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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A Puzzly Nom de Plume?

[Image courtesy of Writers Write.]

There was an intriguing blog post on The Wall Street Journal‘s website a few days ago about their crossword editor, Mike Shenk.

For those who don’t know, Shenk is a well-respected name in the world of puzzles who has contributed puzzles to numerous outlets, including GAMES Magazine, The New York Times, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and of course, The Wall Street Journal.

The blog post revealed that Shenk had published puzzles in the WSJ under pseudonyms in the past, but going forward, that would no longer be the case. In the spirit of transparency, any puzzles constructed by Shenk would appear under his real name.

Greater transparency in crossword publishing is definitely a good thing. If you recall, part of the issue with Timothy Parker’s tenure for the Universal Crossword involved other constructors’ puzzles being reprinted under Parker’s pseudonyms instead of the actual constructor’s name. Ben Tausig found one example, and further investigation turned up others.

From a FiveThirtyEight article discussing the story:

The puzzles in question repeated themes, answers, grids and clues from Times puzzles published years earlier. Hundreds more of the puzzles edited by Parker are nearly verbatim copies of previous puzzles that Parker also edited. Most of those have been republished under fake author names.

Obviously, no such accusations mar Shenk’s tenure at The Wall Street Journal. His reputation is pristine.

[Image courtesy of Politico.]

But it made me wonder. Last year, we discussed how many women were being published in various crossword outlets. From January 1st to April 29th of 2018, nine out of the 99 puzzles published by The Wall Street Journal were constructed by women. Were some of those actually Shenk under a pseudonym? (One of the noms de plume mentioned in the WSJ blog post was Alice Long.)

Naturally, this whole topic got me thinking about pseudonyms in general. In British crosswords, most constructors (or setters, as they’re called in the UK) publish under a pseudonym. Among loyal solvers, names like Araucaria, Qaos, Paul, Enigmatist, Shed, and Crucible are as familiar there as C.C. Burnikel, Jeff Chen, Brendan Emmett Quigley, or Patrick Berry would be here.

How common are pseudonyms in American-style crosswords, do you suppose? Has usage of aliases increased or decreased over the years? I might have to follow up on that in the future.

In the meantime, it’s intriguing to see one of the most respected crossword outlets in the market today, The Wall Street Journal, take a stand on visibility and transparency in puzzle publishing. Maybe it’s the start of something bigger.


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Scrabble and Gender Politics?

Gender equality is a hot-button issue these days, as it should be. In the US, one political party is hellbent on regulating reproductive rights (and women’s bodies in general), even as the opposing party saw more women elected into public office than ever before.

Women of color and LGBTQIA+ women continue to seek equal and fair representation in all areas, from political and economic to social, and these discussions are important. They should be part of the national — and global — conversation.

You might think this has nothing to do with the world of puzzles and games, but you’d be wrong. The stigma of Gamergate still hangs over the heads of many in the video game industry, after a small, yet vocal and toxic, group of video game fans targeted and harassed female coders and game designers. There have been smaller stories in the board game industry as well, where companies have agreed not to associate with certain individuals with troublingly sexist backgrounds.

Even the puzzle world isn’t immune to this. Earlier this year, I wrote about how few women are published in major crossword outlets, despite the wealth of talent out there.

So when I stumbled across an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal about gender inequality in the world of competitive Scrabble, I was intrigued.

The author argues that “Females aren’t as obsessively driven as males to nail down facts, correct errors, and dominate a field,” and uses the Scrabble tournament as a microcosm, implying that the same argument applies to STEM fields and other intellectual competitions like the National Geographic Geography Bee.

From the article:

Competitive Scrabble constitutes a natural experiment for testing the feminist worldview. According to feminist dogma, males and females are identical in their aptitudes and interests. If men dominate certain data-based, abstract fields like engineering, physics and math, that imbalance must, by definition, be the result of sexism—whether a patriarchal culture that discourages girls from math or implicit bias in the hiring process.

But there are no cultural expectations that discourage females from memorizing dictionaries—a typical strategy of competitive Scrabble players, often in a foreign language that the player doesn’t speak. Girls are as free as boys to lap up vocabulary. Nor are there misogynist gatekeepers to keep females out of Scrabble play; the game, usually first learned at home, is open to all. According to Hasbro, 83% of recreational Scrabble players 25 to 54 are female.

Now, firstly, there is misogynist gatekeeping in most every social activity. You can go back and read the interviews I did for my Women in Roleplaying Games post earlier this year for some telling firsthand accounts.

