Tuesday, November 1, 2016


                Can you spell “vichyssoise,” the potato soup? I couldn’t, so I looked it up. Then I put it in the answer boxes of a recent New York Times crossword puzzle.
                Did I cheat when I did that? Some might say yes but I say no. I think it’s okay to check the spelling of a crossword answer that I’m pretty sure is right. I do that for some foreign words and for English words of which I’m not sure, such as whether a feudal lord is a “leige” or, correctly, a “liege.”  That’s why they print dictionaries.
                I bring this up because I love to do crosswords and spend a good deal of time at it; an inordinate amount, really. John Updike famously said that life is too short for crosswords, and I’m sure he was right, but I’m also sure he did them, because he was a wordsmith. I’m one, too (albeit a lesser one than he), and am similarly driven.

                Indeed, as I wrote in a previous (2009) blog that a few faithful readers might recall, I’m a kind of crossword snob, deigning to do only the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday puzzles in the New York Times. (I used to do the Wall Street Journal’s Friday puzzle but stopped when they canceled my legacy subscription.)  I pay up (close to $1,000 a year) to subscribe to the Times, and while I’m a great fan of the paper I’m not sure I’d continue it if the crossword were dropped or changed in any substantial way.  I’m certain there are many people like me, so I don’t think they’ll be doing that. I’m further heartened by the knowledge that Will Shortz, the Times’ wonderful puzzles editor, is a good bet to outlive me.
             I don’t claim to be the sort of whiz who can zip through the Saturday offering (usually the toughest) in something like six minutes and 40 seconds. Rather, I’m a grinder who wears ‘em down through tenacity. I usually can finish a puzzle in one sitting of, maybe, an hour, but when I can’t I’m content to put it aside, rest my mind, and have more goes at it until I succeed. I’ve been stumped for longer than a day before the light goes on and I can fill in the remaining boxes. More than once that’s happened at 3 a.m. or somesuch, but it’s worth waking up for.

                Nonpuzzlers should know that what makes a puzzle difficult isn’t so much its answers as its questions. The tougher ones make one stretch for the third or fourth definitions of a word or look at the clues obliquely to discern their meaning.  When done cleverly, as often is the case with the Times’ offerings, a right answer can elicit a smile. For example, the answer to the clue “one may be built around a police station” was “tvdrama.“  The answer to the clue “it’s well positioned” was “oil rig.”  Cute, huh?

                Just about every puzzle worth doing contains clues one can’t quickly decipher. Ideally, one reasons them out with the help of letters from answers that have been completed.  Nobody knows everything, though, so sometimes that doesn’t work and outside help is needed. That’s where ethical questions arise.

                I’ve given this matter some thought (hey, I’m retired and have little else to do) and have come up with a list of do’s and don’ts to govern my puzzling. I think it’s okay to:

                --Use my regular dictionary to confirm the spelling of words with which I’m not familiar (see above).

--Use my crossword dictionary to find tedious matters of fact one can’t figure out on one’s own, such as the names of Nobel Prize winners long past or the capitals or currencies of obscure countries. (For example, Rabindranath Tagore was the 1913 Nobelist in literature, the capital of Zambia is Lusaka and the country’s monetary units are the ngwee and the kwacha.)

--Use my library to fill out or confirm things like quotations from Shakespeare or the Bible.

--Ask for help from anyone within the sound of my unamplified voice. (Wife Susie is an expert on food and stepson Marc, when he’s handy, knows about all there is to know about rock, blues and pop music.)

It’s not okay to:

--Phone or email outside experts for help.

--Use the crossword dictionary for help with synonyms, the stuff of most puzzle answers.

--Type the clue into my computer’s Google box and go to one of the numerous puzzle help sites for the answer.

Are my rules more lax than those of more-accomplished puzzlers? Probably, but I don’t aspire beyond my limits. Do I ever break them? Of course I do, as a last resort, to scratch the itch of curiosity, but I take no pleasure from any solutions obtained thereby. Crosswords, after all, are games one plays against oneself, so the cheater and victim are one and the same.




Dan Gruber said...

I do Fri, Sat, Sun only. Occasionally I'll look at a puzzle multiple times over days in order to finish it, which usually happens in a rush as I decipher one key word and everything around it falls into place.

However, I try not to consult any source at all if possible. I'll leave a space blank and acknowledge my ignorance rather than looking up the answer in order to fill it in.

No matter how they're done, working reasonably clever crosswords is one of life's pleasures.


Ben said...

1. I do only the Fri and Sat NYT, but those aren't the toughest daily newspaper crosswords. When the actor Paul Sorvino called the Saturday NYT the "bitch mother of all crosswords," he clearly wasn't familiar with the Saturday Stumper, the weekly test in NY Newsday that is a fair bit harder than the NYT ever gets. The past two weeks' puzzles (and thus two Stumpers) are available for free on the newspaper's website as well as that of its estimable puzzle editor, Stanley Newman. I use the latter.

2. There are a ton of WSJ crosswords and other puzzles available for free to subscribers and nonsubscribers alike at http://wsj.com/puzzle
Ace puzzle editor Mike Shenk ambitiously expanded the paper's puzzle offerings a couple of years ago, as you'll soon see.

3. If Susie would indulge you, you might enjoy going on one of Stan Newman's crossword cruises. They are described on his website. You also might try the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held in Stamford, Connecticut every March. You don't have to be a crossword speedster to enjoy either event.

4. As for outside help, Will Shortz says: "It's your puzzle. Solve it however you want."

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