Among the sections that I devote time to in my favourite newspaper after I read the items that interest me and scan the letters to the editor, the second is the crossword puzzle, the first being the SuDoKu. Those who know my weakness for Crosswords often ask me how I solve the cryptic crosswords, the others being straightforward [Like Flower (5) would beg the answer BLOOM.]
I had written a column in The Hindu a few years back summarizing the strategy, which, I would claim, was a modest success, judging by the responses from readers who said they could, by following my tips, solve crossword puzzles rather quickly and easily. The Friday review had carried it for nearly a whole year. When the hard disk of the computer in which I had stored the soft copies crashed, I lost those. Typical of me, I did not keep the cuttings.
I thought I could put together my tips in a different format in this blog.
SELECTION OF THE CROSSWORD PUZZLE
The first step to improving your crossword solving skills is to choose the right crossword puzzles to practice on! That means choosing puzzles of the right difficulty level for you.
Look at the answers in half a dozen puzzles set by the same cruciverbalist. See who has used the least number of obscure words. For starters, choose puzzles set by her.
Some puzzlers indicate the level of difficulty (Easy, Medium, Hard) but most do not. You must start with a level of difficulty that matches your current skill at solving, one that you can almost solve completely, but not quite. That way you will not give up the attempt, confidence in tatters; instead, you will learn something new with each puzzle. In case you opt for the tougher variety, it may be a good idea to cheat: copy down all the answers DOWN and solve the ACROSS clues (or the other way about).
You should familiarise yourself with these crucial aids to solving crosswords. Happily for us, all cruciverbalists religiously adhere to cluing conventions. Some examples:
The answer is never a part of the clue.
A clue and its answer must agree in number, gender, tense etc. (To take a simple example, if the clue (an anagram) is ‘Changes Later (5)’ and the answer is ALTER, all is not fine; either the clue should be ‘Change Later (5)’ or the clue-answer combination should be ‘Changes staler (6)’ and ALTERs. Got it?
If the clue contains an abbreviation, the answer too would. For instance, the answer to the clue ‘UK currency (3)’ would be STG.
If the clue contains the first name of a (famous) person, the answer too would. ‘The man in Indira’s life (6)’ would be FIROZE rather than GANDHI. Ditto about surnames.
If the clue contains a foreign word, name or place, the answer is from the language spoken there. Example: MANANA is the answer to ‘Tomorrow in Spain (6)’.
A clue within quotes implies that it is something said, rather than the literal meaning. As the clue ‘Fine sorrow’, not ‘Bad Joy!’ (4,5) would mean GOOD GRIEF.
A devious clue often ends in a question mark. As in ‘Canteen in disarray? (4)’ = MESS.
There are some ‘grid-friendly’ but obscure words - like ETUI (a French sewing case) - which tend to appear frequently in crosswords. Not many people are likely to know these words before seeing them in crosswords. Here’s another: ‘Boredom (5)’ = ENNUI, which most would be familiar with. The sooner you master them, the better. Accomplished Scrabble-players have an advantage in this department.
Common words like ARE [The clue would be ‘French Area measurement (3)’], IDEA [Clue: The thought of the aide (4)] or SMS also belong to this category.
There is no shortcut to master crosswordese: you will absorb it in time, through osmosis.
THE MENTAL GAME
I think it was Bobby Fischer (or was it John McEnroe?) who said that the match is played in the mind. It is true as much of Crosswords as it is of Tennis and Chess. The psychological aspects of crossword solving are important.
An unyielding clue means that you are not looking at it from the correct perspective. View it differently. Maybe the word ‘works’ in the clue is a noun, not a verb. Or the word ‘Murder’ has been used to mean not ‘manslaughter’, but a ‘collection of crows’! Maybe you thought the word ‘conductor’ refers to the ‘orchestra’, but what the clever cruciverbalist had in mind was ‘electricity’ (or a ‘bus’!).
Remember that a word (or a short series of words) can be read in different ways. Like, the answer to ‘More level praise (7)’ is FLATTER and that to ‘Despot at Oregon finds a starchy tuber (6)’ is POTATO.
Remember that the eraser that the pencil-maker has thoughtfully provided at the tip of the pencil is for making corrections. You may find that the N in the NAIL that you have written instead of TAIL is causing problems. If you encounter trouble, revisit your answers and satisfy that the answers you thought are right are indeed so.
If you have a hunch that ‘This is the word’, you are perhaps right! Pencil that in. If you are stuck with a clue, leave it and go to another clue. If you are stuck with a puzzle, leave it, take walk or read a book and return to the puzzle.
If you complain that these tips are too general, you have reason to. The nitty-gritty of solving would take up a book. Maybe I’ll write it one of these days!