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Word Salad

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

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Turnabout Is Fair Play

One basic type of cryptic clue is the reversal, which relies on the fact that some words turn into other words when spelled backwards. In down clues, a reversal is typically indicated with a reference to the fact that the diagram entry is to be read upwards for the sake of the wordplay.

An example is DESSERTS and STRESSED. We have yet to put one (or both!) of these words in a diagram, but it is practically inevitable that they will show up sooner or later since they are composed of very common letters. In fact, they are letters that are so often at the end of words that it would be convenient to place them at the far right or the very bottom of the diagram. Watch for it!

DESSERTS/STRESSED is a classic whole-word reversal, and there are many others—though they are usually made of shorter words. Here are some example clues from our first year at The Nation.
      SLAP   Strike friends on the way back (4)
      SNUG   Comfortable, with arms up (4)
      SUMAC   Poisonous plant French writer raised (5)

Some clues involve a partial reversal:
      SNIPPET   Upon reflection, attaches favorite excerpt (7)
      SODA   Pop’s trouble returning after Schuylkill initiation (4)
      TIDEMARK   Revise text starting at the end, identify high point (8)
      TOPNOTCH   Lift heavyweight container over cloth wrapper—that’s best (8)
      TOSSPOT   Drunkard comes back to see drunkard (7)

Some clues involve some other form of wordplay, followed by a reversal:
      SNARE DRUM   Execute one curve in reverse, as part of the marching band (5,4) [charade]
      SPEED UP   Accelerate return of young dogs to captivate Sandra (5,2) [sandwich clue]
      STAMINA   Brings to life, rising without energy or endurance (7) [letter deletion]
      STEWED   Drunk dries up? (6) [pun]
      CENOTAPH   Running back through Utah, pat one celebratory monument (8) [hidden word]

Unfortunately, there are only so many ways to indicate reversals. We faced complaints when we used “exalted” as a reversal indicator in a down clue:
      ISRAEL   The Nation is covering exalted legendary monarch (6)

Our defense is the fact that a dictionary definition of “exalted” includes “raised to a higher rank.” Even though finding decent indicators is challenging, opportunities for using reversals come up so frequently that you will keep seeing them in our puzzles.

Do you have favorite reversals? 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.

A New Frontier in Artificial Intelligence

Do you have an interest in cryptic crosswords and a facility with the more intricate realms of computerized artificial intelligence? If so, there’s a project out there with your name on it.

One of the more fascinating recent developments in the word of cruciverbalism has been the birth of Dr. Fill, the wittily named—and frighteningly proficient—crossword-solving program developed by puzzle constructor and software engineer Matt Ginsberg. Operating on brute speed to compensate for his lack of common sense, Dr. Fill has penetrated the lower ranks of good solvers. He (it’s hard to avoid following Ginsberg’s example by personifying the good doctor) is not yet in the upper echelons of solvers yet—but don’t look back, because he’s gaining on us.

Dr. Fill made his debut a year ago at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn, solving the puzzles alongside a field of nearly 600 contestants and finishing in 141st place. Last weekend he returned, and improved his standing to ninety-second. (In the human division, meanwhile, solving wizard Dan Feyer sailed to a fourth consecutive victory.)

Ginsberg regaled the assembled contestants with a fine and highly educational presentation about just how Dr. Fill operates. He doesn’t try to find a short path to the smartest solution; rather, he makes lots of not-too-stupid guesses and then uses his processing power to sort through the possibilities and find the ones that cross each other.

But there’s one thing Dr. Fill doesn’t know, and isn’t about to learn—namely, how to solve cryptic crosswords. And the reason is simple: Ginsberg isn’t interested enough to teach him. Much of his development time is spent training Dr. Fill to recognize things like puns, rebuses, added-letter themes and other tricks that are common in standard crosswords.

Dr. Fill could easily be trained to spot comparable principles in the world of cryptics. All he needs now is a trainer—and Ginsberg told the Brooklyn crowd that he’d be happy to let someone else take a crack at it. Unlike Watson, the computerized Jeopardy! champion developed by IBM, Dr. Fill isn’t a commercial undertaking (although some of the databases he relies on are proprietary). So all he’s waiting for is a software and cryptics guru willing to show him the ropes.

Do you have the interest and expertise to adapt Dr. Fill to the world of cryptic crosswords? Please weigh in 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.

'E-book'? That's a Word?

