Friday - - Leisure -

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!

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