Nelson Hardy Responds
To the Hardest NYT Crossword
Below is more unsolicited mail.
Subj: Hardest Crossword
As a crossword constructor who has been published in the New York Times, I found
your monograph on crossword puzzles highly entertaining and, for the most part, accurate.
Unfortunately, I decided to accept your challenge of solving
the "hardest crossword" from NYT 1987. I quit in disgust
after an hour because I realized that this puzzle represents the worst of the "old
school" of crosswords -- dry, humorless and impossible to solve without a stack of
reference books at your elbow. I was able to get some of the clues you listed as the hardest only because I have seen
(and used) them in crosswords; ESCUDO, AVISO, ARTE, MENE -- these are all examples of
"crosswordese," words that no one ever uses in real life but which pop up
frequently in crosswords because of the convenient arrangement of letters.
really makes this a terrible puzzle are the crossings of obscure words that no solvers
could be expected to know, regardless of how intelligent and educated they are.
crossing BEDAD and LINYU (I can't even find LINYU in my atlas), STRS (a legitimate
abbreviation for "straits," but given an annoyingly ambiguous clue) crossing
DORAS and OSSET, STIPEL crossing TEMPE (again, a word that could have been reasonably
clued as the Arizona city but was instead clued in a mysterious fashion). One of the
rules of modern crossword construction is "Never cross an unknowable with an
ungettable." The solver should not be made to feel stupid because he doesn't
know words that the constructor himself probably didn't know until he searched his
And what's with the clues? I can't help you with "Trilbies" for FEET. I've seen
hundreds of clues for FEET that run the gamut from easy to tricky, from scientific to
silly, but I've never seen a clue as blatantly obscure as that. Clues like
"Abstract being" for ENS and "Hills" for MOTES are equally confusing.
I'm not going to waste my time checking every dictionary in my possession for these
definitions, but I can tell you that the American Heritage on my computer lists
no such definitions for these words. I suspect that the constructor found some
ponderous, overweight dictionary full of archaic definitions and chose the very last
definition on the list.
Thank god for Will Shortz, who hates this kind of puzzle as much as I do. He insists
that the difficulty be in the trickiness of the clues and not in the obscurity of the
words (or the obscurity of the clues). Constructing puzzles without the luxury of
relying on words like LINYU to get you out of a jam is very difficult, but ultimately more
rewarding for both constructor and solver. I hope Will Shortz stays at NYT for a
very long time.
From later correspondence:
Subj: Re: Hardest Crossword
. . . By the way, I was so angry with that
stupid puzzle that I couldn't let it go. I just had to know if there was a good
reason why the constructor used so many obscure words, other than to make us all feel
inferior. I thought there was a possibility that the four 15-letter theme entries
had rendered the grid unusually problematic, so I decided to try reworking the puzzle.
I immediately realized that I couldn't keep the existing arrangement of black
squares because there simply are no good entries that will fit the pattern L---U (where
the abominable LINYU had been), so I shuffled the black squares around a bit. But I
kept the same theme entries in the same positions, and the new layout I came up with
actually has fewer black squares and fewer words, and therefore a higher mean word length,
allowing for a higher percentage of longer, more interesting words. And I don't
think there's a single word in my version that would make an experienced solver say,
"Now how the hell was I supposed to know that one?" In other words, the
original constructor either didn't try very hard or he made the puzzle impossible on
purpose; either way, it's inexcusable in my book.
Subj: The Not-So-Hardest Crossword
File: NOT_SO_HARDEST.PUZ (1848 bytes)
Here it is, the "hardest crossword" reworked by me. This is not the
version with the altered grid that I was talking about before. Yesterday I suddenly
got an idea for an entry that allowed me to use the "hardest crossword's"
original grid, so I went with it. Even though the new grid I had come up with would
probably make for a more entertaining puzzle, my intention from the start was to prove a
point, and keeping the original grid proves the point a little better, I think.
I believe you said that the "hardest crossword" originally ran on a Saturday,
and the Saturday NYT brain-buster is a long-standing tradition. But things
have changed since 1987. Back then, they made the puzzles harder by using more
obscure words and more obscure definitions. Other than that, the grids were pretty
much the same from Monday through Saturday. Nowadays, under Will Shortz's
editorship, obscure words and definitions are kept to a minimum, regardless of the day of
the week or the intended level of difficulty. Puzzle difficulty now is determined in
part by the trickiness of the clues, but on Fridays and Saturdays another element comes
into play, and that's the lower word count. Friday and Saturday puzzles are almost
always themeless puzzles with a maximum of 72 words, as opposed to themed weekday puzzles,
which usually have 74 to 78 words. These lower-word-count themeless puzzles often
use wide-open grids containing stacks of long entries, and it's the higher mean word
length and the scarcity of 3- and 4-letter gimmes that make solving the puzzles so
Now, because I refuse to use more than one or two obscure words and definitions, and
because the attached puzzle has a 78-word grid, there is simply no way I can make this
puzzle hard enough to qualify as a Saturday puzzle, or even a Thursday. So don't
expect to be dazzled (not to mention that you already know what the theme entries are,
which will make solving even more of a snap). The point I wanted to make with this
reworked puzzle is that there was no reason for the constructor to use words like LINYU,
BEDAD and OSSET, other than a desire to utterly stump and annoy his solvers.
This all brings me to another point, one which you should bear in mind as you prepare to
enter the strange world of CRUCIVERB-L.
From your monograph, I gathered that you are the type of solver who enjoys having
to use reference books to determine which words belong in the grid. Perhaps you
would prefer to see more words and clues like the ones found in the "hardest
puzzle," because you feel that you're learning something when you find out that LINYU
is the former name of Shanhaiguan, a city strategically located at the east end of the
Great Wall of China, or that another meaning of the word TON is "high fashion,"
from the French word for "tone" (yes, I eventually looked all that stuff
up...never did find a hills-related definition for MOTES or a trilbies-related definition for FEET, though).
And that's great. I have nothing but respect for that kind of thirst for
knowledge. But what you need to understand, when you start eavesdropping on (or
participating in) the Cruciverb-L discussions, is that you are in the minority. Most
solvers seem to feel that crosswords should be less an exercise in vocabulary expansion
and more a basic type of brain-teasing fun, and most modern crossword editors and
constructors agree with them. We want crossword solvership to increase; we want
people solving on the subway, solving on their lunch break, solving on the beach.
And that will never happen if they need to be lugging around three dictionaries, an atlas
and an almanac everywhere they go. We don't want all crosswords to be TV Guide
easy, but we do want them all to be user-friendly.
I'm telling you this because if a newbie constructor writes in to the forum and asks,
"Should I use the word OSSET?" and you reply "Sure, that's a really
interesting word that will make the puzzle harder," you're going to get some major
opposition to that point of view, and you should be ready for it. Just trying to
help you ease in to what might strike you as an alien environment.
If you would like to play Nelson Hardy's reworked version of the Hardest
NYT crossword, titled "The Not-So-Hardest Crossword," you need to do two things:
- Download and install the free Across Lite
crossword-playing software and
- download Hardy's puzzle (1,848 bytes) here
But before you do that, if you have installed
the software then you should first try to work the original version of the Hardest
using Across Lite (1,812 bytes) HERE or here and then work Hardy's puzzle.
Or, while you're at it, you can play my own puzzle (1,100 bytes).