The PN Blog 2020 Countdown!

It’s the final blog post of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2020 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


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#10 Farewell, Keith

I don’t mean to start off this countdown on a sad note by mentioning the loss of fellow puzzler and Penny Dell colleague Keith Yarbrough. Writing this post was incredibly difficult, but I am proud of how it turned out. It served as a valuable part of my healing process, allowing me to immerse myself in nothing but good memories of my friend. Giving other people the opportunity to know Keith like I did was a worthwhile experience.

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#9 Tap Code

Exploring the different ways puzzles have been involved in historical moments, either as anecdotes or key aspects, is one of my favorite parts of writing for PuzzleNation Blog. But it’s rare to have a historical story about puzzles that tugs on your heartstrings like this one. The way the Tap code served to keep the spirits of POWs high — and the way that codes and spycraft helped a husband and wife endure the hardships of separation — made this a post with a lot of depth and humanity.

#8 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#7 Crossword Commentary

There’s more to writing about crosswords than simply solving puzzles and unraveling clues, and that was especially true this year. The social and cultural aspect of crosswords came up several times, and it’s important to discuss these issues in an open, honest way, even if that means calling out a toxic presence like Timothy Parker, or even questioning the choices of the biggest crossword in the world to hold them accountable.

Whether it was exploring representation in crossword entries and cluing or continuing to debate cultural sensitivity in crossword answers in the major outlets, we took up the torch more than once this year because it was the right thing to do.

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#6 Best Puzzle Solvers

Last year, we began a series of posts examining the best puzzle solvers in various realms of pop culture, and I very much enjoyed combing through the worlds of horror movies and television for the sharpest minds and most clever problem solvers.

This series continued in 2020, as we delved into literature (for adult readers, young adult readers, AND younger readers, respectively), as well as compiling a list of the worst puzzle solvers in pop culture. We even graded the skills of different fictional crossword constructors to see who was representing the best and worst in puzzle construction in media!

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#5 Crossword Bingo

One of the most clever deconstructions of the medium of crosswords I came across this year was a bingo card a solver made, highlighting words and tropes that frequently appear in modern crosswords. It was a smartly visual way of discussing repetition and pet peeves, but also a sly bit of commentary. So naturally, we couldn’t resist making our own Crossword Bingo card and getting in on the fun.

#4 Pitches for Crossword Mysteries

Hallmark’s Crossword Mysteries series was one of the most noteworthy crossovers between puzzles and popular media last year, and that continued into this year with the third Crossword Mysteries film, Abracadaver. But we couldn’t get the idea of a fourth film — still promised on IMDb and other outlets — out of our heads, so we ended up pitching our own ideas for the fourth installment in the franchise. Writing this, no joke, was one of my favorite silly brainstorming sessions of the entire year.

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#3 The World of Puzzles Adapts

Even in a post celebrating the best, the most satisfying, the most rewarding, and the most enjoyable entries from 2020, you cannot help but at least mention the prevailing circumstances that shaped the entire year. 2020 will forever be the pandemic year in our memories, but it will also be the year that I remember puzzlers and constructors adapting and creating some of the most memorable puzzle experiences I’ve ever had.

From the initial experiment of Crossword Tournament From Your Couch to the creation of the Boswords Fall Themeless League, from tournaments like Boswords and Lollapuzzoola going virtual to the crew at Club Drosselmeyer creating an interactive puzzly radio show for the ages, I was blown away by the wit, ambition, determination, and puzzle-fueled innovation brought to the fore this year.

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#2 Eyes Open

Earlier this year, we made a promise to all of the people standing up for underrepresented and mistreated groups to do our part in helping make the world better for women, for people of color, and for the LGBTQIA+ community. We launched Eyes Open, a puzzle series designed to better educate ourselves and our fellow solvers about important social topics. And that is a promise we will carry into 2021. We hope that, in some small way, we are contributing to a better, more inclusive world.

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#1 Fairness

Part of the prevailing mindset of PuzzleNation Blog is that puzzles can and should be for everyone. They should be fun. And they should be fair.

So this year, two posts stood out to me as epitomizing that spirit. The first was a discussion of intuitive vs non-intuitive puzzles, which I feel is very relevant these days, given the proliferation of different puzzle experiences like escape rooms out there.

The second, quite simply, was a response to a friend’s Facebook post where she felt guilty for looking up answers she didn’t know in a crossword, calling it “cheating.” I tried to reassure her there was no such thing as cheating in crosswords.

And since I couldn’t decide between these two posts for the top spot in our countdown, I’m putting them both here, because I feel like they represent a similar spirit. I hope you feel the same.


Thanks for spending 2020 with us, through brain teasers and big ideas, through Hallmark mysteries and Halloween puns, through puzzle launches and landmark moments. We’ll see you in 2021.

