In the TV show Monk, John Turturro holds a recurring guest role as Adrian Monk‘s brother Ambrose, an agoraphobe with an encyclopedic intellect who supports himself writing multilingual manuals for consumer products ranging from handguns to sink faucets. His occupation is one of the less-thought-about lines of work but whose output is omnipresent and not thought of beyond its face value.
We’re surrounded by the results of what took many people years to master production of but that we take completely for granted as simply existing. One of those products is the humble crossword puzzle, which has been in existence for less than a hundred years, but that is ingrained into our collective conscience. We pass time doing them while stuck on plane rides; we brag about filling in the answers with pen, scoffing at those sycophants who deign to use pencil; we can never remember if it was Hammett or Chandler who wrote The Thin Man; and it has probably never even occurred to us to think about what it takes to create a crossword puzzle or to the people who create them.
There are two main varieties of crossword puzzles: American and British. The former is a more condensed version that contains blocks of words in which all letters intersect both horizontally and vertically. British crosswords are a lattice of words that intersect only every other letter, often adding an additional puzzle with clues created with wordplay — these puzzles are called “cryptics”. American crosswords can theoretically be solved by only filling in the answers to the “across” or “down” clues, as the answer to every “across” clue creates the answers to “down” clues as well. British puzzles’ answers are not “fully checked” by intersecting answers.
We tracked down four professional crossword puzzle makers to ask them a bit about their craft, Ben Tausig, whose puzzles can be seen in The Onion and the The Chicago Reader, among many others, Ron Major, a cryptic crossword maker (under the name “Poins”) whose puzzles can be seen every week in the Northern Echo and who posts British “quick crosswords” to BestCrosswords.com, Jim Walsh, who posts his puzzles to Puzzles by Jim, and Loren Jamison, a relatively new (having started in November 2005) crossword constructor who posts his puzzles to BestCrosswords.com.
Part the First
What’s your favorite T-shirt (or if you prefer not to wear t-shirts, your favorite article of clothing otherwise)?
Ben Tausig: My hamburger shirt.
Jim Walsh: Any of my various Steeler t-shirts.
Loren Jamison: My University of Central Oklahoma football T-shirt.
Ron Major: One advertising Golden’s second largest brewery. It sort of mocks Coors.
At this moment in time, what is your favorite song?
Ben Tausig: R. Kelly – Sex in the Kitchen (Remix)
Loren Jamison: “Thinking About You” by Norah Jones
Ron Major: How to save a life – The Fray.
If you had the power to eliminate two films from the history of the world, what would they be?
Loren Jamison: To be honest, I don’t watch many movies.
What’s your favorite band that you don’t think a lot of people would have heard of?
Ben Tausig: Nervous Norvus.
Jim Walsh: Roy Buchanan & the Snakestretchers.
Loren Jamison: Squirrel Nut Zippers, a swing band from the 1990′s.
Ron Major: Blue Horizon.
What, if anything, is on any particular wall (your choice) in your domicile?
Ben Tausig: A blue mural painted by me.
Jim Walsh: A Steeler clock, a unicorn clock, a cigar store calendar, a Coca-Cola thermometer and a dartboard
Loren Jamison: The only thing on my wall is a marker board with my to-do list.
Ron Major: Timeline of the period when Shakespeare was a lad.
Where is the place where you would do anything to be?
Ben Tausig: I’ve thought hard about it, and no place fits the bill.
Jim Walsh: I guess I am pretty much OK with where I am now.
Loren Jamison: Apalachicola, Florida.
Ron Major: Venice.
What’s the strangest thing you own?
Ben Tausig: A Brassai photograph – “Brouillard, Avenue de l’ Observatoire, 1934″ – with Christmas lights in the highlights.
Jim Walsh: An enameled wooden box that contains the cremated remains of a cat.
Ron Major: My imagination.
Loren Jamison: A gold rose brooch from the TV sitcom “Sanford and Son“
How’d you get that?
Loren Jamison: I found it on eBay a few years ago.
Of the things you’ve done, what’s your all-time favorite (however you want to interpret that, be it artistic works, actions, whatever)?
Ben Tausig: When I put Spike Lee on the phone with my friend Dan, and Dan told him (truthfully) that he was going to a pizza party that night.
Jim Walsh: Hmmm…it’s a tie. I took up playing guitar again after not playing for over 30 years…and I got a divorce.
Loren Jamison: Teaching myself how to play piano.
