April 02, 2007

Bending the rules

What is that? It's a bench, 4 feet in diameter. Costs $1,632, but hey, shipping is free!

It looks like a crossword grid that breaks the rules about symmetry, unchecked letters, and minimum word length. Such rules were the subject of surprisingly heated debate at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. I heard that Peter Gordon (arguing against) and Merl Reagle (arguing for) debated the standard requirement for symmetry in themeless crosswords until 3 a.m. Saturday in the Marriott lobby. The next evening, I joined the sequel, featuring Matt Gaffney, Byron Walden, and Deb Amlen.

My take on this is that from the solver's standpoint, interesting fill and smart clues are worlds more important than having a symmetrical grid for a themeless puzzle. This is borne out by Frank Longo's Mensa Crosswords for the Super Smart: 72 Cranium-Crushing Challenges, in which half of the puzzles look sort of symmetrical but have some black squares moved around. The fill is terrific, but insistence on strict symmetry would have sent some of these gems into the trash heap. Byron says he's chucked any number of fantastic corners of themeless puzzles just because it was next to impossible to get a symmetrical grid to flow from those corners.

What purpose is served by insisting that symmetry is more important than the quality of the fill? I know a lot of people appreciate the aesthetic appeal of rigorous symmetry, but symmetry is not entertaining in and of itself. Rumor has it that Peter will be making space for some asymmetry in the Sun crossword (and don't argue that those will be crappy puzzles—Peter sets the bar high for fill and clues, and he's not going to be publishing something horribly amateurish and unpolished), and I look forward to solving those puzzles. I'll bet many solvers will never even notice, and if they do notice, I can't believe they'd be anywhere near as troubled by it as some of the crossword cognoscenti.

At Stamford, Matt Gaffney asked me: If you dispense with symmetry, what's stopping anyone from breaking the rules against 2-letter entries and unchecked letters? It took me a week to come up with an apt response to that, but here it is. You know how Rick Santorum bewailed the idea of same-sex marriage, saying there'd be nothing to stop people from demanding the right to marry multiple people at once, or to marry their dog? That's baloney. Just as I think the idea of a slippery slope in marriage rights is ludicrous, I don't see why selected editors and constructors making some puzzles without symmetry means that hacks will be able to demand the right to publish crosswords with unchecked letters or 2-letter words. It's just not going to happen.