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A tie in the US national Spelling Bee competition this week, between Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe. A tie only happens when the broadcast organisers run out of available words to spell. That's right, run out. Good job, kids.

This Youtube clip from the event is quite funny in a Schadenfreudy way: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNizNz5Tma8

14-year-old Hathwar told ESPN: "I think we both know that the competition is against the dictionary, not against each other." Gonna steal that line for the Times Crossword Championship (especially for losing...)

Suiting the solvers

Long ago when I wrote my last post about crosswords not suiting solvers' tastes (or strengths) I planned to follow it up almost immediately with a companion post about Sudoku. Here we go.

It has been documented that Thomas Snyder was unsatisfied with the final puzzle set in the first World Puzzle Championship. Using a relentlessly logical method, both he and compatriot Wei-Hwa Huang struggled in the live final, allowing Jana Tylova of the Czech Republic to finish first, having made an assumption while solving in order to progress. The view of the two Americans, and quite a few Sudoku solvers whom I have spoken to since, was that it was inappropriate to set a puzzle that required such deep logic that it was quicker to solve it by what Thomas has called 'bifurcation' (and what many solvers call 'guessing').

In later years, I understand that another Czech, Jakub Ondrousek, stole a march on many solvers in classic sudokus by virtue of a superior (speedier) 'guessing' technique than the best solvers who eschewed this method. Which poses the question: should the standard of puzzles in such events be set specifically to reward the better pure logicians?

I can see the rationale for saying: yes - that those are the people who should be identified as the best. But my feeling tends more towards the idea that solvers should be prepared to deal with whatever they get, perhaps even randomly chosen for difficulty or logical intricacy, as that seems to me to mark out the best Sudoku solver. As with crosswords, I think the solvers should have to deal with whatever puzzle they get, rather than that the setters should be forced to accommodate the talents of the 'best' solvers.

[At the UK Open Championship this year, the classic sudoku round was a 45-minute 20-puzzle speedburst in which none of the puzzles were individually very difficult. This may have stemmed from an organiser view of "since the classics are the most straightforward puzzles in logical terms, we might as well test speed in this round, and save the logic for the variants." I'm not sure if my view that this was a dull decision is because of, or in spite of, my opinion above.]

Tell it not in Gath

In last week's Sunday Times cryptic, one of the clues was "Dirty little hospital nurses recording for broadcast news? No! (4,2,3,2,4)". It didn't hold me up once I had a few checking letters, as I was aware of the phrase and its metaphorical usage. I can understand that others weren't. What interests me about the volley of criticism the compiler received is that I think my attitude when I come across (or 'came across', as it used to be the case a lot more often years ago) answers I don't know is to think that it is me at fault rather than the compiler.

So for the last 25 years at least I suppose I have been alert to new words, phrases or information that I might need to know at some point. I appreciate that most solvers are trying to relax with the puzzle rather than challenge themselves for their future benefit, but I'm intrigued that there's an instinct to blame the compiler - a couple of days later a daily puzzle was accused of being 'obscurantist', as if the compiler was gratifying himself by peddling his superior knowledge, with no concern for the readership.

Perhaps this is a development of a world in which there is some dialogue and rapport between setters and solvers, thanks to the Internet especially. In the above case, the compiler, being one of those who puts his head above the parapet, justified his answer - and was criticised again (though perhaps he did himself few favours by having provided a clue that made it very hard to be sure about the answer without previously knowing it, one of the usual benefits of the cryptic form). If more dialogue means more criticism, so that eventually the puzzles' level of knowledge required is brought down to the audience's level acquired, I think that is a shame - although obviously the ethos of the Times puzzle since about 40 years ago has already moved a long way in that direction, which has been generally a good thing. Actually I feel a bit conflicted about this.

Apr. 7th, 2014

It was good to see aphis99 (Andrew Fisher) featured for the second time recently in Allan Simmons's weekly Scrabble column for the Times. As a former World Championship runner-up,he has attained great heights in the game - as well as being a fine cryptic crossword solver and compiler ... and reader of this blog.

I still bear no malice against him for A Multi-Part Puzzle by Poat, which ended my hopes of extending a four-year run of correct Listener solutions to record proportions. Indeed, it remains the only Listener puzzle in the last ten or so years in which I have not understood the requirements (as opposed to 'entered everything correctly'), though a failing memory may be supporting an absurd claim there. In that case, my musical ignorance helped me to not realise that 'A Simple Neum' was not the generic required description of what was intended as a specific reference to Tallis's fine choral work 'Spem in Alium'.

Indeed, I should thank Andrew for ending that run, as the time I used to spend checking and rechecking Listener submissions is probably now devoted to other pursuits, or maybe even work, to the benefit of the rest of my life. And while it's a little galling to end up with 3 or 4 Listeners marked wrong each year, it's probably better than spending hours going over and over old ground.

A weekend of puzzles

It was good fun in Croydon this weekend at the UKPA's annual face-to-face tournament. The Puzzle Competition was won by a mile by Neil Z (UK runner-up in Sudoku), scoring almost twice his nearest rival's tally, which was amazing. The Sudoku was won by Vincent Bertrand, a charming Belgian visitor, with Tom Collyer (runner-up in Puzzles) taking the UK title. As Tom is co-ordinating the puzzles for the WSC in August, it looks like by finishing 2 places behind him I have qualified for the team, which is a delight.

Thanks to the volunteer organisers and puzzle setters, who did a super job. It all bodes well for August.

Being there

I'm competitive by nature, and nothing beats face-to-face contests. (Although I can feel quite hooked on online solving just after a decent result too, like solving 5 puzzles in the Puzzle Grand Prix Round 2 last week while Neil Z was finishing 12.)