Ron Major: Hitting a cover drive for four. (That’s cricket folks!)
What’s your highest bowling score?
Ben Tausig: 100 and change.
Jim Walsh: I think it was about 180 or so.
Loren Jamison: 146.
Ron Major: Only ever played twice and didn’t take much notice of the score.
Who’s your favorite visual artist (excluding yourself)?
Ben Tausig: William Eggleston, or maybe another color photographer from that period.
Jim Walsh: No clue. I am not much of an art lover, despite (or perhaps because of) working at an art school.
Loren Jamison: Sorry, but I can’t think of anyone.
Ron Major: Bridget Riley.
If you could make one band reconsider their decision to break up, which would it be?
Ben Tausig: I’m generally in favor of bands breaking up.
Jim Walsh: I can’t think of any. In music like in life… the only constant is change.
Loren Jamison: Once again, I can’t think of any.
Ron Major: The Beatles.
What are the five most recent films you’ve seen?
Loren Jamison: As I said earlier, I don’t watch many movies. I can’t even remember the last one I watched.
What’re your top three movies?
Loren Jamison: As I said earlier, I don’t watch many movies.
Do you own any original artwork, and if so, whose?
Ben Tausig: Photographs by Phoebe Connell.
Jim Walsh: Nope.
Loren Jamison: I don’t own any original artwork.
Ron Major: My girlfriend’s dad was good enough to sell his paintings and we have some of his.
How are your DVDs/VHS/Betamax tapes organized?
Ben Tausig: They are unorganized.
Jim Walsh: Mostly in stacks sitting on or in various pieces of furniture.
Loren Jamison: Believe it or not, I don’t own any DVDs/VHS/Betamax tapes.
Ron Major: Between two countries.
What is your favorite game?
Ben Tausig: Boggle.
Jim Walsh: Madden.
Loren Jamison: Scrabble.
Ron Major: Don’t like board games but love all ball games.
What sort of pie do you enjoy?
Ben Tausig: Pecan.
Jim Walsh: Pumpkin.
Loren Jamison: Apple pie is the only pie that I truly enjoy.
Ron Major: Lemon meringue.
If you could say one thing to David Byrne, what would it be?
Ben Tausig: I saw you at Film Forum, you deep-thinking dilettante.
Jim Walsh: Why did you let them license a classic like “Take Me To The River” to use in a singing plastic fish?
Loren Jamison: To be honest, I have no idea who David Byrne is.
Ron Major: What would you have become if your parents had stayed in Dumbarton?
Have you ever watched short track speed skating?
Ben Tausig: Perhaps; but if so, inattentively.
Jim Walsh: I didn’t even know there was such a sport.
Loren Jamison: Not that I’m aware of.
Ron Major: Yes – on TV.
Describe some horrible/otherwise amusing local commercials.
Ben Tausig: There’s a good subway ad for Dr. Zizmor, the dermatologist, in which his wife appears in a sun hat.
Jim Walsh: Any of several ambulance chasing lawyer commercials, notably one Edgar Snyder who uses the catchphrase “There’s never a fee unless we get money for YOU!” while pointing into the camera.
Loren Jamison: In a commercial for the local cable company, the person doing the voice over mispronounces the city’s name (Tahlequah).
Ron Major: Ads that tell you all the horrible side effects of the things they’re trying to sell you to make you better.
What are your five most favorite books in the world?
Ben Tausig: Hmph. Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York; Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music; Bouton’s Ball Four; and Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster – but the answer would be different in a week, probably.
What is the most boring thing you’ve ever experienced?
Ben Tausig: Data entry?
Jim Walsh: Working for almost 2 years as a corporate computer programmer.
Loren Jamison: The general physical science class I’m taking this semester.
Ron Major: Staff meetings.
If you could name a child anything in the world, what would it be?
Ben Tausig: Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia Tausig.
Jim Walsh: Cyrisse for a daughter or Spike for a son.
Loren Jamison: For a girl: Emily. For a boy: Michael.
Ron Major: Mercedes for a girl and I’d rather not have a boy.
What would be a better weapon, a gun that fires dogs or a gun that fires cats?
Ben Tausig: I disagree with weapons; neither would be better.
Jim Walsh: One that fires cats.
Loren Jamison: While I do not advocate using animals as ammunition, an angry cat would do much more damage than a dog.
Ron Major: Cats are too nice to be used as weapons.
What is your favorite meal?
Ben Tausig: Something my dad makes, traditionally (in our house) called “favorite dinner” – lamb cooked in rice and tomato sauce with parmesan cheese. Yum yum.
