Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Interviews With Ace Solvers: Part I

Introductory Post: Interviews With Ace Solvers

Sridhar Shenoy

interviews-with-crossword-solversSridhar, 60, a retired employee and an entrepreneur, is one of the most committed solvers on The Hindu Crossword community. With his extensive vocabulary and analytical mind, he is usually the one to first crack the more devious clues of a puzzle. Modest about his skill, it was tough to get him to even acknowledge that he could have ‘expert’ tips to share! Really glad that he finally relented.

Q1. When and how did you start solving crosswords?

Sridhar: In the 1980s a very senior, very intelligent, egoistic colleague, after 2 years of working in the organization together wanted to weigh his crossword solving capabilities against mine. I hadn't tried more than a few cursorily before, but was game (young blood loves a challenge!).

After comparing our achievements in the cryptic crosswords in 'Poona Herald' over a few weeks, he acknowledged that I am at least his equal. I gave up thereafter, as there was no challenge and had other things that took priority.

In 1998, I had to close my firm and so, retired involuntarily. To keep the brain cells active, I took up solving crosswords in 'The Hindu', 'Indian Express' and 'Udayavani - Kannada' (Sunday edition). As an extra stimulant, I did not use pencil and eraser and never checked the answers for the clues I could not understand. And some 3 years back kids made me join Orkut and there I found the THC group. Chaturvasi/Ganesh were kind enough to accept my request for membership. Cryptic crossword solving is perhaps going to be the last of my achievements in life.

Q2. Which crosswords do you solve currently, how often and how do you fare with them?

Sridhar: I take up crosswords as soon I get up (anytime between 4 am to 8 am). The day's issue of THC normally reaches me only at about 5:15 am and NIE only after 6:30 am. On most days I complete or nearly complete THC in 20 to 30 minutes. NIEC takes 15 to 20 minutes. Anyway by 8:15 am I have to post my quota as my better half calls me to join her at the breakfast table - we have made a rule that we always try to take all our meals together. On the days I get up early, I try the crosswords from British publications. These take a little longer to solve. Generally I do not look up the solutions posted by others after finishing my quota, as I like to chew on a few clues by myself when I get in to the mood!

Q3: How has the learning curve been for you?

Sridhar: My only aid is my Riverside dictionary. Only a few times, I have taken Internet search and that too only for looking up words my dictionary does not contain, never for solving a clue. The best literature I have gone through ever on crossword solving is what is provided by THC club here! Till then I did not know most of the nomenclature used like ‘telescopic-T’, ‘dual meaning – [2]’, and had to scratch my head to understand some others!

Q4: What is your technique for solving the crossword?

Sridhar: I think there is a general method in my madness! I start going through the clues one by one and when I find a definite answer, I check the crossings and the chain gets built up. If this does not happen, I go further down the clues. It is a great disappointment when the chain begins with the first clue and goes on till complete or nearly complete crossword gets solved in 15 minutes.

I take my wife's help when terms dealing with names of flowers, fruits, nuts, vegetables and girls crop up. But that happens less than once a month, I mean consulting my wife!

When I get the first letter of a solution through crossing and a few more with blanks, I once in a blue moon do consult my dictionary, which is somewhat tedious.

Anagrams are generally the easiest to solve.

Q5: Do you have a favourite crossword, compiler or clue?

Sridhar: Let me answer this the other way around. I dislike the crosswords of the type appearing in The Times of India.

THC, even with multiple setters acknowledged, is the best. It is also gratifying to get the attention and response from the Readers' Editor. For newspapers, crosswords normally are a necessary evil. NIE has nearly killed its crossword by changing the font and the size and hasn't cared to set things right even after being told about it by many. My old eyes are too weak to read the clues and the grid is too small to fill-in without overwriting the numbers in them. But then younger people are taking up crossword solving and the problem is mostly for oldies like me who perhaps are in the minority or silent (unlike yours truly!).

