Monday, June 29, 2015

Third Anniversary, All Puzzles Proofread, Missing Puzzles Update, ideacity News, Davidson Young Scholars Summit, and Mark Diehl Seven-Time Blast! Winner

Third Anniversary—All Puzzles Proofread

I'm delighted to announce that today is the third anniversary of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, and all the proofread puzzles are now in!  Three years ago I started this blog and opened up the litzing, which I'd begun during my freshman year, to volunteers.  I had a great head start, thanks to the digitizing Barry Haldiman, Denny Baker, and others had already done of their favorite puzzles back in the day, and was able to systematize and massively expand the effort so that, one puzzle at a time, each of the available 16,225 puzzles would be tracked, litzed, and proofread.  And with the help of Jim Horne, creator of the incomparable XWord Info, these puzzles have gradually appeared online, year by year as we worked our way backwards through time, for everyone to enjoy.  Thanks so much again to everyone who's helped with this journey into crossword history!  Without each and every one of you, there's no way we would have come so far so quickly.  Though I still have to look through the remaining years of proofread puzzles before sending them off to XWord Info and do quite a bit of "cleanup" work with constructor names and previously posted puzzles, this is another huge milestone in the project!

Project Update

The final two batches of proofread puzzles came in over the past two weeks—the first on Thursday the 18th from Todd Gross, who sent 13 puzzles in which he'd found 89 mistakes.  (Todd also has a puzzle in today's New York Times, by the way, which he co-constructed with Andrea Carla Michaels and with which he's hit for the cycle—meaning he's now had a puzzle published on every day of the week!  Congratulations, Todd!)  And then on Friday the 26th Patsy Stewart sent in 12 more puzzles, marking the end of the proofreading—at least until the missing puzzles are found!  Thanks so much again, Todd and Patsy!

Missing Puzzles Update

Following up on my recent post about librarian Alan DerKazarian's missing puzzles research, I received two more e-mails from him with additional news.  In the first, he reported that he'd contacted the American Library in Paris and National Library of France about the 1953 New York Times strike papers and received this reply from the former:

Thank you for writing. We do have microfilm of the New York Times from those dates, but the run is quite unusual and prefaced with the following notice on the reel:

Notice: A strike affecting the major New York newspapers made it impossible to publish any editions of the New York Times during the first eight days of December, 1953. 

THE NEW YORK TIMES Book Review dated December 6, which was prepared and printed before the strikewas distributed with the Sunday, December 13th issue. 

At the beginning of this reel, you will find ten two-page papers dated November 29 through December 8. These were prepared day by day during the strike, but published after the strike and distributed as a special section of the Sunday, December 13, edition.

Since the microfilm reader at the American Library in Paris was unable to print and copy, the person who wrote back offered to photograph whatever Alan might want on the reel; Alan asked her if she could look through the two-page papers and send photos of any crosswords.  She found two and sent photos, but unfortunately, they were puzzles we already had.  Below are photos of the newspaper's notices:

Photos courtesy of the American Library in Paris.

Alan had not yet heard back from the National Library of France, and apparently the British libraries, although technically public, require an annual fee in order to use them or ask questions.  He did end up hearing from the National Library of France, though, and in a second e-mail wrote to me that the situation there was the same as at the American Library in Paris.

National Library of France response.

Courtesy of the National Library of France.

So, unfortunately, this is likely a dead end, at least with these nine days of missing puzzles.

I'm planning to be update the complete list of missing puzzles before I head off for Stanford (where, as a student, I may actually be able to access the British libraries), and when I do, I'll post it on this site.  Although we've struck out so far with this select group of missing puzzles, there are many others, some of which are missing not because of strikes but because of ProQuest's errors.  So I'm still hopeful that eventually some, if not all, of the puzzles will be found.  I'll also be putting out another call for those missing old crossword books—again, as soon as I've had a chance to update the list—which I think may be our best bet for locating the missing puzzles, even if we're never able to match up the dates definitively.  In the meantime, thanks so much again, Alan, for these valiant efforts!

