Tuesday 28 October 2014

How to Excel at IXL

indian-crossword-league-logo If you are (or aspire to be) a participant in the Indian Crossword League (IXL), the annual crossword-solving contest in India, then this post will give you strategies to improve your rank/score in the online rounds leading to the finals. You have to be good at cracking cryptic clues of course, but you can do a bit more to maximize your chances of acing the competition.

All the best!

1 Respect the clock

Rank in the online rounds of IXL depends on the absolute time of submission, NOT the elapsed time of your solving session. All-correct entries are ranked first, then submissions with 1 error, then those with 2 errors. Since the IXL crosswords happen to be generally easy, many others will be finishing with no errors, clocking similar solving times as yours - even a few seconds here or there can affect your rank.

Do you tend to complete the IXL crossword but don't time it closely? Then you can easily improve your rank by tightening your approach. Don't waste a moment once the contest puzzle is made available. Be logged in to the IXL site, poised to start solving as soon as the grid is up. Don't let go till you have cracked the last clue and submitted the puzzle.

While solving, keep distractions at bay. Enlist the help of family/housemates to attend to pressing non-IXL matters. Turn the phone silent. If there is any chance that your internet connection can get disrupted, have a backup within easy reach.

Do what it takes for you to start solving at the earliest, and finish without interruptions.

2 Understand the IXL house style

Reconnoitre before you battle! Browse through the past IXL puzzles if you haven't attempted them before – those of 2014 rounds are available here for registered members. A short summary/guide from my observations:

  • The puzzles are easy – solvers who can finish The Hindu crossword should be able to glide through an IXL crossword faster.

  • Your knowledge about India – its geography, famous people, popular culture – has to be sound. Rita Faria, NIT, Irula, Dalma, Narasimha, Una are some of the references that have shown up in the IXL puzzles. 

  • If your solving experience has been with Ximenean crosswords, you'll have to cast aside a few expectations while you solve for the IXL. You can find here instances of false lowercasing, non-standard connectors and anagrinds, elisions of the "indeed" sort. Whether these devices are right or not is a topic for another discussion, but if your aim is to score well with an IXL puzzle, it's better to be open to the possibility of such "transgressions" than to find yourself unable to solve a clue.

  • Don't set so much store by house style that a sudden change upsets your balance. In the 2013 IXL finals, none of the top 10 finalists could complete the crossword in 30 minutes. With hindsight, I think part of the reason was that the online rounds had conditioned us to simpler puzzles – a moderately difficult one in a different style caught us off guard.

3 Review your answers before you submit

The most gut-wrenching – and also the most prevalent - way to lose points in the IXL is through typos. Guess why I lost rank in 2013: R5, why Kishore M is not near the top in 2014: R6? Yes – typos.

In a timed contest, it is natural to want to hit "Submit" the instant one has finished. Resist that urge. A single minute spent on post-solving review might perhaps cause rank drop, but a single error can throw you right off the leaderboard.

4 Practice solving on the computer

Many experts are used to solving with pen/pencil and paper. They whiz through the crossword when they have it in print form, but are out of their comfort zone when it comes to interactive online crosswords.

If the lines above describe you, and are you keen on the IXL, you have to roll up your sleeves now and master the basic skill of solving online. Don't let the process of finding where the letters on the keyboard are, and how to navigate through the grid, eat into your precious solving time.

Practice with the interactive solving option of other free crosswords online, such as the Hindu Business Line crossword or the Guardian cryptic.

A few other online solving tips specifically for the IXL:

  • Unlike other online solving platforms, in the IXL grid, the cursor does not move automatically to the next cell after a cell is filled. Using the arrow keys to move to the next cell can be faster than using mouse clicks.

  • Use the "Save" button judiciously. Every save-refresh cycle can take up to a few seconds: if you overuse it, you delay your submission time. If you underuse it, you risk losing much of your work if something untoward (such as a power-cut that disconnects your internet) happens. I use the "Save" button about 4-5 times during my solving session.

  • Check that the IXL grid works on more than one browser, so that you can switch to another browser in case of a technical glitch. It has happened with me in one of the IXL rounds that keystrokes did not work on Firefox, and I had to switch to Chrome to enter my solution.