I feel Gridman does add a few superfluous words in the clues. Also, the definitions are either not exact or refer to an uncommon usage of the word/ phrase. His vocabulary is outstanding.

Nita is fond of smaller words and her crosswords are easier.

Kannada crosswords in the regional paper 'Udayavani' is a bold attempt but transgresses all the accepted rules in setting them. I am sure crosswords in Indian languages can be far more challenging then in English, but are more difficult to set.

Q6: Any memorable crossword-related experiences that you’d like to share?

Sridhar: I have a young friend in our club. I was surprised when he said hello to me and sent a long anagram of a birthday greeting as a scrap. I never expected a young man of his temperament getting to be a crossword enthusiast. Surprises never cease and pleasant ones at that!

I have come across scores of lovely clues but remember few offhand and anyway too many to be mentioned. Sometime I will sit back, recollect them and share and enjoy them with all of you.

One outstanding experience is that a fellow club member and I seem to have connecting telepathic transmission lines. It may not be unusual that many solvers get the same few answers first, due to the clues being easy or the clues being precise or both. But the commonality I have been seeing with this member is beyond such explanations! I do enjoy this pleasant experience and hope it continues!

Q7: What are the crossword references you use?

Sridhar: Mostly, (as I mentioned earlier) only my good friend, ‘Webster’s New Riverside University Dictionary’’, which is 18 years old! Believe me, I bought it for a special bargain price Rs.275/-(original price some Rs.1,000 or so) and what a friend I have found for such a small price!

Q8: Please share some tips for beginners to help them improve their solving skills.

Sridhar: Again let me start with one thing we oldies love to do – advise! Crosswords are quite addictive. Youngsters,when they appear dreamy-eyed and oblivious of surroundings, can be expected to have romance on their minds. But if he/she is a crossword addict, it may as well be a mundane unsolved crossword clue! If you are old like me it is the only likely thing in mind.

Anyway, so long as you are not going to allow it to interfere with your time for productive work, go ahead and acquire the addiction!

Solving crosswords requires all of vocabulary, mental agility, imagination, information and patience. Those with a reading habit have a big edge. Being good at spoken English does not help as much. Buy a good dictionary or get used using online dictionaries. Do not use the search engines, though it is tempting to do so. Don't be afraid of high-sounding terminology like anagram, acrostic, charade, etc. If you want to participate in the Hindu Crossword Community, read through the guidelines provided by the crossword club first. And then there are the indicators for anagrams, synonyms etc., which you must try to remember. These are handy when looking up solutions given with annotation by some kindly souls (like me!).

Introductory Post: Interviews With Ace Solvers

Other Interviews:
Part II: Interview With Chaturvasi
Part III: Interview With Vinod Raman
Part IV: Interview With Ganesh TS
Part V: Interview With Peter Biddlecombe
Part VI: Interview With Deepak Gopinath

The next ace solver interview in the series will be published on 10th Feb 2009. If you wish to keep track of further articles on Crossword Unclued, you can subscribe to it in a reader via RSS Feed. You can also subscribe by email and have articles delivered to your inbox.


Anna Graham said...

This is an excellent initiative Shuchi. Looking forward to the series.

Sridhar's interview made for very interesting reading. My thanks to him for all the tips he has shared for beginners like me.

Rahul said...

I am a silent observer of the Hindu Crossword community. Normally I manage 70% of the Hindu crossword and always notice that Mr. Shenoy posts those answers that I have remaining to solve.

It was very nice to read about him.

Shuchi said...

Thank you Anna and Rahul! And thank you Sridhar for such a thoughtful interview.

You bring out an excellent point about spoken English not being so important for crossword solving and those who read having an advantage. In fact I have yet to meet someone good with crosswords who does not also read widely.

I didn't know that the cryptic crossword exists in Kannada! Wish I followed the language to be able to understand its crossword.

I enjoy Gridman's puzzles in The Hindu. Inexact usage - I wouldn't say that. Uncommon/indirect meanings - yes, but when its accurate (although unexpected) it actually adds to the fun of solving doesn't it?