Mark Diehl Seven-Time Blast! Winner!

Once more, the amazing Mark Diehl was the first to send in the correct answer to the Blast! challenge—making him a seven-time winner!  Congratulations, Mark!  Shortly after the second letter was revealed—at 8:43 a.m. on Sunday, June 14, to be exact!—Mark sent in the solution to this February 9, 1952, clue:  "Sales of this reached new high in 1951."  The answer:  POPCORN.  I'm not sure why popcorn sales exploded that year, but according to Wikipedia, "[d]uring World War II, sugar rations diminished candy production, and Americans compensated by eating three times as much popcorn as they had before."  So maybe they ramped up that habit even more after the war was over—or maybe the increase came with more people snacking while they watched TV in the 1950s!  Here's an ad from 1952 that links the two activities:

Image courtesy of

Now that I'll be posting on a more occasional basis, I've decided to retire the Blast! feature, so the official champion is Mark Diehl—congratulations again, Mark!

ideacity News

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently gave an ideacity talk in Toronto about crosswords, and part of it was about the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project.  People really seemed to enjoy the speech—I probably had a couple of hundred people come up to me over the course of my amazing three days there asking me more about crosswords and the project, which was very gratifying!  While there I was also interviewed by a reporter from a Russian publication, and another reporter plans to interview me when I'm in Vancouver at the upcoming National Puzzlers' League convention, so I'm hoping to spread the word even further.  (Maybe I should just move to Canada!)  In any case, to see a video of the talk, click here.

Davidson Young Scholars Summit

Just a few days after returning from Toronto, I headed up to Reno, where I'd been invited to be a panelist at the Davidson Young Scholars Summit.  Since the Davidson award I received in 2013 was for the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, that's what I was asked to discuss, and I spent quite a bit of time describing the initial stages of the project, how things had developed, challenges I'd encountered, the project's current status, and what the puzzles might show us in the future.  Having a chance to talk to so many interested students and parents was really gratifying, and I think they appreciated hearing about something as fun as crosswords!

Talking about the project.

Friday, June 12, 2015

40 Years of Puzzles Up, Alan DerKazarian's Missing Puzzles Research, Spreading the Word at ideacity, Upcoming Changes, and Mark Diehl Six-Time Blast! Winner

Project Update

This week we hit another milestone when I sent the proofread 1954 puzzles to XWord Infothere are now 40 years of puzzles up for everyone to enjoy!  Thanks again to Jim Horne for hosting them and making sure they're displayed as well as they can be!

The proofread puzzles have been coming in at a more relaxed pace over the past two weeks, in part because there's not much proofreading left!  The evening of Saturday, May 30, Denny Baker sent in 13 puzzles, after which I e-mailed him the very last batch for proofreading—all the way back to February 15, 1942!  Sunday morning he sent in those 11 puzzles, and then Monday afternoon Dave Phillips sent 6 more.  Tuesday afternoon, May 2, Mark Diehl sent in 13 puzzles from a ship on his way to Tallinn, and then about an hour later another 9.  There are only a few more puzzles out there, and I'm hoping to have those back within the next two weeks.  After that, there won't be any more litzing or proofreading until we're able to track down some of those missing puzzles!  Great job, everyone—thanks so much again!

Alan DerKazarian's Missing Puzzles Research

A couple of months ago I received an e-mail from Alan DerKazarian, a librarian at the Cambridge [Massachusetts] Public Library.  Since there's a New England edition of The New York Times, Alan wondered whether the Boston Public Library might have microfilms of the missing puzzles and volunteered to check.  Unfortunately, he wasn't able to find anything there; he did discover, though, that in 1948 the Times introduced an international edition, which was produced in New York and airmailed to Paris for publication a day later.  "Starting in 1960," Alan reported, "it was set by teletype for same-day publication."  Apparently in 1967 the Times discontinued its international edition and joined with the owners of the defunct Herald Tribune and The Washington Post to publish The International Herald Tribune in Paris.

