A Happy Ending and A New Beginning for the Universal Crossword!

Some stories have happy endings, eventually.

In one particular case, it took nearly three years for the satisfying resolution to arrive.

Allow me to explain.

In March of 2016, programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which were 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.

The troubling pattern uncovered by Tausig and Pwanson 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, Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight 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.

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, president of Lone Shark Games and puzzle constructor, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken.

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.”

Parker was out as far as USA Today went, but his relationship with Universal Uclick was still unclear. (Even now, despite inquiries, I’m unable to determine if he’s still associated with Universal Uclick.)

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.

And, as I said, the story has a happy ending. Constructor David Steinberg has been named the new editor of the Universal Crossword and Universal Sunday Crossword!

Although this means the end of The Puzzle Society Crossword that Steinberg was previously editing (as it is being folded into the Universal Crossword), there is a bright side, as it guarantees fresh, well-vetted puzzles for many more solvers from a young, respected voice in the field.

David’s resume is impressive, as the youngest constructor to be published in The LA Times crossword, and the second-youngest to be published in The NY Times. He was also named the crossword editor for the 24 newspapers associated with The Orange County Register.

Between those accomplishments, his work with the archival Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, and his prolific and creative crossword output, it’s obvious why Universal Uclick (now Andrew McMeels Universal) would want him for the job.

Several puzzles under his stewardship have already appeared, featuring constructors like Jim Peredo, Doug Peterson, and Samuel A. Donaldson!

David offered some details in an announcement email:

Each week I’m publishing eight themed Universal crosswords—seven 15x15s and one 21×21. Puzzles appear in all venues that formerly ran the Universal Crossword, as well as in those that ran the Puzzle Society Crossword.

Among the many new venues that run the 15x15s are The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Seattle Times; new venues that run both the 15x15s and the 21x21s include The Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Daily News, and The Miami Herald. The Universal Crossword is also truly universal, appearing in countries as far-flung as China, India, and Saudi Arabia!

We wish David the best of luck in his latest puzzly endeavor. We know the Universal Crossword is in great hands!


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Crossword History: An Updated Timeline

Back in 2013, we created a timeline of events from crossword history as part of our celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the crossword.

Although 105 isn’t as prestigious as 100, and the anniversary is technically tomorrow, we thought we’d honor the day this year by updating our comprehensive look at the long (yet surprisingly short) road it took to get to that marvelous centennial!

So, without further ado or folderol, we proudly present:

A Brief History of the Crossword (Updated)

16th – 11th century BC

Inscriptions from New Kingdom-era Egypt (Eighteenth to Twentieth Dynasties) of horizontal and vertical lines of text divided into equal squares, that can be read both across the rows and down the columns, are made. These inscriptions are later referred to by Egyptologists as “Egyptian crossword puzzles.”

19th century AD

Rudimentary crosswords, similar to word squares, begin appearing in England, and later elsewhere in Europe.

June 22, 1871

Future inventor of the crossword, Arthur Wynne, is born.

March 23, 1897

Future New York Times crossword editor Margaret Farrar is born.

February 25, 1907

Future New York Times crossword editor Will Weng is born.

December 21, 1913

The New York World publishes the first crossword, invented by Liverpool journalist Arthur Wynne. (The puzzle is originally known as a word-cross.)

January 6, 1916

Future New York Times crossword editor Eugene T. Maleska is born.

1920

Margaret Farrar is hired by The New York World as a secretary, but soon finds herself assisting Arthur Wynne with proofreading puzzles. Her puzzles soon exceed Wynne’s in popularity.

Colonel H.W. Hill publishes the first Crossword Dictionary.

1923

Margaret Farrar revises the cluing system for crosswords, sorting them into “Horizontal” and “Vertical” clues by number. (It wouldn’t be until the 1940s that the more familiar “Across” and “Down” terminology became the norm.)

1924

Margaret Farrar publishes the first book of crossword puzzles under contract for Richard L. Simon and Max Schuster, “The Cross-Word Puzzle Book.” It was an instant bestseller, launching Simon & Schuster as a major publisher. (Additional information available below the timeline.)

The Daily Express, founded in 1900, becomes the first newspaper in the United Kingdom to carry crosswords.

Crossword-themed novelty songs hit the airwaves as the puzzle craze intensifies, most notably “Crossword Mama, You Puzzle Me (But Papa’s Gonna Figure You Out).”

The Amateur Crossword Puzzle League of America, a self-appointed group of puzzle enthusiasts, lobbies for rotational symmetry in crosswords, which becomes the standard.

Solver Ruth Franc von Phul becomes a minor celebrity after winning The New York Herald-Tribune’s National All Comers Cross Word Puzzle Tournament at the age of 20. (She would win again 2 years later.)

