Spellbound

The Thinker by Rodin

Who likes a good challenge? Who also likes to associate a good challenge with masochism? If you like to solve crossword puzzles it seems that to prove that you are “good” you need to be a bit of a masochist. Or a cheat. Or both.

I’m not a great crossword puzzle player, which is likely due to not having much time or inclination for doing them. The key to successful retirement I’ve been told is to stay active, both physically and mentally. On the latter I am trying to stay mentally agile by doing the daily crossword puzzle in our local newspaper. This usually occurs over lunch when I get to that part of our paper.

It means exercising parts of my brain that don’t like to be exercised. So naturally Monday crosswords are best, i.e. easiest to do. I can usually finish it myself but if there are a few incomplete, I leave them to my wife who is a much better crossword player than I am. This is because while her body is declining too quickly as far as she is concerned, mentally she is sharp as a tack. She’s always been that way and it’s one of the reasons I married her. I like someone with an informed opinion and she rarely disappoints.

These puzzles are easier earlier in the week because that’s how they write them. By the weekend crossword though you want to spit nails. Not even a Jeopardy! champion is going to solve it without cheating. The clues become obscure if not downright misleading. The authors go out of their way to write long answer questions stacked on top of each other and write super obscure clues for the short answer words. I figure they must use special crossword puzzle software to sift through millions of possibilities. That is not enough of course because once you create the answers the idea becomes to obfuscate the questions so much that you will go on wild goose chases.

So you do what everyone else is doing: you cheat and turn to Dr. Google, or to Siri or to your favorite search engines. And invariably there are people out there that solved them before you and leave the answers for you. I’m doubting that a person solved these. I think it’s a computer, which may have provided a host of possible answers for human analysis. Just type in the question in the puzzle and it will pop right up but usually you have to scroll down a page for the answer. This is based I think on the theory that the hints they provide might allow you to solve it without scrolling down to the answer. But of course you won’t bother and you’ll scroll down then scribble it in with your trusty #2 pencil.

As the week progresses you realize that the only way to solve these puzzles is to find authoritative questions that cannot be wrong. Unfortunately, they tend to write fewer of these as the week goes along, but you have to work with what you got. That’s where the challenge/masochism starts because you have to use a correct answer to build the answers that join these words. And the clues will be obfuscated. At times it feels like playing charades because so many clues end in a question mark, which means the answer is really a huge stretch, which means it’s tangentially related at best or the answer is some sort of pun.

So at some point you ask yourself why you bother, and by Friday that’s how I usually react to the crossword puzzle: I won’t even bother, or I might pick at solving a clue or two then abandon it. Perhaps I’m a mental midget but I’m not a masochist. There is satisfaction in solving a puzzle that is fair. On Friday and Saturday they are not trying to be fair; they are trying to be obscure and deceiving. In short, they are being mean and it’s up to you to play along. It’s like going to Las Vegas and thinking you are going to win at slots. You know that the puzzle is rigged against you. It has become an exercise for the puzzle author to see how many he can defeat and frustrate. I am sure there are some geniuses out there so gifted in crosswords they can solve these without using the Internet or consulting a bunch of reference books, but in some cases you must consult a reference book because the answer is so obscure even a learned professor in the topic probably can’t recall the correct answer.

So here’s a call to puzzle authors to write fair crossword puzzles. It doesn’t have to be easy but it should not lead you down erroneous paths either. There is an implicit contract between the author and the player. At some point the puzzle reveals much more about who the author is as a person than the player trying to solve it. And it’s not flattering.

So puzzle on this, puzzle-masters. We enjoy a good puzzle but we don’t like being misled and we don’t think it’s fair to throw in answers that require scholarship to answer. A great puzzle is not based on how complex it is, but on how well it stimulates the far recesses of your brain based on accurate clues.

Don’t make me take up Sudoku.

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