Friday 9 January 2009

New York Times Election Day Crossword

I recently read a book called Pretty Girl In Crimson Rose (8)[1], an autobiography interweaved with interesting stories about crosswords. One such anecdote is about a remarkable crossword puzzle published in the New York Times in 1996. I looked it up on the net and (bless Google) found the puzzle online.

Here is a screenshot of the grid and clues:


Crossword Copyright 1996 New York Times

The NYT puzzle is not a cryptic one; it has straight clues with the occasional pun or cryptic definition. You'll notice another dissimilarity with regular cryptic crosswords: the NYT clues do not mention solution lengths. This feature was put to ingenious use in the 1996 Election Day Crossword.

The special clue is the one cutting across the centre of the grid - 39A(+43A):

Lead story in tomorrow's newspaper (!)

The answer to the central clue corresponds with two 7-letter spaces.

This puzzle was published on 5th November 1996, the day of the Presidential Election in US in which Bill Clinton and Bob Dole were the prime candidates. The lead story in the next day's newspaper would naturally be about the result of the election.

The checking letters for 39A worked out as:

39D  Black Halloween animal             CAT
40D  French 101 word                       LUI
41D  Provider of support, for short    IRA
23D  Sewing shop purchase               YARN
27D  Short writings                          BITS
35D  Trumpet                                  BOAST
42D  Much-debated political inits.     NRA    

The solution stood like this, then: 

Lead story in tomorrow's newspaper (!): CLINTON ELECTED

BUT at the time the crossword was published, the election result had not been declared. There were loud protests from solvers – was NYT being so presumptuous as to predict the result?

What they did not realize was that another group of solvers were sniggering over NYT's massive faux pas, for they had answered the same clue as BOB DOLE ELECTED.

The beauty of this puzzle is that there are two possible solutions. The clues for the crossing words are deliberately ambiguous and allow a completely different set of valid answers. So, if you answered the crossing clues like this:

39D  Black Halloween animal             BAT
40D  French 101 word                       OUI
41D  Provider of support, for short    BRA
23D  Sewing shop purchase               YARD
27D  Short writings                          BIOS
35D  Trumpet                                  BLAST
42D  Much-debated political inits.     ERA    

You would get this solution:

Lead story in tomorrow's newspaper (!): BOB DOLE ELECTED

Very few solvers at the time realized that a solution different from theirs was possible.

The exclamation mark in clue 39A works like it does with cryptic clues – signalling that something other than the obvious is going on. Of course, the same device couldn't have been used in a standard cryptic crossword as word length breakup of solutions - (7, 7) vs (3, 4, 7) - would have given the game away.

This crossword was designed by Jeremiah Farrell. The New York Times crossword editor, Will Shortz, calls it his favourite puzzle of all time.

[1]: As you can guess, the title of the book Pretty Girl In Crimson Rose (8) is a cryptic clue. Can you tell what the answer is?

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