Thursday, November 29, 2012

Bar exam II (Puzzle No. 3,263)

Years ago, there was a series of beer ads about the Utica Club Bar Exam.  Three identical mugs, one filled with Utica Club, the other two with some other beer.  If you could tell which of them was the Utica Club, you passed.

Cryptic solvers get a bar exam of their own this week, since Hot and Trazom have given us a bar-style puzzle.  There are two main sub-species of cryptic crosswords: block-style and bar-style, so named obviously because in the latter, words are separated by black bars instead of blocks.

From the constructor's perspective, the two types present different constraints and different challenges.  Bar-style is challenging because nearly every letter has to be checked.  It's tough to fill a bar-style grid without resorting to obscure or crossword-ese words.  On the other hand, block-style is constrained by the rotational symmetry that is convention in English-language crosswords.  Novice constructors often do asymmetric grids as their first puzzles (though sometimes constructors do asymmetric grids to enhance the theme of a puzzle).

For the solver, bar-style cryptics usually mean variety puzzles: the kind where some answers are unclued (like this week's puzzle) or you might have to alter answers before they will fit into the grid.  You usually can't do that with a block cryptic: with so many unchecked letters, there might be several way to make the alteration work.

More to the point, bar-style cryptics are usually more difficult than their block cousins.  But this bar puzzle is not a stumper: it is solvable for the intermediate-level puzzler, but challenging enough to give you a sense of accomplishment when you're through.  And like many variety cryptics, there's a kicker: a little extra reward.  Crossword bloggers like Matt Gaffney call it a "meta."

The tag line on the beer ads: once you passed the bar exam, you could try a case!  So take this exam, pass it, and then try this month's Richard Maltby puzzle in Harper's, or some of Hex's bar-style puzzles for the Wall Street Journal (we're due for one soon, I think).

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty:  Pretty easy, even the unclued answers.

Hozom's comment: The Finishing Steps, in which Hot and Trazom give us an acronym for something we solvers sometimes feel: IGIBIDGI.  They talk about the difference between filling the grid, which is enough for many, and truly solving the puzzle by cracking the wordplay of each clue.  I definitely fall in the latter category (see entry 3,250 for example).  Skipping the wordplay sometimes means missing out on the most clever parts of the puzzle, while working out the finishing steps hones your solving skill and loads the memory bank with little tricks and hints you might see again in a future.

I'd like to hear a little from them about the differences between constructing bar-style puzzles and constructing block-style, since they've had considerable experience with both.  How hard is it to avoid getting caught up in the meta and keep focus on a satisfying grid that doesn't rely on bad entries to make it work?

Solution and annotation posted Monday.

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