The Robots Have Come For Our Crosswords!

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Well, it was bound to happen. We’ve seen it in chess, and Go, and Scrabble. Now, crosswords are the latest pastime to fall to the inevitable machine takeover of civilization.

Okay, I’m being a tad hyperbolic here. Robots aren’t snatching crossword puzzles out of peoples’ hands and solving them, after all.

But we have reached a peculiar milestone in AI and crossword history: a computer program won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Sorta.

Dr. Fill, the crossword-solving creation of Matt Ginsberg, was able to balance the occasional solving mistake with a blistering solving speed in order to overtake any human competitors in its total tournament score.

But not by much. Former ACPT champion Erik Agard was only 15 points behind Dr. Fill on the seven tournament puzzles. Dr. Fill then went on to solve the championship puzzle in 49 seconds (while actual winner Tyler Hinman did so in three minutes).

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But, as it turns out, this isn’t the old Dr. Fill that has been competing in the ACPT for years. No, this year’s Dr. Fill is a curious hybrid of the original programming and a neural network known as the Berkeley Crossword Solver.

And this Frankenstein’s monster of puzzle-solving machinery is what toppled the competition in the first-ever virtual edition of the tournament.

According to an article on Slate:

An alliance came naturally. Ginsberg and the Berkeley crew started working together just two weeks before the tournament, plugging the latter system into the former, and the centaur program finally ran with just days to go.

The result, hastily constructed though it was, was a marvel, its pieces working hand in glove to solve crosswords. Ginsberg’s system handled the grid and the colder, mathematical side of things, searching and placing answers, while the Berkeley team’s system unriddled the hazier, “human” side of the language of the clues, crosswords’ music.

You know, it’s kind of reassuring that it took TWO computer programs working in tandem to best the top puzzle solvers.

Also, it’s not like Dr. Fill can actually win a tournament. Not until it can hold a marker and solve in person in front of everybody while Greg Pliska and Ophira Eisenberg crack wise about it, at least.

It does make next year’s tournament more intriguing. Will Dr. Fill perform as well “in person”? Or will the master cruciverbalists retake the title?

And hey, if anyone is building a body for Dr. Fill, please stop. Stop, rewatch every sci-fi movie about AI and robots, and then rethink your life choices.


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A Crossword Roundup: 10,000 Days of Shortz, The Crossword Mysteries, and ACPT!

Hello crossword fans! In today’s post I just wanted to offer a quick little roundup of crossword-related items and stories, so I’ve got three for you today.

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Firstly, I’d like to congratulate Will Shortz on editing his 10,000th crossword! (Approximately. It’s actually his 10,000th day as editor, which is still a very impressive number!)

Friend of the blog Deb Amlen interviewed Will to mark the occasion, and it offers a nice little snapshot of Will’s career as editor of The New York Times crossword, as well as some insight into the man behind the puzzle.

There are also some intriguing stats included in the interview. This one caught my eye:

The Times is publishing more teen constructors than ever before. In the whole history of the Times Crossword up to me, only six teenagers are known to have had crosswords in the paper. I’ve published 46 teens so far, with two more coming up this month.

46 teens! That’s amazing.

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Of course, the part that’s getting a lot of traction online is this quote: “I read all but one of the daily crossword blogs”

Now, I hesitate to bring this part up, because there’s virtually no way to discuss it without sounding like I’m picking a side. It’s not hard to deduce what daily blog Will is referring to here — plenty of others have made the connection already — and the presumed writer of that blog responded to the comment in typically salty fashion, as did his many fans and readers.

I choose not to wade into that particularly turbulent Internet space, which is why I’m not naming names or providing links. If you are that interested, it’s not hard to find them.

But I DO want to say that there are plenty of terrific crossword blogs out there, big and small, that all add to the daily crossword discussion in important ways. Some are more critical than others. Some are acerbic to the point of being fairly unpleasant to read regularly. But there’s definitely a blog out there about the Times daily crossword for you.

