CTS #20: The Moriarty and the Contest Crossword

Sherlock Holmes is the puzzler’s hero. With his hag-ridden, obsessive energy and relentless intelligence, he solves and solves and solves, saving lives, justice and country in the process. He embodies the principle that everything can be solved, and solved correctly.

Moriarty is his opposite number, or as close as anyone can get. He actually killed Holmes once, his triumph undone only by the public’s insatiable demand for more Sherlock stories. He embodies the principle opposite to Holmes’s, that it is possible to trap reason, to defeat it. But how do you defeat the ultimate solver? By letting him feel the rush of victory on a wrong solution. By feeding him a red herring.

Last week, we presented the famous Simpsons crossword, which had a serviceable if vague Groucho theme, and an extra Vector Three that solvers had to discover on their own. Such trickiness might seem to make Moriartyish all by itself, but trickiness and gettability are too vague to serve as a basis for classification. No, a puzzle becomes a Moriarty by hiding its thematic connections in places no other genre explores… generally in the clues, or in some special combination of the clues and the answers.

At the climax of that Simpsons episode, “Lisa Bouvier” confronts Homer about DUMB DAD, and discovers Will Shortz and Merl Reagle sitting in their living room, for no adequately explored reason. Shortz, showing typical concern for a solver who hasn’t yet reached her maximum possible level of satisfaction, tells Lisa that she missed Homer’s other message, hidden not in the answers but in the clues:

1. Doodled, e.g.: DREW
5. Elvis film “___ Scarum”: HARUM
10. Attorney’s favorite sweets?: TORTES
16. Reign: RULE
17. “Loverboy” actress who made the cast sick?: MARISA PTOMAINE
20. It’s love, in Lille: AIME
21. Séance-loving crime writer?: RAYMOND CHANNELER
23. Adjustment means on a radio: KNOB
24. Yards, e.g.: AREAS
25. Obi-Wan Kenobi, for one: JEDI
26. Uris hero ___ Ben Canaan: ARI
27. Market closing?: EER
28. Abbr. after Ted Kennedy’s name: DMASS
29. Kind of tape: VCR
31. Earthquake: SEISM
33. Meshed foundation in lace: RESEAU
35. Exclamation from a blockhead: DOH
36. Show too much feeling?: EMOTE
39. “O.S.S.” star, 1946: LADD
40. Hall of Fame golfer who invented the all-plastic club?: ARNOLD POLYMER
45. Alla ___ (pasta style): ROMANA
48. Planned site of the Geo. W. Bush Presidential Library: SMU
49. Piece that gets riveted: I-BEAM
50. Young wife (age 18) of Charlie Chaplin (age 54): OONA
51. Restraints: IRONS
52. Egg ___ yung: FOO
53. All-telling gossip queen who repeats everything she hears?: RONA PARROT
55. Letters of commerce: GATT
56. Laying-on of hands?: BACK RUB
59. “You’re such ___ for helping”: A DEAR
60. Ronny & the Daytonas hit: GTO
61. Eccentric: KOOK
62. Acapulco gold: ORO
63. Long (for): ACHE
65. Letters of sizes: SML
67. Yul Brynner died the same day as ___ Welles (odd fact): ORSON
69. Relatives of TV host Tom: SNYDERS
71. Everest setting: ASIA
72. Avant-garde composer who sat around a lot?: ERIK SETTEE
76. Linger in the hot sun: FRY
77. Loses on purpose?: DIETS
78. Y-axis, for one: LINE
79. Handy places to shop: MARTS
80. Army type, for short: NCO
81. Prima donna Norman: JESSYE
82. Passionate tennis star?: MONICA ZEALOUS
85. Yaw relative, on an aircraft: ROLL
86. Some etiquette rules: NO-NOS
87. Online address: URL
88. “Rats!”: OH HELL
91. Regular writing: PROSE
94. York, e.g.: Abbr.: SGT
95. Hollywood’s Téa: LEONI
97. Eye the bull’s-eye: AIM
99. Trip-planning org.: AAA
100. Option for a sandwich: PITA
103. Lower than: It.: SOTTO
104. Disney pirate, 1953: SMEE
105. Moscow V.I.P. who liked to cook on a ship?: NIKITA CRUISECHEF
110. Eban of Israel: ABBA
111. “I have no face cards” actress?: LINDSAY LOWHAND
112. Near Eastern port: ADEN
113. Easter ___ (period up to Pentecost Sunday): SEASON
114. European resort Monte ___: CARLO
115. Driving alternative in S.F.: BART
1. Explorer Francis: DRAKE
2. Destroyer: RUINER
3. Author Leonard: ELMORE
4. Hall of Fame coach Ewbank: WEEB
5. U.S. president after Grant: HAYES
6. Noriega’s weapons: ARMAS
7. Delgado’s rivers: RIOS
8. Rear admiral’s org.: USN
9. Extremely upset: MAD
10. Detestable one: TOAD
11. Former Dodge: OMNI
12. Operated: RAN
13. Reason for overtime: TIE
14. Top Chinese Zhou: ENLAI
15. Your future is their business: SEERS
17. Freeboot: MARAUD
18. Old IBM offering: PCJR
19. Useful article: THE
21. Red Roof rival: RAMADA
22. Lip: RIM
28. Entertainer Martin and others: DEANS
29. Teutonic name part: VON
30. Tenor, perhaps: CHOIRBOY
31. Enos Slaughter’s team for 13 yrs.: STL
32. Roo’s donkey friend: EEYORE
34. Slope: SLANT
35.” Wagon Master” actress Joanne: DRU
36. Heaven on earth: EDEN
37. Assigner of G’s and R’s: Abbr.: MPAA
38. Tuba sounds: OOMPAHS
40. Wild: AMOK
41. Action on Wall St.: LBO
42. Swamps: MORASSES
43. Monstrousness: ENORMITY
44. “You dirty ___!”: RAT
45. Patrick Macnee’s 1960s TV co-star Diana: RIGG
46. Opus with singing: ORATORIO
47. Interstate sight: MOTOR INN
48. Nonmatching item, maybe: SOCK
52. Toy store ___ Schwarz: FAO
54. Add-on for Gator: ADE
56. Guy who digs fossils, slangily: BONEMAN
57. American Beauty pest: ROSE SLUG
58. Inspiration for Keats: URN
61. Nails but good: KOS
63. Old aviation magazine ___ Digest: AERO
64. Have a bawl: CRY
66. Reshape a cornea, say: LASE
68. Items for knitters: SKEINS
70. Gallantry-in-war medals: Abbr.: DFCS
71. House of Representatives divider: AISLE
72. Tree with serrate leaves: ELM
73. Big name in tea: TAZO
74. Ocho minus cinco: TRES
75. US Airways datum: Abbr.: ETA
77. Vacation destination for sandwich lovers?: DELHI
80. It’s void in Vichy: NUL
81. English duke ___ Gaunt: JOHN OF
83. Runner Sebastian: COE
84. Odd morsel: ORT
85. Rummaged: ROOTED
89. Sorority letter: LAMBDA
90. Iron Man co-creator Larry: LIEBER
91. Mythical piper: PAN
92. Pullman supports: RAILS
93. “Song of the Islands” co-star Jack: OAKIE
94. Old Testament king: SAUL
95. Not express: LOCAL
96. Intro with centric: ETHNO
98. Connoted: MEANT
100. Hit by Marty Robbins, “El ___”: PASO
101. Eager beaver’s assertion: ICAN
102. Really test: TRY
103. Ilse’s “very”: SEHR
104. Swedish import: SAAB
106. Hell ___ handbasket: INA
107. Y. A. Tittle scores: TDS
108. Org. with a five-ring logo: IOC
109. United competitor: Abbr.: SWA

Having bribed, or possibly blackmailed, Shortz and Reagle into including this “extra” message, Homer moves Lisa to tears, and she abandons her “Bouvier” phase. A heartwarming ending! Hardly seems to fit the picture of the malevolent “Napoleon of Crime,” does it?