Jim Walsh: Hamburgers and french fries.
Loren Jamison: Lasagna.
Ron Major: Anything Indian.
Would you trade your sanity to write something incredibly beautiful/perfect?
Ben Tausig: Nope.
Jim Walsh: Nope, I want to hang on to what I got left of it.
Loren Jamison: No.
Ron Major: No.
What is reality?
Ben Tausig: As best as I can tell, reality is the filtering of our sensory judgments through two phenomena: abstraction and power. Abstractions being those systems that assume particular empirical truths and sort those truths in imaginary configurations, sometimes to be directed back at the physical world – for example, making physical calculations and then building a bridge, or ruminating on the nature of being and then producing dogma. Power being the work of agents to create monopolies; scientific, social, and economic monopolies that stabilize and naturalize certain realities instead of others. I’m totally bullshitting here.
Jim Walsh: Reality is for people who can’t handle drugs.
Loren Jamison: Reality is that annoying time between naps.
Ron Major: A noun.
Part The Second
What got you started making crosswords?
Ron Major: I just loved doing cryptics and thought I’d have a go.
Jim Walsh: I always liked doing the ones in the local papers. Some of them though seemed way too easy. I thought “I could probably do better than that” and decided to give it a try. At first even one of those ‘easy ones’ seemed more of a challenge than I thought, but once I started getting into it more I started liking the challenge of making them even more than solving them
Ben Tausig: Boredom on an airplane; I couldn’t finish a puzzle I’d brought, so I tried to complete the grid with an original fill.
Loren Jamison: One evening, I was solving some puzzles from a book called The Ultimate Crosswords Omnibus, when I noticed the bylines on each puzzle. That’s when I got the idea to do some research on making crosswords. A quick search on the Internet revealed that many newspapers, magazines, and websites buy crosswords from constructors. I decided I wanted to give it a try, so I bought some software for making puzzles, and I’ve been constructing puzzles ever since.
What’s your favorite word to use in a crossword?
Ben Tausig: JESUS or BUTT.
Jim Walsh: Whatever the last word is that fits in to complete it.
Loren Jamison: The one that fits in the grid. Seriously, I have enough trouble filling crossword grids without trying to use particular words.
Ron Major: This is a question for American compilers – British grids are easier to fill and I just pick words I think people will know.
Ron, for folks who might not be familiar with cryptics, could you give a good example of what you mean by the double-definitions for the clues, and how a British clue is different from an American one? Do you have a particular favorite clue/answer pairing that could illustrate this?
Ron Major: Cryptic clues generally have 2 parts – a straight definition and word play which also leads to the definition. The straight definition always appears at either the beginning or end of the clue. There are many different types of word play but one of the most common is the anagram and most crosswords usually include 5 or 6 of these. An example for the solution PEARLY GATES is ‘Gay prelates assembled by the entrance to heaven’. The straight definition is ‘the entrance to heaven’, ‘Gay prelates’ is an anagram of pearly gates, ‘assembled’ is an anagram indicator which solvers will pick up on and ‘by’ connects the 2 parts. In writing cryptic clues you don’t ever mean what you say but you must always say what you mean!!
Do you sometimes find it difficult to come up with different clues for same words?
Jim Walsh: Yes, after all there are only so many ways to describe what an amah is.
Loren Jamison: Most of the time, this isn’t a problem for me.
Ron Major: Yes.
Ben Tausig: If a word is truly boring, sometimes it’s better not to try to get inventive with its clue.
I’d imagine if a word was boring, spicing it up with a clue would be fun. What kind of a word would you consider ?boring??
Ron Major: A good example from an American type crossword is seen in the solution FUR COATS. A boring straight forward definition might be ‘Garments worn in winter’ whilst a more interesting clue might be ‘Hides in the cupboard’.
Jim Walsh: Probably one of the most boring words I’ve used a few times is the word ‘the’. A very simple and widely used word in the English language but I just don’t see any way to spice up the clue!
Ben Tausig: Fill-in-the-blank words are certainly the most boring – ETRE, as in “Raison de___”
Loren Jamison: I consider most three- or four- letter words to be boring, along with any obscure/archaic words. I also agree with Ben that fill-in-the-blank type words are also boring.
What are your feelings on words like “ALOE”, “EKED” or “ESNE” which seem to pop up a lot in crosswords (by dint of being mostly made with very common letters)? Do you try to avoid using those types of words as a challenge, or do they provide a nice breather in construction?
