Sunday, June 21, 2009

How I Solve the Crosswords

How I Solve the CrosswordsA reader reminded me today that I've been adding "no cheating" to my solving times without explanation. What's more, I realize now that "cheating" is a loaded term, which I should have avoided. So here's how I'm solving the New York Times crosswords to give you some context for the times.

I normally download the "Across Lite" version of the puzzle from the New York Times site and print it out to solve with a pencil (and eraser). I try to do the whole thing on my own without resorting to reference books or internet searches. Essentially these are the same conditions as enforced in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and I'll describe it as "solo, no solving aids".

This often means I'm stuck for minutes on end, sometimes being roadblocked by clues that are a gimme to an American. Or I might have to guess letters at intersections where I'm ignorant of both crossing answers. If I've been solving for over an hour, or otherwise feel that I stand no chance, I ask my wife Magdalen to collaborate and we've invariably been able to finish even the most difficult puzzles that way.

Why do I solve in this painstaking way? Because I feel that it's the best way for me to learn the idioms used in American crosswords and the cultural knowledge that goes into them. I can tell from my solving times that I've made big improvements since I began blogging at the start of 2009. I love the challenge that these crosswords pose and, as is often pointed out, exercising the brain is a great way to keep mental fitness in old age.

Do I think that everyone should solve in this way? Absolutely not! You should solve in whatever way gives you the most satisfaction. I would positively recommend less experienced solvers to use reference books and/or resources such as this blog, as that speeds the learning process and allows you to progress further into the solving week, towards the delights of the wackier themes and clues that come with the end-of-week puzzles.

I should add that there are some exceptions to my usual routine for NYT puzzles: Magdalen and I normally solve the jumbo Sunday puzzle together; and we solve the weekday puzzles together any time we are away from home. In addition, we do a huge amount of collaborative solving outside of the NYT puzzles: we solve the Listener Crossword each week, any other cryptic crosswords we can get our hands on, acrostics, the NPR puzzle etc etc.

56 comments:

fmcgmccllc said...

Thanks. I have learned quite a bit from your site and enjoy a different perspective.

Crossword Man said...

Good to hear that ... thanks for your continuing support of the blog.

mia said...

Thanks your blog is most insightful. I used to solve the NYT puzzles with my father; but since he passed away I lost all interest. I now decided to start trying again. Its very challenging I only wish my Dad was here to solve with me.

Magdalen said...

Mia -- I used to solve the NYT crossword with my mother, who died 12 years ago this week. She taught me a wonderful TLA (three-letter-abbreviation): CBA for Could Be Anything. Very useful for those clues, like "Make of car" or "Breed of dog," that need more crossing letters before you can solve them. I think of her whenever I get one of those clues.

I would *like* to think that she would have been tickled that I married Crossword Man, but my mother was old-school. I dimly remember she was not happy when Will Shortz took over the NYT and banished all the old chestnuts, like Orono (she lived in Maine, so it was a point of pride). But she would have had fun with it nonetheless; she would have enjoyed teasing Ross about his avocation. Alas, they never met.

I'm sorry about your dad. For what it's worth, in time the sweet memories balance out the loss.

alexanderkempinski said...

Thanks m8, I'll be checking out your site often..I find I'm always stuck on the monday NYT crosswords and generally don't progress through to the Wednesday ones. Even tuesdays are tough for me.

drgaellon said...

As a New Yorker, there are times I look at the NYT puzzle and think, "No one will know that outside NYC." Some of the clues are really local.

Crossword Man said...

Thanks for the feedback Alexander. I sometimes wonder if anyone reads the beginning-of-week commentary as it's clear from the traffic reports that the Thursday thru Sunday write-ups are the biggest draw.

Crossword Man said...

drgaellon, I agree about the parochial nature of the NYT crossword sometimes, but it is a New York paper so I don't think anyone should complain! I have such problems with US-centric clues in general that the occasional NYC reference is neither here nor there.

elisabetta47 said...

