How Far Crosswords Have Come (and How Much Farther They Have to Go)

Problem-solving-crossword

The battle to decrease gender inequality and increase representation in crosswords is ongoing. More people than ever are speaking up on behalf of women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ constructors, and non-binary individuals when it comes to who is constructing the puzzles (and being properly credited), as well as how members of those groups are represented by current grid entries and cluing.

Natan Last is one of many people standing up to make crosswords better, more inclusive, and more emblematic of a richer melting pot of solvers and constructors. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Last neatly encapsulates both the movement for a more inclusive crossword publishing community and the many obstacles that stand in its way.

He starts with a single example — a debut puzzle by a female constructor, Sally Hoelscher — and the conversation that ensued when one puzzle aficionado asked about the ratio of women’s names to men’s names in the puzzle.

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[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

Originally there were no men’s names. One entry was edited in. And a discussion about parity in puzzles followed.

Last uses this example as a springboard into the greater argument about how modern crossword editing (and editors) discriminate through gatekeeping under the guise of what’s “familiar” or “obscure.”

From the article:

Constructors constantly argue with editors that their culture is puzzle-worthy, only to hear feedback greased by bias, and occasionally outright sexism or racism. (Publications are anonymized in the editor feedback that follows.) MARIE KONDO wouldn’t be familiar enough “to most solvers, especially with that unusual last name.” GAY EROTICA is an “envelope-pusher that risks solver reactions.” (According to XWord Info, a blog that tracks crossword statistics, EROTICA has appeared in the New York Times puzzle, as one example, more than 40 times since 1950.) BLACK GIRLS ROCK “might elicit unfavorable responses.” FLAVOR FLAV, in a puzzle I wrote, earned a minus sign.

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[Image courtesy of CNBC.]

But what is kept out is only part of the problem, of course. Last goes on to mention many of the same insensitive and offensive clues and entries we (and other outlets) have cited in the past.

He caps off this part of the article by highlighting Will Shortz’s responses to these troubling questions:

But when prodded about insensitive edits, he denied them, adding: “If a puzzlemaker is unhappy with our style of editing, then they should send their work elsewhere (or publish it themselves to keep complete control).”

A pretty damning statement, to be sure.

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Turning away from the problems represented by the most famous daily crossword in the world, Last pivots, turning a spotlight on those who are helping turn the tide in terms of representation and inclusivity.

He shouts-out well-respected and innovative editors like Erik Agard (of USA Today‘s crossword), David Steinberg (of Andrew McMeel Universal’s Puzzles and Games division), and Liz Maynes-Aminzade (of The New Yorker crossword), heaping praise on a fresh constructor-editor partnership that encourages new voices and greater diversity of content.

Last also mentions worthy projects like the Inkubator, Women of Letters, and Queer Qrosswords, as well as the Women’s March crossword movement inspired by the work of Rebecca Falcon.

Across the entire article, Last highlights a system problem in crosswords, challenges those responsible to do better, and praises those who are working for the greater good. And he does so in about a dozen paragraphs. That’s all. It’s efficiency and flow worthy of a top-notch constructor.

You should read it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.


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A Women’s March for Crosswords

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For years now, we’ve been discussing the gender gap in crossword construction and representation of women in published outlets. Heck, in 2018, we even shared detailed statistics on the percentage of women published by major outlets, thanks to the research of Patti Varol and Erik Agard.

Since then, we’ve seen projects like The Inkubator and Women of Letters highlighting female constructors, and there’s been a concentrated effort in the puzzle community (if not the major outlets) to support, foster, and cultivate more minority voices in crosswords.

And this month in particular has seen three different projects dedicated to female constructors come to fruition. Although many voices have been involved in these efforts, a huge chunk of the credit definitely belongs to constructor Rebecca Falcon, who pushed for outlets to publish only female constructors for an entire month.

The goal? A Women’s March.

The Wall Street Journal sought to meet Falcon’s request, but they didn’t have enough submitted puzzles to do so. They did do a week of female-constructed puzzles, though, including the traditional Friday contest puzzle with a meta solution, constructed by Joanne Sullivan.

Users of The New York Times Crossword app can also enjoy the fruits of these creative labors, as a Women’s History Month pack of 20 puzzles is available through both the App Store and Google Play as an in-app purchase! This project, accomplished in partnership with The Inkubator, features puzzles by Rebecca Falcon, Joanne Sullivan, Stella Zawistowski, Wendy L. Brandes, Rachel Fabi, Juliana Tringali, Annemarie Brethauer, Martha Jones, Wyna Liu, and Mary Lou Guizzo.

And it should come as no surprise that the ambitious and well-connected David Steinberg, editor of the Universal Crossword, succeeded in amassing the talent necessary for a full Women’s March.

