Several years ago I was whiling away a wet Saturday afternoon with some friends. I’d picked up the Guardian
and made a start on the crossword (Araucaria, if I recall correctly). After 30 minutes or so I laid the paper aside, grid
complete. This aroused admiration from the others: “You’ve done it already?” “Think so,” I replied,
“but I’m not sure about one of the answers. I’ll have to look it up in the dictionary when I get home.”
The general air of admiration quickly changed to scorn. “What, you mean you cheat
have encountered this attitude several times since, almost always from non-solvers, and I still don’t understand it. Why
is confirming an unfamiliar word in a crossword cheating? In fact, is it possible to cheat, in the sense of “to be deceitful”
(Chambers), at all?
The one obvious example where using a dictionary to help with a crossword
is cheating is in crossword championships, where the conditions are controlled and the use of dictionaries is not allowed.
Another, perhaps, is if you use a dictionary to aid solving, then go around boasting that you can solve all puzzles unaided.
But I have never heard of either of these happening and really don’t imagine they ever will.
What about prize crosswords? Is it cheating to use a dictionary with these if you’re planning to send the puzzle in?
Or to get a friend to help you, or use the Internet, or whatever? Most papers offer a prize for their weekend crosswords but
I have never seen something like “All completed puzzles must be your own work, no dictionaries allowed” printed
on the entry form. Apart from the fact that such a rule is obviously unenforceable, it is to be remembered that even if you
do complete the puzzle unaided in a total of three minutes, your entry will be one of many and so the prize is awarded on a
lottery basis. What’s more, the prizes are usually pretty measly – one paper offers a dictionary as first prize, which seems to
me pretty daft since the successful solver is likely to possess at least one already! So I really don’t think it’s any
big deal even if two people collaborate and both send the answers in. I did hear of one case where someone was unsure of one
of the answers, so sent in several entries, each containing a different word for that answer!
crossword message boards frown upon the discussion of “live” prize puzzles. Anyone writing a posting such as “What’s
19 down in Saturday’s Times prize puzzle?” is likely to get a ticking off. Even mentioning a “live”
puzzle on one particular discussion board will get your post deleted. Fair enough, I suppose. Asking complete strangers
in a public forum for help with a puzzle that offers a reward is unsportsmanlike, and a far cry from using a dictionary or
collaborating with a friend. Perhaps this too is an instance of cheating. Also the publication of the answers
can spoil the fun for those who haven’t yet completed it themselves.
I started to solve daily cryptic crosswords
seriously back in the 1980s. An easy puzzle would take me 15 minutes whereas if it was a hard puzzle, such as Bunthorne, Araucaria
or some of the Times, I’d still have a few blanks after an hour. Now I know many people who will get as far as
they can with a puzzle then quite happily leave the rest of the answers blank and forget about it. Thus they never improve
as solvers. I, on the other hand, was obsessed with finishing the things and not prepared to wait until the next day to see
the answer. I have always been pretty good at solving puzzles “hangman” style – i.e. if I have enough letters I
can usually spot words to fit and then match them to the clue. Of course my vocabulary is by no means exhaustive and often
I would not know any words that fit, so I would trawl through the dictionary to find words that fitted the combination of
letters I already had. The sheer effort of doing this implanted many new words into my mind and as time went on, I found dictionary
trawling less and less necessary and became a better solver. I am prepared to admit that I occasionally have to do it now,
but I do not regard this as cheating, since I will readily admit that I could not complete the crossword unaided and needed
to look up the answer. In other words, this is no more morally reprehensible than looking up the answer the next day when
the solution is printed, and certainly cheaper than phoning a rip-off 0900 number to get the answer if you can’t wait
a day. What’s more, I always make sure I understand why the answer is what it is.
Of course, dictionary
trawling is a lot easier these days with the advent of computers. There are many electronic wordfinders available – you type
in the letters you have and are given possibilities of words that fit those letters. One of these is the CD-ROM version of
the Chambers Dictionary. You can type ?O?R into a search box and you will be given a list
of words from BOAR to YOUR, and by clicking on any one you get its definition. Chambers also has an anagram solver,
a very useful tool. Great stuff, but this gives me a good opportunity to vent an online moan – that the Chambers
software is bug-ridden and frustratingly poorly written. The main points here are:
- The program takes the gestation
period of an elephant to load.
- You have to use ? to indicate a blank space in searches, thus necessitating
the shift key. Why not a full stop in the way that TEA and Sympathy’s
- Hyphens and spaces in multiple word
possibilities count as a character. So S?T?P will not return
SET UP or SET-UP.
- For word patterns returning many
entries, only the first 127 are shown.
Chambers did issue a patch which addressed
the hyphens and spaces problem but this in turn created lots more bugs that weren’t there before. I soon returned to the
original version. Despite the above moans, however, it is a very useful tool.
As stated above, I do
not regard it as cheating to use such software to look up an answer you’re not going to get, so long as you
are prepared to admit you didn’t finish the puzzle. I can’t see the point of starting a daily puzzle, getting half
the clues and using an electronic wordfinder to fill in the blanks without really trying. It’s not cheating in the true
sense of the word if you are honest about “solving” in this way, but surely it spoils the fun of trying to
find the answers for yourself!