Loren Jamison: In American style crosswords, words like these are inevitable. My goal is to use them sparingly. I don’t mind using them, but using them in excess makes for a dull puzzle.
Ron Major: The use of these kinds of words is really only a problem for American compilers because of the nature of the grids.
Jim Walsh: I have used aloe quite a few times… that’s one of them nice convenient words that always seems to fit. I also use EKE in the present tense a lot too….not sure if I ever used it in past tense or not…ESNE doesn’t look familiar to me but it’s real close to ERNE which is another one of them swiss-army knife type words I get a lot of use out of.
Ben Tausig: Seconding Loren, it’s best to avoid them but they’re not the end of the world as long as they’re reasonably few and far between. In terms of the ones you mentioned, I would rate ESNE something like a 45, which is to say that it’s undesirable. (I’ll often fill a grid with a minimum word score of 49 or 50); EKED is a 49 I believe; it’s a real word and common enough, but there’s really only one way to clue it which makes it dull; ALOE is a 50 or a 55 – I have no problem with it as an entry, and with a little effort one might even be able to find an original clue.
Ben, you make reference to a rating system of words — that’s actually the first I’ve really heard of one. Could you explain it a bit? What makes a word score higher or lower?
Ben Tausig: I have my own personal rating system for my electronic word list, which helps me categorize entries when I do the fill. The software presents a list of words that fit a given pattern; the rating help me sort out which of these I’d like to use.
Ron, since British crosswords don’t rely on some of the vowel or consonant heavy ?standard? words like OLEO or ALEE, what kind of words do you find yourself re-using often?
Ron Major: I try not to use the same word twice because it means I really have to write a new clue.
How is a crossword constructed?
Ben Tausig: With a glass of whiskey in hand.
Jim Walsh: I like to fill in the theme words first and then go from there.
Ron Major: It’s not all black and white.
- The constructor decides on a theme (or decides to create a themeless puzzle).
- The theme entries are arranged in the grid (for themed puzzles).
- The constructor designs the rest of the grid by placing black squares as necessary.
- The constructor fills the grid with words.
- The constructor writes clues for the entries in the grid.
How many drafts do you typically go through on a puzzle? Or does figuring out the proper words to interlock just come natural? Does it just “click” like when an anagram makes itself obvious?
Loren Jamison: When filling the grid, I usually go through the puzzle several times in an attempt to improve the quality of the words used in the grid. I start by completely filling the grid. After the grid is filled, I identify sections of the puzzle that need improvement. This process can take me three or four hours.
Do you like other sorts of puzzles?
Ron Major: Have tried Sudokus but…
Ben Tausig: I’m not sure I have a good definition handy as to what constitutes a puzzle, but I generally enjoy the process of looking at something with finite boundaries that requires concentration, evaluation, and time to be better understood – but which promises a reasonable endpoint to the interpretation. This includes Sudoku, the word and logic puzzles in Games magazine or those produced by the National Puzzler’s League, and cryptics, but also might encompass difficult reading material or music with a concrete but deliberately elusive logic, etc.
Loren Jamison: I enjoy doing sudoku puzzles particularly well. However, my favorite type of puzzle is still crosswords.
Jim Walsh: Anacrostics, I think they are called.
Jim, could you explain a bit more about anacrostics? For folks who might not know, what are they? Do you find a sort of sideways kinship with them and crosswords?
Jim Walsh: Wow, this might take a minute! Anacrostics are laid on a grid sort of like a crossword puzzle, but that’s kind of where the kinship ends I would say. They way they work is that each white space on the grid represents a letter, and each square is numbered and has a letter as well. In this grid, all the words go across and the black spaces indicate the boundaries between words. The letters correspond to the clues, which consists of the clue itself, and a series of dashes representing the answer, one dash per letter. Each dash has a number underneath. This number indicates the space on the grid that the letter belongs in. This allows you to work back and forth between the clues and the grid. For example you can fill in the answer to a clue you are sure about, transfer those letters to the grid and then look for familiar patterns there. Say you have the letters “TH” and then a blank…you assume that the word is most likely “THE” so you write an ‘E’ in that empty square. Then using the letter/number combo on the square you add that ‘e’ to the answer in the clue section. So say the square was number 56 and letter G you would put the ‘e’ in dash number 56 in clue ‘G’. When it is completed, the words on the grid will be a quotation, and the first letter of each answer in the clue section spells out the author and the work the quote was from. I’ve never tried making one of these, I take my hat off to those who do!
