Thursday, October 10, 2013

The difference between “challenging” and “hard” (Puzzle No. 3,298)

I think I’ve covered this ground before, but there’s a difference between puzzles that are challenging and puzzles that are merely hard.  And that, my fellow solvers, is the difference between good constructors and the rest of them.  Hard puzzles require you to recognize unusual words and know obscure facts.  Challenging puzzles are neither unusual nor obscure; they force you to see words from a different perspective.

In Crypticworld, the distinction is easier to see than in straight crosswords.  Constructors have a lot more ways to obfuscate the cluing of a common word, and this week’s The Nation puzzle is a good example.  I’ll call out some examples with the solution on Monday.

Now while I usually bust on the New York Times puzzles, today’s one was actually a timely exemplar of a strategy I’d like to see more often.   51a is a five-letter word clued: “Oxygen’s electrons, e.g.”  The answer is “octet,” which most times is a particularly awful bit of crosswordese, but good cluing saved it.  I don’t think it’s unfair: eight electrons in oxygen is straight out of high school chemistry, and it’s not unreasonable to expect most solvers to know this.  In fact I’d expect more solvers have passed high school chemistry than know the cast of Saturday Night Live (21a) or 70s prog-rock bands (59a), yet you see pop culture clues a lot more often than you see science.  And if you do see science, it’s usually in the service of awful crosswordese answers like “DNA” (58d)

Hex are a good example too.  I’ve learned that one of their tricks, in both straight and cryptic crosswords, is to make use of secondary and tertiary definitions.  They’re clear, but not obvious.  You wouldn’t want to go overboard on them, just like you wouldn’t want to bluff all the time in a poker game, Related tip: don’t go for the variants everyone else uses: at this point, when I see the word “flower” in a clue, my first thought is a river.

The Nation Puzzle No. 3,298

Link to puzzle

Degree of difficulty (by standards of this weekly puzzle): moderate to hard, in the good way.  I circled a half-dozen answers to consider calling out to you in the annotation.

Hozom’s comment:  “Local Man Actually Eats Calendar (7)” in which Hot and Trazom consider more playful clue readings, and whether it’s cricket to leave an article in a clue if it doesn’t contribute to the wordplay.  Remember: “definition, wordplay, and nothing else.”

If you get to the advanced level of solving, you’d better be willing to handle clues that might not fit that rule, because the constructors may need to do it in the service of a larger cause, like stringing clues together in verse (a Sondheim favorite) or making the nth word in a clue part of some bonus meta-solution (something Kevin Wald is especially good at).

Solution and annotation to Puzzle No. 3,298 on Monday.  Join us this weekend as always for Sunday Brunch!

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