Comments on puzzles

I found myself wondering about commenting on puzzles this week.  The immediate prompt was an email from another setter thanking me for my comments on their recent Listener puzzle, followed the next day by an email from yet another setter thanking me for my comments on their recent Listener puzzle, followed the next day by an email from still another setter thanking me for my comments on their recent Listener puzzle.  That brought the grand total of such responses this year to – er – three.

What to make of this?  Are Listener setters being crossbred with buses?  Did the inestimable John Green send out the responses to three weeks’ puzzles all in one go?  It still doesn’t quite explain how he managed to select the three who were all going to email me.

John Green, who is indefatigable as well, collates the entries for each Listener puzzle each week.  If a solver appends comments, he either includes them, or transcribes them, adding the solver’s name and (email) address.  If a setter wishes to reply and keep the conversation going then they can.  (I’m not exactly good at that…)

So what we had here were three consecutive Listener puzzles on which I had commented (a hand-written sheet of notepaper from this company), to which JG had appended my email address (though two of the three would already have had it – and yes, I suppose I could append it myself…).  And all three wrote back.  The joys of coincidence.

I always comment on Listener puzzles I’ve solved, and rarely miss the Crossword Club – Magpie puzzles get comments scarcely at all.  The fifteensquared blogs on EV and IQ are also generally unfrequented by myself.  I’ve never quite worked out why there’s such a variation in my responses, though time clearly plays a factor.

I try to be appreciative (honest) though I do find setterly considerations creeping in when I see something that, well, I wouldn’t quite have done it that way…  That sort of comment should really be for a vetter, not a setter.  At the same time, that thought can spark an idea of my own – if that way hasn’t been used, then it’s still open for me.  The ‘Why on earth did they ever think that?’ response tends not to get a comment.  (If you fail to get a comment from me, and you expected one, then of course it’s been lost in the post…)

If you wish to comment on the Times Quick Cryptic on 14 August, or its senior cousin six days later, then you can direct them here.  There might be a Telegraph Toughie before the next formal update as well, but the warning I get of those has always been shorter than my fortnightly schedule, so I can’t always guarantee to let you know of a Pedro.

And finally the new puzzle this week is from 1990: I suddenly found myself thinking about it, and persuaded Brian Head (more inestimability and indefatigability)  of the Crossword Club to let me reprint it.  It’s Dux, from March 1990, but was actually completed three years earlier, so we’re back in the 30-year-old regime.  I will revert to the 2010-11 box next time.

Another first

When I started putting puzzles up on this site, I went through my files and extracted the first example of all puzzle series I have contributed to, and put those up over a few months.  And I missed one.

Looking today at my planned addition to the Church Times page, I realised that I have a new one in that sequence coming up just next week (advt – 3 August, to be precise) and it wouldn’t do to tread on its toes.  So I scoured the lists and I discovered that, in my intent to put up cryptic puzzles, I’d entirely overlooked the Independent Concise puzzles I did for about a year back in the mid-Nineties.  So, here is the first of those, No. 2666, from 5 May, 1995.

I doubt I’ll put many of them up, but they are an interesting sideline.  The Independent follows the pattern wherein the first two across entries form a pun.  Puns are notoriously difficult to bring off convincingly for everyone; the concise puzzles syndicated in the local paper have puns which seem to have been constructed by someone who has recently had – or who urgently needs – substantial dental work.

More annoyingly, these puzzles tended to have stipulated grid patterns.  So it was no use coming up with a pun whose components were (7,3) if there were no grids where the first two across entries were seven then three letters.  Jot down pun, flick through grid designs, swear – that was often the way things worked.