For decades, crossword solvers had to be content with the humble tools of paper and pencil (or pen, for the more confident). But in recent years, crossword puzzles, like so many other cultural artifacts, have been migrating slowly and unmistakably to more high-tech platforms.

A number of programs for desktop and laptop computers have been around for several years, growing steadily in popularity. And more recently still, crosswords have begun making their way into mobile devices.

We know this because our first twenty Nation puzzles are now available in an e-book from Puzzazz, titled Out of Left Field: Cryptic Crosswords from The Nation. The free app for solving these is available for iPhone and iPad, and an Android version is coming, we hear. Sequels should appear every six months, so if you like to solve cryptic crosswords on a screen, this is for you.

Joshua: I still do a lot of my crossword solving on paper, but I also find myself doing plenty of crosswords at my computer (when I should be working). The most popular platform is a free program called Across Lite, which is flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of puzzles. I do find it hard to take in an entire grid at a glance, but for speed and ease of use it’s pretty hard to beat.

Henri: I have been solving crosswords on a mobile device for a long time: I started on Palm, and have now moved on to an iPhone. What is great about this is that the puzzles are always in my pocket. (Of course, that’s also what is problematic about it.) However, on a small touchscreen keyboard, it can be tricky to hit the keys you want. Puzzazz has an answer for this—the app allows you to hand-write your answers on the screen. Another nice feature is that you can set the software to indicate word boundaries in multiword entries. This can be quite helpful when solving a tough clue for a phrase.

But the killer feature of the app is the many ways to ask for hints, which almost replicate getting help from a live human being. If a clue is stumping you, you can ask the app what type of clue it is (anagram, reversal, etc.), and it will tell you. You can also ask to be shown where the break is between wordplay and definition. And you can ask the program to delete any errors you might have entered into the diagram. Those approaches to hinting seem more legitimate to us than having the program fill in a letter or word for you, but that too is available as an option.

In addition to the Nation puzzle, Puzzazz offers books of American cryptics by Todd Rew and Mike Selinker, British cryptics by Brian Greer and many other types of puzzles as well.

How do you feel about solving on an electronic platform? 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.

Crowds and Power

Earlier this month, one of the country’s finest puzzle constructors wrote these poignant words on the Internet: “Unfortunately there are hardly any venues in America that accept cryptic puzzles for publication, so I rarely have any reason to make them.”

The writer was Patrick Berry, whose creations range from innovative and beautiful new puzzle types (Rows Garden, Some Assembly Required, Snake Charmer and more) to traditional crosswords of unparalleled virtuosity. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Games and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Yet as Berry rightly laments, his opportunities to publish cryptic crosswords are few and far between. There are only a handful of outlets that regularly run cryptics—among them The Nation, Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal and Games—and each of them tends to be the province of a particular constructor. The result is that solvers are deprived of the fruit of his efforts in this field.

Happily, the new Internet-based economy is coming to the rescue where the old market economy has failed. The sentence above is quoted from Berry’s new Kickstarter project, a collection of twelve new cryptics (both black-square and variety puzzles) that is already fully funded but still taking backers.

And Berry isn’t the only top constructor turning to the wisdom of crowds to make large puzzle projects possible. Just in the past few months, we’ve seen these undertakings:

Unique Puzzles for a Yankee Echo Alfa Romeo, a year-long puzzle hunt by constructor Roy Leban and the puzzlers at Puzzazz
The Maze of Games, an “interactive puzzle novel” by the endlessly inventive Mike Selinker
Triple Play Puzzles Extravaganza, Trip Payne’s second suite of interconnected word puzzles

All of these are projects that are too complex, and perhaps too specialized, to be fully supportable through the usual economic means. So it’s fortunate that the Internet now provides the means for a willing pool of buyers—solvers and puzzle aficionados of all stripes—to help bring these creations into being. And in most cases, these are self-published, which means that most of the money generated by these campaigns and by later sales ends up in the pocket of the constructor.

That’s the upside. The downside, as with any sort of highly targeted undertaking, is the difficulty of expanding your audience. The crossword puzzle (like the sudoku after it) became popular because people came across it in their daily newspaper, on their way to read other things. But the projects listed above, and others like them, rely heavily on word circulating through the already existing circles of puzzle buffs.

That’s why we’re doing our bit to publicize these efforts. If you like puzzles, please look into them—and if you like what you see, help us spread the word.

Do you know of other crowd-sourced puzzle projects? 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.

