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Random Thoughts on Crosswords Cryptic and Concise + Recherché Times Crossword Clues Considered
Here are the results of the final of the 2016 Times Crossword Championship. The figures in parentheses are competitors' scores out of 90, where 1 point was awarded for each of the 90 clues solved correctly.

1 Mark Goodliffe (90)
2 Simon Chillingworth (90)
3 Roger Crabtree (90)
4 Neil Robinson (90)
5 Alan Dorn (90)
6 Peter Steggle (90)
7 Michael Wareham (90)
8 David Howell (89)
9 Helen Ougham (89)
10 John McCabe (89)
11 Toby Brereton (89)
12 Guy Haslam (89)
13 Chris Price (89)
14 Peter King (88)
15 Nick Petty (88)
16 Matthew Marcus (87)
17 Richard Jacks (87)
18 Tom Stubbs (86)
19= Phil Jordan (79)
19= Mike Davis (79)
21 Marcos Fernandes (77)
22 Jonathan Carter (75)
23 Angus Walker (67)
24 Sue Prout (65)

Congratulations once again to Mark Goodliffe, who claimed his 10th championship win, equalling John Sykes's record. Congratulations also: to Simon Chillingsworth, Roger Crabtree and Neil Robinson for their highest finishing places to date; and to Peter Steggle, Chris Price, Angus Walker and Sue Prout who all reached the final for the first time.

The generally low scores support the claim that these were probably the hardest set of final puzzles since the Championship reappeared in its new form in 2006. It's very likely that there would have been more all-correct solutions had not Neil Talbott and Simon Hanson, who have both twice finished second to Mark Goodliffe, not made mistakes in the preliminary rounds. (I don't know about Simon's, but Neil's was a slip of the pen which he didn't spot when checking.) David Howell and Helen Ougham slipped up similarly in the final, but they had both chosen to forgo checking in favour of speed.

For the second year running I failed to achieve my target of reaching the final and solving all the puzzles correctly. This time I got badly stuck in one corner of the third puzzle in my preliminary and finishing 16th. I did, however, solve all three final puzzles correctly in the allotted hour as a member of the audience, but with just 12 seconds to spare!

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: Disappointed (again)

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I expect some Times crossword solvers will remember this clue from No. 25,525 (12 July 2013):
Hostess about to pull out of business (7)
because the checked letters C‑M‑E‑E lured some solvers into biffing COMPERE. One TftT correspondent confessed that he thought "Aha! Female setter" and plumped for what he took to be a unisex answer; however, unfortunately for him the wordplay led straightforwardly to COMMERE (COMMERCE with the second C removed).

My thanks to jerrywh for pointing out that the acronym BIFD (Bunged In From Definition) appears to have been coined almost a year ago by grestyman, since when it and its homophone "biffed" and the resulting back-formation "biff" have come into regular use in the TftT blog and the TCC forums. Last week this sparked a rather sour comment from a TCC member who apparently disliked the idea of biffing and indeed the whole idea of solving at speed. But as a competitive solver who (by way of practice) solves almost all crosswords (apart from the Listener) against the clock, I suspect there's hardly a day goes by when I don't biff at least one answer and quite often several; and I would guess that most other successful competitive solvers of cryptics are inveterate biffers too. I should perhaps add - for the benefit of those who disapprove of competitive solving - that once I've finished, I always go back over the clues again to check that I really have understood them, and to savour their finer points. Another TCC member didn't like the word "biff" because he felt it smacked of Jennings and Darbyshire, but for me "biffing" is what Brigadier Ritchie-Hook in Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy encouraged his men to do to the enemy.

Of course I sometimes biff wrong answers, but probably not more than one a year on average. An obvious rule of thumb is that the longer the answer, the safer the biff; so the shorter the answer the more care you need to take. Apart from that, experience is the most important factor, and I can think of a few words I'm particularly wary of because I've biffed them unsuccessfully in the past. (However, I'm not going to tell you what they are. They might come up again in a future Championship :-).

Current Location: Ealing (still north)
Current Mood: optimistic optimistic

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Here are the results of the final of the 2015 Times Crossword Championship. The figures in parentheses are competitors' scores out of 90, where 1 point was awarded for each of the 90 clues solved correctly.

