Spies, Crosswords, and Secret Messages!

secret message

There are loads of ways to hide secret messages in puzzles. The field of cryptography is built around it. Many meta puzzles have a special secret lurking inside their clever constructions. Heck, our friends at Penny Press even have an entire word seek called Secret Message.

But have you ever noticed that there’s a strange fascination in pop culture with secret messages in crosswords?

No, I don’t mean constructors hiding quotations, poems, or word seeks in their crosswords, though those are impressive feats of cruciverbalism.

I’m talking about stories about actual secret messages concealed in crossword grids, meant to be hidden from even the most diligent solvers, only a special few possessing the keys to finding the hidden words.

Oh, believe me, it’s definitely a thing.

Look no further than the first Crossword Mysteries movie. The film opens with a murdered art gallery owner with a crossword in his pocket. And it turns out that a devilish criminal mastermind was submitting puzzles to Tess’s daily crossword that contained hidden instructions for robberies to be conducted that day. Diabolical!

You might laugh, but this is hardly the only time we’ve seen crime, secret messages, and crosswords combined. It was a plotline in the radio show The Adventures of Superman, and Lois Lane’s life once depended on Superman’s ability to solve a crossword puzzle.

There are any number of mystery novels, cozy and otherwise, that contain hidden messages in crosswords. Nero Blanc’s Anatomy of a Crossword and Corpus de Crossword come to mind, as do any number of murder mysteries where a strange message scribbled on a crossword grid turn out to be a pivotal clue to catch the killer.

And there’s an even more curious subset of this in pop culture: crosswords and spycraft.

I could give you a simple example, like Bernie Mac’s character in the Ocean’s 11 remake pretending to solve a crossword, but actually writing down key information about the casino for the upcoming heist.

But that’s not really a secret message IN a crossword. No, it’s more of a secret message ON a crossword, though it is a bit of decent spycraft.

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[From Spy vs. Guy.]

Let’s talk about spies and their crosswords, then.

In the TV show Burn Notice, former (and occasionally current) spy Michael Weston sometimes received hidden messages from his previous spy organization through the crossword, though we’re not given much info on how this is achieved.

In the James Bond prequel novel Double or Die, it’s actually the young Bond’s teacher who sneaks a secret message into a puzzle. He’s also a cryptic crossword editor, and he convinces his kidnappers to allow him to submit a crossword to the newspaper, because if he didn’t, it would let people know all was not well.

Naturally, the kidnappers didn’t spot the clues to his current location that the teacher had hidden in the puzzle. Bond, even in his youth, manages to do so with ease.

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In the short-lived TV show Rubicon, crosswords are at the center of a fascinating unsolved mystery. An intelligence agent named Will finds out his mentor committed suicide after seeing a four-leaf clover.

He then finds a pattern across several crosswords that leads him to believe his mentor’s death is somehow connected to the pattern in the crosswords, and he tells his superior about it.

And soon after investigating it himself, Will’s superior is also found dead. Unfortunately, we never get a resolution for this story, but it certainly fits the bill.

So yes, the curious connection between secret messages and crosswords in pop culture is definitely a thing.

But did you know it also extends beyond fiction? Yup, I’ve got some real-world examples for you too.

Back in June of 1944, physics teacher and crossword constructor Leonard Dawe was questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph.

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 it was possible (though highly improbable) that Dawe was purposely trying to inform the enemy of Allied plans, and the powers that be acted accordingly. In the end, no definitive link could be found, and consensus is that Dawe either overheard these words himself or was told them by his students — possibly slipped by soldiers stationed nearby — and placed them into his grids unwittingly.

Yes, this was just a big misunderstanding. But sometimes, accusations like this have real-world consequences.

In Venezuela, a newspaper has been accused multiple times of hiding encrypted messages within their daily crossword puzzles in order to incite revolt against the government.

Another Venezuelan newspaper was accused of concealing messages ordering the assassination of a public official named Adan, the brother of President Hugo Chavez!

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Some of the answers considered suspicious in the grid included “Adan,” “asesinen” (meaning “kill”), and “rafaga” (which can mean either a burst of gunfire, or a gust of wind).

