Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Top Ten Clues 2015

top-ten-crossword-cluesA selection of my favourite clues from the crosswords I attempted in 2015. Enjoy solving! Wish you a very happy new year 2016.

Times 26295: PIN number? (4,3) D___ __G

Guardian 26647 (Arachne): Expressing a slight scepticism about old ways of seeing things? (9) G________

Guardian 26632 (Screw): Lead, perhaps, from last 14 letters? (5) __T__

Times 26208: Venturesome sort reaches top of this? (5,7) M____ _______

Times 26096: Fast Spanish fleet runs away — British ships to port and starboard? (7) R______

FT 14998 (Goliath): One might like red mobile phone to be dropped in uncovered toilet (9) O________

Sunday Times 4632 (Dean Mayer): Threw mud? Mud had to be thrown (10) B_________

Guardian 26545 (Nutmeg): Intricate source of visual reception? (5,5) O____ _____

Guardian 26677 (Vlad): To be the boss's squeeze was sheer torture (4,3,8) ____ ___ T_______

FT 15037 (Loroso): Clay, china-like pots (3)

Which clues did you like the most?

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Monday, December 28, 2015

A Conversation With Ramki Krishnan, IXL 2015 Winner

Ramki Krishnan won at the Indian Crossword League for the second consecutive year. Hear from him his thoughts on the IXL 2015 finals.

[To know more about the champion solver, see his Q&A and video message at this link: Ramki Krishnan]

Q. What went on in your mind while the IXL finals were on?

Ramki: I felt that the finals were closely fought in both the years. But the toughness quotient of the clues was definitely higher in 2015 (both written prelims and on-stage). Narayan Mandyam was very impressive in the onstage rounds and it was only the final buzzer question that made the difference between 1st and 2nd places.

Before the finals, I was betting on Mohsin for winning the final, having seen his mind-blowing show in the online rounds. But I have to say that any of the six people on the podium that day could have won - it was finally a matter of getting the answers on that particular day and time.

How do I feel a day later? Happy and drained :-) Upon reflection I find that I have to thank the contest rules / format for my success too - the organizer's decision to allow weekly toppers into the finals in 2014 made my entry possible, and in 2015 it was the addition of the buzzer round that helped :-)

On a purely personal note, I keep thinking about my father, my guru who taught me crosswords, who passed away earlier this year. I would dedicate this win to him.

Q. Give us some insight into how you solved the prelim grids. You were one of the only two finalists who got all the answers right.

Ramki: As most of the finalists felt - while both the grids were good, Prelim-1 was far more difficult than Prelim-2. I started on the more difficult one first and felt quite demoralized after around 20 minutes, when I had hardly got 4-5 (missed even the straight anagrams like INSENSATE!) I switched to the other grid and thankfully could complete it in a few minutes, after which I re-attempted #1 to make better progress. Though I could finish it, a few of the words (SAMISEN, AVERS meaning Scottish horse, ELEMI, etc) were totally new to me and I guessed them only through crossing letters and wordplay. DOMINEE was my last one in - a googly since "domineer" was already in the clue - I kept thinking "it can't be so" since I did not know the meaning (South African minister) but finally ran out of ideas and put it in (thankfully correct).

In Prelim-1, I liked LENSES and SCENE the most for their storytelling surfaces. In Prelim-2, 15d [Ordinary setter's one possessed by 2 madly (8)] was interesting. You had to solve 2d to get CREDO and anagram it ("madly" being the anagrind) to get MEDIOCRE for 15d. Indirect anagram? Not really IMO, just a nice twist to the clue. I enjoyed several clues in this puzzle - such as EXTRA, GARBAGE (to name two) - for the very smooth surfaces.

[Congratulations, Ramki! A very well-deserved win. – Shuchi]

Ramki Krishnan - IXL 2014 2015 Champion
Ramki with his two IXL championship trophies for 2014 and 2015. Here’s to many more!

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Sunday, December 27, 2015

At the Indian Crossword League 2015 Finals

A grander venue, many first-time finalists, a bigger audience, a new "buzzer" round in the on-stage finals – IXL 2015 finals took things up another notch this year.