Puns are infamously considered petty in the scheme of things, but a good pun is often sublime.  Flann O’Brien’s observation about why policeman keep looking younger – ‘A thing of duty is a boy forever’ – should rock anyone’s boat.  Among the chestnuts in the concise crossword lists, my favourite is ICE AGE – EAVES.  What it must have felt like to spot that…

Beyond the top row, there are other concerns in concise puzzles.  Precision is even more valued – if your entry is _A_E, then the clue must be pretty on the button – while at the same time not being a ‘write-in’.  There should be a leavening of ‘old favourites’ (I always felt) to give the solver some gentle entry points.  Habitues of the heavily checked plain puzzles (in, say, The Puzzler magazine) will recall that such favourites were how you learned of ELEMI, and hobnobbed with EMUs on a regular basis.

US puzzles, being fully checked, offer a range of similar old friends.  I’m beginning to get some of the baseball ones (Mel Ott, anyone), and even Bobby Orr of ice-hockey fame is known to me, and that’s only the ones beginning with O.

Back to a cryptic next time.

And the weekend has gone…

So I have resorted to a puzzle I can add to the site quickly – another unpublished Beelzebub (there are still quite a few to come).

It has been a weekend when I have wanted to settle down and work on a forthcoming puzzle, one that employs a theme I have had in mind for decades but which I can only now see taking shape.  It’s a very different mindset from sitting in front of the screen transcribing an old puzzle.  With luck I’ll have worked through that for the next time.

The double blog

This time sees the appearance of a double setter’s blog, addressing both puzzles that appeared a couple of weekends ago.  I don’t know whether it works, but it probably won’t be an option very often!  There’s also a new puzzle from the Independent, with a theme.

I’ve opened my file for 2011, which means that I suppose there’s a chance I might pick a puzzle that is being or has been recycled for the i.  I don’t get any information on these, and it can be a bit tricky working out when they initially appeared unless there happens to be a blog on fifteensquared.  Having relinquished the copyright, I get no further payment for these.

If you ever thought that the winners’ lists attached to puzzles were compiled from death records for Leominster in 1875, and thus no-one ever really won…  Well, I managed to win the recent Sabre Listener puzzle after a fair tussle.  The dictionary hasn’t arrived yet – I don’t know whether there’s a Hodder & Stoughton NZ set-up (there is for Penguin and Random House) – but I suppose the general ‘allow six weeks for delivery’ applies more than somewhat to me.

Of course, this raises one of my bugbears.  The Listener recommends Chambers as a more-or-less required reference, so it is reasonable to assume that solvers possess one (or these days,one or more apps) – thus it’s not obviously the most appropriate prize, surely?  OK, the hardbacks wear out, but you don’t enter crossword competitions just on the off-chance you’ll win a new copy just as the covers fall off the old one.  Chambers have a neat range of other references (I could do with a new Crossword Lists…) and something else from the range would be a welcome alternative (and perhaps cheaper).  Maybe it’s the logistics of the thing.

Early for once

Well, I had a day off, and, in any case, the reason I need to get things up early provides a topic to discuss.

The new puzzle is a BBC Music Magazine puzzle from May 2011.  My thanks to them for their continuing agreement for me to republish puzzles here.  And get out and buy the July issue which is emerging on to British shop shelves even as I type.  Rachmaninov’s Second this month, plus all you need to know about the Proms.  All that and a crossword as well.

I do try to give advance warning of my puzzles as they appear.  This is easy enough for the regular Friday Independent slot – I tend to be told in good time when it isn’t regular for some reason, and I can pass that on.  But there are times when you have to live with the short notice – even the note you get with Listener proofs has a disclaimer about unlikely circumstances in which a puzzle has to be swapped for some reason.  (I wonder if it has ever happened, and, if so, what the unlikely circumstances were.)

In this case I got word only a week ago about another puzzle this coming weekend, and it makes for a crowded weekend for me.  Friday 15 June sees the usual Independent puzzle, but nip out and buy the Church Times, and you’ll find me there as well.  Relax overnight for you have a Phi Inquisitor (Northern Lights) in the i on Saturday, and relax again before tackling Kcit’s Treasure Hunt (there’s an underused concept…) in the Sunday Telegraph Enigmatic Variations series.  (And will it be a hard Listener, when I will have all this extra time for solving…? Might it be Hex in the WSJ?  At least the new edition of GAMES magazine – for August, no less – arrived electronically this week.)