In any case, congratulations to Will Shortz on 10,000 days as the most recognizable name in crosswords. Other than Brian Eno, Yoko Ono, Bobby Orr, Mel Ott, Rip Torn, Oona Chaplin…

Anyway, congrats on being A recognizable name in crosswords. =)

Speaking of recognizable names and crosswords, the fifth Crossword Mysteries movie will be premiering Sunday night, April 11th, at 8 PM Eastern! It is entitled Riddle Me Dead, and here’s the plot synopsis:

Tess gets invited to be part of a popular game show, but when the host is unexpectedly murdered, she and Detective Logan O’Connor try to discover who was behind it all.

Not only that, but Hallmark Movies & Mysteries is running a Crossword Mysteries marathon all day, starting at noon, so you can catch up on all things Tess Harper and Logan O’Connor before the newest entry in the series debuts that night!

Of course, you could also just read the four posts about the movies that I’ve written for the blog here, here, here, and here. Just saying.

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Finally, I’ll cap off this trifecta of crossword-related notes by reminding you that registration is open for this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament! The tournament is running from April 23rd through the 25th, complete with all sorts of events!

The tournament has gone virtual this year, so if you’ve ever thought about entering the tournament and testing your puzzly skills, this is the perfect opportunity for you. The deadline to register is Friday, April 23rd, noon Eastern.

There are sample puzzles to try out as well!

Will you be attending ACPT this year, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Or tuning in for the latest Crossword Mysteries film? What do you think of 10,000 days of Will Shortz-edited NYT crosswords? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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New Puzzly Mystery Series? Parnell Hall’s Puzzle Lady Headed to TV!

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Some exciting news broke recently if you’re a fan of puzzle-fueled mysteries on television.

A few days ago, it was announced that a team of production companies have acquired the rights to Parnell Hall’s Puzzle Lady mystery series and are looking to develop it into a new mystery drama series.

The series centers around the grumpy Cora Felton, a nationally syndicated crossword puzzle editor who prefers to spend her time investigating crimes and nosing around police investigations than worrying about grid fill or witty cluing.

And, of course, each novel includes crosswords from Will Shortz that are woven into the narrative.

Although there are a host of colorful supporting characters to fill out the cast — one that will adapt nicely to the screen, in fact — the other major player worth noting is Cora’s long-suffering niece Sherry, a clever young woman who both handles the crossword side of things and tries to keep her aunt’s detective shenanigans in line.

Most of the press releases refer to Cora as “Miss Marple on steroids.” Personally, I don’t see it, unless they’re referring to Cora’s penchant to ignore social niceties in order to solve the case. I suspect that her combination of hardheadedness, determination, and keen observation skills will make her a favorite of mystery fans.

After all, who can’t get behind a sharp-tongued older woman who tolerates no guff and happily sidesteps the authorities in order to make sure justice is done?

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As for the production side of things, they’ve assembled a solid team. ZDF Enterprises, which is headlining the project, recently sold crime drama The Bridge to the BBC. (One production company involved, Canada’s December Films, is a relatively new entity.)

The other production company, North Yorkshire’s Factual Fiction, already has several successful projects to their credit, producing The Curse of Ishtar and Agatha and the Midnight Murders. (Another entry in the Agatha series, Agatha and the Truth of Murder, was produced by the founding members of Factual Fiction for Channel 5 in the UK.)

Although they have acquired the rights to all twenty books in the series, the plan right now is for a six-episode run, and members of the production staff, including top execs and screenwriter Dominique Moloney, are already in place.

There’s no word yet on casting or when production will start, but we’ll keep you posted as soon as we know more.

Naturally, this makes one wonder about the OTHER crossword mystery series we’ve come to enjoy over the last year or two: the Hallmark Movies and Mysteries’ series The Crossword Mysteries.

A fourth film is still listed as forthcoming on IMDb, but the latest updates (posted back in June, as far as I can tell) show no movement on that front.

Astonishingly, the last one (Abracadaver) aired only back in January. It feels like it was a hundred years ago in 2020 time, doesn’t it?

Well, it sounds like cruciverbalist Tess Harper and detective Logan O’Connor might soon have some stiff competition in the puzzly sleuthing market.