IXL 2015 Finalists Wordle

Many of the top rankers could not attend the finals this time – this led to an opportunity for others on the leaderboard to participate in the event.

Shashwat, Anirudha
The youngest of the gang – Shashwat Sinai Salgaocar and Anirudha Sundaresan

Mohan Chunkath, Rishikesh, Subba Raman
Mohan Chunkath (aka THC setter Mover; IXL finalist), C G Rishikesh (aka THC setter Gridman) and Subba Raman (IXL online participant) chatting before the game

Before IXL 2015 Finals
(L to R) Shashwat Sinai Salgaocar, C G Bhargav, S. Venkatesh, Vinayak Rao Ekbote, C G Rishikesh, Deepak Gopinath

Prelim Round

The prelim round had two 15x15 crosswords to be solved in 60 minutes. The top six from this round would enter the on-stage finals. Ranks would be ordered by accuracy of answers followed by speed.

Most solvers fared well with Prelim-II; Prelim-I proved to be their nemesis. 10d was left unsolved/wrongly answered by nearly all finalists - not hard to see why:

10d: Moistened gently to remain within an act (7) BEDEWED

The prelim solutions were submitted in this order: (1) Venkatraghavan S. (2) Ramki Krishnan (3) Sanjay Vinoo (4) everyone else when the timer stopped.

Ramki Krishnan and Sanjay Vinoo had all-correct entries; the others in the top six cracked 60 or more out of 64 clues. The prelim ranks were:

(1) Ramki Krishnan
(2) Sanjay Vinoo
(3) Venkatraghavan S.
(4) S. Venkatesh
(5/6) Mohsin Ahmad & Narayan Mandyam [tie]

Close contenders: Mohan Chunkath, Prabhanjan M, Lahar Appaiah.

On-Stage Round: Grid Solving

The shortlist of six finalists had to solve two crosswords on screen, one clue at a time, in infinite bounce format. A direct answer earned the solver 15 points, a passed answer 10 points. The Across clues were displayed in sequence and had to be cold-solved. The Down clues had to be solved similarly but with all the checkers in place.

IXL 2015 Onstage Finals
(L to R) Sanjay Vinoo, Venkatesh S, Mohsin Ahmed, Narayan Mandyam, Ramki Krishnan, Venkatraghavan S.

As it happens in this format, the Down clues were sometimes sitters with the Across clue answers filled in already. For example, in the grid below, 2d is obviously IMPOUNDS – this was answered even before the clue came up on the screen.

IXL 2015 Final Onstage 2 Round - Crossword Grid

On-stage grid-solving showed Narayan Mandyam in top form. The style with which he cracked some of the clues (MILIEU comes to mind) was the stuff a more rambunctious audience would have whistled and cheered for.

At the end of grid solving, Narayan had a 20-point lead over Ramki.

IXL 2015 Scores

On-Stage Round: Final Burst

A new round was introduced this year. In this round, one clue at a time would be displayed on screen; any of the six finalists could attempt it. The solver who "pressed the buzzer" first – i.e. called out his name* first – would be offered the chance to answer. The right answer would get the solver 20 points, a wrong answer would take away 10 points.

[*Anchor Ochintya considerately suggested that S Venkatesh could refer to himself as "Doctor"]

"Chief Arbiter" Colonel Gopinath was called forward to decide cases of dispute over who pressed the buzzer first.

IXL 2015 Final Burst

No dispute took place though.

There were six clues to be solved in all.

Ramki got the first – a charade for PORT BLAIR.

Mohsin answered an anagram clue - SHINWEAR was his answer for a definition of garment, which sounded plausible but turned out incorrect. The right answer was SHERWANI.

Venkatraghavan beat Narayan to the buzzer for SHOWSTOPPER. This was the only clue of the Final Burst round that had two takers.

An inadvertent error happened with one of the clues in this round – the answer slide got displayed before the participants could take a shot at it. The clue was abandoned, which cut down the count of the Final Burst clues to five.