As David said in the FB post announcing the project:

Each of the 36 Universal Crosswords this month has been constructed by a different woman or pair of women, and—to my knowledge—10 of the puzzles will be their constructors’ world debuts! Some of the puzzles’ themes are easy, some are a bit tricky, and a few are unlike anything I’ve seen in all my years of editing. One thing I noticed across all the March puzzles, though, was a refreshing woman-centric voice, both in the clues and grids.

Women’s March will continue into April for a few days, since so many women submitted excellent puzzles that the original 36 slots I’d allocated weren’t enough. As I see it, this event is not so much a Women’s March as the beginning of a Universal Crossword Women’s Movement, and I hope the puzzles this month inspire more women to construct for Universal as well as for other markets.

Andrew McMeels Universal put together a graphic celebrating all of the women involved in the project:

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It’s so cool to see so many deserving constructors represented, not to mention all of the newcomers to the puzzle community! Here’s hoping that Women’s March is the start of equal puzzle representation across the board. That would be something truly special.

Are you aware of any other crossword outlets participating in Women’s March, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section! We’d love to hear from you AND spread the word!


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Tackling the 2019 Indie 500 Puzzles!

June 1 marked the fifth annual Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, hosted in Washington, D.C., by constructors Erik Agard, Neville Fogarty, Andy Kravis, Peter Broda, and Angela Olsen Halsted. The first tournament had a racing theme, the second had a prom theme, the third had a time theme, the fourth had a fashion theme, and this year was travel-themed!

While I couldn’t attend the tournament, I did download the tournament puzzles, and last weekend I finally had the opportunity to sit down and tackle them. And today, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the event in the future.


Before the official tournament puzzles start, there’s a warm-up puzzle, a 15x grid entitled “Getting There” by Neville Fogarty. The hook is simple and accessible — forms of transportation found inside locations, like TRAIN in MOUNT RAINIER or BIKE in NAIROBI KENYA — and with easy fill and some fun cluing, this is the perfect puzzle to get your motor running for the tournament to come.

Interesting grid entries included I’M SORRY, AMNIO, and ONE PAGE. My favorite clue was “Org. with Magic and Wizards” for NBA.

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

#1 Is There a Fee for Emotional Baggage? by Angela Olsen Halsted

The tournament opens with this smooth-solving entry by the ever-reliable Halsted. Loaded with shameless puns based on locations like MYSEOULMATE and OTTAWATCHIT, this fun crossword definitely builds any solver’s confidence for the challenges to come. The effortless fill is bolstered by great references in the cluing, citing The West Wing, The Lion King, Creed, and Shonda Rhimes. I blasted through this one quicker than expected, but I still really enjoyed it.

Interesting grid entries included CARDI B, STANDBY, ACELA, and ADONIS. My favorite clues were “Potables actually first brewed in England, for short” for IPAS and “Gosling of the ‘Hey Girl’ meme” for RYAN.

#2 Jet Set by Yacob Yonas

The second puzzle of the tournament was an ambitious 17x grid with lots of long entries and solid fill overall, tied together by theme of airplane/flight terms hidden in longer entries (like TAKEOFF in TAKE OFFENSE and FLIGHT in BEAM OF LIGHT). Overall, this was a very impressive grid, though not much harder than the first puzzle, making for another fairly quick solve.

Interesting grid entries included OVER HERE, ERASABLE, FIRE SALE, FAT CAT, PEBBLES, and the delightfully slangy HATERADE. My favorite clues were “Displays of pride” for PARADES and “Take up again, say” for REHEM.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

#3 Currency Exchange by Andy Kravis

Puzzle 3 was the first genuinely challenging puzzle of the tournament, a considerable jump in difficulty from the first two, and it takes the “word hidden in a longer phrase” gimmick to a whole new level.

The built-in ATM graphics in various grid boxes represent different currencies concealed in the theme entries; even across and down entries that share an ATM have different currencies, which is an immensely clever trick and a feat of grid construction I’ve never seen before. For instance, one ATM represents WON in SMALLWONDER and DINAR in ORDINARY.

This was easily my favorite puzzle of the tournament, and one of Kravis’s most diabolical and well-designed creations. Nicely done!

Interesting grid entries included CLAMATO, BALL HOG, END QUOTE, GAP YEAR, and PUMBAA. My favorite clues were “TV character described by Jon Stewart as ‘a fastidious, pigeon-worshiping felt tyrant” for BERT and “It’s three before November” for KILO.

#4 Travel Arrangements by Janie Smulyan

The toughest puzzle of the tournament for me (except for the final), this was a definite struggle, despite a well-constructed grid and a smart hook. The theme of this puzzle was a common phrase where the second half of the phrase was anagrammed into a form of transportation (for instance, MUSCLE STRAIN becomes MUSCLE TRAINS), tied together by the revealer TRANSFORMERS.

The anagram hook didn’t come to me quickly, making me work for every letter. Some of the clues as well, like “Japanese hog” for YAMAHA, took me an embarrassingly long time to unravel. Smulyan is clearly a devious constructor to watch out for.

