Friday, April 5, 2013

Rex Parker and Matt Gaffney Review a Pre-Shortzian Puzzle, Over 8,700, In 1970, and Twitter Stumpers

Fasten your seatbelts for a wild ride in today's post!  This week I'm delighted to present a review by Rex Parker (aka Michael Sharp) and Matt Gaffney of a pre-Shortzian puzzle.  I hope you'll find their remarks as stimulating and thought-provoking as I did—feel free to post your comments at the end!

After their review, be sure to check out the latest news about the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, including my new feature, Twitter Stumpers!

Rex/Michael was also a guest on Tampa's Life Elsewhere radio show this week, as was the always-entertaining crossword legend Merl Reagle, with whom I had a delightful lunch in L.A. a few weeks ago.  Here's the link to the Life Elsewhere broadcast, which I found fascinating!  As a prelude to today's featured piece, here's an excerpt from Michael's interview in which he alludes to the puzzle he and Matt review here and talks about how New York Times crosswords have changed under the editorship of Will Shortz:
It's not so hard to construct an unsolvable puzzle.  What's hard is to construct a very difficult puzzle that is solvable.  And I just did a puzzle and wrote about a puzzle for another blog, actually, that was made in 1989, a Sunday puzzle, and I couldn't finish it—I couldn't finish it!  There were clues that I'd never heard of, things that were obscure, and it was a different editor back then, and I couldn't finish.  I nearly finished, but I couldn't.  And that never happens, or almost never happens, now.  So, some of that has to do with getting used to the editor, some of it has to do with just the time period you're in:  Most of the stuff coming out now is going to be oriented to things that are happening now, even if they draw from the distant past, whereas if you do a puzzle 50 years old, it can be rough. . . .  [Interviewer:  So have crosswords changed?]  Yes, a lot. . . .  [W]e're talking a lot about The New York Times, because it's seen as kind of the gold standard, and it's one that a lot of your listeners and other people might have as a frame of reference. . . .  [I]n terms of that particular crossword, yes, Will's stewardship has changed that puzzle a lot, and for the better.  Which is to say again—I mentioned some of this before—it's more inclusive:  The kinds of phrases and answers and vocabulary that it allows into the puzzle, it generally has a more contemporary feel and a more playful feel to it.  So my sense is that it's much more entertaining, as well as wide ranging, than it used to be.
For more, including an interesting discussion of the entries ILLEGAL and CO-ED, listen to the rest—and then stay tuned for Merl!

Rex Parker/Michael Sharp
Matt Gaffney

Rex Parker and Matt Gaffney Do the Pre-Shortzian NY Times Crossword Puzzle   

NOTE:  Before reading the review by Rex and Matt, click here to solve the puzzle they'll be talking about, Phyllis Fehringer's "One Upmanship," originally published on October 22, 1989, and edited by Eugene T. Maleska.  To see the solution, click here.

REX PARKER:  So I'm guessing you tanked the north the same way I did.  Is that correct?  I had no hope in hell with SEDUM (9-Across:  Stonecrop), ARETE (23-Across:  Valor; virtue), or DEN (11-Down:  Phrontistery).

MATT GAFFNEY:  That was SEDUM?  I had SERUM and REN.

RP:  I had to look up SEDUM, "Phrontistery," and ARETE (to find out that ARETE was something other than your standard “Glacial ridge”).

MG:  I think if you're going to use a word like SEDUM, you have a moral obligation to make sure the crossings are easy, which cluing DEN as “Phrontistery” does not achieve.

RP:  You can see the (in)famous Maleskan penchant for "teaching" new words coming out in that section.

MG:  What was the answer to 52-Down, “Young Athenian”?  I had EPHEB- and guessed the E, but that left me with ERS for “Forage plant” at 80-Across.

RP:  "E" is correct.  Ha-ha, "Forage plant."  Forgot about that one.  Yikes.

MG:  Yes, I don't think we can get around mentioning the petty vocabulary games Maleska played with solvers.  Was ERS right for “Forage plant”?

RP:  Yes!!!  Apparently it's another word for "ervil" (if that helps, which I'm guessing it doesn't).