When the final clue of the contest came up on screen, Narayan and Ramki both had 115 points. The last clue tipped the scales – a confident COMPLIMENTARY from Ramki declared him the IXL winner once again.

After The Contest

Several interesting points were raised by the organizers in the speeches towards the end. I will briefly touch upon what was said, what I think about what was said - and then move on to non-contentious matters.

There was advice not to be "dogmatic" about crossword rules. Specific instances were cited, such as objections to obtrusive connectors and the anagrind "tumblewash" in one of the prelim clues. The setter need not always look for the most deceptive synonym for a definition, it was said: if some deviations from rules made crosswords more accessible to a larger audience, participants should be fine with them. 

In making clues easy with less deceptive definitions, I appreciate the IXL's point of view. I differ with the rest. Obtrusive connectors and other such deviations as seen in IXL make the clues easy for the setter to write, not for the solver to solve. If the solver must ignore some words arbitrarily from a clue in order to justify its answer, then those words do not improve the clue's solvability or entertainment value.

With the argument that indicators need not come out of a fixed list, there should be room for creativity – I strongly agree. But the objection to indicators like "tumblewash" is not because they are new, it is because they do not clearly indicate rearrangement of letters/words (why wash?). Also, the concern is not only about fitness of indicator meaning but also indicator grammar - to take one example:

Give a name to foundation beset with pitfalls (7) BAPTISE

Not objecting the join between "pit" and "falls", but to the misaligned tense of "falls": BASE needs to be beset with "falling" or "fallen" PIT.

IXL is positioned as a tournament for the best crossword minds of the country. It gets wide media coverage, it has crossword enthusiasts participating from the world over. Should it not aspire to higher setting standards? Higher setting standards do not automatically mean more difficult crosswords for solvers (though they probably mean more work for the setter). We do not have to look far for evidence that easy, entertaining crosswords can also follow standard conventions – we can see such crosswords set by the top two on the IXL 2015 Leaderboard!

More Photos…

After the speeches, the results were announced, prizes and mementos were distributed, group pics were clicked – and then we headed off for a late but delicious lunch.

IXL 2015 Finalists All
IXL 2015 Finalists and Organizers

Colonel Gopinath, Ramki Krishnan
All IXL winners till date ;-) Colonel Gopinath (2013), Ramki Krishnan (2014, 2015)

Ajeesh IXL 2015
One happy star performer with his Certificate of Honour

After lunch, a group of us sat around for a leisurely conversation that went on for a couple of hours. The restaurant staff cranked up the AC, raised the volume of music to deafening levels (in an effort to make us leave, or so we morbidly surmised) but we did not let such hurdles mar our enjoyment.

IXL 2015 After Lunch
Staying put (L to R): Ramki, Anish, Prithwiraj, Mohan, Ajeesh, Shashwat, Mohsin, me.

In Closing

My thoughts return to that clue in the Final Burst round which had to be discarded due to a freak error. That had forced an unplanned change into the game, nullifying the potential effect of +20/-10 points. What if that clue had got played? What if Narayan had solved it? This might easily have happened – and IXL 2015 would have ended with a different winner.

If you believe in the power of planetary influences over life, then the Final Burst incident will perhaps validate your belief. The answer to the fateful clue was HOROSCOPE.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Song: Crossword Puzzle (Starting Here, Starting Now)

A crossword solver tells us in song why the words in the Sunday Times puzzle elude her today. The song is "Crossword Puzzle" from the 1977 off-Broadway musical revue Starting Here, Starting Now.

Watch a rendition by Jennie McGuinness:

[RSS/email subscribers – please visit the blog to watch the video]

In true cryptic tradition, this song isn't what it seems at the start – the simple act of filling words into the grid slowly and fitfully reveals a tale of melancholy and anger. The lyrics are also extremely clever in playing upon word meanings when the solver's musings segue into the clues.

But of course. The theatre director/lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. of Starting Here, Starting Now is also a cryptic crossword setter - he has been creating puzzles for Harper's Magazine since 1976 and for New York magazine before that. The Nation has an interesting interview with him, in which he talks of commonalities between cryptic crossword setting and lyric writing.

