I started doing the New York Times crossword puzzle in 2007, when I saw the documentary Wordplay. Up to that point, I hadn’t done a crossword except as a student or a teacher. But the documentary did such a good job of explaining the puzzles and the people who write or solve them that I was hooked immediately.
Well, I shouldn’t say hooked. I tried solving the puzzle for about a year after that. We used to get The Oregonian newspaper in the classroom that I ran in a school for kids in drug rehab. It ran the NYT puzzle, and during my breaks I’d try it. I struggled quite a bit, even with the “easy” Monday puzzles. The contenders in the NYT‘s puzzle championship typically use Mondays only as a warmup, and can get through one in under two minutes. At the time, even if I could get through one, it took me about fifteen.
My writer friend Johnny Shaw ,who actually wrote puzzles for a bunch of publications other than the NYT before he started selling novels, looked at me disgusted whenever I said I tried the Monday puzzles. “God, why would you ever do a Monday?” he asked. “If you have to do a Monday, make it hard. Only do the downs. Try that.”
I stopped doing the puzzle sometime in 2008 or ’09. For one, The Oregonian stopped giving us free papers. That was fine with me—print newspapers are dying, anyway, and as someone still paying off my undergrad journalism degree, I was a little ashamed that I’d do the puzzle and throw the rest of the paper in the recycling box.
A year or so ago, I decided to try the puzzle again, only I’d do it online. I bought a subscription on the puzzle app, which allowed me to not only do the puzzle every day, but also any puzzle all the way back to November of 1993. The app keeps track of your stats, too, which allows me to see if I’m getting better. It turns out that I am.
I’ll never be as good as Johnny or any of the braniacs in Wordplay. But I have gotten my Monday time down to a nine-minute average, with my best real score down around five minutes. (I posted a three-something minute time once, but that was when I’d completed the puzzle, then went back and saw that it didn’t save for some reason. I still remembered most of the clues, and raced through it as fast as I could, just to see. And still didn’t go as fast as some dudes who are doing it for the first time. Dicks.)
So here is a breakdown of my stats, after doing the puzzle daily for the past year and a half or so:
• I’ve finished 367 puzzles and, according to my pathetic solve percentage of just over 40 percent, I started over 900 of them. There are probably a few dozen unsolved puzzles littering the archives, but usually I just hit the “Reveal puzzle” function and bail.
• I last did that on the most recent Friday puzzle, which was a complete pain in the ass. I don’t remember what it was that made it so hard, but when I quit on it I was really pissed off.
• As you can see, the puzzle starts easy on Monday, then gets harder through the week. The hardest is the Saturday puzzle. The Sunday puzzle takes the longest, but that’s only because it’s bigger than the others. It’s on a 21-x-21 grid, while the other six days are on a 15-x-15.
• So Monday is easy and Tuesday is a slightly harder Monday. Wednesday is a little harder, and sometimes adds some kind of gimick. For example, it’ll use rebuses, which are squares that have more than one letter in them, or entire words. Thursday is a harder Wednesday. Friday and Saturday play it straight again, and have a similar easier-harder relationship as the Monday-Tuesday/Wednesday-Thursday grids.
• The greatest, most beautiful puzzle I ever saw was a Wednesday, back in 2009 or so. The black squares that formed the spaces between the words formed giant, interlocking capital C’s. Not only did every clue start with the letter C, but a handful of them were actually just capital C’s. For example, the answer might be “one hundred” or “Carbon.” Just a beautiful puzzle, and I wish I could find it again in the archives.
• Sunday, it’s been reported to me, is about as hard as a Thursday—again, only bigger.
• Of course, I was curious about whether this was true or not. I was also curious about something I’d noticed with the Thursday puzzle. Generally, I can do a Monday-Wendesday anymore with little concern that I won’t finish. But the level of difficulty seems to jump drastically between Wednesday and Thursday. So I fed my stats into a spreadsheet to figure out the relative difficulty of the puzzles I’ve solved. I used the following formula:
Area of the puzzle in squares ÷ my average time in solving it = seconds per square
Here’s what I came up with:
As you can see, a Thursday takes me more than twice as long per square as a Wednesday. And sure enough, the time per square average on a Thursday is almost as exact as the big Sunday puzzle.
One random note: Going back to November 1993 is humbling. I don’t know why, but the puzzles back then were just harder. A Monday then is Thursday-Friday hard, while a Saturday isn’t that much harder. It’s kind of all over the map. It’s been said that the only difference between a hard Saturday and an easy Monday is in the clues, not the answers themselves.
For example, a typical Monday clue would be: “Ready, willing, and _____”
At the other end of the scale, a typical clue from the most recent Saturday was, “Something to pick a number from.”
So, JUKEBOX isn’t a hard word, but you had to really think on the clue, and unless you had previously put in the K or the X, you’d never guess it.
Now, back in the day, some brainiac was writing these things. There, the words are harder, and even a Monday might have a word or two that I’ve never seen before. For example, a Monday clue from 1993 was, simply, “Esne.” The answer was SERF.
I know what a SERF is, but Esne is a new one. I do not know that word.
I don’t know a lot of things, actually. But I do know that bailing on a Monday puzzle from any year is really humiliating. But I’m getting better.