Sometimes, You Can’t Trust the “Rules” of Crosswords
There are a lot of things you learn as you solve more and more crosswords.
You learn vocabulary, both words that are simply new to you AND words that are common to crosswords. You learn cluing tropes, like question marks indicating wordplay or quotation marks indicating informal speech or exclamations.
You also start to learn some of the constructors’ tricks.
Now, there are all sorts of ways that constructors can play with solvers, but all told, they seem to fit into three overall categories: clue trickery, theme gimmickry, and grid manipulation.
We’ve spoken about clue trickery loads of times in the past, and no doubt will again. And theme gimmickry will be the subject of a future post.
But today, we’d like to focus on grid manipulation.
So, what do we mean by that? Well, essentially, grid manipulation is our catchall term for the most devious arrow in the constructor’s quiver. It’s when the standard accepted rules of crosswords no longer apply.
No matter what sort of symmetry is involved or how the grid is constructed, there are generally three accepted rules of crosswords:
- Across words read across.
- Down words read down.
- One letter per square.
These are the fundamental rules, Newton’s three laws of crosswords. They’re the rules every solver expects to be in play when they sit down to solve a crosswords.
But that’s not always true.
Over the years, crafty constructors have found ways to push the boundaries of what you can do with those iconic grids of black and white squares.
Some constructors have literally gone outside the box, creating puzzles where letters of answers are placed beyond the grid itself, as in Sid Sivakumar’s American Values Club crossword “Bursting With Pride” a year or two ago (with the letters LGBTQIA+ appearing in sequence).
Byron Walden’s Fasten Your Seatbelts puzzle from the AVC crossword in 2019 also extended beyond the grid. Extra letters served not only as “bumps” along the otherwise smooth sides of the grid, but spelled out various bumps, like RAZOR, SPEED, and GOOSE.
Other constructors find fresh ways to pack more into a grid than expected.
The most common form is the rebus puzzle, whether multiple letters can be placed in a single grid square. Sometimes, it’s only a single square in a themed entry where multiple letters fit. Other times, you can get whole strings of them. The exact puzzle escapes me, but I can remember a crossword where two down entries all had rebus squares, so instead of one film title in that down entry, two would fit in each.
One impressive example that comes to mind is Andy Kravis’s “Currency Exchange” puzzle from the 2019 Indie 500 puzzle tournament.
The puzzle actually had little ATM graphics in various grid boxes, and they represented different currencies concealed in the theme entries. Plus, the across and down entries that shared an ATM had different currencies in their entries. For instance, one ATM represented WON in SMALL WONDER and DINAR in ORDINARY.
Other puzzles, known as quantum puzzles, feature multiple possible answers in the same space.
The most famous example is the 1996 Election Day crossword. The puzzle “predicted” the outcome of the election quite cleverly by allowing for either CLINTON ELECTED or BOB DOLE ELECTED to read out, depending on how the solver answered seven down clues.
Arguably the most impressive one I’ve ever seen was published in 2014. Constructors Kacey Walker and David Quarfoot combined some considerable Scrabble skills and a dynamite crossword grid to create an amazing puzzle.
You see, clues 26-Across, 36-Across, and 44-Across all featured seven letters, like a rack in Scrabble. It was up to the solver to find the anagram of each rack that fit the grid. Walker and Quarfoot designed the puzzle so that each of those clues had three possible correct answers — for 26-Across: ROWDIER, WORDIER, and WORRIED all fit the down clues — meaning there were a staggering 27 possible correct solutions!
Still, those puzzles followed the standard across and down rules. But other puzzles don’t.
In those puzzles, entries don’t go the way you’d think, bending or taking unexpected twists in the grid. One example was Patrick Berry’s brain-melting Puzzle 5 from the 2016 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, “Changing Lanes,” where answers zigzagged across the grid.
A less complex puzzle with a similar gimmick appeared in the 2019 Boswords tournament. “Spill the Tea” by John Lieb and David Quarfoot featured longer entries than would fit in the given spaces. The trick was to shorten in by removing a brand of tea from the answer, and letting it read down off that across entry, rather than inside it. So, for instance, HOTEL CHAIN read HOTELCN across, because CHAI was reading down from the C instead.
Lieb and Quarfoot incorporated five such “spills” in the grid, and clued each tea reading down simply with “Oops.” It was an immensely clever way to utilize the across and down entries in a unique, unexpected way.
As you can see, puzzle innovation can come in virtually any form, and often, the very foundational rules of crosswords can be bent or broken to create an ambitious, brain-twisting, and (ultimately) satisfying solve.
So be on the lookout, fellow puzzlers. You truly never know how constructors will challenge you next.
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