May 13 2010

How to Do Cryptic Crosswords

When I was a kid, we used to do a lot of puzzles and play a lot of board games, and we also got Games Magazine.  It had all sorts of puzzles, but one kind I never did was the cryptic crosswords.  The clues seemed like gibberish and were way too hard, like they were designed for super-geniuses or something, and I couldn’t get the hang of them at all.  To make matters worse, unlike a normal crossword where each letter belongs to two words, one across and one down; in most cryptics, only about half the letters are “crossed” (see picture).  So even if you get all the across words, you still only have half the letters of the down words.

A few years ago, I happened upon a stack of those old magazines and started going through them looking for unfinished puzzles to do.  Since the cryptic crosswords were still completely unmarked, I gave them another try, and something just seemed to click this time.  I know I’m not any smarter, so maybe the convoluted nature of the clues was just too complex for a kid.  I don’t know why it took so long, but now they’re one of my favorite types of puzzle.

A cryptic crossword fills out the grid just like a normal crossword; what makes it different are the clues.  Instead of a simple definition, each clue contains a definition and another way to express the answer through wordplay.  The tricky part is figuring out where those two divide. The cool thing about this is that it means you have two shots at figuring out each one, and since one of the methods is through wordplay, it’s more about what you can figure out than how much trivia you know.

For instance, say a regular crossword clue is “French capital (5).”  (The number is the number of letters in the answer.)  Either I know the capital of France or I don’t; there’s no figuring it out.  And the amount of stuff I’ve seen before and will recognize as correct if I see it again is vast compared to the amount of stuff I can recall on demand. But in a cryptic, the clue might be, “Mixed pairs in French capital (5).”  Now I’ve got something more to work with.  If I “mix” the letters in “pairs,” I may spot “Paris” in there and recognize it as the capital of France.

Since it’s at least as much about the wordplay as the definitions, that means a clue that completely baffles me one day might suddenly come clear the next day, because I happen to look at it from a different angle.  That means I can work on a cryptic until I get stuck, put it aside, and come back to it later and make more progress.  Instead of a quick dash through all the clues I get right away, it’s a steady progression from easiest to hardest.  Since each clue is a little puzzle all by itself, sometimes just getting one is very satisfying.  One puzzle can provide hours of enjoyment.

There are a lot of different ways the wordplay can work.  (I’ll underline the definition part in these examples, so you can see the divide between the definition and the wordplay portion.) Many involve anagrams, like my example above, with hint words like mix, rearrange, change, or anything else that could indicate jumbling them up.  If a group of words in what looks like the wordplay portion have the same total number of letters as the answer, you might have one of these:

Rearrange space – it is free from disease (7)

“Rearrange” the letters in “space it” to get “aseptic,” which means free from disease.

Eric cooked some grain (4)

“Cook” the letters in “Eric” to get “rice.”

Sometimes the answer word can be found inside the wordplay part of the clue:

Wash part of tennis court (5)

The answer, “scour,” which means “wash,” is found as “part of” “tennis court.”

Some of my favorites are silly puns, which are usually signaled by a question mark:

Somewhat hungry, like actor Gregory? (7)

If you’re like actor Gregory Peck, you must be “peckish,” right?

Sometimes the answer is made up by combining words from the wordplay portion, or their equivalents:

A tax agency broadcasts (4)

“A” from the clue, plus “IRS” (tax agency), becomes “airs” (broadcasts).

California police operation throwing out a line (7)

“CA” (California) plus “sting” (police operation) gives you “casting” (throwing out a line).

Sometimes you need to turn words around backwards, or take certain letters from them:

French playwright backing into poison shrub (5)

Take “Camus,” a French playwright, and turn it around (backing) to form “sumac,” a poison shrub.  (Now, I’ve heard of Camus, but I never could have pulled him out of my head cold.  I got the S to begin the answer, thought of “sumac” as a shrub that would fit, and then recognized Camus.  That’s what I mean about how you get two ways to solve each clue.)

Back sass by serious traveler (7)

Take “lip” (sass), turn it around “back”wards, and put it “by” “grim” (serious) to get “pilgrim (traveler).

Implied first letters from the attorney contained important testimony (5)

Take the first letters from the last five words to get “tacit,” which means implied.

Native woman in Honolulu, Hawaii, ends boredom (5)

Take the final letters (ends) of the first five words to get “ennui” (boredom).

Sometimes words or letters are inserted into other words:

Rodent dishes getting cold (10)

If the word “china” (dishes) “gets” the word “chill” (cold), you get “chin-chill-a” (rodent).

Red group includes Sagan (7)

Have “set” (group) “include” “Carl” (Sagan) to get “s-carl-et” (red).

Sometimes the wordplay involves homonyms, which are signaled by terms having to do with hearing or sound:

Breakfast fare done in installments, from the sound of it (6)

Done in installments is “serial,” which sounds like “cereal,” which is breakfast fare.

Those are the main wordplay methods used, and sometimes more than one method will be combined.  So you have to figure out which method is being used and where the wordplay divides from the normal definition part of the clue.  After that, they’re usually pretty easy.

If you like puzzles but you’ve never tried cryptics, give them a shot.  I think they’re a lot of fun, and there are easier ones out there for beginners.  If you get stumped, I’d be glad to try to help figure some out in the comments.

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