Going to the Bank

Anagrams are among the main tools in the hands of the cryptic crossword constructor (see our previous post), but there are other ways of mixing and recombining letters than the strict one-to-one style of the anagram. One form of wordplay that’s proved both popular and fruitful in the National Puzzlers’ League—but has been used rarely if at all in cryptic crosswords—is the letter bank.

A letter bank consists of at least two words or phrases. The shortest one, called the bank, contains no repeated letters (an “isogram,” in wordplay terminology), and any longer words or phrases are built by using each of those letters at least once, but repeating them as many times as necessary. So for instance, the four letters in the bank LENS can be repeated and recombined to form the longer word SENSELESSNESS. Other examples are CONQUEST and SONNET SEQUENCE, or the tripartite NASTIER/ARTSINESS/EASTERN RITES. In line with NPL guidelines, we require the longer word to be at least three letters longer than the bank (otherwise the result feels more like a failed anagram).

We have used only a handful of letter bank clues in the Nation puzzle. When we started drafting this post, we thought that the reason was because letter bank pairs are not all that common: The longer word needs to have enough repeating letters, and once the repeats are eliminated the distinct letters need to anagram to something useful.

Looking back through past Nation puzzles, however, we found that there were plenty of candidates for letter banks, including some great ones, that for better or for worse we clued in more standard ways (charades, anagrams, etc.). Perhaps it’s the weight of tradition—after decades of solving and constructing cryptics with no letter banks, that clue type did not readily come to mind.

In any case, here are some letter bank clues from past puzzles:
      CATCH-AS-CATCH-CAN  Snatch, using every element as needed in whatever way possible (5-2-5-3)
      DALAI LAMA  Draw as needed on the resources of a mild religious leader (5,4)
      TO BE OR NOT TO BE  Existential question latent in Brontë’s letters (2,2,2,3,2,2)
      UKULELE  Luke provides everything you need for a musical instrument (7)
      VENISONIVOROUS  Use and reuse pieces of souvenir, eating deer perhaps? (14)

By the way, we were accused of making up VENISONIVOROUS. True, it doesn’t seem like a real word, but we cannot take credit for inventing it. We found it in Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd Edition (unabridged), and it won our hearts instantly.

So far, we’ve only used the longer word as the entry and the bank in the clue, but there’s no reason not to go the other way. In either direction, of course, the challenge is to come up with decent indicators. Solvers accept a fairly wide range of options to indicate anagrams, but since this is a new clue type, and a more complicated one, our choices are fewer. Still, we intend to continue pushing this particular envelope! Like them or not, letter banks are here to stay, so be on the lookout for them.

Do you love letter banks? Do you hate them? 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.

Finally, 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.

Mixing It Up

[First, 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.]

In a previous post, we discussed the workings of anagrams and stated some of our views about what makes a good one. We argued that short anagrams, being perhaps too easy to solve, could be justified by a smooth surface reading. On the other hand, we consider long anagrams a last resort, because they are easy to create but (in our opinion at least) much less fun to solve.

Today, we’d like to return to the question of anagram esthetics, and suggest a few other aspects that make a particularly good anagram.

One thing that makes a good anagram is when the letters to be rearranged—the so-called “anagram fodder”—come from a single word. This connects cryptic clueing to the related game of finding words that are anagrams of one another. Here are some examples from our first year at The Nation:
      OLD SAW  ”Two heads are better than one”—for example, Oswald’s maneuvering (3,3)
      OPTICAL  Capitol is dysfunctional—it’s a kind of illusion (7)
      PENALTIES  Palestine suffering punishments (9)
      PEPSI-COLA  Episcopal stirred a soft drink (5-4)
      PLASTER  Stapler defaced wall’s coating (7)

The fodder doesn’t have to be a single word, of course. It is just as good if the fodder is a phrase with “dictionary nature,” as in this example:
      PEANUTS  Engineer antes up payment “in the high two figures” (7)

Another feature that we always strive for, which can be seen in the examples above, is for an anagram to be “well mixed.” There’s no hard and fast line separating a well-mixed anagram from less interesting examples, but at the very least simply shifting one letter, or switching two letters with one another, would not qualify as well-mixed anagrams. In those cases we prefer to clue the wordplay differently, as in this example:
      ABDOMEN  A black cat, perhaps, with head stuffed inside belly (7)
Here a single letter moved, the A in BAD OMEN. In such a case, we feel justified in not providing the anagram fodder explicitly, because the change is so slight that it would not make for an interesting clue. Instead, we give a definition of the fodder, and more or less clear instructions on shifting the letter.

