That Puzzle Guy's Blog Former child documentary star


Double dash

Thanks to a late-breaking development, I find myself with a weekend full of puzzle hunts! Here's what's going down:

After weeks of anticipation, DASH 4 is happening on Saturday! I'll be with a slightly undermanned League of Extraordinary Puzzlemen team, but I'm looking forward to bearing a little more of the solving weight as a result. Should be fun.

The recent development I mentioned is The Miwok Prophecy, a game taking place in San Francisco's Mission district this Sunday afternoon. Despite cracking the mini-puzzles on the site, my team really doesn't know what to expect. Here's hoping for another great game!

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Save the brains!

On May 5th, I'll join my Lumos Labs colleagues in the Bay Area Brain Tumor Walk. I'd be most grateful for any donations, which you can make through my fundraising page. Thanks!

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I made today's CrosSynergy puzzle; as usual, you can get it in JPZ or PDF format. Before you solve and (I hope) enjoy it, a couple notes about it.

First, I screwed up big-time in preparing this puzzle. After I finished it, I noticed that I was supposed to construct a themeless Sunday Challenge. I cursed myself for being so careless; I had never before forgotten to check what type of puzzle I was supposed to make. I'd already blown most of my Sunday making it, and it was a pretty busy time for me, so I had to at least try to effect a switch with a fellow CrosSynergy member. Fortunately, Doug Peterson was up for it; thus, his fine work appeared three days ago. Thanks to both him and Bob Klahn for being amenable to the change and minimizing the pain resulting from my stupidity.

There is bigger news surrounding this puzzle... it will be my last with the CrosSynergy Syndicate. It's been a good experience for three years, but I think the time has come to break with it. I hope I was able to contribute to some quality puzzles and good suggestions to the work of my peers, and I thank them for improving mine. I wish them the best in the future.


I’ve got you covered

First, thanks to all who have contributed to the great discussion on my latest post; it's already responsible for over 25% of the comments left on this blog since its relaunch. Do continue! I hope to write a follow-up post at some point.

Getting back to business, I wanted to talk about a few new puzzle books. After a visit to a Coinstar machine, I had some credit in my Amazon account waiting for me, and here's how I used it.

If you like your crosswords as modern as possible, check out word., which comes from Natan Last and his cohorts from Brown University, the epicenter of the cruciverbalist youth movement. Themes and clues don't get fresher than this, and you get quantity in addition to quality, as the book weighs in with a hefty 144 puzzles.

On the sudoku side, Thomas Snyder has come out with The Art of Sudoku, the first title under his own Grandmaster Puzzles label. Even if you think you're bored with regular sudoku, you'll still enjoy these handcrafted puzzles that mix satisfying logic with aesthetically pleasing designs. Here's hoping it's the first volume of many for the Grandmaster name.

The third book I bought, a pre-order, is Crowd-Pleasing Puzzles, a collaboration between two brilliant authors. Patrick Berry is one of the most highly regarded puzzlemakers in the country and my personal favorite constructor. Todd McClary, in addition to being a skilled and diligent crossword constructor, has brought many a brilliant game to National Puzzlers' League conventions, whether for small groups or everyone in attendance. Can't wait to see what these guys cooked up!

And finally... my own book is feeling more and more real! These are puzzles I constructed for my school papers in high school and college, with some additional polish here and there, naturally. You still have quite a while before it drops, as it looks like we're now shooting for an early 2013 release, but it's never too early to pre-order!


The War on Fill

We're coming up on the hundredth anniversary of the crossword puzzle, and it's amazing how it's changed in that time. These changes are largely seen as positive steps towards enhancing the enjoyment of crosswords in modern times. If two-letter words hadn't been banned, we'd likely be sick to death of closed-off corners and many, many bigrams that would appear therein. Rotational symmetry lends a welcome aesthetic quality to the puzzle. The list goes on. To an extent, we should expect this evolution to continue. However, I've noticed a trend in some of today's puzzles that I believe is detrimental to the fun of crosswords and the art of their construction. In keeping with the manufactured outrage displayed on 24-hour news channels, I've dubbed it the War on Fill.

The "fill" simply refers to the words in the grid, typically excluding theme answers unless it's one of those themes that applies to the entire puzzle. Because it's at least the vast majority of the answers in a crossword, the bulk of the solving time is spent on them. Without the fill, simply put, you don't have a crossword.

I understand that a theme is the most memorable part of a puzzle and frequently provides the biggest aha moment. I agree that it needs to be good to consider the puzzle good. But the fill, being a more pervasive element, can impact your solving experience a lot more. You can mentally shove aside a weak theme and focus on everything else, but there's no getting around writing in all those shorter answers.

Thus, I hold that the fill is the most important part of a quality crossword. So I must ask: Why does good fill seem to be decreasingly prioritized in today's puzzles?

All regular solvers have seen their share of unsavory fill. The cheap partials (OF IT, IN NO, etc.), the abbreviations nobody ever uses in real life, the tired crosswordese, the boring obscurities. Some are merely little warts that can actually be very easy to figure out, while others can frustratingly keep the solver from full success. Naturally, some of these poorer entries are inevitable; the rules of American-style crossword construction are challenging and sometimes require concessions. (This is another reason some prefer cryptic crosswords, in which only about half of the letters need be crossed.) Plus, one's mileage may vary with so-called obscurities. ("How can it be obscure? I know it!") Even taking these factors into account, the fill in some recent puzzles has been, in my view, lackluster.