January 15, 1925

“Felix All Puzzled,” the first animated short to feature a crossword, is released.

February 2, 1925

The crossword-fueled musical revue “Puzzles of 1925” opens on Broadway. It runs until May of 1925.

February 15, 1925

Disney releases a crossword-themed animated short, “Alice Solves the Puzzle.”

1926

The cryptic crossword is invented by Edward Powys Mathers, who publishes under the pseudonym Torquemada. He devises them for The Observer newspaper.

First reported instances of Braille crosswords, as newspapers mention Helen Keller solving Braille crosswords and recommending them to the blind.

1931

Dell Puzzle Magazines begins publishing.
(Dell Publishing itself was founded in 1921.)

1941

Dell Pocket Crossword Puzzles first published.
(The magazine continues to this day.)

February 15, 1942

The New York Times runs its first Sunday edition crossword. (Additional information available below the timeline.)

June 2, 1944

Physics teacher and crossword constructor Leonard Dawe is questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appear in London’s Daily Telegraph(Additional information available below the timeline.)

1950

The crossword becomes a daily feature in The New York Times.

August 26, 1952

Future New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz is born.

1968

Lyricist Stephen Sondheim begins creating cryptic crosswords for New York Magazine, helping introduce Americans to British-style crosswords.

1969

Will Weng succeeds Margaret Farrar as the second crossword editor for The New York Times.

1973

Penny Press is founded.

1977

Eugene T. Maleska succeeds Will Weng as the third crossword editor for The New York Times.

1978

First year of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, later featured in the documentary Wordplay. 149 contestants compete for the title in the first national crossword tournament since the 1930s.

1979

Howard Garns creates the modern Sudoku puzzle for Dell Magazines (under the name Number Place), the first pen-and-paper puzzle to rival the crossword in popularity (though this spike in popularity would occur decades later under the name Sudoku).

June 11, 1984

Margaret Farrar, while working on the 134th volume in Simon & Schuster’s crossword puzzle book series, passes away.

1993

Will Shortz succeeds Eugene T. Maleska as the fourth crossword editor for The New York Times.

November 5, 1996

One of the most clever and famous crosswords of all time is published, the election-preceding crossword where either BOB DOLE ELECTED or CLINTON ELECTED could read out, depending on the solver’s answers.

1998

The Wall Street Journal adds a crossword to its newspaper, and Mike Shenk is appointed editor.

June 23, 2006

Wordplay documentary hits theaters, featuring celebrity solvers of crosswords as well as the participants and organizers of the 2005 edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

February 29 – March 2, 2008

Thanks in part to the Wordplay documentary, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament outgrows its previous setting and moves to Brooklyn.

June 6, 2008

Matt Gaffney launches his Weekly Crossword Contest (MGWCC).

August 2008

Lollapuzzoola, a crossword-solving tournament with a more tongue-in-cheek, freeform style, launches in Jackson Heights, New York.

October 6, 2008

Patrick Blindauer’s famous dollar bill-inspired crossword puzzle is published.

2009

The city of Lvov, Ukraine, creates a crossword that spans an entire side of a 100-foot-tall residential building, with clues scattered around the city’s major landmarks and attractions. It’s awesome.

October 11, 2011

PuzzleNation.com goes live.

June 2012

David Steinberg launches the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, designed to compile a complete database of every New York Times crossword.

August 13, 2012

PuzzleNation Blog is launched.

June 14, 2013

Matt Gaffney celebrates five years of MGWCC,
stating that MGWCC will run for 1000 weeks
(which puts the final edition around August 6th, 2027).

December 21, 2013

The Crossword officially turns one hundred years old.


Additional information:

1924: The publishing house Simon & Schuster, agreed to a small (3,600-copy) run of a crossword puzzle book, prompted by founder Richard L. Simon’s aunt, who wanted to give such a book to a friend. It became “a runaway bestseller.”

In no time the publisher had to put the book back on press; through repeated printings, it sold more than 100,000 copies. Soon a second collection followed, and then a third and a fourth. In 1924 and 1925 the crossword books were among the top 10 nonfiction bestsellers for the year, besting, among others, The Autobiography of Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.

February 15, 1942: The New York Times initially regarded crosswords as frivolous, calling them “a primitive form of mental exercise”; the motivating impulse for the Times to finally run the puzzle (which took over 20 years even though its publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was a longtime crossword fan) appears to have been the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In a memo dated December 18, 1941, an editor conceded that the puzzle deserved space in the paper, considering what was happening elsewhere in the world and that readers might need something to occupy themselves during blackouts. The puzzle proved popular, and Sulzberger himself would author a Times puzzle before the year was out.

