06 March 2009

Cryptic puzzles

Cryptic puzzles are often referred to as "cryptic crosswords," although many of them, especially the most challenging ones, are structured in a non-crossword grid.

Such puzzles seem to be less common in the U.S. than in some other countries. When I was in England it seemed that many daily papers had cryptic puzzles, and I have subsequently found them online in the Sydney Morning Herald, for example. But in the U.S. they seem to be relatively uncommon or unappreciated.

Some of the best cryptic puzzles I've encountered have been those in The Atlantic and in Harper's Magazine (the latter I believe only available in the print edition). Puzzles in both publications often require clue answers to be transformed in some way before entering them in nontraditional grids. (Both magazines also offer the advantage of being structured almost as aggregator-type blogs in terms of the wide variety of material they offer for reading).

Perhaps even more challenging than the Atlantic and Harper's puzzles are the ones created by John de Cuevas for Harvard Magazine and for the Puzzlecrypt. The standard grid, shown above, resembles that of a diagramless crossword. The answers to the 20-25 across clues are entered sequentially top-to-bottom, left-to-right, and the answers to the down clues entered similarly in sequence, but one isn't told how long each answer is. Furthermore, some permutation is usually required of the answer (typically the subtraction of several letters) before it is entered. Plan to set aside several hours when you tackle these puzzles.

As examples and teasers, here are portions of some clues (with answers) I've found in various cryptic puzzles:

"99/99 of a figure" = iconic [IC on IC]
"successor to Brand X" = brandy
"doubly evil sailor" = Sinbad
"1999 + 1" = immunity [IMM][unity]
"red birds" = regrets [r/egrets]
"N.D. terminal" = end [en]d
"number that is 2/3 of six" = nine [ix]

By the way, if anyone out there knows of additional online sites for incredibly challenging, brain-exercising, time-consuming cryptic puzzles, please... don't tell me.


  1. I got hooked on cryptics when I was at Harvard -- the Boston Phoenix used to run them.

    The Harpers puzzles are available on their web site. Their March puzzle is here: http://www.harpers.org/archive/2009/03/page/0085

    However, I'm a subscriber, which may be necessary.

    One more thing -- there's a VERY good crossword application for the iPhone, 2 Across. It lets you download free cryptics from several free sources, including the Herald, the Independent, and the Manchester Evening News. I just loaded my iPhone up with puzzles before I went on a cruise -- never leave home without 'em.

    Stan Scott
    New York City

  2. Nearly every Australian newspaper that prints a crossword, will have two - one 'straight' and one cryptic.

    'GAMES' magazine, a US publication, always has two cryptics, together with instructions on how to solve cryptic puzzles.

    Cryptic puzzles rely on a lateral thinking, a large vocabulary and a broad general knowledge (history, music, 'pop' culture, classics....). Unlike a 'straight' puzzle, where you either know the answer or not, in a cryptic you should be able to work out the answer even if you have never seen the word before.


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