Saturday, November 27, 2010

Interview With Big Dave

Big Dave

The welcome message on Big Dave's Crossword Blog greets us with the line: "You have reached the world's biggest and best crossword blog." That is no overstatement. Just 21 months old and the blog already attracts 5000-6000 views per day and has the best crossword minds from around the world contributing as bloggers/commenters.

In this interview, Big Dave talks to us about himself, his experiences with crosswords and the story behind his phenomenally successful blog.

Q1. When and how did you start solving crosswords?

Big Dave: The very first crosswords I ever did were the picture crosswords in the old London Evening News. I progressed, in stages, to the Daily Telegraph Cryptic when I was about 15. Over fifty years later, I’m still solving the Telegraph Crossword!

Q2. How did Big Dave's Crossword Blog come into being?

Big Dave: Following my retirement I had been answering crossword clues on AnswerBank for about three months. I then started helping James Cary, who at the time was writing about the Telegraph puzzles on his Crossword Ends in Violence site. I decided to supplement this by setting up my own site, Big Dave's Blog, to review the Telegraph Toughie puzzles.

A week later James wrote to me and asked if I would take over the "responsibility" for the regular cryptics. At this point the name was changed to Big Dave's Telegraph Crossword Blog to make it easy for other sites to publish a link. Gazza and Libellule, whom I had met on AnswerBank, were very soon persuaded to join me.

I chose to drop the word Telegraph a year later to clarify that my blog had no connection with the Telegraph Group.

Q3. Your blog has built a large following in a fairly short span of time. What is the secret of its popularity?

Big Dave: I like to think that part of the success was due to being a complete novice and having no preconceived idea how a solving blog should be run – I only became aware of Times for the Times and Fifteensquared after I had started.

The blog has evolved largely by reacting to requests from other solvers, but right from the start I have tried to keep to, as it says in the tagline, “crossword clues explained in plain English”. I have actively avoided words like anagrind and inserticator and the use of symbols like * for anagrams and << for reversals. I tell new bloggers that they should try and write as if they are explaining a clue to a smart 21-year-old – in other words, assume that the audience lacks experience not intelligence.

Discussions of solving times are also actively discouraged – solvers are not in competition with each other!

Q4. An impressive group of bloggers contribute to your blog. How did you all get together?

Big Dave: As mentioned earlier, Gazza and Libellule joined me from AnswerBank. Peter Biddlecombe and Tilsit volunteered their services. The rest had their arms twisted either at crossword meets or by email. Once you start blogging it becomes dangerously addictive – perhaps one day we will have to set up Bloggers Anonymous!

Q5. Has blogging about crosswords changed you in any way?

Big Dave: The biggest change is the wonderful collection of cyber-friends that I now have – and I have been very pleased to be able to actually meet a number of them, setters and solvers alike.

Q6. Have you ever had to face criticism about your blog or your views expressed on it? How did you handle it?

Big Dave: There has been occasional criticism about our reviews, but some setters will always be more popular than others and I can't change that.

A few people have commented adversely on the hints that we give for prize puzzles. Several other sites will only refer to prize puzzles after the closing date, but the Telegraph intentionally publish an easier puzzle on Saturday in order to attract a large number of entries. I take the view that this is an excellent opportunity to help less-experienced solvers.

Q7. Big Dave's Crossword Blog receives a huge volume of comments. How do you manage them?

Big Dave: With WordPress you can choose to allow anyone who has been previously approved to comment without further moderation. This means that very little management is required.

Unlike some other sites, off-topic comments are encouraged. This does mean that at weekends it can be difficult to read all the comments and some questions get asked more than once, but this is a small price to pay.

The important thing to me is that people feel welcome on the site.

Q8. Which crosswords do you solve, other than the Daily Telegraph?

Big Dave: Not as many as I used to! I solve occasional Guardian and Independent puzzles, particularly if they are drawn to my attention. I write a blog of the Guardian Quiptic, every four weeks, on Fifteensquared.

Q9. If you could change one thing about the Telegraph crossword, or crosswords in general, what would it be?

Big Dave: Easy question! I would throw ninety per cent of the Telegraph grids in the bin and replace them with a set similar to those used by the Times.

Q10. What are the crossword references you use?

Big Dave: The one I use most is WordWeb Pro – this gives me immediate cut-and-paste access to Chambers Dictionary and Thesaurus as well as the Oxford Dictionary of English – invaluable for writing reviews. I also keep the hardback version of Chambers Dictionary, Chambers XWD Dictionary of Abbreviations and Mrs Bradford’s Crossword Solver’s Dictionary close at hand.

