Thursday, January 9, 2014

Interview: Mohsin Ahmed

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MohsinAhmed In the online rounds of the Indian Crossword League 2013, the name "Mohsin Ahmed" was a constant sight at the top of the leaderboard. A veteran with decades of solving experience? If you thought so, you couldn't have been more off the mark. This young solver got into crosswords as recently as ca 2007 and yet managed to race ahead of old hands in the contest. Where does his solving superpower come from? Read on to find that out about him, and more.

Q1. Welcome here, Mohsin. Tell us about yourself.

Mohsin: I'm a 21 year old, working in ISRO and presently settled in Bangalore. My parents are from Kerala, but I've been brought up all over India, since dad's in the Army. I'm a bit of a foodie (glutton, if you're to go by my friends' words), and quite passionate about sports. I find puzzles, in general, fascinating. Combined with an interest in wordplay, cryptic crosswords have an obvious allure.

Q2. How and when did you become interested in crosswords?

Mohsin: I must have been about 15. The big, black and white grid in the Hindu paper (which we thankfully subscribed to) seemed enticing. I had to wrap my head around what mom kept solving with devotion. It'd then become a race to the paper, and a competition as to who'd solve more.

Q3. How did you become a champion solver at such a young age? Spinach? Walnuts? What’s your secret?

Mohsin: It really comes down to aptitude and interest. I'd have to attribute the former to my mom. And with an innate interest in puzzles, the construction of a cryptic solution was, from the beginning, a fascination for me. I still remember the first clue I solved (it was a simple charade - {NOT}{ICE} ), and the sense of satisfaction it gave me.

Lastly, I'm not particularly good at solving toughies, but speed happens to be my forte, which might give you a false perception of brilliance.

Q4. How long does it take you to solve, say, a Hindu Crossword by Incognito, and a Guardian cryptic by Boatman?

Mohsin: Haven't done a Boatman. For Incognito, about an hour. If I'm not done by then, I give up anyway :)

Q5. How good a solver were you when you first started solving?

Mohsin: I could solve maybe 4 to 5 clues a grid, when I started. Over the period of a year, I could average half the crossword. Now, about 80%.

Q6. What was the strategy that helped you get to where you are? Did you read books, seek help from experienced solvers?

Mohsin: Scrabble, for a reasonably good lexicon and spotting anagrams/patterns. And regular crossword solving.

Q7. What’s your take on using aids like anagram solvers, word pattern matching software, etc.?

Mohsin: I use both when I'm hopelessly stuck on clues (or am in a hurry to solve them). I have to maintain that solving a clue without an aid is infinitely more satisfying, which is reason enough to use them only as a last resort (or not at all). For me, it's a question of satisfaction, not morality.

Q8. When faced a set of clues and a blank 15x15 ready to be filled, how exactly do you approach it?

Mohsin: Sequentially. Give a clue 30 sec and move to the next. Then go over.

Q9. Which kind of clues do you find the hardest to crack?

Mohsin: Double/multiple definitions. More often than not, it is easy to spot DDs. It then comes down to recollecting synonyms. I find it easier to solve clues with constructions, and where there are contrasting ways of arriving at the answer.

Q10. Crosswords or Scrabble?

Mohsin: Tough one. I've been out of scrabble for quite some time now. Maybe a couple of years more and I'd be leaning towards crosswords :)

Q11. You lost the final round of IXL by a whisker. What’s your reaction to the way things turned out in that round?

Mohsin: I clearly have a biased view here, but I felt I got the longer words on my direct (which, for me, are tougher to solve, when timed). The turning point was the "Athabasca" clue. Funnily, if I had to make a guess, it's what I would have said. In hindsight, it was pretty silly of me to pass. But the Colonel was brilliant in the final round (he even covered up the handicap from the previous round), and doubtlessly a deserved winner.

Q12. Which crosswords do you solve? Who are your favourite setters?

Mohsin: I only solve the Hindu crossword regularly. I find Buzzer's (Bhavan) clues extremely sound and clever. Then of course, there's Sankalak.

Q13. Have you tried your hand at setting crosswords?

Mohsin: I've tried cluing words individually. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, and take far too much time polishing a clue. I hope to set at least a grid, one of these days. And see how it goes from there.

Q14. Share a couple of clues you’ve written that you like?

