Puzzle Plagiarism: One Year Later

This weekend marked the one-year anniversary of one of the biggest stories in puzzles: the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal, aka #gridgate.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can click here for more detail, but here’s a quick rundown of what happened. Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

The story originally broke on data analysis website FiveThirtyEight.com thanks to Oliver Roeder, but the real credit belongs to Tausig and Pwanson. The article sparked an investigation, and a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that Parker had agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.

We were among the first to report that constructor Fred Piscop would serve as editor in the interim, but after that, the story went quiet for two months.

Then, in early May, Roeder reported that Universal Uclick had completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’d confirmed some of the allegations of puzzle repetition, they were only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

The puzzle community was unhappy with the reaction, and USA Today and Universal Uclick soon felt the pressure from constructors and content creators alike.

Among the most vocal was Mike Selinker, puzzle constructor and president of Lone Shark Games, who stated that he and his team would boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick until appropriate action was taken:

Up until now, we liked USA Today. We thought that a newspaper of its size would be violently opposed to plagiarism. But they do not appear to be. It’s way past time for USA Today and Universal Uclick to take a stand against plagiarism and for creators’ rights, and maybe it takes some creators to stand up for those. So we’re doing it.

Many other game companies and constructors joined in the boycott, and less than a week later, Gannett (who publishes USA Today) declared that “No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.”

We’d never seen anything like this. Not only did it galvanize the puzzle community like nothing before, but it raised the very important issue of creator’s rights when it comes to puzzles. After all, plagiarism isn’t tolerated in publishing or college term papers, so why should the efforts of crossword constructors be considered any less sacrosanct?

And except for the occasional joke on Twitter (or scathingly clever puzzle) referencing the story, that was it. As far as anyone knew, Parker was still employed by Uclick, and they wouldn’t confirm or deny his involvement in any non-USA Today and Gannett-published puzzles in the future.

So naturally, as the one-year anniversary of the story loomed in the distance, I got curious. What had become of Parker? Was he still involved with Universal Uclick?

Sadly, I have no new answers for you. I reached out to Universal Uclick for comment, and they declined to reply. Parker was similarly difficult to reach.

But even without new threads to follow, this is an important story to revisit. It represents the solidarity, pride, and support of the puzzle community. It represents the rights of creators to be respected and to have their hard work respected. It represents the power of concerned citizens speaking up.

It reminded people that crosswords represent much more than a way to pass an idle Sunday morning.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: 2016 Countdown edition!

It’s the final Follow-Up Friday of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2016 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


#10 Doomsday Prep

One of the big surprises for me this year was discovering that crosswords and puzzle books were hot-ticket items for doomsday preppers. The idea that crosswords belong next to necessities like food, water, shelter, and knowledge was a revealing one, something that gave me great hope for the future, whether we need those caches or not.

#9 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.

#8 A Puzzly Proposal

Our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles once again pulled off a heck of a puzzly coup when an intrepid fellow puzzler asked them for help proposing to his girlfriend with a special Simon Says puzzle.

I reached out to the lucky fiancé and got his permission to share the story with the PuzzleNation readership, and as I learned more about who was involved and how they’d managed to make it happen, I enjoyed the story more and more. Here’s hoping for many happy puzzly years ahead for the young couple!

#7 Puzzle Fort

For International Puzzle Day, I built a fort out of puzzle books.

It was awesome. Definitely one of my favorite puzzly moments of the year.

#6 The End of Sudoku?

The Sudoku boom may be over, but Sudoku remains one of the most popular puzzles in the world, and I got to thinking… when would we run out? I mean, eventually, statistically speaking, every single Sudoku puzzle permutation would get used at some point, so when would that happen?

So, I crunched the numbers, and it turns out, we’ve got centuries before that happens. Still, it was a fun mental puzzle to unravel.

#5 Murder Mystery

At some point this year, I let slip to my fellow puzzlers that I’d written and staged murder mystery dinners in the past, but it had been a while since I’d done anything like that. Naturally, they volunteered to be participants, urging me to stage something in the office.

