Delving into the BosWords 2019 Crosswords!

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I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hand at the puzzles from the BosWords Crossword Tournament last month. Given the talent involved amongst the organizers and constructors, I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

So let’s put those puzzles under the microscope and see what’s what!


Leading Ladies by John Lieb

This unscored opening puzzle served as a fun and pleasant warm-up, getting everyone into the puzzly spirit and ready to solve. The theme entries were five films with female leads (like CLEOPATRA, FOXY BROWN, and CAT BALLOU), and the revealer TITLE NINE nicely tied the five films together through their nine-letter titles.

With good flow and an accessible theme, this is a great confidence booster and a solid puzzle to shake off any nerves going into the tournament.

Interesting grid entries included SAMOANS, ZOWIE, DEEP-SIXED, and LANDO, and my favorite clue was “Got to square 100 first in Chutes and Ladders, e.g.” for WON.

Puzzle 1: Central Intelligence by Claire Rimkus and Andrew Kingsley

As you might expect from the first puzzle in the tournament proper, this puzzle was a fairly easy start, combining an accessible theme with interesting fill. Each of the three-letter words at the center of the theme entries spelled out a different degree one could earn, a la VET reading out in LONG LIVE THE KING.

The circles for the three middle letters in each themed entry are almost unnecessary, as between the title and the themed entries themselves, you could suss out the theme without much trouble.

(But then again, I’m a sucker for circles in a crossword grid, so I liked having them there.)

One of the theme entries was more obscure than the other three, but this was still a breezy solve to get the tournament going.

Interesting grid entries included THE UK, OBERON, SOIREE, and MASHUP, and my favorite clues were “Hacker’s problem?” for COUGH and “You don’t want to be under it” for ARREST.

[Image courtesy of SharpBrains.com.]

Puzzle 2: Don’t Strain Yourself by Ross Trudeau

Normally, you’d expect the difficulty to ratchet upward a bit for puzzle 2, but this one was pretty much on par with the first puzzle. The revealer NO FILTER explained the link between the theme entries (things like EMAIL SPAM and INSTANT COFFEE), but overall, I was a little underwhelmed by this one.

That’s not to say the puzzle wasn’t otherwise well-constructed, because it was. The longer down entries linking the themed entries were executed with finesse, and other than one tough entry (ILLINI), the fill was fair and the cluing solid.

Interesting grid entries included DOOMSDAY, TO THE MAX, IOLANI, AL EAST, and DALLIANCES, and my favorite clue was “Turns into a screenplay, perhaps” for ADAPTS.

Puzzle 3: Plus or Minus by Joon Pahk and Laura Braunstein

The increase of difficulty I was expecting in puzzle 2 arrived with gusto in puzzle 3, as the solver must figure out how to either add or remove a number from the theme entries. With the subtraction clues, it was easier, because you had the number spelled out in the entry (like STONE AGE DOOR, where the -1 in the clue indicates that the word ONE should be removed, making the more familiar STAGE DOOR).

With the addition entries, you had to get a little more creative. For instance, the entry PAT PENDING becomes PATENT PENDING when you add the +10 from the clue. It’s a clever hook, and certainly not the last time we’ll be seeing some puzzly math in this puzzle set.

Interesting grid entries included SEA MONKEYS, SQUEAK, UMAMI, and SAYSO, and my favorite clue was “Something that won’t stay hot” for FAD.

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Puzzle 4: Spill the Tea by John Lieb and David Quarfoot

My favorite gimmick from the tournament puzzles appears in puzzle 4, which took me longer to figure out than it probably should have. In this puzzle, longer theme entries are shortened by having a brand of tea contained in the answer reading down instead of across. So, HOTEL CHAIN reads HOTELCN across, because CHAI is reading down from the C instead.

This sort of visual gag in a crossword is hard to pull off, but Lieb and Quarfoot do so nicely, having five “spills” in the grid. (Cluing each tea reading down as an “Oops” was a nice touch, as was the Boston Tea Party reference in the tagline at the top of the page.)

Interesting grid entries included AP CALC, WIN BIG, UNCLE SAM and X-ACTO KNIFE, and my favorite clue was “Charlatan exposer of film” for TOTO.

Puzzle 5: Get the Picture by Paolo Pasco

The regular tournament concluded with puzzle 5, and Pasco ably brought it home with this film-centric puzzle where the theme entries all ended with synonyms for part of a film (SHOT, SCENE, FOOTAGE, TAKE, and CLIP). The theme is quickly uncovered, but the puzzle is by no means a cakewalk, as solid, creative fill makes for a more challenging solve than you expect.