I can’t argue with the stats on recreational Scrabble players. Most of the Scrabble players (and Words With Friends players, and other offshoots) are women. Heck, in my group of friends, one Scrabble rivalry escalated so much that the loser of a particularly high-stakes match had to compose and perform a song dedicated to the winner’s Scrabble mastery!

But the author is missing a major point about discouragement vs. encouragement. Sure, many of those recreational Scrabble players are female, but being introduced to a game in your youth and being encouraged to excel at it are two very different things. Girls are not necessarily as free as boys to lap up vocabulary, unless they’re raised in a household where such learning is equally encouraged.

Girls and young women still struggle under weighty cultural expectations, both in terms of what their interests should be and what fields they should focus their competitiveness on. To act like every household treats boys and girls the same is a ridiculous act of simplification on the author’s part.

There is a huge difference between not being discouraged and actively being encouraged. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many of the top crossword constructors in the field today, and one thing that many of them, male and female, have in common is being encouraged at a young age to pursue their interest in puzzles.

There’s no gender disparity in competitors at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, either in terms of competitors or winners, and the parental and familial encouragement for those children is obvious in any interview package.

Plus, there’s the issue of whether competitiveness is encouraged. All too often, you hear stories about girls’ and women’s interest in a topic being quashed by discussions of “what’s appropriate” or “what’s ladylike” or some other nonsensical idea of how to BE a woman.

You hear it all the time in the language employed by misogynists; A man is competitive, a woman is aggressive. A man is outspoken, a woman is pushy. The double standard is very much a thing, and whether we’re talking about households, board rooms, or game rooms, these inequities should be challenged.

We still have huge strides to make in terms of ameliorating gender inequality in our society, and the little fights matter as much as the big ones. The author states that “the National Science Foundation pours millions of taxpayer dollars into intersectionality and microaggression studies to smoke out invisible STEM sexism and to promote diversity in research labs.”

Invisible? Hardly. I was a physics student as a freshman in college, and I saw the one female student in my classes run off by this supposedly invisible STEM sexism. I wish I had spoken up more then.

I hope that continuing to speak up now in some small way makes up for it.


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Publish More Women!

That was the message received loud and clear by attendees at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament last year if they saw Erik Agard’s t-shirt. The future ACPT champion was amplifying a call that has resonated throughout the puzzle community for years now.

And yet, puzzles are often still regarded as a boys’ club.

Despite the fact that Margaret Farrar got the ball rolling. Despite the fact that Maura Jacobson contributed a puzzle to each of the first 34 ACPT tournaments and created over 1400 puzzles for New York Magazine. Despite a grand tradition of female innovators, tournament champions, and topnotch constructors that continues to this very day.

This topic once again took center stage recently when Will Shortz, gatekeeper for The New York Times crossword, posted his thoughts on the subject online:

Periodically I get asked, “Why aren’t more female constructors published in the New York Times?” And I always think, “Well, we don’t get a lot of submissions from women.” But until now I’ve never counted.

So this afternoon I counted. I looked through 260 recent submissions … and counted 33 by female constructors. That’s a little under 13%.

This figure is in line with the percentage of female constructors we publish. Last year, according to the stats at XwordInfo, 13% of the crosswords published in the Times were by women. So far this year the figure is slightly better — 15%.

Why this number is still so low, I don’t know.

In positive news, the number of new female constructors is significantly higher. In 2016, 31% of the 26 contributors who made their Times debut were female. In 2017, 19% were female. So far this year 27% have been female. XwordInfo lists all the names.

Our goal is to be inclusive. We want the Times crossword to reflect the lives, culture, and vocabulary of the people who do it, and having more female-made puzzles would provide better balance.

Still for us to publish more women constructors, we need to receive more puzzles by women. That’s the bottom line.

Our policy is open submissions. If you’re a woman who’d like to get into crossword constructing, we’d welcome your contributions, and we’ll be happy to work with you to get you published.

Reactions across the puzzle community have been mixed, but a number of people found Will’s response lacking. They asked what actual steps would be taken in order to encourage women and other underrepresented groups. Would there be additional support from the NYT for these sought-after constructors? Or would the status quo remain precisely that?

Those are questions worth asking. After all, the Times has been celebrating its 75th anniversary for the last year and a half with celebrity guest constructors. But how many of those celebrity collaborations have been with female constructors?

Three. That’s a project with huge visibility and mainstream media crossover potential, and the number is three.