Are you excited about the Puzzle Lady mystery series announcement, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Who would you like to see cast in the series? And can we expect some Will Shortz cameos? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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ACPT Cancelled (Again): More Crossword Tournament Updates!

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We can’t close out June without a bit more news, it seems.

Two weeks ago, we updated you on the state of the puzzle industry as it pertains to crossword tournaments. We were able to share the sad news that Lollapuzzoola would not be happening this year — a solve-at-home event is in the works — as well as the happier news that BosWords would be hosting an online tournament this year on Sunday afternoon, July 26.

We also made passing reference to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament‘s original date in March being cancelled, and a prospective date of the weekend of September 11-13 for a rescheduled tournament.

Unfortunately, yesterday Will Shortz confirmed through the NY Times Wordplay social media platforms that the 2020 ACPT has been scrapped for the year:

Over the past few months we kept modifying our plans for the event, as the pandemic persisted, but now it has become clear that it cannot be held this year at all.

We believe we have already refunded all registrations for the in-person tournament. If somehow we overlooked yours, please let us know (msmithacpt@gmail.com).

Registrations for at-home solving of the 2020 ACPT puzzles — either by mail or online — will be rolled over until next year. If you would like a refund instead, let us know that, too.

Originally, a weekend in late March was announced, but those posts were later replaced by updates stating that the tentative date for the 43rd ACPT is now the weekend of April 23-25, 2021.

Here’s hoping that the world will be in a better, healthier state and allow us to enjoy puzzling in public with our fellow puzzlers and cruciverbalists once again.

Something to look forward to.


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Looking Forward to More Crossword Mysteries

There are always puzzly events to look forward to, big and small.

Maybe yours is solving the Sunday Times puzzle with a cup of coffee in hand, or starting a new jigsaw puzzle with coworkers over lunch. Maybe yours is reuniting with fellow puzzlers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, or Lollapuzzoola, or a yearly puzzle hunt.

Hallmark Mysteries and Movies has added to the list of eagerly anticipated puzzly events with their Crossword Mysteries films over the last year or so.

Featuring the unlikely duo of detective Logan O’Connor and crossword editor Tess Harper, these films have struck a chord with puzzle- and mystery-loving fans of Hallmark Channel.

So far, there have been three Crossword Mysteries films:

That last one stung a bit for enthusiastic fans, of course, after the film was pushed back from its original debut date of October 20, so Hallmark could start showing Christmas movies.

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But there’s still a question floating around regarding these films… what happened to the fourth one?

After the success of A Puzzle to Die For, three additional films were announced for the series, but at some point, the order was cut down to two.

IMDB still lists a fourth film in the series, but with scant details.

Naturally, that hasn’t stopped me from pondering what the plot could be.

And so, today, I give you three pitches for the fourth Crossword Mysteries film.

Enjoy!


#1: The Jigsaw Is Up!

Tess’s beloved aunt Candace is framed for murder — puzzly murder, of course, as jigsaw puzzle pieces are found in the victim’s mouth — and Tess has to try to exonerate her socialite aunt.

And it’ll be tough. There are dozens of witnesses placing her at the scene of the crime — a party — and many of them observed an altercation between her and the victim mere moments before the body is found.

Tess realizes the jigsaw puzzle pieces in the victim’s mouth don’t match the puzzle he was working on, and it turns out the puzzle was swapped? Why?

It was a favorite of the murderer, who used to solve jigsaws with the victim before he took a shine to Aunt Candace. Once the original puzzle is found, it turns out to a picture of the victim and the murderer in happier times.


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#2: A Boy Named Sudoku

Tess is completely baffled when Sudoku puzzles are left behind at a series of break-ins, each with seemingly random numbers filled in.

Frustrated, Tess is forced to turn to her hated puzzly rival — the Sudoku editor at a competing newspaper — to help her solve the puzzles.

It turns out the numbers aren’t random after all, and the break-ins are all tied to bank account numbers for the same individual: a ruthless millionaire. The break-ins are all to businesses owned by him.

