The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns soon!

Four years ago, a new crossword tournament joined the ranks of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and Lollapuzzoola, immediately carving out its own niche in the puzzle world. The Indie 500 offered topnotch puzzles and a pie-fueled solving experience both live in Washington, D.C., and for solvers at home.

And it’s back! The fifth edition of The Indie 500 is happening on Saturday, June 1, and this year, the theme is “Going Around in Squares.”

This year’s tournament follows the same format as previous years: five preliminary puzzles of varying difficulty, plus a final puzzle for the top three scorers in both divisions.

[There’s also a fair amount of slapstick.]

Registration is open for the tournament! They’re at capacity for attending in person (there is a waiting list in case anyone drops out!), but worry not, because solving from home is only $10!

Not only that, but there’s a travel-themed meta suite that lets you name your own price, as well as access to the previous tournament bundles for $5 apiece. Those are super-affordable prices for some outstanding puzzles!

Andy Kravis, Erik Agard, and Neville Fogarty all make their fifth appearance as veteran constructors — understandable, since they’re also event organizers — and they’re joined once again by Angela Olson Halsted and Peter Broda, as well as tournament constructors Jenna LaFleur, Bryan Betancur, Janie Smulyan, Rebecca Falcon, and Yacob Yonas!

And, of course, there will be pie.

You can click here for the Indie 500 home page, and click here for a rundown of last year’s puzzles!

Will you be competing, or participating from home? Let us know in the comments below!


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Our Annual TableTop Tournament: Recap!

We wrapped up our fourth annual in-house tabletop tournament last week, and as you probably expected, it was loaded with all sorts of board game goodness.

So what went down?

Well, it was a 12-person two-week tournament with different games to play every round. With four competition days across two weeks, it was a virtual gauntlet of gaming to determine who is the best in the company.

One of the things I liked about the layout of the tournament was how there are no one-on-one match-ups until the final. Instead of a single-elimination tournament, competitors were first slotted into groups of three. Each group of three played two games, and the two winners (one from each game) from each trio moved on to the next round.

So to survive round 1, you had to win either Timeline or On the Dot.

In the first bracket, former champ Kevin and last year’s defending champ Nikki moved on. In the second bracket, yours truly was bested in On the Dot by newcomer Ryan AND in Timeline by perennial top contender Rick. In the third bracket, Gordon and Sam moved on in impressive fashion. And in the fourth bracket, former champ Jen and newcomer Laura each earned a spot in the next round.

So right away, all three former champs were in the running, along with some new blood and some tough competition with tabletop experience. This was shaping up to be one heck of a tournament.


Round 2 began the following Thursday, and this time around, competitors were slotted into groups of four. Each group of four played two games, and the two winners (one from each game) moved on to the next round.

So to survive round 2, you had to win either Noueni or Guillotine.

Guillotine is a card game for 2 to 5 players set during the French revolution. As the royals are marched to the guillotine in one big line, you play cards in order to switch the royals around so that the most valuable royals are beheaded on your turn, adding their scores to your pile. (You can also manipulate the hands of the other players by forcing them to give you cards or discard them.)

Played over three rounds, the player with the highest score (i.e. the most valuable royals beheaded) wins.

Noueni is a card game for 2 to 4 players that involves pattern-matching, color-based scoring, and cards that can either overlap or sit next to other cards. Your score is determined by how many of your scoring orbs are on the board at the end of the game.

Each card has two colored scoring orbs and a pattern of black lines emerging from them. Those lines are the connectors, and they determine how the cards are placed in the play area. Any card played must link up with the other cards on the board, whether there’s zero, one, two, or three connectors along that neighboring edge.

Noueni was a new experience for all of the players, though it is similar to Qwirkle, which the competitors had played before.

All of the players quickly took to Guillotine, deftly maneuvering valuable royals into their score piles. Noueni proved to be a tougher play experience, as many players devoted so much time to covering up the colored orbs of other players that they neglected to play simpler moves to add colored orbs to their own scores. Too much defense can be a bad thing if it hinders your offense.

In the end, four more players were eliminated from the field, including the first two tournament champions. After this colorful round of play, only Rick, Gordon, Laura, and returning champ Nikki remained.


