Mastering the puzzle grid We pick up from where we left off last week. The grid in an American crossword ensures that any white square of a word touches that of another word, unlike British grids in which the shaded or black ones block off such an eventuality. In effect, once you’ve filled in an answer word correctly in an American crossword, you already have several letters from adjoining words too.
This system can greatly reduce the overall number of black squares, making the fill challenging for crossword compiler and setter alike. In the venerable New York Times grid, especially on a Saturday (the puzzles grow increasingly difficult towards a weekend), it isn’t uncommon to see long Across words stacked one on top of another with very few black squares in between.
Take for example, a puzzle whose first few lines from top to bottom read ACT FIVE, FAIRBANKS ALASKA, FREE ASSOCIATION, AL GORE, BEANS, LAMS, ESE, and ESPIRIT DE CORPS (the first E of the last word coming under the S of ESE). This is a fiendish bit of crossword construction because the Down words make perfect sense: AFFABLE, CAR LEASE, TIE GAMES, FREONS, I BARS, VASE and ENS, for a start.
What is ESE, you ask? The clue here is funny: “i-relative”. Let me explain. Think of ‘Nepali’ which could also be written as ‘Nepalese’; so, ‘ese’ becomes a relative of ‘i’ as a suffix meaning ‘from or of’ (Nepal, in this case). Twisted, yes – but this is a Saturday puzzle, and the week’s toughest.
The pre-eminent crossword editor and puzzlemaster in the US is Will Shortz, who holds a degree in enigmatology. Shortz has a band of crossword-puzzle constructors, and he edits the clues and words to make the solving experience challenging, playful and educational all at the same time. No other puzzle offers a more satisfying ‘Aha!’ moment once you’ve cracked a clue. Wary puzzle veterans watch out for clue words such as ‘flower’, which may not be a botanical feature, but could simply be another word for a river (one that flows), or ‘number’ which could mean ‘more numb’, and not a numeral.
More on how a humble crossword grid could be transformed into a thing of beauty next week!