Training the binoculars further ahead I can give you, in compensation, slightly longer notice of this month’s Kcit Toughie – 27 June – which still predates my next planned update.

Well, it’s nice to be published, of course, but I do sometimes wonder about the poor solver.  I was always reluctant to have both the IQ and the Saturday prize (as it was) puzzle in The Independent, for I thought of someone saying: “Well, at least I can try the IQ” only to find it was me again.  (Come to think of it, I believe it is often one of my daily puzzles reused in the Saturday edition of the i, so it may still happen this weekend.)

This weekend sees two pseudonyms plus my real name, so it is less obvious.  But I don’t hide the fact that Phi=Kcit – it’s published on various websites, and in the A-Z of Crosswords, and so on.  Presumably there will be some who will groan on Sunday morning, and my apologies to them (though they probably aren’t reading this).  There are lots of setters out there which means it should be easy enough to stagger rather than to hog. 

It goes without saying that they’re both nice puzzles, of course.  Blogs for them both will follow – probably more or less simultaneously – later in the month, giving me a chance to remind you about the Toughie.  I’d better start drafting them.


Sometimes a word seems to hog puzzles for a while. Quite a few years ago I recall solving daily Independent puzzles over a period of about a month, and finding three occurrences of LOCH NESS MONSTER in that time.  Not just a short word cropping up, you notice, but a full 15-letter grid-spanning entry.  This was of particular interest to me as a puzzle I was completing for later publication in The Independent contained – well, you guessed it.

May seems to have been the month for PURITANISM.  It was Azed’s competition word, and I finished the puzzle and recalled that I had written a clue for it some years ago which stuck in the mind.  Something about being ‘madly up in arms about sex’ (it in anag.) – I could remember it quite plainly, with its alternating consonants providing good word endings down the ten-letter on the right of Independent grid 17.  And the clue was a neat one – anything that unearths a common phrase like ‘up in arms’ from the fodder looks good.  So I sent it in, and I got a VHC.

As, of course, did something like three other competitors who had spotted the same thing.  I had wondered if that would occur – one should never assume you will be the only person to spot something and the trick can be how you use the thing you spotted.  What I hadn’t expected was something very close to my clue turning up in a Hoskins puzzle in The Independent later in the month.  This set me thinking, and I took recourse to fifteensquared to see when I’d written my memorable clue.  The search function readily threw up a Phi puzzle with PURITANISM – but the note was up (rev.) + martinis* – which certainly looks like a credible treatment (I didn’t track down the actual clue) – but it wasn’t my remembered clue.  I’ve been setting puzzles for The Independent from before the advent of fifteensquared, however, so maybe this clue has simply lodged in my mind for a long time.

Quite why these little constellations of word appearances should occur remains a mystery.  However, should the Wee Frees suddenly loom in an attempt to combine Nessie and a puritan attitude, I wouldn’t be in the least surprised.

The puzzle today is a real, live published Beelzebub from2010- I’ll get back to the unpublished sequence next time it’s a Beelzebub’s turn.  Thanks as always to The Independent for permission to re-publish.

Puritanism aside (I don’t think it’s coming up in a puzzle soon), my Independent appearances continue as usual.  There’s a Times daily this Wednesday (6 June), a Church Times puzzle on 15 June and, hot on its heels an Inquisitor on 16 June.  Which is about when I should be back.

Revisiting a puzzle

My approach to finding puzzles to use here has been to select one of my box-files covering a given period and select a few puzzles from different outlets over a few weeks.  It saves me having to heft too many box-files around too often.  I think I shall abandon the 1998 box after this puzzle as it seems I keep finding it again.  Something 21st century next.