Apparently this confluence was considered enough to warrant a half-dozen members of the intelligence service visiting the newspaper’s editorial office.

Now, were these cases of genuine secret messages being passed through the crossword, or were these coincidental events that appeared credible because the crossword/secret message concept has been part of pop culture for decades?

I leave that question to you, fellow puzzlers.

Can you think of any examples of crosswords with secret messages in pop culture or intersections of crosswords and spycraft that weren’t mentioned here? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Farewell, Maki Kaji.

maki kaji 1

When you get right down to it, the puzzle world isn’t all that big. There are a few names that everyone knows, and plenty of names that people should, but generally don’t. And sadly, too many of those names aren’t celebrated until after they’re gone.

Maki Kaji is one of those names you should know.

He passed away recently, and different articles and obituaries called him everything from “puzzle enthusiast” to “Sudoku creator,” but the title he most deserves is the one he put on his business cards: Godfather of Sudoku.

Honestly, he’s one of the three most important people in the history of Sudoku.

Howard Garns is credited with creating Number Place for Dell Pencil Puzzles and Word Games in May 1979 (though a French variant of the puzzle appeared in the newspaper La France in the 1890s). Wayne Gould stumbled upon Sudoku puzzles in a magazine, then designed a generation program and sold it to the Times in London, kickstarting the craze in the UK that spread elsewhere.

maki kaji 2

[Maki Kaji at Brazil’s first national Sudoku competition in São Paulo in 2012.]

But it was Maki Kaji who championed the puzzle all over, using it in his puzzle magazine Nikoli starting in the early 80s, then taking advantage of the UK boom and selling it in dozens of countries. (Gould didn’t have the resources, so many newspapers and publishers came to Maki Kaji for them.)

The name Sudoku came from him. (In American puzzle magazines, it was Number Place or To the Nines.) Originally the puzzle was called Suuji wa dokushin ni kagiru, or “numbers should be single,” before taking the suggestion to shorten it to Sudoku.

Of course, despite his close association with Sudoku, Maki championed puzzles in all forms. He founded Nikoli (also known as Puzzle Communication Nikoli) with two school friends in 1980, four years before adding Sudoku to its roster of puzzles. It was Japan’s first puzzle magazine!

maki kaji 3

One of the goals of Nikoli was to feature what they called “culture independent” puzzles, meaning puzzles that didn’t rely on a specific language or alphabet. (Talk about accessibility!)

“When we create our puzzles, we want people to enjoy them and not feel stressed by them,” he said.

Because of this culture-independent style, Nikoli was famed for its many logic puzzles, because they relied less on words and more on numbers, symbols, and elegant grid positioning. Popular puzzles included familiar ones like Sudoku and Kakuro, as well as less familiar puzzles like Nurikabe and Hashiwokakero.

nikoli puzzles

“I don’t want to just be the godfather of Sudoku,” Maki said. “I’d like to spread the fun of puzzles until I’m known as the person who established the puzzle genre in Japan.”

One of his key tools was a section in Nikoli that invited readers to submit their own ideas for puzzles. It quickly became the most popular part of the magazine. Readers submitted new puzzles, which other readers then refined and expanded on. Nikoli is credited with introducing hundreds of new logic and number puzzles to the world through this puzzle-loving fan-fueled pipeline.

Of course, even the Godfather of Sudoku ventured into crosswords from time to time. In fact, in 2017, it was reported that he published the world’s largest ever crossword, with 59,365 across clues and 59,381 down clues on a printed grid 30m long, kept in a scroll.

Go big or go home, I guess.

maki kaji 4

[Constructor Peter Gordon (and his Sudoku license plate) with Maki.

Maki stepped down as president of Nikoli just last month, and the company released this statement in response to his passing:

Kaji-san came up with the name Sudoku and was loved by puzzle fans from all over the world. We are grateful from the bottom of our hearts for the patronage you have shown throughout his life.

But, naturally, it takes a puzzler to truly honor a puzzler, and I think Thomas Snyder (aka Dr. Sudoku, no slouch himself when it comes to the famed number puzzle) offered the perfect tribute on his Art of Puzzles website:

A wordoku puzzle dedicated to Maki Kaji.

snyder wordoku

The puzzle world is a far richer and more varied place thanks to the creativity, hard work, and passion of Maki Kaji. You probably didn’t know his name before. But hopefully, you’ll remember it now.