Eventually, I accepted their challenge, pitting myself against a half-dozen or so of my fellow puzzlers, allowing some of them to investigate while others played a part in the mystery. It was an enormous undertaking and an absolute blast that lasted three days, and it was definitely a highlight of the year for me.

#4 Puzzle Plagiarism

There was probably no bigger story in crosswords all year than the accusations of plagiarism leveled against Timothy Parker. The editor of puzzles for USA Today and Universal UClick. After numerous examples of very suspicious repetitions between grids were discovered in a crossword database compiled by programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig, Parker “temporarily stepped back from any editorial role” with their puzzles.

Eventually, Parker was removed from any editorial influence on USA Today’s puzzles, but it remains unknown if he’s still serving in a puzzle-related capacity for Universal Uclick. But the real story here was about integrity in puzzles, as many puzzle and game companies rallied to defend their rights as creators. That’s a cause we can all get behind.

#3 Interviewing the PuzzleNation Team

Our recurring interview feature 5 Questions returned this year, but what made it truly special to me was being able to turn the spotlight on some of my fellow puzzlers here at PuzzleNation as part of celebrating 4 years of PuzzleNation Blog. Introducing readers to our programmer Mike, our Director of Digital Games Fred, and yes, even myself, was a really fun way to celebrate this milestone.

#2 ACPT, CT FIG, and Other Puzzly Events

There are few things better than spending time with fellow puzzlers and gamers, and we got to do a lot of that this year. Whether it was supporting local creators at the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games or cheering on my fellow puzzlers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, getting out and talking shop with other creators is invigorating and encouraging. It really helps solidify the spirit of community that comes with being puzzly.

#1 Penny Dell Sudoku and Android Expansion

Those were our two biggest app releases this year, and I just couldn’t choose one over the other. This has been a terrific year for us as puzzle creators, because not only did we beef up our library of Android-available puzzle sets to match our terrific iOS library, but we launched our new Penny Dell Sudoku app across both platforms, broadening the scope of what sort of puzzle apps you can expect from PuzzleNation.

It may sound self-serving or schlocky to talk about our flagship products as #1 in the countdown, but it’s something that we’re all extremely proud of, something that we’re constantly working to improve, because we want to make our apps the absolute best they can be for the PuzzleNation audience. That’s what you deserve.

Thanks for spending 2016 with us, through puzzle scandals and proposals, through forts and festivities, through doomsday prepping and daily delights. We’ll see you in 2017.


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5 Questions with Constructor and Editor Patti Varol!

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Patti Varol as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

If you’ve solved crosswords anywhere other than the New York Times for the last few years, you’re bound to have encountered Patti Varol’s clever constructing and crafty cluing. A regular of The Washington Post and other outlets, Patti is a topnotch constructor and a crossword pro.

She’s also no stranger to PuzzleNation Blog, as she has previously contributed advice for constructing your own crosswords and shared her victory at Lollapuzzoola two years ago with the PuzzleNation audience.

Patti was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Patti Varol

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I solved all kinds of puzzles with my grandparents when I was a kid, and games were a big part of family time when I was growing up. A few years after I finished college, I answered an ad for an editorial job with the crossword/variety department at Penny Press — the puzzle test and the interviews for that position, and then taking that job, well, that changed my life. Suddenly, puzzles and games were something to study from the inside out, to take apart and put back together better, to make from scratch. And that was just as much fun as solving them…and I was getting paid to do it.

2. You keep awfully busy when it comes to puzzles. Can you fill the PuzzleNation audience in on your various puzzle jobs and how they differ from each other?

I do! I’m Rich Norris’s assistant at the L.A. Times Crossword, which means that I write some of his correspondence (I let constructors know what Rich likes or doesn’t like about the puzzles they’ve sent him), and I pre-edit some of the daily puzzles. I also send out the monthly constructor schedule notices and do some of our testing and fact checking.

I’m also the editor of The Crosswords Club, which is a monthly publication with six Sunday-sized crosswords. The puzzles are made by some of the best constructors in the business, so they are as fun as they are challenging. Each monthly envelope also has an extra word game, and all of the puzzles have explanatory blurbs with some trivia and etymology. It’s a really neat product – there’s really nothing else like it on the market.