June 2, 1944: The words Omaha (codename for one of Normandy’s beaches), Utah (another Normandy beach codename), Overlord (the name for the plan to land at Normandy on June 6th), mulberry (nickname for a portable harbor built for D-Day), and Neptune (name for the naval portion of the invasion) all appeared in Daily Telegraph crosswords during the month preceding the D-Day landing.

This has been attributed to either an incredible coincidence or Dawe somehow overhearing these words (possibly slipped by soldiers involved) and incorporating them into puzzles unwittingly.


Do you have any suggestions for additions for our Crossword Timeline? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!

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A Writing Prompt with a Puzzle/Game Twist!

I’m always on the hunt for different ways that puzzles have found their way into pop culture and society in general, and it never ceases to amaze me how ubiquitous puzzles can be.

I recently stumbled across a puzzly reference in a list of writing prompts intended to spark some creative scribbling:

A long while back, the world came to an end, and with it your favourite newspaper. For years you’ve been filling the idle hours between scrounging and scavenging by solving crosswords puzzles. You’ve got 50 years worth of backlogs, but now you’ve completed every single one.

Every single one except the most recent one. The final one, that is. The crossword puzzle that never got released because the world ended.

So now you’re on a journey through the post-apocalyptic wasteland to find the last puzzle, and finally complete your collection.

A dystopian tale with a puzzly hook? Sounds like a can’t-miss YA book to me!

It’s an intriguing pitch — for a story or a roleplaying campaign — and one that reminds me of David Steinberg and the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, as they’re still on the hunt for 142 missing New York Times crosswords that weren’t published in New York.

And, naturally, since my mind has wandered to puzzle-and-game-fueled scribblings, I simply must include this board game-inspired take on the classic Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?” that a friend of mine penned. Enjoy!

Customer: Excuse me, do you sell this particular board game whose name I’ve forgotten, it’s like Parcheesi, only smaller and has a Pop-O-Matic dice rolling bubble in the middle.

Clerk: Are you looking for Trouble?

Customer: What? No! Sorry.

Clerk: Ah, we do have that. But without the dice popper.

Customer: What?

Clerk: Sorry.

Customer: No, it’s fine. I just want your opinion of the other game you have, if it’s no trouble.

Clerk: Well, it kind of is. According to some people.

Customer: Sorry?

Clerk: Yes.

Customer: You are fast becoming a source of aggravation.

Clerk: Oh, we have that one, too!

Customer: Argh! What. Game. Were you talking about before, and what’s your opinion?

Clerk: Sorry, and it’s no Trouble, if you ask me.

Customer: Well, great.

Clerk: So do you want that?

Customer: Huh?

Clerk: Or would you prefer Aggravation?

Customer: I’d rather you gave me a clue!

Clerk: Well that game’s nothing like Parcheesi.

Customer: Then why bring it up?

Clerk: I didn’t, you did!

Customer: Look, just… go.

Clerk: We don’t have that, but what about Othello?

Customer: ARGH!


As always, puzzles and games make everything better.

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Puzzle Plagiarism?

[Image courtesy of PlagiarismToday.com.]

Today’s post isn’t the usual Follow-Up Friday fare. Instead of returning to a previous subject, I’d like to discuss a topic that I expect I’ll be returning to in Follow-Up Friday form in the near future.

There is a certain pride and sense of accomplishment you experience as a puzzler when you come up with an exciting, innovative, unexpected theme idea for a puzzle, or when you pen a terrific clue for a word. Whether the wordplay is spot on or you’ve simply found a way to reinvigorate a tired bit of crosswordese, you feel like you’re adding something to the ever-expanding crossword lexicon, leaving a mark on the world of puzzles.

Unfortunately, there’s also the flip side of that coin, and those who would pilfer the hard work of others for their own gain. And in a story broken by the team at FiveThirtyEight, there may be something equally unsavory going on behind the scenes of the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword.

You can check out the full story, but in short, an enterprising programmer named Saul Pwanson created a searchable database of crossword puzzles that identified similarities in published crosswords, and it uncovered an irregularly high number of repeated entries, grids, and clues in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

More than 60 puzzles feature suspicious instances of repetition — the word “plagiarism” comes to mind, certainly — and it has sparked an investigation. In fact, only a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that the subject of the investigation, Parker himself, “has agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.”

I’ve heard that oversight of the USA Today crossword has already passed to another editor of note in the crossword world, constructor Fred Piscop (author of last Wednesday’s New York Times crossword), but I wonder if more examples of crossword duplication are lurking out there.

With resources like XWord Info and the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project out there, the history of crosswords is becoming more and more accessible and searchable. I can’t help but wonder if more scandals are lurking down the pike.


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Puzzle History: The first NYT crossword

[A sculpture masquerading as a stack of newspapers.]

I like to think of December as Crossword History Month. It’s rather fitting, seeing as the anniversary of the crossword is celebrated on December 21. (It’ll be 102 this year!)