Image courtesy of

"So the international edition of the Times was never produced in Europe," he concluded, "meaning the paper strikes likely affected production of these issues as well."  Alan recommended contacting either the New York Public Library or the Times (which, I told him, someone else had already tried).  Alan had originally suggested I try traveling to Europe—a suggestion I liked a lot, by the way!  But since it will be a while before I'm able to do that, if any readers in Great Britain or France would like to look into this some more, I'd be most grateful!

Despite Alan's discouraging findings, I still do have hope that we'll locate at least some of the puzzles.  Margaret Farrar wrote the following in her introduction to Crosswords from the Daily Times–Series 9:

The crosswords that appear daily on the book page of The New York Times have been published concurrently in Paris and in Los Angeles since the inauguration of the International and the Western editions, in 1960 and 1962, respectively.  When newspaper publication in New York was suspended, in December 1962, the crosswords kept on going, flying east and west, until the twain met again in New York on April 1, 1963.

Those 100 puzzles appeared in this book and have already been litzed, but there are still many more missing puzzles from other strikes and because of ProQuest mistakes.  Hopefully we'll eventually find them; in the meantime, thanks so much again, Alan, for your great research!

Mark Diehl Six-Time Blast! Winner

On Monday, June 1 at 2:28 p.m.—just three days after I posted the May 29 Blast! challenge, with only three letters revealed, and while traveling between Copenhagen and Tallinn—Mark Diehl sent in the correct answer and became the first six-time winner!  Congratulations again, Mark!   The clue from the March 20, 1952, puzzle was "Reluctant new taxpayer."  The answer:  BOOKMAKER.  I'll bet there were plenty of objections to that change!

Image courtesy of

The new Blast! challenge is up in the sidebar, and it's a doozy—good luck!

Spreading the Word at ideacity

On Monday I'm heading off to Toronto, where I'll be giving an ideacity talk about crosswords.  Part of my speech will focus on The Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project—I'm looking forward to spreading the word about our amazing progress in such a (relatively!) short period of time!

Upcoming Changes

Right after I get back from Canada, I'll be leaving to be part of a panel discussion in Nevada, so the next blog post will appear after I return, on Monday, June 29, instead of Friday the 26th.  And then I'll be heading up to Vancouver for the National Puzzlers' League convention—and a couple of weeks later, to Northern California.  With all this traveling, my schedule will be pretty busy and irregular, so instead of posting each week on Friday, I'll be writing as time permits when there's news or a feature to present.  Now that the proofreading is almost done, there won't be weekly updates to report, but I'll still be posting when the puzzles go off to XWord Info and when (not if!) there's new information about the missing puzzles.