There’s very little crosswordese — the grid instead focused on unusual entries in a well-constructed grid. (Heck, if Pasco had included J and X, this puzzle would have been a pangram as well!)

Interesting grid entries included SATYRS, CYBER, KAPOW, ME DAY, and GUIDE DOG, and my favorite clue was “Write this answer as EER, say” for ERR.

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[Image courtesy of @StalkingSarah.]

Championship Themeless by Finn Vigeland

After two years of championship puzzles being shepherded by the ambitious grids of David Quarfoot, Finn Vigeland steps up to the plate with a very intimidating themeless grid loaded with lots of long entries. With 3 nine-letter words in each corner and 3 thirteen-letter entries stacked in the middle of the grid, this one would probably give any solver pause at the outset, let alone those solving on stage in front of an audience.

Those long entries were bolstered by a lot of terrific crossings that made use of the open grid, making for a mostly great solving experience, save one or two specious phrases (AREN’T I?, ick).

But the impressive ones far outweigh the occasional clunkers, and Vigeland’s first championship themeless for BosWords will most likely not be his last.

Interesting grid entries included PR FARM, FUTURAMA, I CAN’T EVEN, and ARMREST, and my favorite clue was “One of a breakfast trio” for SNAP.


Bonus puzzle: Do the Math by John Lieb

Although this wasn’t an official tournament puzzle, I have to mention it because this bonus grid was my favorite in the entire set. Treating common hyphenated phrases with numbers as if they were equations, the theme entries in this puzzle required a little outside-the-box thinking to come up with the correction solutions.

For instance, “Combo from Rocky Balboa” would normally be “ONE-TWO PUNCH,” but since we’re thinking mathematically, ONE minus TWO is NEGATIVE ONE, so our themed answer is actually NEGATIVE ONE PUNCH.

The revealer DIFFERENCE MAKERS was just the icing on the cake for a puzzle that took something in plain sight and turned it on its head in a clever way. It was the perfect conclusion to a day of enjoyable puzzling.

Interesting grid entries included ELIXIR, RELAXED FIT, YIKES, and K’NEX, and my favorite clues were “Pricey place for a fan” for SKYBOX and “Improvises musically” for VAMPS.


Overall, I was mostly impressed by the array of puzzles assembled for this year’s tournament. There were tricky themes, visual themes, and math themes, all of which made great use of both the cluing and the grids themselves. Yes, one or two puzzles didn’t connect with me as strongly as the others, but the entire gauntlet of puzzles were challenging and creative in their design without being off-putting or getting too esoteric.

BosWords is probably the tournament that is friendliest to new solvers in terms of puzzle difficulty — not nearly as challenging as those at Lollapuzzoola or The Indie 500, but increasingly just as experimental and inventive — while still remaining engaging.

It’s the right mix of challenge and creativity for solvers accustomed to NYT-style solving, and I think the constructors and organizers did one heck of a job putting together the tournament.

Can’t wait to see what they cook up for us next year.


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The Human Limit of Speed-Puzzling?

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When you think about achieving the impossible, what comes to mind? For runners, there’s beating the 4-minute mile. For the 100-meter sprint, it’s topping 10 seconds.

What do you suppose the puzzle equivalent would be? Solving puzzle #1 at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in under 2 minutes? We’ve seen Dan Feyer do that, and it was seriously impressive.

For Rubik’s Cube enthusiasts — especially the competitors known as speed-solvers or speed-cubers — that benchmark is a sub-3 second solve.

The current verified world record for speed-solving a Rubik’s Cube stands at 3.4 seconds, which shattered the previous record by almost a second.

(That record is for a single solve. Many Rubik’s Cube competitions involve an average time across five solved cubes, and the speed record for that hovers somewhere around 5 seconds.)

A lot goes into achieving a 3.4 second solve. There are specially designed cubes that allow for easier, quicker, smoother twisting and turning, so you can solve faster. I’m sure anyone who has solved a classic Rubik’s Cube found it at least a little bit clunky.

There’s also technique. Top solvers not only memorize solving patterns known as algorithms, but they have preferred combinations of moves.

It has been mathematically proven that no matter how complicated a scramble gets, you’re never more than 20 moves away from the solve. Now, of course a computer can analyze a cube and figure out those 20 moves. The human mind doesn’t work that way, so even top speed-solvers would require many more moves to solve the cube, even if they’re still lightning fast.

