December 13, 2008

Second Sunday puzzle, 12/14—Diagramless

I found this weekend's New York Times diagramless crossword by Thomas Takaro to be pretty pliable as such things go. I didn't time myself, but it felt fast for a diagramless puzzle.

More discussion and my solution grid after the cut.

I used Across Lite's "convert" option to get a grid image of my solution, but I solved this puzzle on paper without the black squares and without the starting square/symmetry hint. I'm really surprised to find that it's not all that much harder to go without the hint, and I'm glad Tyler Hinman was so sorely disappointed in me for using the hint that I finally tried abstaining. Shame is helpful if it pushes you to learn a new skill, eh?

In case you haven't the foggiest idea how to approach a diagramless without the hint, let me tell you how I tackled this one. I started with 1-Across, [Astronaut's place], 7 letters because the next Across clue is numbered as 8-Across. Hmm, don't know it. But 1- through 7-Down happens to be easier. CHET the [Guitarist Atkins], LECH the [Nobelist Walesa], PER that's [The "p" in r.p.m.], and SSE, the [Opposite of NNW] are all gimmes. Those give me C*PS*L* for 1-Across, which must be CAPSULE. I jot that down below the clues in the margin at the bottom of my Across Lite printout.

Filling in the other Downs beginning in CAPSULE gives me HRESPEC in the middle of a long 8-Across. The next Across number is 14, so 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13 all begin Down answers. The HRESPEC letters appear below CAPSULE, so those other six letters bracket HRESPEC. That means 8-Across is 13 letters long; 1-Across is 7 letters, and 7 + 13 + 1 black square = 21. The grid's only 17 squares wide, so CAPSULE appears alone in the top row. Centered or to one side? I can't say yet. But [Concerning] fits the meaning of WITH RESPECT TO, the answer to 8-Across. So I jot that down below CAPSULE.

Working from the Downs numbered 8 to 13 (WHEEZE, IRISES, TESTS at 8-, 9-, and 10-Down) and with the middle letters EFRENCH filled in already, 14-Across, or a [Much-sung-about gift in "The Twelve Days of Christmas"] looks to be THREE FRENCH HENS. That's 15 letters centered below 8-Across, which is centered below CAPSULE. So these top three Acrosses look like they want to be centered in the grid. Are they? The next two Acrosses are 16-Across [Believers] and 17-Across [Stingers]. With some crossings filled in from the Downs, I see THEISTS and HORNETS, two 7-letter words with a space of 3 black squares between them. Bingo! The fourth row in the grid begins with THEISTS, and the first three Acrosses are centered in the grid. Now I can copy those four rows of answers from the margin of the page and into the grid.

Next, I fill in 14- and 16-Down and see that SEES fits at their end with the 23-Across clue, [Gets it]. SEES sits at the end of four Down answers, so I scribble in some black squares beneath and at the end of SEES. Look! A dead end. It sort of looked like maybe a circular Christmas ornament was going to be depicted by the grid, but with that dead end, the left/right symmetry the grid has so far can't continue. The answers on the right side will have to continue downward so that the grid's not cut in half by black squares and...hey, it looks like the top of a big number 3, doesn't it? The [Brecht/Weill word, with "The"] at 11-Down could be another THREE, the THREEPENNY OPERA.

So with that, I'm off and running. Or walking. Or slogging. Some of the lower half and right side seemed considerably harder to fill in than the top, but knowing that the final grid might depict a big number 3 helped guide my progress through the puzzle. The 3 turns out to have top/bottom symmetry, so SALIERI, [Mozart rival], sits in the bottom row opposite CAPSULE. [Billiards great a k a Rudolf Wanderone] is MINNESOTA FATS, and I guessed that one based solely on having ATS at the end of a long 52-Across space; didn't know the name at all. Above that, opposite the THREE FRENCH HENS, is a THREE-RING CIRCUS, the third of our THREE theme answers.

The rest of the process entailed looking back and forth between the clues and grid to figure out what sort of answers would be how long and would fit where. And that, my friends, is essentially how you work through a diagramless puzzle.

Not every clue was a gimme, that's for sure. [Scott ___, seven-time Gold Glove winner], is named ROLEN at 39-Down. (Who?) 24-Across [Dead, as a twig] is SAPLESS; not so intuitive for me. 21-Across [Creepy things?] are OOZES, using "ooze" as a noun. 13-Down [Like horses' feet] is ONE-TOED. 47-Down [Bygone music player] is a HIFI, not some sort of extinct instrument. 36-Down [Periodic highs and lows] are TIDES.

Diagramless crosswords definitely require more mental effort from the solver, but sometimes the payoff is discovering a picture, like this big numeral, in the grid. Other times the payoff is just finishing a tough puzzle and enjoying the theme—usually a theme that doesn't lend itself to a standard crossword grid. In this case, the three 15-letter theme answers would certainly fit into a 15x15 grid, but the black squares wouldn't draw a picture to extend the theme graphically.

Another approach to beginning a diagramless is to jot down your initial answers on graph paper. Then if it turns out 1-Across is a few squares farther over than you thought it was, you've got plenty of room to just keep filling things in without running out of grid (as you would if you started writing those answers in the wrong place in the 17x17 grid). Go to's graph paper page to print out whatever size you want, and ignore the prefab 17x17 grid altogether.