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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Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Ruts

It’s always fun to find puzzles in unexpected places, so when friend of the blog Jen Cunningham sent me the picture above of a single with a crossword aesthetic, I was immediately intrigued.

I’d never heard of the band or the song, but as a long-time fan of ska music — a mix of Jamaican reggae, rock, and blues, heavy on the horns, very jazzy and upbeat — I initially suspected a ska influence, given the crossword pattern.

You see, the mix of black and white squares in crosswords is very reminiscent of the checkerboard pattern that is synonymous with both two-tone ska and third wave ska.

[Image courtesy of Gattuso.org.]

My suspicions turned out to be correct when I began investigating the record itself.

“Staring at the Rude Boys” was the fifth single released by The Ruts, a British band from the late ’70s and early ’80s that mixed punk and reggae-infused ska elements. Although the band never made a splash in the United States, they had a UK Top Ten hit with “Babylon’s Burning” in 1979.

And as it turns out, the crossword design is part of an actual crossword, complete with clues related to the band and the single, as well as some random obscurities meant to poke fun at the challenging clues featured by some crossword outlets.

[Image courtesy of Punky Gibbon. Click the link for a larger
version, though honestly, it’s not much easier to read.]

Apparently, the crossword aesthetic was part of a marketing campaign, complete with a contest to see who could solve the crossword!

According to the website Punky Gibbon:

The single was promoted with a crossword competition that featured on the front and rear cover of the sleeve. First prize was a night out with the band (“You win – they pay”). One lucky punter secured this great opportunity to see his heroes in the flesh…

[Image courtesy of Punky Gibbon.]

Once again, we discover that there’s virtually no corner of pop culture that hasn’t been touched by puzzles in some way, shape, or form. And not only did I get to explore a curious diversion in puzzly history, but I got to do so while listening to one of my favorite genres of music.

Puzzles… is there anything they can’t do?


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New Puzzle Book Roundup!

It’s been a while since we’ve done a roundup of new puzzle books and packets available from top constructors, so I reached out to the puzzle community on Twitter and asked for recommendations for my fellow PuzzleNationers! Let’s see what we’ve got!


First off, Patrick Blindauer has a new PuzzleFest available, and this one is Broadway-themed!

Now, if you’re not theater-savvy, don’t worry. You’re not required to know anything about Broadway, it’s simply the unifying link between all the themed puzzles. So there’s some theatrical wordplay afoot!

Click here for more information. Patrick is charging $20 for a downloadable and easily printable PDF, and based on his track record of terrific PuzzleFests, this should be another great one!

Along a similar line, the puzzles from both this year’s Bryant Park puzzle tournament and last year’s tournament are available for download as a package deal for only $10! You can’t go wrong with two year’s worth of puzzles for such a low price!

Turning our attention to puzzle books, Foggy Brume has a collection of One-Word Word Searches available.

It sounds simple. All you have to do is find one word in a field of letters. How hard could that be? Well, it’s more challenging than you might expect!

This puzzle book is priced to move at $7.50 on Amazon.

Friend of the blog Cynthia Morris has a new edition in her long-running American Acrostics puzzle book series, and Volume 5 is all about American holidays and celebrations!

Did you know there’s a special day set aside each year to be in a bad mood? Or a day to do everything in reverse? There’s even a day to celebrate ice cream…

This puzzle book will run you $9.95 on Amazon.

And finally, puzzle book master Pierre Berloquin has a collection of puzzles centered around the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in Victorian London. Based on the classic novels and short stories, the world of Holmes comes alive with all sorts of puzzly fun wrapped in Sherlockian trappings.

This puzzle book and walk down Memory Lane for mystery fans is available on Amazon for $14.95.

Hopefully one of these puzzle books or puzzle sets piques your interest, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers! Let us know if you snap any of them up!


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A long time ago, in a corn maze far, far away…

Corn mazes are a wonderful puzzly tradition synonymous with the arrival of Fall and the end of Summer.

And one particular corn maze in Evansville, Indiana, has captured the attention of the masses with one lifelong Star Wars fan’s tribute to Carrie Fisher, the actress who portrayed Princess Leia Organa, who sadly passed away last year.

