The Year In Crosswords, 2020

Another great year!

FOR CROSSWORD PUZZLES ONLY AND SPECIFICALLY.

Given that the vast majority of the potential solving public spent most of the year stuck indoors for reasons, we spent a whole lotta time filling in grids. A few new features debuted, the tournament scene shifted online, charity projects proliferated, Crossword Twitter got snarkier. It was also a year certain long-simmering controversies came to a head, and a year that some once-scorned brands achieved new prominence.

Standard caveat: I’m one guy and there’s a lot to cover (seemingly more than ever), so if I missed some fact (or an aspect of a bigger story), let me know. I’ll put it in. Now then, let’s get down to it!

Controversies

Since I started studying the field in the early 2010s, and for as long as most people on Earth have been alive, The New York Times has been at the center of crossword culture. That statement continued to be true this year (and the smart money remains on it not changing next year), but the NYT has been unusually on the defensive lately. Other publications have grabbed a bigger share of positive buzz, and its own puzzle’s politics grew harder to ignore.

In March, The Atlantic ran a Natan Last piece with two titles: “The Fight to Make Crosswords More Inclusive” was the page title and URL, but the actual headline was the somewhat sterner “The Hidden Bigotry of Crosswords.” This was not the first or the second time a notable publication had taken the NYT to task for being, shall we say, out of touch with an increasingly diverse audience. This time, though, the story didn’t end with the NYT simply apologizing for a particularly clueless clue and moving on.

A petition arrived soon after with hundreds of signatures, building on Last’s article and the testimony of Claire Muscat, a former NYT test-solver who’d found her experience matched Last’s observations. “Our intention is not just to register concern or to chastise an institution that we love, which has thrived under the visionary leadership of Will Shortz. Instead, we are asking for three concrete measures that we think can correct for the blind spots of his system”: constructors receiving access to proofs of their pieces before they go to print, a public commitment to diversity, and a solving team of at least half women and/or enbies.

Shortly thereafter, Elizabeth C. Gorski, whose byline was recognizable to anyone who’d solved NYT puzzles for her two decades of contribution, came forth to explain why she’d left the paper: “During my tenure at the NYT, gender parity was never reached. It still has not been achieved. Far from it.”

Eric von Coelln, the Times’ executive director of puzzles, may’ve expected more positive press in the March-April period. Wasn’t the New York Times marking Women’s History Month with a week full of women contributors? It was, as inspired by Rebecca Falcon, but other crossword features had responded to Falcon’s idea more firmly, with David Steinberg’s Universal Crossword putting forth a solid month. Though Falcon was pleased by each group’s participation, for other observers, the difference in commitment levels may have underscored the point.

As if all that wasn’t enough, March also saw the release of Adrienne Raphel’s thoroughly excellent Thinking Inside the Box, which (while covering many other topics) addressed this overall culture clash: “The crossword is black and white, but it's very, very white. This monoculture seeps into the types of clues that appear in the puzzle, and the way that words get clued.”

In a refreshing departure from how certain politicians respond to criticism, the Times neither ignored these concerns nor doubled down. As Vice reported:

A written response to the constructors from von Coelln, which Rhoades Ha sent to Motherboard, outlined the ways he and the rest of the puzzles department plan to address the concerns in the letter — including a commitment to diversifying and expanding the editorial team, and more inclusive processes for collaboration within that team.

“By the end of 2020, we will rely on a combination of collaborative digital tools and more collaborative interaction models within the team to make the editorial process more creative and transparent for everyone on the editorial team, including test-solvers and fact-checkers,” von Coelln wrote. “We’re also focused on improving our communications with constructors. We recently cut the submission response time for constructors in half, and plan to further digitize the process this quarter. We share edited proofs with constructors as part of our puzzle pack editing system and we will address how we begin to do that with our daily puzzles by the Fall if not sooner.”

Although it’s far too soon to call this puzzle solved, it’s inarguable that the ensuing months did bring diversity to the NYT puzzle staff. Recent hires to the puzzle team have included associate editors Wyna Liu and Tracy Bennett and Everdeen Mason as the company’s first editorial director for games. That’s three women, two nonwhite.

Stella Daily Zawistowki, perhaps heartened by this, had some additional suggestions for a grass-roots gender-parity movement, and Last followed up with “Bringing Brown to the Black-and-White Grid: How crossword puzzles depict South Asian cultures, and the forces trying to change that.”