And I also do puzzle testing/proofreading for a few other venues, including some crossword tournaments and puzzle magazines. And I’m a puzzle constructor for the CrosSynergy puzzle syndicate; my crosswords appear in The Washington Post roughly once a month. I also construct puzzles for the LA Times and Crosswords Club occasionally, and I mentor new constructors who seek out my help.

Every venue I work for has a different style guide and different target audience, so it’s a job in itself to keep them all straight. All of these different puzzle jobs have made me a strong, confident editor and constructor. I love what I do, and I love being good at what I do. And I’m only good at what I do because I’ve had the privilege to work with and learn from the best.

[Image courtesy of Wikihow.com.]

3. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy — or most commonly avoid — when constructing your own? What do you think is the most common pitfall of constructors just starting out?

A great puzzle has a spark to it — you know right away that it’s something original, fresh, and special. You learn something new, or you see something familiar from a new angle. It’s that aha! moment, that pop. I’m being maddeningly vague here, I realize, but the elements of a great puzzle are elusive and subjective.

That same pop comes when constructing a puzzle, too. Getting a tough grid to come together cleanly, realizing that the right pieces are finally all there in the right order — that can be even more satisfying than solving someone else’s puzzle.

New constructors always seem to start off with more than they can handle: they try to make a Sunday puzzle (21x) before they’ve mastered the smaller daily format, or they try to do a low-word-count themeless before they’re fully comfortable with the 15x themed format. Or they try to cram too much theme in a grid.

Start small, aim big, and you’ll get better with every grid.

4. Between the Timothy Parker plagiarism scandal and the recent Slate article about insensitivity and tone-deafness in cluing in the New York Times crossword, accountability has been a major topic this year in the world of puzzles. As a gatekeeper to getting published yourself, what changes would you like to see made in order to bring crosswords into the 21st century?

Change is already underway, and it’s exciting, because crosswords just keep getting better and better. Just as language evolves — words and their meanings can be as fluid as they can be subjective — so, too, do the media and art forms that rely on language.

[Image courtesy of HomeSchoolSuccess.com.]

The conversations about crosswords, online and offline, illustrate clearly that the crossword community is made up of some of the smartest, most language-sensitive, funniest people you’ll ever meet. We’re in love with our craft, and sometimes we take ourselves and our work too seriously, which is what happens when you’re passionate about what you do. But it’s so important to remember that puzzles are entertainment, a happy diversion, and if we use language incorrectly or insensitively, we’re not providing that diversion. We have to take our fun very seriously!

When we’re polishing a puzzle, crossword editors have a very specific audience in mind — we know our solvers because we listen to them and because we’re solvers ourselves. Because of this larger, ongoing conversation, we know that our solving audience is bigger and more diverse than ever.

This presents an interesting challenge: how do you make every crossword accessible and fun for every solver, regardless of race, gender, or age? Maybe not every clue and every entry will resonate with every single solver, but as long as I’m not actively alienating a solver, and as long as I’m stretching, testing, and entertaining most of my solvers, I’m doing my job.

And there are so many crosswords available now! In addition to the newspaper dailies, there are paper subscription services like The Crosswords Club, plus email/blog subscriptions by so many talented constructors, and more puzzle books and magazines available on newsstands than ever before.

We’ll always have good, old-fashioned puzzles, but now we also have lively, fresh puzzles with more current pop-culture references. This, too, is what happens when you’re passionate about what you do: your art naturally reflects and includes the community it is a part of.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring constructors, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Solve all the puzzles. All of them. Even the puzzles that, at first glance, look like the kind you don’t like, solve them. And if you don’t know the answers, look them up. There’s no such thing as cheating at a puzzle — it’s all simply research that makes you better at puzzles.

The more you look up, the more you will learn and remember for the next puzzle you solve. And if you want to learn how to make puzzles, or to get better at making puzzles, nothing will teach you more about how a puzzle works than getting stuck — and then unstuck — while solving one.