Interesting grid entries included OPULENT, IBERIAN, ABSTAIN, and PIXAR. My favorite clues were “House payments” for ANTES and “Some are dry, some are magic” for SPELLS.

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Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

#5 Four Plus One by Bryan Betancur

The final puzzle of regular tournament play, Puzzle 5 was an excellent closer, rewarding solvers with a breezy solve and a fun hook centered around travel phrases with circled bonus letters that spell out the word TIRE, a spare for the four circles/wheels already in the grid. (For example, STAR TREK becomes STAIR TREK and BUM A RIDE becomes BURMA RIDE, my personal favorite.)

Interesting grid entries included BOGUS, SWANKY, WALTZ, FAKING OUT, and ROBBERS. My favorite clue was “Pixar hero or Verne antihero” for NEMO.

#6 Final by Rebecca Falcon

A very tough closer designed to challenge the worthy top tournament solvers, Puzzle 6 was loaded with tough, long entries (AUDI DEALER didn’t occur to me for ages), and I would argue that TO A T (rather than TO A TEE) is questionable at best.

Nonetheless, it was a strong closer and featured diabolical cluing in both versions of the puzzle, the Inside Track and the Outside Track. (Although I tried to solve the puzzle with only the Inside Track (tougher) clues, I needed some help from the Outside Track to complete the puzzle.)

Interesting grid entries included ONOMATOPOEIA, SAFARI, ACHOO, HOTEP, and HOOPLA. My favorite clue was “With 46-Across, comforting words” for THERE. (Since that clue WAS 46-Across, the actual answer is THERE THERE. Fun stuff.)

Although that was the end of the tournament proper, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the bonus puzzles in the packet.

The Tiebreaker puzzle by Erik Agard was super tough, but clever and impressive, considering that the grid was constructed in the shape of a 5 (as this was the fifth edition of the tournament.)

Layering lots of long entries like SPLIT A CAB, I WANT OUT, DISGRACE, MAGNETRON, LPGA TOUR, and LESOTHO, it was a brain-melter of a finale to a tournament that swung between easy and challenging and back again.


Overall, this was the most inventive edition of the Indie 500 yet. The puzzles mingled the creativity of the previous four tournaments with particularly strong grid design, cunning clues, and some fun takes on classic crossword conventions.

The constructors made the most of the travel theme, incorporating anagrams, hidden answers, and the inspired ATM gimmick in puzzle 3. All in all, this was an engaging and worthy series of puzzles, designed to delight and challenge solvers in equal measure.

I look forward to its return next year, and hopefully some of you will join me in accepting the Indie 500 challenge!


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The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns tomorrow!

That’s right! Tomorrow, June 1st, will mark the fifth annual edition of the tournament! Although registration has been closed for weeks, you can participate from home for only $10! Click here for details!

Not only that, but they’ve whipped up a terrific meta-suite of puzzles to boot, and you can name your own price for it!

I expect great things from the immensely talented team of constructors and directors they’ve assembled: Erik Agard, Rebecca Falcon, Jenna LaFleur, Angela Olson Halsted, Bryan Betancur, Andy Kravis, Peter Broda, Yacob Yonas, Janie Smulyan, and Neville Fogarty. With a travel theme titled “Going Around in Squares,” topnotch constructors, and pie (there’s always pie), you can’t go wrong!

You can click here for the Indie 500 home page, and click here for a rundown of last year’s puzzles!

Will you be competing? Or participating from home? Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you!


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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns soon!

Four years ago, a new crossword tournament joined the ranks of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and Lollapuzzoola, immediately carving out its own niche in the puzzle world. The Indie 500 offered topnotch puzzles and a pie-fueled solving experience both live in Washington, D.C., and for solvers at home.

And it’s back! The fifth edition of The Indie 500 is happening on Saturday, June 1, and this year, the theme is “Going Around in Squares.”

This year’s tournament follows the same format as previous years: five preliminary puzzles of varying difficulty, plus a final puzzle for the top three scorers in both divisions.

[There’s also a fair amount of slapstick.]

Registration is open for the tournament! They’re at capacity for attending in person (there is a waiting list in case anyone drops out!), but worry not, because solving from home is only $10!

Not only that, but there’s a travel-themed meta suite that lets you name your own price, as well as access to the previous tournament bundles for $5 apiece. Those are super-affordable prices for some outstanding puzzles!

Andy Kravis, Erik Agard, and Neville Fogarty all make their fifth appearance as veteran constructors — understandable, since they’re also event organizers — and they’re joined once again by Angela Olson Halsted and Peter Broda, as well as tournament constructors Jenna LaFleur, Bryan Betancur, Janie Smulyan, Rebecca Falcon, and Yacob Yonas!

And, of course, there will be pie.

You can click here for the Indie 500 home page, and click here for a rundown of last year’s puzzles!

Will you be competing, or participating from home? Let us know in the comments below!


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!