MG:  Wow, OK.  So there's no good reason at all to clue ERS as “Forage plant” when that is going to be essentially ungettable for 99 percent-plus of all solvers.

RP:  Seriously.  There are people who remember Maleska fondly, but if we showed them this puzzle, I have a hard time imagining anyone saying, "Yeah, those were the days."

MG:  Maleska was a Latin teacher by profession and was a little too happy to "teach" solvers these incredibly obscure words instead of entertaining/enriching them.

RP:  You constructed before computers, so tell me:  How much harder is it to make squeaky-clean puzzles without computer aid?

MG:  Right—this was a pre-Internet time, when you had to physically print and send (and before that, market) a crossword puzzle to the audience, so the number of crossword puzzles available was extremely limited.  Sort of like how there only used to be three TV channels.  Fill has certainly improved since those days, but if you look at a Games Magazine or a Dell Champion publication from 1989, you will see a much higher standard for fill than you will in the Maleska-era New York Times puzzles.

RP:  Seems like, as with many things nowadays, expertise used to be in the hands of a priestly caste of devotees, whereas now there are all kinds of ways your average Jane can find out how to go about making puzzles (and making them good).

MG:  Well, it was essentially an inefficiency to have this one person (Maleska) deciding what puzzle millions of people would be solving.  If people had had dozens of puzzles to choose from back then, it's unlikely many of them would have chosen these.  But technology eliminates inefficiencies and spreads knowledge, so the quality of crossword puzzles has risen drastically over time, as has the quality of almost everything else.  And yes, back when this puzzle was published, I think there was exactly one book telling you how to write crosswords (The Compleat Cruciverbalist, by Mel Rosen and Stanley A. Kurzban), but now there is much more widespread knowledge.

RP:  I think there is maybe a higher median level of competence, and technology has resulted in a great democratization of the constructing craft (i.e., more people can produce and disseminate their stuff, whatever it is).

MG:  Yes, and that is due to autofill.  Computers can't help with clues or themes (except for archiving clues already written), but the art of filling a grid with words has been overtaken to a large degree by computers.  Which is one reason I enjoy writing metas—it largely takes that duty back from the computers.

RP:  Yes, metas appear to be the new black.

MG:  So the focus now in constructing is more on how good your themes are.

RP:  One constructor recently publicly credited Compiler for a puzzle he'd made.  [Ed.:  Crossword Compiler is a software program for constructing crossword and other puzzles.]

MG:  Yes, I saw that!  But of course many/most of the puzzles you see now are autofilled/database-aided.

RP:  I think of autofilled and database-added as different things.

MG:  I think they're points on a continuum.

RP:  Most constructors now use Compiler (or CrossFire), right?

MG:  Yes, almost all do, to my knowledge.

RP:  And those programs suggest fill/tell you whether your grid is fillable (based on whatever word list you have).

MG:  Right.

RP:  So it's a dance, for most people.

MG:  So it has inevitably become—yes, a dance between the human's brain and the silicon monster's brain.

RP:  "Monster dance good!"

MG:  Imagine a chess game between the top two players in the world where each also gets to use a chess engine of his choice during the game.

RP:  I would, but I'm incapable, as chess hurts my brain.  But I understand.

MG:  But crosswords have not suffered the same fate as chess—even the top player in the world now can't hold a candle to the best computer, but in crosswords the computers can only help with one of the three parts of crossword constructing (filling the grid).  On cluing and themes they can't.  So we're safe for now.

RP:  But when you say "we" are safe, who do you mean?  I am concerned when I see praise for obviously autofilled or ugly work.  I'm not sure enough people can tell or care to appreciate the difference between artful and automated construction.

MG:  Well, what can you do?  I began constructing on graph paper in the 1980s, so I can feel some righteous bitterness toward those who use autofill, especially on freestyle (i.e., themeless) grids, but I don't.  I learned how to do it that way, but I can't deny that autofilled/database-aided freestyles are pretty great in the right hands, so I quit writing freestyles around 2000.  Now I write metas, which the computers can't help at all in.  It's 2013, and I'm back to graph paper for about 50 percent of these grids, and it feels great.