The maze was designed by Jeremy Goebel of Goebel Farms, who has been responsible for planning and executing corn maze designs as part of his duties on the farm — he’s been there 16 years! His previous maze designs include Darth Vader, the film The Force Awakens, and the starship USS Enterprise from the Star Trek series.

Each design is quite time-consuming to bring to life. Planting the Carrie Fisher design took 40 minutes — amazingly fast, courtesy of a tractor computer and GPS coordinates — and the initial plan dates back to February.

From an article in The Evansville Courier & Press:

The process used to be much more labor-intensive. The first year the Goebel family decided to make a corn maze they cut the rows by hand in mid-August, when the corn was tall and strong.

“It was not a great time to make a maze,” he said.

The second year they cut out the design earlier. The process involved a lot of guesswork. Goebel had to measure out the pathways in the field as he went.

“The third year we started using GPS,” Goebel said.

The maze is now open to the public for their enjoyment. As both a Star Wars fan and a maze enthusiast, this is the perfect puzzly way to combine those worlds in a satisfying fashion for all.

Do you know of any other dazzling corn mazes that will be challenging fellow puzzlers this Autumn, PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments below!


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The Crossword From Hell

This is an innocuous looking grid. A smattering of black squares. Classic diagonal symmetry. At first glance, this could be any crossword.

But this isn’t any crossword. This is The Crossword From Hell.

A brilliantly tongue-in-cheek takedown of obscure cluing and other frustrating puzzle conventions, The Crossword From Hell challenges you to come up with, among other things:

–The opposite of “forty”
–Person who did not speak quote
–Color I am thinking of
–Color I will be thinking of for tomorrow’s puzzle
–He batted .219 in 1953
–“… a ______” (Keats)

I have to confess, I love this puzzle. The mix of fill-in-the-blank clues that could be ANYTHING and the incredibly obscure, yet specific, requests for trivial minutiae delightfully skewer the worst crossword constructing practices, particularly crosswordese.

This parody puzzle is the creation of Dr. Karl M. Petruso, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. I reached out to Dr. Petruso regarding his hilariously snarky rejoinder to the puzzle community, and here’s what he had to say about the puzzle:

Yes, that puzzle is my only foray into crossword composition (well, fake composition, truth be told. I did field at least one email from somebody who said he had solved all the clues but one, and he believed that I cheated on that word. I suspected he was pulling my leg…).

Since my grad school days in the ’70s I have been a snooty puzzle solver: only the NYT puzzle, and even then, nothing earlier than Thursday, always in ink. I was able to solve maybe a third of the Saturday puzzles, but it took me well into the next week to do it. I love the clever themes and wordplay in the Sunday puzzles, and could often complete them, but by no means every time.

I decided to take my frustrations out on clues that were at once obscure and too much trouble for someone as lazy as me to remember the words for. Creating that puzzle was very satisfying, kind of like an exorcism or something. I don’t know. I have always thought the web is the perfect place to post snark and work out dark impulses.

Perhaps the funniest thing about this exaggerated crossword is that, to many who struggle with tougher crosswords, it probably doesn’t seem exaggerated at all.

Great crossword puzzles manage to be clever and challenging while sidestepping many of the pitfalls featured in The Crossword From Hell. But this is a wonderfully funny reminder of what you should strive NOT to do.

A huge thank you to Dr. Petruso for his time AND his creative efforts on behalf of puzzlers everywhere.


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A Barrage of Brain Teasers!

[Image courtesy of SharpBrains.com.]

One of our favorite pastimes here on PuzzleNation Blog is cracking brain teasers. From riddles to logic problems, we accept challenges from all comers, be they TV detectives or fellow PuzzleNationers!

I got an email a few days ago from a reader who needed help unraveling a few brain teasers from a list she found online. She was proud to have solved most of them, but a few had eluded her.

We’re always happy to assist a fellow puzzler, so let’s take a look at those brain teasers!


In case you want to try them for yourself before we reveal the answers and how to solve each puzzle, I’ll list the original puzzles here and put a nice spoiler-safe break between the questions and the answers.

