Let’s return briefly to the first line of last week’s Vocab, which stated that a cruciverbalist (a crossword enthusiast) plays alone. That’s true for the most part, but since 1977 The New York Times has held an annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament – initially in Stamford, Connecticut and more recently in Brooklyn, New York.
So, how does that work? Of course, it remains an individual affair with contestants sitting down to solve puzzle after puzzle that increase in levels of complexity, eliminating all but the hardiest contender towards the end. For a spectacular end, the finalists solve the last puzzle on a gigantic board in view of an enthralled audience (they wear noise-cancelling headphones to keep out distractions and prompts).
The New York Times puzzles editor Will Shortz grades the puzzles from easy to super-hard through the week; Mondays’ are the easiest, Thursdays’ usually feature something gimmicky, Saturdays’ are torturous, and Sundays’ offer a larger grid. Since Shortz uses faithful ‘constructors’, regular solvers are conditioned to try to crack the puzzles.
An example? One Thursday I solved several clues to obtain the answers GENEVA, CREVASSE, ELEVATOR, and EVASIVE. Yet, to fill them in, I was two squares short each time (I had to fit GENEVA into four squares or look for another answer). A look at the key clue flashed the ‘aha!’ bulb: “Stage name of American pop singer who sang the original Loco-Motion that forms the theme of today’s puzzle.” That would be Little Eva, and that clinched it – each themed answer was a rebus! You had to squeeze in the letter sequence ‘EVA’ into a single square, which meant having to write it in really small letters, so, little Eva – voilà! And this letter trio appeared at intersections to serve an Across and a Down word, underscoring the constructor’s genius.
Similarly, another rebus-based puzzle required the solver to enter AU into a single square (for answers such as LAUNDRY or DINOSAUR). The key clue read: “1972 Neil Young song that forms the theme of today’s puzzle.” The song was Heart of Gold, and the penny dropped – if a word contained ‘AU’, it had a heart of gold, because Au is the chemical symbol for gold. But that wasn’t all – once filled in, all the blocks containing ‘AU’ formed a heart shape on the grid!