1 Mark Goodliffe (90)
2 Neil Talbott (90)
3 David Howell (90)
4 Chris Williams (90)
5 John McCabe (90)
6 Helen Ougham (90)
7 Richard Jacks (90)
8 Mike Davis (90)
9 Richard Grafen (90)
10 Simon Hanson (90)
11 Alan Dorn (90)
12 Roger Crabtree (90)
13 Toby Brereton (90)
14 Matthew Marcus (90)
15 Michael Wareham (89)
16 Peter Brooksbank (89)
17 Shane Shabankareh (89)
18 Marcos Fernandes (89)
19 Tony Sever (89)
20= Simon Chillingworth (89)
20= David Webb (89)
22 Nick Petty (88)
23 Tony Thorpe (87)
24 Jonathan Carter (85)

Congratulations go - as usual - to Mark Goodliffe, who finished in under half an hour, and (I believe) a good six minutes ahead of Neil Talbott (who had won the first preliminary, with Mark winning the second). This was Mark's eighth consecutive Times Crossword Championship title, a feat now officially recognised as a Guinness World Record. Congratulations also to Marcos Fernandes, the only first-time finalist this year.

After the comparatively easy set of puzzles we were faced with last year, this year's were generally agreed to be harder again - as befits a Championship final. For my part, I felt fortunate to reach the final at all as I was (and am) feeling stressed out from loss of sleep - the result of continuing efforts to move house - and was not in a good crossword-solving frame of mind. Not for the first time, I had to rely on others' mistakes, as I finished only 15th fastest in the first preliminary but with four of those ahead of me getting at least one answer wrong.

Exhaustion took its toll in the final, and at one point I was feeling so out of sorts that I feared I was going to finish with only about half the clues solved. However, I kept plodding away and eventually even had enough time at the end to spend a couple of minutes trying to fathom a pair of particularly dodgy homophones. Unfortunately, about half an hour in, when I was at my lowest ebb, I'd bif'd what I thought was the correct spelling of a word but which turned out to be quite wrong! I've still no idea why I ever thought it was right, and since my solution clearly didn't match the annoyingly simple wordplay, this was a particularly galling unforced error. As a result, I not only failed to achieve my usual target of reaching the final AND solving all the puzzles correctly, but I also wrecked what was becoming quite a decent run of all-corrects, since the last time I made a mistake in the Championship was in 1995. (Deep sigh!)

Current Location: Ealing (still north)
Current Mood: disappointed disappointed

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This coming Saturday brings the 40th Times Crossword Championship, 45 years after the first one back in 1970 - the discrepancy caused by gaps in 1982 and from 2001 to 2005 inclusive. I suspect I may be the only solver who's competed in all the previous 39, but I'd be interested to know if anyone else from 1970 turns up.

I'm hoping that name badges may be provided this year (as requested in this post and others), but I shall bring my own just in case.

Good luck to you all. See you there.

Current Location: Ealing (still north)
Current Mood: apprehensive

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Janet and I were hoping to exchange contracts for house sale and purchase by the end of August, but after a week of increasingly exhausting phone calls, I'm sorry to report that we've failed. Perhaps that put me in a bad mood for crossword solving, and it's certainly true that by the end of last week I was feeling pretty exhausted. Nevertheless I feel strongly enough about a clue from Friday's Times cryptic (No. 26,189) to break my silence and put hands to keyboard. This is the clue:
Colour shown by maiden, perhaps, with fever (9) [OVERSTATE]
(select between the square brackets for the answer, or read on)
I thought - and still think - that this is a very poor clue. It seems to be following the tendency of some Times setters to scour the outer reaches of the thesaurus for the meanings of the words they use. Here we have two examples: "colour" as the definition of OVERSTATE; and "fever" meaning STATE as part of the wordplay. Even if you can resist the temptation to bung in OVERSHADE - using the more obvious "colour" = SHADE - and come up with OVERSTATE as a word that would at least fit the checked letters, you are (or at any rate I was) still left wondering whether there might not be a less obscure solution.