Most “Controversial” Entry of the Year: In years past, the most talked-about entries have triggered either outrage on social issues (like the NYT’s use of BEANER in 2019 or ILLEGALS in 2012) or culture clashes about what’s proper (e.g., SCUMBAG, MID-ASS TOUCH). This year’s biggest attention-getter brings a more refreshingly lighthearted nontroversy: “Cookie that some eat with mustard” (OREO), in February 12’s USA Today puzzle.

Source: Reddit user Toricat93.

Readers were like, “eat with WHAT?”, the Today show investigated (finding some evidence in favor), a few adventurous eaters were vindicated, and many others’ palates cringed. Showing it had learned its lesson, USA Today later clued OREO as “Cookie sometimes dunked in orange juice.”

Also consistent with crosswords’ long-held tradition of knowing the definitions of words. Some norms remain.
Yeah, the timing might’ve been a factor.
Man, I *have* to renew my subscription now, don’t I?

Speaking of orange substances known for subsuming processed foods, Donald Trump continued to inspire controversy in 2020. I’m as surprised as you are.

Alchemi putting VOTE FOR DONALD TRUMP? PLEASE DON’T around the edges of an Independent puzzle didn’t get much attention, nor did the Guardian puzzle’s BLACK LIVES MATTER. But the American Values Club took a more firmly anti-Trump stand during Election Week and paid a commercial penalty for it (see left). The AVCX stands by its statement.

The Time piece also cited a debate, with no clear outcome, over the usage of the word NOOSE. Suffice to say reactions to this one may vary by race.

A Woody Allen-themed puzzle in the Los Angeles Times, in light of Allen’s confirmed activities and credible accusations against him, got a stern enough response to merit an apology from editor Rich Norris.

Rising Stars

Back in the day, the crosswords of Universal and USA Today, linked by the same publishing house, had nowhere to go but up. USA Today’s was widely derided, as in the documentary Wordplay (“I’ll solve, in a hotel, a USA Today, but I won’t feel good about myself,” Jon Stewart joked in the film). And that was before both brands were further tainted by a plagiarism scandal. But what this meant was that when embattled editor Timothy Parker finally left both publications, they were able to make fresh starts by hiring up-and-comers David Steinberg and Erik Agard, respectively.

Both, especially Agard, have earned sufficient attention that Time has called them central to “the crossword revolution.” It quoted Rex Parker, who dubbed USA Today today’s “most interesting, innovative, and provocative daily crossword.” Such adulation is all the more remarkable, perhaps, because USA Today keeps its themes light and simple, more focused on accessibility than on the verbal pyrotechnics often featured in the NYT and elsewhere. Attention is paid to Agard’s cluing style (particularly cluing “ONT” as “ON T,” a term familiar to the trans population). The latest mark of its popularity? It’s now one of the few crosswords to have a blog devoted to its output (Sally’s Take).

Steinberg is also to be commended for reaching out to contributors hit hardest by coronavirus.

Other Feature Changes

The Daily Beast joined the marketplace with a new five-times-weekly feature “where power, pop culture, and politics intersect — quite literally.” But, they argued, such crosswords were still more polite than their British counterparts. Matt Gaffney is the feature author.

As part of its coronavirus response, the New York Times bumped its annual “Puzzle Mania” (including Super Mega crosswords) to a biannual schedule this year.

Will Shortz has put out the word that Merriam-Webster and Britannica are developing a new feature for release next year, with a plan for two or three contributors.

There were so many charitable projects this year that I need to do a lightning round: Evan Birnholz’s Grids for Good, 42 puzzles from 44 constructors, to fund coronavirus relief and efforts against institutional racism. Eric Berlin’s puzzle suite for Feeding America. Rachel Fabi’s puzzle to support the Baltimore Abortion Fund. Erik Agard and Paolo Pasco and friends’ inventory for One Struggle KC, a racial justice organization. Kid Beyond and others’ “Puzzle Bouquet” for safe maternity care with their and Mike Selinker and Lone Shark Games’ “Marching Bands for the Marchers,” free with donations to Campaign Zero or other anti-police brutality groups.

The New Yorker has expanded its offerings into three different difficulty levels, and hired new puzzlemasters Wyna Liu, Caitlin Reid, and Robyn Weintraub. (Far as I can tell, Liu still seems to be on the team while doing work for the NYT.) New and old staffers have listed their favorite clues of the year.

McKinsey & Company now has a monthly business-themed Peter Gordon feature… a fact that got some side-eye from Erik Agard and others, due not to the feature itself, but to the history of McKinsey’s business practices and involvement in corporate scandals.

Some puzzles are bad on purpose. You can find a suite of 100 camp works at Et Tu, Etui?

