75 Years of New York Times Crosswords!

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of The New York Times publishing its first crossword, and I thought I’d delve into NYT crossword history a bit to commemorate this event!

On February 15, 1942, The New York Times ran its first Sunday edition crossword. (The daily feature as we know it wouldn’t come into effect until 1950.)

But, you might be thinking to yourself, Arthur Wynne’s “word-cross” first appeared in the New York World in 1913. Simon & Schuster published The Cross-Word Puzzle Book, edited by Margaret Farrar, in 1924. What took The New York Times so long to catch on?

Truth be told, they didn’t think much of crosswords back then.

“Scarcely recovered from the form of temporary madness that made so many people pay enormous prices for mahjongg sets, about the same persons now are committing the same sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.”

The article goes on to call crosswords “a primitive form of mental exercise” and compare their value to that of so-called brain teasers that should be solved by schoolchildren in 30 seconds or less. A pretty harsh assessment, overall.

So, what changed their minds regarding crosswords?

Well, World War II happened.

“I don’t think I have to sell you on the increased demand for this type of pastime in an increasingly worried world,” wrote Margaret Farrar, the first crossword editor of The Times, in a memo to Lester Markel, the Sunday editor, after the Pearl Harbor attack. “You can’t think of your troubles while solving a crossword.”

In a memo dated December 18, 1941, Markel 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 Arthur Hays Sulzberger — the publisher of the New York Times and a longtime crossword fan himself — would author a Times puzzle before the year was out.

And so now, only a few years after the crossword itself celebrated its centennial, the most famous crossword outlet in the world is celebrating three-quarters of a century, along with a wonderful legacy of innovation, wordplay, and creativity.

To mark the occasion, The Times is going all out. Not only did they publish a crossword on Tuesday by the youngest constructor in NYT history — 13-year-old Daniel Larsen — but over the course of the year, they’ll be publishing collaborations between top constructors and celebrity solvers!

The first, a feast of a collab between Patrick Blindauer and actor Jesse Eisenberg, was published yesterday.

So, we here at PuzzleNation tip our hat to not only the current crew at The New York Times crossword, but all of the editors, constructors, creators, and collaborators who have contributed to a true crossword institution. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

[For more on the 75th anniversary, please check out Deb Amlen’s wonderful piece here (from which I nabbed that Margaret Farrar quote).]


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The Puzzle of the Bard

William Shakespeare is a name we all know well. We’ve studied his works in school, used words and phrases he coined or popularized, and we’ve seen numerous films, TV shows, and other adaptations inspired by his writing.

But for more than two centuries, there has been a great deal of debate over whether the man known as William Shakespeare actually wrote all of the brilliant works for which he is acclaimed.

There are whole societies dedicated to either rooting out the truth or proffering their candidate for who really wrote the works of Shakespeare. Many names are bandied about, including a who’s who of luminaries at the time, like Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Queen Elizabeth I, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, Anne Hathaway, Sir Walter Raleigh, and perhaps most ardently, Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford.

[Image courtesy of The Truth About Shakespeare.]

Now, granted, there’s plenty to suggest Shakespeare collaborated with other writers on some of his works, but we’re not talking about collaboration here. We’re talking about ghostwriting some of the most famous works in human history.

But, you may be asking, other than a shared love of wordplay, what does the Shakespearean authorship question have to do with puzzles?

I’m glad you asked.

Over the years, several theorists have reported finding secret codes or ciphers in the text of Shakespeare’s works which hinted toward the true author.

Samuel Morse, a man who knows one or two things about codes, discussed how Sir Francis Bacon had created such codes, probably as part of his spy work, perhaps even going so far as to create an encrypted signature of sorts that appears in multiple Shakespeare works.

According to a BBC America article on the subject:

One scholar at the time went so far as to produce an enormous “cipher wheel” composed of a 1000-foot piece of cloth that contained the texts of Shakespeare and others for easy comparison and decryption. He claimed that by deciphering codes, he’d discovered the location of a box, buried under the Wye River, that contained documents that would prove Sir Francis’s authorship. But a dredging of the area came up with nothing.

[Orville Ward Owen’s cipher wheel. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Now, there’s little doubt that Bacon was a code master, but there’s equally little evidence that he wrote the works of Shakespeare.

Of course, if there are codes in those works, perhaps Shakespeare placed them there himself.

According to a theory by scholar Clare Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith, Shakespeare’s careful and curious word choices were intended to foment subversive political messages and advance his own agenda of strong Catholic beliefs.

Constancy in love was Shakespeare’s way of alluding to the importance of a true faith in the ‘old religion’, she says. More specifically, his puns and metaphors often circled around certain key phrases. For instance, to be ‘sunburned’ or ‘tanned’, as are his heroines Viola, Imogen and Portia, was to be close to God and so understood as a true Catholic.