It’s a good reminder, however, of how much you need reminding.  Do I recall ever setting the IQ puzzle I’ve put up this week (Algebra)?  Not remotely, but I’m actually quite pleased with it.  It manages a fairly sizable amount of thematic material in a reasonably standard 12×12 grid.  And the vocabulary is also surprisingly ‘standard’ – not many words that you wouldn’t find in an everyday puzzle.  (Indeed – digression here – I’m surprised how often definition-only puzzles, with substantial checking end up with things like ELEMI.)

The clues also struck me as friendly, though I’m generally hopeless at assessing that.  But I’d happily recommend it as an introduction to barred thematic puzzles.

It’s also a numerical of sorts – probably about as near as you’re going to get for an IQ numerical puzzle, given the IQ editor’s comments the other week.  In the weekend when The Listener has its quarterly numerical, it seems a good idea to have one that shows how words and numbers can coexist.

There’s a Kcit Toughie coming up next Wednesday (23 May).

The APEX 2017 puzzle

As promised, this week sees the annual appearance of the Apex 2017 puzzle, along with the winning clues (on the solution page).  I hope you enjoy it.

A brief note on New Zealand car registrations.  There is a much more scholarly article to be produced, but a basic outline is as follows.  Cars are allowed up to six characters (motorcycles and trailers only five) and if you wish you can personalise them.  So the other half has WHSKR on her motorbike, for reasons you can find elsewhere on the site.  And of course there’s 

And we’re still running nicely ten years on, despite encounters with PS1CHO and NASTY1.  Things cruciverbal make few appearances here, but we were amused to spot the one below in an Upper Hutt carpark

Given that you can’t have the seventh letter, this seems to be as close as you can get – no?

Some slight changes in schedule with a Saturday Independent appearance on 12 May (nothing in my puzzle, so I’d keep an eye on Friday’s if I were you).  Before that an appearance in The Times on 8 May, with the next Times Quick Cryptic sneaking in on 18 May before the next website update.

What I did on my holidays

As always, when I go to another country, I check out their cruciverbal material.  The USA, of course, has more than enough to keep one engrossed, and more than enough books etc. to purchase.  But there are weight limits to luggage…

This time round it proved hard to find newspapers at all, until a shop at Dallas/Fort Worth on our return journey yielded both the Wall Street Journal and the Sunday edition of the New York Times.  The WSJ isn’t so bad, but the NYT really requires gym training to pick up and carry away.  And this time I noticed the odd shape of the pages:

There’s Chambers for comparison – WSJ and NYT have the same long, thin format.  What would you call that – narrowsheet?  Somehow the strange proportions slipped my memory from 2016’s visit.  But the USA still uses foolscap and other Imperial measures, of course, and the paper I used to print off e-copies of the puzzles was strangely dumpy.  Having not found the WSJ on the Saturday, I acquired an e-version of the special weekend puzzle, but here it is in situ:

A bit difficult getting the contrast of the second puzzle, but it’s a Cox and Rathvon “variety cryptic”, and very nice it was to solve on the plane back (and you can find it here).  The SW corner has a standard US puzzle, NE is something called Varsity Math, which is a number puzzle, and NW has a quiz.  Varsity Math and the US puzzle also appear on the WSJ Puzzles site.

The NYT is more protective of its crossword and it’s not available online.  Given the 17 sections and two glossy magazines that come with the Sunday edition, it’s pretty darn hard to find in the dead tree edition as well.  I eventually Googled the answer – one of the glossy magazines, where there are two puzzle pages:

The earlier page is on the left: the top row of puzzles is:

Spelling Bee by Frank Longo: the standard “how many words can you make from these letters using the middle letter every time?” puzzle.  The solution to this was given three pages later, so I guess it’s regular.

Six-Packs by Patrick Berry: unusual puzzle based on phrases like HOURGLASS FIGURE where the last three letters of each word spell a 6-letter word: ASSURE.  You get clues to 12 such phrases and the 6-letter words they generate and have to supply the phrases.  Neat – solution next week.  The solution from last week was to a different type of puzzle entirely, so I guess this varies.

