December 02, 2007

What do you do with a diagramless crossword?

A lot of crossword buffs devour regular American-style crosswords, but shy away from diagramless puzzles or cryptic crosswords. Diagramless puzzles are easier to grasp because the clues follow the same general rules as are used in the daily crosswords we enjoy.

So, if you haven't tried a diagramless before, how do you get started? Some tips, after the cut. (There will be spoilers for today's Second Sunday NYT diagramless by Mike Nothnagel.)

A cursory Google search turned up these guidelines, which fall short in a few ways. The eHow suggestions seem to assume that 1-Across begins in the first Across square, and while this may be true of Penny Press or Dell diagramlesses, it usually isn't for the diagramless puzzles that the New York Times, New York Sun, and Games magazine print occasionally. These "elite" diagramlesses generally have themes.

The first thing you need to know to get started is whether the puzzle has traditional crossword symmetry (180° rotational symmetry), left/right symmetry, or neither. (Sometimes the black squares in the finished grid will make a picture—I think the picture still has some sort of symmetry the majority of the time.) Generally, this will be clearly indicated—here, it's in the Across Lite Notepad along with the starting-square hint.

The next step is figuring out where 1-Across and 1-Down begin. Me, I like to use the hint that's usually provided (in print, on a different page; in Across Lite, in the Notepad) that tells me where it is. Call me a cheater if you feel like it—I don't care. The process of divining where 1-Across begins isn't the fun part of solving for me, so I bypass that step.

If you're going to go without the starting-square hint, you're better off using a larger grid and leaving yourself room to draw the grid's borders when you figure out where they belong. If you have a pad of graph paper, you can use that. Or you can print out a page of graph paper (I think it was Lee Glickstein who originally gave me that idea, via the NYT forum a few years ago. Thanks, Lee!)

In the top row of the grid/graph paper, scooch in a few rows to the right and write in the numbers for 1-Across. If the second Across entry is 5-Across (as it is in today's Second Sunday NYT diagramless by Mike Nothnagel), that means 1-Across is four letters long. So put a little 1, 2, 3, and 4 in the top of four squares, and color in a black square after the #4 square.

You won't know if 5-Across starts right after that black square, if it starts further to the right, or if it appears in the row below 1-Across—but you'll know how long it is based on the number of the following Across clue. In Mike's puzzle today, 5-Across is probably five letters long (although there's a teeny chance that it appears below 1-Across and contains five letters with Down crossings that begin in numbered squares plus the four letters that will have no numbers because they are preceded by white squares above and to the left). We will disregard that parenthetical remark and assume (danger!) that 5-Across is in the top row.

10-Across can't also be in the top row because the following Across clue is 11-across. (If 10-Across were in the top row, it would have to be at least three letters long and therefore include the numbers 10, 11, and 12—but 11 begins a new Across answer.) So 10-Across begins the second row—possibly right beneath 1-Across, but possibly starting a little to the left.

Now we check the clues for 1-Across and 1- to 4-Down, trying to fill in some letters. 1-Down, [Decorative pitcher], sounds like crosswords' favorite pitcher, the EWER. Could 1-Across start with an E? [Rim] could be EDGE, so yes. We write in EDGE and EWER, and color in a black square below EWER. 2-Down, [Prehistoric TV pet], must be the Flintstones' DINO; again, fill in a black square below it. 3-Down and 4-Down I'm not sure of; possibly GLOWED and EPOXY? I won't write either in yet.

10-Across is probably that entry beneath 1-Across. What [Woven fabric] contains a WI? TWILL comes to mind, so I'll write that in and put a little #10 in the T square, and blacken the square to its left along with the square to the right of the last L. The L's make GLOWED look promising, and the [Popular glue] starting with EL must be ELMERS; I'll fill in that answer and a black square below it.

So it looks like 5-Across is off to the right somewhere, and 11-Across is somewhere below it. So 12-Across is probably what's under 10-Across. [Prodigy, slangily] with an EN*M in it? Let's say PHENOM. We know 12-Across can't start directly below 10-Across because there's a 12-Down clue (and if 12-Across started right under the #10 square, there'd be no 12-Down). So PHENOM goes in, with a #12 in the P square and black squares before and after. That makes 3-Down start with GLO, so let's go ahead and fill in GLOWED followed by a black square.