Finally, we’re particularly fond of &lit. anagrams. Here are some examples from year 1:  ASTRONOMER  Moon starer, possibly! (10)
      RESCUES  Put another way, secures! (7)
      SCENIC ROUTE  A product of innovative tour science! (6,5)
      TENO  I make notes, perhaps! (5)
      TOKYO  It is like Kyoto, but different! (5)
      VIBRATOS  Bravo—it’s “quavers”! (8)

Have you come across some great anagrams? 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.

SPOILER: PUZZLE #3271—HINTS FOR BEGINNERS

These clues are anagrams: 12A, 6D
These clues involve anagrams as part of the wordplay: 9A, 27A, 3D, 16D

In Gratitude

[First, 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 great detail.]

An indispensable thing for any puzzle-making enterprise is to have test solvers who will give you tough, honest and helpful feedback. It’s all too easy, when crafting a crossword or indeed any kind of puzzle, to get lost in the world of your own ideas. Things that seem obvious to you, knowing the answer as you do, can turn out to be unexpectedly daunting for a solver. Clues can include unintended red herrings, and even flat-out mistakes (“I do not think that word means what you think it means”) can easily creep in.

For the Nation puzzle, we are fortunate to have the assistance of a tireless, canny and wonderfully generous team of test solvers. They get no credit for their contributions, but these puzzles could not exist without them. Every week we send them drafts of our efforts, and they return them with weaknesses noted and often corrected.

Lest they think we are guilty of ingratitude, we will use this blog post as a heartfelt and overdue note of public thanks to our testers—all of them fellow members of the National Puzzlers’ League, and many of them long-time solvers of the Nation puzzle:

John Chaneski, a writer and puzzlesmith who can be heard on the public radio show A Way With Words and NPR’s Ask Me Another
Mark Halpin, the theater designer and puzzlesmith whom we interviewed here
Margaret Miller, an editor and children’s book author living in Beijing
Sally Picciotto (Henri’s daughter), a dancer and public health researcher
Greg Pliska, a composer, music director and puzzlesmith who can also be heard on the public radio show A Way With Words and NPR’s Ask Me Another
• a group of solvers that meets over breakfast in Berkeley, including Jutta Degener, Joe Fendel, Michael Fidler, Erica Klarreich, Dunn Miller and Barbara Selfridge.

Our editors at The Nation, Judith Long and Sandy McCroskey, are also an invaluable source of advice and wisdom.

Here are a few occasions on which test-solvers saved us from embarrassment, or added something great to the puzzle:

• Puzzle 3217 originally included the word EDWARDEAN, which we clued under the impression that it meant “pertaining to the reign of Edward VII.” Testers soon put us straight—we were thinking of EDWARDIAN; EDWARDEAN means “pertaining to the Colonial preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards.”

• In Puzzle 3248, a clue for OPEN SECRET originally read:
   Strike recent pose—everyone knows that (4,6)
We thought “strike” was a good anagram indicator, but none of the testers liked it. So the final version read:
   Everyone knows that recent pose is affected (4,6)

• One of our favorite definitions was in this clue from Puzzle 3243:
   IAGO  I back the man who plays Othello (4)
That definition, using “play” in the sense of “manipulate,” was suggested by Sally Picciotto, and we adopted it enthusiastically.

• And here is a wicked clue from Puzzle 3246 by Mark Halpin, vastly better than our initial idea:
   IMMORAL  Wicked Jimmy stripped clergyman Roberts (7)

Needless to say, any mistakes that remain in the puzzle are entirely our own. But because of these good people, there are always fewer than there might otherwise have been.

Please add a word of thanks 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.

The Hunt Was On

[First, 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 great detail.]

Like those of the ancient Jews, the lives of many American puzzle aficionados revolve around three major holidays of pilgrimage. One is the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held in February or March at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott; the second is the annual convention of the National Puzzlers’ League, which rotates around the country (and sometimes Canada) each July. The third took place last weekend, when many hundreds of puzzlers of every age and level of expertise gathered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the MIT Mystery Hunt.

For a certain kind of puzzle fan—let’s say those for whom difficulty is no object—the Mystery Hunt, which is held annually on the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, represents the high point of the year, the ne plus ultra of head-cracking revelry. The event, whose history goes back more than thirty years, is a single weekend-long quest to be the first team to locate a hidden gold coin.

