5 Questions for Crossword Constructor and Wordplay Blogger Deb Amlen

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 we’re excited to welcome Deb Amlen as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

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[Deb in the center, flanked by her fellow Musketeers.]

Deb is a talented crossword constructor, but these days, it’s more likely you know her for her role as the head writer and senior editor of Wordplay, the crossword blog and educational/humor column associated with The New York Times crossword puzzle.

One of the most public faces associated with the crossword, Deb entertains and informs across both the blog and its associated Twitter account, as well as hosting a live-solving show on YouTube with fellow constructor Sam Ezersky and celebrity guests!

Deb 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 Deb Amlen

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

Word games like “Ghost” were always my favorite things to play when I was a child, but I didn’t really get into puzzles until I was a young adult. I watched my father solve the New York Times crossword when I was really young, but I didn’t start solving on my own until I bought myself a subscription to New York Magazine after college and discovered Maura Jacobson’s puzzles.

I started constructing crosswords when my own kids were young because, as a stay-at-home mom, I desperately needed a creative outlet that didn’t involve Pokémon or Elmo. I read everything I could about puzzle making and learned how to make crosswords from Nancy Salomon. Nancy has mentored hundreds of constructors to publication.

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2. As the flagbearer for crosswords in the public eye, The New York Times crossword is often the most scrutinized when it comes to cultural sensitivity regarding entries and clues, and more than once, that has depicted the Times puzzle in an unflattering light.

As a very public figure for the brand — not to mention the de facto social media gatekeeper — this puts you in the unenviable position of being between the audience and the editorial team. How do you handle these situations, and as an enthusiastic solver yourself, how do you think the Times is doing in this arena?

The crossword does get a lot of flack, doesn’t it? Honestly, some of it is warranted, some of it is not.

There is definitely a need to bring the flagship puzzle into the 21st century in terms of diversity and representation. Like most large companies, however, sometimes change happens slowly at The New York Times.

A lot of work is being done by the company and the puzzle editors behind the scenes, though, to increase diversity on their team and to be more aware of content that is inflammatory, and I think the recent puzzles reflect that. They have a ways to go, but the conversation is active and ongoing, and I’m very optimistic about the future of the crossword.

As far as social media goes, people tend to conflate “the Wordplay Twitter account” with “Everything The New York Times Does With Regard to Puzzles and Games.” So, since I run the Wordplay account and the puzzle editors are not really on social media, I tend to be the target of people’s complaints, which is hilarious because I’m just the columnist. Luckily, The Times has allowed me to expense a thick skin, so I’m doing OK. When I’m not, I take a break from social media, which I highly recommend and think everyone should do.

On the other hand, most people are well-wishers and are a lot of fun. They tweet their solving victories to me and I give them a gold medal emoji, which people really respond to. It’s very satisfying to be able to lift people up and encourage them, especially on social media, which can be very negative.

3. For the 75th anniversary of the New York Times crossword, constructors and celebrity guest puzzlers collaborated on numerous puzzles. Which celebrity constructors surprised you the most with their work, and who would you like to see as guest constructors in the future?

I’m not sure I was surprised by this, but I believe that Rachel Maddow’s crossword was one of the most popular, most downloaded puzzles we’ve ever had. Neil Patrick Harris’s puzzle had a very cool trick to it. And I can’t leave out the one I did with Natasha Lyonne, who was just brilliant to work with.

[Author’s note: When asked about her puzzle, Natasha said, “Working with Deb Amlen to create this puzzle has quite literally been a lifetime highlight for me.”]

4. What’s next for Deb Amlen?

Dinner, probably.

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

Enjoy yourself. This is not like sitting down to take the SAT; it’s a game. And games should be fun. Life is too short to sweat the crossword.


A huge thank you to Deb for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for updates on her puzzly and creative endeavors, and be sure to check out her work on the Wordplay blog and her very entertaining live-solving videos on YouTube. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.

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A Handful of Puzzly Resources for Constructors!

Crossword.

The internet has really grown the crossword community by leaps and bounds. Puzzlers can share favorite puzzles, reviews, opinions, and feedback with fellow solvers, constructors, editors, and publishers at the touch of a button. With downloadable puzzles, online solving, and puzzle apps (like Daily POP Crosswords!), access to puzzles has never been easier.