And speaking of media crossover, it wasn’t that long ago — less than two years, actually — that the divisive clue “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM appeared in the NYT. Ruth Gordon wrote a brilliant piece in Slate highlighting how cluing standards at the Times could be exclusionary:

“Hateful” and “awful” may seem a bit harsh for what reads like a lame attempt at cheekiness. But the clue is certainly tone-deaf. And it’s not the first time a puzzle’s un-PC cluelessness has annoyed people. In 2012, the answer ILLEGAL was clued with: “One caught by the border patrol.” The offensive use of illegal as a noun set off a brouhaha that made its way to Univision.

And in November, Shortz issued a mea culpa for the clue “Exasperated comment from a feminist.” Answer: MEN — presumably with an invisible exclamation point and flying sweat out of a Cathy comic.

So, how has the NYT crossword been doing over the last two years?

We can turn again to the insightful Erik Agard for context. While guest-posting on Rex Parker’s puzzle blog, Erik took a moment to celebrate and spread the word about Women of Letters, the marvelous 18-puzzle charity project we also discussed a few weeks ago:

It’s also a lot of women! In fact, there are more woman-constructed crosswords in this collection than there have been published by the New York Times so far this year. Those who fail to see the urgency in closing the gender gaps in crossword constructing and editing often posit that ‘you can’t tell the difference between a crossword written by a woman and one written by a man’ (ergo, whether women are equally represented has little bearing on the end product, so why should we care).

The puzzles in Women of Letters disprove that thesis in a big way, through the dizzying array of less-traveled roads explored by themes, grids, and clues alike. From the juiciest marquee answers in the themelesses to the simplest choice of referencing a legendary actress by her accolades and not just [Bond girl], the collection never ceases to be a breath of fresh, inimitable air. (As the young people say: “Your fave could never.”)

That comment was posted on April 29th, and yes, as of April 29th, the New York Times crossword had published 17 puzzles from female constructors (including male/female collabs). That’s 17 out of 119 puzzles for the year, or 14.3%.

Erik helpfully provided some other statistics for the sake of comparison:

  • Crosswords With Friends: 33/119 = 27.7%
  • The Los Angeles Times: 31/119 = 26.1%
  • American Values Club Crossword: 3/18 = 16.7%
  • Chronicle for Higher Education: 2/16 = 12.5%
  • Wall Street Journal: 9/99 = 9.1%
  • Fireball Crosswords: 0/19 = 0%

It’s also worth pointing out that, as of April 29th, our Daily POP Crosswords app stood at 87/119, or 73.1%.

If you update the listings up through May 15th, Daily Pop Crosswords published 95 puzzles by women over 135 days. March alone featured 21 puzzles by women across 31 days. Heck, in February, only two puzzles the entire month were constructed by men. (Er, man, to be more specific. The same chap constructed both.)

But those aren’t the only numbers worth celebrating. Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles maintain an impressive publication rate for The Crosswords Club subscription service. They publish six puzzles a month, so from January to May, that’s 30 puzzles, and 16 were constructed by women (including three collabs). The January issue was all female constructors.

That’s no surprise, honestly, given the company. At Penny/Dell Puzzles, women constitute the majority of not only puzzle editors, but upper management as well.

So, forgive me if I come off as flippant, but when Will Shortz asks, “Why this number is still so low?”, I have to ask why as well.

Because the constructors are out there, right now, doing tremendous work.


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Constructors’ Favorite Crosswords from 2017!

Yesterday, I wrapped up my efforts to celebrate 2017’s contributions to the long, marvelous legacy of puzzles and games.

But before saying goodbye to 2017, I reached out to other constructors and puzzlers to ask them if they had any favorite crosswords from 2017, either of their own creation or those made by others.

So let’s check out the favorites from some world-class constructors in their own right.

Note: Wherever possible, I’ve included links to the puzzles, but for the most part, the links included filled-in grids, so if you want the full solving experience, scan for dates, outlets, and names to hunt down copies for yourself.

And remember: every single person who replied stated that there were other puzzles they loved that they knew they were leaving out, so don’t consider this in any way to be an exhaustive list. 2017 was a dynamite year for crosswords!


We’ll start off with some of crossword gentleman Doug Peterson‘s favorites:

– Monday, May 8 NY Times puzzle by Zhouqin Burnikel aka CC Burnikel. It’s an LGBTQ theme executed so nicely for a Monday. Difficulty and theme are spot-on for an easy puzzle. Lots of fresh, colloquial fill. CC is the master.

