The Boswords Themeless League Returns Soon (Plus Some Puzzle Activism!)

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The Boswords summer crossword tournament has been a highlight of the puzzly calendar for years now, but during the pandemic, they also made a splash with their Fall and Spring Themeless Leagues.

And registration is now open for the Boswords 2021 Fall Themeless League!

If you’re unfamiliar, the Fall Themeless League is a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consists of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you complete the grid.

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Each week’s puzzle only has one grid, but there are three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth is the least challenging, Choppy is the middle ground, and Stormy is the most challenging. (When solvers register to participate, they’ll choose the difficulty level that suits them best.)

Sign up, and you get two months of puzzly fun running through October and November!

Plus, they’ve already announced a dynamite lineup of constructors for this season’s puzzles. Here’s the full list: Evan Birnholz, Kameron Austin Collins, Mollie Cowger, Debbie Ellerin, Leslie Rogers, Quiara Vasquez, Byron Walden, Nam Jin Yoon, and the team of Angela Olson Halsted and Doug Peterson.

There’s a terrific mix of established names and up-and-coming constructors there, and I expect the season to be a terrific exploration of the best of themeless crosswords.

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The project is once again being spearheaded by the dynamic duo of John Lieb and Andrew Kingsley, and Brad Wilber will be the puzzle editor.

It’s only $30 to enter as an individual participant ($40 for Pairs), but there’s also a student/discount level for participants who may find the $30 price tag too steep. (There are also puzzle packets from the previous Themeless Leagues available for $10 apiece.)

The Boswords Seasonal Themeless League events have not only opened my eyes to the creativity and skill required for themeless crosswords, but they’ve become some of my favorite parts of the puzzly calendar.

Be sure to click this link for more information, sample puzzles, instructional videos, and more.

And you can check out our thoughts on both the 2020 Fall Themeless League and the 2021 Spring Themeless League for more info as well!


Puzzling and charitable acts often intersect. This is true of the Boswords team with their wonderful discounted option for participants, as well as their donation to Boston-based charities from the proceeds of their summer tournament

And while we’re discussing the intersection of puzzling and doing good, it’s worth mentioning that there are numerous examples of crossword projects working hand-in-hand with social activism for the greater good.

Queer Qrosswords, Women of Letters, and the charity puzzle packets organized by our friends at Lone Shark Games are only a few examples. All of them provide puzzle bundles for you to enjoy if you show them that you’ve donated to worthwhile charities and other helpful groups and causes.

But there’s another one you might not have heard about: These Puzzles Fund Abortion.

This puzzle packet, originally created to raise funds for the Baltimore Abortion Fund, contains the work of over a dozen constructors, and serves as a marvelous incentive to donate to abortion funds all over the country.

Please click this link hosted by Just Gridding for more information. It’s a terrific way to do some good.


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Themeless Crosswords Vs. Themed Crosswords?

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When you think of crossword puzzles, what comes to mind? The grid first, or maybe the clues? When you picture your default crossword, is it a themed puzzle or themeless?

I ask because something of a kerfuffle was sparked on Twitter over the weekend regarding themeless puzzles vs. themed puzzles, and as you might expect, fellow puzzler, I have thoughts on the subject.

So how did all this start? With a blog post by crossword reviewer Rex Parker.

If you’re unaware, Rex is a constructor in his own right, but is far better known in the crossword world for his curmudgeonly reviews of the New York Times crossword. He frequently makes fair points, but they can be lost amid his personal views regarding particular clues and entries. (Often, if he doesn’t know it, it’s obscure. Which is not the same thing at all.) He’s sort of a “you love him or you don’t” figure in the crossword sphere.

I genuinely believe his commentary, however inconsistent or caustic at times, comes from a sincere desire to be engaged, entertained, and wowed by the puzzles he is so clearly invested in. But again, sometimes he can’t see the forest for the trees, and when your brand is “guy who bellyaches about crosswords,” you often play into what people expect from you.

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[Now, to be fair, Rex is no Grandpa Simpson. But I simply couldn’t resist, given how he’s become synonymous with “grumpy fan who knows better than you.” And I’m so so very tired of gatekeeping fandom in general.]

And on Sunday, he carved into a Robyn Weintraub 21x themeless crossword with some serious vitriol:

This is very good for what it is, but unfortunately (for me), what it is is a Sunday themeless, and these are just never going to be interesting to me. As I’ve said before, it’s a giant (literally, giant! 21×21!) shrug. A Sunday-sized “we give up, here’s some stuff.” It’s too easy to be that interesting, and since the grid is so big, the construction doesn’t feel particularly special.