RP:  Why 50 percent?

MG:  Well, some of the meta grids are impractical to write on Crossword Compiler, because there's a lot of erasing involved, I'm moving things around in weird ways Crossword Compiler can't handle, etc.  Also, with a 15x15 grid and lots of things preplaced due to the meta, the grids often fall right into place on the graph paper.  So there's no need for the computer—I actually don't even have a database beyond the not very good one that comes free with Crossword Compiler.  It's not something I use a lot.

RP:  I am having this chat with you from my phrontistery, by the way.

MG:  Ha—cool.  I have a snoring cat on my lap.

RP:  So, these Maleska-era puzzles rate much much higher on the "cocktail party erudition" scale than Will's puzzles do.  Heavily reliant on Gr., Lat., Shak., Bible.

MG:  Yeah, and there's a hint of "You don't know this and I do" to it.

RP:  And I guess I mean "cocktail party" as I imagine them happening in New Yorker cartoons circa 1977.

MG:  Cocktail parties you wouldn't want to be at.

RP:  Correct.  I imagine Woody Allen being at said parties and hating them.  This puzzle does have EFFETE and EPHEBE, which, if you put them together, would be a great theme answer in some horrible as-yet unconstructed puzzle.

MG:  Too bad he missed ESSENE for the hat trick.

RP:  But the puzzle is interesting and original in some ways.

MG:  It is.

RP:  I completely missed the theme.  I mean, I Did Not Get It the first time through.

MG:  Oh, no?  The theme was nice.

RP:  You have to look at the clue list to notice it, though.  If you don't see those two-clue sequences, it's a giant WTF.

MG:  Right!  We had “Nice”/“Nicer,” “Tangy”/“Tangier,” “Flat”/“Flatter,” the inconsistent “Better”/“Best,” and “Rainy”/“Rainier” as clues.

RP:  So the theme is clever but was essentially Not There as I was solving.

MG:  Yes, but not too hard to notice on the second pass

RP:  Five theme clues in a 23x23 is thinner than you would see today, though I guess there are ten theme clues.  It's just that half of them are not normal theme-length (i.e., long).

MG:  Right, agreed—it would have been better if all five had taken up a full row with a black square between them.  Three of the five do that, so completing that pattern would have been elegant.  And the “Better”/“Best” thing also sticks out.  You've got adjective plus comparative for the other four pairs, but then just the one comparative plus superlative.  Again, if you look in Games or Dell Champion (or Stan Newman's newsletter) contemporaneously, you would not likely see something like the “Better”/“Best” thing.  But anyway, noticing that certain adjectives take on radically different meanings in their comparative form is a good basis for a theme.

RP:  Agreed.  Also, check out all the pop culture! (Sarcasm)

MG:  Yes, the pop culture is always interesting in an old puzzle!

RP:  Hippest thing in this puzzle is CARLO Bergonzi (38-Down:  Tenor Bergonzi), who was only recently retired when this puzzle came out ('89).  Ladies Love Cool CARLO!  But effectively there is NO pop culture in this puzzle.  EST is as close as it gets (19-Down:  W. Erhard’s therapy).

MG:  I liked “Karpov coups” for MATES [116-Down], though Kasparov had dethroned Karpov as world champion four years before this puzzle ran.  PETERS [65-Down] is clued as “Roberta or Bernadette,” though I don't know who Roberta is.  But your point is well-taken.  I believe Maleska did not allow product names in the grids?  Can that be right?  We can check on that later, but I think it's true.  Though there was an OLDS in here, so I guess not. [Ed.:  In general, Maleska did not allow product names, though they appear every once in a while in later Maleska puzzles like this one.]

RP:  OK, but even when we graze up against "pop culture," it's via the esteemed, elite arts of stage, opera, chess, etc.  Where are the pop singers, the laundry detergents, the TV puppets of yore?!