Entire forums dedicated to solving and sharing a love of puzzling are cultivating a new generation of solvers and encouraging ambitious new constructors. Twitter is a great place to start, there’s a growing community on r/crossword, and on Facebook, you’ve got both the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament group and the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory to keep you informed and aware of all things crossword.

That’s to say nothing of the fact that both solvers and constructors have greater access to resources than ever before. There are reviewers breaking down the crosswords printed by the major outlets on a daily basis, and blogs like Wordplay exploring how to construct and what words solvers and constructors should know. With searchable databases like XWordInfo out there as well, you can hunt down clues, entries, themes, and a huge chunk of the history of crosswords with ease.

But sadly, not all resources have made their way online, so building a personal library of key volumes to peruse and refer to can help boost your solving and constructing efforts.

So today, I thought I’d share a few of my personal favorite resources that I use when constructing not only crosswords, but all sorts of other puzzles, in the hopes that you find them useful as well.

Your mileage may vary, but to me, these books have been invaluable.


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Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary (Fourth Edition) by Marc McCutcheon

Word Menu, in either book or online form, has long been the gold standard when it comes to building themed word lists that you can trust to be well-sourced and reliable. But when I need a theme idea, I have much greater luck flipping through the pages of the Descriptionary, a cross-cultural theme listing that covers everything from weather to fashion, medicine to crime.

Searchable by topic in the front and individual words in the index, it’s never difficult to find a list I’ve used before or to zero in on a topic as needed. I ended up buying my own copy after checking out the copy from my local library at least a half-dozen times, and I’ve never regretted it.

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The Penguin Rhyming Dictionary by Rosalind Fergusson

Whether I’m cluing, looking for rhymes to support a playful theme, or playing with pronunciation for a particular bit of wordplay, The Penguin Rhyming Dictionary is my go-to resource. It’s absolutely loaded with vocabulary, organized by individual rhyming syllables and patterns (as well as near-rhymes). Just look up your word to rhyme in the back index, and then go work.

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The Cook’s Essential Kitchen Dictionary: A Complete Culinary Resource by Jacques Rolland

This book is a tremendous resource, running the gamut from food and equipment to cooking styles and common vernacular. Not only are these definitions informative, complete with preparation instructions and suggested dishes for given ingredients, but they add little touches of culinary history to the mix, offering context and greater detail.

The book also features subsections listing varieties of apples, cheese, salt, pasta shapes, and other ingredients. Whenever I need food-related clues or theme entries, this is my first stop.

Puzzlecraft: How to Make Every Kind of Puzzle by Mike Selinker and Thomas Snyder

If you need a starter guide or just a handy resource to remind you of the essentials for any puzzle you might be rusty on, Puzzlecraft is a self-contained masterclass in puzzle creation. Covering everything from crosswords and Sudoku to logic puzzles and brain teasers, this is the perfect launchpad for any and all aspiring puzzlers and constructors.

Snyder and Selinker break down the fundamentals of dozens of different puzzles, explaining how they work and what pitfalls to avoid when creating your own. Constructing an unfamiliar puzzle for the first time can be overwhelming, and this book can help get you going.

dictionaries

I’m a sucker for weird words and colorful vocabulary, so I thoroughly enjoy constructing any unthemed puzzle that allows me to play with language. And there’s any number of niche dictionaries out there to bolster your puzzle lexicon and spruce up any word list.

Here’s a list of some of my favorites:

  • Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words by Josefa Heifetz Byrne
  • Murfles and Wink-a-peeps: Funny Old Words for Kids by Susan Kelz Sperling
  • The Endangered English Dictionary by David Grambs
  • The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten by Jeffrey Kacirk
  • Informal English: Puncture Ladies, Egg Harbors, Mississippi Marbles, and Other Curious Words and Phrases of North America by Jeffrey Kacirk
  • The Great Panjandrum (and 2,699 Other Rare, Useful, and Delightful Words and Expressions) by J.N. Hook
  • Stone the Crows: Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang by John Ayto and John Simpson
  • I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech by Ralph Keyes
  • The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World by Adam Jacot de Boinod
  • That’s Amore!: The Language of Love for Lovers of Language by Erin McKean
  • Much Ado About English: Up and Down the Bizarre Byways of a Fascinating Language by Richard Watson Todd
  • America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America by David K. Barnhart and Allan A. Metcalf
  • The Highly Selective Dictionary of Golden Adjectives for the Extraordinarily Literate by Eugene Ehrlich
  • Word Catcher: An Odyssey Into the World of Weird and Wonderful Words by Phil Cousineau

(And, although this book isn’t a dictionary, it includes some terrific vocabulary along the way, so it’s worth checking out: Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea.)


