Friday, October 31, 2014

Spooner Camouflage

Spooner TwistedFor a crossword setter, spoonerisms are extremely hard to hide – the telltale indicator "Spooner" gives the game away. A direct reference to Reverend Spooner, to whom this wordplay device owes its name, cannot be avoided in this clue type.

And so the wily setter uses a different ruse to confuse the solver. Since the word "Spooner" in a clue primes the solver to think of the spoonerism clue type,  the setter turns that expectation on its head by placing the word in clues that do not contain spoonerisms.

Enjoy a few examples of "Spooner" used in deceptive ways.

Times 24992: Spooner's helping in hospital circles, to make us well (3,6) ___ __R___

Times 24894: Spooner’s confused about one term for an insidious killer (8) _O______

Guardian 25962 (Boatman): Spooner's starting to say joints are a problem with cold (6) _N____

A puzzle by Radler on Alberich's site, in which Across clues employ the word "Spooner" in a variety of devices.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How to Excel at IXL

indian-crossword-league-logo If you are (or aspire to be) a participant in the Indian Crossword League (IXL), the annual crossword-solving contest in India, then this post will give you strategies to improve your rank/score in the online rounds leading to the finals. You have to be good at cracking cryptic clues of course, but you can do a bit more to maximize your chances of acing the competition.

All the best!

1 Respect the clock

Rank in the online rounds of IXL depends on the absolute time of submission, NOT the elapsed time of your solving session. All-correct entries are ranked first, then submissions with 1 error, then those with 2 errors. Since the IXL crosswords happen to be generally easy, many others will be finishing with no errors, clocking similar solving times as yours - even a few seconds here or there can affect your rank.

Do you tend to complete the IXL crossword but don't time it closely? Then you can easily improve your rank by tightening your approach. Don't waste a moment once the contest puzzle is made available. Be logged in to the IXL site, poised to start solving as soon as the grid is up. Don't let go till you have cracked the last clue and submitted the puzzle.

While solving, keep distractions at bay. Enlist the help of family/housemates to attend to pressing non-IXL matters. Turn the phone silent. If there is any chance that your internet connection can get disrupted, have a backup within easy reach.

Do what it takes for you to start solving at the earliest, and finish without interruptions.

2 Understand the IXL house style

Reconnoitre before you battle! Browse through the past IXL puzzles if you haven't attempted them before – those of 2014 rounds are available here for registered members. A short summary/guide from my observations:

  • The puzzles are easy – solvers who can finish The Hindu crossword should be able to glide through an IXL crossword faster.

  • Your knowledge about India – its geography, famous people, popular culture – has to be sound. Rita Faria, NIT, Irula, Dalma, Narasimha, Una are some of the references that have shown up in the IXL puzzles. 

  • If your solving experience has been with Ximenean crosswords, you'll have to cast aside a few expectations while you solve for the IXL. You can find here instances of false lowercasing, non-standard connectors and anagrinds, elisions of the "indeed" sort. Whether these devices are right or not is a topic for another discussion, but if your aim is to score well with an IXL puzzle, it's better to be open to the possibility of such "transgressions" than to find yourself unable to solve a clue.

  • Don't set so much store by house style that a sudden change upsets your balance. In the 2013 IXL finals, none of the top 10 finalists could complete the crossword in 30 minutes. With hindsight, I think part of the reason was that the online rounds had conditioned us to simpler puzzles – a moderately difficult one in a different style caught us off guard.

3 Review your answers before you submit

The most gut-wrenching – and also the most prevalent - way to lose points in the IXL is through typos. Guess why I lost rank in 2013: R5, why Kishore M is not near the top in 2014: R6? Yes – typos.

In a timed contest, it is natural to want to hit "Submit" the instant one has finished. Resist that urge. A single minute spent on post-solving review might perhaps cause rank drop, but a single error can throw you right off the leaderboard.

4 Practice solving on the computer

Many experts are used to solving with pen/pencil and paper. They whiz through the crossword when they have it in print form, but are out of their comfort zone when it comes to interactive online crosswords.