– Saturday, July 22 LA Times themeless puzzle by Erik Agard. All of Erik’s themelesses are fun, but this one stood out a bit more for me. SHIRLEY CHISHOLM, KITE-EATING TREE, TOOTHBRUSHES stacked on top of ORTHODONTISTS. Fun stuff everywhere you look.

– Wednesday, August 9 AVCX puzzle “Birthday Bash” by Francis Heaney. Broken PINATAs that have dropped their candy into the grid. It doesn’t get much better than that. 🙂 OK, slight ding for having one PINATA filled with ALTOIDS, but this was still a blast to solve.

[Image courtesy of Party Cheap.]

Several constructors, including Joanne Sullivan and Patrick Blindauer, heaped praise upon the puzzles from this year’s Lollapuzzoola event, and rightly so. They always push the envelope in terms of creativity with Lollapuzzoola, and folks went all out for the tenth year of the tournament. Blindauer cited Paolo Pasco’s tournament opener in particular as a delight.

Patrick had several other recommendations:

It’s no surprise to see New York Times puzzles getting a lot of love. George Barany cited David Steinberg’s June 8th puzzle as particularly clever. Definitely not surprised to see those words associated with David.

[Image courtesy of Snark Squad.]

David Kwong sung the praises of Mark Halpin’s Labor Day Extravaganza — which doesn’t contain any crosswords, but it is still very worthy of mentioning — making a point of mentioning that “the meta puzzle involving the spider’s web was so expertly constructed.”

Constructor Brendan Emmett Quigley did an entire post highlighting his favorite puzzles from the previous year, which marked the only overlap between today’s entry and my list of puzzles yesterday. As it turns out, we both enjoyed his “Next Level Shit” puzzle from November 2nd. He cited “Party Line” from September 28th and “We Have Achieved Peak Puzzle” from November 9th as two other favorites.

[Image courtesy of Arrested Development Wiki.]

To close out today’s rundown of killer puzzles, we’ve got a murderers row of recommendations from Evan Birnholz of Devil Cross and The Washington Post crossword:


Thank you to all of the fantastic constructors who offered their favorite crosswords from 2017! Please check out both these constructors AND the constructors they recommend! There are so many great puzzles out there for you if you bother to look!

Here’s to a terrific, challenging, baffling, and creative new year of puzzles to come!


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Meet the Daily POP Crosswords Constructors: Bonnie L. Gentry

One of the Daily POP Crosswords app’s best features is the level of involvement from topnotch constructors. We’ve assembled one heck of a team when it comes to creating terrific, exciting, fresh themed crosswords.

And over the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing you to some of them. Some names you may know, some you may not, but they’re all doing amazing work on these puzzles and deserve a little time in the limelight.

In this installment, allow us to introduce you to constructor Bonnie L. Gentry!

How did you get started in crosswords?

I sold my first puzzle in 2003 to The Los Angeles Times after I discovered a community of crossword constructors on the website Cruciverb.com. It had style sheets and contact information so I gave it a shot.

I have since been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Crosswords Club, and several crossword books. I also construct a two-page newspaper crossword each Thanksgiving for numerous newspapers.

I’m only a casual solver. I enjoy constructing much more. I tried only twice to compete in a national crossword tournament (ACPT), but ranked miserably. Switching to judging was far easier.

What do you enjoy about working on Daily POP Crosswords?

I love doing the research. I learn something new for every theme I do. I like that it’s a learning experience for me as both a constructor and a solver. This is quite different than traditional crosswords that rely more on wordplay.

Patti Varol is an amazing editor. Her insight makes me a better constructor. Also the volume of work she does is just staggering.

I love that the majority of constructors are women, although there are some great men as well.

I also solve the puzzles on Daily POP Crosswords every day. They are simple enough for any level but they all give an “Aha Moment” when I solve them.

Is there a particular theme day that appeals to you most or that you enjoy working on?

I enjoy sports themes the best. I’m a big fan of all sports and I’m an enthusiastic spectator. Football is probably my favorite sport.

When I do Book Smart themes, it introduces me to books I hadn’t thought much about and has led me to read new books.

I enjoyed learning new things about David Bowie in an upcoming puzzle I made. But the downside is a particular song keeps playing in my head. (But I won’t say which one, because it’s a spoiler.)


A huge thank you to Bonnie for her time! Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles in the Daily POP Crosswords app, free to download for both iOS and Android users!

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