Featured Puzzle

Today's featured puzzle was constructed by Roberta Morse; published September 6, 1954; edited by Margaret Farrar; litzed by yours truly; and proofread by Mark Diehl.  The puzzle has been uploaded to XWord Info, so you can solve it before reading the write-up.  This crossword's theme is centered around a nifty little number rebus.  I especially like that the 1, 2, 3, and 4 squares appear in order in the grid, even though they're not placed symmetrically.  I also appreciate that 1-Down is literally 1 DOWN—and, by extension, that the 1 is in square one.  I find it slightly off-putting that the FIVE in FIVE STAR ADMIRAL is spelled out, but I appreciate the effort to make the central 15-letter entry thematic.  I personally would have preferred a reveal entry in that position, but given that this is likely the first published rebus crossword, I'm more awestruck by the innovation than annoyed by the minor inconsistency!  By bringing the word count up to 80, the constructor was able to keep the fill smooth and incorporate a handful of lively entries into the nonthematic fill.  My favorites are BARRACUDA, OVERTHROW, TEETOTALER, THUNDERS, BARNYARD, and ENDEARMENT—that's a lot of zip for a themed puzzle, let alone a rebus!  Conversely, the constructor was stuck with the awkward partial LAK A (as in "Mighty Lak a Rose"), CIRO (clued as "Well-known Paris restaurateur."), JURA ("Franco-Swiss mountain range."), and SAROS ("Gulf of the Aegean Sea.").  I also wasn't thrilled to see TEN STONE in the grid, since it contains a number that's not part of the sequence.  This is a remarkably small number of liabilities given all the assets, though!  So even with its drawbacks, this puzzle is definitely one of my favorites from 1954.  I am, however, a bit surprised that Margaret Farrar chose to run it on a Monday—usually she saved puzzles that were extra-tricky for Saturdays.  Then again, the fill was pretty clean, and I remember reading somewhere that Margaret's philosophy about difficulty was that higher word counts led to easier solves.  This raises an interesting point:  Was Margaret right?  My first instinct would be to disagree, since any puzzle can be made easier or more challenging via the clues.  Also, many ambitious stunt puzzles (such as bidirectional rebuses) require grids with higher word counts to pull off.  That said, puzzles with higher word counts also tend to have more shorter entries, and there are only so many 3-, 4-, and 5-letter entries that show up in crosswords.  Often, these common short entries are difficult to disguise, even if their clues are tough.  Take ENERO in my New York Times crossword that was published today.  The clue was "Part of summer in Latinoamerica," which is definitely not as straightforward as "January, to Juan," but I would still instantly fill in ENERO since . . . what else could it be?  Perhaps the difference between average and expert solvers is that experts have a predetermined list of common entries subconsciously at the fronts of their brains—when they see a new clue, they automatically run through this list and frequently land on the correct answer instantaneously.  In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed looking through this Roberta Morse crossword.  The solution grid (with highlighted theme entries) appears below; the puzzle can also be accessed and analyzed on XWord Info here.

Friday, May 29, 2015

1955 Puzzles Done, Denny Baker on C. E. Noel, Todd Gross on Charles Erlenkotter, and Howard Barkin Three-peat Blast! Winner

Project Update

Great news:  The proofread 1955 puzzles are now done and, thanks to Jim Horne, should be up on XWord Info soon!  And I just sent off the second-to-last batch of proofreading yesterday—only one more packet remains!  As for puzzles, this week Denny Baker started us off Saturday morning with 13, then another 13 Sunday night.  Monday afternoon Mark Diehl sent 13, then 13 more that night.  Late Wednesday afternoon, while waiting for a flight at JFK, Mark sent 13 more (reminding me of the days when he'd litz on the go—see the August 10, 2012, post!).  Then early Thursday morning Todd Gross sent 13 more puzzles, in which he found 37 mistakes.  Thanks so much again, everyone—we're almost there!

I'll be graduating from high school next Thursday and then staying up all night for Grad Nite at some secret location in Southern California, so the next blog post will be in two weeks—right before I leave for ideacity in Toronto!

Howard Barkin Three-peat Blast! Winner

Congratulations to Howard Barkin, who not only was the first to solve last week's very tricky Blast! challenge but is also a three-peat winner!  Howard sent in the correct answer (and managed to break Mark Diehl's amazing winning streak!) on Sunday after just two letters had been revealed.  The clue, from the March 14, 1952, puzzle, was "Status of the children of the old woman who lived in a shoe."  The answer:  UNDERFOOT (as in the illustration below!).

Image courtesy of

As usual, there's a new Blast! challenge up in the sidebar—the name of the first person to solve it correctly will be announced in two weeks!

Denny Baker on C. E. Noel

Following up on last week's post about C. E. Noel—which may have been a pseudonym for Charles Erlenkotter—I received an e-mail from Denny Baker, who said he'd guessed that the "C. E." stood for Christmas Eve (since the puzzle appeared on December 24).  This is a very interesting possibility too, especially since quite a bit of time had elapsed between the publication of this puzzle and Charles Erlenkotter's preceding puzzles in the Times.