But that anguished face Lisa makes when she realizes she hasn’t actually solved all of the puzzle there was to solve? Well, the Simpsons might make that face every seven minutes or so, but on a solver, it’s a sign of a classic Moriarty.

At the time of the puzzle’s release, even longtime critics Amy Reynaldo and Rex Parker missed the extra message just like Lisa did, and complained about some of the puzzle’s relatively awkward cluing, without realizing why it was somewhat necessary. In the comments on Parker’s blog, Reynaldo and Puzzlegirl both griped about the reference to Marisa Tomei’s little-seen film Loverboy, which lent its L to “DEAR LISA.” If only the episode had come out three years later, Reagle and Shortz could have referenced The Lincoln Lawyer instead! If only! If only.

A more complex theme hidden in both the grid and the clues can be found in Matt Gaffney’s recent “Plot Device,” which also offers a new twist on the Vector Three. As hinted by the puzzle’s title and the answers BATTLESHIP, WAR GAME and DESTROYER, Gaffney treats the grid as an analogue to the 15×15 structure of a game of Battleship. Six clues include coordinates that could be found in the game, and the answers to those clues each include the square that corresponds to those coordinates. In order:

A-1 targets: STEAKS
Excellent source of vitamin B12: LIVER
Exercise with an F-15, say: WAR GAME
Part of the G7: ITALY
City that I-10 runs through: MOBILE
K2‘s superior: EVEREST

These coordinates, read in sequence, spelled out SIMILE… which would not have been that much of a payoff if Gaffney hadn’t led into his crossword by announcing that the “contest answer” for the week would be a literary device of some sort.

The contest crossword is a strange animal in that it almost always crosses over with at least one other type. Like the Moriarty, it often isn’t quite solved when it appears to be solved. Unlike many Moriartys, though, it usually includes a text lead-in that announces the terms of the true solution. (The original draft of the previous sentence had the phrase “final solution,” but, you know, I didn’t need the e-mails.)

Gaffney has been running a regular crossword contest for years, and nobody’s explored the form like he has. Let’s have a quick look at some of his recent works, plus one that we promised we’d look at earlier, in light of the genres we now know.

In the aforementioned “There’s More To This Tale…” theme entries LEANT LATER, EILAT LATTE, OLETA ECLAT and CLEAT LATHE all contain two instances of the letters in “TALE,” plus one extra letter. The puzzle asks for “the last name of a well-known novelist” as the official “contest answer.” Since those eight added letters have no apparent extra significance, many solvers focused on them and realized they anagrammed to Crichton, as in Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain and many other works. (Rich T. Noc, the writer of the fabulous but severely obscure Missed Chances, was bitterly disappointed to learn about this.)

“Going Shopping” (not shown here) uses a substitution theme to arrive at natural phrases from antonymous pairs (like “Going/Stopping”). The letters that disappeared in the substitution process could anagram to NIGHT, and the contest asked for “the opposite of the word referenced by the five theme entries,” dropping a hint to the “opposite” aspect of the theme and giving DAY as the final contest answer.

“Cut The Deck” uses a Groucho theme to phonetically spoonerize the names of cards, and combines it with a hidden Vector Three, because the numbers of those cards, pre-spoonerization, correspond to the numbers of four squares in the grid, which spell out J-A-C-K, the contest answer.

Finally, there’s the oddity “Be Counted,” which asks contest entrants to supply the name of a well-known musical group. The answer is THE B-52’S, signified by the 52 B’s in the puzzle’s grid.