As an American living in Italy, I do the Sunday NYT crossword for pleasure and to keep my english current. With bilingualism, it's so easy to become "slave to both, master of neither." Like you, I try to do it on my own (and it can take a full week, dipping in now and again). Isn't it the truth that when you're stymied, you need to put it aside and sure enough the next day - voilà! the light bulb goes on over your head. I enjoy your site and will continue to visit when those light bulbs are dim.

Crossword Man said...

Thanks for sharing your MO, Elisabetta, and glad you like the site. I should maybe put the occasional puzzle aside myself, but tend to be blunder forward to get things wrapped up before bedtime.

Dave said...

Ross,
I just stumbled across your site and want to say THANKS for detailing your solving process. I do the NYT puzzle Mon-Wed, can't seem to get beyond that, have never even seriously tried a Saturday puzzle. TOO hard! But I easily solve the weekday puzzles in my hometown newspaper (LAT syndication, now)...so I really like to read about how others work, to help me get beyond my current limits. Thanks!
If you like Word Sudoku puzzles, please check out *my* blog, www.MagicWordSquare.blogspot.com, and please let me know what you think.

Thanks,
Dave

Crossword Man said...

Hi Dave. Glad you like the posts. I'm also starting to solve LA Times crosswords, from anthologies in book form rather than current puzzles - entertaining puzzles and harder than I thought they'd be from their reputation. Magdalen is the Sudoku addict in the family - she's currently working on the London Times 2009 Sudoku calendar - they're fiendish enough that she's still working on July's puzzles!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your posts. I enjoy reading about your process.

Crossword Man said...

Thanks for the feedback - glad you like the write-ups.

Anonymous said...

bless yer heart for todays comments. i'm a dumb, 70 year old, west texan and my only degree is in cow milking. until today i sort of felt like my moral fiber was not quite up to snuff every time i asked my buddy Mr. Google for help.
HAPPY NEW YEAR to you and the mrs.

Crossword Man said...

Hi Anonymous. Never be ashamed of your friend Mr. Google. Best wishes for 2010, and may you have many more happy solving years ahead.

Devo said...

Just found your site today--fun read. Found myself stuck at 55 A, Victory Arch. After look up at your site, I was on my way to completion. Could not figure out yesterday's "ROME" clues though.

Crossword Man said...

Glad to help out Devo - are you connected to what an NYT crossword once clued as {Rock group whose members wear red flowerpots on their heads}?

gail said...

Your site has been so helpful to me - have only been doing the nyt puzzle for a year or so and thanks to a little help from you, am now able to get through to Wed. Those Saturdays are still way above me, however.

Crossword Man said...

Thanks for the feedback gail - that's great ... it shouldn't be too long before you can get a Friday/Saturday done if you keep working at it!

Anonymous said...

I found your site today, when searching for an explanation of the Guinness suffix clue (which I didn't find on Rex Parker's site). I think I can relate to your your comments and explanations better than I can to Rex's. I tried to find the NYT puzzles online to print and work...the Across Lite you mentioned at the top of this post, but couldn't. I take you you have to buy an online subscription for this? - Sharon

Crossword Man said...

Thanks Sharon. Yes, I think you now have to buy a subscription ($39.95 per year) to access the current NYT puzzles. That {Guinness suffix} clue was tough: I remember having to eat humble pie, as I didn't understand it until reading Rex's blog!

Denise Sutherland said...

I've just discovered your blog, and am enjoying it greatly :)

I'm an Australian puzzle writer (syndicated), and in 2008 was asked by Wiley USA to be Technical Editor on one of their Dummies puzzle books - part of which was editing a stack of American crosswords! It was a steep learning curve for me, and like you I found local idioms tripped me up at times. I'm more used to cryptics.

Since then I've written two Dummies puzzle books for Wiley (USA) so have had to brush up my American spelling. I've submitted a proposal for "Cryptic Crosswords for Dummies" without success so far, there doesn't seem to be much interest in the American market - maybe Wiley Australia might be more receptive ... we shall see!

Cheers :)

Crossword Man said...

Hi Denise ... that's an interesting story. The one Dummies book I've tried is Patrick Berry's "Crossword Puzzle Challenges", adveritised in the sidebar. It's an odd combination of a book of puzzles AND a book about puzzles, but the best thing I've yet read about the art of constructing US puzzles.

