In the Mail

In the Mail

An odd message comes over the transom.


[First, three links:

• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints.]

We get mail—not a lot, granted, but a steady stream of reactions to our work. Some complain the puzzles are too hard, some that they’re too easy (some recent examples are here). Some people even think that, like Goldilocks, we get it just right.

And then there are the outliers. Last week, one of us received, at home, a good old-fashioned envelope from the US Postal Service. A certain amount of effort had gone into keeping the mailing anonymous; it was addressed in a bland and undistinguished font, with no return address. Inside was a photocopy of the most recent Nation crossword, with every square correctly filled in. There was no signature, and no hint as to the sender’s identity.

At first glance, this mysterious missive seemed utterly unmotivated. It told us only that at least one person on the planet had been able to solve last week’s puzzle—a heartening development, in its way, but perhaps not especially earth-shaking.

Yet on further reflection, this veiled message did seem to get at something fundamental about the psychological dynamics of puzzling. A puzzle is a form of intellectual combat, a battle of wits between the constructor(s) and the solvers. It’s a friendly fight, to be sure, and like a WWF match it’s essentially fixed: the goal on both sides is for the solver to emerge victorious. But there is still a struggle being waged across the black and white squares of a crossword grid: we try to confound you with traps and snares, you try to evade them to arrive at your goal.

Seen in this light, the nature of our anonymous mailing becomes clearer. It was nothing less than a victory cry, an assertion of pride at having emerged triumphant from the week’s skirmish. Perhaps this was even the first time our correspondent had succeeded in completing the puzzle. In that case, the subtext might be: “You two must think you’re very clever. You have stumped me before, but what do you think of this?”

And to that we can only reply: Bravo, sir or madam. Well played. Next week, we’ll try to find new ways to deceive you.

Feel the need to crow, either anonymously or not? Please share your boasts below, along with comments, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle.

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