I think there is a connection between cryptic puzzle and lyrics. Lyric writing involves the technical manipulation of language. You have to say what you want in exactly the right syllables and often with the accents or emphasis predetermined. Lyricists therefore become acutely aware of the intricacies of words, their multiple meanings, their diversity of definitions, pronunciations, spelling.

"Crossword Puzzle" song lyrics:

I am sitting here doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, somehow the words won't come.
I am staring at squares, but my eyes never focus and my mind's feeling strangely numb.

What's a five letter word's an example...2 Down: "A Peruvian poison dart."
Why, when Hecky and me used to breeze through the puzzle, on Sundays, the answer would leap in my harte....[i]
-beest. That's a GNU. [ii]
G N U. boo-boopy doo.

Where is Hecky now? Ha! He ran off with some floozy on a boat bound for warmer climes.
And he left me here doing the crossword puzzle in the Sunday ...[iii]

All the times we had fun here, when more often than not.
He'd say, "Hon, what's a pustule?" And I'd say "It's a BLOT."
He'd say, "Af-ghan-i nomad". And I'd say, "It's a KURD."
I'd let him hold the pencil, he could write in the word.

And when he was having trouble spelling TRYST... T R Y S T,
I showed him, how I showed him...23 Across: "Lover (archaic)"...AMORIST!
A M O R I S T Blank!"

I am sitting here doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, somehow the words won't come.
Can you figure it, me with my splendid vocabulary, maybe I should play dumb

What's a four letter word meaning "Why should it happen to us"? There was never a moment's doubt
All at once Hecky's jumping and screaming and yelling...I tell you the four letter words that came out!
Prefix! That means pro
P R O, poly ole dough

Starts you feeling as if having brains or intelligence was one of the world's worst crimes,
And the sentence is doing the crossword puzzle in the Sunday ...[iv]
All the times Hecky'd tell me , "You shut up, this I'll get -
seven blanks meaning airhole, it's FISTULA I bet"
I'd say, "No." He'd say, "Don't tell me. It's TUBULUS...
I'd say, "Hecky, its CHIMNEY."
Hecky'd sit down and cry.

Perhaps that's why I'm left here on the shelf
Perhaps he wanted to get the long ones by himself.
38 Across: "She carries a torch"
Statue of Liberty S T A T U E O F L I B E R T Y
Y, Y , why, why, why, why, why, why?

I am sitting here doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, and I know why the words won't come.
'Cause my mind is miles off on a boat to Bermuda with an ignorant lousy crumb
What's a five letter word meaning "Phi Beta Kappa". That's me. I'm as bright as a girl can be. 
So bright someone else who could not tell a fig from a frigate is off with my Hecky at sea… [v]
-bird." That's an AUK.
A U K. Auk!

If I weren't so dumb, I'd be spending this Sunday in a church hearing wedding chimes,
And I'd never remember there was a puzzle in the Sunday Times.

[i] 'harte' is a homophone of 'heart' which matches the sense of the sentence
[ii] However, hartebeest is not a gnu; wildebeest is ...
[iii] 'Times' is the unspoken word, rhyming with 'climes'; 'time' is used in the next line
[iv] 'Times' is the unspoken word, rhyming with 'crimes'; 'time' is used in the next line
[v] 'sea' continues in the next line in a different context

Many versions of the "Crossword Puzzle" song are available online, others I liked: by Loni Ackerman (from the original cast of Starting Here, Starting Now), by Danielle McCully.

Thanks to Kishore for discovering this song, typing out the lyrics and telling me about it.

PS: What's with all the cultural messaging against shared solving with your significant other? In the Crossword Puzzle song, Hecky abandons this solver. In the story Old Love (A Quiver Full of Arrows), the husband commits suicide due to a crossword clue!

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Crossworld by Marc Romano

Crossworld by Marc RomanoI might not have read Marc Romano's Crossworld had I not received it as a gift. The subtitle tells us that the book is about "one man's journey into America's crossword obsession". An unfamiliar author writing about the kind of crosswords I don't solve would not interest me terribly – or so I thought.