QUESTION 1: If you have a 7-minute hourglass and an 11-minute hourlass, how can you boil an egg for exactly 15 minutes?

QUESTION 2: Name the next number in the following sequence: 1, 11, 21, 1211, 111221, 312211, _____.

QUESTION 3: Four people want to cross a river, but the only option is a narrow bridge. The bridge can only support two people at a time. It’s nighttime, and the group has one torch, which they’ll need to use every time they cross the bridge. Person A can cross the bridge in 1 minute, Person B in 2 minutes, Person C in 5 minutes, and Person D in 8 minutes. When two people cross the bridge together, they must move at the slower person’s pace. Can all four get across the bridge in 15 minutes or less?

QUESTION 4: During a recent census, a man told a census taker that he had three children. When asked their ages, he replied, “The product of their ages is 72. The sum of their ages is the same as my house number.” The census taker ran to the man’s front door and looked at the house number. “I still can’t tell,” she complained. The man replied, “Oh, that’s right, I forgot to tell you that the oldest one likes chocolate pudding.” The census taker then promptly wrote down the ages of all three children. How old are they?

QUESTION 5: There are five bags of gold that all look identical, and each contains ten gold pieces. One of the five bags has fake gold, though. All five bags are identical, and the real gold and fake gold are identical in every way, except the pieces of fake gold each weigh 1.1 grams and the pieces of real gold each weigh 1 gram. You have a perfectly accurate digital scale available to you, but you can only use it once. How do you determine which bag has the fake gold?


[Image courtesy of AwesomeJelly.com.]

Okay, here’s your spoiler alert warning before we start unraveling these brain teasers.

So if you don’t want to see them, turn away now!

Last chance!

Ready? Okay, here we go!


[Image courtesy of Just Hourglasses.com.]

QUESTION 1: If you have a 7-minute hourglass and an 11-minute hourlass, how can you boil an egg for exactly 15 minutes?

A variation on the two jugs of water puzzle we’ve covered before, this puzzle is basically some simple math, though you need to be a little abstract with it.

  • Step 1: Start boiling the egg and flip over both hourglasses.
  • Step 2: When the 7-minute hourglass runs out, flip it over to start it again. (That’s 7 minutes boiling.)
  • Step 3: When the 11-minute hourglass runs out, the 7-minute hourglass has been running for 4 minutes. Flip it over again. (That’s 11 minutes boiling.)
  • Step 4: When the 7-minute hourglass runs out, another 4 minutes has passed, and you’ve got your 15 minutes of egg-boiling time.

QUESTION 2: Name the next number in the following sequence: 1, 11, 21, 1211, 111221, 312211, _____.

The answer is 13112221. This looks like a math or a pattern-matching puzzle, but it’s far more literal than that.

Each subsequent number describes the number before it. 11, for instance, isn’t eleven, it’s one one, meaning a single one, representing the number before it, 1.

The third number, 21, isn’t twenty-one, it’s “two one,” meaning the previous number consists of two ones, aka 11.

The fourth number, 1211, translates to “one two, one one,” or 21. The fifth number, 111221, becomes “one one, one two, two one.” And the sixth, 312211, becomes “three one, two two, one one.”

So, the number we supplied, 13112221, is “one three, one one, two two, two one.”


[Image courtesy of Do Puzzles.]

QUESTION 3: Four people want to cross a river, but the only option is a narrow bridge. The bridge can only support two people at a time. It’s nighttime, and the group has one torch, which they’ll need to use every time they cross the bridge. Person A can cross the bridge in 1 minute, Person B in 2 minutes, Person C in 5 minutes, and Person D in 8 minutes. When two people cross the bridge together, they must move at the slower person’s pace. Can all four get across the bridge in 15 minutes or less?

Yes, you can get all four across the bridge in 15 minutes.

This one’s a little tougher, because people have to cross the bridge in both directions so that the torch remains in play. Also, there’s that pesky Person D, who takes so long to get across.

