Friday, May 28, 2010

Afrit’s Armchair Crosswords

“You need not mean what you say, but you must say what you mean”

Afrit's Armchair Crosswords - A Book for Leisure Moments Afrit's injunction to setters, which beautifully sums up the essence of cryptic clues, first appeared in his 1949 book Armchair Crosswords. This book is rare today and had been out of print for several years. With the efforts of Derek Harrison and Rendezvous Press, its publication was revived in 2009.

I have recently finished reading/solving the puzzles in Afrit's Armchair Crosswords. Sharing with you some background about the book and my impressions of it.

Who is Afrit?

Afrit is the pseudonym of crossword compiler Alistair Ferguson Ritchie (1890-1954), a predecessor of Ximenes. He set puzzles for The Listener (which, the book says, "were extremely difficult, often securing no correct entries") and easier ones for The Sketch. In 1949 he published 40 of these puzzles in the collection called Armchair Crosswords.

Inside the book…

This is a slim 104-page volume, with a preface by Ximenes and a foreword to the new edition by Derek Harrison.

Then follows Afrit's introduction – a landmark essay on the ethics of crossword composition. The bulk of the book is its 40 puzzles, the solutions to which are listed towards the close of the book. At last is an appendix to this edition – a write-up about Afrit, and some rare photographs of him.

The Famous Introduction

Armchair Crosswords is best-known for its introduction, in which Afrit talks about cryptic crossword rules – words, their arrangement and types of clues.

Having read quotes from the introduction here, there and everywhere, I had expected the text to be more expansive. On first look I was rather taken aback to find it only three pages long.

After reading it, I'm surprised no longer. This is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to cryptic crosswords but an expression of their philosophy. Afrit's prose has an epigrammatic quality; sentences like "Words can be divided into two classes – those which are hard work for you, and those which are hard work for the composer" stick long after you've read them.

Afrit was perhaps the first to set down rules for clue fairness. He says:

…[the setter] may attempt to mislead by employing a form of words which can be taken in more than one way, and it is your fault if you take it the wrong way, but it is his fault if you can’t logically take it the right way. 

Afrit's ideas were later expanded by Ximenes in his 1966 book Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword.

The Grids

Afrits-Grid-Portion Most of the grids are 14x14 blocked. One of them has six black squares in a row, symmetrically positioned in the four directions, with the word BEAUTY written across each row. There are five 12x14 grids that use a mix of blocked and barred styles.

One aspect of the grids that is odd by modern grid design standards: at many places, two letters occur side-by-side and they don't form a clued word. This was initially very distracting but I soon learnt to ignore such letters.

The Clues

Afrit's clues are quite unlike what we're used to in modern cryptic puzzles, and can be bewildering at first. Solving gets easier after cracking the first few clues. (Checking is very good, which helps.) The trick is to read the entire clue and identify what it means, rather than mulling over each word in isolation as we might do with modern cryptic clues.

To give you an example:
You won't get fat out of this, though the char-lady does (6) CLEANS

"the char-lady does" is the definition, and you won't get FAT out of this => you will get LEAN.

This clue - and many others in the book - do not meet the Ximenean standard of having wordplay for every letter in the answer, and at the other extreme, many give out large portions of the answer as-is in the clue. Other forms of unXimenean-ness such as indirect anagrams are also to be found.

In an age when we place a high premium on economy of words, Afrit's clues strike you for their unabashed wordiness. Clues are sprinkled with "you see"s and "of course"s, definitions run into several words and a word count of > 15 per clue is not unusual.

Many clues use puns on misspelling, incorrect grammar or speech. I loved such clues.

If Peeping Tom had knowed more, he'd have – well, not got the Pip! (8)
Very insidious drug; you may have heard a bhad report of it (5)

The answers are SEEDLESS and BHANG.

Special mention for Puzzle No. 25 which has clues in couplets (in Afrit's era, kororareka's rhymes would surely have stood a chance as cryptic clues).

One such clue for the word REFUSE:

"I don't do this" just means "I will,"
And "Rubbish", too, would fit the bill (6)

I could not solve the extra clue of "True Lover's Knot" in this puzzle, and don't understand it even after seeing the answer. (The answers are not annotated. For some clues, I wish they were.)

