A 5-Letter Word Related to Crossword Skills? Try “Music”

A few years ago, I wrote a post discussing the curious intersection of music and puzzles. It centered around several studies about the effects both listening to music and performing music can have on individuals taking tests or solving puzzles.

There were two intriguing takeaways from these studies:

  • Both adults and children perform better on tests, puzzles, and problem-solving exercises when music is involved (ex.: if they listen to music before or during the test).
  • Children who are given music lessons often achieve greater heights in other subjects, including math and sports.

But it didn’t occur to me until much later that the connection between music and crosswords in particular has been in evidence for quite some time.

There are two 7-time champions in the history of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament: Dan Feyer and Jon Delfin. Think about that. Fourteen out of forty-one ACPT tournaments have been won by one of these men. Practically one out of every three!

And both of them have a musical background as pianists and music directors.

But they’re not the only ones. Constructor Patrick Blindauer, puzzler and actress Whitney Avalon, Lollapuzzoola co-founder Brian Cimmet, and even our own Director of Digital Games Fred Galpern are all musicians.

So what’s the connection between music and crossword puzzles?

No one can say for sure, but there are theories.

In the crossword documentary Wordplay (and quoted from the article linked below), former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent mentioned why he felt that musicians and mathematicians were good fits as crossword solvers:

Their ability to assimilate a lot of coded information instantly. In other words, a piano player like John Delfin, the greatest crossword player of our time, he sits down and he sees three staffs of music and he can instantly play it. He’s taken all those notes and absorbs what they mean, instantaneously. If you have that kind of mind, and you add it to it a wide range of information, and you can spell, you’d be a really great crossword puzzler.

Crossword constructor and psychology professor Arthur Schulman — known for a series of seminars entitled “The Mind of the Puzzler” at the University of Virginia — would agree with that statement. He posited a correlation between word puzzles, math, and music, in that they all involve a quick and intuitive understanding of symbols. It’s about “finding meaning in structure.”

In an interview with the New York Times, Dan Feyer built on this idea, stating that music, math, and puzzles all have pattern recognition in common, quickly recognizing combinations of blanks and spaces and mentally filling in possible answer words, even before reading the clues.

Now, clearly, musical skill and proficiency isn’t required to be a good crossword solver — I’d classify myself as a pretty good solver and I have an almost magical lack of musical talent — but it’s intriguing to ponder how puzzling could easily be wrapped up with a musical bow.

Do you know any other puzzlers with a musical background, or are you a lyrical solver yourself? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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Goodbye, Merl.

[Picture courtesy of crosswordfiend.com.]

The puzzle world was stunned this weekend by the sudden passing of a true crossword legend: Merl Reagle.

Merl has been one of the biggest names in puzzles for a long time now, one of the few crossword constructors who was successful and prolific enough to work on puzzles full-time.

Between his appearance in the Wordplay documentary and a cameo on The Simpsons alongside New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, he proudly represented both the love of puzzles so many solvers share AND stood as a standard-bearer for crossword construction and quality puzzling.

Merl sold his first crossword to the New York Times at age 16 — ten years after he started constructing puzzles, amazingly enough! In a career spanning five decades, his contributions to the world of puzzles were myriad. Nearly every year, one of his puzzles appears at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. The crossword he constructed for the 100th Anniversary of the Crossword was turned into a Google Doodle, and, based on my research, is the most solved crossword puzzle in history.

A craftsman with humor and heart (and no small amount of anagram skill), Merl was truly one of a kind.

[Picture courtesy of tucson.com.]

I had the privilege of meeting him at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this year. It was only for a few minutes while the tournament participants were tackling one of the early puzzles and the vendor’s floor was pretty empty. (Otherwise, there were always puzzlers crowded around Merl’s table between tournament puzzles. He was the center of gravity around which many fellow puzzle fans orbited, a master of ceremonies wherever he went.)

He was friendly and gracious, one of those people who can strike an instant rapport with virtually anyone. He put me at ease immediately as I checked out his latest puzzly offerings and we briefly chatted about the tournament itself. (I didn’t get the chance to challenge his legendary anagramming talents, sadly.)