[Image courtesy of Amazon.com.]

It’s amazing that we know so little about someone so influential. And it’s only natural that we try to fill in the blanks with our own theorists, be they explanations of Shakespeare’s impressive knowledge or possibilities of alternative authorship.

The man himself is a puzzle, and that is irresistible to some, myself included. Are Shakespeare the man and Shakespeare the bard one and the same?

As it turns out, that question might finally have an answer, thanks to the sleuthing of Dr. Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

The story begins with Shakespeare’s father:

John Shakespeare, from Stratford-upon-Avon, was ambitious to rise in the world. He was certainly not the first Englishman keen to put his origins as a provincial tradesman behind him. Among his contemporaries in Stratford, he was a figure of fun for his social climbing. English class snobbery has a long pedigree.

His son, who would continue the quest for official recognition after his father’s death, also attracted metropolitan disdain as “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers”. In 1601, after his father’s death, Shakespeare the upstart returned to the college of arms to renew the family application for a coat of arms.

He had made a small fortune in the theatre, and was buying property in and around Stratford. Now he set out to consolidate his reputation as a “Gentleman”. Under the rules that governed life at the court of Elizabeth I, only the Queen’s heralds could grant this wish.

[Image courtesy of The Shakespeare Blog.]

And it’s this application for a family coat of arms that provides the connective tissue between the man and the bard. “They point to someone actively involved in defining and defending his legacy in 1602, shortly after his father’s death,” according to Wolfe.

But whether there are codes lurking in the Bard’s works or not, the mystery of the man himself might be the greatest puzzle of all.


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PuzzleNation Book Review: Tetris: The Games People Play

Welcome to another installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews!

All of the books discussed and/or reviewed in PNBR articles are either directly or indirectly related to the world of puzzling, and hopefully you’ll find something to tickle your literary fancy in this entry or the entries to come.

Let’s get started!

The subject of today’s book review is Box Brown’s graphic novel Tetris: The Games People Play.

[Image courtesy of Macmillan.]

Tetris was a masterpiece right out of the gate. Simple, elegant, and infinitely replayable, it would go on to become one of the most beloved video games in history. And that popularity, that universal charm, sparked a bidding war unlike anything the video game world has ever seen. With secret meetings, dubious contracts, language barriers, and the involvement of the suffocating Soviet regime, it was a recipe for sitcom-style misunderstandings on a global scale.

Tetris: The Games People Play brings the whole ridiculous story to life with immense charm and style. From the creation of Alexey Pajitnov’s delightfully addictive brainchild to the globe-spanning race that ensued as production rights went international, this is a story as convoluted and madcap as it is epic.

Although the drawings accompanying the story are relatively simple, the large cast of characters — from executives and game designers to members of the Soviet government — never feels overwhelming or confusing.

[Image courtesy of DownTheTubes.net.]

Illustrator and author Box Brown brings the story to life with the same panache and colorful style that made his visual biography of Andre the Giant such a warm, enjoyable read. The rounded edges and busy frames help sell both the silliness and chaos of the story, and the mix of yellow, black, and white shading in each illustration harkens back to the earliest days of video games.

(The yellow feels especially inspired, given how easily the story could’ve bogged down in the omnipresent gray tones of Soviet society or the bureaucratic doubletalk that typifies business negotiations.)

Most importantly, Brown never allows readers to lose sight of Alexey’s role as creator and keeper of the faith, a man who, under one of the most oppressive regimes in history, brought to life a game that continues to delight generations of fans.

As entertaining as it is insightful, Tetris: The Games People Play is a fun, fascinating read.

[Tetris: The Games People Play is available in paperback wherever books are sold.]


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We Found Some Ancient Puzzly Graffiti!

[Image courtesy of Patheos.com.]

The other day, I was perusing Crossword Kathy’s daily news post, and I stumbled across an article with this provocative title: “Ancient crossword puzzle found in Smyrna

Naturally, I clicked, being something of a puzzle historian. (I also looked up “Smyrna” because I wasn’t sure precisely where that is. Turns out it was an ancient Greek city, now known as Izmir, a city in Turkey.)

This puzzle was found on the wall of an old basilica in the marketplace (or agora, for the crossword fans in the audience), and dates back to somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 years old.

[Image courtesy of Patheos.com.]

According to the person in charge of the excavations, Akin Ersoy:

It looks like an acrostic. The same words are defined both top to bottom and left to right in five columns. The word ‘logos’ in the center is said to have been used by a Christian group to communicate with each other during times of oppression. We want to consider this as a puzzle because there are benches in front of these wall paintings. The lives of those who were working here are depicted in these paintings.

Unfortunately, calling this a crossword is a bit of a misnomer. The puzzle is a 5×5 grid where the entries read both across and down. This isn’t a crossword, it’s a word square.