Closing Notes

Cryptic crosswords have come a long way since the days of Afrit. Modern clues are tighter, more sophisticated, yet the discerning eye cannot miss the wit and talent behind the puzzles in this book. Going through Armchair Crosswords was an experience similar to watching a great film or reading an excellent book from a bygone era. The intercuts may be choppy, the language archaic, but that does not dim the brilliance of the work.

"The genius of Afrit merits a wider audience", says Derek Harrison in the book's foreword. I could not agree more. I hope you will pick up this book too and enjoy it as much as I did.

Solve These

Two clues from Afrit's collection. Try solving. Answers tomorrow.

Most trees are after the Fall; certainly Adam and Eve were before the Fall (8)
You may not agree with him, but he will consider your taste. He has the wherewithal to write in water (8)

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cryptic Colossus

Pluto Puzzles: Cryptic Colossus

Reader Chris has created a humongous 37x37 cryptic crossword of his own, titled Cryptic Colossus. It's his first serious attempt at making a cryptic and he'd like feedback - have a go at the crossword and give him some critique.

There are other interesting word and number puzzles on the site too – visit Pluto Puzzles.

Doing Chris's crossword set me wondering: which is the largest cryptic crossword ever made? I don't have a ready answer, I hope one of you can tell. The largest published crossword that I solve occasionally is the Times Jumbo, a 23x23 grid.

I looked around the net for info, and landed on this page which states that it will host the "The World's Largest Cryptic Crossword" in July 2010. The About page says this will be a 37x53 grid with 360 clues. The site has a few teaser clues so far and a condensed image of the 37x53 grid. (What prompted creating a rectangle and not the usual square?)

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

March, Little Woman

little-women-louisa-may-alcottLouisa May Alcott's Little Women is often mentioned by readers/critics in lists of top American literary classics.

Little Women is also a great hit with crossword setters. The words "little woman" in a cryptic clue generally mean one of the four sisters from the novel - Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy. Small in length, with a good combination of letters - those names are a delight to crossword setters.

The icing on the cake is their surname "March", another immensely pun-friendly word.

A few clues that refer to the March sisters:

Times 24514: Little woman coming in to pack, heading west to a holiday island (7) MAJORCA
                     JO (little woman) in CRAM (pack) <- A

Times 24484: Little woman embracing the object of friendship (5) AMITY
                     AMY (little woman) around IT (the object)

Times 23806: March girl round icy track, initially to generate warmth (5) AMITY
                     AMY (March girl) around initial letters of "icy track"

  1. JO and AMY are the livelier, more active sisters in the novel; so they are in crosswords too. "Little woman" is more frequently JO or AMY than MEG or BETH.
  2. Don Manley uses the Little Women reference quite a bit (noticed this in his puzzles of the past two years). If you're solving one of his works, be on the lookout!

Solve These

Times 24259: Little woman’s kept second person happy (6)
Times 24250: Popular little woman arrested following bad report (6)
Times 23863: Marches men to well - it has been moved (6,5)

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Hindustan Times Crossword Solving Groups

hindustan-times-crossword Good news for HT solvers. Since the time of writing Blog for Hindustan Times Crossword, Anyone? three months ago, two solving communities have come up that are tackling the HT crossword daily.

The HT crossword is the syndicated Times UK crossword (originally published a few years back). It is, in my opinion, the best cryptic crossword being published in Indian paper at present.

Crossword enthusiasts in India: If you aren't doing the latest Times UK crosswords, HT is a very good, free alternative. Do solve, and participate in these solving groups.

XWordClub, Hindustan Times Crossword Community

XWordClub (link): A community for collaborative solving, owned by Badri (Lakshmi Narasimhan).

No login is required to view the community. To post, you can use the OpenID of your choice. Topics can be given "tags" for easy search. There are other fancy features like the ability to vote on responses and badges for active contributors. [This forum is based on the Stack Overflow architecture, and as a huge fan of Joel Spolsky (co-founder of Stack Overflow), the architecture is of special interest for me.]