Farewell, Maki. Thank you for bringing so many new eyes to the world of puzzles.

[Source links: Kotaku, The Guardian, Wikipedia.]


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Could Pigs Be Puzzle Solvers?

As a puzzler, I am on a quest to highlight and recognize the skills and accomplishments of fellow puzzlers. All too often, other outlets restrict this activity to humans and humans alone.

But PuzzleNation Blog has a fine long-standing tradition of celebrating the puzzly accomplishments of non-human puzzlers. In the past, we’ve discussed the puzzle skills evidenced by catsdogscrowscockatoos, octopuses, and bees.

And it’s possible that, soon, we might be adding another species to that marvelous list of puzzle-cracking creatures.

Pigs.

According to a paper published on February 11th in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, pigs can learn to be gamers.

No, we haven’t seen them follow multiple steps like octopuses or cockatoos, but there is puzzly potential here, because they’ve proven they can accomplish abstract tasks and deal with unenviable circumstances.

The initial task was for the four pigs — Omelet and Hamlet (Yorkshire pigs) and Ebony and Ivory (Panepinto micro pigs) — to manipulate a joystick so that they would move the cursor on the screen into a particular area.

Sure, it sounds simple, but if you’re an animal that doesn’t look at screens at all or is unfamiliar with the concept that one action here can cause one effect there, this is monumental.

According to The Guardian, the Purdue study focused on “the last 50 rounds of the video game played by each pig on each of the three levels, with one, two and three walls. The round was successful if the pig moved the cursor to the bright blue target with the first cursor movement.”

Their difficulties were described in detail:

It was an uphill battle for the swine. The joysticks were outfitted for trials with primates, so the hoofed pigs had to use their snouts and mouths to get the job done. All four pigs were found to be farsighted, so the screens had to be placed at an optimal distance for the pigs to see the targets. There were additional limitations on the Yorkshire pigs. Bred to grow fast, the heavier pigs couldn’t stay on their feet for too long.

Still, the pigs showed what is known as “self-agency,” the realization that one’s actions make a difference. The pigs recognized that by manipulating the joystick, they moved the cursor. That connection — similar to a cockatoo pulling a lever and opening a door — is the sort of step-by-step cognition that leads to puzzle solving.

The pigs were able to adapt to the joysticks and complete their simple, yet abstract goal.

“What they were able to do is perform well above chance at hitting these targets,” said Candace Croney, director of Purdue University’s Center for Animal Welfare Science and lead author of the paper. “And well enough above chance that it’s very clear they had some conceptual understanding of what they were being asked to do.”

I think the next step should be designing an Angry Birds analog for them where they throw something at the birds and their structures, and see how they do.

We’ll be keeping our eyes open for any other pig-related puzzling. It’s entirely possible we’ll be adding them to the puzzle-solving menagerie sooner rather than later.

And now, despite the cliche, there is truly only one way I can end this post. Say it with me now…

That’ll do, pigs. That’ll do.


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Two Brain Teasers, Courtesy of Conway

John_H_Conway_2005_(cropped)

Last week, we penned a post celebrating the life and puzzly legacy of mathematician John Horton Conway, and several of our fellow PuzzleNationers reached out with their own thoughts or questions about Conway.

One recurring subject was about his love of puzzles and what kind of puzzles he enjoyed solving. So, naturally, I went hunting for some of Conway’s favorite puzzles.

As it turns out, Alex Bellos of The Guardian had me covered. Alex has a recurring puzzle feature on The Guardian‘s website where brain teasers and other mental trickery awaits intrepid solvers.

Years ago, Alex had asked Conway for suggestions for his column, and Conway offered up two tricky puzzles.

And now, I happily share them with you.


#1: The Miracle Builders

I had a window in the north wall of my house. It was a perfect square, 1 meter wide and 1 meter high. But this window never let in enough light. So I hired this firm, the Miracle Builders, who performed the impossible. They remodeled the window so it let in more light. When when they’d finished the window was a perfect square, 1 meter high and 1 meter wide.