I don't mean to suggest that every puzzle I've ever made has been resplendent, nor that fill standards are gone completely, but I do think they've eroded quite a bit. It's possible that I, as an inveterate solver and occasional constructor, have become overly sensitive to this matter. I find it hard to believe, however, that the solver wouldn't enjoy the experience more if some of the junk were replaced, even if it were with ordinary, everyday words that aren't particularly peppy. You can always bring the liveliness in the clues.

Is it laziness? It does feel that way sometimes; on occasion, a corner seems so blatantly refillable with superior entries that one has to wonder why the constructor settled for his/her version. Even so, I don't think indolence is a fair charge to throw around; there's no real evidence to suggest it. (If you ARE a lazy constructor, though: Stop it. Stop it right now. Try harder.)

I believe the War on Fill is, at least in part, the result of how the crossword-solving community has evolved. Nowadays, several puzzles a day are available with just a few mouse clicks, and, through the blogosphere, solvers and constructors alike are deluged with opinions about all of them. All this content drives up the pressure on puzzlemakers to create something innovative. When you've seen your hundredth add-a-letter theme, it feels, and very likely is, less desirable for constructors to make and for editors to accept. Plus, it's natural to want to knock a tough crowd's socks off with something new.

As I implied above, people don't really remember a puzzle solely based on its fill words. The fill might be appreciated and enjoyed, but it's not what gets Puzzle of the Year nominations. An ingenious theme gets far more attention, and it's the starting point for making a crossword, so trying to make that stand out makes sense. I certainly sympathize; struggling to come up with good themes is a big reason why I haven't been constructing too much lately. The catch with themes, however, is that they still have to be molded to fit the crossword, and it can be very difficult to let go of a good one, no matter how it resists a smooth execution. This can lead to some strained shoehorning in the form of weaker fill.

It was a highly regarded member of the crossword community who said, "It used to be that if a theme didn't work, you wouldn't do it." It is very easy to slacken one's grid standards if one feels the theme is worth it. In my view, though, it usually isn't worth it. I've seen some themes that are, make no mistake, utterly brilliant, but the concessions made in the fill kept me from enjoying the puzzle. You might disagree and suggest that this is my problem, and I see your point. Obviously, I'm stating my opinion here. In the end, though, we're solving the crossword because we enjoy crosswords, and thoughts like "That's a thing?" and "Well, I guess that's right" lessen the joy of solving, no matter what genius lies in the theme.

I have even stronger opinions when it comes to themeless puzzles, in which innovation comes in the form of stacking fifteen-letter answers or using as few black squares as possible or what have you. I'll be blunt here: If I never see a quadruple-stack of fifteens again, it'll be too soon. Sure, it's eye-popping, but it's no fun at all to muddle through the inevitable handful of weak answers crossing the stack. My favorite American-style crossword is one that's tough as nails, well-filled, and fair. That's it. I don't need or want the grid to show off. I'll take a solidly filled 66- or 68-word puzzle over a sub-60-worder every single time with no hesitation.

So that's my take, for whatever piddling amount it's worth. I know I'll continue to put a lot of effort into turning out the best grids I can, and I hope my fellow constructors do likewise. Viva fill!


In tune

Are you a regular solver of Matt Gaffney's contest but wish you had more metas in your life? You'll want to check out the Muller Monthly Music Meta, a new contest from constructor Pete Muller. Between May 1st and the end of the year, you'll get nine music-themed crosswords, with increasingly difficult metas to solve. If you're successful, you'll have a chance to win free entry to next year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament! Pete now has a warm-up puzzle for you to try, so go see what you're in for.

Meanwhile, I made this week's Onion crossword. I rather like this theme; hopefully you find it worth the effort. Have fun.


On the go

I've set up a version of the site for mobile users, so it'll look much better for you if you get the urge to read my blog when you have only your smartphone handy. Hey, it could happen.

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To your brain through your ears

I put in a guest appearance on Good Job, Brain!, a new trivia podcast a few friends have started. Not surprisingly, the topic is words, and there's some good puzzle-related chatter in here. I had a lot of fun. Go have a listen!


Shore things

I was on vacation last week, cruising around the western Caribbean. Sorry I didn't have an April Fool's joke for you; maybe next year. For now, here's a roundup catching up on the puzzle world.

I neglected to mention my participation in the Real Escape Game, a Japanese diversion that has made its way to San Francisco. I played with a few friends (sadly, one of us got pushed to another team) and a couple strangers. I'm pleased to report that our efforts were successful and we were one of just two teams in our session to win! It wasn't without a little stress; a few times, we had what seemed like a final answer, but there was still more to do. Also, at one point we had correct information that didn't really make sense because we were ahead of the game and hadn't yet learned what it meant. It made us think something was wrong. Another quibble is that the majority of the gameplay involved just sitting at the table and solving; I would have liked more moving around the room as well as an actual physical escape. Overall, though, I quite enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to the next incarnation.

In crossword and crossword-like news, Les Foeldessy has alerted me that his newest Gryptics contest is up. Enjoy the puzzle and try to win his book! Also, have you made plans to be at Crosswords LA yet? You should. We've added Brendan Emmett Quigley to the constructing roster, and, as the puzzle wrangler, I can assure you that the puzzles are of high quality.

The world of puzzle hunts is revving up too. DASH 4 is coming up later this month, the Shinteki Decathlon is in mid-May, and BANG 33, which benefits Elevate Tutoring, comes on June 2. I'm slated to play in all three! Should be fun.

As for the ongoing Black Letter Game, participants have received the second parcel. I'm getting together with my team tonight to solve it; here's hoping we meet with the success we enjoyed the first time around.

That's all I got. Have fun!