If the lines above describe you, and are you keen on the IXL, you have to roll up your sleeves now and master the basic skill of solving on your computer. Don't let the process of finding where the letters on the keyboard are, and how to navigate through the grid, eat into your precious solving time.

Practice with the interactive solving option of other free crosswords online, such as the Hindu Business Line crossword or the Guardian cryptic.

A few other online solving tips specifically for the IXL:

  • Unlike other online solving platforms, in the IXL grid, the cursor does not move automatically to the next cell after a cell is filled. Using the arrow keys to move to the next cell can be faster than using mouse clicks.

  • Use the "Save" button judiciously. Every save-refresh cycle can take up to a few seconds: if you overuse it, you delay your submission time. If you underuse it, you risk losing much of your work if something untoward (such as a power-cut that disconnects your internet) happens. I use the "Save" button about 4-5 times during my solving session.

  • Check that the IXL grid works on more than one browser, so that you can switch to another browser in case of a technical glitch. It has happened with me in one of the IXL rounds that keystrokes did not work on Firefox, and I had to switch to Chrome to enter my solution.

5 Aim for overall score, not for top rank

The scores of each round are totalled for the overall leaderboard. Observe the stats of 2013 and also the in-progress leaderboard of 2014 - you'll find that the top rankers did not have the best ranks in every round, but they had good scores throughout the contest.

For example, the current leader Mohsin's ranks in 2014 in the first six rounds: 2, 1, 1, 5, 3, 7. So he was #1 on the leaderboard "only" 25% of the time. Now check his overall score after six rounds: 587, which is so solid that even if he had skipped an online round in which he ranked #1, he'd still have been among the top 10.

2013 champion Deepak Gopinath was not #1 in any online round last year (a fact he modestly reminds us of in his video message).

In the IXL, a solver who completes every round correctly in 30 minutes has a higher chance of reaching the finals than a solver who submits in 15 minutes, but with an error sometimes.

6 Deal with "iffy" clues cleverly

Once in a while in the IXL, you will be faced with this situation: a last unsolved clue seems to be plain wrong. Since a solving error in the contest has huge costs, you don't want to submit with a mistake in your entry. So you stare at the clue interminably, unsure whether the crossword has a mistake or your answers do. I guess all seasoned IXL players would have experienced this sometime or the other – hands up for LTI of Round 4! 

There is no easy way out of this dilemma, and the best solvers can trip up in this situation despite all caution. Still, here's a checklist to minimize the chance of error at your end.

  • Scrutinize all the intersecting answers, against the definition as well as wordplay. Is it possible that a checking letter you've entered needs revision? If in doubt, try answering the clue without that intersecting answer.

  • If the crossings are fine, ignore the enumeration given for the unsolved clue – take only the total length into account, assume that the answer might break up into smaller words differently. It can so happen that the setter missed changing the default single-number length provided by the crossword compiling software to multi-word length - an error that's been found in newspaper crosswords too.

    This was the problem with the clue for LTI – the length had been specified as (3) at first, and changed to (1,1,1) later. [which reminds me of a post by the Guardian crossword editor Hugh Stephenson: Has the time come to change the BBC from (1,1,1) to (3)?]

  • Abide by the Holmesian dictum: "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth"

    For example, no answer fits this clue from 2014:R1 - "Channel shades (7) C_L_U_S", but COLOURS seems like the least improbable choice. It defines "shades", and one can safely deduce that the setter, while crafting a double-definition, missed the fact that the TV channel's name is spelled Colors.

    We can argue that the IXL puzzles should not have errors at all. Such a lapse is not fair to the solver - but we don't live in an ideal world, and errors can creep in despite the setter's best efforts.

  • Don't submit with the intractable clue unanswered - put in the most likely answer you can think of. The penalty for a blank cell is the same as that for a wrongly entered cell.