Round 3 began the following Tuesday, and the remaining players were collected into one final group of four. But they would all play the same game, and the top two point-scorers would move on to the finals.

The game for round 3? Sheriff of Nottingham.

Sheriff of Nottingham is a card game that mixes strategy, resource management, and bluffing. The players collect cards with different goods to take to market — apples, chickens, bread, and cheese — as well as cards of contraband items (like spices, mead, and weapons). Each of these cards is worth points, and the contraband goods are worth more than the legal goods. Of course, the contraband goods are illegal, so if you’re caught bringing them to market, there’s a penalty.

And, unfortunately, in order to get your goods (legal or otherwise) to market, you have to get past the Sheriff.

For example, in a four-player game, let’s say the first player is the Sheriff. The other three players will each place up to five cards in their bag, then snap it shut, and declare what’s inside to the Sheriff. A player may be telling the truth about the contents of her bag, or she may be lying. The Sheriff can choose to either let a bag pass through unchecked or open and inspect the contents of any bag.

Anything that gets through the Sheriff goes into your market stand and is worth points at the end of the game. If the Sheriff chooses to check your bag, one of two things happens. If you were honest about what’s in the bag, the Sheriff pays you the value of those items. If you lied about the contents of your bag and the Sheriff catches you, you must pay him a penalty, and any contraband goods in the bag are seized.

Of course, you can always negotiate with the Sheriff before the bag is opened. Bribes (of coin, product, or favors) can be offer, and deals can be made.

Once the Sheriff has either let the players’ bags through or finished the inspections, everyone settles their goods in the marketplace, the next player takes over as Sheriff, and the cycle starts again.

The game ends after every player has been the Sheriff twice. Then the players count up the value of everything they’ve brought to market — including any contraband they’ve snuck through — as well as their coin piles. (Plus, there are bonus points to be gained if you brought the most of any product to market. For instance, the person who brought the most apples is King of Apples, and the person who brought the second-most is Queen of Apples. Both titles are worth points.)

Once starting coins and cards were allotted to each player (plus a few coins extra to encourage wheeling-and-dealing/bribery), the game commenced. In the end, only two of the four players at the table would be moving on to the finals. What combination of Nikki, Rick, Gordon, and Laura would face off for the championship?

As it turned out, a game all about duplicity can be won with transparency. In this cutthroat round, honesty reigned supreme as most players opted to avoid contraband and move only legal goods through the Sheriff to market. Rick, as the most suspicious Sheriff, ended up paying some hefty fines to players whose bags he checked.

(Personally, I probably would have cut a deal with one of the other players and promised to allow whatever they wanted through when I was Sheriff, in exchange for the same treatment from them. That way, you could move a LOT of valuable contraband one round, and play it safe the other rounds. But I am nefarious that way.)

After a tense game, the judges swooped in to count everyone’s haul, and the players stepped away from the table to enjoy some marvelous cookies and treats provided by the judges… and await their fate.

In the end, Nikki and Gordon had accumulated the top two scores, and they would be moving on to the finals.

Or would they? In the end, there was one more wrinkle!

It turns out that Laura had forgotten to empty her bag of goods in the last go-round, and with her additional contraband, she had outearned Gordon! Shock and heartbreak!

It would instead be Nikki and Laura in the finals.

Now, given that this was our fourth annual tournament, we’d finally amassed some proper stats and trivia regarding the event. You see, not only had no previous champion ever repeated as champion, but no previous champion had ever made it to the finals again!

So already, Nikki had set a new precedent as the only previous champion to return to the finals. Would she be our first repeat champion (back-to-back, even!) or would we have our fourth new champion in four years as the newcomer Laura ascended to the throne?

Let’s find out.


Unlike the previous rounds, this was a head-to-head match-up, winner-take-all. So, naturally, we made posters to hype the event like a prizefight.

And to survive round 4, the finalists would need some help from the audience, as they played a round of the card game Cult Following.

Cult Following is a card-based improvisation game, similar to Superfight, wherein you have to draw several cards that dictate what your cult is about, and then improvise your answers to various questions posed by the other players, who are potential recruits for your cult. Once the round of questions is over, the potential recruits vote on which of the cults they’d rather join, and the cult with the most recruits wins.