How did they do it?


#2: The Ten Divisibilities

I have a ten digit number, abcdefghij. Each of the digits is different.

The following is also true:

  • a is divisible by 1
  • ab is divisible by 2
  • abc is divisible by 3
  • abcd is divisible by 4
  • abcde is divisible by 5
  • abcdef is divisible by 6
  • abcdefg is divisible by 7
  • abcdefgh is divisible by 8
  • abcdefghi is divisible by 9
  • abcdefghij is divisible by 10

What’s my number?

[To clarify: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, and j are all single digits. Each digit from 0 to 9 is represented by exactly one letter. The number abcdefghij is a ten-digit number whose first digit is a, second digit is b, and so on. It does not mean that you multiply a x b x c x…]


Did you solve one or both of these fiendish mind ticklers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.

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Celebrating the Puzzly Legacy of John Horton Conway

The worlds of puzzles and mathematics overlap more than you might think. I’m not just talking about word problems or mathy brain teasers like the Birthday Puzzle or the jugs of water trap from Die Hard with a Vengeance.

For twenty-five years, Martin Gardner penned a column in Scientific American called Mathematical Games, adding a marvelous sense of puzzly spirit and whimsy to the field of mathematics, exploring everything from the works of M.C. Escher to visual puzzles like the mobius strip and tangrams. He was also a champion of recreational math, the concept that there are inherently fun and entertaining ways to do math, not just homework, analysis, and number crunching.

And on more than one occasion, Gardner turned to the genius and innovative thinking of John Horton Conway for inspiration.

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[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Conway was best known as a mathematician, but that one word fails to encapsulate either his creativity or the depth of his devotion to the field. Conway was a pioneer, contributing to some mathematical fields (geometry and number theory among them), vastly expanding what could be accomplished in other fields (particularly game theory), and even creating new fields (like cellular automata).

Professor of Mathematics, Emeritus, Simon Kochen said, “He was like a butterfly going from one thing to another, always with magical qualities to the results.” The Guardian described him in equally glowing terms as “a cross between Archimedes, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dalí.”

lifep

[Image courtesy of Cornell.edu.]

His most famous creation is The Game of Life, a model that not only visually details how algorithms work, but explores how cells and biological forms evolve and interact.

Essentially, imagine a sheet of graph paper. In The Game of Life, you choose a starting scenario, then watch the game proceed according to certain rules:

  • Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies, as if by underpopulation.
  • Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives on to the next generation.
  • Any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies, as if by overpopulation.
  • Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

The process plays out from your starting point completely without your intervention, spiraling and expanding outward.

It’s the ultimate if-then sequence that can proceed unhindered for generations. It is a literal launchpad for various potential futures based on a single choice. It’s mind-bending and simple all at once. (And you can try it yourself here!)

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[Image courtesy of Sign-Up.To.]

But that’s far from Conway’s only contribution to the world of puzzles.

Not only did he analyze and explore puzzles like the Soma cube and Peg Solitaire, but he created or had a hand in creating numerous other puzzles that expanded upon mathematical concepts.

I could delve into creations like Hackenbush, the Angel Problem, Phutball/Philosopher’s Football, Conway’s Soldiers, and more — and perhaps I will in the future — but I’d like to focus on one of his most charming contributions: Sprouts.

Sprouts is a pencil-and-paper strategy game where players try to keep the game going by drawing a line between two dots on the paper and adding a new dot somewhere along that line.

The rules are simple, but the gameplay can quickly become tricky:

  • The line may be straight or curved, but must not touch or cross itself or any other line.
  • The new spot cannot be placed on top of one of the endpoints of the new line. Thus the new spot splits the line into two shorter lines.
  • No spot may have more than three lines attached to it.

Check out this sample game:

sprouts

[Image courtesy of Fun Mines.]

It’s a perfect example of the playfulness Conway brought to the mathematical field and teaching. The game is strategic, easy to learn, difficult to master, and encourages repeated engagement.

In a piece about Conway, Princeton professor Manjul Bhargava said, “I learned very quickly that playing games and working on mathematics were closely intertwined activities for him, if not actually the same activity.”

