A Crossword Roundup: 10,000 Days of Shortz, The Crossword Mysteries, and ACPT!

Hello crossword fans! In today’s post I just wanted to offer a quick little roundup of crossword-related items and stories, so I’ve got three for you today.

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Firstly, I’d like to congratulate Will Shortz on editing his 10,000th crossword! (Approximately. It’s actually his 10,000th day as editor, which is still a very impressive number!)

Friend of the blog Deb Amlen interviewed Will to mark the occasion, and it offers a nice little snapshot of Will’s career as editor of The New York Times crossword, as well as some insight into the man behind the puzzle.

There are also some intriguing stats included in the interview. This one caught my eye:

The Times is publishing more teen constructors than ever before. In the whole history of the Times Crossword up to me, only six teenagers are known to have had crosswords in the paper. I’ve published 46 teens so far, with two more coming up this month.

46 teens! That’s amazing.

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Of course, the part that’s getting a lot of traction online is this quote: “I read all but one of the daily crossword blogs”

Now, I hesitate to bring this part up, because there’s virtually no way to discuss it without sounding like I’m picking a side. It’s not hard to deduce what daily blog Will is referring to here — plenty of others have made the connection already — and the presumed writer of that blog responded to the comment in typically salty fashion, as did his many fans and readers.

I choose not to wade into that particularly turbulent Internet space, which is why I’m not naming names or providing links. If you are that interested, it’s not hard to find them.

But I DO want to say that there are plenty of terrific crossword blogs out there, big and small, that all add to the daily crossword discussion in important ways. Some are more critical than others. Some are acerbic to the point of being fairly unpleasant to read regularly. But there’s definitely a blog out there about the Times daily crossword for you.

In any case, congratulations to Will Shortz on 10,000 days as the most recognizable name in crosswords. Other than Brian Eno, Yoko Ono, Bobby Orr, Mel Ott, Rip Torn, Oona Chaplin…

Anyway, congrats on being A recognizable name in crosswords. =)

Speaking of recognizable names and crosswords, the fifth Crossword Mysteries movie will be premiering Sunday night, April 11th, at 8 PM Eastern! It is entitled Riddle Me Dead, and here’s the plot synopsis:

Tess gets invited to be part of a popular game show, but when the host is unexpectedly murdered, she and Detective Logan O’Connor try to discover who was behind it all.

Not only that, but Hallmark Movies & Mysteries is running a Crossword Mysteries marathon all day, starting at noon, so you can catch up on all things Tess Harper and Logan O’Connor before the newest entry in the series debuts that night!

Of course, you could also just read the four posts about the movies that I’ve written for the blog here, here, here, and here. Just saying.

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Finally, I’ll cap off this trifecta of crossword-related notes by reminding you that registration is open for this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament! The tournament is running from April 23rd through the 25th, complete with all sorts of events!

The tournament has gone virtual this year, so if you’ve ever thought about entering the tournament and testing your puzzly skills, this is the perfect opportunity for you. The deadline to register is Friday, April 23rd, noon Eastern.

There are sample puzzles to try out as well!

Will you be attending ACPT this year, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Or tuning in for the latest Crossword Mysteries film? What do you think of 10,000 days of Will Shortz-edited NYT crosswords? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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How Outdated Is Too Outdated in Crosswords?

One of the biggest complaints levied at crosswords in general involves the vocabulary often employed to fill the grid.

Whether you call it crosswordese, obscure trivia, outdated vocabulary, or intentional gatekeeping through language, it’s a problem some solvers never overcome, contributing to a negative, exclusionary reputation for crosswords.

Let’s talk about the two extremes first. I genuinely believe that there’s no intentional gatekeeping in crosswords. There are ongoing efforts to include more women, more voices of color, and more LGBTQIA+ creators in construction, and even constructing equipment is becoming more affordable through efforts like Crossworthy Construct.

But not knowing common crossword parlance is a barrier to enjoying crosswords.

There is work to put in for new solvers to get up to speed in crosswords. Those common crossword words and names that we take for granted — ETUI, ALEE, OLIO, ARIA, ICER, and more — represent the combined breadth and history of grid construction in crosswords. Those are the words you learn as part of your process to become a better solver, building a personal lexicon of crosswordese.

So where is the line? When does something pass from “charmingly difficult crosswordese” to “off-putting irrelevancy”?

