That Puzzle Guy's Blog Nil nisi avocamentum


I'm proud of my ability to solve crossword puzzles very quickly. When I started solving the New York Times puzzle in late 1998, even completing any puzzle after Monday was an accomplishment. Just a few years later, I was able to take on the puzzle any day of the week, and I could solve Monday's crossword in under three minutes. My steady improvement reached its culmination in 2005, when I won the first of my five straight American Crossword Puzzle Tournament titles. I've also applied my chops to a variety of test-solving engagements; I always enjoy seeing puzzles before they see print and improving them if I can.

Let's take some questions!

Can you really do the New York Times crossword in under three minutes?
Well, it depends on the day and solving medium. If it's Monday, then yes; it's probably around 2:30 on paper and 1:30 on the computer. (The computer is faster because typing is faster than writing and the clue under your cursor is always in the same place on the screen.) If it's Saturday, there's a lot more variance. Sometimes I really latch onto it well and do it in three to four minutes. Other times, it's a struggle and it gets closer to ten. Here, have some proof:

(As is the case with any YouTube video, I strongly advise against reading the comments.)

How did you improve so quickly?
Simple: tons and tons of practice. I solved, and still do solve, almost any puzzle I could get my hands on each day. Pretty soon, anyone who practices that much is going to learn crosswordese (you know, the vocabulary like ESNE and ANOA that one never sees outside of puzzles) and how constructors and editors think. From there, it's just a matter of speed-solving more and improving one's technique. One learns to read the next clue while writing an answer, write faster but still legibly, etc.

So how many puzzles do you do a day?
It used to be a good six or seven crosswords a day, but at the start of 2012 I decided to make big cuts to my solving regimen and save my solving time for puzzles I particularly enjoy. So, now it's no more than two or three a day, with maybe a little more on weekends, as there are some weekly themelesses I like. Plus, there's whatever solving I do in books and on sites like Nikoli.

What was that about test-solving?
I vet puzzles often. Most of the time, I check the work of my fellow constructors at the American Values Club, just as they do mine. I'm also a tester for Brendan Emmett Quigley. In addition to these puzzles that come out one at a time, I have experience testing manuscripts for Sterling's Puzzlewright Press brand.

So you do logic puzzles too?
Yes! I'm decent at the international-friendly stuff, although I have quite a long way to go before my skills catch up to my crossword-solving ability and to the world-class experts. In 2005, I did get to join the B-team for the United States at the World Puzzle Championship in Hungary. That was a thrill; hopefully someday I'll be good enough to run with the big dogs. But I kinda doubt it. In the meantime, I'm happy to serve as a test-solver for Thomas Snyder and friends at the excellent Grandmaster Puzzles.

What about cryptic crosswords?
I love cryptic crosswords! I'm pretty good at them, but I don't speed-solve them often because I enjoy the greater variety and art in the clues. I especially like variety cryptics, in which further gimmicks warp answers and clues. (If you have no idea what a cryptic crossword is, the Wikipedia entry is a good place to start, and you can explore further from there if you like.)

Are there any weak spots in your solving ability?
Oh yeah. I consider myself mediocre at best at the more freeform puzzles like the ones seen at the MIT Mystery Hunt and in Shinteki events. And I'm even worse at answer extraction, the step at which one has to figure out the mechanism to reach the single word or phrase that is the final answer to such puzzles. I can also struggle with metapuzzles, which require the solver to use puzzle answers somehow to get the ultimate solution to the round. However, Matt Gaffney's contest has made me quite a bit better, and at the 2014 MIT Mystery Hunt, I had the big breakthrough on a metapuzzle for the first time!

Do you use pencil or pen?
Neither; I usually use the computer. I solve often enough that XWord is the way to go. If I am solving on paper, it's usually pencil, though I will go to a pen on newspaper simply because it's smoother. I think the pen vs. pencil debate is vastly overrated.

How much did you get for winning the crossword tournament?
It was $4,000 each of the first two years and $5,000 each of the last three. I also got sundries like reference books, puzzle books, and, in 2009, even a painting. There's also the sweet-looking trophy, not to mention the untold amounts of fame and groupies. I might be lying about those last couple things.

Who is your favorite constructor?
I like different constructors for different reasons, but if I have to pick an overall favorite, I'm going with Patrick Berry. The guy can do it all. Thomas Snyder deserves an honorable mention for his consistently excellent logic puzzles.