MG:  Right, they're not in the crossword.  That was one of the biggest complaints by the "new wave" constructors:  that there was no pop culture in these.  [Ed.:  The new wave of cruciverbalists, in contrast to the old school, believed that “crosswords should reflect the ‘living language’ of most Americans.”  For more on this subject, click here to see Randall Rothenberg's 1988 article “Puzzle Makers Exchange Cross Words.”] 

RP:  There is an Atlanta Hawks clue for OMNI (90-Across), which is as "popular" as this puzzle gets.

MG:  Yes, I saw that!  The OMNI, now demolished.  That could be a theme—demolished stadiums:  OMNI, SHEA . . .

RP:  Hey, Tom FLORES (Raiders' ex-coach, 51-Across) is in here too.  That’s pretty modern.  OMG . . . I just saw OTER.  What in the world?!  (66-Across:  To take off, at De Gaulle)

MG:  Yeah, I needed every crossing there too.  I much prefer, and I think solvers do too, the mix of classical knowledge and popular culture we aim for now in crosswords.

RP:  I get mail from people who despise brand names in their puzzles—though now that I think of it, that kind of mail has dropped dramatically over the past five years.

MG:  I'm sure those were solvers conditioned by Maleska to expect that a crossword puzzle would not have brand names.  There's no mention of a single movie, TV show, popular song—and this is 1989, not ancient times exactly.  Miami Vice was going on, Madonna was huge, etc.

RP:  Uh, yeah, I remember.  I was there.  The Arsenio Hall Show?  MC Hammer?  Baywatch?

MG:  All of that stuff, yes!  The 1980s don't exist in this crossword, and it was published at the end of them.

RP:  I started solving when *all* I knew was The New York Times, so *all* I knew was Maleska, and I thought he was some kind of god.  It would never have occurred to me to question his editorial style.  It occurred to me to get angry at the puzzle, but not at him.

MG:  That's fascinating.

RP:  I cut out the little obit plaque The New York Times published in 1993 and had it stuck with magnets on my fridge for years.

MG:  LOL.  When I was constructing in the 1980s, people would ask me if I'd had a puzzle in The New York Times, and I'd say, no, but I've had one in Dell Champion, which is much better than the Times, and they'd look at me like I had two heads.

RP:  Yeah, Dell Champion sounds made up.

MG:  The general public, for all of my lifetime, has gotten a general drumbeat that The New York Times is the best crossword out there by a long shot, which was certainly not true at any time under Maleska and which some people feel is not true today.

RP:  Well, of course The New York Times has that rep.  It's a carefully cultivated institution and benefits from wide circulation and apparent timelessness.  It's just . . . there.  And what else reaches that many potential highly educated, well-heeled people on a daily basis?

MG:  Under any kind of competitive system, Maleska's editing style would not have won out.  This is evinced by the fact that the first thing Shortz did when he took over was to return a bunch of puzzles that had been accepted by Maleska to the constructors.

Want to say a few more things about this puzzle?

RP:  OK, let's see . . . PIE MAN (70-Down: Simon acquaintance).  I find that adorable for some reason.

MG:  LOL—me, too.  Here, let's play a little game.  Let's each take a minute and choose the best three clues in the grid and see if we have overlaps.

RP:  I'm gonna go with 32-Across:  Quarters and quavers (NOTES), 70-Across:  This is elementary for Watson (PAR), and 60-Down:  Of an armbone: Comb. form (ULNO) . . . kidding on that last one.  Actually my third is 45-Down:  Holey roller (HOOP).

MG:  "Green cup" for HOLE [42-Across], "Hawks fly here" for OMNI [90-Across], and "Decreased?" for IRONED [102-Across].  I had NOTES and PAR in my top five, but they didn't make the top three cut.  I got rid of the PAR one, since getting par on a hole isn't quite "elementary" for Tom Watson.

RP:  That “Decreased?” clue is Methuselah-old.

MG:  LOL, true.  But essentially we see that there are only about eight clues that any effort has been invested into.  Lots and lots of one-word definition clues.  Too many to count.  You'd need an abacus.

RP:  Yes, *super*-brief clues, in general.  This ups the difficulty and (largely) IRONs (i.e., decreases) the pleasure.

