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Kosman and Picciotto on their Nation puzzle, cryptic crosswords, wordplay and puzzles in general.

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Cryptic Royalty

Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon are American puzzle constructors. Their joint nom de plume in the National Puzzlers’ League (NPL) is Hex, and this is how we will refer to them in this post. They contribute acrostics to The New York Times, a Sunday crossword to the Boston Globe, and a gently themed cryptic crossword weekly to the National Post. At one time, they had a cryptic acrostic in The Progressive. But it is as cryptic constructors that their impact on US puzzles has been the greatest. Frank Lewis, Stephen Sondheim, and Richard Maltby preceded them as cryptic setters, but the influence of these three British-inspired giants did not reach beyond their own puzzles. Hex, in contrast, set the parameters for cryptic crosswords in the United States. Their impact cannot be overestimated.

Cox and Rathvon constructed the variety cryptic crosswords for The Atlantic for decades. Each of those puzzles included an additional gimmick beyond the cryptic clues: an additional piece of wordplay that must be applied to some of the answers before entering them into the diagram, or a humorous answer to a question that gets revealed at the end of the solving process, or the use of thematic clues, or a diagram featuring creative geometric innovations. In the case of Hex, “variety” is the right word: they have come up with a spectacular range of original, witty and elegant ideas to spice up their puzzles, month after month after month. And after they could no longer be found in the back of The Atlantic, they resumed this astounding series with a monthly Saturday puzzle in The Wall Street Journal (here is a link to their latest).

Here are some examples of Hex’s mastery of cryptic clue writing, selected from recent puzzles:
   FREE AGENT  Contract seeker after Gene Wilder (4,5)
   SUTRA  Hindu teaching us art in a new way (5)
   SCANDINAVIAN  In northern lands, digitally capture noise of the birds (12)
   OBOIST  Musician is in love with droid (6)
   UMPED  Leaped after the leader made the calls (5)
   INTAGLIO  Crackpot toiling over a carving (8)
   DELAYING  In no hurry taking eggs back? (8)

They spread their influence on US cryptics not just by example but also through direct mentoring of constructors during their stints as editors for Games magazine and Dell publications, and through an online clue-writing workshop they used to run on the New York Times website. Moreover, they spelled out their views on clue-writing in the Random House Guide to Cryptic Crosswords, which is probably the most authoritative such publication in the United States. They are so respected that for most US cryptic constructors—and for surprisingly many US cryptic solvers—if it’s not done in the Hex mold, it’s not done right. Interestingly, Hex themselves are quite humble, and only ever present their choices as just that: choices.

As regular solvers of the Nation puzzle and readers of this blog know, Hex are not our sole influence. We have also learned from Frank Lewis, from the puzzles in The Enigma (the NPL monthly) and from British cryptics. Still, we are second to no one in our admiration of the monarchs of the US cryptic realm. Three cheers for Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon!

What are your thoughts about Hex and their work? Please share here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

And here are three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.

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