Fellow puzzler and friend of the blog Keith Yarbrough was kind enough to share one of this experiences with Merl:

Merl gave me his philosophy of puzzle construction at the ACPT one year. His goal, he said, was to make the solver smile. Coming up with a funny theme was the main thing. His test when he came up with an idea was to run it past his wife, who is not a puzzler. If it made her smile, it was a keeper.

He wasn’t out to frustrate the solver with obscurities or unnecessary crosswordese, so he used common entries as much as possible. His mantra was that the fill should not be overly difficult.

[Picture courtesy of cltampa.com.]

The dozens of tributes I’ve seen online are a testament to how many friends and admirers Merl earned over the years. There are too many to link to here, but I want to highlight a few from fellow puzzlers Brendan Emmett Quigley, Deb Amlen, and David Steinberg.

Merl, you will be missed. Thank you, for the laughs, for the tough crossings, the trickiest-of-tricky clues, and the many unexpected delights you managed to spring on so many solvers.

You can check out Merl’s work on his Sunday Crosswords website as well as some of his collections on Amazon. Click the links. You won’t regret it.

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Crosswords, Cryptics, Constructors, and… Setters?

One of the privileges of writing two or three posts a week for this blog is that it pushes me to expand my own horizons when it comes to puzzles. I reach out to puzzlers, game designers, and pop culture personalities of all sorts; I try out new games and puzzles; I obsessively scour the Internet for new projects, new products, and new stories that involve puzzles.

Oftentimes, that continuous search takes me beyond the borders of the United States, allowing me to explore what puzzles mean to other countries and cultures. And I am forever intrigued by the differences in crossword puzzles between America and the UK.

The world of cryptic crosswords (or British-style crosswords, as some call them) is a bit different from the world of American crosswords. Instead of constructors, they have compilers or setters, and while constructor bylines and attributions were a long time coming on this side of the Atlantic, setters in the UK have been drawing loyal followings for decades, thanks to their unique and evocative pseudonyms.

While Will Shortz, Merl Reagle, Patrick Blindauer, Brendan Emmett QuigleyPatrick Berry, Trip Payne, Matt Gaffney, and Bernice Gordon represent some of the top puzzlers to grace the pages of the New York Times Crossword, names such as Araucaria, Qaos, Arachne, Crucible, Otterden, Tramp, Morph, Gordius, Shed, Enigmatist, and Paul are their word-twisting counterparts featured in The Guardian and other UK outlets.

In fact, beloved setter Araucaria will soon be the subject of a documentary. For more than 50 years, he challenged and delighted cryptic crossword fans, amassing a loyal following. In January of 2013, he even shared his cancer diagnosis with the audience through a puzzle in The Guardian.

While the Wordplay documentary, as well as interviews on PuzzleNation Blog and other sites, have given solvers some insight into the minds and lives of constructors and setters, it’s wonderful to know that the life of a fellow puzzler will be chronicled in so intimate a format.

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Crossword History: A Timeline

The hundredth anniversary of the crossword is nearly upon us, and we at PuzzleNation Blog thought we’d take a look at the long (yet surprisingly short) road it took to get to this marvelous centennial!

And so, without further ado or folderol, we proudly present:

A Brief History of the Crossword
(by Glenn Dallas and the PuzzleNation Team)

16th – 11th century BC

Inscriptions from New Kingdom-era Egypt (Eighteenth to Twentieth Dynasties) of horizontal and vertical lines of text divided into equal squares, that can be read both across the rows and down the columns, are made. These inscriptions are later referred to by Egyptologists as “Egyptian crossword puzzles.”

19th century

Rudimentary crosswords, similar to word squares, begin appearing in England, and later elsewhere in Europe.

June 22, 1871

Future inventor of the crossword, Arthur Wynne, is born.

March 23, 1897

Future New York Times crossword editor Margaret Farrar is born.

February 25, 1907

Future New York Times crossword editor Will Weng is born.

December 21, 1913

The New York World publishes the first crossword, invented by Liverpool journalist Arthur Wynne.
(The puzzle is originally known as a word-cross.)

January 6, 1916

Future New York Times crossword editor Eugene T. Maleska is born.

1920

Margaret Farrar is hired by The New York World as a secretary, but soon finds herself assisting Arthur Wynne with proofreading puzzles. Her puzzles soon exceed Wynne’s in popularity.

Colonel H.W. Hill publishes the first Crossword Dictionary.