Q11. What is your take on the use of solving aids - what is fair, what is cheating?

Big Dave: Solving aids are the great leveller. I have no objections whatsoever to them and don't regard their use as cheating. You still need to understand the wordplay to know which of several possible answers is the one required, and solving aids can't do that - but the blog can! Never forget that for most people crosswords are for entertainment.

Q12. Who are your favourite compilers?

Big Dave: A difficult question, but I'll confine my answer to Telegraph setters. Those that I always look forward to are, in alphabetical order, Brian Greer, John Henderson (Elgar, Enigmatist), Mick Hodgkin (Micawber, Morph), Philip Marlow (Shamus, Hypnos), John McKie (Myops), Roger Phillips (Notabilis, Kea), Roger Squires (Rufus), and Ray Terrell (Beam).

Q13. The crossword world in UK is a close-knit one where solvers and setters know each other not just distantly through crosswords but also personally. Does this create conflict or the possibility of strained relations, when a setter's crossword is reviewed negatively on your blog?

Big Dave: It hasn't happened yet. I have had an excellent rapport with all eleven Telegraph setters that I have met.

Q14. Which articles on your blog are the most popular? Which are your personal favourites?

Big Dave: The most popular posts are the Saturday Prize Puzzle hints, which I call "Big Dave’s Saturday Crossword Club". These are also my personal favourites.

The most popular fixed page is my "Crossword Guide" which has been viewed over 12,500 times.

Q15. What advice would you give to a new crossword solver?

Big Dave: The most important thing is to learn to ignore the surface reading of a cryptic clue. That can be quite difficult at first, but you have to treat each clue as a miniature word puzzle.

Solving blogs have made life so much easier for novices. I'm sure that I wasn't the only one that used to think there was a mistake in the puzzle when I couldn't unravel a clue – now you can check very easily, and the setter is (nearly) always right.

Q16. Please share with us some of your memorable crossword-related experiences.

Big Dave: Probably my best experience was when, in the early hours of a Saturday morning, I had solved clues in DT 26044 to which the answers were Big, Dave and Hanley and I rushed to the next clue knowing that the answer just had to be Swan – I live in the Worcestershire village of Hanley Swan. I was able to thank Cephas personally a few months later.

I have had a couple of mentions in other Telegraph crosswords. Brian Greer included Enormous and David in a Sunday puzzle (ST 2545) and Shamus inserted a Nina that read "Shamus salutes Big Dave et al" around the outside of Toughie 368.

The blog even acted as a dating agency for two regulars, who have been an "item" for about six months (and I didn't get an introduction fee!).

Q17. What are your interests apart from crosswords?

Big Dave: I have been supporting Tottenham Hotspur for nearly sixty years, and have been fortunate enough to watch the Spurs win several major trophies – I was at the FA Cup Final replay in 1981 when Ricky Villa scored the best-ever goal at Wembley.

My great passion is for rock’n’roll music – I have a vast collection of vinyl records and CDs, mostly of music from the period 1955 – 65.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Double-Edged Indicators

double-edged-indicators

Most clue type indicators tell us exactly which way the wordplay works.

For example:

A swallowing B => A is the outer word, B the inner in a container clue.
A held in B => A is the inner word, B the outer in a container clue.
A lacking B => letter of B are to be removed from A in a deletion clue.
A discarded by B => letters of A are to be removed from B in a deletion clue.

Not all indicators are so clear-cut; some can logically work both ways. Here's a look at some such indicators.

Stopping

To stop is:

  1. to fill or close, as in stopping a hole
  2. to check or intercept, as in stopping a landslide

So, A stopping B in a cryptic clue can mean:

  1. A acting as stopper inside B
    Times 24633: Stopping revolt at last, become elevated as emperor (5) TITUS
    [revol]T, in SUIT (become) reversed

  2. A taking hold of B
    Times 24692: Heart stopping left a problem (7) TICKLER
    TICKER (heart) around L (left)

Leaving 

To leave is:

  1. to go away from, as in boy leaving hometown
  2. to neglect or let go of, as in boy leaving math lessons (to study literature, maybe)

So, A leaving B in a cryptic clue can mean:

  1. A going away from B
    ET3382: Airmen leaving flashy angle (5) FISH
    RAF (airmen) going away from RAFFISH (flashy)

  2. A letting go of B
    Times 23712: Notices ducks leaving river by double bend (5,3) SMALL ADS
    S (double bend) MALLARDS (ducks), letting go of R (river)

