Fans of cryptic crosswords face a constant and grim economic law, which is that—in the United States, at least—demand always outstrips supply. Journalistic outlets for cryptics are few and far between, and although there are a handful of published collections available, many of us ran through those long ago.
So we were happy to discover, during last month’s annual convention of the National Puzzlers’ League, the arrival of a fine new compendium of no fewer than fifty variety cryptics. This self-published collection is the work of Roger Wolff, a former Microsoft programmer now pursuing a doctorate in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, and they’re high-quality creations, with well-made grids, solid clues and entertaining gimmicks. Admittedly, the range of gimmicks is a little narrow—most of the puzzles involve altering a subset of entries in accordance with some thematic principle—but the number of variations Wolff comes up with on that basic idea is impressive, and he follows through deftly on each of them.
How did you get started making cryptic crosswords?
I was introduced to them by my ninth grade English teacher, who I guess took a liking to me. I spent about ten years solving, and I had a great time doing that. Then at some point I got the idea to start making my own. The first cryptics I wrote were for the Microsoft Puzzle Hunt. I included those in the book, but I had to go back and rewrite every single clue. I really didn’t know what I was doing. But that was the first time the Puzzle Hunt included cryptics, so maybe no one knew any better.
So you just started writing puzzles and putting them in a drawer, like some crossword Emily Dickinson?
Occasionally I would try to get one published, but there’s no real outlet for them. I had one puzzle published in Games magazine. The puzzle had a baseball theme, and an editor rewrote every single clue to be about baseball. It was much improved, in fact.
How did you conceive of putting the book out yourself?
The whole time I was writing these, I kept telling myself, “When I get to 50, I’ll put them in a book.” And the technology just caught up with me. By the time I was ready, the possibilities for self-publishing were there.
Do you have any particular models for constructing cryptics?
My role models have been Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon. Over the years, they just stood out as the people who really know how to write variety puzzles that are fun to solve. They’re the best.
What plans do you have for a follow-up?
I’d like to go do another book of fifty, but this one took ten years and I tapped out all my creative ideas. My next project is a puzzle-a-month calendar. Writing a cryptic that is thematically appropriate to each month helps give a little structure to my thinking.
Do you have any suggestions for other published collections of cryptics? Please share them below, along with comments, questions, kudos or complaints about the last issue’s puzzle or any previous puzzle.