Archive for July, 2011

Cross words

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

I have a “habit” (I think addiction is too strong a word, but just barely), and one of my progeny recently asked some questions about it. Like a typical monomaniac, I gave her a longer answer than she was probably looking for. It dawned on me that other readers might be also interested in the topic, so I asked permission to turn our e-mail exchange into a posting. Here are her questions.


Do you consider there to be levels of cheating? Or is everything that doesn’t come out of your own brain cheating? I think that asking someone to verify spelling is better than searching the Internet, and that the Internet is better than checking the answer key. I think there’s a line between checking facts and peeking “behind the curtain,” as is were. I was just curious what you thought.

Oh, and bonus question: is it better to “cheat” or to leave a puzzle unfinished?

The topic, in case you haven’t figure out, is the humble Crossword Puzzle.


So here is how I answered:

Ultimately the goal is to enjoy yourself, which includes a measure of success (e.g., finishing, perhaps within a certain time, maintaining a “streak”, or just figuring out the twist) and a measure of satisfaction (e.g., not “cheating.”)

You have to set your own rules, but I’ll give you what my “rules” are currently. They have changed as I have gotten more experienced, and keep in mind I’ve been doing crosswords since before you were born, giving me a distinct advantage in the more historical questions 🙂

These comments are based on the NYT crossword, which has a pretty strict structure. As you probably know (and you should read the NYT puzzle guidelines if you don’t, a link for which I’ve included below), they increase in difficulty from Monday to Saturday. Sunday is bigger, with a difficulty level comparable to Thursday.

For me, the goal for the Sunday-through-Thursday puzzles is to finish in a certain length of time (it varies with the day, obviously) without looking anything up. I don’t always meet that goal, but I can hit it often enough that it remains a legitimate goal. For the Friday puzzle, I try to make a pass or two without looking anything up, then (or if I’ve been working more than an hour) I’ll look up one or two facts to either verify my guesses or help me get me started in an empty quadrant. On Saturday, I might make one pass, but I pretty quickly start looking things up.

The NYT iPad app keeps track of all kinds of statistics, including one’s finishing rank on each day, and whether you complete a puzzle within the initial 24 hours (during which the answers aren’t officially available.) It also keeps track of streaks, which I do check, but am not a slave to them, since the rest of my life usually suffers if I place too much importance on solving puzzles.

Here are a few more thoughts:

  • When I do look something up on the internet, I usually try to learn something about the topic just to broaden my education.
  • Looking at any of the crossword solution sites feels like cheating to me, but that is just another of my arbitrary rules.
  • The reality is, the Fri and Sat puzzles are usually constructed in a way that looking facts up doesn’t really help that much. The long answers are usually multiple words, often with a pun involved (indicated by a “?” in the hint). So there’s not really anything you can look up.

Keep in mind that my “rules” reflect my experience and (not inconsiderable) longevity. I know plenty of neophytes who can barely finish a Monday puzzle when they start, but who quickly make good progress with just a few weeks of experience.

So I recommend you mostly just enjoy the challenge at whatever level and rules you decide on, and don’t be afraid to break them if you get frustrated.

By the way, on the NYT, after the puzzle has been out for 24 hours (and is not therefore eligible for a streak), you can unlock it, and it will tell you which letters are wrong (but not what the correct letter is unless you ask.) I do that on older Fridays and Saturdays pretty often.

I think, in answer to your final question, the satisfaction of finishing outweighs any negative feelings of looking things up, for the NYT or any puzzle.

Whew! Now that I’ve taken a breath, and re-read your original questions, I have a couple more actual answers.

I do think there are levels of “assistance”, some of which you may choose to define as “cheating.”

I agree with your hierarchy, and your “curtain” differentiation.

And though some of my NYT comments still apply to non-NYT puzzles, they will make more sense if you decide to join the ranks….

But I will say that I have gotten many years of satisfaction from just the Gwinnett Sunday puzzle (by Calvin R. and Jackie Matthews) and the Jonesin’ puzzle by Mike Jones, found in Atlanta’s Creative Loafing weekly.

Lastly. You forgot to mention whether you use a pen 😉


Here’s a fun link to The New York Times Crossword Puzzle From Hell, a humorous take on the NYT puzzle by anthropologist and generally amusing writer Karl Petruso.

And here’s a link to a useful article if you want to take your puzzle game up to the next level. How to Solve the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. Will Shortz answers my progeny’s question in the last paragraph, and he mostly agrees with me. Lucky for him.