Out of

"Out of" implies:

  1. lacking, as in pen out of ink
  2. going away from, as in PM out of country

So, A out of B in a cryptic clue can mean:

  1. A lacking B
    Everyman 3341: Fish cigarette out of front of sideboard (5) GAPER
    GASPER (cigarette) lacking S[ideboard]

  2. A going away from B
    ET 3150: Top performer right out of the running (3) ACE
    R (right) going away from RACE (running)

Packing

To pack is:

  1. to cover or envelop, as in packing oneself in warm woollens
  2. to fill, as in crowds packing a train

So, A packing B in a cryptic clue can mean:

  1. A covering B
    Guardian Quiptic (Pan): Take a gamble, packing thin cover for bed (7). BLANKET
    BET (take a gamble) covering LANK (thin)

  2. A filling B
    Times 24406: Way to pack fodder to be able to last through the winter (5) HARDY
    RD (way) filling HAY (fodder)

Solve These

Enjoy solving these clues with double-edged indicators.

Times 24390: Frugal poet stopping penny payment (9) __O__D___
Times 22604: What transvestite does to thwart coercion, leaving university (5-5) C____ ____S
Times Championship Final 2010: Girl married out of spite (5)

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Thingumabob or whatever it is

thingumabob-spellings A word used when you cannot or will not recall the name of something, "thingumabob" has many spelling variants.

Chambers lists:
thingamy, thingummy, thingamybob, thingamyjig, thingumabob,
thingumajig, thingumbob, thingummybob, thingummyjig

It's all too easy to make a wrong grid entry for this word if you go by the definition or a few crossings alone. Be sure to fully work out the wordplay first – the setter might be expecting a different spelling.

Some examples of ways in which the word has been spelt in crosswords:

Times 20112: Unspecified object producing rare high bounce (11) THINGAMYBOB
THIN (rare) HIGH (gamy) BOB (bounce)

Guardian 25156 (Rufus): Skinny, toothless what's-his-name (9) THINGUMMY
THIN (skinny) GUMMY (toothless)

Times 24696: What's-his-name's light adhesive — a shilling  (11) THINGUMABOB
THIN (light) GUM (adhesive) A BOB (shilling)

THC 10001 (Gridman): G-man and hobbyist tossed gadgets for which you can't recall the name (12) THINGAMYBOBS
(G MAN HOBBYIST)*

Other clues for thingumabob that you can recall?

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Game Of Bridge In Cryptic Crosswords

Bridge figures prominently in cryptic crosswords but even if you don't play the game, you can get by with just a little surface knowledge about it.

This article gives you an overview of what to know for solving bridge-based cryptic clues.

The Bridge Table

Bridge is played between four players in two competing partnerships. Partners sit facing each other.

It is traditional to refer to the four players by their position at the table - North, South, East, West. North-South and East-West are the two partnerships that play against each other. The placement of partners and opponents forms the crux of most bridge-based cryptic clues, so take in bridge table layout:

bridge-table 

 

Players

Clues that refer to bridge players individually may lead to full words for their positions - North, South, East, West – or their abbreviations N, S, E, W. These abbreviations give great "bits and pieces" fodder for clues.

The definition could be a direct one like "card player" or "bridge player", or more subtle like "one who holds a hand".

Times 24679: Most wonderful bridge player holding deck I shuffled (9) WICKEDEST
WEST (bridge player) around (DECK I)*

Times 24177: Have a hand in game — no hard finishes  (5,3) PLAYS OUT
PLAY SOUTH (have a hand in game) hard = H

Times 24164: British card player one’s terribly upset to beat? (6) BREAST
BR (British) EAST (card player)

Jumbo 869 Most bridge players after imbibing wine? They’re offensive (7) NASTIES
N,E,S (most bridge players) taking in ASTI (wine)

Partners

A mention of bridge partners in the clue leads to a two-letter pair in the answer - NS/SN or EW/WE. You can narrow the choices for which pair to use according to where it occurs in the word. Start of a word, think on the lines of SN or WE;  end of a plural word, bet on NS.

The clue could say "partners" or, less specifically, something about bidding together.

Times 24245: Rather frail partners holding hands getting a peck from a drunk (7) WEAKISH WE
WE (partners) A KISH (peck from a drunk)

Times 24657: Extremely slick, bidding team to change direction suddenly (4) SKEW
S[lic]K EW (bidding team)

Times 24460: Couple bidding to follow the second person’s desires (4) YENS
YE (second person) NS (couple bidding)

When the clue says "partner" in the singular (this is rare, and I don't like it much), it is equivalent to any player (N, S, E or W).