7 "Don't quit before you quit"

Sheryl Sandberg's words from Lean In apply well to solvers who make small mistakes in the early rounds, and give up on participating further while the contest is still in progress. A low overall rank/score midway through the contest might persuade you to think that you've lost your position irredeemably, but the fact is: you are not the only one who can make those mistakes. Others in the top 10 of the in-progress leaderboard can have out-of-form days, make typos, skip rounds due to other commitments – just like you. See the contest through till the end, keep giving it your best shot, and you never know - the tables can turn.

8 Connect with the community

Interact with other crossword solvers who are participating in the IXL, learn from their experiences. Two places to find fellow participants are The Hindu Crossword Corner blog (which is run by the IXL 2013 Champion) and the FB group IXL'14 Players.

Above all else, enjoy the contest!

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Really Well Hidden Long Answers

telescopic-clue-type-long-answers Cryptic clues with hidden answers are perhaps the trickiest for the crossword setter to disguise. Since all the letters of the answer have to be given out to the solver, in the sequence expected, the clue can end up being too easy. And so, most often, setters reserve the use of this clue type for short words as they are more convenient to conceal in the clue.

Embedding long answers in a clue is quite a feat – the fodder tends to cut across multiple words but it has to be inconspicuous, the clue surface has to be meaningful, the hidden word indicator has to be fair without letting out instantly that the solution is stashed inside the clue.

Sharing some exceptional clues using the hidden clue type, in which long answers span across multiple words of the fodder.

Times 25538: Academic rose, condemning boxing in an instant (11)

THC 11161 (Buzzer): Burst and tore as one keeping fit (5,2,6)

Times 25900: Henceforth, ATM at terminal — at the centre, indeed  (3,4,6)

Guardian 25260 (Boatman): Railhead activity leads to accident — rain mention­ed in covering letters (11)

Guardian 26158 (Paul): Nevadan died in Montana, dog buried there (6,7)

Tim Moorey's How To Master The Times Crossword quotes this as possibly the longest hidden clue ever:

Times: As seen in jab, reach of pro miserably failing to meet expectations (6,2,7)

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Unlikely Movie Characters as Potential Crossword Setters

Unlikely Moviiew Characters as Potential Crossword Setters There are times when, while watching a movie, we find a character say something that prompts us to think – here's someone with the makings of a cryptic crossword setter. This character need not be in the mould of a glib-tongued Bond; s/he may be a person ordinary within the film's framework who lets out an unexpected flash of lexical wizardry.

Some such characters from movies I've seen.

1. Lata Srivastav, Chupke Chupke (1975) 

Lata Srivastav, potential crossword setter

Why her?
Lata asks Vasudha why the man has given her a ring with the letter 'S' on it, when her initial is 'V'. The exchange between them:

Vasudha: Wo mera naam hai na Vasudha, V-A-S-..., wo S hai.
Lata: Wo S nahin, tu ass hai.
Rough translation:
Vasudha: That's from my name Vasudha, V-A-S-..., that's the S (pronounced 'ass').
Lata: That's not the S, you are the ass.

Wordplay type demonstrated: Homophone

2. Gru, Despicable Me 2 (2013)

Gru, potential crossword setter

Why him?
Gru resists being arm-twisted into an undercover job for the Anti-Villain League (AVL), and takes his leave from the head of the league with these words:

Gru: Good day, Mr. Sheepsbutt.
Silas Ramsbottom (AVL head): Ramsbottom.
Gru: Oh, yeah, like that's any better.

Wordplay type demonstrated: Charade

3. Inspector YP Singh, Raja Natwarlal (2014)

YP Singh, potential crossword setters

Why him?
This policeman's mission in life is seemingly not just to nab Raja, but to craft all possible cryptic clues around the word CON. Not a chance for crossword-style wordplay slips by when he's around.

Example 1:

Heroine (answering her phone): Hello? Kaun?
Policeman: Con! Con hi to karne gaye ho wahan tum log.
Rough translation:
Heroine: Hello? Kaun (Who's that)?
Policeman: Yes, you've gone there for a con.