That is, yeah, you can get a lot of longish answers into a 21×21. There’s lots of room. I just don’t care as much as I ought to care. And today’s grid shape was really vanilla. No, wait, I like vanilla. A vanilla malt is the best thing in the world. Let’s call it “boilerplate” instead. It looks like a template of some kind. It’s a very clean grid, and many of the entries here are interesting, but the overall effect of said entries in a Sunday themeless is ho-hum.

There’s a reason the NYTXW didn’t do Sunday themelesses until, what, like two or three years ago? It’s because they’re a cop-out. I hear that some people enjoy them. I’m happy for them. For me, they’re a non-event. There’s no real low, no real high, just … middle middle middle. Time passes, and then the puzzle is done. Solving one of these unthemed Sundays, even a very competent one like this, isn’t necessarily better than solving a disastrous themed Sunday, to be honest. Certainly, from a blogging perspective, this is much much worse, as there’s really hardly anything to say.

Wow.

Now, this post is not intended to be a burial of Rex and his opinions. Even though I wholeheartedly disagree with his dim view of his puzzle.

It’s worth discussing because I’m someone who didn’t initially get the appeal of themeless crosswords.

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[Robyn’s thoroughly impressive Sunday themeless grid.]

I’ve always liked puzzles, and tried my hand at solving New York Times-level crosswords many times before I ended up as part of the puzzle world. Once I really immersed myself in themed puzzles, I quickly started to appreciate the amount of skill, creativity, and hard work that went into a satisfying themed crossword.

I was slower to come around on themeless puzzles. I liked figuring out the trick of a themed puzzle, and I didn’t give themeless puzzles much thought. Thankfully, friends of the blog Patti Varol and Keith Yarborough (both of whom also helped open my eyes to so many terrific puzzle outlets and constructors) encouraged me to solve themeless puzzles more.

And I started to see that you don’t need a theme to show off the same skill, creativity, and hard work that goes into a crossword.

As I said in my wrap-up of the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League (yeah, I went from never solving themeless crosswords to eagerly anticipating a two-month tournament full of them!):

I really enjoyed seeing what creative constructors could do with crosswords once freed from the shackles of a theme. The long, crossing entries can certainly be intimidating at the start — especially if you read three or four clues in a row and feel like your brain has gone blank — but the sheer inventiveness of the entries you get to see, often stacked close together, is really cool.

And, like a jigsaw puzzle, the solving experience sneaks up on you. You get a few words here, a few letters there, and suddenly everything starts to fall into place. Clues that eluded you make total sense on a second or third reading, or the now-obvious wordplay punches you in the face.

Eventually, you’re left with a full grid and a real sense of accomplishment. (Not to mention a growing sense of wonder that the constructor managed to make all those crossings work.)

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And it’s disappointing that an influential voice in crosswords sees a themeless Sunday puzzle as a waste of time. (Constructor Eric Berlin has rightfully noted that Rex isn’t against all themeless puzzles, and has stated in the past that he often looks forward to the Friday themeless.)

Which makes it all the more strange that he’d choose to die on this particular hill. Robyn is a well-respected constructor, and her byline alone is a welcome sight for many puzzle fans, themeless or themed. The response online to this themeless puzzle was very positive overall; even in the comments section of Rex’s blog post, the majority of the responses celebrated Robyn’s themeless as a terrific solve.

I would argue that the occasional Sunday themeless puzzle is a good thing. Not only is it a nice break from the expected norm, but having puzzles the caliber of this one will bring more eyes to the merits of themeless crosswords in general.

The sheer variety in fresh, exciting, and thought-provoking grid entries alone makes them worthwhile. Themed puzzles are great, obviously, but they can also severely limit how interesting you can make the rest of the grid once the theme has been figured out.

Great constructors and engaging cluing can overcome that, but it’s a limitation that themeless crosswords simply don’t have. The fill is EVERYTHING, and that pushes constructors to be as creative as possible with their grid designs, the often ambitious crossings and stacks of long entries, and all that delightfully unexpected vocabulary.

Rex says, “Solving one of these unthemed Sundays, even a very competent one like this, isn’t necessarily better than solving a disastrous themed Sunday, to be honest.”

