Farewell, Rip Torn, Star of Stage, Screen, and Crossword Grids

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[Image courtesy of Page Six.]

It is always a sad day when the puzzle community loses one of their own, no matter how rare those events are. It’s rarer still to say goodbye to someone whose contributions were made by appearing IN grids, rather than by constructing or cluing them.

Alas, it is one of those rare times, as this week we mourn the loss of crossword icon and Hollywood actor Rip Torn.

Rip was famously aware of his status as a go-to crossword entry. When he was asked if his name had given him anything but grief over the years, he replied, “Well, when I couldn’t get a job, everybody would say, ‘Where do I know you from?’ I said, ‘Crossword puzzles!’ That kept my name alive for years.”

And it’s true. Some names are simply crossword friendly and have shown up regularly over the years, transforming from pop culture reference to fully accepted part of the crosswordese lexicon.

Although we lost Una and Ona and more than one Ida over the years, Rip hung around amongst stalwart compatriots like Ono and Eno and Esai.

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[Image courtesy of The Chive.]

An actor known for both his stubbornness and the realism he brought to his performances, Rip essentially had two careers in Hollywood. He was a serious dramatic performer throughout the 1960s, until his reputation for being difficult to work with led to a dry spell in the 1970s. (This reputation was famously cemented when he lost the role later played by Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider.)

He would later enjoy a career renaissance in the mid-1990s and beyond for his considerable comedic talents, leaving behind memorable performances in the Men in Black films, and perhaps most notably, HBO’s meta talk show comedy The Larry Sanders Show. Personally, I always enjoyed Rip as the gruff but entertaining mentor figure, which made his appearances in Dodgeball and 30 Rock a particular delight.

For his talents, his humor, his honesty, and that inimitable arrangement of letters that made him oh-so-crossword-convenient, he will be missed.


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Inclusiveness in Puzzles: New LGBTQ+ Scrabble Words!

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From time to time, someone will ask me whether a certain word is appropriate for a crossword. It could be a new constructor, or an aspiring constructor, or a fan of crosswords. It could be about a relatively new slang term, or an obscure word, or a foreign word, or a celebrity. Sometimes, they’re wondering if it’s too hard, or too new, or too niche, or whether it’s appropriate for crosswords at all.

That’s the thing. There is no one source you can go to for all your crossword questions. There’s no definitive list of appropriate words or phrases, because the language is constantly changing and evolving. Pop culture is dynamic, and new ideas, concepts, and personalities are always cropping up. In that way, crosswords are essentially eternal, because the source material constantly shifts in popularity and familiarity. There are always new words to fill those iconic black-and-white grids.

But, if you were looking for that mythical definitive list of appropriate words, it’s not unreasonable to assume you’d go to the International Scrabble Dictionary, the official source for what is allowed as a valid answer word in a game of Scrabble.

Recently, for the first time since 2015, new words were added to the approved list. Over 2800 fresh entries are now officially eligible for tournament and at-house use, and they’ll all appear in the latest edition of Collins Official SCRABBLE Words. (Collins, which also publishes the Collins English Dictionary, added the words after they were approved for use in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary last year. These 2800 words join over 276,000 already approved for Scrabble play.)

It’s quite appropriate that we’re covering this story in June. As many of you are aware, June is Pride Month, and awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and culture affects all aspects of life, even puzzle games!

Among those 2800 newly-approved entries are non-binary and gender-neutral words like “genderqueer” and “agender,” as well as related terminology like “misgender” and “cisgender.”

But the LGBTQ+-friendly term that’s getting the most attention in Scrabble circles is “ze”. This two-letter word is a gender-neutral pronoun, allowing individuals who don’t identify as strictly male (he/him) or female (she/her) to better differentiate themselves and their gender identity.

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For Scrabble players, the word opens up a whole host of new possibilities. After all, “ze” allows far greater opportunity to score big points by playing that valuable Z tile. (“Ze” is only the third two-letter z-word to be authorized for the game, joining “za” and “zo.”)

