centerpiece of your crossword” — would be “Don’t waste time in the middle of a promotional pitch grinding an ax that makes you look petty, incompetent, and insensitive.”

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[Image courtesy of biaphysio.]

Now, fellow puzzler, you might very well be asking yourself, “why waste blog post space on a topic like this?” That’s a fair question.

But I think it’s important to identify and call out problematic members of a community. Parker has never once admitted any fault or claimed any responsibility for the plagiarism scandal years ago. He has never apologized to the hardworking constructors whose work was stolen and/or reused without credit.

And for him to make such snide comments about another constructor — a well-respected one, I might add, with vastly higher standards for what constitutes a quality puzzle — reflects poorly on the entire field.

It’s been my privilege to meet and interact with dozens of top-flight constructors and puzzle editors. And the vast majority of them are good people, Evan included. They’re decent, creative, often brilliant, and frequently incredibly supportive of their fellow constructors.

Meanwhile, Parker claims that “Timothy Parker Crosswords is a brand that’s known worldwide.” That’s true, though DeLorean and Ponzi are also brands known worldwide.

Thankfully, USA Today and Universal Crosswords (part of Andrews McMeel Syndication) are both in more capable, reliable, and honest hands, being edited by Erik Agard and David Steinberg, respectively.

Here’s hoping the trend toward editors who support and respect both their fellow constructors and the crossword audience continues onward into 2020 and beyond.


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And… Repeat

repetition

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

I’ve had repetition on the brain lately. Repeatedly. How apropos.

I was talking about plagiarism with a friend of mine recently — a teacher who has dealt with her fair share of plagiarized essays from students — and I quickly summarized the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal from 2016 for her.

She was understandably surprised that plagiarism was a thing in the crossword world — a thankfully rare one — and it got me thinking about intentional repetition vs. unintentional repetition.

When it comes to the Uclick scandal, it was pretty obviously intentional repetition.

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But unintentional repetition happens more often than you’d think. The very rules for creating a traditional themed crossword lend themselves toward duplication, unintentional and otherwise.

Grid layouts, for instance, get reused all the time. When I started constructing, I actually assembled a stack of different grid patterns for 13x and 15x puzzles that I could use, organized by how the theme entries were arranged on the page: 9-13-9, 11-15-11, etc.

Despite the virtually infinite number of ways you could build a 15x grid, you see, when it comes to theme entries — particularly grids with diagonal symmetry and theme entries of matching length — there’s a finite number of ways to build a functioning grid.

So, we know that grids can easily be similar, but what about themes?

There are all sorts of ways that wordplay can inspire crossword themes — anagrams, sound-alike puns, entries reading backwards or being mixed up in a grid, portmanteaus, letters being removed from common phrases (and sometimes placed elsewhere in the grid), etc. — and if more than one constructor comes up with the same idea, you could have repeated entries with no malice or plagiarism involved.

Let’s say multiple constructors are working on puzzles with a similar theme, as they would for some of the tournaments hosted throughout the year, like Lollapuzzoola or the Indie 500. If the tournament had a time theme, it’s reasonable that more than one constructor could come up with a hook like “Time Flies” and look for entries that combine travel and time, coming up with NONSTOPWATCH or LAYOVERDUE.

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[Image courtesy of DnD Beyond.]

Constructor Matt Gaffney actually wrote about a case of unintentional theme repetition for Slate years ago, discussing how he and Mike Shenk independently came up with puzzles where the word RAVEN was hidden in longer entries, and four of the five theme entries in the puzzles were the same AND placed similarly in the grid.

It’s a fascinating read that reveals a lot about grid construction, theme design, and puzzle mechanics. It’s the ultimate puzzly example of “great minds think alike.”

So, how do you avoid repeating a theme? Well, a little due diligence can go a long way. Sites like Xwordinfo and Crossword Fiend are great resources for searching theme answers to see if they’ve been done before.

Constructor Patrick Blindauer also offered some advice for coming up with new themes: solve more puzzles. He said, “Solving other puzzles is a good source of theme ideas for me. I try to guess the theme early, sometimes based only on the title; if I turn out to be wrong, I’ve got a new idea to play with.”

In this case, he avoids repetition through imagination. It’s a cool idea, one that will no doubt lead to some terrific new puzzles.


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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.

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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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