1924

Margaret Farrar publishes the first book of crossword puzzles under contract for Richard L. Simon and Max Schuster, “The Cross-Word Puzzle Book.” It was an instant bestseller, launching Simon & Schuster as a major publisher.

The Sunday Express becomes the first newspaper in the United Kingdom to carry crosswords.

1926

The cryptic crossword is invented by Edward Powys Mathers, who uses the pseudonym of Torquemada. He devises them for The Observer newspaper.

1931

Dell Puzzle Magazines begins publishing.
(Dell Publishing itself was founded in 1921.)

1941

Dell Pocket Crossword Puzzles first published.
(The magazine continues to this day.)

February 15, 1942

The New York Times runs its first Sunday edition crossword. (Click here to read more about this.)

June 2, 1944

Physics teacher and crossword constructor Leonard Dawe is questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appear in London’s Daily Telegraph. (Click here to read more about this.)

1950

The crossword becomes a daily feature in the New York Times.

August 26, 1952

Future New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz is born.

1968

Lyricist Stephen Sondheim begins creating cryptic crosswords for New York Magazine, helping introduce Americans to British-style crosswords.

1969

Will Weng succeeds Margaret Farrar as the second crossword editor for the New York Times.

1973

Penny Press is founded.

1977

Eugene T. Maleska succeeds Will Weng as the third crossword editor for the New York Times.

1978

First year of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament,
later featured in the documentary Wordplay.

1979

Howard Garns creates the modern Sudoku puzzle for Dell Magazines (under the name Number Place), the first pen-and-paper puzzle to rival the crossword in popularity (though this spike in popularity would occur decades later under the name Sudoku).

June 11, 1984

Margaret Farrar, while working on the 134th volume in Simon & Schuster’s crossword puzzle book series, passes away.

1993

Will Shortz succeeds Eugene T. Maleska as the fourth crossword editor for the New York Times.

November 5, 1996

One of the most clever and famous crosswords of all time is published, the election-preceding crossword where either BOB DOLE ELECTED or CLINTON ELECTED could read out, depending on the solver’s answers.

June 23, 2006

Wordplay documentary hits theaters, featuring both celebrity solvers of crosswords and the participants and organizers of the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

February 29 – March 2, 2008

Thanks in part to the Wordplay documentary, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament outgrows its previous setting and moves to Brooklyn.

June 6, 2008

Matt Gaffney launches his Weekly Crossword Contest (MGWCC).

August 2008

Lollapuzzoola, a crossword-solving tournament with a more tongue-in-cheek, freeform style, launches in Jackson Heights, New York.

October 6th, 2008

Patrick Blindauer’s famous dollar bill-inspired crossword puzzle is published.

2009

The city of Lvov, Ukraine, creates a crossword that spans an entire side of a 100-foot-tall residential building, with clues scattered around the city’s major landmarks and attractions. It’s awesome.

October 11th, 2011

PuzzleNation.com goes live.

June 2012

David Steinberg launches the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, intending to create a complete database of every New York Times crossword.

August 13th, 2012

PuzzleNation Blog is launched.

June 14th, 2013

Matt Gaffney celebrates five years of MGWCC,
stating that MGWCC will run for 1000 weeks
(which puts the final edition around August 6th, 2027).

December 21st, 2013

The Crossword officially turns one hundred years old.


Additional information:

February 15th, 1942: The New York Times initially regarded crosswords as frivolous, calling them “a primitive form of mental exercise”; the motivating impulse for the Times to finally run the puzzle (which took over 20 years even though its publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was a longtime crossword fan) appears to have been the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In a memo dated December 18, 1941, an editor conceded that the puzzle deserved space in the paper, considering what was happening elsewhere in the world and that readers might need something to occupy themselves during blackouts. The puzzle proved popular, and Sulzberger himself would author a Times puzzle before the year was out.

June 2nd, 1944: The words Omaha (codename for one of Normandy’s beaches), Utah (another Normandy beach codename), Overlord (the name for the plan to land at Normandy on June 6th), mulberry (nickname for a portable harbor built for D-Day), and Neptune (name for the naval portion of the invasion) all appeared in Daily Telegraph crosswords during the month preceding the D-Day landing.

This has been attributed to either an incredible coincidence or Dawe somehow overhearing these words (possibly slipped by soldiers involved) and incorporating them into puzzles unwittingly.


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