In essence, how obscure is too obscure? How long can an old clue/entry linger without feeling outdated or exclusionary to new solvers?

It’s a good question, one that’s not not so easy to answer.

How long do we refer to “vamp” THEDA BARA, when her heyday was farther and farther back with every passing day?

How long do we continue to reference the Aral Sea, considering that there practically is no Aral Sea anymore? It’s mostly the Aralkum Desert now.

When it becomes part of history, is it acceptable? After all, calling Tokyo “Edo” or referring to Iran as “Persia, once” happens all the time.

Obviously, outdated terminology or obscure words aren’t as big an issue in crosswords as genuinely exclusionary and offensive entries, but it’s still a topic worth discussing, because it prevents the community from growing.

New entries, fresh entries, entries that speak to other members of the population… they have incredible value. Seeing yourself and your culture, your heroes, your history, your slang represented in crosswords builds a bond between you and the art of puzzling itself.

I’m sure outdated references and obscurities will never truly go away. Some of those letter combinations are just too valuable to constructors.

But it will be interesting to see how crosswordese and those potentially gatekeeping words change and evolve as we press forward.

Maybe in 30 or 40 years, “crosswordese” as a whole will feel more inclusive. One can only hope.


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Puzzling Virtually at Norwescon 43!

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Over the weekend, I participated in an online version of the celebrated sci-fi, fantasy, and horror convention Norwescon.

Although many of the convention’s panels and events have a writerly focus, plenty of attention is also given to art, films, games, and pop culture, so there was plenty for puzzle and game fans to enjoy at the event.

Naturally, since the convention was being held virtually rather than in person, some creativity was required to redesign events to be enjoyed from the comfort of attendees’ homes.

For instance, costumes were shown off through video or submitted photos — there was even a closet cosplay challenge held where participants had twenty minutes to create a costume based solely on what they could find in their closets!

As for my contributions, each year I host a themed scavenger hunt and an escape room for teen attendees to enjoy.

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The scavenger hunt adapted to the format easily. We cast volunteers to portray different characters from the film The Princess Bride, and players had scheduled times to actually interact with them through Zoom chats. Players downloaded a PDF of the rules and some puzzles to be solved, and they would receive a code phrase upon completing each of their assigned tasks.

(The code phrases, when properly combined, revealed a secret word which would “trigger” a surprise video.)

Their more puzzly tasks included using instructions to whittle down a list of 40 possible ingredients down to the three Miracle Max would need for his miracle pill for Westley, as well as solving a logic puzzle to find evidence that an ROUS was innocent of a royal guardsman’s disappearance.

And on the last day of the convention, they attended the wrap-up panel where we explained the hunt in full, thanked the cast, announced the winners, took suggestions for a theme for next year’s scavenger hunt, and even played a Cameo video from a member of the film’s cast as a surprise for all the attendees!

It was a rousing success.

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Adapting the Star Wars-themed escape room for a virtual format was far more daunting. After all, one of the most satisfying aspects of escape room solving is to actually physically solve puzzles, unlock containers, open doors, and defeat all sorts of key locks, combination locks, and more.

My solution to this problem was to still allow players to “unlock” and open something, just something virtual: password-protected PDF files.

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[This “panel” required a 5-digit code and a 3-digit combination to unlock.]

I created a webpage with images of all the “locked” panels for them to virtually open, each of which had symbols to indicate what sort of lock there was, as well as links to the password-entry screens. As they found keys and solved puzzles, they coordinated to try different panels and see which keys and codes unlocked the PDFs, which then opened to give them new tools and puzzles to solve.

It wasn’t the most elegant solution, but once players got the hang of it, they were soon racing through the room, using a built-in chat window to keep track of items they hadn’t used and working out passwords in real time.

One of the players even started livestreaming her efforts to solve a pipe puzzle on Twitch so everyone could solve along with her. It was a very cool and innovative way to virtually solve!

Hopefully, we’ll be back in person for next year’s convention and we can get back to opening locks and running around for a proper scavenger hunt. But either way, it’s nice to know we’re adaptable and creative enough to still pull them off in the virtual space when circumstances arise.

After all, as long as the players had fun, we can definitely call it a win.


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What’s Better in Puzzles and Games – Loud or Quiet?

One of my favorite things about puzzles is how peaceful they are.