If there isn't already a Cryptic Crosswords for Dummies, well there ought to be. It would surely do well in the UK and Oz at least. Writing for an international audience about cryptics would be a challenge because of regional differences in e.g. abbreviations - but there is so much in common between the different cryptic traditions that I think it could be done.

Denise Sutherland said...

Yes, the Dummies series is very set in stone with regards to format, there has to be an 'about the puzzles' component which is interesting, but doesn't always suit the genre. I've suggested they should develop a "Dummies Puzzle Series" which could just feature collections of puzzles, but I think they're politely ignoring me :)

The Cryptic Crosswords for Dummies book doesn't exist (yet!) - I will approach Wiley UK or Oz to see if there's interest there. They generally don't accept book proposals for this series, though. But I might get lucky. You're quite right, it would be a challenge to write so it covers an international audience, but as you say, I think it's feasible.

Crossword Man said...

Best of luck with that project Denise. If you should ever need a consultant/editor/proofreader with international experience, you know who to come to! :)

Denise Sutherland said...

Will definitely keep you in mind, thank you!! :D

Anonymous said...

Hate that I found your blog!:) Just started doing the puzzle about a month ago, and would always get stuck. I hated having to wait until the next day (or week) to get the solution. It sometimes takes extreme self control not to "cheat", but I love that I can now check when I am at a complete loss, which is (very) slowly happening less and less. Thanks!

Crossword Man said...

Consider this blog your training wheels: you will soon be off on your own and just checking in for the intro.

Anonymous said...

Crosswords are like magic! Therapy, for sure. I wish they'd introduce it as a branch of English at the middle and high school levels! Young minds could get hooked on to this most absorbing, enriching pastime. That could well curb the incidence of drug use, crime, even "youthful indiscretions" - a popular expression among our politicians!

Crossword Man said...

Very interesting ideas. The magic diet of crosswords has certainly worked for me.

Stephen said...

Dear Crossword Man,
My mom and I have always wanted a bit of knowledge or understanding to come with the completing of the NYT puzzles. Now that I have stumbled upon your brilliant and extremely creative site, my wish to have resources with the crossword has come to life. Along with sports, the daily NYT crossword has kept me from the "youthful indiscretions" mentioned above! Thanks so much. . .

Crossword Man said...

Hi Stephen, great to hear your story. Glad you like the blog and that crosswords and other sports are keeping you on the straight and narrow!

thanga said...

I am an insect, & the first half of my name reveals another insect. Some famous
musicians had a name similar to mine. What am I? ______ ...

Crossword Man said...

Nice puzzle thanga. Did you post it because you want to know the answer (in which case I can help) or just to amuse readers (in which case I won't spoil it for them)?

Anonymous said...

Your web site's name "An Englishman Solves American Crosswords" often amuses me as I'm working the NYT puzzle since it seems to me that nearly 10-20% of every puzzle's clues reference English geography / landmarks / literature / writers / / musicians / history and so on. Another 10-20% of clued squares regularly reference French words and since you've disclosed elsewhere on your site that you've studied French, it seems to me that such an Englishman is in a uniquely favorable position to solve the NYT puzzles. This is simply a friendly observation and of course I've made no detailed analysis of the frequency of English or French references, but it does always SEEM that way! :) I live in southern Illinois, where the NYT puzzle doesn't arrive until several weeks after you receive it in the east, so thanks for your site! With it, I'm able to check my answers or find the answer if I have to give up. I think your site is the best!

Crossword Man said...

Hi Anon. I know what you mean: it always seems that the grids are overwhelmed by the subjects you don't know. Baseballers and rap artists in my case. Glad you like the blog.

Nighthawk said...

I only within the last 3 months started doing the puzzles in my local paper and the NYT on occasion.
But I get the NYT ones on the computer, print them, and then work them with pen/pencil.

It seems I am missing something when I do this. For example, in the puzzle today,June 3, there was a theme/title which gave clues to the themed answers, and which would have been quite helpful, had it printed out. But using the AcrossLite software to print, the headings/titles/themes don't print.

Is this a problem with that software? Or am I missing a step?

Any help about using that program would be much appreciated.

Crossword Man said...