MG:  True.  You can see how much higher the quality of clues is now, and this is also in part due to computers.

RP:  How so?  Oh, Wikipedia?  The Net?

MG:  Yes, Web in general—you can get a much better clue for OSLO now by scouring its Wiki page or even its own homepage than you could back then.  I remember calling a local sports radio station on the phone circa 1991 to check on a sports clue, since I didn't have it in any reference book.  I asked them to "settle a bet," but it was really for a crossword.

RP:  Awesome.

MG:  So anyway, my view of this puzzle is that it was not among the best of its kind from its own era, which is how you have to judge it, and that if the constructor had sent it to Games, it would have been edited into a nicer piece of work (perhaps by Shortz himself, who was working there then).  But I did like the theme idea.

RP:  It didn't tickle me, but I could admire it nonetheless.

MG:  There are a couple dozen entries that would immediately get it dinged at a modern publication.  ODA, OTER, should we compile a quick list?  You do the Downs; I’ll do the Acrosses.

RP:  OK.

MG:  SEDUM, EDE, OTER, ONER, EROSE.  Actually, those are the only awful ones on the Acrosses.  That's not horrible.  I mean it is, but still.

RP:  In the Downs, we’ve got A SENSE (long for a partial), ULNO, ARION, ODA, EPHEBE, PAA (?!) . . . I think that's it.

MG:  PAA was great!  I forgot about that one.  A true WTF moment.

RP:  It's like a little girl from the nineteenth century's cry to her father:  "PAA!"

MG:  I like how he tried to salvage the clue by mentioning that it was a "long" Ibsen poem.  "It's one of his long poems, you dumb fucking solver."

RP:  (Literally laughing out loud.)  OK, I think that’s good.  Let’s call it a night.

MG:  Thanks.  This was fun.

It was a blast—thanks so much again, Rex and Matt!  Thoughts, anyone?

On to this week's news about the project:  On Sunday, the first batch of 1970 puzzles went out to litzer Jeffrey Krasnick.  Then on Tuesday, Mike Buckley sent in a packet of litzed puzzles that put us over the 8,700 mark on the litzing thermometer—9,000 isn't too far off now!  Thanks again, everyone!

Last week Jeffrey Krasnick posted the following tweet about a 1971 pre-Shortzian entry:

Quiz: "GAY AS". What is the clue?

He tweeted the answer later, which you can see here, and this was so fun that it gave me an idea for a new feature on the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project's recently opened Twitter account:  Pre-Shortzian Stumpers.  I tweeted the first one a couple of days ago, which is here (and which Martin Ashwood-Smith guessed the answer to here).  If you've come across a particularly funny, questionable, or just plain weird pre-Shortzian clue or entry, tweet it as a Pre-Shortzian Stumper and put @pspuzzle project and the hashtag #psstumpers at the end of your tweet, separated by a space:

STUMPER: Guess the X-letter entry for this 1971 clue: Type the wacky clue here, then
@pspuzzleproject #psstumpers


STUMPER: Guess the clue for this 1971 entry: TYPE ENTRY HERE, then
@pspuzzleproject #psstumpers

If you don't have a Twitter account but want to post something, just e-mail it to me and I'll post it on the project's Twitter account for you, with your name as the tweeter.

Be sure to tweet the answer later on, preferably with the puzzle's date!

Finally, since we're now in the year 1970, here's a representative photo from that year.  It's of Walt Kelly's Pogo poster for the very first Earth Day, which was on April 22, 1970, and whose 43rd anniversary will be in just a couple of weeks:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.


  1. This should be a podcast.

  2. the fact that BETTER and BEST are inconsistent with the rest of the theme answers is nothing compared to -- well, actually, it is something; it's stupid -- but it's nothing compared to maleska's incomprehensible allowing of BETTER as the term for someone who bets. it's actually a pretty nice idea for a theme -- how about WILD and WILDER? great possibilities there -- but this seems to be another case of a constructor not knowing how to flesh out a good theme with consistently good answers and an "editor" seemingly not doing anything about it, or worse, not even knowing that something needed to be done. and ULNO and OTER are just embarrassing. i'd send the puzzle back to the constructor on those two words alone, 23x23 or no 23x23.

