For reasons that might become clear by the end of this piece, crossword history has been on my mind lately. And with every news and media outlet coming out with a “year in retrospective,” I thought crosswording might deserve one of its own! I’m leaving out specific dates because those are sometimes hard to track down, and in most cases they’re not that important. If you’d like to suggest any additions, let me know in the comments.
Cigar Aficionado responds in a droll, somewhat nonplussed manner to its debut in The New York Times crossword puzzle. The editors’ complaint is the clue: “It is true that we oppose the trade embargo [with Cuba], but we also might have been referred to as ‘the good life magazine for men’ or ‘bible of handmade premium smokes.’” (On the other hand, they might’ve been referred to as “publication that makes carcinogens seem classy,” so maybe they should quit while they’re ahead.)
A Starbucks “Crossword Card,” a relic of a 2006 contest that gave one lucky customer “free coffee for life,” sells in the collectors’ market for $10,277.
Eric Westbrook introduces electronic crosswords for the blind.
In a totally original move, Rob Gubler buys ad space in the Boston Globe and fills it with a special crossword puzzle to propose to his girlfriend, Kiara Graffio. This is a sweet, romantic gesture from someone who’s clearly not a crossword fan (note the grid he designed, in which some words don’t even cross), so we should go easy on him and not view his gesture through the lens of our obsession (even though… the WORDS… DON’T EVEN CROSS NGGGGGGH).
In the strangest sports scandal of all time, Stephen Fry admits to solving crosswords on cocaine.
The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament sees a second consecutive win by Dan Feyer, which appears even more remarkable since the previous champion, Tyler Hinman, reports, “It was my best-ever performance in the final by a sizable margin. And I still got my ass kicked by three minutes… If you still think my record of five consecutive titles is safe, you are officially delusional.” Cartoonist Roz Chast gives a memorably crosswordese-filled opening speech.
Harold Massingham, poet and 30-year constructor, passes away.
Literate Software, aka “Litsoft,” maker of the crossword-solving program Across Lite, announces it is to be acquired and that “the free availability of Across Lite will end at some point.” Litsoft’s rival WordWeb keeps its self-descriptive program Crossword Solver free and lets it offer more features. WordWeb gains some user share as a result. But the influential New York Times remains with Across Lite, and Litsoft continues to offer the program for free into December.
In a totally original move, Cory Newman contracts Bob Klahn (author of the 1998 New York Times marriage proposal puzzle) to build a special puzzle to propose to his girlfriend, Marlowe Epstein. Published in The Washington Post, this puzzle comes to national attention. Her first and last names are a perfectly balanced 7 letters apiece? It was meant to be. (Epstein and Graffio both said yes.)
New York cruciverbalist Maura B. Jacobson retires after an incredible 31 years.
In this otherwise slow month, Francis Heaney and Tim Harrod publish the satirical “Final Crossword,” allegedly constructed and edited a few years in the future by the embittered “Willy Shortz.”
John Conrad introduces Lexahedron, a 3-D crossword program for constructors and solvers.
Controversy rocks the European crossword scene. In Germany, an internal newspaper neutrally references Nazi figures ADOLF Hitler (“German first name that has fallen somewhat out of fashion”) and Rudolf HESS (“German politician (‘freedom flyer’) of the 20th century”). The paper is circulated among members of the National Democratic Party, a political party already known for “Third Reich nostalgia,” and the references prompt furious controversy as the NDP tries to define its identity.
Meanwhile, Kazakhstan sees protests in response to a May newspaper crossword that clued YURT as “the house of a Kazakh street bum.” This gave great offense to native Kazakh peoples, and now prompts politicians to call for the closure of the newspaper. In December, the issue is settled with a fine, an apology, and the excuse that the crossword was reprinted from a foreign source, an excuse that the editor apparently took six months to remember.
Long-running British tabloid News of the World closes its doors due to accusations of wire-tapping. Its scandal-plagued editor, Rebekah Brooks, orders that no veiled remarks about her stewardship be slipped into the paper’s final edition. She takes the extraordinary step of bringing in two senior journalists from her previous paper to “comb” it. But they do not comb the cryptic crossword, which has plenty to say about the situation to those who have eyes to see it. Brooks is later arrested for corruption, then released on bail.
Myles Mellor gets a profile. He’s allegedly the world’s premier constructor of custom crosswords, with over 500 credits including Men of a Certain Age, the Genome Society and MasterCard. (Most of his crosswords don’t follow Times rules, focusing instead on unusual shapes and thematic consistency.)
Eric Westbrook and John Henderson introduce what they claim is the “hardest crossword in the world” — a 3-D cryptic.
Lollapuzzoola 4 happens.
Ben Tausig’s Penguin Classics Crossword Puzzles comes out. (Many crossword books come out this year, of course, but Tausig’s literary-themed anthology seems especially hotly anticipated.)
Alan Connor ranks the U.K.’s major papers by “crossword-friendliness.” His employer, the Guardian, ties for the lead, but his evaluation is fairly rigorous and balanced. Which is a shame, since British journalism loves its scandals.
The cryptic crosswords of Stephen Sondheim, the famous composer, are discovered and distributed through the Internet. He is reportedly pleased by this development. His lawyer seems to feel differently, however, and as of December the works are offline. Sondheim did the puzzles for New York magazine in 1968-1969, eleven years before Jacobsen’s tenure began, to introduce Americans to British-style cryptics.
Merl Reagle introduces and helps organize “the National Brain Game Challenge,” a crossword tournament and “full-body mental workout” to benefit the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.
The New York Times runs its first week-long puzzle contest.
A controversial study suggests “brain-training software” can be more valuable in fighting dementia than crossword puzzles. Key word: “controversial.” The linked article suggests some of its scientific issues. Other articles continue to hail crosswords for the purpose, though generally without mentioning software-based alternatives.
Perhaps the best example in the world of crosswords’ brain-sharpening benefits: Nora Hardwick, at 106, claims 84 consecutive years of daily crossword-solving. Hardwick is remarkable all around: she’s also the oldest woman ever to appear in a nude calendar, back when she was a mere 102.
Christian Svanes Kolding transforms his film’s QR code into a themed crossword.
T Campbell (disclaimer: T Campbell is me) announces the completion of the Ubercross C-Spot. This 120×120 crossword is the largest to follow “American rules,” sweeping aside the 111×111 record set by Robert Stilgenbauer in 1949. The “American rules” qualifier means ignoring Skymall’s 303×303 “World’s Largest Crossword Puzzle,” and Campbell’s own previous 309×309 “Ubercross Alpha,” both of which used repeated words and uncrossed squares. Disappointingly, the large puzzle causes problems for online solving programs like Across Lite and Crossword Solver, as well as Web-based Java interfaces. This leads Campbell to limit its availability to Kickstarter funders and press for the present, with a promise to release a new interface in partnership with Rumination Software, early next year.
Zynga, the manufacturer of the Scrabble-like Facebook game Words With Friends (among many other hits) has a $1 billion IPO. Though the stock’s post-release performance fell short of the company’s ambitions, the company’s remaining valuation still ensures a bright future for “social crossword-making” among the Facebook generation. On the social crossword-solving front, PuzzleSocial releases a Facebook app featuring crosswords from younger, edgier markets, as recently mentioned on this very blog.