Hi Nighthawk. Although American crosswords commonly have titles, I don't believe the daily crosswords in the New York Times do - themes are intended to be self-contained. I'm maybe not the best person to ask, as I very rarely see the printed edition. The last time I did, the only significant difference I noted was in the bylines: in the printed paper, Will Shortz has a separate (larger) byline from the constructor's byline. When viewed in Across Lite, they are put together as in today's "NY Times, Thu, Jun 03, 2010 Elizabeth C. Gorski / Will Shortz". That's the only heading/title/theme you should see for today's puzzle; if that's missing, you have a problem; otherwise, I think everything is as intended.

Nighthawk said...

Thanks. Looks like I am not missing anything. I guess that it just turns out that there was a theme for that day, but, unlike the Sunday puzzles for example, the theme name just wasn't expressed in the puzzle title.

Crossword Man said...

Yup. Bear in mind that sometimes the overall theme is explained by a single answer, as in the May 31 puzzle. More often it is not explained and you have to spot the connection between the answers to get a sense of satisfaction - this was the case with the June 2 puzzle

Pavan Nihalani said...

Dear Mr. Crossword Man,

I'm Indian, live in Dubai, did my A-Levels and then attended an American University. I should be cruising through these crosswords :)

Have made it to Thursday, will continue to persevere. Your site is much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I am an aged hindu from Bangalore. I unashamedly use google, wikipedia, imdb, one look reverse dictionary, ultralingua, roman numerals and other sites.
If I complete a puzzle I turn to your site for verification. If I am 90% accurate I am happy.
If I do not complete a puzzle to my satisfaction I save it and try to complete it using unlock code next day.checking each letter I enter.
My way is antonym to your way. However I spend few happy hours everyday
Prakash Devatha

Crossword Man said...

That's a fascinating story Prakash. Thanks for sharing it and I hope you enjoy your happy hours for many years to come!

Anonymous said...

But as your photo shows, you clearly get help from your cat!

How do you justify that?

Crossword Man said...

I do better without his kind of help :-)

Anonymous said...

As someone who has lived in the US during all of my 91 years my biggest problem is finding the answers to the two categories that I am the least interested in - pop music and sports. Otherwise I usually breeze through NYT Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and if I am lucky can finish up an occasional Thursday or Friday.

Crossword Man said...

Sounds familiar, Anon, except you could add TV to that list in my case!

Alex said...

Like you I am a transplanted Brit, but of somewhat longer duration, having been US-based since 1978.
I always enjoy the NYT puzzles, generally breeze through Weds and occasionally Thursday. I have never finished either Fri or Sat completely "solo", but do occasionally finish Sun solo. It has become easier over the years as I have become more americanized...but I still have problems with the sports and modern music questions.
I have recently started to enjoy the NYT KenKen puzzles (the 6x6 and 7x7 grids) as a supplement to the crossword.
Love your blog...keep it up!

Crossword Man said...

Thanks Alex. My problems extend to TV also. That may never change. Did you become a US citizen? I have my naturalization interview this Friday (December 10) ... assuming all goes well, this blog will be need a name change.

alex said...

I so agree with you about America TV...most of the shows pale in comparison with those produced in the UK. NPR/TV and BBC America help a bit. I became a citizen in 1984 and have all my children (5) and grandchildren (7) scattered across the US.
Good luck with the interview on Friday!

Crossword Man said...

Thanks ... I passed! Yay! But I'll have to wait a couple of months for the oath ceremony as they're a bit booked up...

Alex said...

Congratulations! I love to say that I became a citizen just in time to vote for Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro!

Crossword Man said...

Thanks Alex. When I filed the application back in July, I had vain hopes of the whole process being completed in time for me to vote last month. No chance!

Matthew G. said...

Thanks for the great blog, Crossword Man. I read both you and Rex Parker daily.

Is there anywhere I can find a free past example of the infamous Listener Crossword to get a sense of its devilish nature?

Crossword Man said...

Thanks for the feedback Matthew - glad you enjoy what's offered here.

Here's a random Listener Crossword: 3986: Terminal Suspension by Schadenfreude. I believe most of the series is only available as part of The Times's Crossword Club.