This weekend it's the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which I have been to a couple of times, including last year. At the end of the month comes the UK Puzzle Association annual championships, and then next month it's DASH. That's all a bit too much, given family life and the busiest period of the year at work, so in a judgement between Brooklyn and Croydon, the journey of 14 miles beats the 3,500-mile one. And I'll be doing DASH too - excellent!

But I'll miss the ACPT, for its welcome, camaraderie, superb organisation and quality puzzling. Good luck to everyone going, though you'll need an uncharacteristic mistake from Dan Feyer to have a chance at the prize in the main event. I noticed that in the excellent puzzle blog 'Rex Parker does the NYT Crossword Puzzle', 'Rex' bills himself as the "40th Greatest Crossword Solver in the Universe" on the strength of his last ACPT result. Even allowing for a lack of extra-galactic activity in the field, this is quite a grandiose claim conflating America with the World, a sentiment not unfamiliar to US-watchers. But maybe Rex believes that non-US puzzles don't merit the name 'crossword'... no response to my email to him yet anyway.

A good year for me to miss anyway, as the Cryptic Challenge has been subsumed into a 'Carnival of Puzzles' tomorrow night, though I'm sure that will be fun. Best wishes to all making the pilgrimage.

Fitting it all in

I'm often asked how much I practise at crosswords. I think the answer tends to be 'a lot less than you think'. The only cryptic I do daily is the Times, and I also do its T2 (quick) puzzle online. So that's less than ten minutes each day usually. However, I have been keeping up with the New York Times puzzle for almost a year, which is only a time drain when I catch up on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday puzzles, which could take 15 minutes each.

The Times weekend Jumbos take another 20 minutes between them (weekly), and the Listener is usually less than an hour, though this is the one that might occasionally stretch the time frame. So that's about 3.5 hours a week. Throw in my Magpie test-solving duties at another hour or two a week, and occasional catch-ups on One Across magazine and the Spectator, and it still doesn't qualify as a rigorous practice regime.

However, I do spend a lot of idle time between things (especially commuting) knocking out sudoku puzzles. And now I want to have a go at the Sudoku and Puzzle Grand Prix properly this year. That's 90 minutes every two weeks until June, with some preparation time understanding the puzzle types I haven't seen before. Ideally, more preparation time would yield better results, but can't be done. Other things I'd like to try and keep up with are: Matt Gaffney's Weekly Contest, PuzzledPint, and one-off events like DASH and the UKPA Championships.

And I also seem to be playing a couple of evenings of bridge a month. Heigh ho.

What I might add in if I didn't have a day job, or a family: More cryptics (Guardian, Independent, Telegraph); more advanced cryptics (EV, IQ, Crossword Club); more bridge (including some tournaments); more Mystery Hunt activity; dipping my toe in Scrabble (online or even tournament); more Puzzle solving (Croco, Nikoli); a quiz league; more setting. The suspicion has to be that it's the job and the family keeping me sane.

Puzzled Pint

It was very good to attend the monthly Puzzled Pint last night near Holborn, and to meet (and join) up with Mr and Mrs Dickoon and their friends. Watching Chris immediately identify reasonably familiar (to him) puzzle and code types was educational, and being able to chip in a little was nice. I can see that the puzzles weren't as original as the DASH ones, but they came together very nicely with the Spinal Tap theme, and made for a fun evening.

Perhaps the most interesting thing was the numbers attending. A downstairs bar that seemed quite big proved insufficient to hold all the participants, poor Dan Peake (who ran the event splendidly) had to twist the bar staff's arms to run off extra puzzle copies, so some teams were waiting the best part of an hour for puzzles to work on. Chris's estimate was that 30 at the last event had doubled to 60 at this one, which can only bide well for the appetite for puzzles and puzzle events in general.

Roddy Forman

My next-door neighbour at the 1999 Times Crossword Championship final noticed me struggling with the Listener in between the competition puzzles. “I’m the setter of next week’s,” he told me, which didn’t help settle any nerves. So began a friendship with Roddy Forman, who I was to meet regularly at Listener events as well as solving tournaments.

Three years later when Simon & I floated the idea of following Mike Rich’s Tough Crosswords, Roddy tracked down a phone number for me and gave us plenty of advice. He entered Magpie history as a setter in issue no 1, and maintained an annual average of one puzzle solo and one in collaboration thereafter.

Often trenchant or punchy by email, he was the soul of geniality and generosity in person. Chris Lear was among the many people he introduced to the Crossworld by inviting them as his guest to the Listener Dinner, though for some reason he felt Chris had deceived him by not being related to Edward Lear.

When he contacted us in November with a puzzle for which he had a grid and preamble but no energy left to complete the clues, it was a pleasure to pitch in so that the puzzle could be published quickly. Roddy even saw fit to compliment the clues, to my surprise, though not my minor tweak to the preamble, to whose precision as always he was fiercely attached.

Roddy was a solver and setter of great repute. As well as several Times Crossword final appearances, he was a multiple all-correct in the Listener and had won the Salver. His puzzles always drew rave reviews and he was rightly considered a doyen. He was comfortable in both cryptic and numerical fields and happy to act as a test-solver, and constructive advisor, for a huge number of compilers. He will be much missed.

Roddy died on Monday, January 27th, 2014. The above was posted on the Magpie's website this week.

New Editor

Word reaches me that Richard Rogan has been appointed as the eighth editor of The Times Crossword. This is very good news as Richard is one of the foremost cryptic clue-writers currently, and a great guy. The institution could not be in safer hands, I believe.

It strikes me as unlikely that the advertisement mentioned below played a large part in the recruitment, though it's probably good that the role should be theoretically open. A lot of the top crossword editing posts now seem to be in hands of which I thoroughly approve, no doubt making me part of a sinister cabal.

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