Thermometers by Thinh Van Duc Lai: a variant on puzzles where you fill in squares in a grid.  The constraint is that there is a pattern of (rather twisted) thermometers in the grid and you have to fill them from the bulb upwards. Last week’s solution given this week, so this looks like a regular too.

The Puns and Anagrams (by Mel Taub this time) at the bottom is also a rotating feature – last week’s solution shows an Acrostic filled the space.  

The second picture shows the Will Shortz-edited Sunday NYT puzzle (Pluses and Minuses by Ross Trudeau (how many of that family are there?)).  There’s a pair of Kenken puzzles bottom left.  Both of these have last week’s solution on the facing page.

Solving to follow, as I’m still a little behind on the regular UK puzzles, and a new edition of GAMES arrived the day I got back.

I also expended some lucre on puzzle books:

I now have puzzles from Chicago, Boston, New York and Los Angeles – must look for San Francisco next time!  The Compendium is a Stanley Newman production, commissioning puzzles from setters he admires.  It has had a curious publishing history, having been published as a four-volume series not once, but twice, before morphing into this compendium a couple of years ago.

I have a little backlog of puzzles from the current weekend to solve now, so I’ll stop here.  The 2017 APEX puzzle is slated for appearance next weekend.


I said I’d write something about juvenilia – or, at least, the reappearance of puzzles set long ago – this week when I’m unable to put up a puzzle. I’m a few thousand miles away from my hard drive in Kansas City at the moment.

The idea comes from the publication this month of a puzzle I completed in 1983. I put a completion date on every puzzle, so I can be sure of the date. In fact, it has “final version” appended to that date. It might even be from 1982. Since the puzzle is still “live” I will talk about it in general terms, and say nothing that can’t be gleaned from the preamble.

It’s slightly surprising that I retained a copy of the puzzle and brought it all the way to New Zealand, I suppose, but that’s something else I do. I have boxfiles of copies of my puzzles so the earlier ones also made the trip, and the survival of the file with unpublished puzzles is thus less surprising.

Brian Head once said to me that his filing system was more of a scrum, and however tongue-in-cheek that was, the longer a submitted and accepted puzzle stays unpublished, the stronger the scrum hypothesis becomes. But apparently not.

What to make of the appearance of a puzzle after so long a delay? The immediate response is that whatever qualities it may have had – it was accepted for publication, after all – it has clearly been surpassed by other contemporaneous and later submissions, from myself and others. So probably not from the top of the barrel, but, one would hope, not scraping the bottom either.

And, separate from considerations of quality, what of changes in style? I should note here that, given proofs to check, I refrained as far as possible from making changes other than correcting typos.

The first thing I clocked was that the puzzle used DLM clues that did not begin at the beginning or end at the end of words. They didn’t what? I can’t imagine letting myself do that these days. The 1983 version of me clearly didn’t have such scruples, however, so, apart from the scale of the work needed to amend things, let them lie. There’s a hidden quotation, which is mentioned, but solvers are given no hints as to how to get to the heart of it. Wouldn’t do that these days either, though there have been some puzzles…

A few clues have been tweaked, I hope without changing their essential nature. There was certainly one which had something I’d now consider infelicitous – and that’s still there, but I think its presentation is less confusing. I was aware, however, that I was approaching some sort of line beyond which I would be rewriting the clue, rather than simply editing it. It must be similar to remastering historical music recordings where the pianist plays a wrong note that is also affected by poor recording quality. You should improve the sound but leave the wrong note.

There were a couple of significant typos, and when I took Brian to task about them, he scanned my original to show me that one of them was mine.

I hope I have made the puzzle a better example of what I intended at the time rather than a revision.

Meanwhile I have been busy writing clues on my trip overseas, and the combination of that with my usual approach of having several puzzles on the go simultaneously means that a significant number of puzzles have been completed. Editors should take heed and keep an eye on their inboxes. This also means I will have a fair number of new grids to construct on my return, let alone come up with ideas for any themes. So it goes.

There’s a Toughie coming up next Thursday (26 April) after my return but other puzzles additional to the usual Friday routine will await the arrival of May.