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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Crossword History: Dawe and D-Day

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

June 6, 1944 is a date that will continue to resonate for decades to come, and perhaps centuries. On that day, D-Day, the largest amphibious military attack in history was launched as the Allied forces landed at Normandy. This was one of the major offensives that helped bring about the end of World War II.

But a few days before that, a curious confluence of events brought crosswords to the attention to British agents, namely those of MI5.

Yes, tomorrow, June 2, 1944, marks the anniversary of the day a physics teacher and crossword constructor named Leonard Dawe was questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

More specifically, the words Omaha (codename for one of Normandy’s beaches), Utah (another Normandy beach codename), Overlord (the name for the plan to land at Normandy on June 6th), mulberry (nickname for a portable harbor built for D-Day), and Neptune (name for the naval portion of the invasion) all appeared in Daily Telegraph crosswords during the month preceding the D-Day landing.

So, the authorities had to investigate the highly improbable, yet still possible, scenario that Dawe was purposely trying to inform the enemy of Allied plans, and scooped up the constructor to investigate.

In the end, no definitive link could be found, and consensus is that Dawe either overheard these words (possibly mentioned by the loose lips of soldiers stationed nearby) and slipped them into his grids unwittingly, or this is simply an incredible coincidence.

Some crossword fans suspect that there’s more to the story, though.

According to The Guardian newspaper:

During the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of D-day, one of Dawe’s former pupils approached the Telegraph and insisted that as a lad, he had overheard US and Canadian soldiers discussing the plans, picked up on the codewords, and suggested them to his headmaster as possible entries.

This has been dismissed by most historians as an attempt to rewrite or embellish an already baffling story.

Nonetheless, it’s possible that, somewhere, some document connecting Mr. Dawes and the codewords is waiting to be discovered.

Until then, it simply remains a curious moment in crossword history.


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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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Other puzzles you might not know! (Volume 3)

In previous editions of this series, we’ve presented some new puzzles for crossword devotees and Fill-In fans to try out. Today, let’s turn our attention to Sudoku enthusiasts.

Now, before we talk about other types of puzzles, there are numerous Sudoku variants to choose from, if you’d like just a little twist on the familiar Sudoku formula. In fact, I did an entire blog post about them, as well as posts about new variants like Will Sudoku and Pentdoku Puzzles!

There are a few lesser-known number-placement puzzles out there that might scratch your puzzly itch if you’re a Sudoku fan: Futoshiki and Beehive Hidato.

[Futoshiki image courtesy of PuzzleMagazine.com.]

Futoshiki will seem fairly familiar, since the row and column rules of Sudoku are in effect. But you have an additional placement rule to consider: the less than/greater than signs in the grid, which indicate where to place lower or higher numbers in the grid. (Futoshiki translates to “not equal” in Japanese.)

[Hidato image courtesy of TheGuardian.com.]

Beehive Hidato eschews the traditional Sudoku row/column system of the deduction in favor of chain-placement of numbers in its hexagonal grid. Your goal is to fill every cell in the grid by filling in the missing numbers between 1 and the highest number. So, instead of placing the same numbers in every row and column, you’re placing a different number in each cell, forming a single chain from 1 to the last number.

The cell containing the number 1 must neighbor the cell containing the number 2, and the cell containing the number 2 must neighbor the cell containing the number 3, and so on, all the way around the grid.

If you’re looking to go a little farther afield and leave numbers behind, I’ve got you covered.

After all, some people tend to think of Sudoku as a math puzzle, but it’s really not; it’s more of a deduction and placement puzzle. You could check out not only Fill-Ins, but also all the puzzles I’ve previously recommended for Fill-In fans. That’s a great place to start.

You could also try your hand at Brick by Brick.

[Click here or on the grid for a larger version.]

Brick by Brick puzzles are a terrific bridge between placement puzzles and crosswords, using aspects of both. You’re given the complete first row of a crossword, and all of your clues, both across and down.

But, instead of the black squares you’d normally rely on to help guide you through answering those clues and placing your words, you’ve got 3×2 bricks filled with letters and black squares, a scrambled jigsaw puzzle to reassemble.

Here you can use your deductive Sudoku skills to place black squares and entire bricks into the grid as you apply crossword-solving skills toward answering the across and down clues, working back and forth between the two to complete your grid, assembling chunks of answer words as bricks fit neatly together.

And if you prefer quote puzzles to crossword puzzles, there’s always Quotefalls.

[Click here or on the grid for a full page of Quotefalls.]

Quotefalls gives you all of the letters in a given quote, plus the black squares that separate each word from the next. But it’s up to you to figure out where in each column to place the letters above so that the quotation reads out correctly.

Sometimes that’s easy, like in the fourth column of puzzle 2 above. Since there’s three black squares and only one open square, you know exactly where that E will go. Seedling letters like that can go a long way toward helping you fill each word, and eventually, the entire quote.

It’s a different form of deduction, but one not too terribly far from the number-placement solving of Sudoku.

Any one of these puzzles could add some welcome variety to your puzzle solving, while still honoring the style and play inherent in your favorite puzzle. Give them a shot, and let us know how you like them.


Next time, we’ll be tackling recommendations for Cryptogram fans, but if you’ve got puzzle recs for your fellow puzzlers in the meantime, please let us know in the comments!

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“Do nine men interpret?” “Nine men,” I nod.

I’ve written about Bletchley Park and the efforts to crack the German ENIGMA code several times now, both from a historical standpoint and a cinematic one with the recent release and Oscar success of The Imitation Game.

Bletchley Park was the home of world-class codebreakers, chess players, and crossword solvers, but as it turns out, there was one more type of puzzle that the Bletchley Park crew mastered: palindromes.

In their spare time, they had competitions to create new sentences that could be read both backward and forward — like the title of today’s post, one of my all-time favorites — and mathematician Peter Hilton was far and ahead the most gifted when it came to crafting these palindromes. (His penchant for the puzzle was even mentioned in his obituary in the British online magazine The Independent.)

Perhaps you’ve seen his most famous creation, one of the world’s longest palindromes, composed during one sleepless night at Bletchley Park:

Doc note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.

From an article on Vocabulary.com:

Incredibly, the young codebreaker did not use paper or pencil while composing his epic palindrome. He simply lay on his bed, eyes closed, and assembled it in his mind over one long night. It took him five hours.

It all started, apparently, with a contest to best a well-known palindrome: Step on no pets.

Two days later, Hilton responded with the cheeky “Sex at noon taxes.”

And they were off to the races, competing to create longer and more elaborate palindromes. It’s not known how many of the Bletchley Park alums were involved — whether Alan Turing played remains a big question mark — but it’s been said that the competition, instigated by mathematician John Henry Whitehead (nephew of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead), helped spawn the golden age of palindromes.

Some estimate that more palindromes were written in the ten years after Bletchley Park’s competition started than were published across the world in the more than three hundred years that preceded them.

That’s one heck of a legacy.

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