Hopefully these resources can aid you in your puzzling endeavors as they’ve assisted me many times over. Are there any offline resources I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments section below! I’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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We’re Not the Only Ones With Puzzles on the Brain!

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[A photo from the early days of PuzzleNation Blog, as one of our intrepid puzzleboys spreads the word of PuzzleNation far and wide. Image courtesy of Toledo’s Attic.]

I would love to tell you that PuzzleNation Blog is the only game in town when it comes to outstanding puzzle content, but that’s not the truth.

Sure, I think we put out some of the best writing in the puzzle business, but there are other outlets that also pen some marvelous stuff. Deb Amlen’s Wordplay blog on The New York Times website, for instance, is a treasure trove of great material, featuring breakdowns of NYT puzzles, interviews with constructors, and more.

The New Yorker recently posted an intriguing one-two punch of puzzle content. The main article was a meditation on crosswords — their potential, what they mean to a fan, and more — while the accompanying video featured an interview with constructor Natan Last (conducted by crossword editor Liz Maynes-Aminzade) about political entries in puzzles.

What’s slightly more surprising is that another popular Internet outlet has also had puzzles on the brain:

The Onion.

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Three times in the past month or so, the satirical news outlet has posted some hilarious puzzle-centric content. On June 20th, one of their headlines read “Exhilarated Woman Discovers Last Person Who Used Jigsaw Puzzle Left Lots Of Pieces Sticking Together.”

Two weeks earlier on June 6th, the article “Maze With Cheese In Center Enters Human Trials Following Decades Of Testing On Mice,” which feels all too apropos after our post last week about corn mazes.

But the cream of the crop was undoubtedly the article posted on May 28th, “Will Shortz Frustrated That Police Yet To Crack Taunting Puzzles Revealing Locations Of 40 Years Of Murder Victims.”

In a hysterically brief send-up of both the famously mild-mannered Shortz and classic criminal masterminds in general (like the one in the Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode that also featured Shortz, or the one from the Hallmark Crossword Mysteries earlier this year), the article paints the crossword editor as a murderous genius who feels unappreciated in his efforts to play a game of cat-and-mouse with the NYPD:

“I naturally assumed that, at some point during the last four decades, at least one detective would be smart enough to solve the case,” said Shortz, who also implied that the geographic coordinates of the victims could be determined by analyzing the sudoku puzzles in the Sunday edition.

It was one of the funniest pieces of the year for The Onion, and further proof of just how ubiquitous crosswords truly are these days.


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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: The Sequel

It’s a new year, and many folks treat the new year as a clean slate, a jumping-off point from which to launch efforts at self-improvement. They embark on new endeavors, hoping to complete resolutions made in earnest.

Others use the first few days or weeks to try to set the tone for the rest of the year by establishing new routines or breaking from old routines.

Unfortunately, The New York Times crossword is not off to a good start.

We’ve discussed in the past how The NYT crossword has a less-than-stellar reputation for cultural sensitivity, and Tuesday’s puzzle was, for many solvers, more of the same.

Here’s the grid from January 1st:

[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

One of those entries, 2 Down, leapt out at many solvers. Yes, it was clued innocently as “Pitch to the head, informally.” But, for millions of people, that word has a far more unpleasant, insulting, and flat-out racist meaning.

It’s natural for people to want to explain this away as unintentional. That becomes harder to accept when it has happened before.

Will Shortz had the following to say in The New York Times Wordplay blog from 2012, after a similar incident involving the answer word ILLEGAL:

Thanks for your email regarding the clue for ILLEGAL (“One caught by border patrol”) in the Feb. 16 New York Times crossword.

At the time I wrote this clue (and yes, it was my clue), I had no idea that use of the word “illegal” in this sense (as a noun) was controversial. It’s in the dictionary. It’s in widespread use by ordinary people and publications. There is nothing inherently pejorative about it.