So it’s only appropriate that David Steinberg, friend of the blog and mastermind of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, recently published some newly revealed information about another intriguing part of crossword history: the first crossword puzzle published by The New York Times.

On February 15, 1942, a puzzle by Charles Erlenkotter was the very first, starting a long tradition of proud puzzlehood for the Times. (He ended up having eight puzzles featured in the New York Times.) His puzzles were also published by The Washington Post, The New York Herald Tribune, and Simon & Schuster, among many others. In fact, dozens of puzzles are credited to Mr. Erlenkotter.

All of the information released by David gels nicely with the research I did for our Crossword History timeline. In a memo dated December 18, 1941, an editor for the New York Times conceded that the puzzle deserved space in the paper, considering what was happening elsewhere in the world, and that readers might need something to occupy themselves during blackouts.

David and his contact Donald Erlenkotter, grandnephew of Charles, theorize that Margaret Farrar was behind choosing Erlenkotter’s puzzle. When Farrar was recruited to be the first puzzle editor for the Times, she wouldn’t have been able to use one of her own puzzles as the inaugural puzzle for the newspaper, since that would conflict with her work with Simon & Schuster.

But no doubt Charles had heard of her through her S&S work, contacted her with his own puzzles, and voila! He becomes the first of many constructors to test the puzzly mettle of crossword fans for decades to come!

I’ve long said that one of the most amazing things about the Internet is that connections can now be made that no other technology would’ve allowed for, and this is one more example. Due diligence, keen research, marvelous resources, and the ability to reach out to others with similar interests has added one more vibrant piece to the mosaic of puzzle history.

It’s moments like this that make me the history buff I am.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: New Years Resolutions edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, with the new year freshly started, it seems all too appropriate to return to the subject of new years resolutions.

Last year, I asked several prominent puzzlers about their resolutions for 2014. It’s one year later, so let’s see how they did!

Constructor Robin Stears resolved “to interact more with puzzle fans…, to attend some crossword tournaments and trivia nights and spend some time getting to know the contestants and finding out what kinds of puzzles they like.” How did that resolution go for her?

Well, I really missed the boat on that resolution. There weren’t any crossword tournaments in my area, and I couldn’t convince my local librarian to host one. But thanks to PuzzleNation, I’ve been able to keep up with what’s new in the puzzle world. The hottest thing this year was the emoji; in fact, emoji were so popular, I made up a bunch of emoji crossword puzzles.

And since I couldn’t attend any tournaments in person, I scoured the Internet for puzzle blogs and puzzle forums, and still managed to interact with puzzle fans in the virtual world. Puzzle fans are the nicest people, and they always have great ideas.

Constructor (and field marshal of The Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project) David Steinberg resolved to “finish the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project’s litzing stage and to construct more Sunday crosswords.” How did that resolution go for him?

The Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project’s litzing stage is now complete. We’ve litzed all the available puzzles–16,077 of them! We’re missing 148 puzzles, though, most of which weren’t published in New York because of newspaper strikes.

The proofreading stage is well on its way — 24 years of proofread puzzles are now up on XWord Info. A two-month proofreading contest is currently in progress, and we’re almost done proofreading the 1969 puzzles. I’ve also been busy constructing more Sunday crosswords, one of which was recently accepted by the Times.

Puzzle poet Peter Valentine resolved to “get up early and finish the poem before anyone else is awake.” How did that resolution go?

Sadly I did terribly on that resolution and can probably count on one hand the number of times that happened. Nevertheless, still keeping up with them daily when kids are in school! (Holidays are a wash.)

Baffledazzle creator Rachel Happen made several resolutions for 2014. How did she do?

1. Exercise brain as much as body — I’d give myself an 11 out of 10 on this one. The first Baffledazzle Kickstarter campaign was a problem-solving obstacle course that demanded all sorts of brain agility! Now that I’m post-campaign, I’m back in puzzle research/development mode and maxing out my library card again. So yes, mission accomplished there.

2. Make puzzles for friends / family birthday gifts — I’d give myself 7 out of 10! I did make a ton of custom puzzly things for gifts though I missed a few months when I was in the thick of Baffledazzle production. Next year, summer-birthday-friends, there will be puzzles for all!

3. Try a new puzzle / puzzly game each month — Oh man I get a 3 out of 10 for this one, but maybe a 5 out of 10 for intention!! My pile of Springboks [jigsaw puzzles] has only gotten taller… sigh. 😉

4. Make puzzles the new black — Ah, ∞ out of 10. This one’s a life-long mission!! Full speed ahead into another year of puzzling!


What about you, fellow puzzlers? Did you make any resolutions this year, puzzly or not? Let me know! I’d love to hear about them!

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