Guardian 25008: Lazes about, supported by partner's immoral practices (6) SLEAZE
(LAZES)* E (East, partner of West)

Opponents

For each player, there is one partner but two opponents, which makes the task a little more difficult for the crossword solver – the number of possible replacements for "opponents" are twice as many as for "partners".

Opponents in the clue could lead to any of these letter pairs:

NE ES SW WN
EN SE WS NW

Opponents are also neighbours, those bidding against each other, or rivals playing tricks.

Times 24048: Opponents caught by light blow and left spinning (6) ASWIRL
SW (opponents), inside AIR (light blow) L (left)

Times 24629: Bread, tea and hamburgers two neighbours at table missed ... (8) CHAPATTI
CHA (tea) PATTIES (hamburgers) – ES (two neighbours at table)

Times 23686: Penalises opponents for risky card play (7) FINESSE
FINES (penalises) SE (opponents). This meaning of "finesse" - risky card play – is another bridge term to keep in your vocabulary.

Times 23884: High-spirited man on bridge opponents charged (5) LADEN
LAD (high-spirited man) EN (bridge opponents)

As with the singular "partner", the singular "opponent" is equivalent to any player – N, S, E, W.

In Closing

You don't need to know the ins and outs of the game to be able to solve most bridge-related cryptic clues. There will be the odd mention of specialist bridge terms (I've seen chicane and tenace in a the last few months), for which a non-player can look up a good glossary of bridge terms.

For most clues just remember these as you'll do fine -

Players : North (N), South (S), East (E), West (W)
Partners: Opposite compass points NS/SN or EW/EW
Opponents: Adjacent compass points - NE, ES, WS, etc.

Solve These

Times 24567: Degenerate reluctant to kidnap partners? It’s not entirely clear (11) T_________T
Guardian 25160 (Orlando): Discover South Americ­an bridge player abroad (4,3) SU__ ___
Times 24265: Superlatively clean strike caught by player sitting down (7) _HI___
Guardian 24597 (Brendan): Opponents at bridge almost overcome in what follows (6) S__U_L

Related Posts:

A set of articles on the other game you find a lot of in cryptic crosswords.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Hindu Crossword Crosses The 10000 Mark

The Hindu Crossword has five magnificent digits in its serial number today. THC no. 10,000 has been published.

The Hindu was the first English newspaper in India to introduce an original crossword. While other Indian mainstream publications (HT, TOI, The Statesman, Indian Express, etc.) carry syndicated crosswords from overseas, The Hindu's crossword has been created since 1971 by its own team of setters. The local flavour in THC is one of its biggest attractions for Indian solvers. It is a comfort to deal with towns we know, slang we recognise and homophones we can decipher without having to resort to dictionaries. No surprise that, for all its flaws, no other crossword published in India has a following as huge and passionate as The Hindu's.

A lot of my learning about cryptic crosswords has been through The Hindu Crossword and the Orkut forum which solves this crossword. I am deeply thankful to both.

I wish The Hindu Crossword lots of success and many more such milestones.

Quiz: How well do you know The Hindu Crossword?

Answer these multiple choice questions and see how well you know your daily brain-tickler. Enjoy the quiz, share it with your friends and tell us how you fared - but don't give away the answers!

The Hindu Crossword Quiz

If you haven't seen these articles about The Hindu Crossword setters before, read on:

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Embed Interactive Crosswords Within Your Blog / Website

Across Lite Embed You're probably familiar with Across Lite, the popular crossword interface. Literate Software (LitSoft), the creators of Across Lite, have now launched a free crossword sharing/embedding service. This service allows you to embed crosswords in interactive format within web sites and blogs, and share them easily with others on twitter, facebook, emails, etc.

This is a great utility for amateur/freelance crossword setters as it lets them offer interactive crosswords from within their sites instead of having to host them elsewhere. It's pretty simple and quick to set up as well.

How To Use The Service

Upload your crossword in "Across format" at this location. [Instructions for how to create Across format crosswords]

Once uploaded, the service emails you the link to a private page. This gives you:

  • A direct link to the crossword, which you can share on social media to send people to a custom page for your crossword
  • Code for embedding the crossword, which you can copy-paste into your blog/website. You have two sizes to choose from: Standard width (595w x 440h) and Narrow (520w x 472h).

Note: You must have the rights to publish the crossword you upload!

A Live Demo

Below is a narrow-width sample crossword, a US-style cryptic. [RSS readers: please visit the blog to view the interactive grid.]