Still, language changes, and I understand how the use of “illegal” as a noun has taken on an offensive connotation. I don’t want to offend people in the crossword. So I don’t expect to do this again. Fortunately, there are many other ways to clue the word ILLEGAL.

At the end of the post, Deb Amlen stated:

Should Mr. Shortz have been more aware of the current usage of the word? Sure, but no one is infallible, and I will give him points for stepping up. He is the captain of the New York Times crossword ship, and he owned his mistake. Not only that, but he has assured us that it will not happen again.

That’s evolution.

Well, it’s happened again.

And this time, being unaware is not an excuse. In Shortz’s apology for this latest mistake, he mentions not only discovering the pejorative meaning of the word in his own research, but that the issue was raised by fellow constructor and XWordInfo archivist Jeff Chen.

In his own take on the puzzle on XWordInfo, Jeff was incredibly kind regarding Shortz, stating:

I generally think Will does a great job in editing the NYT puzzle — hard to argue with results, with solvership exploding into the hundreds of thousands under his helm. This is one of the less than 5% of things that I strongly disagree with, though.

(Jeff then offers two easy fixes to remove the word from the puzzle, because Jeff is a pro.)

Again, unfortunately, we don’t know if this will lead to any changes at The New York Times. Shortz stated:

My feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that any benign meaning of a word is fair game for a crossword. This is an issue that comes up occasionally with entries like GO O.K. (which we clued last April as “Proceed all right,” but which as a solid word is a slur), CHINK (benign in the sense as a chink in one’s armor), etc. These are legitimate words.

That’s certainly one way to look at it. Of course, it’s not great that one of his examples was employed as part of a misunderstanding in an episode of Scrubs fifteen years ago to similarly unpleasant effect:

Shortz followed up by saying, “Perhaps I need to rethink this opinion, if enough solvers are bothered.”

In response, I think constructor Eric Berlin summed up the issue perfectly:

Perhaps a good rule for this sort of thing is, if you were looking *only at the completed crossword grid* and not at the clues, what would CHINK or GOOK call to mind first?

That’s what I thought, and that’s why I would never dream of using either word in a puzzle.

At least it’s still early in the year. Plenty of time to go onward and upward from here.


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It’s Called a CrossWORD, Not a Crossnumber!

When it comes to crosswords, every solver and constructor has their own ideas about what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate.

And I don’t just mean the age-old debate of pen vs. pencil. Whether we’re talking about answer words, abbreviations, cluing styles, gimmicks like shared letters in one box, or even the number of black squares in a grid, the sheer variation and customization possible is bound to lead to differing opinions.

A recent New York Times Tuesday Mini puzzle was the source of some consternation for solvers when it turned out that the first three boxes across were intended to be filled with numbers, not letters.

The clue? “Easy as ____,” which many solvers mistook, understandably, for PIE. When you factor in that many Times puzzle solvers value their solving speeds as well as their solving experience, the extra seconds (or minutes) “wasted” on a clue that feels misleading can be frustrating.

Some of those solvers took their concerns (and complaints) to Twitter, prompting a response from the official Wordplay Twitter account, which offered up the Easter egg that “123” referred to not only the answer to 1 Across, but also the date the puzzle appeared, 1/23.

That is a nice little bonus, but it wasn’t referenced at all in the clue, so it did little to appease those who were upset with what they consider a breach in crossword etiquette.

[Image courtesy of Shutterstock.]

Although I absolutely sympathize with being unexpectedly flummoxed by a clue — it happens to me all the time as a solver — I must admit that this sort of thing doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind when multiple letters share a grid square, or if there’s a number there instead of a letter.

In fact, Alex Eaton-Salners employed the same thing in his “Read the Fine Print” Fireball Crosswords puzzle, and it made my favorite puzzles of 2017 list.

Clearly something like this is going to bother some solvers more than others. What do you think, fellow puzzlers? Does using numbers instead of letters in crosswords bother you or violate your idea of what a good crossword should be?

What about having multiple letters inside one grid square? Do you think that’s a cheat — a way to get around constructing something that actually fits the space — or a clever conceit allowing for more grid and theme flexibility? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject!


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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!