Sure, escape rooms can be cacophonous, and dropping a jigsaw puzzle can be infuriating, but for the most part, puzzles are soothing.

The satisfying scratch of pencil on paper as you fill in a word, watching the pile of unplaced jigsaw pieces slowly dwindle as the picture continues to form, getting a little victory chime when you solve a puzzle in your favorite app…

Board games, on the other hand, tend to get loud.

Sometimes, it’s good-natured debate or enthusiastic contributions, like when things get tense in a cooperative game, or when the game generally encourages rambunctiousness, like Throw Throw Burrito.

Other times, it’s a by-product of the gameplay itself. There’s a fair amount of frenzied clacking in Hungry Hungry Hippos, for instance, but I never hear people complain about the noise that comes along with a round or two of marble-chomping.

[Image courtesy of Grey Mass Games.]

Of course, that increase in volume can be for reasons that are a little more heated. Maybe someone betrayed someone else in a game like Sheriff of Nottingham. Monopoly famously inspires people to flip the board in frustration.

Social deduction games where identities are secret, or where there’s some level of deception involved, also tend to get pretty loud. Whether it’s Mafia, Ultimate Werewolf, Secret Hitler, Blood on the Clocktower, or others, raised voices are common.

But when it comes to loud board games, I think we can all agree that one particular dexterity takes the cake.

Say it with me now…

JENGA!

Yes, Jenga — by design — is loud. The only way the game can end is with a toppling tower of wooden blocks. CRASH! I know several board game cafes that have banned it for that specific reason.

Sure, KerPlunk can be loud, but even a stack of falling marbles doesn’t seem to compare to the jarring clatter of a stack of Jenga tiles hitting the table and/or the floor.

Sure, Perfection can be loud, but that’s kind of the point. You’re trying to complete the task BEFORE the buzzer. So it is possible to play without the cacophony.

Jenga is so infamously loud that there are other games that sell themselves on being quieter than Jenga but offering the same stacking mechanic. Rhino Hero and Rhino Hero Super Battle employ cards instead of wooden blocks, so the collapse is less more tolerable, while Catch the Moon employs ladders, which makes for an oddly soothing yet still stressful game experience.

But where do you stand on noise-making games and puzzles? Do you like them soothing and soft or calamitous and crashing? And just what is the loudest game? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you.


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5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Chez Knox!

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!

This feature is all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them.

And this marks the fifth edition of our series of interviews where we turn our eyes to the future of crosswords. Instead of interviewing established talents in the field, I’ve been reaching out to new and up-and-coming constructors and asking them to share their experiences as a nascent cruciverbalist.

And we’re excited to welcome Chez Knox as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

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It doesn’t matter if they’re squares or hexagons; if you’re talking grids of repeated shapes, Chez Knox has you covered.

Her debut crossword puzzle will be published by The Inkubator later this year, so you know her skills with squares are topnotch. And as for the hexagons, she recently contributed the Alabama hexagon to a crowd-sharing effort to complete a 50-states quilt. The national quilt museum even had exhibition space reserved for the quilt before COVID complications cancelled the exhibit.

And now, fellow quilting/sewing enthusiast Shannon Downey is taking this Internet-united work of quilt creativity around the country to share the power of art and craftivism, thanks to creative folks like Chez.

Chez 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 Chez Knox

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

The Sunday newspaper was a bit of a ritual around my house growing up. My dad and I always read the comics and did the word puzzles together.

2. As you start to interact with the puzzle community at large, what have you learned along the way? What has been the most surprising part of the process for you?

Everyone genuinely wants to help a constructor succeed. I think I’ve been most surprised at the size of the cruciverbalist community – there are a lot of people out there into this kind of work!

What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle?

A great puzzle has a very clever theme connecting dots I’ve never before connected.

A good clue gives me so much joy! Lately I like finding puzzles with a well-executed clue echo. There’s a hint of nuance to this technique that makes me smile. (A clue echo is when the same clue is used twice in a puzzle. It is usually one word or a very short phrase. The answers contrast each other but connect through the clue.)

One example might be: 2D and 34A may both be clued as “Green” and the answers might be ENVIOUS and UNSEASONED.

What do you most enjoy — or try hardest to avoid — when constructing your own?

I try to avoid crosswordese – common fillers like ENO, OLIO, EKE, etc. But sometimes they are little words that sneak into a grid fill so that the sanity of the constructor is saved.