I think you’ll find many solvers and constructors disagree. There’s as much beauty and value in a skilled themeless as there is in a deftly-constructed themed puzzle.

And to say a well-constructed themeless is on par with a “disastrous” themed puzzle is just ridiculous. Sure, for his brand, he gets more mileage taking apart a bad puzzle than discussing a good one, but a good solve and good blog fodder aren’t the same thing at all.

As I said before, you can learn a lot from Rex’s blog. Plenty of constructors have gleaned valuable lessons about theme entries, grid fill, and more from his critiques. But punching down against a particular style of crosswording benefits no one, particularly when it can easily be misconstrued as a shot against themeless puzzles in general..

Thank you, Robyn Weintraub, for a banger of a Sunday puzzle, and thank you, Evan Birnholz, for championing the cause of themeless crosswords (and bringing this to my attention.)

Do you enjoy themeless puzzles, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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The 2021 Boswords Spring Themeless League: Looking Back

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After two months of challenging, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable weekly solving, the Boswords 2021 Spring Themeless League came to a close a few weeks ago.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Boswords 2021 Spring Themeless League spreads out a tournament-style solving experience over nine weeks, one themeless crossword per week. Each puzzle is scored based on your answer accuracy (incorrect letters, empty squares, etc.) and how quickly you complete the grid.

While each week’s puzzle only had one solution, there were three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth was the least challenging, Choppy was the middle ground, and Stormy was the most challenging. (When solvers registered to participate, they chose the difficulty level that suited them best.)

Hundreds of solvers signed up for the challenge of two months of themeless puzzle solving and a bit of friendly competition, and now that it’s over, I’d like to share a few thoughts about my experience in the League.

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When I participated in the 2020 Fall Themeless League, I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t have much experience with themeless puzzles, and I rarely solve online, so even though I’m very familiar with crosswords, it felt like a new experience.

But with last season’s league under my belt, I went into the 2021 Spring Themeless League excited to again test my skills with some top-flight puzzles, a touch more confident in my themeless solving than last time.

As you might expect, being freed from the shackles of themed puzzle building allows constructors to really flex their creative muscle, indulging all sorts of curious and unexpected vocabulary as they cross long entries and employ staggeringly few black squares in these impressive grids.

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Aimee Lucido opened up week one with three 13-letter entries across the center of the grid, giving new solvers a taste of just what constructors can do with a themeless grid, and offering established solvers some terrific crossings and fun vocabulary.

Peter Wentz’s week two puzzle and the week three offering from Brynn Diehl and Mark Diehl continued to set the tone for the season, mixing some clever wordplay in their cluing with ambitious grid construction. (Week three’s puzzle had stacks of 10-letter entries in every corner, which was impressive.)

Rachel Fabi provided week four’s puzzle — which really tickled me by having “advice column” as a down entry, i.e. a column — and Ryan McCarty’s week five puzzle was one of my smoothest solves of the tournament. Plus, he had “doggos” in the grid, and I am fully onboard with “doggo” becoming crosswordese.

I stupidly submitted my grid with an empty square in Patti Varol’s week six, which hurt my score somewhat. I still enjoyed the puzzle, though. Crossing SPANKED with BUCKNAKED was certainly a style choice. Also, Patti always teaches me new words with her puzzles. This time around, it was “vaporetto.”

Week seven’s offering by Ricky Cruz really impressed me with some difficult letter placements — particularly the plethora of Xs in the lower-left corner. (Unfortunately, I missed the submission deadline for this one, so I got a zero for this puzzle.)

That was followed by Kevin Der’s amazing week eight grid. This one took me ten minutes longer than my average time for the rest of the tournament puzzles.

I mean, look at this grid:

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Week nine’s championship puzzle was constructed by Brooke Husic, and it was the perfect closer to two months of solving. It was sharp and well-constructed, sending everyone home happy.

All in all, I enjoyed the Spring Themeless League more than the Fall League because I felt much more comfortable with the solving interface and I had a better handle on themeless solving overall. My times were stronger — although far from the blistering pace set by many of the top solvers — and I felt like I was making smarter choices in my solving. It’s always nice to both see and feel improvement in your puzzling.

I ended up placing 262nd out of around 600 competitors — had I actually gotten puzzle seven submitted, I would’ve been closer to 115th or so — which is about on pace for how I did in the Fall Themeless League.

But the tournament experience was delightful. Having a new challenge awaiting you every week is a treat, especially with the fantastic roster of talent they assembled in this season’s constructors.