Are there any kinds of puzzles that people seem to really like that you just can’t get into?
Loren Jamison: Not that I can think of. I enjoy just about any kind of puzzle.
Ben Tausig: Not that I can think of.
Ron Major: Wordsearches – they just seem a waste of time.
Jim Walsh: Despite it being quite the rage, and even though I feature them on my website, I am not really a big fan of Sudoku puzzles. They remind too much of the kind of stuff we used to have to do in math class…which was always my worst subject in school. I always preferred words over numbers. I guess that’s why I am a cruciverbalist and not a CPA. (CPA… now there’s another Swiss-Army knife word I use a lot)
Have you made any other sorts of puzzles?
Ben Tausig: Not professionally or even competently.
Jim Walsh: Yes…I’ve made wordsearches before.
Loren Jamison: Not yet.
Ron Major: My main work is cryptic crosswords. I supply a couple of British papers.
How many puzzles do you think you’ve done?
Ben Tausig: Maybe 400? Yikes.
Jim Walsh: Hundreds, probably.
Loren Jamison: I’m actually fairly new to crossword construction. I’ve probably only made about 25 puzzles.
Ron Major: Hundreds of straight crosswords and about 80 cryptics.
Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to crossword puzzles?
Jim Walsh: Overuse of foreign words.
Loren Jamison: My only pet peeve is when constructors write clues that don’t match the part of speech of the entry. For example, using the clue “It’s not easy” for HARD would be incorrect since the clue is referring to a noun, but the entry is an adjective. Clues have to match the part of speech of the entry.
Ron Major: The pay’s no good.
Ben Tausig: The timidity with which STD is generally clued.
In regards to Ben’s peeve of the timidity of “STD”‘s clues, what’d your ideal, non-timid clue be?
Loren Jamison: Honestly, I’m too timid to even use STD in a puzzle. Most newspapers and magazines that purchase crosswords for publication will not accept puzzles that contain words relating to depressing/offensive subjects, so I generally avoid those words. If I absolutely had to use STD in a puzzle, I would probably clue it as “A doctor’s degree in theology” and let Ben be mad at me!
Ben Tausig: Things you catch in the act?
Ron Major: I’d never have to use it but I think Ben’s clue is excellent. Since I’ve been banging on about cryptics there’s no reason to stop now. We hardly ever use answers which are initials. They crop up a lot in American style crosswords because of the nature of the grids. Also cryptic clues tend to be humorous and/or misleading rather than overtly adult so forgive me if my offering doesn’t really answer the question. A type of clue we use a lot is the ‘double meaning’. A recent example of mine is, ‘Photographer of fish’ = SNAPPER as a snapper is both a photographer and a fish. In the UK STD also means ‘Subscriber Trunk Dialing’. It’s a telephone system so a possible double meaning clue is, ‘A way of communicating what might be produced by Congress’.
Jim Walsh: I guess it would all depend on where the puzzle was being published… certainly my ideal non-timid clue wouldn’t be appropriate for an all-ages type of publication…but in some places it might be acceptable.
Assuming that this site is acceptable for a more adult clue (which I think it is, being the guy who runs it!), what would that clue be?
Jim Walsh: LOL…I was afraid someone was going to ask…OK here goes…I thought a really cool (but probably unusable) clue for STD would be to say “Fucking you get for the fucking you got” …sorry but you DID ask! (Hmmm…that clue could also work for the word ALIMONY as well!)
On the STD tip, can you give an example of how you have ? or would ? try to spice up your puzzles?
Ron Major: I think I’ve given the FUR COATS example above although that is not one of my clues.
Jim Walsh: I kind of liked the one mentioned earlier…’caught in the act’….that’s one that would be able to be used in any audience.
Loren Jamison: I like to try to use words that aren’t used often in crosswords, but are still common in everyday language. For example, the word DAZZLE isn’t used much in crossword puzzles because of the unusual letter combination of two Zs; however, it is still a lively word that most people know.
Do you have any advice to folks who’d like to make crosswords?
Ben Tausig: It’s a fun, rewarding hobby. If you really like solving crosswords, and if feel motivated to construct, you’ll almost certainly be good at it. If you hone your skills, it won’t take long before you can publish absolutely anywhere – there is relatively little dues-paying in crosswords, so if your work is solid then it’s fair game for the Times right away. That’s my motivational advice. Otherwise, I would encourage you to be as iconoclastic as possible. There are lots of great rules to be broken.
