Friday - - Mind Games -

If a cru­civer­bal­ist plays alone, what does he play? It’s not a fair ques­tion, be­cause ‘solve’ is a more ap­pro­pri­ate word, and yes – I’m sure you’ve worked out the ety­mol­ogy by now – a cru­civer­bal­ist is a solver of crossword puzzles.

Just as the English lan­guage evolved separately into Bri­tish and Amer­i­can forms over cen­turies, so also did their crossword puzzles. In fact, the first puz­zle was con­structed by Bri­tish-born Arthur Wynne for the New York World, es­tab­lish­ing an ap­pro­pri­ate An­glo-Amer­i­can con­nec­tion for the puz­zle right at the be­gin­ning. Yet, call­ing to mind Mr Churchill’s ob­ser­va­tion that th­ese are two coun­tries sep­a­rated by a com­mon lan­guage, while both puzzles have sym­met­ri­cal grids, and no two-let­ter words are al­lowed, there are sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences.

In the Bri­tish-style grid there are a lot of black squares. Roughly half of the let­ters in each word are crossed by an­other word (what ex­perts call “checked”). This is known as an al­ter­nate-let­ter grid – mostly ev­ery other let­ter in a word is checked.

In the Amer­i­can-style grid there are fewer black squares, and ev­ery let­ter in ev­ery word is crossed by an­other. The grid is so fully checked that it’s the­o­ret­i­cally pos­si­ble to solve a whole Amer­i­can crossword by only do­ing the Down clues.

Th­ese two dif­fer­ent grid de­signs lead to ma­jor dif­fer­ences in how th­ese two va­ri­eties of cross­words are cre­ated and solved.

The more open struc­ture of the Bri­tish-style cross­words means that it’s much eas­ier for the crossword set­ter to use a wide range of words in the grid, and they are gen­er­ally a bit harder for the solver, as he gets fewer clues – in other words, if you can’t get a word, you can’t get its in­ter­sect­ing let­ters, and con­se­quently can’t solve a word that crosses it.

The solid grid de­sign of the Amer­i­can-style cross­words makes life much harder for the crossword set­ter – hav­ing ev­ery sin­gle let­ter in ev­ery sin­gle word cross­ing an­other word is re­ally re­stric­tive. Set­ters of­ten have to re­sort to abbreviations, names, un­usual and ar­chaic vo­cab­u­lary, for­eign words, brand names, and other tricks to fill in the grid. Solv­ing th­ese puzzles can be a bit eas­ier than the Bri­tish-style ones, as if you’re stuck on one word, you can look for the words that cross it for fur­ther hints. More next week!

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