Cryptic clues lost in translation across the PondDirect link (requires subscription)
Mick Hodgkins | FEEDBACK
Friday April 07 2023, 9.00pm BST, The Times
‘I enjoyed the parts I finished.” “Well, I learned something about cryptics. And how to deal with failure.” “Why would you hurt me like that LOL.” These were among the reactions to last Wednesday’s Times crossword — not from our subscribers, fortunately, but from participants at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut.
I was at the event last weekend to meet US puzzlers and to see how I would get on with their crosswords — a very different beast from ours. There are cryptics in the US but they are very much a minority taste, like cricket or, until recently, decent beer. Mainstream puzzles such as those in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are closer to our concise ones, based on definitions and general knowledge, although definitions can be cryptic and themes often involve punning wordplay.
As a warm-up to the main event I talked about our puzzles, then gave participants a Times crossword to solve. It had one un-American spelling (“nitre” not “niter”) but was otherwise reasonably accessible, we thought. But of about 500 people in the hall, just eight finished within the 30 minutes allotted.
There were gasps when the tournament director, NYT puzzle editor Will Shortz, said one person had solved it in five minutes. That person was a regular Times crossword speed-solver, and the runner-up was a Brit (and Times setter), so New Yorker Catherine Cevoli deserves a special mention for coming third. She told me that years ago she spent six months living in London and fell in love with cryptics, especially The Times crossword. “They’ve become my favourite puzzles, though I do have to google British geography,” she says. “The pleasure of cryptics is that each clue is a little mystery you have to crack.”
We gave the same puzzle to Times readers on Wednesday, with the added handicap (not deliberate, I hasten to add) that a technical glitch initially left the website version lacking five down clues. Despite this, solving times were about average so it was not an unusually hard puzzle.
Any feelings of smugness I had were punctured once I left my comfort zone to test my solving powers on the tournament’s American-style crosswords. I came 636th out of 774, getting just one of the seven puzzles in the tournament completely correct. Three I was unable to complete within the time, and the other three I finished but with mistakes, mostly down to not knowing, say, that milk duds are a kind of sweet, or that Helene Curtis had been a US cosmetics firm.
So what can we learn from this cultural exchange, aside from confirming that we are two crosswording nations divided by a common language?
“It was a fun exercise,” says Shortz, who thinks part of the reason Stamford struggled with our puzzle was that “the clues had a lot of bits and pieces, clued trickily, whereas American cryptics tend to use simpler, more straightforward wordplay”.
Not all Times solvers on the Crossword Club forum were happy. Our accompanying text explaining that Wednesday’s puzzle had been used at the ACPT led some to think they were being fobbed off with American puzzles. Over at Times for The Times, Sawbill remarked: “Perhaps the editor could focus on sorting out the technology rather than getting involved in foreign competitions?” Ouch!