Now, obviously, in the grand scheme of things, this is a very small step for LGBTQ+ representation, but it is a step. After all, every opportunity to include LGBTQ+ culture and embrace it is part of making it a more familiar part of life for all of us.

In this small way, Scrabble includes previously marginalized individuals by not only accepting these new words, but by changing and adapting in order to do so. It’s an act of welcoming.

Here’s hoping there are far more acts like this, big and small, to come.

[Sources: Pride.com, New York Times, Collins Dictionary.]


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Free RPG Day Returns Tomorrow!

Role-playing games are high on the list of my favorite pastimes, and whether you’re looking for a fun game, a puzzly experience, or a chance to tell some exciting, engrossing stories with friends, you’re bound to find something to enjoy in a role-playing session.

And if you’ve never tried out a role-playing game or dipped a toe into the fascinating world of RPGs, tomorrow is the perfect opportunity for you to do so.

Because tomorrow, Saturday June 15th, is Free RPG Day!

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Established in 2007, Free RPG Day is a collaborative event where RPG publishers team up with game shops, hobby shops, and other game retailers to celebrate role-playing games and try out brand-new and unfamiliar games.

Stores around the world will be offering free adventure modules and quick-play rulebooks for all sorts of different role-playing games — covering everything from classic D&D-style games to spacefaring campaigns — much of it created specifically for Free RPG Day!

Companies like Goodman Games, Paizo Publishing, Green Ronin, Off World Designs, and many more are participating, along with game shops all over the U.S. and across the world.

You can use this store locator to find the nearest participating location, but worry not if you can’t get out to a friendly local game shop!

There are all sorts of online resources celebrating the day as well. For instance, the team at DriveThruRPG are offering a ton of free downloads for you to sample! (Not to mention the articles we’ve written about the subject over the years.)

Will you be celebrating Free RPG Day, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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Virtual Reality Puzzling Takes Another Step Forward

Two years ago, we launched an April Fools Day prank involving a virtual reality version of our puzzles: PNVR.

It was great fun to both imagine how our puzzles would be reinvented by VR and to lampoon the idea of VR puzzling by creating pictures of solvers riding their bikes while wearing VR headsets, puzzling alongside interactive robotic companions, and more.

And more than a few people fell for the prank, given the explosion in VR technology when it comes to gaming and interactive entertainment experiences over the last few years.

Not only can you buy full VR rigs like the Oculus Rift system, but there are plenty of programs and peripherals available that allow you to turn your smartphone into a VR screen, immersing yourself in unusual situations and gaming scenarios.

Some video games have already embraced the technology, and more are sure to do so in the future. But it’s not just video game companies that are getting in on the VR trend.

Escape rooms are as well.

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Ubisoft (the company responsible for the Assassin’s Creed video game series) offers a series of game-inspired VR escape rooms in locations around the world.

From an advertisement for their latest room, Beyond Medusa’s Gate:

Two or four players team up and have 60 minutes to find a way out of a vast Aegean coastal cave where the legendary ship of the Argonauts is anchored. To successfully escape, players must use cooperative teamwork, problem-solving skills and precise timing to solve riddles and find their way out of this room-scale experience. Players start the adventure by choosing their avatar from among six diverse characters, and can customize them with Ancient Greek accessories.

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Although the VR environment means that the focus is more on VR action than puzzle-solving, there are several mechanical puzzles to unravel and virtual rooms to escape, either on your own or with the help of another player. From descriptions, it appears to feel more like playing a video game than conquering an escape room, but it’s still an impressive step forward in VR technology.

I wonder how far we are from being able to experience an escape room from home. Whether it’s fully immersive and you can manipulate objects or you’re simply piloting a person or robot remotely through the VR interface, I suspect we’ll see a puzzly experience like that sooner rather than later.


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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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