Tuesday 24 February 2009

Interviews With Ace Solvers: Part IV

Introductory Post: Interviews With Ace Solvers

Ganesh T S


ganesh-t-s Ganesh T S, an engineer from the San Francisco Bay Area, is the co-owner of the two most dedicated cryptic crossword communities on Orkut. He has also been actively involved in spreading the joy of cryptic puzzles in the SF Bay Area, by conducting cryptic crossword workshops at the Silicon Valley Puzzle Day every year since its inception in 2007.

Ganesh has some interesting anecdotes and a few tips to share with us.

Q1: When and how did you start solving crosswords?

Ganesh: It must have been sometime in mid-90s when I was in the 8th or 9th grade at school. My elder sister had just started out on her engineering studies then, and she used to study for her exams along with a couple of her friends at our home. I am not sure about what they did on the academic front, but they did get hold of the newspaper everyday to solve the crossword puzzle. One of them, Meera (with whom I still maintain contact, as she is a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area too!), was quite an adept solver, and I gradually learnt the tricks of the trade from her.

Till 2004, The Hindu was my only source of cryptic crosswords, and crosswords were just a way to pass time (non-serious hobby). In November 2004, I started the Orkut community for solving THCs, and it became an obsession. I had just started out on my Masters at Iowa State University, and I was lucky to have some friends (Mahadevan, Satyadev, Anupreet and Vidya) who were assiduous solvers and took the same interest in cryptic crosswords as me. We used to solve the crossword during our afternoon coffee breaks and the solutions to THC used to be posted by us within a couple of hours of the crossword appearing online. In fact, we used to wrap up the crosswords so quickly that our appetite got whetted, and we started solving the puzzles appearing in The Economic Times (Mumbai) edition too. I also used to enjoy the online interaction with the members of the Orkut forum. Chaturvasi was one of our earliest members on the forums, and when I went back to India in December 2005, I met him along with some other members of the Orkut community. The extent of his involvement with crosswords has since encouraged me to take up crosswords with a more serious mind frame.

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

Ganesh: The changes in my solving habits can easily be spotted by taking a look at the archives of the Orkut community. THC to THC / ET and then onto THC / ET / New Indian Express. I stopped solving the ET crosswords once I realized that the puzzles were getting repeated. Somewhere towards the end of 2007, I moved on to solving crosswords in The Financial Times and The Times, while just taking the occasional glance at THC.

Currently, I take the occasional stab at puzzles appearing in The Guardian and The Financial Times. Even on the days that I get to solve them, I get to spend only 30 - 45 minutes on the puzzles, managing to solve approximately half the grid (more on a good day) while having lunch. Unfortunately, no one at my workplace shares my enthusiasm for cryptic crosswords. I hope to get back to regular solving once my wife gets more interested in crosswords. It will probably be back to THC for some time at that juncture, I guess :)

Q3: How has the learning curve been for you?

Ganesh: The Orkut community has been instrumental in the transition of cryptic crosswords from being just one of my hobbies to an obsession (albeit, a really useful one!). In the initial days, I never worried much about the annotations, and was bent upon completing the grid. It was Chaturvasi who made me aware, both online and offline, of the importance of understanding how the clues worked. My vocabulary had levelled off after I completed my undergraduate studies (I no longer had the time to pursue my voracious reading habit). Looking at new words in puzzles, encountering them while using electronic aids for solving helped me improve my vocabulary and completed a positive feedback loop which improved my crossword-solving skills.

Q4: Do you have a favourite crossword, compiler or clue?

Ganesh: I am beginning to like The Guardian puzzles, not only for the quality of the clues, but also the online presentation (which is the only access I have, since I don't reside in the UK). It is by far the best newspaper crossword website amongst the ones I have visited (The Times / The Financial Times / The Economic Times / The New Indian Express).

Amongst crossword compilers from the UK, I relate easily with the works of Cinephile, Neo and Gordius. I manage to solve most of their puzzles completely within the limited time available at my disposal. Their clueing techniques give me satisfaction and don't leave me baffled for too long (which is good for me right now, but probably not for every solver out there!)