Amanda Rafkin has a new puzzle blog.

Michael Wiesenberg released a new Canadian Crosswords collection.

New Scientist has science-themed cryptic and “quick” crosswords now — I missed that last year, but it looks like they have legs.

Smithsonian Magazine started an online crossword as a monthly feature… or maybe it ran four non-monthly puzzles in a weekly pilot program? Muddled messaging aside, the most recently published of these came out May 29. Putting out an online puzzle designed solely for readers who had pored over the print magazine may not have been a winning strategy, even pre-pandemic.

Good news/bad news: The Inkubator has announced it’s full up on submissions for all of 2021.

Malaika Handa and friends will be starting a new feature on the first day of 2021, featuring every 7X7 grid it is possible to make while observing Margaret Farrar’s design rules. That’s 312 grids, or six for each week of 2021. Its name, naturally, is 7x7.

Technologies

The Guardian rolled out a crossword-and-other-puzzles app with 15 crosswords and 7 sudoku a week. Its two-player mode allows “readers to play with friends, time their game, share their scores socially, and play offline.” App available for download here.

The Atlantic also rolled out a social-solving feature and announced it was expanding its offerings into Sunday puzzles, up from its earlier five-day schedule.

The New Yorker introduced a social-solving feature of its own (hmmmm) and a summer makeover.

USA Today launched a new crossword site with access for subscriber affiliates.

The NYT crossword has also developed — this can’t be right — no, it is — an augmented reality feature. Even more surprising to longtime observers: in light of abovementioned changes, it finally allows digital submissions.

Black Ink is an app designed for Mac-based solvers, pulling puzzles from the Wall Street Journal crossword, Chronicle of Higher Education, New York Times Premium Crossword, and the American Values Club. (Er… did no one tell them the CHE puzzle ended last year?)

“Alexa? Print the crossword.”

Accomplishments

Most Touching Crossword of the Year: Back in January, when we were all more innocent, Amanda Yesnowitz and Brendan McGrady debuted their wedding grid, constructed by Amanda and Joon Pahk, with an extra embedded tribute to Amanda’s late father. Will Shortz attended the wedding.

First Phonetic Crossword: ͡ʃe ͡ɪnd͡ʒɪŋ ple ͡ɪsəz, by Tom McCoy.

First Phonetic Spectrogram Crossword: Here, followed by the second, both by Antoin Eoin Rodgers.

First Crossword Escape Room: Escape the Grid, by Will Nediger.

First Victory for AI Solving: According to Matt Ginsberg, its developer, Dr. Fill outperformed all human solvers at Boswords. This marks the first time this has happened at any tournament, in-person or otherwise (see “Tournaments,” below).

For Those Who Couldn’t Be Together for Seder: The Hunt Is On!, by Matt Gaffney and Aimee Lucido.

🦍 👩 🏢… 🎅 🌃 🎁… 💍 🧝 🌋… 👨 💗 📱… 🚢 🧑‍🎨 🧊…

First Emoji Clues in a Major Publication: As far as I know, the New York Times has this one. (All these firsts, and indeed everything here, should have that “AFAIK” caveat.)

First 7x7 Pangram: Enrique Henestroza Anguiano’s creation as published by Sid Sivakumar (who pioneered the “pangram midi” format but would love to see it proliferate).

Hitting the 1,000-Puzzle Mark: Matt Jones, with Jonesin’.

Category of its Own: Not a crossword, but comedian John Finnemore solved the 86-year-old puzzle “Cain’s Jawbone,” designed by one of the UK’s most notorious cruciverbalists, Edward “Torquemada” Powys Mathers. The basic instruction, “put this mystery story in order,” is harder than it sounds. Finnemore’s not the first, but he is the third, and the first to do it in decades. And speaking of “not a crossword”…

Crossmedia

Extremely Online: Hopelessly addicted to crossword puzzles? Would you like a newsletter telling you when virtually anyone updates their online crossword feature? Then good gosh-a-mighty, does Matt Gritzmacher have the email list/website for you: Daily Crossword Links.

Social-media account @not_a_crossword delighted Crossword Twitter by focusing on something that’s nettled me for nearly a decade: “Cataloguing misrepresentations of crossword puzzles in media. Feel free to send us examples and use the hashtag #notacrossword.” (We could quibble over whether a criss-cross deserves to be called a crossword or not, but the point is that no self-respecting solver would think one of those is the same as a newspaper-standard puzzle.)

Even more inside-baseball is @makeupapuzzler, with currently about 30 made-up guys, maybe half of whom I’ve been at some point (puzzler who makes crosswords as gifts to save money, guy who never solves the puzzle but just looks at the solution and says, “Huh. Neat…”).