But of course the coin is merely a MacGuffin. The point of the Mystery Hunt is the puzzles—cascades of them, dozen upon dozen, each interlocking with the others in intricate and unforeseeable ways to create an elaborate pyramid of solving.

What kinds of puzzles? Well, one of the joys of the Mystery Hunt is that there is no single answer to that question. There are word puzzles, to be sure—crosswords (cryptic and otherwise), anagramming challenges and a host of others—but those only scratch the surface. There are physical challenges and jigsaw puzzles; there are knowledge-based problems and performance puzzles; there are plenty of puzzles based in math, science and technology (the MIT roots run deep).

But there are two characteristics of Mystery Hunt puzzles in particular that define the genre, and that keep solvers coming back year after year. One is that instructions are almost never given explicitly—for any puzzle, figuring out what the heck you’re expected to do is generally the first step. The other, related fact is that most puzzles are multi-stage—and the solver rarely knows how many stages a puzzle entails. You might be called on to solve a series of anagrams, but then you have to determine what to do with those answers. Anagram the initial letters of the first round of answers? Consider them to be a cryptogram? Rotate them ninety degrees? Anything is possible, though there are often subtle hints to point you in the right direction.

The result is a marathon of tag-team puzzling—this year’s Hunt, the longest to date, ran seventy-five hours. Teams of solvers, ranging from handfuls to more than 100, come and go throughout the weekend, handing off uncracked or half-solved puzzles to their teammates. And because there are always more puzzles to be solved, you can take the process as seriously or lightly as you choose. Some solvers actually get some sleep, while others prefer to wait until Tuesday.

Best of all, the Mystery Hunt fosters an inclusive spirit. Because the solving teams are so large and elastic, there is always room for an extra brain and one more pair of eyes. You don’t have to be part of an existing team to participate—in fact, thanks to the magic of the Internet, you don’t actually have to be in Cambridge at all (although it helps). All you have to do is show up, ready to solve puzzles.

Have you participated in past Mystery Hunts? Please share your experiences 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.

I Hear You!

[First, 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 great detail.]

All introductions to cryptic crosswords mention “homophone” clues. These are clues in which the wordplay leads to a homonym of the answer. Here are a few examples taken from Nation puzzles of our first year. The homonym is indicated in square brackets after the clue.
LESSEN  Abridge lecture on tape (6) [lesson]
LETTS  Why don’t we broadcast Latvians? (5) [let’s]
LISZT  Composer’s catalog sung (5) [list]
MALI  Ivins discussed in The Nation (4) [Molly]
NEIGHS  Voiced contrary opinions in barnyard language? (6) [nays]
RHEUMY  Running from the nose and from the mouth, with plenty of space (6) [roomy]

Notice that in each case, the wordplay is flagged with an indicator that is intended to help the solver realize that the clue is a homophone: “on tape,” “broadcast,” “sung,” “discussed,” “voiced” and “from the mouth.”

But the “homophone” concept only scratches the surface, as many other clue types can also exist in a phonetic version. For example, here are some phonetic charades:
HAIKU  Recited aloud, an exalted, brilliant stroke—this clue, for instance (5) [high coup]
IQ TEST  Method of assessing brilliance pronounced, yes, “most attractive” (2,4) [aye cutest]
LIE IN WAIT  Lurk stealthily to announce, “Four pounds for a cub, perhaps” (3,2,4) [lion weight]
LORGNETTE  Tradition in Russia: no noisy glasses (9) [lore nyet]
MIASMA  Unpleasant atmosphere sounds like the reason I can’t breathe (6) [my asthma]
NEW DEAL  Roosevelt’s program on the radio uncovered something slippery (3,4) [nude eel]
PRIMA DONNA  Diva, before “Like a Virgin” was heard? (5,5) [pre-Madonna]

And here is a phonetic hidden word:
SHREWD  Cache rudimentary audio holding—that’s clever (6)

Although phonetics can be combined with other kinds of wordplay, we’re not big fans of partially phonetic clues; in general, we attempt to have the wordplay for each clue be either entirely phonetic or entirely literal. We’ve probably violated that precept a few times, but we see it as a guideline, not a rule.

Have you come across some great phonetic clues? 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.