10-Down is [Don quickly, as an outfit], starting with TH. My guess is THROW ON, so that goes in the grid. 12-Down, [California college] starting with P—POMONA comes to mind. Eyeballing what that would make beneath, I see a spot ending with MO and a clue for 21-Across, [___, amas, amat]—that must be AMO, so I'm confident about POMONA and will fill in the #21 in the A square of AMO.

I'm not sure about 18-Across, a theme clue. But ORROWE lends itself to BORROWED, and BORROWED TIME could be [It postpones the inevitable]. Filling that in, the D gets the #19 in its square. The TIME portion must be below other white squares and thus unnumbered, rather than below black squares and numbered with a Down clue—there's a 20-Across clue and the beginning of the next row is 21-Across.

Whatever goes in 5-Across, 5- through 9-Down will feed into some or all of those TIME squares. 6-Down is the gimme [Jai ___], ALAI, and that I in TIME looks awfully good for the ending of ALAI. So let's put 5-Across right after that single black square following 1-Across.

Moving back to 18-Down, [Thai coins] starting with BA must be BAHTS, so that gets filled in and followed with a black square.
22-Across, [Suffix with switch], is EROO, ending just before the black square under ALAI.

What about that HOW below AMO? Is it 23- or 24-Across? 23-Across's clue is [Like the stomach]; hmm, that doesn't seem like a HOW answer. 24-Across is the theme clue, [E.M. Forster novel]—HOWARD'S END. Jot a little 25 and 26 in the A and R squares, a 27 in the last square, and a black square after the end. 25-Down, Gillette's ATRA and a black square. 26-Down, I dunno—REEL something?

The TNO** answer must be TNOTE, 29-Across (put 29 in the first square).

All of 19-Down, DOE, is filled in, so follow it with a black square.

Back up to 5-Across, [W. Hemisphere commerce pact], the "W." indicates an abbreviation, and NAFTA comes to mind. For 5-Down, NEWTON is a famous physicist (add #11 in the E square, #13 in the W, and a black square below the word). 11-Across, ELIAS Howe plus a black square. 7-Down, FIRM plus a black square. 8-Down, TAPE and a black square. 13-Across, Star Trek's WARP SPEED, with #14-17 in the PEED squares and black squares above them.

Now we know where the 17x17 grid borders belong. From BAHTS to the end of WARP SPEED is 17 squares wide. Now all the black squares that have been filled in already can be duplicated in their diagonally opposite squares (since this puzzle has traditional rotational crossword symmetry). The first four squares in the last row are black. Then there are five white squares, one black square, four whites, and three more blacks. The second-from-bottom row is four blacks, five whites, one black, five whites, and two blacks. You can copy the rest over yourself.

Now your options for proceeding have expanded greatly. You can work from the Across entry below TNOTE. You can work on 27-Down. You can work on 14- to 17-Down and the shortish Across answers that cross them. And you can move to the bottom of the grid. The answers to the last two Across clues, 74- and 75-Across, go in the bottom row. The two before them, 72- and 73-Across, go in the second-from-bottom row. Above that are 69-Across (whose clue says this answer is a hint to the starred theme clues, which so far include WARP SPEED and BORROWED TIME) and 70-Across.

There will be more black squares going in the general midsection. By working through the clues and deducing where everything meshes together, you can figure those out yourself. When you start writing in those bottom-most Across answers, some likely Down answers may pop into your head as you review the last dozen or so Down clues, which can help you piece together where the clue numbers go in the grid.

This should get you off to a good start, though. I haven't solved any of the puzzle beyond what I've already written about, so I'll be going through the same steps myself!

If you opted for the starting-square at the beginning, you would have known that 1-Across started in the fourth square (following three black squares in the top row). BAHTS would have been filled in along the left edge of the grid, and after filling in PHENOM you'd have known that 13-Across could be no more than nine letters long. As I said before, I like to jump-start things by using the starting-square hint, but others do relish the hunt for where the final grid borders will go. I'd rather print out the grid with the clues on it and not mess around with graph paper and guesswork; your mileage may vary.