So what’s the most time-efficient way to get Person D across? You’d think it would be so send D across with Person A, so that way, you lose 8 minutes with D, but only 1 minute going back with the torch with A. But that means only 6 minutes remain to get A, B, and C across. If you send A and C together, that’s 5 minutes across with C, and 1 minute back with A, and there’s your 15 minutes gone, and A and B aren’t across.

So the only logical conclusion is to send C and D across together. That’s 8 minutes down. But if you send C back down, that’s another 5 minutes gone, and there’s no time to bring A, B, and C back across in time.

So, C and D have to cross together, but someone faster has to bring the torch back. And suddenly, a plan comes together.

  • Step 1: A and B cross the bridge, which takes 2 minutes. A brings the torch back across in 1 minute. Total time used so far: 3 minutes.
  • Step 2: C and D cross the bridge, which takes 8 minutes. B brings the torch back across in 2 minutes. Total time used so far: 13 minutes.
  • Step 3: A and B cross the bridge again, which takes 2 minutes. Total time used: 15 minutes.

(It technically doesn’t matter if A returns first and B returns second or if B returns first and A returns second, so long as they are the two returning the torch.)


QUESTION 4: During a recent census, a man told a census taker that he had three children. When asked their ages, he replied, “The product of their ages is 72. The sum of their ages is the same as my house number.” The census taker ran to the man’s front door and looked at the house number. “I still can’t tell,” she complained. The man replied, “Oh, that’s right, I forgot to tell you that the oldest one likes chocolate pudding.” The census taker then promptly wrote down the ages of all three children. How old are they?

Their ages are 3, 3, and 8.

Let’s pull the relevant information from this puzzle to get started. There are three children, and the product of their ages is 72.

So let’s make a list of all the three-digit combinations that, when multiplied, equal 72: 1-1-72, 1-2-36, 1-3-24, 1-4-18, 1-6-12, 1-8-9, 2-2-18, 2-3-12, 2-4-9, 2-6-6, 3-3-8, 3-4-6. We can’t eliminate any of them, because we don’t know how old the man is, so his children could be any age.

But remember, after being told that the sum of the children’s ages is the same as the house number, the census taker looks at the man’s house number, and says, “I still can’t tell.” That tells us that the sum is important.

Let’s make a list of all the sums of those three-digit combinations: 74, 39, 28, 23, 19, 18, 22, 17, 15, 14, 14, 13.

The census taker doesn’t know their ages at this point. Which means that the sum has multiple possible combinations. After all, if there was only one combination that formed the same number as the house number, the census taker would know.

And there is only one sum that appears on our list more than once: 14.

So the two possible combinations are 2-6-6 and 3-3-8.

The chocolate pudding clue is the deciding fact. The oldest child likes chocolate pudding. Only 3-3-8 has an oldest child, so 3-3-8 is our answer.


[Image courtesy of Indy Props.com.]

QUESTION 5: There are five bags of gold that all look identical, and each contains ten gold pieces. One of the five bags has fake gold, though. All five bags are identical, and the real gold and fake gold are identical in every way, except the pieces of fake gold each weigh 1.1 grams and the pieces of real gold each weigh 1 gram. You have a perfectly accurate digital scale available to you, but you can only use it once. How do you determine which bag has the fake gold?

With only one chance to use the scale, you need to maximize how much information you can glean from the scale. That means you need a gold sample from at lesst four bags (because if they all turn out to have real gold, then the fifth must be fake). But, for the sake of argument, let’s pull samples from all five bags.

How do we do this? If we pull one coin from each bag, there’s no way to distinguish which bag has the fake gold. But we can use the variance in weight to our advantage. That .1 difference helps us.

Since all the real gold will only show up before the decimal point, picking a different number of coins from each bag will help us differentiate which bag has the fake gold, because the number after the decimal point will vary.

For instance, if you take 1 coin from the first bag, 2 coins from the second, 3 coins from the third, 4 coins from the fourth, and 5 coins from the fifth, you’re covered. If the fake gold is in the first bag, your scale’s reading will end in .1, because only one coin is off. If the fake gold is in the second bag, your scale’s reading will end in .2, because two coins are off. And so on.


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