Screen: Not every media depiction of crosswords is inaccurate, though. Here’s a cryptic created for the BBC’s new Dracula series. Here’s another from the novel Jeeves and the Leap of Faith.

The Modern Family finale featured a crossword clock designed by Patrick Blindauer which is currently, regrettably, out of stock.

Historical proto-crossword the Sator Square also has a deliciously tangled relationship with the Christopher Nolan film Tenet.

Video game Persona 5 Royal has some criss-cross solutions you can solve for points… but honestly, they aren’t particularly fun, so here are the cheats.

Print: Again, I can’t recommend Raphel’s Thinking Inside the Box highly enough. The same month it came out, Raphel had a piece published in Scientific American on the thorny subject of what crosswords do for memory and cognitive ability, particularly later in life.

The Globe and Mail printed a collection of its giant crosswords, while New York magazine gathered a recommended list of crossword books from a panel of recognized experts.

Satire: The Onion picks a bit at mainstream media’s reluctance to touch some #MeToo anti-Biden allegations, and to say why that belongs on this list (for completeness’ sake, at least) would spoil the joke.

Hype: I don’t normally pay attention anymore to criss-crosses in advertising, a form of construction that seems to be getting more common, but I’ll make an exception for White Stripes’ genuinely challenging track list release (answers here). Plus, for sadism’s sake, here’s a 400-clue fan-created Pokémon crossword.

Tournaments

In sort of a marker for how the year as a whole would go, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament at first announced it was still on, then rescheduled for September, then cancelled for the year altogether. It’s currently slated to return April 23–25, 2021, a date about which Will Shortz offered some qualified optimism: “Cross your fingers!”

As soon as the ACPT hit its first delay, interested parties cobbled together the Zoom-based Crossword Tournament from Your Couch. With 1815 participants, it became the largest crossword tournament ever.

Other conventions followed suit. Boswords had two online events in 2020 and is planning four (one possibly live) in 2021. Lollapuzzoola held well-attended online versions as well. But Coffee and Crosswords seems to be in hibernation, last I checked the site, and Indie 500 kept promising an online show sometime in the summer, but upon further investigation, it seems like it never arrived.

Best Tweets

Pivot to Video

The New York Times has not yet rolled out social solving per se, but it does have a Twitch stream where people can often solve collaboratively, as well as a YouTube channel with their popular “Crosswords Live” feature, in which staff and sometimes special guests solve together. There haven’t been too many guests lately for obvious reasons, but John Lithgow recently put in an appearance.

Other group-solves on Twitch have been documented by Beyond Wordplay in a far-ranging survey or two of the puzzling in-quarantine field. Sample Twitch stream with Leah Bee and friends, guest-starring Evan Birnholz as a Smurf:

The Try Guys try a puzzle-solving competition with David Kwong! With a fair handicap (four of them against one puzzle, one of David Kwong against four puzzles), it’s a fun, unpredictable match.

The third Crossword Mysteries ep on Hallmark, “Abracadaver,” came out in January, and at last report three more installments are in development.

Also in development: People Puzzler with Leah Remini on GSN, set for an early 2021 release.

Ross Trudeau has a highly informative video glossary.

Olivia Dean’s 2020 song “Crosswords” is an ode to infatuation, and a reminder that a lovely hobby does not a suitable partner make.

YouTuber Max Fosh has started a semi-regular series where he sets up a table, solicits solving help from others, and pokes mostly gentle fun at them and himself. His most popular work in this genre is “I Did The Crossword With Bankers,” seen below…

A few others: “I Did The Crossword With Footballers” (“soccer players” to Americans), “…With YouTubers,” “…With Kids.”

“They’re not mini times.” Go to about 6:52 on this sports video to see a really embarrassing moment for John Gallagher, with Mina Kimes and Kevin Clark.

Carl Barron: “Me Mum says I’m a crossword question”:

Trigger warning for “I’ve been completing some deeply disturbing crosswords…” a creepypasta horror story about obsession.

Finally, have a few goofy TikToks that’d take longer to explain than to watch, with a surprise celebrity cameo in the last of them

Crowdfunding

The biggest crossword-related project of the year is Lori Carrell Love’s Word Hustle: A Strategic Game of Crosswords, which was funded three times over at $12,755. If you like word games and are a bit tired of the standard offerings like Scrabble and Probe, this might be an enjoyable investigation.