I've a fairly strong suspicion that a clue like this would not have appeared in a Times crossword until quite recently, and I think it would be better if similar far-fetched meanings were outlawed in the future, at least in the daily Times cryptic. I'm obviously something of a dinosaur when it comes to crosswords, so I'd be interested to know if there's anyone out there who's prepared to defend this kind of thing. I appreciate that there's pleasure to be had from solving a difficult clue, but even though I eventually plumped for the correct answer in this case, it gave me no satisfaction.

I found 25ac in Saturday's crossword (No. 26,190) very similar: a far-fetched clue spoiling an otherwise interesting and original puzzle.

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: exhausted exhausted

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In case you were wondering where I'd got to, a good part of my day is currently taken up with the business of moving house. After nearly 37 years in our present home in North Ealing, Janet and I are moving to be nearer Janet's twin sister in West Ealing, and in 37 years we seem to have accumulated an awful lot of memorabilia - or junk, depending on which way you look at it. Janet is much better at parting with things than I am, but I'm steeling myself to the task, and we've at least managed to rid ourselves of enough to make house (and garden) look presentable. All this has left me with a backlog of crosswords to be tackled, but we've reached the point where we've had an offer for the house we're selling and have made an offer for the house we want to buy, so I hope to catch up a little in the period before we exchange contracts. Nevertheless, with all the other things that have had to take a back seat in the last few weeks, it still doesn't really leave enough time to write about crosswords, so that will have to wait until we're firmly settled in our new home.

Wish us luck.

Current Location: Ealing (north)
Current Mood: exhausted exhausted

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(In what follows, select between the curly brackets for checked letters, and between the square brackets for the answer.)

I've been re-reading Roy Dean's account of the 1979 Times Crossword Championship final when he beat John Sykes, which he includes in his delightful Mainly in Fun (see earlier). He describes how his confidence was boosted by playing a blinder in the first puzzle, finishing in 7½ minutes to John Sykes's 13. I remember the second puzzle particularly, because Roy had to guess two crossing answers to clues that would almost certainly (though rather sadly, as far as I'm concerned) be outlawed nowadays. The first was:
Haggard but bright-eyed hero (4)    {‑R‑?}    [ERIC]
whose answer crossed (at the point I've indicated with a ?) with the answer to:
Grantchester latecomers who left no impression (7)    {?‑R‑T‑S}    [CURATES]
I'm pretty sure I didn't know the answer to the first clue, but the answer to the second became apparent once I had a couple of its checked letters in place to jog my memory, and the letter it provided for the first answer put that beyond reasonable doubt. Roy confessed to us afterwards that he'd made his best guess at the Haggard clue and that he was reasonably happy with the clerical answer to the Grantchester clue because he thought the poem referred to was Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard (which just goes to show that even the best of us can have the occasional brainstorm :-).

If this had been the first puzzle, Roy might perhaps have been unnerved, but in fact he'd been buoyed up by his success in the first puzzle, so that, if anything, it was John who was unnerved, as he lost a further ½-minute on the second puzzle. Roy generously acknowledges in "The Greatest Solver: John Sykes (1929-1993)" (another article included in Mainly in Fun) that John was clearly unwell in 1979, so one can only guess how close the result would have been if he'd been in good health. You can perhaps get some idea of the trickiness of the puzzles from way the field was strung out. The four highest time bonus point scores from the regional finals were 89 for Roy Dean, 88 for John Sykes, and 87 for James Atkins and me. We managed to retain that order to claim the top four places in the final, but this time the bonus points were: 86 for Roy, 80 for John, 72 for James, and 55 for me, with only two other finalists completing the four puzzles correctly.

Two years later, Roy Dean made a mistake in his regional final, John Sykes was generously taking a year off, and James Atkins ... I'm not sure what happened to James that year. The only results list I have is for London A, which shows Roy in 8th place but omits James altogether. Perhaps he tried and failed at London B. Anyway, three of the main contenders were out of the way, but that still left formidable opposition in the shape of Terry Girdlestone. This time, however, it was my turn to play a blinder, taking around 10 minutes for the first puzzle, while Terry (who'd admittedly had a bad night) took around 30 minutes. At such an early stage in the contest, the result was by no means in the bag, but I felt it was mine to lose rather than his to win. I expect most solvers nowadays would hate to return to the era of clues like those that could so easily have wrecked Roy Dean's chances in 1979, but they were certainly very good at opening up the field. And maybe they would even give the rest of us a better chance of toppling Mark Goodliffe :-).

