Date: February 26, 2009
Byline: James Y. Lee
How to solve a crossword puzzle
Patrick Merrell, who has constructed wordy brainteasers for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, shares his training tips before the 32nd Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament at the Brooklyn Marriott.
Use a pencil. "Most good solvers use one," says Merrell. "Otherwise, you'll end up with a piece of modern art."
Practice. This makes perfect: "You need to get used to 'em," says Merrell. "Past winners probably do ten puzzles a day."
Start with three-letter words. "There won't be a lot of them, but the three-letter words are a good place to get a foothold," says Merrell.
Take a break. If you really get stuck, put the puzzle aside for a few minutes. "Going back to it and taking a fresh look will help you see something new," says Merrell. "It's a phenomenon that top solvers and constructors mention all the time."
Review the answers. When you practice on your newspaper's crossword, take a look at the answers the next day. "You'll get an idea of how things are clued and see what trips you up," says Merrell.
Start off easy. "The New York Times puzzle increases in difficulty [as the week goes on]," says Merrell. "Thursday takes a big jump and there's an unusual twist to it."
Fill in the blanks. The clues that have these are the easiest to solve.
Relax. Instead of stressing, do this. "Loosen up and pull back a bit, like an athlete stretching before a race," says Merrell. "Answers come to me more quickly that way."
Study up. The more information you can fit in your noggin, the better off you'll be. "Expand your knowledge on words, things going on in the news and names of famous people," advises Merrell, with a warning: "A lot of the top solvers are mathematical people — not wordy folks — who are good at decoding how the letters fit together."
Match it up. The answer has to synch completely with its clue. For example, if the hint suggests something plural, the solution will be plural. Also, be aware of tenses.