5 Aim for overall score, not for top rank

The scores of each round are totalled for the overall leaderboard. Observe the stats of 2013 and also the in-progress leaderboard of 2014 - you'll find that the top rankers did not have the best ranks in every round, but they had good scores throughout the contest.

For example, the current leader Mohsin's ranks in 2014 in the first seven rounds: 2, 1, 1, 5, 3, 7, 3. So he was #1 on the leaderboard "only" about 29% of the time. Now check his overall score after seven rounds: 685, which is so solid that even if he had skipped an online round in which he ranked #1, he'd still have been among the top 10.

2013 champion Deepak Gopinath was not #1 in any online round last year (a fact he modestly reminds us of in his video message).

In the IXL, a solver who completes every round correctly in 30 minutes has a higher chance of reaching the finals than a solver who submits in 15 minutes, but with an error sometimes.

6 Deal with "iffy" clues cleverly

Once in a while in the IXL, you will be faced with this situation: a last unsolved clue seems to be plain wrong. Since a solving error in the contest has huge costs, you don't want to submit with a mistake in your entry. So you stare at the clue interminably, unsure whether the crossword has a mistake or your answers do. I guess all seasoned IXL players would have experienced this sometime or the other – hands up for LTI of Round 4! 

There is no easy way out of this dilemma, and the best solvers can trip up in this situation despite all caution. Still, here's a checklist to minimize the chance of error at your end.

  • Scrutinize all the intersecting answers, against the definition as well as wordplay. Is it possible that a checking letter you've entered needs revision? If in doubt, try answering the clue without that intersecting answer.

  • If the crossings are fine, ignore the enumeration given for the unsolved clue – take only the total length into account, assume that the answer might break up into smaller words differently. It can so happen that the setter missed changing the default single-number length provided by the crossword compiling software to multi-word length - an error that's been found in newspaper crosswords too.

    This was the problem with the clue for LTI – the length had been specified as (3) at first, and changed to (1,1,1) later. [which reminds me of a post by the Guardian crossword editor Hugh Stephenson: Has the time come to change the BBC from (1,1,1) to (3)?]

  • Abide by the Holmesian dictum: "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth"

    For example, no answer fits this clue from 2014:R1 - "Channel shades (7) C_L_U_S", but COLOURS seems like the least improbable choice. It defines "shades", and one can safely deduce that the setter, while crafting a double-definition, missed the fact that the TV channel's name is spelled Colors.

    We can argue that the IXL puzzles should not have errors at all. Such a lapse is not fair to the solver - but we don't live in an ideal world, and errors can creep in despite the setter's best efforts.

  • Don't submit with the intractable clue unanswered - put in the most likely answer you can think of. The penalty for a blank cell is the same as that for a wrongly entered cell.

7 "Don't quit before you quit"

Sheryl Sandberg's words from Lean In apply well to solvers who make small mistakes in the early rounds, and give up on participating further while the contest is still in progress. A low overall rank/score midway through the contest might persuade you to think that you've lost your position irredeemably, but the fact is: you are not the only one who can make those mistakes. Others in the top 10 of the in-progress leaderboard can have out-of-form days, make typos, skip rounds due to other commitments – just like you. See the contest through till the end, keep giving it your best shot, and you never know - the tables can turn.

8 Connect with the community

Interact with other crossword solvers who are participating in the IXL, learn from their experiences. Two places to find fellow participants are The Hindu Crossword Corner blog (which is run by the IXL 2013 Champion) and the FB group IXL'14 Players.

Above all else, enjoy the contest!

Related Posts:

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Col_Gopinath said...

Well summarised Shuchi. I bombed on Narasimha in R1 of IXL 2013 and learnt a lesson after that.

Shachii said...

Brilliant! Thanks for sharing these tips and tricks! I need to work on the Holmesian dictum! I think I've wasted too much time!!


Anonymous said...

Hi to everyone from the specimen exhibited. Guilty as charged ...

Mukundala Balasubramanyam said...

Tips worth their weight in gold! A brilliant write-up!! I am in the category of also-rans but aiming to figure in the top 50 or 40 keeping in mind all the points/tricks that you have shared with us. Thank you, Suchi. :)

Bhargav Gopal said...

I was under the impression that COLORS channel is spelt as 'COLOURS' !

Lakshmi Vaidyanathan said...

Nice write-up Shuchi ! Hope to do better in the last remaining rounds . I am losing points because of unnecessary tension :( I must learn to enjoy solving not solve under pressure looking for points :(

mohsin said...

Just clicked on last year's R5 LB. Going by the scores, I believe it's the one with TOUR NORTH//TRUE NORTH. Did you get this one wrong or make a typo in another clue?

Sowmya said...

Interesting post Shuchi - perfect timing as well:) I totally agree with the two points on 1. Allotting time to check for errors (learnt a lesson in R4:() 2. Making sure there are no blanks. These two together can be game changers. The organisers have done a commendable job in transforming an arm-chair exercise to a nail biting contest:) Am glad it's become really popular and even more competitive this year.

Shuchi said...

Thanks everyone who found the tips useful.

@mohsin: I can't find a way to view my 2013 submissions, but my typo was A instead of N in UKRAINE. I thought it was R5 because of my rank, had totally forgotten about TOUR NORTH - which I had also got wrong!

Kishore said...

Sorry, my comment above got posted as Anonymous

Kishore said...

Good job, Shuchi. Well written

mohsin said...

Btw, "If there is any chance that your internet connection can get disrupted, have a backup within easy reach" --- lesson learnt (R6).
Cost me about 8 minutes :)

Vasant said...

A teacher clearly explaining to all( especially to back benchers like me) how to crack the board exams. Thanks a lot

Shuchi said...

@Kishore: Thanks.

@mohsin: Ah, on seeing the R6 leaderboard I had wondered what might have held you up.

R7 has taken me the longest time to complete so far - 35 minutes for one last clue! Lesson reminder: 2 (iii).

@vasant: :-D

SandhyaP said...

@Suchi: Thanks a ton for the tips! My typing skills are bad - your tip about using the arrow keys to move to the next cell instead of the mouse is definitely for me. :)
All the best to you! May the best man/woman win.

Subbaraman said...

I remember 'Narasimha' from 2013 and I get it right.But it was not in R1 but a later round since last year I started only from R3 after seeing a report about IXL in the papers.

Kishore said...

A friend confessed using Google, since it was not prohibited by the rules...

maddy said...

Great post shuchi. Kudos to the organisers for the amazing endeavour. As a victim of two typos, one in this round, which along with LTE has damaged my chances, perhaps beyond repair, the rechecking aspect cannot be emphasised enough.

All the best to everyone for the remaining rounds, especially those sweating to make the top ten.

One more tip, maybe borderline cheating for the purists, but do keep a google and wiki tab standby since more often than not it may be required to verify the answer for the last clue standing.

Shuchi said...

@maddy: For you, #7 :-) All the best!

Ramki Krishnan said...

Excellent set of tips, Shuchi - thanks! I've already burnt myself badly twice on 2 of the points - knowledge about India and typos :(

BTW, does anyone know whether the number of wrong letters in the wrong answer makes any difference at all?


Vasant said...

If it is the same clue, it took me 45 minutes, Shuchi!

Vasant said...

Ramki: I guess it does.In R6 I had two wrong letters in the same clue & my position plummeted to 31( after the initial 72 anounced 1st)

Subbaraman said...

I was one of the victims of the 'LTI'conundrum,(R4?) may be also because it was 3 intially and not 1,1,1.As a result, I got 'Leo'for 'sign', which led to 'longspan'in the down clue, instead of 'wingspan'; so errors galore and loss of valuable points! But it is all in the game!

Srividya said...

Thank you Shuchi...a great set of tips :)

Venkatesh said...

Mohsin was #1 in the Leaderboard in 2 of the 6 Rounds. That would make it 33.3%, not 25%. (Re. point 5)

Shuchi said...

Well spotted, Venkatesh :-) Have updated that line to reflect the status after R7.