Mohsin: Here are a few:

Branch might fine missing head of company (4)
Off-tune before first delivery, resulted in no-balls? (8)
Plane's held up by Pakistan's security (6)
Umpire reviewed foul (6)
Garden-variety bird (6)
Cure for tetanoid complication (8)

More of a puzzle:
The answer's character count? (3,7)

For Narcissistic reasons:
Revolutionary Spanish omelette captivates me! (6)

More of a rebus:
Eagle's descent? (7)

[Answers will be added to the comments section this weekend. Enjoy solving meanwhile! – Shuchi]

Q15. You bagged many prizes in the online rounds of IXL. What are you doing with all that you won?

Mohsin: Haha. I'm proudly sporting the watch right now. Not being much of a photographer, I'm giving away the camera to my sister.

Picture 1: With his stack of awards at the IXL 2013 Grande Finale.

Picture 2: Mohsin and his sister.

Q16. What keeps you busy when you’re not playing with words?

Mohsin: Work, nowadays. And sports. I'm a huge football fan (both play and watch it religiously). Love basketball and tennis too.

Picture 3: When not playing with words…

Q17. If a non-solver friend asked you how one could pick up the knack of solving cryptics, what would you say?

Mohsin: Give it a shot. Try to solve or understand at least a clue. If you don't enjoy it, it's not for you.

Apart from attempting a daily crossword regularly, there are various online forums now for help with crossword clue-solving (your blog being one of them :) ). Get familiarised with the different types of clues, and how to spot them. Once you get a basic hang of solving, try your hand at setting a few and getting them reviewed. Fair warning: It's an addiction. once you're in it, there's no way out!

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Kishore said...

First, may I say that it was a pleasure to meet and see Mohsin's performance at the IXL Grand Finale.

Also, Shuchi, I admire your choice of words when you said that he lost by a whisker. What a magnificient whisker that was, as any one can see from the Colonel's photo.

Coming to the clues:
1. I am stumped. BOSS?
7. TEN LETTERS (3+7)
9. LANDING (Ref. to The Eagle has Landed, coming from an ISRO guy) or did he mean SKYFALL?

Tony Sebastian said...

Nice interview. Have met Mohsin a few times at Scrabble clubs. He's a truly brilliant Scrabble player too :)

Deepak Gopinath said...

Well said Mohsin. To be frank I never imagined that I would pip you in the final after seeing your performance in the 8 online and later penultimate round. It just was a case of being in the right place at the right times I suppose, maybe my choosing chair number 6 was the lucky break for me.

Tony, long time no see, what are you upto?

D.Srinivasan said...

Umpire reviewed foul (6)


D.Srinivasan said...

Cure for tetanoid complication (8)


Sreelakshmi said...

That was a goood read :)I can kinda relate coz i got attracted to this avenue when I was 12 or so.. I had come across the hindu crossword nd was mind-boggled by the clues- it looked like insane gibberish to me, and the answers made absolutely no sense at all. That's when I came across the Colonel's blog...and needless to say, I got so addicted! Now I'm still a long way to go! :P

Nadathur Rajan said...

Branch might fine missing head of company (4)
Branch B
might fine LEVY
missing head [-L]EVY
Defn: company {B}{EVY}
[A company; an assembly or collection of persons, especially of ladies]

Eagle's descent - KESTREL
["An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King;
a Peregrine for a Prince, and a Saker for a Knight;
a Merlin for a lady, a Goshawk for a Yeoman,
a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, and a Kestrel for a Knave"
- a poem in 'Boke of St Albans']

Shuchi said...

@Kishore: Trust you to spot that bit of unintended wordplay!

@Tony: Good to see you here after so long.

@Colonel: But you would have answered the clue that changed the course of the finals even if you were in chairs 4 or 5 :-)

@Sreelakshmi: Keep at it :-)

@Nadathur Rajan: Well tried, but not the right answers. Posting hints next.

Shuchi said...

Branch might fine missing head of company (4)
Hint: Starts with 'F'.

Eagle's descent? (7)
Hint: Reverse Containers

Sreelakshmi said...

Eagle's descent: LINEAGE
Eagle= L in eage. Def: Descent. Good one!:D

Shuchi said...

Good solve Sreelakshmi.

The last clue remaining is a bit devious. The answer is FORK; FORCE (might) + OK (fine) - CEO (head of company).