A huge thank you to Patti for her time. Be sure to check out The Crosswords Club, and follow her on Twitter for baseball tweets and updates on her latest projects! (Her website is currently under construction.) I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next!

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Better Gaming With Math and Statistics!

[Image courtesy of ThreeSixtyOne.gr.]

Statistical analysis is changing the world. The wealth of available data on the Internet these days, combining with our ever-increasing ability to comb through that data efficiently using computers, has spawned something of a golden age in data mining.

You don’t need to look any further than the discovery of Timothy Parker’s plagiaristic shenanigans for USA Today and Universal Uclick to see how impactful solid analysis can be.

But it’s also having an impact on how we play games. Statistical analysis is taking some of the mystery out of games you’d never expect, making players more efficient and capable than ever.

We discussed this previously with the game Monopoly — specifically how some spaces are far more likely to be landed on than others — and today, we’re looking at two more examples: Guess Who? and Hangman.

Guess Who? gives you a field of 24 possible characters, and you have to figure out which character your opponent has before she figures out the identity of your character. Usually, if you end up with a woman or someone with glasses, your odds of winning are low, because some aspects are simply less common than others.

But is there an optimal way to pare down the options? Absolutely.

Mathematician Rafael Prieto Curiel has devised a strategy for playing Guess Who?, based on an analysis of the notable features of each character, breaking it down into 22 possible questions to ask your opponent:

Based on this data, he has even created a flowchart of questions to ask to maximize your chances of victory. The first question? “Does your person have a big mouth?”

Yes, not exactly a great first-date question, but one that yields the best possible starting point for you to narrow down your opponent’s character.

It’s certainly better than my first instinct, which is always to ask, “Does your person look like a total goon?”

Now, when it comes to Hangman, the name of the game is letter frequency. Just like a round of Wheel of Fortune, you’re playing the odds at first to find some anchor letters to help you spell out the entire answer.

But, as it turns out, letter frequency is not the same across all word lengths. For instance, E is the most common letter in the English language, but it is NOT the most common letter in five-letter words. That honor belongs to the letter S.

In four-letter words, the most common letter is A, not E. And it can change, depending on the presence — or lack thereof — of other letters.

From How to Win Games and Beat People by Tom Whipple:

“E might be the most common letter in six-letter words, and S the second most common, but what if you guess E and E is not in it?” In six-letter words without an E, S is no longer the next best letter to try. It is A.

In fact, Facebook data scientist Nick Berry has created a chart with an optimal calling order based on the length of the blank word.

For one-letter words through 4-letter words, start with A. For five-letter words, start with S. For six-letter words through twelve-letter words, use E. And for words thirteen letters and above, start I.

Of course, if you’re the one posing the word to be guessed, “jazz” is statistically the least-likely word to be guessed using this data. And your opponent will surely hate you for choosing it.


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Puzzle Plagiarism, Part 3: Parker Out

After months of nothing, things are suddenly moving forward with the Universal Uclick/USA Today puzzle plagiarism scandal.

A quick recap: Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

Parker “agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords” in March.

Last week, there was finally a new development, as Universal Uclick stated that they’d confirmed “some” of the allegations against Parker, and he’d be taking a three-month leave of absence.

That underwhelming semi-admission of Parker’s guilt led Lone Shark Games and Mike Selinker to call for a boycott of USA Today and Universal Uclick, and many other game companies and puzzle constructors have followed suit.

So where are we now?

Well, as reported by Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight, Christopher Mele of the New York Times, and Deb Amlen of Wordplay, Timothy Parker is out as editor of the USA Today crossword.

According to Gannett, who publishes USA Today:

No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.

This still leaves some important details up in the air. For one thing, Parker is still employed by Universal Uclick, even if USA Today and Gannett won’t be using any puzzles he’s touched.

We also don’t know who will be taking his place providing puzzles for USA Today and other Gannett publications.

According to Oliver Roeder:

Fred Piscop, who has been interim editor, told me that his position was temporary unless he was officially informed otherwise, and that there was nothing else he could tell me at this point. A call to Universal Uclick was not returned.