How it works: One person uploads the clue list each morning, after which anyone posts any number of solutions. [More details here]. XWordClub has a small membership at present. The club is re-thinking its current mode of working in order to support a larger membership.

Orkut Hindustan Times Crossword Community

The Times Crossword of old (Orkut) (link): This is a very organized, dedicated community owned by Chaturvasi

An Orkut account is required to view the community, and admin-approved membership to post in it. Each member contributes a fixed quota of answers to complete the crossword. The best part of this community is the camaraderie among its members. They not just solve the crossword but evaluate, discuss why they liked or did not like a clue, share anecdotes.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Neat and Lowers: What's the connection?

cow-neat-lower Question: What is common between the words "neat" and "lowers"?
Answer: In cryptic clues, both words may lead to COWS.

Here they are in action:

Everyman 3286: Flower in neat border (7) COWSLIP 
                        COWS (neat) LIP (border)

NIE 17-Jul-2009: A direction to lower the boat (4) SCOW
                          S (a direction) COW (lower)

Confused? This is confusing the first time you see it. There is a simple explanation – read on to know more, and keep this handy in your crossword jargon memory. You'll meet the "neat = lowers = cows" equation time and again in cryptic clues.

Cattle Connection Demystified

Crossword setters love to use secondary meanings of common words to lead the solver astray. "Low" and "neat" are two such words with multiple meanings.

The dictionary lists:

low –verb (used without object)
to utter the deep, low sound characteristic of cattle; moo.

To "low", setters apply their other favourite device: suffixing –ER to the verb to create a noun with a twist. If low = moo, then lower = one that moos, i.e. a bovine animal.

Here's a crafty clue using "lower" in its bovine sense:

Times 23363: Compound decrease - lower most of aim (4,5) IRON OXIDE
                     IRON (de-crease i.e. remove crease) OX (lower) IDE[a] (most of 'aim')                    

I thought that was neat. But let's see what the dictionary has to say about another meaning of "neat".

neat –noun
      an animal of the genus Bos; a bovine, as a cow, bull or ox.

Chambers lists this meaning as archaic, but it lives on hale and hearty in crosswords.

"Neat" can be used in the singular or plural form; it can lead to cow or cows, or cattle, or any other animal of the genus Bos.

A clue using neat = OX:

Times 24491: With nothing that marks the spot, stay out of sight in neat cover (6) OXHIDE
                     O (nothing) X (that marks the spot) HIDE (stay out of sight)

Solve These

Some clues that play on the cattle connection of NEAT and LOWER. Can you solve them?

Guardian 24891 (Araucaria): Referee with his belt turning to cow? (7-6)
Times Sunday 4198: Young, neat creature I captured for the sultan (5)
Times 24272: Terribly dangerous, when confronted by cow, to be caught napping? (5,4,5)

Nash On Cows

Since many of you enjoy Ogden Nash's works, sharing from memory his lines dedicated to the cow.

The cow is of the bovine ilk;
One end is moo, the other, milk.

Two cows, mildly mooing;
No bull; nothing doing.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

The Air India Crossword

air-india-inflight Air India's in-flight magazine Swagat carries a monthly prize cryptic crossword. The prize is not bad – one winner is blind-picked from the correct entries and gets a free domestic return ticket.

When I saw this crossword in 2007, it was of dismal quality and went so far as to include non-existent words in the clues.

I've been flying Air India (earlier Indian Airlines) a fair bit in the last few months, and the first thing I do (after reading the security instructions :)) is to look at the crossword. The current setter (Vivek Kumar Singh)'s work is pretty decent, a major improvement from the 2007 days.

I wonder if the setter gets any qualitative feedback from solvers about his puzzles. I thought I'll post some here.

These are very easy 15x15 cryptics; anyone with a passing acquaintance with cryptic crosswords should be able to complete them. The grids used are good – symmetrical and well-connected. Checking is fair too; less than 50% for some words of odd length but that doesn't pose a problem.

The wordplay is generally grammatical though the clue surfaces don't always make sense (e.g. Lex, my confused plant carrier (5)).