To make the task even more daunting, both players had to stand in front of the audience and plead their case.

Nikki’s cult centered around saving the planet from toxic waste (and yes, she did acknowledge the possibility that you might gain superpowers from said toxic waste). Laura’s cult centered around the magical ability to transform yourself into any animal you wished.

Although many potential recruits in the audience were wowed by this idea, I couldn’t get past the very real danger that you could end up as prey rather than simply enjoying life as an animal.

After answering questions from the audience about recruitment, rules, cult theme songs, and more, both competitors turned their backs to the audience so the audience members could vote for the cult of their choice.

Nikki made a valiant effort to retain her crown, but unfortunately, the cards were not in her favor, and more potential recruits opted for Laura’s were-cult. (Not me, though. I was a toxic avenger all the way.)

And thus, Laura dethroned the previous champion in impressive fashion to become the new tabletop tournament champion!

The traditional crown, scepter, and Game Night Gift Pack awaited the new champion, as did an enthusiastic round of applause and a well-earned chance to sit down after the fierce improvisational back-and-forth.

Alas, we must bring this marvelous recap to a close. With a new queen atop the tabletop throne, what will her reign be like? Peaceful? Warlike? Boastful? Quiet? Only time will tell.


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Our Annual TableTop Tournament Starts Next Week!

With International TableTop Day fast approaching, we are once again teaming up with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles to put together an in-house TableTop Tournament to celebrate the upcoming holiday (Saturday, April 27).

It’s a 12-person two-week tournament with different games to play every week, and round 1 kicks off next Tuesday. (This is actually the fourth year of the tournament, with all three previous champions competing again this year.)

One of the things I like about the layout of the tournament is that there are no one-on-one match-ups until the final. Instead of a single-elimination tournament, competitors are slotted into groups of three. Each group of three will play two games, and the two winners (one from each game) from each trio and move on to the next round.

So to survive round 1, I’ll need to win either Timeline or On the Dot.

Timeline is a card game where every card depicts a different moment in history, and the players are trying to place cards from their hand into a historically correct timeline. Players take turns adding cards to the timeline, placing them before or after previously played cards. You don’t have to know the exact year the event on a given card took place; you simply have to figure out when it happened in relation to the other events that have already been played.

You play your card, and then flip it over to reveal the actual year the event occurred. If you’re correct, the card stays, and you have one fewer card in your hand. If you’re wrong, the card is removed from the timeline and you draw a new card. The first player to place every card in their hand wins.

On the Dot is a pattern-matching game. Each player has four clear cards with randomly placed colored dots on them, and it’s up to the player to arrange all four cards so that the colored dots showing match a given pattern. The first player to match three patterns moves on to the next round.

Timeline can be a bit of a crapshoot, depending on your knowledge of a given subject and whatever cards you draw. I suspect I’ll have a better chance of making the second round with On the Dot; I’m fairly quick with pattern recognition and manipulation, and actually won three games in a row last year to secure my spot in the next round. Hopefully I can repeat the same feat this year.

But you never know. With new competitors and returning champions in the tournament this year, there are sure to be some diabolical surprises.

Here’s hoping when it’s all said and done, I’ll be wearing the Game Geek crown and holding the scepter high…


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ACPT 2019 Wrap-Up!

The 42nd annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this weekend, and puzzlers descended on the Stamford Marriott Hotel once again to put their puzzly skills to the test in what is lovingly known as “the Nerd Olympics.”

The tournament takes place over two days, with six puzzles to solve on Saturday, followed by one on Sunday. Then the top three finishers in the A, B, and C brackets solve the championship puzzle on whiteboards in front of the audience.

On Friday and Saturday night, there are often puzzle events, demonstrations, and panels by top puzzlers and figures in the puzzle world as well.

I made the journey down to Stamford myself Saturday morning, arriving with plenty of time to spare to prep our spot in the puzzle marketplace and say hello to friends and puzzly acquaintances. This year, I was joined at the Penny Dell Puzzles booth once again by my friend and partner-in-promotion Stacey Scarso.

The Penny Dell crew had a terrific setup as always, with a metric buttload of magazines to give away, including copies of The Crosswords Club and several flavors of Tournament Variety, Master’s Variety, and Dell Sunday Crosswords. They were also running a kickass promotion offering half-price on a year’s subscription to Crosswords Club, which is a great deal.