Wordplay type demonstrated: Bilingual homophone

Example 2:

Heroine: Wo ek chhota-mota contractor hai.
Policeman: Contractor! CONTRACTOR mein se TRACTOR uda de. Kya bacha? Con!
Rough translation:
Heroine: He is a small-time contractor.
Policeman: Contractor! Strike out from CONTRACTOR the word TRACTOR and see what you get. Con!

Wordplay type demonstrated: Deletion

4. Meeta Sen, Anubhav (1971)

Meeta Sen, potential crossword setter

Why her?
In the song Mujhe Jaan Na Kaho Meri Jaan, Meeta Sen asks her husband not to call her jaan (beloved), with this rationale:

Jaan na kaho anjaan mujhe, jaan kahan rahti hai sadaa
Anjaane, kya jaanein, jaan ke jaaye kaun bhala
Rough translation:
Don't call me jaan (beloved), anjaan (ignorant one) - jaan (life) does not last forever
Anjaane (naive people) kya jaanein (do not know any better), nobody departs jaan ke (on purpose)

In true cryptic crossword tradition, when the word jaan appears multiple times in the opening line, the hearer does not know that the one of the jaans refers literally to life. The cryptic reading is revealed only a little later. The meaning of jaan keeps switching fluidly from 'life' to 'beloved' to 'know' and the hearer has to keep up with the shifts to make sense of the song.

Wordplay type demonstrated: Multiple Definitions

Over to you. Can you add to the list?

PS: In case you missed the memo - an Open Magazine feature about cryptic crossword solvers in India: The High of Hidden Words.

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Alphabetic Letter Names in Crosswords

letter-names Every letter of the English alphabet has a "letter name". Vowel names are the same as the letters they represent, consonant names are usually <consonant>EE (e.g. B = BEE, C = CEE) or E<consonant> (e.g. F = EF, M = EM).

Though a letter naming standard exists, its practical usage in the real world is limited to scenarios like saying the alphabet aloud, answering queries of the form "how do you spell PHNOM PENH", or creating rhymes/songs. In the cryptic world, on the other hand, the possibilities of letter name usage are rich.

Clue Examples

Letter names like BEE (B) and GEE (G) are also dictionary words with other independent meanings, and can be used on a clue's surface with interesting results.

Guardian 24893 (Pasquale): Alert old maid, possibly as bee-keeper (9) OBSERVANT
O (old) SERVANT (maid), keeping i.e. containing B (bee)

Letter names can provide wordplay options that the simple letter would not.

Guardian 25704 (Puck): Leading lady's letter to the papers (7) EMPRESS
EM (letter M) PRESS (the papers)

Guardian 26076 (Arachne): Wrongly use double ef in "defiled" (8) BEFOULED

The longer ones can be used for grid fill.

Times Cryptic 4524 (Dean Mayer): Start to write the letter (3) WYE
W[rite] YE (the)

Sometimes, an unusual clue comes along with the letter on the surface and its name in the answer.

Guardian 26240 (Qaos): Writer who claims S, perhaps, equals T? (8) ESSAYIST
ES (letter S) + SAY (perhaps) + IS T

The Letter Name Reference Table

A reference list of names for all the letters of the English alphabet, from the Chambers dictionary

Letter Code Word
A a
B bee
C cee, see
D dee
E e
F ef
G gee
H aitch
I i
J jay
K kay
L el
M em
Letter Code Word
N en
O o
P pee
Q cue
R ar
S es, ess
T tee
U u
V vee
W double-u, double-you
X ex
Y wye
Z zee, zed, izzard

A closely matching list from the OED is on Wikipedia.


1. A wise crossword setter would use letter name substitution sparingly, as this device can easily slip into charade overdose territory.

2. If you've wondered why there isn't consistency in the naming of consonants (why should D = DEE and not ED, or M = EM and not MEE?), the reason can be traced back to Latin letter naming system, in which stop consonants were named <consonant>EE, sonorants and fricatives took the form E<consonant>. This link offers more insights.

Solve These

Guardian 25900 (Philistine): A desire or aspiration (5)
Times 23937: Disney character after rest moved casually (7)
Times Club Monthly 20145: Innocent follower of ex (X) in action? (4-4)

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