There are simple &lits and semi-&lits that I like,
e.g. Made up, or neat! (6)
       Part of a person's vintage! (3)

A couple of the clues that I wasn't entirely happy with (from Crossword No. 100, April 2010):

It's not proper for Goliath to take sides with Manmohan (5) SIN GH
Goliath gives sides (=GH) here, does not take them. Why Goliath anyway, why not a more common Indian name like Ganesh?

Capture Dreze as doctor left earlier for acrobatics (7) TRAP {-dr}EZE
"Dreze" seems contrived, and "earlier" is redundant.

Topical References

What I enjoy most in the Swagat crossword is the reference to Indian pop culture and current affairs. Politicians, film celebrities, sportspeople - all make an appearance. In 2009, a clue referred to the Satyam scandal. The latest crossword mentions Bachchan and Yagnik. April 2010 even had a 4-letter answer for "Hurley's man" who "participated in a marathon".

A Curious Requirement: Your Visiting Card

Submission instructions ask you to attach your visiting card and a copy of the boarding pass with the completed crossword. The visiting card bit puzzles me. If they want it for the entrant's address/phone, that can be simply written down. If they want it for proof of identity, there are better ones (visiting card is not accepted as ID proof at the airline check-in counter).

What about travellers like homemakers and college-goers who may not have visiting cards - are they not expected to participate?

In any case, since they ask for the visiting card which usually includes the entrant's profession, they print details of it in the monthly announcement. In fact, they also print the setter's – he is IAS, Secretary, Art, Culture and Youth Department, Bihar.

The last two months' winners have these designations:

April 2010: IAS, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Finance, GoI
May 2010: IAS, Member Secretary, Ministry of Women & Child Development, GoI

Non-IAS solvers: Are you not flying Air India, not sending in your entries, or are you out of favour with Lady Luck?

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Friday, May 7, 2010

Ellipsis-linked clues...

ellipsis-linked-clues …are adjacent clues in a crossword with a shared surface meaning.

For example, this pair from Guardian 24552 (Gordius):

Certain time before cancellation ... (7)
... so there's time for what's left (3,4)

When read in continuation, the two clues produce a single meaningful surface.

In most cases, the ellipses only help the surface and have no impact on the cryptic reading. That holds true for the clues above. If you ignore the link and try to solve them, you get:

Certain time before cancellation [...] (7) ERASURE ERA (time) SURE (certain)
[... so ]there's time for what's left (3,4) THE REST THERE’S T (time)

The clues get solved independently, just as if there were no ellipses connecting them.

Don't dismiss those three dots too soon though. In advanced cryptics like the barred grid kind and in the harder daily puzzles, they sometimes indicate a real link - a cryptic relation between the clues.

Take these two clues by Viking in FT 13036:

Caution needed round about densely populated area ... (6)
... one might go there to ramble (6)

The first is like a regular clue, with the answer WARREN: WARN (caution) around RE (about). The second, by virtue of the ellipsis, makes a back-reference to the preceding clue. It is a double definition with the answer RABBIT: one definition is "ramble", the other is "one might go there" (i.e. a rabbit might go to a WARREN).

Another by Viking from the Listener crossword:

How egg might be done: scrambled not using oven ... (2,5)
... that's not hard for diner (5)

The answer to the first is ON TOAST: NOT* + OAST (oven). The second uses the last word of the previous clue in its cryptic reading; the answer is EATER: HEATER (oven) – H (hard).

Such clues can be pretty tough to solve as there are many unknowns – we need to find out if clue1 uses part of clue2, or vice versa, and how much of one clue is referenced in the other.

What does Ximenes say?

In his book Ximenes On the Art of the Crossword (chapter "Improvised Clues"), Ximenes says that he uses the ellipsis-link device rarely, and does not advocate its use unless there is a really strong connection between the clues. He adds (and I agree) that when there is real point, the solver may enjoy it for its variation from normal clue types.

[Many thanks to setter Viking for his valuable inputs for this article.]

Solve These

Solve these coupled clues from the Times, that are also connected cryptically.

Times 24254:
Weak father is superior to ... (7)
...athletic one left cramped by antiquity (5)

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