Getting Started with Crosswords

We spend a lot of time talking about crosswords here on PuzzleNation Blog, and rightfully so.

For more than a century now, crosswords have been the standard-bearer for paper-and-pencil puzzles. From your local paper to The New York Times crossword, from online solving to puzzle apps like our very own Penny Dell Crosswords App, crosswords sit comfortably at the apex of the proverbial puzzle mountain, atop worthy also-rans like word searches, cryptograms, and Sudoku.

[Apparently Puzzle Mountain is actually a place. Who knew?]

But in talking about crosswords, it’s easy to forget that not everyone solves them. In fact, plenty of people find them intimidating, given the mix of trivia, wordplay, and tricky cluing that typify many crosswords these days, particularly in outlets like The New York Times, The LA Times, The Guardian, and more.

So today, I thought I’d offer some helpful resources to solvers just getting started with crosswords.

First off, if you need help filling in troublesome letter patterns, Onelook is an excellent resource. Not only can you search for words that fit various patterns, but you can narrow your searches according to cluing, look up definitions and synonyms, and even hunt down phrases and partial phrases.

Along the same lines, there are websites like Crossword Tracker that offer informal cluing help culled from online databases. For something more formal, there’s XWordInfo, an online database of entries and cluing that also serves as an archive of NYT puzzles you can search for a small fee.

The NYT Wordplay Blog chronicles each day’s puzzle, including insights into the theme, key entries, and more, plus they’ve begun amassing helpful articles about crossword solving. Not only are there sample puzzles to download and solve to get you started, but there are lists of opera terms, rivers, and sports names to know to make you a stronger solver.

And if British-style or cryptic crosswords are your puzzle of choice, look no further than The Guardian‘s Crossword Blog, which frequently posts about various cluing tricks employed by crafting cryptic puzzle setters. Their “Cryptic Crosswords for Beginners” series of posts has discussed all sorts of linguistic trickery, covering everything from the NATO alphabet to elementary chemistry.

For other variety puzzles, our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles offer sample puzzles and helpful solving tips for many of the puzzles in their magazines. For example, you can find a sample Kakuro or Cross Sums puzzle on the page for their Dell Collector’s Series Cross Sums puzzle book, as well as a How to Solve PDF.

Is there a particular puzzle that troubles you, or one you find too intimidating to tackle, fellow puzzlers? If so, let us know! We can either point you toward a solving resource or tackle the puzzle ourselves in a future post to provide helpful solving tips!


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What Makes a Thing a Thing in Crosswords?

A few months ago, there was a debate amongst the solvers and readers of The Guardian’s Crossword Blog concerning which words are fair entry fodder for crosswords.

It started with this comment on a post about cluing the entry WHITE KNIGHT:

I wonder if all the clues that are giving some sort of synonym for a chess piece are quite playing fair (including my own). Obviously, it’s a chess piece, but it wouldn’t be in a crossword because it’s a chess piece. If I solved a puzzle and found BLACK PAWN to be one of the solutions I’d feel a bit miffed.

I asked Penny Press Editorial Director Warren Rivers about this very subject, and he mentioned that WHITE KNIGHT would cause him no issue — it reminded him of this Ajax commercial — but an entry like WHITE ROOK would be a problem, because it’s not a standalone concept (as far as he is aware).

It’s an intriguing discussion, all centering around arbitrariness. Should the determining factor of “crossword worthiness” be whether the entry can be found in a dictionary or another reputable source, like Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable? Does a textbook definition make a thing a thing?

Not necessarily, as slang, phrases, partial phrases, and anecdotal entries make it into puzzles all the time.

In the Lollapuzzoola puzzles we looked at recently, entries like ONE-NIL, NASCAR DAD, SIREE (as in “no siree”), NO REST (as in “for the wicked”), and TELL ME THIS all appeared as answers in grids. Would you accept all of these as fair entries? Most of these wouldn’t pass muster in Penny Press puzzles.

