Friday 20 April 2012

Alphabet Jigsaw Puzzles

As promised in the post on cold-solving, here’s a closer look at a special type of cryptic crossword in which cold-solving plays a significant role - the Alphabet Jigsaw puzzle.

Buzzer This article has been written by Bhavan, also known as the setter Buzzer in The Hindu Crossword. Bhavan lives on the Gold Coast and duels daily with a variety of crosswords from the world over. From his experience of solving and recent foray into creating Alphabet Jigsaws, Bhavan shares with us tips to crack these seemingly unconquerable puzzles and gives us a view of challenges a setter might face while creating AJs, with suggestions to get around them.

What are AJs?AJ-puzzle

Alphabetic Jigsaw puzzles or AJs are typically made up of 26 clues. Each clue is labelled with a letter of the alphabet instead of a numbered slot in the grid. The answer to each clue begins with that same letter.

In a standard cryptic crossword, the solver knows from the beginning where each answer needs to be entered in the grid. In an AJ puzzle, that step also needs to be resolved by the solver, fitting the answers into the grid like in a jigsaw.

Therefore, for a solver, tackling an AJ puzzle is a double challenge and consequently a two-step process:

  1. Solving the clues like in a regular cryptic.
  2. Fitting the answers into the grid without the advantage of knowing where each answers goes.


There seems to be some uncertainty about the origin of this puzzle. says:

John Graham (Araucaria) is credited with creating this new format of crossword, the 'alphabetical jigsaw' in which the clues are labelled not with numbers but with letters which are the first letters of the solutions; when solved, the answers are to be placed "jigsaw-wise, however they may fit," though of course only one arrangement will work. says:

The AJ puzzle appeared for the first time in magazine format in the August 1973 issue of Puzzler. A version of this puzzle, created by John Galbraith Graham (Araucaria) may have appeared in The Guardian at an earlier date, but this has not been verified.

AJ puzzles are a recurring feature nowadays in many publications like The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent. A recent example is the Financial Times 2011 Christmas special by Gozo - a double AJ, in which every letter of the alphabet had two clues. CrOZworld, the magazine published by Australian Crossword Club, carries an AJ puzzle every month.

Puzzles To Try

This AJ puzzle from Puzzler is a good introduction for new solvers. The answers are in the same sheet:
Puzzler Alphabet Jigsaw

These AJ puzzles are from the Guardian, set by Araucaria:

Guardian Prize Crossword No. 25125
Guardian Prize Crossword No. 25262
Guardian Prize Crossword No. 25580

Solving Tips

As a solver encountering an AJ puzzle for the first time, some of these questions will run through your mind:

  • Is it possible that I will be able to cold-solve all the clues because there are no crossings for help?
  • Assuming I somehow accomplish that step where do I start with fitting the answers in?
  • If I can't get all the answers before I start with the jigsaw what are my options?

It looks impossible at first glance but there are few things in your favour:

  1. You have starting letters for all the clues. This is a bigger plus than you realize initially.

  2. A fair setter will ensure that the grid design allows you to try and fit some of your answers – especially the long ones. This means you will not need to cold-solve all the clues before beginning to fit them in.

  3. The minimum number of answers you need to cold-solve depends to a large extent on the shape of the grid and the number of unique length answers. It is not unusual to begin with the longest answers first.

  4. Using the letters available as a result of entering your first answer(s), you can tackle the next set of clues. As you repeat this step, your options narrow down enough to attempt any unsolved answers as well as fit them into the grid.

  5. Sometimes the puzzle will have more than 26 clues with one or more letters giving you two answers. Comparing the answer lengths for such clues with the grid, you can easily identify where they go without even having to solve them.

    As an example, if you look at the Guardian Crossword No. 25262 linked above, you will see that the letters B and J are repeated.

    Take the J clues. The answer to one is 12 letters and the other is 7. The only place in the grid where this can happen is at the very top (row 1, column 3).


    Similarly for the B clues with answer lengths of 7 and 5, the only slot in the grid is row 9, column 11.


Setter’s View

[As a budding setter, my own experience with AJ puzzles is limited, but penning down the problems I faced and the way I overcame some of them.]

As a setter creating an AJ puzzle, you’ll need to bear a few more things in mind beyond what you would with a regular cryptic.

  1. First and foremost is the grid. While the way you frame the clues themselves is only limited by your imagination, it is your job to ensure that answers have a fair distribution in terms of lengths to help the solvers with fitting them into the grid.

    Look at the first grid. No matter how fair and unambiguous your clues are, chances are your solvers will quickly abandon the puzzle after cold-solving a few clues.


    This second grid on the other hand has a much better distribution of word lengths. The 11 letter answers give a good starting point for your solvers.


  2. Be prepared to spend more time than your average grid fills. It is not going to be easy to find relatively non-obscure words especially with Q, X, Y, Z.

  3. Even when you finalise the words it is going to be a manual trial and error process to fit them into the grid. Software like Crossword Compiler will help you to a certain extent in terms of suggesting possible words.

  4. You can use a grid that contains more than 26 clues and still make an AJ puzzle. The excess clues give you the option to repeat some of the starting letters in your answers. That gives you some leeway in terms of trying to fit the unique answers and also allows your solvers to fix positions for some of the letters in the grid easily.

Useful Links

This article on fifteensquared discusses how to solve an AJ puzzle using Guardian 25484 (Araucaria) as an example.

Update (23rd April 2012): The Stickler (David Stickley), a setter for the Australian Crossword Club, has shared with us an AJ puzzle set by him. Solve it here. More AJ setting tips by him here.

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Shuchi said...

Hi Bhavan, Thank you for writing on a topic that has very little written about online. I'm sure your tips will encourage many of us to approach alphabet jigsaws with more confidence.

Chaturvasi said...

I remember solving some alphabet jigsaw puzzles in crossword collections such as those of Don Putnam. The Putnam books had several special puzzles set innovatively.

A variation is "alpha numeric" puzzle that I once solved several years ago. It was by David Stickley, the Australian composer. Here I think the initial letter of the solution [of some clues] was the initial letter of the preceding number when spelt out.

raju umamaheswar said...

Thanks, Bhavan for this interesting dilectation on Alpha Puzzles and You too, Schuchi, for having created this forum. In my collections, I have a Jigsaw cryptic puzzle which I could solve and piece up together as a mosaic.

One can have any number of variations of word games and I recall having solved a good lot of ceyptic puzzles that appear in the Independent, without blocks, only a few numbers and no hint, in bracket as to what is a word or a phrase in the answers . Very mind-wracking.

I'd like you to also bring out a feature on Acrostics,which as you know , is a combination of numbers and letters to be used to solve a cryptic puzzle, which invariably, is a quotation of an author and his name evolving vertically on the first column Again, a very riveting exercise of ones imagination and logic. I have yet to compleete a couple of books that I possess. One can only do these with the help of a pencil and eraser.
Oh, If only I had the time !!

Keep up your good work,

The Stickler said...


My alphanumeric jigsaw is still available online here. The numbers suggest what the answer might begin with.

I wrote the puzzle a while ago - hopefully the clues are Ok.

I've written quite a few for the Australian Crossword Club and there is a way to make compiling them easier. Insert the hard letter words first, then use the intersecting letters from those words to put the next hardest words in (if you can). Keep building this way. Try and leave yourself with the most flexible letters (S,T,C and the vowels) for the end game. Be wise with you word choices as you obviously have to write clues for them later.

David Stickley
The Stickler

Shuchi said...

Hello David

Welcome here and thanks for sharing your AJ puzzle and tips for compiling.

I've updated the main post to point to your puzzle. I have taken a print and am about to try it now.