[Pictured above is perhaps the most famous word square in history,
known as the Sator Square. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

The Smyrna word square consists of five words, and some researchers believe there’s a Christian message or some religious intent behind the square.

[The full text of the Smyrna square.
Image courtesy of Cryptotheology.wordpress.com.]

The middle word, Logos, for instance, is shaped in a cross, and is believed to represent the incarnation and work of Christ.

But whether this is a religious message or simply some impressive puzzling that has stood the test of time, it’s fascinating to turn up more examples that puzzles in some shape or form have been with us not only for centuries, but for millennia.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: The Oregon Trail Card Game

For gamers and puzzlers of a certain age, there are many fond memories of a certain historical journey that tested your wits, your luck, your tactical skills, and your endurance. I’m speaking, of course, of The Oregon Trail, a computer-game classic that not only taught millions of young minds about the perilous journey, but probably introduced most of them to the concept of death by dysentery.

Ick.

For those not in the know, The Oregon Trail was a computer game designed to explore 19th-century pioneer life on the long journey between Independence, Missouri, and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Players would manage food, supplies, and the pace of the trek in their covered wagon, occasionally dealing with dangers like disease, thieves, broken equipment, accidents, and treacherous rivers to cross.

A classic in the eyes of many, this beloved game has made the jump from the digital realm to the analog one with a card-game variation released this year by Pressman Toys.

Pressman Toys have outdone themselves with this nostalgia-fueled adaptation. The trail cards themselves evoke the classic black-and-green screen of old-school computers, while the supply and calamity cards are pixelated in a style more akin to 8-bit video games.

I daresay, though, that the card game is harder than the computer game. I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a game that stacks the deck against the player quite so brutally.

To make the journey to Oregon successfully, players must traverse 50 trail cards, avoiding illness and unpleasant twists of fate along the way (represented by the calamity cards that come up all too often), managing meager supplies, and testing their luck against river crossings (where a roll of the die determines your fate).

This quickly becomes a strategic battle of resource management, trying to hold onto fort and town cards for as long as possible (since they provide some of the rare opportunities to gain new supplies), playing trail cards (which must link up in a continuous line), and deciding whether it’s better to spend medicine and clean water supplies on saving fellow players stricken by illness or letting players die and hoarding supplies for the survivors.

I’ve played the game a few times now — each session has lasted about 30 minutes, with the team failing to reach Oregon both times (though we made it more than halfway on the second try) — and it remains an engaging, enjoyable play experience. Yes, it can be disheartening to see a player die early on (as I did by rattlesnake bite in my very first turn one game), but the group play experience — pitting all of you against the game itself — is only enhanced by the difficulty.

There are some aspects of the computer game — hunting, for instance — missing from the card-game experience, but I suspect the development of simple house rules (like spending a bullet card and letting a handful of dice rolls determine your success hunting, to more closely recreate the computer game’s hunting mechanic, for instance) would enrich the gameplay.

Whether you’re a fan of the classic computer game or a newcomer to the franchise, I suspect The Oregon Trail will delight you (and challenge you!) like few card games ever have.

[The Oregon Trail Card Game is available at Target stores and through online outlets.]


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Vikings: Warriors in Life, Warriors in Dice

[Image courtesy of Arlington Viking Fest.]

Board games have been around a long time, longer than most people realize. Chess can be traced back to the 7th century in India, and Go has been played in China for more than 5,500 years!

And it turns out that board games were important to the Vikings as well. Not only were they valued in life, but in the afterlife as well.

An article in the UK’s Daily Mail details the discovery of a Viking grave site known as a boat burial where board games were among the items interred with the dead. And apparently, this was not an uncommon occurrence.

[Image courtesy of The Times.]

From the article:

Mark Hall, a curator at Perth Museum and Art Gallery, has published a new study on Viking board game burials across Northern Europe.

He says there have been 36 burials where board games of some description have been found in the graves around Northern Europe.

This grave site, dating back to the 9th century, grants intriguing insight into how the Vikings viewed board games as a learning tool. After all, board games require strategy and a level of initiative, which are both qualities found in accomplished Viking warriors, so it’s believed that including a board game among the effects of the deceased signals not only their skill and status as a warrior, but their preparedness for the afterlife itself.

So what sorts of games did the Vikings play?

The game pieces were used in multiple games. Researchers believe the dice were used in a game called tabulal alea, which is reminiscent of backgammon.

Many of the bigger pieces were used in a chess-like game known as hnefatafl. In hnefatafl, each player has a king protected by defender pieces, and the goal is for your king to reach the edge of the board before the other player takes him out.

Just imagine what the Vikings could have learned from a game like Risk.

[This story was brought to my attention by Kim Vandenbroucke.]


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