November 10, 2005

Cranium crushed, but structurally sound

This week, I finished Frank Longo's new book, Mensa Crosswords for the Super Smart: 72 Cranium-Crushing Challenges. After 72 puzzles in about 10 days, I must say I feel better prepared for Stamford.

The easiest puzzle took me about 6 minutes (i.e., it was harder than today's Themeless Thursday in the Sun). And the hardest puzzles? Tougher than the toughest Saturday NYT puzzles. Some of the difficulty lay in ferreting out the occasional obscure entry (they wouldn't be called "cranium crushers" if the words were all familiar ones), but the bulk of it was just figuring out what on earth Frank was getting at with the clues. There's a preponderance of long entries—looking at one random puzzle (#67), I see four 15's, a 13, six 11's, and eight 7's. What happens when you have all these wide-open grids full of long entries you haven't seen umpteen times before? You have to suss out the meaning of clues you haven't mastered umpteen times before. And then these long entries are bound together by shorter answers with nonstandard clues. In puzzle #67, for example, Frank serves up "she played Pearl on The Beverly Hillbillies" instead of "actress Arthur," and "Janet Craxton's specialty" where we're accustomed to having a gimme like "orchestral reed." With these challenging puzzles, even a crack solver will have errors (I did, and I'm not the only one) or the occasional blank square. Now that's tough.

Half of the crossword grids in this book lack symmetry. I didn't notice any appreciable difference between the symmetrical and asymmetrical puzzles—they were all good, and the difficulty levels varied among both types. The upshot of the asymmetry is that it allowed Frank to include a ton of great longer entries (with their great clues), rather than having to sacrifice a lot of marvels at the altar of crossword symmetry. After solving the 36 asymmetrical puzzles in this book, I'd definitely be open to Will Shortz and Peter Gordon giving the occasional devious themeless puzzle special dispensation from that convention. All symmetry does, really—besides making grids visually pleasing—is place strictures on the constructor. I'd rather have a fantastic puzzle with a few "misplaced" black squares than a symmetrical puzzle that required compromises in overall quality just to hew to this design tradition.

At $7.95, this book offers an astonishing value for your entertainment dollar. I probably whiled away a good 10 hours with this book, so it was like seeing five movies but without being coerced into buying five boxes of $4 popcorn. If the puzzles take you longer than that, it becomes an even more cost-effective proposition for you. If these are two-hour puzzles for you, you're talking a whopping 144 hours of diversion for the same low price! (Would you believe I'm not getting kickbacks? Amazing, I know.)

Those of you who have waded into the book already, what do you think? Was the difficulty level what you were expecting? And how do you feel about the asymmetrical grids?

(Congratulations on another premier publication, Frank! And Peter, kudos for your editing; your changes are generally invisible to the solver, but I know they must be in there somewhere.)