The partial phrase, of course, opens up an entirely different can of worms. For instance, would you be upset to see “At a ____” cluing LOSS? Probably not. But what about “At ____” cluing ALOSS? Maybe so, maybe not.

Where do you stand on this issue, fellow puzzlers? Is there a particular cluing or entry style that bugs you? Do you have an example of something that made it into a puzzle recently that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny?

Or does nothing come to mind? If so, does that mean the issue doesn’t bother you at all as a solver?

Either way, let us know in the comments below!


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Crosswords: Good for Any Apocalypse!

Crosswords. They’re great to have on hand when you’re bored, when you’re looking for a challenge, when you need a diversion, or when the end is near and doomsday approacheth.

Wait, what was that last one?

Yes, my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, as it turns out, crosswords have recently gained attention as a resource for doomsday preppers and other folks with a vested interest in doing their best to prepare for the worst.

[Image courtesy of Trinity International.]

In this article from The Examiner, the many pluses of crosswords are discussed:

Crossword puzzles also help younger family members and older family members to develop or maintain good spelling. Misspelled words in written communications can create confusion during an emergency.

In addition, crossword puzzles can help to instill a “can do” attitude in family members. When first beginning a crossword puzzle, for example, few people will know all or even most of the words needed. As crossword puzzle users progress into the crossword puzzle, however, the “across” words that they know will help them to guess the correct “down” words, and vice versa.

It goes on to discuss crosswords encouraging family interaction, the subgenre of Bible crosswords, the fact that crosswords don’t require batteries or electricity, that they’re affordable, and that they make great “hurry up and wait” time fillers. (Plus, they don’t take up much space in a bug-out bag!)

But what’s most intriguing about this article is that it implies that crosswords have both short-term and long-term value for preppers.

After all, if you’re a doomsday prepper, you need to think long term. We could be talking about a complete breakdown of society here. Since crosswords are not only strong language-building and vocabulary-building tools, but they’re also chronicles of knowledge both general and trivial, they have long-term value to a society in flux or rebuilding itself.

And based on my own stockpile of puzzle books, I’m ready for the next three or four doomsdays.

[The Examiner article was brought to my attention by The Guardian crossword blog.]


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Crosswords, Cryptics, Constructors, and… Setters?

One of the privileges of writing two or three posts a week for this blog is that it pushes me to expand my own horizons when it comes to puzzles. I reach out to puzzlers, game designers, and pop culture personalities of all sorts; I try out new games and puzzles; I obsessively scour the Internet for new projects, new products, and new stories that involve puzzles.

Oftentimes, that continuous search takes me beyond the borders of the United States, allowing me to explore what puzzles mean to other countries and cultures. And I am forever intrigued by the differences in crossword puzzles between America and the UK.

The world of cryptic crosswords (or British-style crosswords, as some call them) is a bit different from the world of American crosswords. Instead of constructors, they have compilers or setters, and while constructor bylines and attributions were a long time coming on this side of the Atlantic, setters in the UK have been drawing loyal followings for decades, thanks to their unique and evocative pseudonyms.

While Will Shortz, Merl Reagle, Patrick Blindauer, Brendan Emmett QuigleyPatrick Berry, Trip Payne, Matt Gaffney, and Bernice Gordon represent some of the top puzzlers to grace the pages of the New York Times Crossword, names such as Araucaria, Qaos, Arachne, Crucible, Otterden, Tramp, Morph, Gordius, Shed, Enigmatist, and Paul are their word-twisting counterparts featured in The Guardian and other UK outlets.

In fact, beloved setter Araucaria will soon be the subject of a documentary. For more than 50 years, he challenged and delighted cryptic crossword fans, amassing a loyal following. In January of 2013, he even shared his cancer diagnosis with the audience through a puzzle in The Guardian.

While the Wordplay documentary, as well as interviews on PuzzleNation Blog and other sites, have given solvers some insight into the minds and lives of constructors and setters, it’s wonderful to know that the life of a fellow puzzler will be chronicled in so intimate a format.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out our library of PuzzleNation apps and games!