Each solver gets their own copy of the crossword to solve. Work in progress can be saved via browser cookies.


Sorry, but it looks like Java is either not available or enabled in this browser.

On a Mac or PC, you can download the crossword to solve with Across Lite installed on your computer.

If you do not have Across Lite installed, you can download a free copy from here


Try it out for yourself. You can read more about the service and give your feedback to its creators Litsoft here. You might also like to follow the newly launched Litsoft blog for their thoughts on the commercial aspects of the crossword industry.

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

So the slips might not show…

Guest author Chaturvasi aka Rishi, an experienced puzzle creator and blogger, provides tips to new setters on how to check a crossword before sending it for publication.

crossword-review Crossword setters are often aghast when a slight mistake in their work is pointed out by solvers in blogs. It might be that the anagram indicator or homophone indicator is missing or one of the components in the word breakup is not accounted for in wordplay (or subsidiary indication) for the clue. I don't think any setter in India has the luxury of a pre-publication or test solver. So the onus of checking a set crossword rests entirely on the crossword writer. The following is an attempt on a course to follow in this task.

If you have used a software application to produce the crossword and are going to send the file by electronic means, you would do well to take a printout and spend some minutes in checking your work by holding it in your hands. These apps are wonderful and relieve the setter from some routine chores but they cannot be so perfect that no human intervention is needed. On the monitor the document will always look fine with no scratches, no carets, no whorls, no rewrites, no query marks in the margin, but take a hard copy, hold it in your hands and read it and you might discover some mistakes here or there.

Here are some tips to follow in checking a prepared crossword. I may be pardoned if some of these sound elementary but basics matter.

First, are the clues in place? You might know that such-and-such a grid has so many slots and so many clues have to be there. Count and see. If a software app has been used and its clue editor deployed while writing the clues, every clue will be there but this article also keeps in mind those who don't use any apps. Some of you might have prepared templates for your often-used grids and so you might have had all the clue-numbers on paper before you wrote your clues; but if such a template had not been used and if you look at the grid, jot down the clue numbers as you go along and writes the clues, there are chances of your skipping one.

Second, are the clue slots in the grid numbered correctly? If the grid was prepared with crossword software, the numbering will be all right. But if it was done by hand, unless you were too careful, a cell that is hedged in by blocks on three sides or a cell that is not enclosed by any block at all is likely to have been missed. (See related article: how to number the slots)

Third, are the numbers at the end of clues in place? Even crosswords submitted for publication sometimes have enumerations (those numbers within brackets at the end of clues indicating the length) missing. In your template for a grid, you might not have entered the enumerations as these differ from one gridfill to another in slots where multiple-word lights or hyphened words are entered. So while checking the clue sheet you have to look at each light in the solution grid and then at the relevant clue to see if the length is correctly shown.

Fourth, do these enumerations indicate multiple words correctly? Crossword apps automatically supply enumerations in the clue editor but a studied check is necessary. For, if the multiple word phrase is not in its database, it might only show, say, (15) instead of, say, (3,6,2,4) which your light might require. (Of course, the app might allow you to change this manually in its clue editor but the mistake will remain if you had forgotten to do this.)

Fifth, have you checked the breakup for each wordplay component? You have to read each clue and on the margin write the intended breakup. If you do this, you can catch a missing component. (I am aware that crossword app allows one to enter the word breakup in a text box and save it but then how many of us are eager to do more typing work than necessary and how many of us would be using the same clue over and again by creating the clue database?). At this stage you can also ensure that your homophone works by looking up Received Pronunciation in a standard dictionary or even putting the words through a text-to-speech software.

Sixth, are the anagrams perfect? Sometimes in an anagram clue there may be redundancy or insufficiency in the anagram fodder (unless you've used an anagram creator which will take care of the equation). If you created the anagram out of the top of your head, don't trust your eye while checking anagrams. It is useful to write the letters of the anagram fodder on paper and score out those of the anagram to ensure perfection.

Seventh, have you revised the clues separately? Some of these checks must be done separately. That is, if you do the required checks all at once for each clue, while checking subsequent clues it is possible you forget one or the other. It is wise to check all clue numbers in one go, all enumerations in another. The word breakup study can be done clue by clue.

As one who sets puzzles from 1970s, I learnt this by experience. Years later, I smiled when I read in Don Manley’s Chambers Crossword Manual:

When you check your puzzle, check one thing at a time ... You can easily make mistakes by trying to check everything at once.

If you've any tip other than what I have written, share it with us!

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