Solver’s Disposition

Solver’s Disposition

A conversation about how we approach solving puzzles



Henri: When you’re solving a cryptic, it can be fun to argue with the constructor in absentia. In our weekend breakfast solving group, for instance, we used to have ongoing arguments with Frank Lewis, The Nation’s cryptic constructor, year after year, decade after decade. In our imagination, we composed a letter that kept getting longer and longer, listing our objections to his clues. This was all in fun, and as much as we complained, we still had fun solving his puzzles.

Joshua: I’ve written those letters in my head myself, more than once. But I never would have considered sending one. What would be the point? Solving puzzles you don’t enjoy, or that go against your personal aesthetics, would be a bore. If the puzzles are that bad, your time is better spent doing something else.

Henri: That’s true. When I pick up my solver’s pencil, I try to put away my editor’s pen. Of course, it’s also fun to solve a puzzle where the clues are so consistently elegant that there is nothing to argue with. The obvious example is Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon’s variety cryptics, which appear monthly in the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua: Different solvers have different preferences, and even the same solver may have different preferences depending on context and mood. For example, while I like clear boundaries in a variety cryptic crossword, I also enjoy wide-open challenges in a puzzle hunt, such as DASH, where you don’t even know a priori what the rules are, and are not given instructions.

Henri: Another contrast is between a situation where I know I can solve the puzzle, as opposed to one where that is in doubt for a long time. In the first situation, I proceed methodically from A to Z and it’s just a matter of time before I’m done. In the second, I may solve a few clues and hit a wall. Then I might put the puzzle aside, and come back to it a few hours later or the next day, and solve a few more. I’m not always in the mood for this sort of challenge, but that kind of puzzle is more satisfying once it is finally conquered. As Piet Hein, the Danish designer of geometric puzzles, put it:

Problems worthy of attack
prove their worth by fighting back.

Joshua: In fact, the same idea applies to a single clue. I love coming across a surprisingly offbeat clue. If I solve a clue on sight, it is often not as pleasurable an experience as cracking a clue where it takes a while for the penny to drop. 

Henri: Inevitably, our own attitudes and experiences as solvers must influence our choices as constructors of the Nation puzzle. We try to write clues we’d like to solve!

Hopefully they are fun for you also. How do you relate to puzzles in general? to The Nation’s puzzle in particular? Please share your thoughts below, where you can also post comments, questions, kudos or complaints about last week’s puzzle or any previous puzzle.

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