Other notable successes: Peter Gordon’s 2020 Fireball Newsflash Crosswords at $8,222 and 2021 version at $8,028, Gordon’s Petite Pangrams at $4,192 (though a planned Volume 2 fell short of a more ambitious funding goal), and Matthew Sample II’s Moonshower Over Texas, and other works of art, an esoteric and only somewhat crossword-related collection, at $2,792.

Patreon is sometimes less transparent about earnings to observers, but one big success is Out of Left Field, Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto’s crossword series with a leftward slant, with 704 patrons at this writing. Formerly of The Nation, Kosman and Picciotto also have book collections for sale.

Also of note on Patreon: The Hub, Sunday-size crosswords by Emily Cox, Henry Rathvon, and Brendan Emmett Quigley.

People

Special Shout-Out: To Deb Amlen, much-loved writer-editor of the New York Times crossword column Wordplay, who discovered she has a chronic form of lymphoma. I’ll add my best wishes to everyone else’s.

Biggest Celebrity Endorsement of the Year: That’d probably be Jungkook of BTS and his slightly unsettling crossed-word tattoo (translated here). I mean, I know what @not_a_crossword would say, but I say it counts.

Most Beloved Solver of the Year: If it’s not Isabelle of Animal Crossing (see opening illustration), it’s probably Guy Haslam, who solved 2,000 cryptic clues in a day to raise money for a hospice.

Least Beloved Solver of the Year: Rand Paul, although his performative disdain by solving a puzzle at impeachment hearings no doubt delighted some Trump faithful. Let’s move on.

Youngest Constructor of the Year: Ann Haas, 15, the youngest published female constructor by three years.

Most Profitable Solve of the Year: Richard Walker, winner of a $2 million scratch-off game. Other solver profiles/memoirs: Dan Avery, Derek Jacobi, Cosimo Bizzarri, Serena Golden, Tess McGrinder, Jamie and Jody Sumner, the San Francisco Giants… and if you read just one, make it Jim Memmott.

Best “Hey I’m In a Crossword” Reaction: There are always a lot of these, but I’ll say Katie Porter, who fundraised her return to the House with a “$6 for 6 Across” campaign.

Who Are… the WSJ crossword “Muggles?”

Constructor Profiles: Adam Aaronson, Evan Mahnken, Vlad, Paul, Encota, Qaos, Grant Lu and Sam Rossum, Seth Abel, Margaret Seikel, and Trenton Charlson, Luci Bresette, Anne Marie Crinton, Missy Bartlett, Alison Ohringer, Wyna Liu (as constructor), and Myles Mellor. RIP: Chifonie, Myops, Gail Grabowski.

And one more RIP, of course, to crossword critic Alex Trebek (see video).

Cryptocruciverbalism

The Guardian explores abbreviations in cryptics and two rarely-seen species of cryptic clue (poetic and carrollism). Its talent pool has worked on a new set of cryptics in three dimensions. It would also like everyone to shut up about finding that anagram of carnivorous, already.

Scholarly Works

“Counting Clues in Crosswords” by Kevin K. Ferland for Recreational Mathematics Magazine, with implications for crossword-making programs and the highest word-count on a 21x21 you’ll ever see.

Acrostics and Crosswords as Advance Organizers to Meaningful Learning in Medical Education” by Bruno Massayuki Makimoto Monteiro, Ben Hur Vitor Silva Ono, Eduardo de Sousa Martins e Silva, José Carlos Souza for Creative Education, exploring the educational potential of crossword-solving in medicine.

A Highly Interactive Application of Self-Generated Crosswords in the Classroom” by Adelheid A M Nicol for College Teaching, exploring the educational potential of crossword construction.

Schadenfreude

At the beginning of the year, it seemed clear which puzzle would be known as the worst feature to be foisted on us by those who should know better. That dubious distinction went to Vox, as constructed by Adrian Powell, and Evan Birnholz was happy to dissect the reasons why…

But too much was apparently too much, and with little fanfare, Vox hired a new team with some longtime pros (some of whom are nonwhite or nonmale).

So which crossword feature would finish 2020 most embarrassingly? Would it be the conscience-pricking but otherwise well-done McKinsey feature? The heroically motivated but crossword-incompetent Labor Notes’ shambles of a grid? The normally entertaining Wendy’s Twitter account foisting this undercooked mess onto the Internet?

Contenders all, but I think the “winner” has to be Entertainment Weekly. Short-term dabblers are at least not subject to high expectations, but a major, regular publication should not be trying to squeak by with something like this:

Sometimes, even in crosswords, 2020 could still be 2020.

Writer of comics, crosswords and all manner of things.

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