So… what do we call this one? Of the existing genres we’ve mentioned, letter bank is probably closest, and I’m tempted to declare it a twist on the letter bank and call it a day. But that doesn’t quite fit, because there’s nothing that unusual about the total number of letters used, and not used, in this grid. (Its total letter-count is ABCDEGHILMNORSTUVWY, 19 letters, perfectly normal.) What’s notable is the frequency, Kenneth. And I think such a letter-frequency puzzle might qualify as a subset of the freakshow puzzles, a relative of the letter bank but not part of it.

mgwcc100Gaffney has even done such a letter-frequency puzzle at least once before, composing a grid that uses only the letters found in a typical game of Scrabble. And as crossword critic Joon points out, B-focused puzzles are not original with Gaffney, either (props to Clive Probert). Part of me would like to go back and edit the “Freakshow” chapter as if I always knew this subset would be there, but I’m doing my best to keep my communications with all y’alls open and honest.

(Since crossword fans love to talk about “Scrabbly fill” and high concentrations of Q’s, Z’s and X’s, someone will have to draw a line between what’s merely Scrabbly and what’s lettter-frequency. Choose wisely, critics. Wars have been started over less.)

I shouldn’t be surprised. Not only Gaffney’s feature, but the contest crossword genre in general, is where some of the most creative work in the field is done. Whenever The New York Times feels it necessary to add a text explanation, you know they’re getting sexperimental. The contest is fertile soil for the crossword genres of tomorrow.

But to wrap up our look at the tricksters, we’ll be heading back to more familiar territory… the most popular kind of trickster based on frequency of appearances, yet often the most aggravating in the early stages of its solving. Yes, next week, it’ll be time for the

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10 Responses to CTS #20: The Moriarty and the Contest Crossword

  1. pannonica says:

    Mark Tansey, Derrida Queries de Man (1990) Oil on canvas.

    “We see in this picture Derrida dancing with Paul de Man on a mountain of texts. The top of the mountain cannot be seen. We do not have perspective upon the entire mountain, the picture itself being deprived of perspective. This is the reason why I believe Mark Tansey’s work to be the example par excellence, to be exemplary for Derrida’s thought. For, it grasps the meaning of Derrida’s deconstruction in the unity of a perspective starting precisely from the lack of perspective. What this lack of perspective signifies is that one cannot take distance from deconstruction. Derrida says it straightforwardly: ‘… deconstruction takes place everywhere it takes place where there is something…'”

    (2006. Costache, A. “Mark Tansey Derrida Queries de Man. Application to Derrida’s Questioning of Hermeneutics.” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies No.13 / Spring)

  2. joon says:

    the letter frequency puzzle isn’t exactly “newly discovered”. cathy milhauser (now allis) did a sunday puzzle all the way back in 1994 containing 138 Es (and no other vowel). since then, similar stunts have been pulled with several other letters as well as E a few more times (the NYT ones can be found on this page although i’ve also seen such puzzles in newsday and LAT), including B in a 2010 puzzle by clive probert, although it had “only” 48 Bs.

    i generally understand a small enough fraction of the things pannonica posts, but the derrida reference is arcane even by her standards, i think.

  3. pannonica says:

    Did you look at the image, joon?

  4. joon says:

    i got that part, and … let’s leave it at that. this is already beyond awkward.

  5. pannonica says:

    ok. sorry.

  6. T Campbell says:

    @pannonica, I *think* I get it, for what it’s worth. :-)

    @joon, I shouldn’t have used the phrase “newly-discovered” without better context, and I’ve edited that paragraph to improve on that. Obviously Gaffney “discovered” the frequency-themed puzzle before I did, since he’s the one who made the Scrabble puzzle and the B-52’s puzzle. And he probably isn’t the first to try something like that.

    I am drawing a distinction, though, between puzzles that EXCLUDE a notable set of letters (like the ones that use only E’s) and puzzles that use a more or less normal set of letters, but place particular EMPHASIS on certain letters (like the B-52’s puzzle and the Probert you mention). The former are letter bank, the latter are letter-frequency. (And then there’s THEME letter bank and THEME letter-frequency…)

  7. pannonica says:

    Sometimes philosophical concepts have a Rorschachian tinge.

  8. Matt Gaffney says:

    I think the first all Es puzzle was done in the 1970s.

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