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The Tap Code (and a Puzzly Love Story)

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Instead of offering a puzzle for Valentine’s Day, this year I thought I’d do something different and share a story, a wartime puzzly love story for the ages.


Our tale begins in Vietnam on April 4, 1965, when Air Force pilot Carlyle Harris is shot down during a failed bombing run. Over the next eight years, Captain Harris — Smitty to his friends — was a POW in Vietnamese hands.

He would be imprisoned in numerous camps over the years — Briarpatch, “the Zoo,” Son Tay, Dogpatch, and even the infamous Hanoi Hilton — enduring illness, mistreatment, psychological and physical torture, and whatever other horrors his captors could conjure up.

But nothing was more taxing than being separated from his beloved wife Louise. With two daughters to raise, a son on the way, and a husband trapped on the other side of the world, Louise became one of the first POW wives. (Smitty was only the sixth American POW captured by the Vietnamese at that time.)

Louise worked hard not only to care for her family, but to try to contact Smitty and keep his spirits up. She also fought for personal rights, including access to her husband’s pay during his imprisonment, becoming a role model for other POW wives to come.

But what, you might be wondering, makes this a puzzly tale?

The Tap Code.

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A World War II-era form of communication developed by a POW in Germany, the Tap Code was devised to allow communication when verbal commands wouldn’t do. The simple five-by-five matrix allows each letter to be identified by two simple sets of taps. (The lack of a need for dashes made the Tap Code superior to Morse Code for their efforts.)

Smitty taught it to fellow POWs when given the opportunity, and they taught it to others, and soon, the prisoners could communicate by tapping on walls and water pipes, knocking on buckets, or even through the movements of a broom while sweeping. (Naturally, everyone using the Tap Code did so lightly, so as not to alert the guards to their efforts at clandestine communication.)

This wasn’t the only method of communication employed by the POWs. A one-handed code system similar to American Sign Language was also developed. Some used coughing as a signal that they were being moved, while others managed to pass notes, eventually assembling mental lists of all of the POWs in a given camp.

Of course, Morse Code also proved useful. When one POW was placed on television as a Vietnamese propaganda effort, Jeremiah Denton blinked a message in Morse Code for the world to see. His message? T-O-R-T-U-R-E.

These methods, along with the Tap Code, not only kept morale up, but allowed the POWs to keep track of their ranks even when moved between camps/prisons.

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[Image courtesy of PBS.]

It also allowed for covert operations within the camps. An SRO (senior ranking officer) would be chosen for the group, and he could assign tasks to fellow POWs as well as establish rules for newcomers to help them survive the experience.

Key Tap Code abbreviations also emerged:

  • GNST: Good Night, Sleep Tight
  • DLTBBB: Don’t let the bed bugs bite. (A sadly literal wish for the POWs.)
  • GBU: God Bless You.

GBU became shorthand for “you are not alone,” a reassurance that both God and fellow POWs were on your side, watching over you.

But Smitty and his fellow POWs weren’t the only ones using coded messages. Louise was also learning codes in order to both support the war effort and communicate with her husband. She and other POW wives would participate by using the Letter Code:

The long process began when Louise would write a short letter in longhand and send it to the Pentagon. They would rewrite it in code, while at the same time keeping the spirit of what she had written. They would then send the letter back to Louise, and she would rewrite it in longhand on the prescribed form. These then would be mailed to North Vietnam, which didn’t know about the secret strategy. It was a complicated code, and only a select few had been taught how to do it in survival training.

Smitty taught a select few the Letter Code for their own coded messages to send home, but it was hard to tell how many made it out of the camps.

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[Image courtesy of The Daily Journal.]

All through that time, Louise was constantly writing letters, sending packages, and making entreaties on behalf of her husband, reaching out to him in any way possible. Although the Vietnamese combed through every package and seized much of the contents for themselves, some items still slipped through, becoming treasures for Smitty to hold onto. (And yes, the US government managed to slip some info and supplies to the POWs spy-style through these packages, including microfilm, maps, and more.)

Louise’s unflagging efforts and Smitty’s determination were finally rewarded when negotiations between the US and Vietnam bore fruit. Before returning to the United States, Smitty was allowed to speak to Louise on the phone. It had been 2,871 days since his capture.

But that wasn’t the end for the Tap Code — later referred to as the Smitty Harris Tap Code after the successes with it during Vietnam. Even when the POWs were finally returned home, staying in a hotel before going their separate ways, they used the Tap Code all night to communicate with each other. Old habits are hard to break.


Not only is this a story of puzzly innovation and determination, but it’s also an inspiring tale of two people in love who never gave up on seeing each other again.

You can read the full story of Smitty and Louise’s trials and tribulations in Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code That Changed Everything.

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[Image courtesy of Amazon.]


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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!