He would carry all sorts of bits and bobs that would assist him in explaining different concepts. Dice, ropes, decks of cards, a Slinky… any number of random objects were mentioned as potential teaching tools.

Professor Joseph Kohn shared a story about Conway’s enthusiasm for teaching and impressive span of knowledge. Apparently, Conway was on his way to a large public lecture. En route, he asked his companions what topic he should cover. Imagine promising to do a lecture with no preparation at all, and deciding on the way what it would be about.

Naturally, after choosing a topic in the car, the lecture went off without a hitch. He improvised the entire thing.

Of course, you would expect nothing less from a man who could recite pi from memory to more than 1100 digits? Or who, at a moment’s notice, could calculate the day of the week for any given date (employing a technique he called his Doomsday algorithm).


Conway unfortunately passed away earlier this month, due to complications from COVID-19, at the age of 82.

His contributions to the worlds of mathematics and puzzles, not to mention his tireless support of recreational math, cannot be overstated. His work and his play will not soon be forgotten.

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[Image courtesy of Macleans.]

If you’d like to learn more about Conway, be sure to check out Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts.

[My many thanks to friend of the blog Andrew Haynes for suggesting today’s subject and contributing notes and sources.]


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There’s a Little Something Extra in These X-Words…

Crossword constructors can be fiendishly clever, so there’s often something extra lurking inside a crossword grid, if you know where to look.

Sometimes it’s easy to spot. There are shaded areas or circled letters to reveal the hidden bonus answers that add a touch of pizzazz to a grid.

For instance, our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have a recurring crossword variant, Revelation, which conceals a quotation in a standard crossword grid.

The New York Times crossword has also featured this gimmick in puzzles plenty of times, perhaps most notably in a May 2015 puzzle where both poet WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS and the title of his poem THE LOCUST TREE IN FLOWER read down the sides of the grid, and the circled letters within the grid concealed the poem in full!

[Image sourced from Amy Reynaldo’s Diary of a Crossword Fiend.]

For his puzzle featured in an episode of The Simpsons, constructor Merl Reagle famously snuck a message into another New York Times crossword puzzle, allowing Homer to apologize to Lisa for his transgressions in the most public puzzly forum possible.

If you went diagonally from the upper left to the lower right of the grid, the statement “Dumb dad sorry for his bet” could be found.

[Image courtesy of The Guardian.]

Whether it’s a hidden quotation or a secret message hiding amidst the black squares and crisscrossing entries, these bonus answers offer a final little twist that wow solvers, leaving them shaking their heads at the cleverness and skill of constructors.

A puzzle in The Wall Street Journal recently reminded me of another surprise that a crafty constructor can spring on an unsuspecting solver.

This particular puzzle from September 28th of this year had instructions instead of the usual themed answers. If you read 22 Across, 61 Across, and 105 Across, you received the following message: Find the names of ten gems / hidden within the puzzle / grid in word search style.

wordsearchxwd

[Image courtesy of Reddit.]

Yes, the appropriately titled “Treasure Hunt” by Mike Shenk had jewels hidden among the answers in the grid, reading horizontally, vertically, and diagonally, just as they would in a word seek or word search.

Although this led to a few awkward entries — GOT ENRAGED is a bit clunky for an answer, even if the goal is to hide GARNET backwards within it — the grid is mostly great, and the spread of gems — from DIAMOND and EMERALD to ONYX and TOPAZ — is impressive. (I particularly liked RUBY reading out backwards in HURLYBURLY.)

I haven’t encountered many of these word search-style crossword surprises over the years, but there is one other prominent example that came to mind.

In his second appearance in today’s post, Merl Reagle constructed a special puzzle to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the crossword in 2013.

His puzzle was converted into a solvable Google Doodle — you can still solve it here! — and Merl added a crafty word search element by hiding the word FUN multiple times in the grid.

Why “fun,” you ask? Because that was the set word in Arthur Wynne’s original “word-cross” puzzle over one hundred years ago.

Believe me, constructing a great crossword grid is taxing enough. Adding touches and tricks like these just ratchet up both the difficulty involved and the skill level required to make the whole endeavor a harmonious success.

Kudos to those, past and present, who have pulled it off with such style.


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