For me the story’s a bit different when we move on to barred crosswords. Azed and Mephisto puzzles use any word that can be found in the Chambers dictionary (apart from the offensive ones) both as answers and in the wordplay, in order to provide a greater challenge to the solver. Azed’s clueing is superb, which is why he is rightly regarded as a leading light among today’s compilers, and the compilers who write the Mephisto puzzles are paragons of cluemanship too. I do these every week and I generally try to solve them with only the book version of Chambers as an aid, but I will admit that if I am pushed for time, or feeling a bit jaded after a boozy weekend, I will occasionally do them in front of the computer with the Chambers program open. This means that I can use the wordfinder or anagram solver to find an obscure word for “the flap of skin under an aardvark’s scrotum” that was last used in conversation in 1946, and this takes only fraction of the time it does to trawl through the pages of the book version of Chambers.
Is that being lazy? Probably. Am I not properly entering into the spirit of things? Possibly, although I do always try to understand any clues I’ve “solved” using computer aids. But cheating? I don’t think so – I really don’t see any moral difference between thumbing through page after page of a dictionary and getting some wizardry to do it for me much more quickly. And as I’ve said, it is rare that I do these puzzles in this way; on these occasions the alternative would be not to do the puzzles at all, and so lose the opportunity to appreciate the compilers’ fine work.
Let’s move on to barred thematics, which I will illustrate with reference to the Listener. These too use obscure vocabulary and in addition, the presence of a theme puts obstacles, such as misprinted definitions or jumbled answers, in the way of solving the clues. I always use the Chambers program to solve these puzzles, along with any other aids I can find (the Internet being the most obvious example).
Statistics are kept of successful
entries and a prize awarded every year to the solver with the
most correct entries. In the event of a tie previous winners
step down and/or previous years’ statistics are taken into
account. Given the difficulty of these puzzles dictionary use
is inevitable, but some Listener solvers feel that it is
violating the rules of fair play to rely extensively on
wordfinders and other electronic tools and then claim the
prize for the most puzzles solved successfully. Fair
enough, but many of the puzzles involve final stages which
can’t be deduced with anything other than grey matter and to
notch up a year’s worth of correct solutions, even with help,
is an achievement most solvers (certainly including me) can
only dream of. I can say with certainty that if I were to
attempt an average Listener with no help at all, I would never
finish it. With the book version of Chambers
and other reference books, we’re probably looking at five or six hours. Using computer
aids and the Internet the same puzzle will take me two or three hours.
I really get a kick when I spot
the “penny drop moment” in a Listener that tells me “Ah! Shade in all the E’s and you get a picture of
an elephant, in line with the quotation spelt out by the first letters of redundant words in the clues” or whatever.
No computer can help with this and, I suspect, will ever be able to. Getting the final stage of the puzzle and understanding
the theme is the whole point of a Listener. Solving the clues and finding a quotation from misprinted letters or suchlike
is the legwork, and I don’t feel I am cheating in the least if I use electronic aids to help solve the clues or, once
I have got some of a quotation hidden in the clues or grid, I look on the Internet to see if I can find the rest of it. Why
spend six hours on a puzzle when it’s possible to do it in half the time? I know that some people will strongly disagree
with this and they have every right to do so, since I have expressed an opinion, not a fact. There are those who like to spend
a whole weekend on the Listener puzzle and who am I to suggest that they shouldn’t? However I have come to the point where
I am not prepared, except in exceptional circumstances, to spend more than four hours on any one puzzle – I like to get it
done in good time so that I have time for other activities – listening to music, socialising etc. And I don’t feel bad
about using any means possible to enable me to do so.
As before I’ll accept accusations of laziness or taking the easy
way out, but not of cheating. I am not going to gain the all correct “solver silver salver” that’s awarded every
year for all correct entries – chiefly because these days I almost never send Listener (or any prize puzzles) in, and also as
I am automatically excluded from all-correct status by the mathematical puzzles (I don’t even understand the preambles),
puzzles based on a Playfair code square (can’t do, won’t do), the puzzles I get wrong or can’t see the final stage,
or those I miss when travelling. I complete about 60% of a year’s Listener puzzles, and purely for my own pleasure. I
am not putting my solving statistics up for comparison with greater minds than mine who may solve the puzzles with brainpower
alone, thus I use electronic tools with a clear conscience. One more point regarding the Listener and other barred thematic
puzzles (Saturday Independent, Sunday Telegraph Enigmatic Variations etc). I have sometimes, but fortunately
rarely, come across puzzles containing clues like this:
Will’s keen to meet Jock’s friend
inside Edmund’s bar for a rare beer
Don’t try to solve it – despite the plausible surface reading
there is no answer. The clue illustrates that some setters (I’ve been guilty of it too sometimes, I think)
pepper their clues with so many obscure references that the clues are a grind to solve. It would require a Shakespearean word
with a Scottish dialect word to be included in a Spenserian word to give an obscure word for a beer. Perhaps the example’s
a bit exaggerated, but if the setter’s prepared to make a clue as deliberately obscure and almost unsolvable as this,
I don’t have a problem with using any means possible to solve it!
In summary, I have tried to show that
I don’t believe that it is possible to cheat, in its true sense, in a crossword other than in a competition where dictionaries
are outlawed. I know some people who think crossing out the numbers of solved clues or putting a separating line in the grid
when the answer contains two words is beyond the pale. Personally I think that’s going too far, but if it rocks their
boat, fine. I believe using a dictionary to confirm or find entries is perfectly acceptable, so long as you admit it, and
it can be a learning process too. Crossword solving is not a religion – it’s meant to be fun and nothing more. It’s
like a pleasant journey in a sense, and what does it matter how you get from A to B as long as it’s comfortable and you