How to make an American crossword puzzle

Tell us a little about yourself

I am a senior data journalist for the US FT, based in New York. I also write for magazines about things – race, chess tournament, tallest flagpole in the world. A bit of a frenzy, I realize. And – miraculously – I am now the builder (builder, as we Americans say) of our new construction. American crossword puzzle.

What’s the difference between an American puzzle game and a British crossword puzzle?

Well, UK puzzles have up to 40 clues, their solutions spread across a 15 x 15 grid, with lots of blocked squares. US puzzles tend to use grids of the same size but with around 80 clues, their solutions are tightly arranged, with very few blocked squares. When it came to clues, the settlers of Great Britain laid out winding, confusing and challenging clues. The clues in the US puzzles are simpler.

What is your background in the puzzle?

Games are my family’s love language. They are the way we come together. Chess, backgammon, Scrabble, euchre, pinochle, Ticket to Ride — can’t escape a visit to my parents’ house without at least one. I’ve also organized my professional life around games, purposefully or not. I earned my PhD in game theory, covered games as a journalist, and wrote a book about the role games play in the development of artificial intelligence. In addition, the stack of crosswords that are always present on our kitchen table is growing. My mother and grandmother taught me the music and language of crossword puzzles.

I’m exhausted. I understand you sometimes sleep and eat

I ate while solving puzzles, naturally. I sleep . . . sometimes.

Some FT cryptographic compilers can’t walk down the street without trying to find clues from a sign or a passing storefront. Are you a bit like that?

In a sense, yes. In American quizzes, the answers, not the clues, are the real stars, so I tried to become familiar with modern coinage and usage. Crosswords, like English, must evolve and stay fresh. I keep in mind the colorful words and phrases that I want to one day include in the puzzle — and of course I add them to the wordlist in my software, the actual currency of the stacker. modern figure.

How long is that?

My list has about 450,000 words and phrases. That’s about 6.3 megabytes of text. Each word is given a score from 0 to 100 for how good it is in the puzzle.

OK, so what’s the first item under the letter Z?

Zabaglione – Italian dessert.

So how would you clue that?

“Dessert is usually served in a glass of champagne” – if I want to make it difficult. “Italian dessert made of egg yolks, sugar and sweet wine” is perhaps a little easier. Honestly, I’m not sure that’s a great filling. Hold on, adjust its score in my word list.

When you say, ‘I’m not sure that’s a great fill’, do you mean that zabaglione won’t work well with diagonal letters?

Interactive crossword puzzle on FT . app

Subscribers can now solve FT’s Daily, Polymath and FT Weekend Cipher crosswords on iOS and Android apps

It might be, but I’m also worried it’s a bit obscure — it’s also written as zabaione, for example. Crosswords should be made difficult and enjoyable by the distraction and “aha” moments provided by the clues, not by the obscurity of the answers.

My colleague Cordu says she solved your first FT puzzle in about an hour and a half. Your colleagues in America told her it was impossible. Her technique is to skim through as many clues as quickly as possible to start filling in the grid. Is that a resolution technique you would recommend?

That seems like a great technique. In fact, how else would you start? I suppose there are as many solutions as there are solvers, and none of them are wrong. These things are meant to be fun. Also, in the US quizzes, every letter appears in the horizontal and reverse answer, so you at least have a chance to check your work.

How does a 90-minute settlement compare to your own typical settlement time?

My average for a hard, typical American puzzle is about seven minutes.

Are you kidding?

No, but imagine how much time I wasted getting there. (I should mention that there are people who are much faster than me. I met many of them at the American Crossword Tournament last month.)

If you and others are solving 80-clue crosswords so quickly, shouldn’t the clues be harder?

Crossword puzzles are fascinating because of their ability to solve – like, we’re all solving the same newspaper puzzle every day. We are participating in a collective experience. That is very important, and therefore the quizzes should be widely accessible. Tough, but accessible. It doesn’t matter if I do it for 10 minutes and you do it for an hour. Each of us has achieved something, and in a sense we have done it together.

I disagree with you about the answer being more important than the clue. Some of your clues are terse, ingenious and uncomfortably clever, which suggests you’re trying to figure out the confusing nature of the UK crossword midway through. Agreed?

I would take “subtle and nasty” as a compliment. The clues are important, of course – after all, they’re the only thing the solver gets to in the first place. But I think this is an important, confusing transatlantic distinction. In an English crossword puzzle, you marvel at the incredible clues. In an American crossword puzzle, you marvel at the unbelievable answers. “Well, I can’t believe they put that word on the grid.”

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