Jim Walsh: Get some puzzle construction software…it beats going through reams of paper….think of the trees!
Loren Jamison: Buy a book on constructing crossword puzzles. My personal favorite is Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies by Patrick Berry.
Ron Major: Don’t be disappointed by rejection.
What’s the largest crossword you’ve ever done?
Ben Tausig: Sunday-sized, 21×21.
Jim Walsh: A couple of 21 x 21 grids.
Loren Jamison: 15×15 is the largest size I’ve constructed. I haven’t tried my hand at the larger Sunday puzzles yet.
Ron Major: I hate large crosswords – if it’s bigger than 15×15 then it’s too big.
Do you have any sort of dream project crossword? One that might be too daunting to attempt, even, but you could dream? (Sort of a Spruce Goose, I suppose…)
Loren Jamison: Not really. I would like to attempt a 21×21 or 23×23 Sunday crossword puzzle sometime. Or maybe make the world’s largest crossword puzzle…
Ron Major: I’ve always wanted to do a series of cryptics with a Shakespearean theme. The problem is that once you tell people the theme part of the challenge has gone.
Ben Tausig: A crossword that can fly me across the ocean.
Jim Walsh: I always say if you can dream it then you can do it…I guess trying something on a grand scale like a 100 X 100 grid would be interesting…but it would probably be more of a nightmare than a dream!
What’s your favorite one you’ve made?
Ben Tausig: A tightly-themed puzzle a couple years ago about procrastination.
Jim Walsh: Heavenly Music…it’s my first one ever published online.
Loren Jamison: I don’t really have a favorite.
Ron Major: One with Macbeth as the theme.
Do you also like to do cryptic crosswords as much as the American style (or, in the case of Ron, do you like to do American style as much as cryptics)?
Ben Tausig: I like them, but not as much as American puzzles.
Jim Walsh: I’ve never tried to solve any cryptic ones.
Loren Jamison: I like cryptic crosswords, but for the most part, I stick with American puzzles.
Ron Major: I love cryptics and sometimes do three a day. When I’m in the States I try American crosswords and although I can usually do the easy Monday ones it’s the cultural references that catch me out.
As Ron alludes to, in the New York Times crosswords (especially when Gene Maleska was editor) there was a common belief that the puzzles got harder as the week progressed, culminating in the very hard Sunday puzzle. This was a bit debated by crossword aficionados and may or may not have been true — what do you all think?
Ron Major: Since I don’t do them a lot I don’t really know but I do know that there is a series of books called ‘Monday Puzzles’, ‘Tuesday Puzzles’ etc and they are advertised as becoming more difficult as you go through the week.
Jim Walsh: Well if I was to weigh in with my vote I would say that yes, it seems to me that the puzzles in the NYT do get more difficult as the week goes on, culmination in the killer Sunday one!
Ben Tausig: This is absolutely true now. I don’t know about before.
Loren Jamison: This is absolutely true, and it still is today. The Monday puzzle is supposed to be approachable by a novice solver. As the week progresses, the puzzles get harder. The Saturday puzzle is a challenge for even the best crossword solvers. The Sunday puzzle’s clues are actually about the same difficulty as the Thursday puzzle, but the larger size adds to the difficulty.
With the American style, what do you think about how each letter is used in two different answers? With the British style, where the crossed words alternate spaces, you can have to work harder to complete the puzzle, since you HAVE to know what the exact answer is, do the American styles almost feel like giving an extra hint?
Ron Major: In theory you only have to get half of the answers to an American crossword because if you get all the across answers you automatically have all the downs. In reality I appreciate it is not as easy as that. In British cryptics, whilst you have to get all the answers, you do get two chances as cryptic clues are constructed in two parts – each has a straight definition and a definition made from wordplay. So I think you can say that both types of clue give an extra hint.
Thematically, British and American crosswords are very different — what is your opinion of British vs. American style crosswords?
Jim Walsh: From the constructor’s viewpoint I would say that the British grids are a bit easier to fill because of less overlap between words. On the other hand, that is also what makes them (I think anyways) a bit more difficult from the solver’s point of view.
Loren Jamison: The main reason I solve American puzzles more often than cryptic puzzles is that I’m not very good at the cryptics. I can figure out some of the easier cryptic puzzles, but I have trouble with the harder ones, partly because of some of the differences between American and British English. Actually, in many ways, I feel like British-style crosswords are superior to American puzzles. For one, British puzzles don’t contain unusual words like ANOA or ALEE. Also, I like the creativity of the cryptic clues, as opposed to the straight, “dictionary-meaning” style clues of all American puzzles.