    1. Also have to complain about OTER. It's the French verb meaning to take off as in clothing. I think the clue was misleading since DeGaulle is the airport and the correct answer should be d├ęcoller. It was a fun puzzle for me otherwise since all the recent (recent = from 1969 onwards) TV shows, sports stuff, etc., is alien having lived abroad for 40+ years!

  3. Pretty entertaining discussion, guys. More fun than the solve, no doubt. Couple of thoughts: SALEM instead of SEDUM would have avoided lot of trouble. "Better" for "Bettor" (incomprehensible, as Merl says) had to draw some letters that in those days only the editor had to read; lucky for him, no blogs back then. "W.C.'s chickadee" for MAE had me wondering; "My little chickadee" was a catchphrase of W.C. Fields, but wasn't the joke in their movie together that he was Mae West's "little chickadee," not the other way around?

    Maybe more some other time on the whole computer-aided crossword construction (cacc) can of worms, but the semi-short version: (a) is anyone really making publishable puzzles using just "autofill"? I tend to doubt it; (b) word lists & databases have been around a long time, longer than software programs, but I just think it's just part of modern-day Constructing 101 that the puzzle-maker owns what's in the list, what's added to it, how it's used, etc. Some constructors have obviously spent a lot of time and effort honing their lists and it shows in the quality of puzzles they make -- and more power to them. A good word database isn't just off-the-shelf tool to use like a screwdriver from the hardware store; it's something that a constructor has to work at. As with themes and clues, part of the fun is finding things that haven't been done before and getting them into a crossword.

  4. Pretty sure it was Fields saying, "my little chickadee," as he tapped his cigar.

    Didn't find the old puzzle or its words objectionable at all. Thought the theme jumped out very quickly, and words like ERS, TIR, ARETE were gimmes. Of course, I cut my eye teeth doing puzzles in this era, so I found the puzzle far more entertaining than one full of actors and rappers I've never heard of and don't care to learn.

  5. FYI, Mike Shenk does not use Compiler.

  6. Fantastic and hilarious! More please!

  7. I think that if you "learned" on the Times you'll always have a tiny soft spot for Maleska. I can still remember as a first-year mid-western college student suddenly realizing the answer to the clue, "West of Broadway." I felt sophisticated and smart and I just assumed everyone else knew all that Greek and Latin (as a high school student -- not even in a Catholic school -- I took four years of Latin and one of Greek.

  8. I'm going to try to use "metas appear to be the new black" at least three times within the next twelve months. That's hilarious.

  9. I can't remember the last time I tried to do the Dell puzzles. Maybe 10 years ago. I used to sail through the NYT (Maleskan and Shortzian) and struggle with the Dells. Just somehow a different type of cluing that slew me.

    I think ONER appeared in the NYT within the last week; everybody on Rex's blog acted like they never heard of it. But I'm pretty sure it has been a staple of the Shortz era, not just of ancient Maleskan puzzles; same with EROSE. Those are regular crossword words that I am very familiar with. (I'm trying to decide if it's worth $35 to be able to look it up on Cruciverb. So far, stinginess wins.)

  10. Forgot to say that Roberta Peters was an opera singer from Scarsdale, New York (I think).

  11. Ellen, according to Cruciverb, Will Shortz has used EROSE 37 times and ONER 63. (Xwordinfo has 47 and 83 but Cruciverb stats are considered more accurate.) Either way, they're both still in current use.

  12. Wow, both of those are embarrassing. I write crosswords for a living and right now would have to look EROSE up to tell you what it meant. Two words that need to be retired, not endlessly recycled.

  13. Hilarious discussion. I started doing the puzzles in the Will Weng era, so the sample Maleska puzzle had some familiar aspects (e.g., the one-word clues). I don't care for all the rappers and current TV shows that are now in puzzles, but they're probably bettor than Paa Vidderne.

    Question: Is it really obvious when a puzzle has been constructed using a computer program to do the fill? As a non-constructor, I've never noticed.

  14. Oxford lengths would be metres, not meters.