The Penny Dell Store also returned for the first time in a few years, as puzzle books (including a collection of Daily POP Crossword App puzzles!), tote bags, travel mugs, and coffee mugs were for sale. The Word Nerd mugs were a big hit!

PLUS we held a contest to win a bundle of PDP puzzle swag, including a mug, a tote bag, coffee fixin’s, and a bunch of puzzle magazines! All you had to do was solve a marvelous crossword variant puzzle cooked up by Eric Berlin.

And, yes, in their downtime between tournament puzzles, many competitors DO solve other puzzles.

At 9 AM, the tournament was two hours away, but the marketplace was up and running.

There were puzzle books galore from Will Shortz and Merl Reagle, ACPT shirts and cards from Elena Powell Abrahams, and a massive uber-crossword from T. William Campbell, which definitely caught the eye of some solvers:

Our friends from Lone Shark Games also had a booth at the tournament, staffed by either a very good hologram or an impressive doppleganger of Gaby Weidling. There were The Maze of Games books for sale and a puzzle card for their ongoing Maze of Games Omnibus Kickstarter campaign!

As competitors readied themselves for the day’s solving, I had plenty of time to see friends of the blog like Crosswords Club editor Patti Varol, crossword gentleman Doug Peterson, constructor Joanne Sullivan, and Penny Press variety editor Keith Yarbrough!

Perhaps the best part of attending the tournament is getting to chat with so many members of the puzzle community in one place. There were 200 first-time attendees and enthusiastic rookies, mixing with current and former champions, and all sorts of puzzle enthusiasts of all ages.

There were long-time puzzle fans who have been competing at ACPT for years, if not decades, many of whom were decked out in puzzle shirts, puzzle scarves, puzzle ties, and other grid-heavy accoutrements.

One of the attendees even offered to buy the Crossword Puzzle Junkie shirt off my back! I assured him that that would work for him and literally no one else in attendance.

But I digress.

Many of the top constructors in the business were there, names like David Steinberg, Evan Birnholz, Joon Pahk, Erik Agard, Peter Gordon, and more, along with former champions and first-rate competitors like Dan Feyer, David Plotkin, Howard Barkin, Ellen Ripstein, and Stella Zawistowski.

Getting to connect faces and personalities with names I know from tournaments like the Indie 500 is a real treat, and so many of the people in the puzzle world are genuinely nice, funny individuals. Not only that, but I also got to meet several fellow trivia fiends from the Learned League community!

The two hours before showtime passed quickly, and soon, the marketplace emptied and the ballroom filled as competitors took their seats for Puzzle 1.

Attendance jumped again this year, which meant not only was the main ballroom absolutely jam-packed with competitors, but an overflow room was once again needed to accommodate the more-than-700 solvers in Stamford!

When Puzzle 1 arrived, most competitors found Kathy Wienberg’s puzzle to be quick and fair, on par with Monday NYT puzzles.

Although there was no sub-2-minute time like last year, the top solvers still blasted through this one.

Puzzle 2, constructed by prolific puzzler Joel Fagliano, surprised some solvers with a clever little trick at its core. This is consistent with the last few years, where Puzzle 2 has surprised the competitors. I think many solvers forget that, given how legendarily difficult Puzzle 5 is every year. It’s easy to forget other puzzles can offer quite a challenge along the way.

About this time, scores started trickling out for Puzzle 1, and many of the expected names were at the top: Feyer, Pahk, Plotkin, Zawistowski, Sanders, Kravis, Ryan… but two big names were missing.

Former 5-time champion (and perennial top contender) Tyler Hinman was not attending the tournament this year, and Erik Agard, last year’s champion, had a mistake in Puzzle 1, which would seriously hamper his efforts to repeat last year’s success.

Puzzle 3 was constructed by Patrick Berry, and served as a well-received, smooth-solving palate-cleanser before the lunch break.

          [Even empty, all the dividers make the room feel packed…]

Solvers scattered to the four winds in order to grab a bite to eat before returning by 2:30 for Puzzle 4, while the tournament officials were still hard at work tabulating scores:

After 3 puzzles, Dan Feyer was on top of the rankings, followed closely by Pahk, and then a three-way tie among Kravis, Plotkin, and Zawistowski for third.

But it was time to kick off the second half of the day with Puzzle 4.

Last year’s fourth puzzle had a visual element that tripped up some of the competitors, and this year’s Puzzle 4 (by constructor Jeff Stillman) was also harder than expected. The fill featured more obscurities than solvers anticipated, and several competitors commented on it on Twitter:

Oh, and by the way, thanks to his puzzly skills and blistering speed, Erik Agard had worked his way back up to 7th place after completing Puzzle 4. Amazing.

Finally, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Evan Birnholz (not Birnholtz, as it was misprinted on his name tag) did the honors, and according to competitors, it was as challenging as expected, really putting the craftiness and keen wits of the solvers to the test.

Even the officials noticed:

After the diabolical Puzzle 5, it was Dan Feyer, Joon Pahk, David Plotkin, Stella Zawistowski, and… Erik Agard.

Competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6, constructed by Lynn Lempel (she also contributed Puzzle 6 last year), and declared it both fun and fair. The competitors dispersed to rest their brains (or solve more puzzles). We packed up the Penny/Dell table and headed for home.

[The standings after Puzzle 6. Erik has worked his way back to 4th. Was a comeback story in store for Day 2?]

And although I wasn’t present for Sunday’s tournament finale, I continued to get updates from friends and fellow puzzlers.

Puzzle 7, constructed by Mike Shenk, was what you might expect from a constructor of his caliber: elegant fill, little crosswordese, and great fun.

But Shenk’s name being announced for Puzzle 7 also meant a puzzly milestone for the Finals:

Yes, Robyn Weintraub’s tournament constructing debut would be the final hurdle for the competitors! Fantastic news!

Dan Feyer remained at the top of the leaderboard, having maintained a great solving pace, followed closely by Joon Pahk and David Plotkin.

But it was not meant to be, and the final three came down to Dan Feyer (7-time champ, looking for a record-breaking 8th title), Joon Pahk and David Plotkin (two familiar names in the top ten).

[Image courtesy of Dave Mackey.]

The top three competitors for each live-solving division were:

  • A: Dan Feyer, Joon Pahk, David Plotkin
  • B: Matthew Gritzmacher, Brian Fodera, Arnold Reich
  • C: Brian Kulman, Lily Geller, Claire Rimkus

Lily Geller won the C division, and Brian Fodera won B. Congrats to the winners!

And, finally, it was time for the A Block.

You can watch the final puzzle being solved below, courtesy of Ben Zimmer:

Dan Feyer crushed the A clues in under 7 minutes. Joon Pahk was a strong runner-up at 9:05, and David Plotkin placed third with a very respectable showing of 11:13.

[Image courtesy of ACPT.]

As he had done all tournament, Dan solved with undeniable speed and precision, claiming his eighth tournament victory!

And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 21st, David Steinberg placed 26th, Angela Halsted placed 94th, Vega Subramaniam cracked the top 100 with 98th, and Patti Varol placed 113th out of a field of 741 participants. (And even with one eye tied behind his back, Keith Yarbrough managed an impressive performance as well!)

There were also some wonderfully heartwarming stories to emerge from the tournament, like this multi-generational solving success story:

In the end, Jenna LaFleur (aka daughter) placed 33rd! Awesome job!

It’s always great fun to spend time with fellow puzzlers and wordplay enthusiasts, immersing myself in the puzzle community and enjoying all the charm and camaraderie that comes with it.

Of course, everyone should make sure to check their puzzle vaults when they get home:

We’ll see you next year!


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The ACPT Returns This Weekend!

acptlogo

The 42nd edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is this weekend!

Puzzlers from all over are sharpening their pencils and their wits as they gear up for what is affectionately known as the Nerd Olympics, and we here at PuzzleNation wish all of the competitors the best of luck!

acpt72016

Here’s hoping Puzzle #5 isn’t as diabolical as it has been in previous years!