Todd Gross on Charles Erlenkotter

In addition, some time ago litzer, proofreader, and historian Todd Gross wrote to me about some research he'd been conducting on Charles Erlenkotter.  Here's what he dug up:

I finally bagged the big one.  The one who started it all at the NY Times: Charles Erlenkotter.

I'd tried in the past, and didn't find much even though I had a "secret" advantage: I had an address for him.  In Montreal.

Courtesy of The New York Herald Tribune, October
26, 1929.

That's from the 26 Oct 1929 New York Herald-Tribune (the latest puzzle I have by him from the H-T).  I tried, but didn't find much of anything.  But I tried again recently, and this time I tried Google.  And I found out a bit more about him:

I found a couple of articles in the Montreal Gazette that mentioned he was the manager of the Montreal office of the Hamburg-American Line.  I'm enclosing one from 1933.

Courtesy of The Montreal Gazette,
September 12, 1933.

The Hamburg-American Line is actually pretty interesting in its own right.  The company managed to survive two world wars (much of their fleet was taken as war reparations in both wars) to merge into Hapag-Lloyd in 1970 (they're the Hapag part).

But back to Charles: I'd assumed he was Canadian given the address and the lack of info on Ancestry (my membership only covers U.S. records, I can see the existence of foreign records but I can't look at them).  But this time was more helpful.  I'll get to that in a bit.  First I should probably mention an interesting blurb I found in a NY paper Daily Argus in 1937.  It says that Louise Erlenkotter of White Plains had passed away and left $3,500 to her son "Charles Erlenkotter of Montreal, Can."  So that ties Charles to upstate NY, which connected him to records I got from

Courtesy of The Daily Argus, January 25, 1937.

As the Ancestry bio shows, Charles Erlenkotter was born in Hoboken, NJ on 9 Jun 1881 and passed away 26 Sep 1948 in White Plains, NY.  I don't know when he returned to the US, and alas I haven't found an obituary...or any other document that verifies that date, but Ancestry seems rather sure about it.

Courtesy of

Fascinating finds, Todd—thanks so much again for all your great research!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Denny Baker's C. E. Noel Discovery, Margaret Farrar in CROSSW RD Magazine, More on Robert Guilbert, Mark Diehl Five-Time Blast! Winner, and Pondering Two-Letter Entries

Project Update

This week was jump-started last Friday afternoon by Todd Gross, who sent in 9 puzzles with 58 mistakes.  Then less than an hour later Denny Baker sent in 14 more.  On Sunday afternoon Mark Diehl sent 13, which were followed by another 14 from Denny that night.  And Wednesday night Denny sent 13 more.  Great job, everyone, and thanks again!  I'm now sending out puzzles from 1943—the end is definitely in sight, and by early next week I should have the 1955 puzzles ready to send to XWord Info!

Denny Baker's C. E. Noel Discovery

As Denny was proofreading this past week, he made a great discovery:  The December 24, 1944, puzzle was by C. E. Noel, which he pointed out was an obvious pseudonym.  I hadn't noticed that before, and when Denny wondered who it could have been, my guess was Charles Erlenkotter.  Charles published five puzzles in the Times in 1942, including the first one ever on February 15, 1942; three in 1943; and one—if this was indeed his—in 1944.  According to my records, this puzzle was his last for the Times, and lists a Charles Erlenkotter who passed away in 1948 in White Plains, New York.  Thanks so much again, Denny, for noticing this pseudonym!

Mark Diehl Five-Time Blast! Winner

Litzer, proofreader, and now Blast! solver extraordinaire Mark Diehl is on a winning streak!  On Monday at 10:30 a.m., after three letters had been revealed, he was the first to solve last week's super-hard Blast! challenge and is now the first five-time Blast! winner—congratulations again, Mark!  The clue, which was from the June 16, 1952, puzzle, was "Legal status for oleo in New York, July 1, 1952."  The answer:  PRECOLORED.  Sounds appetizing . . . not!