What other things do you do besides crosswords?
Ben Tausig: I study ethnomusicology at New York University, and ride my bike around the city. I cook and read.
Loren Jamison: I attend school at Northeastern State University. I’m involved with the community theatre as a technical person (lighting, sound, etc.), and I referee middle school and high school basketball.
Ron Major: Watch sport, read, theatre, art galleries, walk and exercise.
Jim Walsh: Write game and educational software (on a hobbyist basis).
What kind of games and software do you write?
Jim Walsh: I’ve done a few different Pac-Man type games…a video poker machine clone, a couple of different strategy games, which is the game genre where puzzle skills really come into play. Although none of the programs are word puzzles per se (except for one hangman-like game), the strategy is the same…using clues and hints to arrive at an answer. I also wrote a children’s version of the old ‘concentration’ game based on a popular cartoon character.
Do you find that programming and crossword construction use any similar skill sets? Both seem to require a lot of planning, but are there any other similarities you find?
Jim Walsh: To some extent they do. Making crosswords is a lot less linear of a process than writing software, but the ability to find different ways to an end comes in handy when making both of them. Another thing they both have in common is that is quite possible to put a lot of work into something only to find when you’re almost done that it isn’t going to work after all!
Have you ever thought of themed crosswords that you weren’t able to make work satisfactorily?
Ben Tausig: Sure, plenty. There are tons of great ideas out there that are constitutionally impossible, or at least that I haven’t made work yet. I once wanted to do one about bridges in which the theme entries were arranged in the shape of a bridge. I don’t think it would be manageable.
Jim Walsh: Oh yes, many times.
Loren Jamison: Of course. I’ve thought of many great theme ideas that I couldn’t make work, either because I couldn’t come up with enough suitable theme entries, or because I couldn’t fill the rest of the grid after placing my theme entries. This is probably one of the most frustrating things for a crossword constructor.
Ron Major: As soon as you include theme words it makes the whole thing more difficult.
Have you ever rejected a clue/word out of fear that it was too obscure? What was it?
Loren Jamison: I can’t think of any word that I’ve rejected because it was too obscure, but I always make sure that there are no better alternatives before putting an obscure word in a puzzle.
Ben Tausig: Many, many times. I can’t specifically recall any. For a reasonable facsimile, think of any three-letter combination that is neither a word nor a familiar acronym. TYW. WEL.
Ron Major: Unless you’re writing what’s known as an advanced cryptic when obscure words are expected it’s generally not a good idea to use them so I always try to avoid clues that you need a dictionary to solve.
Jim Walsh: Oh yes many times, usually when I am doing one of my music themed puzzles. I like a lot of old skool blues and other music that most folk probably never heard of…there’s been a few times when I’ve made the what I considered to be an excellent puzzle but then realized nobody except maybe another musician would know who the people in the puzzle were. Oh yeah and I also did one once called “Some Famous Cubans” in which I used several top-shelf Cuban cigar marques…like San Cristobal and El Rey Del Mundo…but apparently there aren’t a lot of cigar smokers out there in puzzleland… it was one of my lowest rated puzzles ever!
Do you ever find yourself mentally suggesting better clues when you do other people’s crosswords?
Loren Jamison: For the most part, no.
Ron Major: I’m usually the opposite – I marvel at how good some of the clues are that people come up with.
Jim Walsh: For the most part I don’t…although there has been a few times when I thought of some better clues for my own puzzles… but usually it’s after they have already been released
Ben Tausig: Only when I’m doing a real bottom of the barrel puzzle. Otherwise I try to respect the constructor and editor’s decisions.
At the risk of singling anyone out as a ?bottom of the barrel? puzzle maker, what would make a puzzle bottom of the barrel?
Ron Major: Cryptics with too many anagrams.
Jim Walsh: One that either is so difficult that the solver just gives up in frustration, or one that is so simple that solver gets no challenge whatsoever out of it.
Loren Jamison: In my opinion, the big thing that determines a puzzle’s quality is the words used in the puzzle. If the constructor doesn’t avoid obscure words as much as possible, he/she is going to create an unfairly difficult puzzle that nobody will want to solve.
With Will Shortz on NPR and Wordplay in the theater, not to mention books like Word Freak, does it seem like crosswords and other word games are undergoing a renaissance in popularity? What do you think about the popularization of crosswords and word games in general?
Ron Major: I think that crosswords have actually taken a back seat to Sudokus in recent years. There will probably always be a following for crosswords but I’m not so sure if as many young people do them as used to.
Jim Walsh: I think that crosswords and Scrabble and stuff like that have always had a lot of popularity with their core audiences. Movies like Wordplay (which I haven’t actually seen but I’ve heard about it) tend to widen the appeal in a way, bringing it to a more diverse audience, kind of like the movie Tommy did for pinball.
Ben Tausig: I think Shortz has done an amazing job bringing personality and genuine joy to his work, in a way that has proved addictive. I don’t believe that the present excitement about crosswords and sudoku is much more than the result of fortuitous timing, a lot of neat things happening at once. If it’s a renaissance, it’s sort of constructed. My sense is that puzzles are always wildly popular, and that the real thing happening now is an exposition of the personalities in the business.
Loren Jamison: I don’t think puzzles have gained in popularity, it’s just that they are getting more attention in the media. Crosswords have been popular for a long time, and probably will continue to be (I have to respectfully disagree with Ron about crosswords taking a back seat to Sudokus. I think that most people prefer the humor and unpredictability of human-made crossword puzzles to the monotony of sudoku puzzles).
Have you ever had occasion to attend a crossword tournament? Describe your impressions of what you know of this subculture.
Ben Tausig: Yes. Stamford (now Brooklyn) is heartwarming: a tight-knit, generative community of kind people who like each other. All of that, really.
Ron Major: I saw the movie and I was disappointed. What’s the point in completing a puzzle in 3.2 minutes? All you’re doing is showing off. I’d rather spend time chuckling over a clever clue.
Jim Walsh: Nope, never been in one.
Do you have a favorite subject for themed crosswords?
Ben Tausig: Religion, hands-down.
Jim Walsh: I like to make music themed ones.
Loren Jamison: Not really.
Ron Major: Literary subjects.
Do you have a favorite crossword author (other than yourself)?
Ben Tausig: Byron Walden is a hero. So too the late Frances Hansen. Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon.
Jim Walsh: Not really…I tend to like them all.
Loren Jamison: Not really.
Ron Major: The American cryptic setters Cox and Rathven and Henry Hook and in the UK The Guardian stars Araucaria and Paul.
The NYT crossword is generally considered the best of the best as far as crosswords are considered. What are the other mainstream ones that you consider good? Likewise, what are well-known crosswords you consider bad? On the latter, I’ll get you started with “The TV Guide crossword.”
Ron Major: I’m not a judge of the standard American crosswords. In the UK The Times has always been highly regarded but I prefer the Guardian who use a number of compilers. The Independent can be tricky whilst The Telegraph is just nice to do.
Jim Walsh: They publish The Chicago Times Sunday puzzle in one of the local papers here. I’ve always found that one to be quite a nice challenge to solve, although I likewise would give the nod to the NYT for the best. Hmmm after mentioning the TV Guide one I cant think of any others that would even compare on that side of the scale!
Ben Tausig: I like the Sun the best after the Times, sometimes even better; the LA Times is also good, as is the Wall Street Journal. Merl Reagle does amazing work in his Sunday feature. Matt Jones’ “Jonesin’” puzzle is very strong. There are a few others that I like but rarely have occasion to solve. I dislike puzzles with unchecked squares and/or an excess of crosswordese.
Loren Jamison: The only other mainstream puzzle I solve on a regular is the New York Sun’s puzzle. The one type of puzzle publication I absolutely cannot tolerate is the syndicated puzzles in the smaller newspapers. Not all syndicated puzzles are bad, but many of the ones I’ve seen are. For example, in the town I live in (Tahlequah, OK), the puzzles in the daily newspaper are very small (11×11, compared to the daily 15×15 puzzles in the NYT), they contain a ton of three- and four-letter words, and they are completely computer generated using bland, generic clues.
Do you have any other projects you’d like to mention?
Ben Tausig: Yes! I have a new book out – Gonzo Crosswords from the Village Voice. And a kid’s puzzle book from a few months ago – Mad Tausig Vs the Interplanetary Puzzling Peace Patrol. Ages 9-12, or thereabouts. But fun for all. I’m in it, as is my mother.
Jim Walsh: I have a puzzle website at www.puzzlesbyjim.com.
Loren Jamison: Not really.
Ron Major: I’m trying to learn Italian.