Putting Clever Cluing to the Test?

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As a puzzler, there are few article titles that serve as more efficient clickbait than “6 CHALLENGING CROSSWORD PUZZLE CLUES THAT WILL LEAVE YOU CLUELESS,” so when I saw that title, fellow puzzlers, you know I clicked.

This article by the crew at Wealth Words claims to offer “the trickiest clues that have ever existed.” That is quite a bold statement. Shall we try our luck and see how we do?


Now, before we start, it’s worth noting that we’re at a huge disadvantage here, because any clue, easy or tough, can be made easier if you know some of the letters in the word thanks to words in the grid you’ve already placed that cross this particular entry. We don’t have any of those helper letters, so we’re going to have to rely solely on our sharp wits, wordplay skills, and love of punnery.

Okay, let’s get to it.

Clue #1: Leaning column? (9 letters)

Most crossword fans know that a question mark virtually always means there’s wordplay afoot, so you know you can’t take this clue at face value, which means anything relating to Pisa is probably out. If you focus on “leaning,” that could take you anywhere from Jenga to drunkenness, so let’s play with “column.” Other columns appear in graphs, Excel files, and newspapers.

A-ha. Newspaper column. And some of those “lean” to either the left or the right, depending on the author. This train of thought leads us to the intended answer OPED PIECE.

Grade: A- (It’s a solid clue where the answer doesn’t necessarily immediately jump out at you, but makes total sense once you’ve puzzled it out.)

Clue #2: Strips in a club (5 letters)

[Now, to be fair, “club” was capitalized in the clue on the webpage, but I felt like that was misleading, so I fixed it here. After all, capitalization can be used to great effect in crafty cluing — particularly if you conceal the capital word by making it the first word in the clue, which is always capitalized regardless — but here, it becomes an unnecessary red herring.]

This one is slightly harder, because you don’t immediately get the hint that there’s wordplay involved, since there’s no question mark.

This is one of my favorite kinds of clever cluing, the sort where our preconceived notions of word forms works against us. (Also, it sounds naughty, but isn’t, which I also quite enjoy.) At first glance here, the phrasing makes it sound like “strips” is a verb, when it’s really a plural noun.

And once you get into that mindset, you realize that we’re not talking about that kind of club, and the intended answer emerges: BACON.

Grade: A (Misdirection plus a tongue-in-cheek bit of lewdness? Great stuff.)

Clue #3: Group of crows (6 letters)

I have no idea how this one made it onto the list. Anyone who knows their animal groupings knows that a group of crows is a MURDER. There’s no tricky cluing or misdirection here, just something that might not be in the common knowledge. (But again, I think people are more likely to come up with this one that “exaltation of larks,” “smack of jellyfish,” or “parliament of owls.”)

Grade: D- (Could be difficult for some solvers, but only for unfamiliarity, not style.)

Clue #4: “Yep, perfectly clear” (7 letters)

Okay, this one has quotations around it, which both means it’s a spoken line and it’s likely non-standard, so you won’t find it in a dictionary. It’s probably a phrase, and used in casual conversation.

The answer, as it turns out, is I HEAR YA, which I don’t think any solver would come up with unless they had a few crossing letters filled in for them. The slangy spelling of YA and the informal wording altogether pretty much precludes this from being a “see-it-and-get-it” sorta clue.

Grade: C

Clue #5: [Boo-Hoo] (5 letters)

Brackets are used less commonly than quotation marks or question marks in crossword clue, so it’s more likely that a casual solver wouldn’t immediately recognize what to do with this clue. Usually, brackets indicate this is a non-traditional clue, either making an oblique reference to something or indicating it’s a non-verbal clue like a cough.

In this case, this is meant to be the actual sound of someone crying or something of that nature. So it could be something informal like CRYIN’ or TEARS (as opposed to the more traditional “in tears”) or something like that.

As it turns out, they were looking for I’M SAD. Which is pretty blah. It’s not a standard phrase, and comes off as a cheaply constructed way out of a bad corner, not a solid bit of fill to keep the puzzle interesting.

Grade: F

Clue #6: They come in last (3 letters)

This clue is fairly tough, because it’s both vaguely worded and has a curious letter count. It’s plural phrasing (with “they”), so that immediately makes you want to tack an S onto the end of the word. But it’s also such a short entry that a two-letter word plus S doesn’t seem to fit the clue.

So what comes in last? “End” would fit, if not for the plural phrasing. “P.S.” comes in last, but “P.S.’S” is really clunky, and I don’t recall ever seeing that pluralized.

So what were they looking for? XYZ. Ah. Alphabet entries. You’ll usually see entries like this centering around the first three letters (ABC) or a random string (“RST” seems to come up more often than most), and XYZ certainly fits the bill. But, in the end, it’s not a real entry, and it feels a little cheap, despite the decent wordplay involved in the cluing.

Grade: C-


So, what did I think of the Wealth Words “6 CHALLENGING CROSSWORD PUZZLE CLUES THAT WILL LEAVE YOU CLUELESS” challenge?

I thought it started off very strong with two clever, slippery clues that required you to play with the words and come at them from several angles before stumbling upon the correct solution, and I quite enjoyed those clues.

But the quiz took a real nose dive in quality starting with Clue #3, which had no wordplay at all. #4 and #5 relied heavily on being slangy non-standard verbiage rather than adept cluing or creative fill, and #6 was a bit of a cop-out, even if the cluing quality rebounded nicely.

All in all, I thought the specious entries outweighed the clever cluing on display early on, making for an underwhelming set of clues.

Final grade: C+.

What did you think of these group of challenging clues, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Did you enjoy them or find them wanting? Let us know in the comment section below, we’d love to hear from you!


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Final Jeopardy for James Holzhauer

Alas, all great runs must come to an end, and so it is with a heavy heart that I report that James Holzhauer — sports gambler, trivia whiz, and Jeopardy! champion — has been defeated, relinquishing his title as champion after 32 days.

He amassed an impressive total of $2,464,216, the second highest in game history during regular-season play. And his impressive daily totals have yielded some impressive stats. He now holds 21 of the top 25 spots on the show’s list of the highest single-day winnings.

Only $58,484 separated him from Ken Jennings’ long-standing total of $2,520,700, which was amassed in 74 games back in 2004.

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Holzhauer was complimentary toward both Jennings and his Jeopardy! opponent Emma Boettcher on social media, stating, “CONGRATULATIONS to Emma on a world-beating performance. There’s no greater honor than knowing an opponent had to play a perfect game to defeat me.”

He then cited one of the predictions as to how his reign would end, quoting, “James will eventually beat himself by flubbing one of his big bets,” before responding, “Nope, James got his ass kicked straight up by an elite player who nailed her own big bets.”

Naturally, the buzz around social media regarding this unexpected turn of events is mixed. Some viewers are glad to see a new champion crowned, while others are sad to see Holzhauer go.

There are also a few conspiracy theories brewing. Some viewers believe that James intentionally threw this match, citing slower reaction times, gimme questions being missed, and a general lack of energy from the normally bullish champion. He went into Final Jeopardy in second place.

The capper for many was his performance in Final Jeopardy where he made an uncharacteristically low wager (only $1300 or so, when he was at $23k), meaning that despite his correct answer, he wouldn’t defeat his rival for this game. (Emma Boettcher, on the other hand, bet $20k on Final Jeopardy, perhaps anticipating a similarly aggressive bet from Holzhauer.)

But Holzhauer has already explained his unexpected move, telling The Atlantic that, “By the time Final Jeopardy rolled around I knew my goose was cooked if Emma answered correctly. It’s a little like needing a team to miss a last-second field goal ― nothing you can really do but watch. I made peace with my fate before the clue for Final was even revealed.”

Holzhauer seems pleased with his Jeopardy! performance despite not dethroning Jennings. “My only real goals were: Win $110,914 on an episode to honor my daughter’s birthday, and play my absolute best every game. I achieved both, and I’m very proud of myself for that.”

Congratulations to James Holzhauer for a very notable run as champion, and congratulations to Emma Boettcher for proving to be a more than worthy champion in her own right.

And now, there’s really only one way to conclude a saga like this, and that’s with a song. Take it, “Weird Al”…


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Daily Double Trouble for a Long-Standing Jeopardy! Record?

It’s been a few weeks, so it’s time for a Jeopardy! update.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (specifically a rock with no wi-fi, morning news coverage, or game show fans nearby), you’re probably aware of James Holzhauer, the Jeopardy! contestant who has been dominating the scene for more than a month.

After a two-week hiatus where Jeopardy! aired episodes centered around teachers as contestants, sports gambler and trivia master Holzhauer has returned to continue his reign of terror over Alex Trebek’s domain. His undefeated streak now stands at 29 consecutive victories.

Holzhauer is only the second person in history to pass the million-dollar mark on the show, and his success has fans anxiously eyeballing the money-winning record set by Ken Jennings more than a decade ago. That sense of anticipation is only growing stronger.

Holzhauer’s total thus far is $2,254,938.

As of last night’s performance, Holzhauer is a mere $265,762 away from Ken Jennings’ total for highest winnings in regular season play. (Jennings has won additional money in tournament play that isn’t counted in this total.)

Now, granted, that’s a lot of money. But it’s worth noting that $265,762 is only $4613 higher than Holzhauer has won on his two highest-scoring games combined. So, essentially, if he performs to the absolute best of his ability, he’s three wins away from overtaking Jennings. (Even if he’s not performing at his best, his average money won per game ($77,756) means that he’s only four average wins away from overtaking Jennings.)

Oh, and that average money per game statistic? It’s worth noting that the previous single-game record for the show was BELOW that, clocking in at $77,000 dollars.

Have you been keeping up on all the trivia excitement? If so, what do you think, folks? Is Holzhauer going to make history by surpassing Ken Jennings in less than half the time? Is Jennings’ 74-day winning streak also within reach for the bold betting master?

Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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Puzzles and Brain Health: Finally Some Definitive Data?

For years now, brain health and puzzle-solving have been intertwined topics.

There have been many, MANY published studies touting all sorts of effects, both positive and negative, of solving puzzles. Alongside those studies, there have been numerous products of a puzzly nature that claim to do everything from improving memory to staving off Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other debilitating conditions.

I’ve been reading articles on the subject for more than six years now, and the results, for the most part, have been inconclusive. This is often due to small sample sizes for the experimental data, or evidence that leads to likelihoods rather than verifiable, repeatable, reliable data.

Across all of these articles, there are essentially three suppositions:

  • A. Solving puzzles helps maintain or improve brain function
  • B. Specific “brain-training” exercises, programs, or products help maintain or improve brain function more so than traditional/unfocused puzzle solving
  • C. Solving puzzles (whether traditional or “brain-training”) helps stave off conditions like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and memory loss later in life

When it comes to Supposition B, I’ve yet to see anything that proves a “brain-training” or “brain-boosting” puzzle regimen actually helps in a meaningful way. In fact, at one point, one of these “brain-training” companies had to pay a two-million-dollar fine for making promises that their program couldn’t verifiably deliver on.

[Image courtesy of SharpBrains.com.]

But let’s leave that nonsense aside for a moment and focus on Supposition A, the idea that solving puzzles is good for the brain.

For the first time, we have a study performed by a reputable organization with a sample size large enough that it may finally allow us to draw some decent conclusions. Two articles published this month in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry have concluded that adults age 50 and older who regularly solve puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku have better brain function than those who do not.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Exeter, involved a test group of more than 19,000 participants.

From an article on Science Daily discussing the study:

Researchers asked participants in the PROTECT study . . . to report how frequently they engage in word and number puzzles and undertake a series of cognitive tests sensitive to measuring changes in brain function. They found that the more regularly participants engaged with the puzzles, the better they performed on tasks assessing attention, reasoning and memory.

From their results, researchers calculate that people who engage in word puzzles have brain function equivalent to ten years younger than their age, on tests assessing grammatical reasoning, and eight years younger than their age on tests measuring short term memory.

Yes, this is only one study, and yes, obviously more testing and sampling is needed to apply this to the millions upon millions of folks age 50 and older who might benefit from this. But it’s worth giving this topic deep consideration. A sample size of 19,000 is impressive, and there’s no profit or “brain-training” scam behind the study.

And, regarding Supposition C, while this study didn’t offer anything definitive, it remains a possibility. Dr. Anne Corbett of the University of Exeter Medical School said, “We can’t say that playing these puzzles necessarily reduces the risk of dementia in later life but this research supports previous findings that indicate regular use of word and number puzzles helps keep our brains working better for longer.”

How much longer, who can say? But, when it comes to better brain health, it seems we can finally say that puzzles are good for you. (I always suspected.)


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A Coin Puzzle: My Two Cents (Plus 97 More)

Our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles recently shared the following brain teaser on their social media:

Naturally, we accepted the challenge.

Now, before we get started with this one, we have to add one detail: which coins we’re allowed to use. It’s safe to assume that pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters are available, but the question doesn’t say anything about half-dollar coins.

So we’re going to figure out the correct answer without half-dollar coins available, and then with half-dollar coins available.

Let’s begin.


[Image courtesy of How Stuff Works.]

The easiest way to get started is to figure out the smallest number of coins we need to make 99 cents, since that’s the highest number we need to be able to form. Once we have that info, we can work backwards and make sure all the other numbers are covered.

For 99 cents, you need 3 quarters, 2 dimes, and 4 pennies. That’s 25 + 25 + 25 + 10 + 10 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 99.

Right away, we know we’re close with these 9 coins.

You don’t need more than 3 quarters, for instance, because your possible totals are all below $1.

Now, let’s make sure we can form the numbers 1 through 24 with our chosen coins. (If we can, we’re done, because once we’ve covered 1 through 24, we can simply add one quarter or two quarters to cover 25 through 99.)

Our four pennies cover us for 1 through 4. But wait, there’s 5. And we can’t make 5 cents change with 4 pennies or 2 dimes. In fact, we can’t make 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 cents change without a nickel.

So let’s add a nickel to our current coin count. That makes 3 quarters, 2 dimes, 1 nickel, and 4 pennies. (Why just 1 nickel? Well, we don’t need two, because that’s covered by a single dime.)

Our four pennies cover 1 through 4. Our nickel and four pennies cover 5 through 9. Our dime, nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 19. And our two dimes, one nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 29. (But, again, we only need them to cover 1 through 24, because at that point, our quarters become useful.)

That’s all 99 possibilities — 1 through 99 — covered by just ten coins.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

But what about that half-dollar?

Well, we can apply the same thinking to a coin count with a half-dollar. For 99 cents, you need 1 half-dollar, 1 quarter, 2 dimes, and 4 pennies. That’s 50 + 25 + 10 + 10 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 99.

Now, we make sure we can form the numbers 1 through 49 with our chosen coins. (Once we can, we can simply add the half-dollar to cover 50 through 99.)

Once again, we quickly discover we need that single nickel to fill in the gaps.

Our four pennies cover 1 through 4. Our nickel and four pennies cover 5 through 9. Our dime, nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 19. Our two dimes, one nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 29. And our one quarter, two dimes, one nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 54. (But, again, we only need them to cover 1 through 49, because at that point, our half-dollar becomes useful.)

That’s all 99 possibilities — 1 through 99 — covered by just nine coins.


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A Puzzle That’s Always at Your Fingertips (Literally)!

[Image courtesy of Puzzle Ring.com.]

Puzzles come in all shapes and sizes. There are wooden boxes, plastic mazes, and metallic brain teasers. Shapes to be reassembled and combinations of wood, rope, and metal to untangle. There are wine bottles to free, locks to open, and secret compartments to uncover.

There are even puzzles you can wear.

Say hello to the puzzle ring.

[Image courtesy of UCT UK.]

These rings are made of overlapping metal bands that weave together to create elaborate designs, knots, and patterns. Puzzle rings can consist of as few as three bands or as many as seventeen, though between four and eight are the most common. When properly arranged, the bands align to form a particular design, and the pressure of your finger helps hold the bands in place.

When you take it off, the ring falls apart into its component bands. (Often, the rings are interconnected, which ensures they won’t be misplaced, but can also make solving them harder.)

And, as you might expect, the more bands that constitute the ring, the more difficult and elaborate the movements necessary to arrange the ring into its correct configuration.

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

Rings with Celtic knot or claddagh designs — inspired by Irish tradition — symbolize the thought and effort that keep the bonds of friendships or marriages strong. Faithfulness and loyalty, a bond forged by separate elements coming together as one.

Now, that’s a lovely thought, but some origin stories paint the puzzle ring as a symbol of mistrust. You see, according to legend, a Turkish king (or a soldier in the Middle East heading off to war, depending on the story), didn’t trust his beloved, so he had a puzzle ring forged for her. This way, if she was unfaithful — for instance, removing the ring so her new lover wouldn’t know she was married — the ring would fall apart, providing sure evidence that the ring had been removed and some sort of shenaniganry was afoot.

Those stories may very well have some fact behind them, but it’s more likely that puzzle rings evolved from the Elizabethan tradition of gimmal rings (or gimmel rings).

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

Gimmal rings are rings consisting of two or three hoops or pieces that form a single ring. Popular as engagement gifts, the rings would be worn separately until the wedding, when they would be reunited and used as the wedding ring. (The third piece was often worn by a witness to the wedding before it would be reunited with the others.)

Also known as joint rings, gimmal rings found enthusiastic audiences in Germany, England, and elsewhere in Europe, which is also where claddagh designs, dragon designs, and other imagery was added.

Some sites online claim that military veterans in Sweden sometimes receive puzzle rings representing the number of tours they’ve served (four bands representing one tour, five bands representing two tours, etc.), but I’ve been unable to independently verify that.

[Image courtesy of Puzzle Ring.com.]

But no matter the origins or the common uses, there’s no denying that puzzle rings are some of the most beautiful, elegant, and clever puzzles on the market today. (We’ve even added a board full of them to our Pinterest account!)

A cursory Google search turns up dozens of sites selling them, and the prices range from quite reasonable to thousands upon thousands of dollars for diamond-inlaid, golden puzzle rings sure to dazzle the eye and baffle the mind.

I think that, for now, I’ll stick with the 3D-printed puzzle ring I got for Christmas a few years ago.


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