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Word Salad

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

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Meta Physician

Solvers with a taste for traditional American crossword puzzles have no shortage of opportunities to slake their thirst, beginning with the puzzles that appear daily in the newspaper. But if you also like an extra helping of gamesmanship along with your crossword, you should know about Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest.

Gaffney is a professional crossword constructor, one of the best and most prolific in the nation. Every Friday afternoon he puts up a weekly contest on his website, offering not just a crossword but a puzzle on top of that puzzle—a meta-puzzle, or “meta” for short. To successfully complete the challenge, you have to solve the crossword, then figure out the meta and solve that as well.

Are there instructions? Don’t be silly. Figuring out what the puzzle is constitutes part of the puzzle (and how meta is that?). All you’re told is the general category of the answer you’re looking for: an American college, a unit of measurement, perhaps even just “a six-letter word.” How to derive it—that’s up to you, and it’s where Gaffney’s devious inventiveness comes into full flower.

Like the New York Times daily puzzle, which gets increasingly difficult as the week progresses, Gaffney’s weekly challenges grow steeper over the course of the month. The first Friday of each month is a comparative pushover. For instance, a Week One puzzle last year had the theme entries TICKLED PINK, CLEAR AS MUD, SIR FRANCIS BACON, DIGITAL PEN and I GOT YOU BABE, and a record number of solvers deduced that the answer to the meta—given as a “farm animal”—was PIG.

But as the month goes on, the puzzles get harder (and the months with five Fridays in them give Gaffney extra scope for trickery). Often the first question to tackle is where the theme entries are, or even if there are any. Is there a hidden connection among them? Does the trail to the meta even start with the completed grid, or is it hidden within the clues? And although the constructions are scrupulously fair, Gaffney, like any good puzzler, is not above placing a deliberate red herring in hopes of tricking an unwary solver.

One recent killer meta asked for the name of a well-known American corporation; the key was noticing that if you shaded in every N, I, K, and E in the completed grid, you got a picture of Nike’s famous “swoosh” logo. Another, titled “Livin’ Large,” had long theme entries that were famously composed only of lower-case letters (“craigslist,” “thirtysomething” and “e.e. cummings”), but the answer was derived from the only capital letters in the grid, including the P in iPhone and the last two letters of “on TV.”

The site keeps track of successful solvers, and Gaffney offers prizes and public recognition to those who have been tireless in their pursuit of a solution. But for most visitors, the joy of the chase is reward enough. A new puzzle—by happy coincidence, a newbie-friendly Week One—will be posted on Friday; if you haven’t been solving Gaffney’s puzzles, this is a fine time to start.

Have you solved Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword before? Please share here, along with contributions to this week’s cluing challenge: DEVIOUS. 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 four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle.

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