And with the promise of future Boswords-hosted events in 2021 like the Summer Tournament on July 25th and the Fall Themeless League in October and November, it’s nice to have exciting puzzle events to look forward to in the near future.

Kudos to everyone who helped bring this marvelous project together, and kudos to everyone who participated. It was so much fun.


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Upcoming Puzzle Events! The Spring Themeless League, Plus ACPT Going Virtual!

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Most years, the puzzle event season starts with the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in late March/early April, but 2021 is different. We already had the Boswords Winter Wondersolve event last month, and there are plenty of exciting puzzle events on the horizon!

Did you know that there’s still time to sign up for the Boswords 2021 Spring Themeless League? It starts Monday night, and you should check it out!

Last year, Boswords launched the Fall Themeless League, a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consisted of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you completed the grid.

Each week’s puzzle only had one grid, but there were three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth was the least challenging, Choppy was the middle ground, and Stormy was the most challenging.

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The Spring Themeless League follows the same format. Every Monday in March and April, a themeless puzzle awaits you!

Not only is there some serious talent among the constructors — Brooke Husic, Aimee Lucido, Rachel Fabi, Patti Varol, Ryan McCarty, Kevin Der, Peter Wentz, Ricky Cruz, and the duo of Brynn Diehl and Mark Diehl — but there’s a great community of solvers out there participating in after-puzzle chats and Twitch streams.

The Fall Themeless League gave me a new appreciation for what themeless crosswords are capable of, and I’m happy to be signed up for the Spring edition!

The Spring Themeless League will conclude with the championship puzzle on April 26th, which will make for a busy few days of puzzle solving, since another puzzle event is set for that very weekend!

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Yes, you might’ve heard that the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament will be hosted online this year.

The 43rd annual edition of the granddaddy of all crossword tournaments will take place April 23rd through the 25th. We’re awaiting further details, but hopefully we’ll know more soon!

So there you go, the next two months of puzzles all planned and set for you, with more to come this summer.

Will you be participating in either the Spring Themeless League or ACPT’s virtual event this year, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comment section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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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 Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League Has Come to a Close!

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After two months of delightful weekly solving, the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League has come to a close.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League was a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consisted of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you complete the grid.

Each week’s puzzle only had one grid, but there were three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth was the least challenging, Choppy was the middle ground, and Stormy was the most challenging. (When solvers registered to participate, they chose the difficulty level that suited them best.)

Hundreds of solvers signed up for the challenge of two months of themeless puzzle solving and a bit of friendly competition, and now that it’s over, I’d like to share a few thoughts about my experience in the League.

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I confess, I was skeptical about entering the league. No, it didn’t have anything to do with the puzzles themselves. I knew the constructing team was top-notch, and with John Lieb, Andrew Kingsley, and Brad Wilber running things, I knew the competitors were in excellent hands.

I simply don’t solve themeless puzzles that often. In fact, this tournament probably marks the most themeless puzzles I’ve ever solved in this short an amount of time. They’re simply not part of my usual solving rotation, save for championship themeless puzzles in various tournament packets, and the occasional puzzle here and there (like Doug Peterson and Patti Varol’s Friday NYT themeless last week, congrats on your debut, Patti!).

But I really enjoyed seeing what creative constructors could do with crosswords once freed from the shackles of a theme. The long, crossing entries can certainly be intimidating at the start — especially if you read three or four clues in a row and feel like your brain has gone blank — but the sheer inventiveness of the entries you get to see, often stacked close together, is really cool.

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And, like a jigsaw puzzle, the solving experience sneaks up on you. You get a few words here, a few letters there, and suddenly everything starts to fall into place. Clues that eluded you make total sense on a second or third reading, or the now-obvious wordplay punches you in the face.

Eventually, you’re left with a full grid and a real sense of accomplishment. (Not to mention a growing sense of wonder that the constructor managed to make all those crossings work.)

This tournament showed me how much I’d been missing by not solving themeless crosswords more often.

And with the promise of future Boswords-hosted events in 2021 like the Winter Wondersolve and the Spring Themeless League to come, it’s nice to have exciting puzzle events to look forward to in the near future.

I ended up placing 85th out of 400 or so competitors, which I am pretty pleased with! And now I’ll try to do better in the next one. It’s always good to have goals.

Kudos to everyone who helped bring this marvelous project together, and kudos to everyone who participated. It was a blast.


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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!