SPOILER: HINT FOR PUZZLE #3268
This week’s puzzle has a larger than usual complement of phonetic clues: 16A, 21A, 5D, 14D.

A Talk With Richard Maltby

[First, 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.]

Richard Maltby Jr., the theatrical director and lyricist, has been constructing the variety cryptic crossword in Harper’s for thirty-seven years, and before that he constructed puzzles for New York magazine. This makes him one of the doyens of the US cryptic world. We asked him some questions by e-mail.

How did you get started as a cryptic crossword constructor?

Steve Sondheim introduced the puzzles to the US when New York magazine was started, in the 1960s. His puzzles were laid out to teach solvers. I became addicted, and once even contributed a guest puzzle. At the beginning, Steve did a puzzle a week. After a year he switched to one every three weeks, with Mary Ann Madden’s Competitions filling the other two slots. Then when Company was going into production, Steve announced he was stopping. I couldn’t bear the idea that the puzzles wouldn’t appear, so I asked if I could take them over. He and Clay Felker, the founder of New York, agreed. So I did, and the puzzles continued to appear every three weeks. But there was a Catch-22. Since I had constructed them, when the puzzles came out, I knew the answers. Which rather killed the fun.

You’ve worked both solo and with a collaborator. How do the two experiences compare?

I’ve never really collaborated on puzzles. When I got too busy to do the puzzles, Ed Galli took them over. Our names were both listed but he did the puzzles. He would then send the final to me and I would polish the clues, or the instructions, if I thought it was needed.

Is there a connection between cryptic crosswords and music? We are of course thinking of you and Stephen Sondheim. Moreover, one of us is a classical music critic.

I think there is a connection between cryptic puzzle and lyrics. Lyric writing involves the technical manipulation of language. You have to say what you want in exactly the right syllables and often with the accents or emphasis predetermined. Lyricists therefore become acutely aware of the intricacies of words, their multiple meanings, their diversity of definitions, pronunciations, spelling. We lyricists come to love the shorthand phrases that exist in English that can express a thought in fewer syllables.

It is also true that these cryptics can exist only in a language as rich as English. There is no “English” language. It is a series of layers: Anglo-Saxon, covered by Scandinavian, covered by French (the Normans), covered by Latin (the church), covered by Greek (the classicists), covered by words borrowed from Germany, Spain and the Arabic world (mathematics), and others borrowed from around the world as a result of British colonialism. That is why the language is so rich, complex, confusing, contradictory, baffling and delicious. No other language has the opportunities for puns and linguistic misdirection. In fact, that is probably why cryptic puzzles were invented: to make a game out of the mysteries and anomalies of our language.

What cryptic crosswords do you like to solve?

I do the London Times puzzles as they appear in the New York Post. This forces me to subscribe to that ridiculous right-wing rag. But that’s where the puzzles are.

Your puzzles are sometimes quite different from mainstream American cryptics, with respect for example to grid size, symmetry and cluing style. Is this something you’re aware of? What do you attribute it to?

There is a mainstream of American cryptics? Where?

I like that these puzzles have a puzzle within the puzzle. You solve the clues, but you then also have to solve the über-puzzle. Variety adds to the fun. I like to change the diagram shape, look, design—and change the way the clues appear. I also like that themed puzzles do not require a balanced diagram. They’d be less fun, in a theme sense, if the diagram had to be balanced. I do however, follow (mostly) the diagram rules established by the British constructor Ximenes: no unchecked letters in a three-letter word, only one unchecked letter in a four- or five-letter word, no more than two unchecked in a six- or seven-letter word, and so on with eight/nine, and ten/eleven letter words.

Tell us about your construction process.

I get the idea first. Fresh ideas seem to come as needed, although I have years of old puzzles with themes I often return to. The theme suggests a diagram: normal 12x12; larger/smaller/rectangular according to the longest words; an odd shape (heart or octagon). Then I see how the themed words can be arranged in the diagram, then I fill the diagram out with the remaining words. In choosing the entries, I look for unusual words, long words, fresh words—but finally there are always just words that fit what is needed.

What are some of your favorite Richard Maltby clues?

Here is one:
   The definitive manifestation of the human comedy is a crime (12)
and, in a down clue:
   Sign for and take $100 off vacation vehicle on beach (9)

We’ll post the answers in the comments in a few days. Thanks to Richard Maltby!

Do you solve Richard Maltby’s puzzles? The puzzles in the London Times? Please share here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current Nation 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.

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