There is a topnotch lineup of constructors to challenge this year’s competitors. Not only do we have Patrick Berry and Mike Shenk — perennial contributors to the tournament — but there will also be puzzles from ACPT stalwarts like Lynn Lempel and Joel Fagliano, as well as tournament puzzle debuts for Evan Birnholz, Robyn Weintraub, Jeff Stillman, and Kathy Wienberg! I can’t wait to see what they’ve concocted for this year’s tournament!

Good luck to everyone competing! And hey, if you need a pencil sharpener — or you’d like some terrific puzzly merch, contests, and a few freebies — we’ll be hanging out with our pals at the Penny Dell Puzzles table again this year! Be sure to stop by!


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Crossword Solving Advice, Tournament-Style!

With the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament looming large, newcomers to the tournament and experienced puzzlers alike are trading advice, looking for ways to improve their solving, and gearing up for the latest edition of the Nerd Olympics.

In a similar vein, Lifehacker recently shared a post with advice for how to get better at crosswords. And I thought, with the tournament a little more than a week away, we’d analyze Lifehacker’s suggestions for sharpening your solving game.

1.) Do puzzles every day.

According to article author A.A. Newton, “the only way to improve at crosswords is to do lots of them, and the best way to do that is to work them into your daily routine.” Now, since there is more than one entry in her list, clearly that’s not THE ONLY way to improve.

But this is still valuable advice, especially with the tournament coming up. You see, a fair number of crossword solvers solve them online, either through apps or website interfaces, rather than on paper. But since the tournament puzzles are solved on paper, it’s a good idea to practice the old-fashioned way for a few weeks before the competition, especially if solving time is a priority for you.

2.) Use an app.

Like I said, access to puzzles is a great thing; being able to solve crosswords for all sorts of skill levels at the touch of a button… you can’t beat it. It exposes you to different cluing styles, theme ideas, and all sorts of clever wordplay.

I’d recommend an app that tracks your solving. Several apps like our very own Daily POP Crosswords app track data like your solving times, themes or categories you excel in, and even streaks of days gone without missing a daily puzzle!

3.) Know when — and how — to cheat

Now, this one is a little bit clickbait-y, since it’s only cheating if you look up answers during actual competition. I don’t consider it cheating to admit defeat on a clue you can’t get or a reference you don’t know, and looking it up in order to educate yourself.

Many apps offer hints — either by offering additional letters or entire words that are stumping you — which allows you to continue solving and get past a roadblock in your crossword knowledge.

And if you’re solving a paper puzzle, there are numerous crossword clue sites on the Internet with databases of previously used clues for you to peruse. Not only does this help you with the troublesome clue at hand, but it shows you the different variations of clues you might see for a given entry, which is helpful in the long run.

Of course, you can’t actually do this sort of thing at the ACPT. (Though you can utilize “Google tickets” at other tournament events like Lollapuzzoola, where instructors will silently provide an answer for you so you can keep solving.)

4.) Study up

There are all sorts of crossword resources out there. The article namedrops a few, like Rex Parker’s blog, XWordInfo, and several online guides to crosswordese.

I would also recommend Wordplay, the companion blog to The New York Times crossword. Not only does Deb Amlen break down each day’s puzzles, but there are articles collecting words that will help you become a better solver. Musical terms, authors, plants, opera terms, French rivers, characters from Greek mythology… the whole series is packed with common crosswordese and little obscurities that crossword solvers have come to know and, if not love, then at least tolerate.

But there is other tournament-specific advice I would offer:

  • Have pencils and erasers handy. Maybe a sharpener as well, though there are a few scattered around the competition space. (And we always have one available for use at the Penny Dell / PuzzleNation table in the marketplace!)
  • Bring a clipboard or other writing surface, since the solving space is often tableclothed, which can interact poorly with sharp pencils and paper puzzles.
  • Talk to fellow puzzlers. There’s nothing better than the experience of other solvers, many of whom are also constructors or tournament regulars.
  • Everyone approaches the actual solving process differently. Some people scan the clues for fill-in-the-blank clues or people’s names and fill those in first. Others read through the clues sequentially and fill in what they can. Some solvers even try to solve using only the Down clues, and then double-check their solve with the Across clues. My advice is to try different techniques and see what works best for you.

Whether it’s your first time attending a tournament or you’ve got a few seasons under your belt, there are always new tricks to learn and new techniques to try out.

Do you have any solving advice we missed? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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