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3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others? Who inspires you as a constructor?

My favorite themes are ones that highlight words inside of theme words/phrases. It could be a hidden word that plays on the meaning of the theme entry word or a handful of theme entries containing a common word among them. In the grid design, squares that make up this word would be shaded or circled.

An example of this kind of theme is given in Patrick Berry’s Crossword Constructor Handbook.

Theme entries:

  • CLAUDE MONET
  • MADE MONEY
  • SIMON DEMONTFORT
  • DESDEMONA
  • PANDEMONIUM

Do you see the common word here? (It’s DEMON)

I find Erik Agard’s puzzles to be particularly eloquent and clever. They challenge me in a new way and I love that! That’s the kind of feeling I want my puzzles to give people.

4. What’s next for Chez Knox?

The day-to-day answer is more puzzle construction practice. My goal is to get to a place where one of my puzzles is being published once a month.

Zooming out from the day-to-day, I’ve had a lot of change in my life recently so I don’t want to think about anything new for a while! My husband and I are settling into a new house while I’m setting into life as a Waldorf class teacher after 20 years in the field of IT. I have a class of first graders that I will teach all the way through eighth grade! (How fun is that?!)

Meanwhile, daily crossword puzzles keep me grounded and in connection with my love of the English language. I am SO EXCITED to be a boring person who delights in making a home, teaching, sewing, and solving/constructing crossword puzzles!

5. What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow solvers, aspiring constructors/setters, and puzzle enthusiasts?

There are lots of free constructing resources available but if you’re serious about creating your own puzzles, you’ll need to pay for things like software and word lists.


A huge thank you to Chez for her time. You can follow her on Instagram for all of her creative endeavors, and be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her Inkubator debut! I can’t wait to see what she creates next!

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Puzzles in Plain Sight: Spinning Yellow Circles edition

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About six months ago, I shared the story of a secret code lurking in plain sight, sitting atop the Capitol Records Building in Los Angeles. It’s not the only time that buildings have made their way into the blog; in previous posts, we’ve discussed the giant crossword adorning the side of an apartment building in Lvov, Ukraine, as well as the optical illusion awaiting art lovers in a Roman palace.

But it was the only time we’ve discussed a secret code being shared on the side of a building.

Until today, that is.

Yes, my friends and fellow puzzlers, there’s another building out there broadcasting secret messages for all to see. It’s also in California. And this one is more devious than the blinking light on the Capitol Records Building.

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Say hello to Almaden Tower, the San Jose headquarters of Adobe, the software company behind Acrobat, Illustrator, and numerous other editing programs.

As you can see, there are four bright yellow circles beside the Adobe logo. These 10-foot-high digital lights all rotate. And if you pay enough attention, you might discover the secret message being broadcast.

The messages began transmitting in 2006. The code was cracked for the first time in 2007, and it wasn’t a brief message either. The lights were secretly transmitting the entire text of the Thomas Pynchon novel The Crying of Lot 49.

You see, the rotating circles allow for a form of semaphore alphabet, a way of secretly forming letters or symbols based on the position of each of the circles. They can be horizontal, vertical, a left-leaning diagonal, or a right-leaning diagonal. The various combinations of these positions create a semaphore alphabet of 256 possible characters.

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But this was only the first part of the encryption. Even if you uncovered and charted this pattern, you still had to decode the secret messages detailing specific key words that would help you break the Vigenere encryption of the actual text.

It took MONTHS for two tech workers to figure out the semaphore language, decipher the code, and uncover the final message.

So naturally, just like the hidden alien language in the animated sci-fi comedy Futurama, it was replaced with a second, more complex code to be unraveled.

That code, which started transmitting in 2012, wasn’t broken until 2017 when a math professor started streaming footage of the Adobe building and charting the various positions of the circles.

But his examination led him to believe that it wasn’t just text being broadcast this time… it was an audio message. After discovering a chain of symbols that he believed was a space or bit of silence in an audio broadcast, he graphed the results, which resembled an audio wave.

It turns out, his suspicions were correct, and further analysis resulted in the true audio being uncovered: Neil Armstrong’s famous message from the moon landing.

Apparently, a new code and message are currently being brainstormed for Adobe’s devious puzzle monument. Who knows what Ben Rubin, the designer, has in store for solvers this time?


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