Clearly things are far from settled for Parker, Universal Uclick, and USA Today.

Regarding the #gridgate boycott, Mike Selinker and the team at Lone Shark Games had this to say:

As far as we can tell, USA Today and its parent company Gannett just vowed not to use puzzles edited by Timothy Parker ever again. That bold statement — sure, months late, but welcome nonetheless — was all we were looking for. If they stick to their word, we’ll stop our boycott. We can’t claim credit for the result, but we can say that our friends shining a flashlight on the wrongdoing did help get USA Today to speak out publicly and settle the score.

We’re maintaining the boycott of Universal Uclick, though. They’re continuing to employ someone they’ve admitted is a plagiarist—someone who apparently plagiarized our friends’ work. And just because USA Today isn’t buying Parker’s puzzles doesn’t mean no one else will. We can’t even be sure if the person editing the puzzles isn’t Parker, because he’s made a habit of hiding behind pseudonyms. So we’ll keep this boycott going until we’re sure they’ve got a plan for puzzles that aren’t edited by someone they think is a plagiarist.

Uclick, the ball’s in your court.


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Puzzle Plagiarism, Part 2: Uclick Responds

It’s Follow-Up Friday, but it doesn’t feel right to open this post with our usual exuberant intro.

Today, I’m returning to the subject of Timothy Parker and the USA Today/Universal Uclick plagiarism scandal.

You know, when I first wrote about this topic, I suspected I’d be returning to it in Follow-Up Friday fashion, and sadly, that’s proven true.

If you don’t recall, or you hadn’t heard, here’s a quick rundown of what happened. Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

Back in March when I first blogged about this, Parker “agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.”

Well, Oliver Roeder from FiveThirtyEight has reported that Universal Uclick has completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’ve CONFIRMED some of the allegations of puzzle repetition — they don’t explain which allegations they’ve confirmed — they’re only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

According to the Universal Uclick press release:

During his leave, Mr. Parker will confirm that his process for constructing puzzles uses the best available technology to ensure that everything he edits is original. We will work with Mr. Parker on this effort and redouble our editorial process so that there is a stronger second level of review.

Roeder points out that Universal also doesn’t say if the last two months count toward Parker’s three-month leave of absence, since Fred Piscop has been serving as interim editor since the scandal broke.

As you might expect, some in the puzzle-game community are underwhelmed, to say the least, with Universal Uclick’s decision.

For instance, Mike Selinker, puzzle constructor and head honcho of Lone Shark Games, sent out a release last night regarding Parker’s situation, stating that he and his team will boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick.

From their Tumblr post:

But USA Today and Universal Uclick, two important providers of puzzles to the world, have abandoned all pretense that originality and credit for content is important to them. So we’re abandoning them. As of today, we’re boycotting both companies.

Up until now, we liked USA Today. We thought that a newspaper of its size would be violently opposed to plagiarism. But they do not appear to be. It’s way past time for USA Today and Universal Uclick to take a stand against plagiarism and for creators’ rights, and maybe it takes some creators to stand up for those. So we’re doing it.

I suspect Mike and the wonderful crew at Lone Shark Games won’t be the only ones giving USA Today and Universal Uclick the cold shoulder. Kudos to them for taking a stand against plagiarism and standing with friends and colleagues in the puzzle community.

You’d think a major publication like USA Today would be against plagiarism instead of downplaying it like this. I doubt they’d tolerate plagiarism anywhere else in their paper.

It will certainly be interesting to see where the story goes from here. Here’s hoping Universal Uclick does the right thing and stands with content creators, not against them.

I’ll conclude this post the same way the team at Lone Shark Games concluded their release:

If you share this on Twitter or Facebook, please tag @usatoday and @UniversalUclick to tell them that you stand with the puzzlemakers, and add the hashtag #gridgate. Or, if you want to talk to USA Today directly, send them a note addressed to Reader Feedback/Letters saying that you find plagiarism in any department unacceptable. Now would be awesome.


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