Which brings us to the next aspect of speed-solving: efficiency. Sometimes the fewest number of moves isn’t the fastest solve. For instance, if you have to rotate the cube in order to execute a turn, you’re wasting time you could otherwise spend twisting and turning toward the solution. So some solvers will avoid a slower rotational move by doing two turns instead, which ends up being faster overall. The trade-off of speed vs. efficiency is another way speed-solvers are whittling down time and approaching that 3-second threshold.

Top solvers can execute ten turns or moves per second. Based on the idea that no Rubik’s Cube is more than 20 moves away from being solved, that mathematically implies that a 2-second solve should be possible, if not probable.

In fairness, we’ve seen a solve take less than a second, but that involved a computer program and a robot solver.

So where do we currently stand? Well, there’s the 3.4 second official record, but former champion Feliks Zemdegs claims that, in training, he has achieved a 3.01 second solve.

Another speed-solver, Patrick Ponce, claims that he has solved a 3×3 cube in 2.99 seconds, but again, this is an unofficial time.

That being said, it certainly seems like the 3-second threshold, like the 4-minute mile before it, will eventually fall.

How fast is the human limit? Only time will tell.

[Sources: Rubik’s WCA World Championship, World Cube Association, Wired.]


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Gearing up for the ACPT!

The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is days away, and at this point, competitors are sharpening their pencils and honing their skills for game day.

I’ve considered entering for a few years now — haven’t pulled the trigger yet, maybe next year — and over the last few months, I’ve been working on my tournament-style puzzling to see if I can improve my solving.

After speaking to several ACPT veterans — and reading numerous blog posts offering tournament-specific tips — I’ve discovered that every solver approaches competitive solving differently.

Some puzzlers recommend training yourself to look ahead, reading the next two or three clues as you write the answer to the previous clue. This maximizes efficiency and decreases wasted time while solving. Other solvers suggest focusing on a given section (a corner, for instance) instead of scanning all the acrosses and all the downs.

Some competitors have said they’ve turned in puzzles without having read all the clues, which is an amazing thing to consider.

The one universal piece of advice when it comes to competitive crossword-solving? Solve lots and lots of crosswords. It builds your confidence, your familiarity with crosswordese and clever-clue dissection, and it makes you faster with a pencil.

(You’d be surprised how much slower online solvers can be, since they’re more accustomed to typing than scribbling.)

A terrific source for tournament-solving insight is Crossworld: One Man’s Journey into America’s Crossword Obsession by Marc Romano. Romano explores the history of crosswords as he prepares to compete in the 2006 ACPT, and he offers some valuable first-hand experience.

A competitor in a crossword tournament has three enemies to face: the genius of puzzle constructors; the vagaries, vicissitudes, and inconstancy of his own mind; and the clock.

A first-timer at the competition who overlooks the basic rules is making a big mistake… managing your time is perhaps the single most important thing you have to do if you wish to place anywhere near the top of the puzzling heap…

For the casual solver, simply completing the puzzle is a victory, but in tournament solving, it can become a question of strategy: time vs. accuracy.

Here, Romano gives us a breakdown of ACPT scoring:

You get 10 points for every correctly filled-in answer across and down. You get 25 points for every full minute you complete a puzzle before time runs out; however, you also lose 10 points for every incorrect or unfilled-in letter in the puzzle.

A complete and error-free solution to a puzzle earns you another 150 points.

You’re better off striving for a full and complete solution than going for the time bonus. The trade-off between time and accuracy is a somewhat counterintuitive concept to master, especially when you see the fastest solvers turning in their puzzles before you’ve even got your pencil properly sharpened.

(She’s probably stressed because she’s solving in pen.)

Surrounded by dozens and dozens of fellow solvers, as if you’re all back in high school, scrambling to complete a test before class is over, it would be easy to be overwhelmed by the energy of the event.

Romano mentions this as well in his advice for first-time competitors:

I’ll stress that, for a rookie solver, keeping all of this in mind under competitive conditions is extremely difficult; not only are you concentrating on solving puzzles under the gun (puzzles, mind you, that perhaps 90 percent of your fellow citizens couldn’t complete if you gave them a week in which to do them), but you’re also unconsciously pressured, timewise, by your out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye awareness of how many of your fellow contestants have completed a puzzle before you and already scurried out of the hall.

My advice to a first-time tournament puzzler? Do your best. It sounds ridiculous when you know guys like Dan Feyer are out there crushing puzzles in three minutes flat, but in all honesty, your main competition is yourself. I know plenty of puzzlers who walk into the ACPT with one objective: improve on their performance from last year.

That is an admirable goal, to be sure.

Good luck to all the newcomers and veterans! Be sure to keep calm and puzzle on. =)

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