Wednesday 8 July 2009

Crossword Solving Aids

crossword-solver Sometimes, we take up the grid and pen, start solving and fill in the whole puzzle.

Sometimes, we don't. We get stuck on a word we don't know. We have a corner remaining and not enough crossings to take us along further.

What do you do when that happens?

Set aside the puzzle and move on?
Keep wondering what those missing answers are, wait for the solution to be published? Visit the solving communities to check?
Use aids to help you reach the end?

If you're the last kind, you are spoilt for choice. All kinds of crossword aids are at your disposal - the old-fashioned print dictionaries, knowledge resources on the internet, anagram solver, electronic encyclopedias, even Artificial Intelligence-equipped crossword solver software that claim they can complete a cryptic crossword without human intervention.

Is using aids cheating?

If aids are used in informal solving, I see no 'ethical' problems with it. Crossword solving is for fun. If a solver's choice is to use an automated clue solver to give answers, so be it. That choice doesn't make sense to me – it is equivalent to sending someone else to watch a great movie on your behalf - but it is surely not a deceitful activity to merit such a strong name!

I wish the Guardian crossword site would rename their "Cheat" button to a milder "Show" or "Reveal" :)

Which aids do you use?

Based on what I've grown accustomed to or what I've come to like, I use these:

Chambers Dictionary: This huge red hard-bound book is by my side whenever I attempt the tougher crosswords at home. Some crosswords like the Azed make special mention of the edition number: 2008 (11th edition) currently. Sadly this edition is not available in India, but for most purposes my 2000 edition works fine. If you can get hold of the latest edition, though, do that. (And if you can find it in India, please leave a comment to tell me where.)

An online Chambers dictionary/thesaurus exists but that is a 'lite' version of the real thing. I use this for quick confirmation when I am solving online. A word of caution - this dictionary doesn't list obscure words or rare meanings of words, and what's more worrying, it might be listing words that are not legit according to standard dictionaries (I say this based on the incorrectly spelt FUSCHIA (sic)). I use it more out of habit than anything else, it's good for easy lookups but might not be dependable for difficult words.

Wikipedia: European wars, English counties, Western classical music – for information in such areas that I know little about, I go to Wikipedia. A fair clue's wordplay and checking give enough pointers to lead to the solution, from there it's just a matter of verifying it. e.g. A clue like "Seaman, beginning to search through charts, misconstrued Scottish area (9) – FT 13107 (Aardvark)" can be solved and confidently answered – backed by a look at Wikipedia - even if one hasn't heard of the Scottish area before. Not all clues are so generous though and one might have to trawl through Wikipedia some more, but one picks up a lot of trivia in the process which may come in handy in future puzzles.

With Wikipedia, one has to be careful about quality and accuracy. The comments on the header/footer of the article, plus the History/Discussion tabs, give a good idea of how recently edited or disputed the article is. Since the knowledge areas in crosswords that I search for are generally stable and non-controversial, and most knowledge is at the surface level (e.g. a fictional character's name, not an in-depth understanding of her role in the book) – Wikipedia has been pretty reliable for me.

Google: Unfamiliar idioms and phrases, colloquialism or slang – I simply put them into Google. Enclosing a long phrase within double-quotes and writing "meaning" next to it gives better search results.

Last but not least, as they say - I check with a Tamil friend when faced with clues of this kind from The Hindu Crossword: "Congratulation to workers for silk from south India (5)– THC 9471 (Gridman)" :P

That's about it. Also, I resort to aids only after I have finished as much as of the crossword as I possibly could on my own. If I'm blogging about a puzzle, I think it's important to mention the solutions obtained with external help.

I don't go for stronger aids like pattern match or anagram solver but if people want to, I think that's fine. To me the greater evil of such forms of crossword help is not the 'cheating' factor but that they hinder improvement in solving skills. The only way to attain the level where one glances at the anagram fodder and gets the answer, is the Do-It-Yourself way. The shortcut of anagram solver will not get one there.

Which aids do you use? And what do you think about using aids?

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Tony Sebastian said...

Yay! I'm the first to comment.

My first tool is "wordweb" - for meanings,synonyms etc.

Anagrams thankfully don't need any help.

And of course, where would we be without Google or Wikipedia for the terms/people/events we do not know.

That's for the solving part. When I am clueing, aids are indispensable. Wordweb,,, google, wikipedia, pattern matchers (zyzzyva mostly - it is a Scrabble tool), the works.

Unknown said...

I am probably the latest to enter the world of cryptic crosswords and with the limited insight, I am sharing my ideas here.

I agree with your view that puzzle solving is for pleasure. In addition to the pleasure, one gets to learn about the new words and their horizons, thus, preparing oneself for the next round, isn’t it? This post of yours makes me aware of the aids available along with the risks (of missing out obscure words or rare meanings of words) I may be running into. The possibility that answers can be derived even when the solution is not known had not stuck me before. My sincere thanks to you for this :)

The use of aids is a part of this learning process to me. In fact, in referring to the aids and trying to get the pointers/reach a solution, I feel, one gets to learn even more. I won’t call it cheating as we are not in a competition or exam.

At times (more such times for me :)) when I am unable to tread the path indicated by a clue and on finding the solution I realize, how far or how near I was to the solution, I get to appreciate how smartly the clue has been constructed which is another great pleasure, isn’t it amazing to just see the creation of a brilliant mind!!

Srinivasan Sampathkumar said...

Dear Anoka

Yes. Crossword solving is a pleasure. I was fascinated by an elder doing this and my admiration for him ensured that I started trying this. I used to do Hindu CW with a couple of friends and with some sharing, we were able to finish few days.

I studied tamil medium all along and my fascination for this kept me buying Hindu. I carry strong prejudices about the way this newspaper publishes certain things which made me stop buying Hindu. After some lay off, I am back at it and I get struck quite many times. Your description of utilising the tools is very apt and one such search landed me in your blog. Amazed at the nice manner in which the solution is presented.
With regards - S Sampathkumar

Shuchi said...

@Tony: Great to hear about tools from a setter's perspective!

@Shivesh: Nice to know that this article has been useful for a new solver. I think it's important at this stage to distinguish between tools that enable you to solve better, and tools that do the solving on your behalf. The second kind should be sought with great caution!
isn’t it amazing to just see the creation of a brilliant mind - Very true. Just to see a brilliant clue gives pleasure, even if we weren't able to solve it ourselves.

@Sampath: Thanks for your comment. Do keep visiting for more!
[PS: Why is the comment addressed to Anoka? I am called Shuchi :)]

Lakshmi Vaidyanathan said...

Now after solving THC continuously for 6-7 months, I can understand your post well. Of course using of solving aids never helps us to learn and also we won't enjoy the clues, the setters have constructed so brilliantly.It is a surprise that now I can solve Sankalak's,Gridman's xword fully :-).The credit goes to you and Colonel's THCC blog.