The idiom "don't judge a book by its cover" just got a literal endorsement: I opened this book's cover and I found in it much to enjoy.

Crossworld begins with the line:

This is a book about my yearlong journey into the world of competitive crossword solving – although saying that is a little like saying "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is a song about a girl or The Scream is a painting of a guy standing on a bridge.

This style of drawing extra-crossword parallels continues throughout the narrative: if that's your thing, you will find Crossworld an entertaining ride.

As a first-person account of the 2004 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT), the book captures the feel of the tournament well and has many elements a competitive solver of other puzzles too will identify with. The rules of the Indian Crossword League or UK's Times Crossword Championship may vary, but the factors that make or break one's performance in these contests are universal: the trade-off between time and accuracy, the difference between solving online vs solving on paper / solving alone vs solving alongside others, the enormous cost of tiny errors. Most of all the shared thrill of being surrounded by crossword lovers at the championship venue.

The goings-on at 2004 ACPT are narrated with expansive detail, but there were times when I wished for a little less detail. I would not have missed them if the passages on point totals during the puzzle rounds ["Brendan finished the sixth puzzle correctly in nineteen minutes to earn 1,825 points; I finished in twenty-one, with one mistake, to earn 1,580. At 7,895 to 7,665, he was safely and irretrievably ahead of me overall." (p129)] or what the author ate after the tournament ["I ate some walnuts" (p164)] had been dropped, and the fascinating sub-chapter on the crossword mystery novel had been extended. This portion describes rare and out-of-print crossword whodunuts written a few decades ago and made me add a few to my book wishlist, notably John Garland's Crime of the Crossword (1940), for which Crossworld includes a complimentary précis by Will Shortz.

As in the film Wordplay, Will Shortz is a towering presence in Marc Romano's story. Crossworld presents him with great warmth and admiration, quoting and referencing him every few pages: his opinion on other setters' work, his influence that prompted Marc Romano to modify his coinage "cryptic creep" (the growing influx of cryptic wordplay in American crosswords) to "cryptic drift". A full chapter The Puzzlemaster in his Labyrinth gives us a tour of Will Shortz's library containing thousands of puzzle books and memorabilia.

One thing that pulls the book down is its overall structure. There are many tangential notes and back-references, mostly fun reading on their own, but they disrupt the flow of the outer story. The other is the narrator's focus on himself when turning the spotlight on others around would have made the book more appealing. 

Crossworld is perhaps best read as a view to the puzzling landscape through the author's prism - what he sees might not always coincide with what we would see independently. For one, things are seldom "good" or "bad" in Marc Romano's world, they are "best ever" or "worst ever".

You'd think that a crossword competition would be a quiet and understated sort of affair, given that it features the largest collection of loners this side of the last Kafka family reunion, ...

This is like hearing a friend given to dramatized opinions – I would listen attentively, but I would not take everything he says at face value. I felt this strongest when he touched upon cryptic crosswords. If we consider quick crosswords and cryptics as two camps, Marc Romano is clearly in the former and I believe gets carried away when contrasting the two. Sample these:

…American-style puzzles require that every letter appearing in them has to be conected to at least two others, while British-style puzzles allow – in fact they prefer – there to be as many unchecked letters as possible.

Since cryptics are easier to construct than American puzzles, you don't need legions of freelance contributors, overseen by one all-powerful editor, to make sure one appears in your newspaper every day of the year. All you need is one guy reliably cranking them out for you (who might be the editor himself), …

The statement about cryptic checking is not true, which puzzles are easier to construct and how many contributors you need for them (one vs legions!) is not so simplistic to determine. He goes on to make a case that Americans struggle with cryptics because of less checking and "unfamiliarity with the minutiae of British life and society". I am astonished to read such reasoning from someone who "can usually complete the Times of London cryptic" (p47).

But there were other conclusions I agreed with totally. When talking of puzzles in different languages, Marc Romano says the ability to solve puzzles in a language is no measure of proficiency in that language. That made me think about the many solvers who complete Hindi crosswords based on cryptic technique and knowledge of the script alone, without having native fluency in Hindi. 

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