In the end, a promising puzzle whiz turns out to be behind it all, taking revenge on the man who ruined his father’s business. When Tess offers him an internship at her paper, she’s appalled when he says he prefers Sudoku, and ends up working for her rival.


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#3: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

Okay, this one centers around Will Shortz’s cameos in each of the previous films. In the first, we encounter him playing table tennis. In the second, he’s a cop at Logan’s station. In the third, he’s one of the folks at the dance studio.

Each time, the protagonists interact with him but don’t recognize him, meaning each of these three characters are different people. And yet, the fact that they’ve encountered mustachioed triplets doesn’t register with Logan and Tess.

Apparently New York City is loaded with Will Shortz lookalikes. My pitch is for the fourth movie to involve two dozen or more Will Shortz characters as suspects. Maybe one is also the victim. I don’t know. But I want there to be a boatload of Will Shortzes and a serious case of “Man, all these suspects look similar.”


Did you enjoy the potential pitches for a fourth Crossword Mysteries movie, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.

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How Far Crosswords Have Come (and How Much Farther They Have to Go)

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The battle to decrease gender inequality and increase representation in crosswords is ongoing. More people than ever are speaking up on behalf of women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ constructors, and non-binary individuals when it comes to who is constructing the puzzles (and being properly credited), as well as how members of those groups are represented by current grid entries and cluing.

Natan Last is one of many people standing up to make crosswords better, more inclusive, and more emblematic of a richer melting pot of solvers and constructors. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Last neatly encapsulates both the movement for a more inclusive crossword publishing community and the many obstacles that stand in its way.

He starts with a single example — a debut puzzle by a female constructor, Sally Hoelscher — and the conversation that ensued when one puzzle aficionado asked about the ratio of women’s names to men’s names in the puzzle.

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[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

Originally there were no men’s names. One entry was edited in. And a discussion about parity in puzzles followed.

Last uses this example as a springboard into the greater argument about how modern crossword editing (and editors) discriminate through gatekeeping under the guise of what’s “familiar” or “obscure.”

From the article:

Constructors constantly argue with editors that their culture is puzzle-worthy, only to hear feedback greased by bias, and occasionally outright sexism or racism. (Publications are anonymized in the editor feedback that follows.) MARIE KONDO wouldn’t be familiar enough “to most solvers, especially with that unusual last name.” GAY EROTICA is an “envelope-pusher that risks solver reactions.” (According to XWord Info, a blog that tracks crossword statistics, EROTICA has appeared in the New York Times puzzle, as one example, more than 40 times since 1950.) BLACK GIRLS ROCK “might elicit unfavorable responses.” FLAVOR FLAV, in a puzzle I wrote, earned a minus sign.

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[Image courtesy of CNBC.]

But what is kept out is only part of the problem, of course. Last goes on to mention many of the same insensitive and offensive clues and entries we (and other outlets) have cited in the past.

He caps off this part of the article by highlighting Will Shortz’s responses to these troubling questions:

But when prodded about insensitive edits, he denied them, adding: “If a puzzlemaker is unhappy with our style of editing, then they should send their work elsewhere (or publish it themselves to keep complete control).”

A pretty damning statement, to be sure.

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Turning away from the problems represented by the most famous daily crossword in the world, Last pivots, turning a spotlight on those who are helping turn the tide in terms of representation and inclusivity.

He shouts-out well-respected and innovative editors like Erik Agard (of USA Today‘s crossword), David Steinberg (of Andrew McMeel Universal’s Puzzles and Games division), and Liz Maynes-Aminzade (of The New Yorker crossword), heaping praise on a fresh constructor-editor partnership that encourages new voices and greater diversity of content.

Last also mentions worthy projects like the Inkubator, Women of Letters, and Queer Qrosswords, as well as the Women’s March crossword movement inspired by the work of Rebecca Falcon.

Across the entire article, Last highlights a system problem in crosswords, challenges those responsible to do better, and praises those who are working for the greater good. And he does so in about a dozen paragraphs. That’s all. It’s efficiency and flow worthy of a top-notch constructor.

You should read it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.


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