Image courtesy of

This week's Blast! challenge is up in the sidebar, as usual—good luck!

Margaret Farrar in CROSS WORD Magazine

Photo copyright 1992, 2015, Megalo Media, Inc. Re-
printed by permission of Stan Chess and CROSSW-RD

I've been continuing to make my way through the old issues of CROSSW RD Magazine, and this week I've posted Helene Hovanec's wonderful portrait of Margaret Farrar on Scribd.  "A Crossword Hall-of-Famer:  Margaret Farrar" was originally published in the November/December 1992 issue of CROSSW RD Magazine; to read it, click here.  The article was introduced by Helene's short piece "Robert Guilbert's Crossword Academy," which you can read here.  Guilbert spent the final years of his life trying to establish a crossword academy; I wrote about him and his American Crossword Puzzle Academy and Hall of Fame in posts on November 21, 2014December 5, 2014; and December 19, 2014.  Although Guilbert's vision was never realized, Helene pointed out that "the raison d'etre behind his Academy—honoring the people who have contributed most to the profession—will continue in another format—through CROSSW RD magazine's establishment of a Crossword Hall of Fame."  Margaret Farrar was the first inductee.

Featured Puzzle:  Pondering Two-Letter Entries 

Today's featured puzzle, whose constructor is unknown, was published Friday, May 2, 1952; edited by Margaret Farrar; litzed by Barry Haldiman; and proofread by Mark Diehl.  According to my records, this is the penultimate New York Times puzzle whose grid included two-letter entries for nonthematic purposes; the last, which was published August 1 of that year, is also an interesting construction and will likely be featured in a future blog post.  In any case, I find this 72-word themeless fascinating, even though it technically violates a basic rule of crossword construction.  By breaking the rules, the constructor was able to create double-stacks of twelve- and fourteen-letter entries, a feat that is much more difficult under modern grid restrictions.  The twelve- and fourteen-letter entries are all very nice, my favorite being the timely/anticommunist FREE NATIONS.  Both the two-letter entries the constructor used, OF and NT, seem stronger to me than numerous other short entries in the puzzle, such as TORP (clued as "Small farm, in Sweden.") and NEI ("Moslem flute: Var.").  I find it slightly annoying that OF crosses NORTH OF IRELAND, but I've seen many more major duplicates, even in modern-day constructions.  I wonder, are two-letter entries really that bad?  They've been banned in crosswords for many years, but how many more impressive constructions could be produced if they were allowed again?  Could, for example, the lowest block count (17) be pushed even lower?  And would the inclusion of two-letter entries reduce the number of stale three- and four-letter entries that solvers always complain about, such as EKE and ALAI?  The natural argument against two-letter entries is that there are a limited number of them, which would make for an overly predictable solving experience.  Then again, there are 676 possible two-letter combinations, and would an occasional two-letter word be that detrimental to the solving experience?  I doubt these questions will ever be answered, especially since there's no Theoretical Crosswords major at any college (darn!).  But returning to the puzzle, I also appreciated the mid-length and longish fill in its grid, especially BOTTICELLI, RACCOONS, and HOUDINI.  BARBUSSE ("Henri ___, author of 'Under Fire,' 1916."), SAKHALIN ("Large island off coast of Siberia."), KRUTCH ("Joseph Wood ___, author of 'The Desert Year.'"), and NOROTON ("Town on L. I. sound above Stamford, Conn.") were all new to me, though the Stamford reference in the last of these clues made me smile!  Perhaps NOROTON would be a better place for a Scrabble tournament, given that its name consists of seven friendly letters (although NOROTON itself would be an illegal play).  In all, this is a fascinating and thought-provoking pre-Shortzian puzzle, despite its major shortcoming, and I'm looking forward to looking through more puzzles that make me ponder crossword conventions!  As usual, the solution to this week's featured puzzle can be seen below: