April 07, 2007

Cryptic crosswords

I'm not hooked on cryptics the way I hanker for standard American crosswords, but they do offer this advantage: A cryptic crossword tends to occupy me for considerably longer. This weekend's Second Sunday puzzle in the NYT is a spring-themed cryptic by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, and it took me about 50% longer than the Saturday NYT did. (A good chunk of that time was spent trying to suss out the answer the cryptic's last Across clue. Eventually, I managed to parse it correctly.)

The Hex duo has also been making tougher variety cryptics for the Atlantic for years, but the puzzle is now a Web-only, subscribers-only feature. Fortunately, one of my blog readers subscribes and freely violates copyright by sending me the PDF of each puzzle. The Atlantic puzzles always have some sort of twist (letters being added to or dropped from certain answers, for example) and a nonstandard grid (a few months ago, there was one with a hexagonal honeycomb). These puzzles often take me around an hour to complete, i.e., roughly 10 times longer than the typical themeless puzzle. There are so few outlets for wickedly hard standard crosswords these days, I have to go cryptic in order to luxuriate for a good long while. (Non-speed-solvers may think it would be easy enough to just take my time on standard puzzles, but my fellow speed-solvers would agree, I think, that that wouldn't be satisfying. You either know the answer to a clue or you don't—and if you do, is it any fun to try to read the clue more slowly and enter the answer into the squares more slowly?)

Harper's Magazine also publishes a variety cryptic, by Richard Maltby, Jr. (who spoke at the ACPT and presented the awards). On P.D. Wadler's recommendation (P.D.'s a weekends-only Crossword Fiend reader), I bought the February issue in March and did the puzzle in it; it took some getting used to, the non-Hex style. In the midst of writing this post, I checked out the Harper's site and saw that subscribers gain access to the complete archives...which presumably means many, many tough cryptics. A year's subscription is just $16.97, so I figured, why not?

The New Yorker used to publish a small (and easy) cryptic; 101 of these are gathered in this book edited by Fraser Simpson. I have the book, but found the puzzles were as easy as early-week NYT crosswords. If you haven't tried cryptic puzzles and have been wondering what all the fuss is about, this book is a great place to get your feet wet. You'll learn the basics of solving cryptic clues and hone your skills. If you've read this far but are still wondering what the heck "cryptic crossword" means, you could do worse than to drop the $7.95 on this book to find out if you enjoy this type of puzzle and the different sort of brain workout cryptics offer.

Intermediate-difficulty standard cryptics and tougher variety cryptics are also available in Games magazine and Games World of Puzzles.

If you'll excuse me, the Harper's archives await...