Britain devised a unique challenge to find Bletchley Park codebreakers during WWII: a fiendishly difficult crossword that needed to be solved in under 12 minutes. Wordsmiths were invited to The Daily Telegraph's newspaper office in 1942 to unravel the puzzle, unaware they were even being considered for a top-secret government job.
SPYSCAPE takes the crossword challenge a step further, however. Not only do crosswords have a spy theme but our puzzle masters often add in an extra wrinkle or two - codes that must be cracked or hidden messages that only become apparent when the grid is complete.
SPYSCAPE suggests Bryant White’s cloak-and-dagger crosswords for hidden gems including Brewing Up Trouble, First Impressions, OddJob, Symbolic, Endgame, The Fifth Column, In Character and The Decoder Ring. Paolo Pasco's Straight from the Top and White's Gray Areas are excellent for those who enjoy tricky themes. Solvers looking for a straightforward but fun challenge will want to try Alina Abidi's Undercover. Also, keep an eye out for The Devil’s in the Details and Focus Group.
Will Nediger, SPYSCAPE’s resident cruciverbalist (you may want to look that word up!), oversees all of our crosswords and offers a new challenge every Friday. Nediger has been creating crosswords since he was 10 and published his first New York Times' crossword at age 16. Canadian-born Nediger has a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Michigan and his work has been regularly published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times.
Nediger has a few words of advice for aspiring solvers: "Read the theme clues - usually the clues for the longest 'Across' entries - carefully. If there's a tricky gimmick, that can help break it wide open.”
Still puzzled? Here are SPYSCAPE’s Top 10 tips to up your game:
Determine which of the six types of crosswords you’re solving to plan your strategy: American-style grid; British or South African-styled grid; cryptic; barred grill; cipher; or thematic.
You can generally tell the type of crossword by its appearance. SPYSCAPE’s I Spy crossword, for example, uses an American-style grid. These types of crosswords are typically 15x15 inches in size and written with a particular theme like the Top Secret puzzle. It's possible to solve an entire American-grid crossword just by doing the 'Down’ clues (see Mole Hunt as an example, below).
In British or South African-style crosswords both 'Across' and 'Down' columns must be used. British crosswords are usually either i) quick (a straight definition) or ii) cryptic (devilishly clever where each clue is its own mini-puzzle).
If you are toying with a cryptic puzzle, it helps to start by identifying the type of cryptic clue. Generally, it will be one of three types: an anagram clue, a 'sounds like' clue, or a pure cryptic clue which is a miniature riddle. Cipher crosswords contain both straightforward and cryptic clues - it is up to the solver to decide which is which.
Barred grill crosswords won’t have shaded gray or black blocks while thematic puzzles usually deal with one topic.
Remain loyal to improve your ranking. Beginners may want to stick with one source - one newspaper or one book - then look further afield. After you’ve completed a few crosswords you will understand the style of the puzzle setter and editor. This will assist in solving future clues. If you prefer a phone or laptop, there are more than 100 electronic crosswords in SPYSCAPE’s archive, and - like Alan Turing - we’ve got a timer next to our crosswords to test your speed. As many of SPYSCAPE’s crosswords are ranked as ‘medium’ difficulty, Nediger challenges experienced solvers to complete puzzles within three minutes.
Puzzle setter Bryant White also has a word of advice for solvers: “Read, read, read.” When White first started solving crosswords he jumped into the fire by tackling the New York Times crosswords. He was lucky if he could solve two or three words. At that point - back in the 1970s - White scoured dictionaries and encyclopedias to increase his vocabulary.
Read the clues forwards and backward. Sometimes puzzle constructors hide the solution at the end of a long line of text. In ‘19 Across’ for example, is James Bond or Sean Connery more relevant to the solution? (Click on the ‘Reveal’ button on The Black Bag Job crossword to find out.)
Solve fill-in-the-blanks clues first. They are often the easiest. In The Black Bag Job (above), many solvers will read ‘3 Down’ and recall that Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Purloined Letter. If you fill in the blanks, you add more letters to the grid and make it easier to solve other clues.
Search for clues that require a plural answer. Chances are, the answer will end in an ‘s’, which will help you find solutions to other clues. Also, keep an eye out for questions that indicate the answer is an abbreviation. In the crossword Undercover (above) ‘20 Across’ asks for: “Vehicles that could take you from London to New York in 3.5 hours, for short.” The words ‘for short’ indicate the puzzle setter is looking for an abbreviated word. The clue ‘vehicles’ lets you know the answer will be plural. In this case, the answer is SSTS - supersonic transports.
While the theme is often mentioned in the title, sometimes it is a mystery that’s only clear with the completion of the crossword. If the theme isn’t obvious, try solving the clue linked to the longest words in the puzzle. That’s where it usually emerges.
Check the puzzle’s solution. If you know what you’ve missed, you aren’t likely to repeat a mistake.
Be sociable. Crosswords can be more fun (and easier to crack) if you ask friends or family for help. Even SPYSCAPE’s puzzle setters work in teams. Check out Jennifer Lim and Rob Gonsalves’ Live Another Day, Lita and Tass Williams' Bond ... James Bond, and Evelyn Rubin and Ross Trudeau’s Don’t Mention It.
Research your answers. SPYSCAPE puzzle setter Will Eisenberg notes: "It's your puzzle! There's nothing wrong with Googling an answer or checking the grid. Sometimes, just taking a break and coming back with fresh eyes is the best way to get past a roadblock. There's no such thing as 'cheating' and the more puzzles you complete, by hook or by crook, the better you'll get at solving!”