I had stopped solving THCs regularly by the time the paper decided to carry bylines for the compilers. However, I can recognize Gridman's work even in his earlier unaccredited puzzles and can only marvel at the consistency with which he produces puzzles of similar, if not the same, difficulty levels.

Though I do not have any particular clue to mention as my favourite, I do like those which adopt certain uncommon combination of wordplay types. A case in point is the usage of the telescopic / hidden type along with a charade.

Q5: What are the crossword references you use?

Ganesh: Considering the fact that I spend most of my day in front of a computer, it becomes inevitable that most of my crossword resources are electronic in nature. I do treasure the 'Bradford's Crossword Solver's Dictionary' presented to me by Chaturvasi. I also borrowed and went through D.S.Macnutt's 'Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword' from Chaturvasi a year or so back. It presented me with a fresh perspective of cryptic crosswords from the other side, i.e, that of the compiler. Recently, I purchased Tim Moorey's 'How to Master The "Times" Crossword: The "Times" Cryptic Crossword Demystified'  for my wife. I am yet to go through it. My favourite electronic resources include Antony Lewis's WordWeb Pro, The Chambers Dictionary & Thesaurus on CD-ROM v1.00, OneLook.com and last, but not least, Wikipedia :)

Q6: You’ve been conducting the Cryptic Crossword Workshop in CA since a few years now. How did the idea for this come about, and how has the response been?

The first Silicon Valley Puzzle Day was conducted in February 2007. It was initially organized to raise funds for the Morgan Hill Public Library with tournament participation requiring registration fees, but free workshops. I had spotted the website for the Puzzle Day and got in touch with the organizers. In the beginning, they had no plans to organize any activity related to cryptic puzzles (They are not as popular in the US, as they are in the UK or India). However, my background with cryptic puzzles (particularly, being the co-owner of a1000 odd Orkut community, and the fact that I had organized word puzzle competitions for a student organization at Iowa State) made them wonder whether I would be interested in conducting a cryptic crosswords workshop. I jumped at the opportunity, and since then, have repeated the workshop in both 2008 and 2009. The number of people attending the workshop has been steadily increasing, with almost 50 people attending it this year. As the Puzzle Day was spread over the weekend, we were able to fit in a cryptic crossword competition too. Since the cryptic puzzle tournament was being conducted for the first time, we weren't sure how many people would translate their enthusiasm for participating in the workshop to actually participating in a timed puzzle in a competitive environment. We were pleasantly surprised to see around 30 participants. With 18 clues to solve and a time limit of 30 minutes, we had 3 people at the top, getting 17 out of the 18 right! One of the top 3 entries belonged to a person who had never before solved a cryptic crossword puzzle in her life, and had gotten introduced to it the previous day in the workshop.

Q7: Any memorable crossword-related experiences that you’d like to share?

Well, these are too many to count. It has always been a great experience with the Orkut community, particularly when I got to meet some of the regular members in person on my trips back to India. Recently, the response I had to my crossword workshop as well as the competition puzzle was very gratifying. One of the participants in the workshop, as well as the competition, was a regular compiler of crosswords for The NY Times. She came in as one of the top 3 contestants in the tournament and appreciated me for the effort put in creating the puzzle. The 'Wow' effect from the participants on recognizing the puzzle's theme was also a joy to watch!

Introductory Post: Interviews With Ace Solvers

Other Interviews:
Part I: Interview With Sridhar Shenoy
Part II: Interview With Chaturvasi
Part III: Interview With Vinod Raman
Part V: Interview With Peter Biddlecombe
Part VI: Interview With Deepak Gopinath

Coming Soon on Crossword Unclued: A guest post from Ganesh about the Silicon Valley Puzzle Day 2009. The crossword workshop slides will be made available and you'll also get to try out the puzzle from the cryptic crossword tournament.


The next ace solver interview in the series will be published on 3rd March 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.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting!

Anonymous said...

Hello, I heard about the cryptic crossword workshop from friends in SF, what luck to find Ganesh's interview. Any plans of doing workshops like this on the East Coast? I solve the NYT crossword, never tried cryptics.