I was reminded of all this a few weeks ago by TLS crossword No. 1060, which had just enough of the sort of literary knowledge needed to solve Times crosswords of old that I was able to play a blinder and knock a couple of minutes or so off my TLS PB. But that's another story.

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: nostalgic nostalgic

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I always look forward to Sabre's Listener crosswords, and Coincidence (No. 4326), the final puzzle of last year, provided a most enjoyable post-Christmas solve. It had a fairly ordinary-looking barred grid (10 rows, 15 columns), and the preamble began:
Before entry into the grid, each clued answer must have one letter replaced by another (in two cases, the letter and its replacement are identical). These pairs of letters taken in clue order provide two examples of a coincidence; the unclued entry, when completed, illustrates the cause of the coincidence. Lengths in brackets refer to grid entries. Solvers must highlight in the completed grid a further (4-letter) example of the coincidence.
It fairly soon became apparent that there was something fishy going on as the obvious answers to some of the clues needed one more letter than was available in the grid. Further investigation showed that the upper part of the middle column needed to accommodate two letters in each checked cell, and that if taken in the order they appeared in the clue answers (with unchecked cells filled in appropriately), they could spell out MINUTE HAND and HOUR HAND. This tallied with the two examples that had been emerging from the pairs of letters mentioned in the preamble, SIXTEEN AND FOUR-ELEVENTH MINUTES PAST THREE and TWENTY-ONE AND NINE-ELEVENTH MINUTES PAST MINUTES TO EIGHT, as well as the 4-letter example, NOON. The coincidence of the title was clearly any of the points at which the two hands of a clock (on a wall) lie at the same angle to the vertical.

I've written before (here) about my difficulty with puzzles where two letters have to be written in a single cell, but in this case the theme of the puzzle provided a wonderful "Get Out of Jail Free" card: at the point where the hands of a clock coincide, the minute hand as near as dammit hides the hour hand, so obviously the middle column should contain just the letters MINUTE HAND. What a brilliant coup - so typically "Sabre"!

Except that when the solution appeared, it showed the middle column with HOUR HAND alongside MINUTE HAND, though I was relieved to find that MINUTE HAND on its own was allowed as an alternative. It turns out that the solution with MINUTE HAND on its own hadn't occurred to Sabre as a possibility; however, around a third of those submitting solutions had opted for it, which is presumably why it had been allowed. There doesn't seem to have been a great deal of online discussion of Coincidence (at least on respectable sites). Jaguar (who actually submitted a solution with both letters) wrote on Listen With Others:
I expect Sabre is shaking his head, sadly, that the solution he intended wasn’t regarded as unambiguous after all (I expect he preferred just MINUTE HAND in the middle column, since just because a letter was changed in PREACH (U/N)P before entry doesn’t mean you then still have to enter all the letters; my counterargument to that was that the hour hand is rarely perfectly hidden, as it’s usually fatter than the minute hand.)
(That was my assumption too, but we were both wrong.) On the other hand, Andy Stuart (who thought this was "not one of Sabre's finest") wrote on The Crossword Centre's Message Board:
I'm astonished that an alternative solution has been allowed. I cannot believe that was Sabre's intention. With only MINUTE HAND entered in the central column, the completed grid doesn't illustrate the cause of the coincidence. It also breaches the first sentence of the preamble, one of the consequences of which is that PREACH UP has to be changed to PREACH NP. Nowhere is there the suggestion that this change must be subsequently ignored. Finally, a solver submitting the alternative 'solution' hasn't demonstrated an understanding that the unchecked cells require two letters as well.
None of Andy Stewart's arguments cuts any ice with me, but I can see it would have been better if Sabre had made his intentions rather more clear. And, as someone who feels that more than one letter in a cell should be avoided if at all possible, I'd have much preferred it if he'd clarified things so that the MINUTE HAND solution was the only acceptable one.

If you haven't yet tackled yesterday's Listener puzzle (Conduit by Loda, No. 4331), you might like to know that the enumeration for Clue 41 should be (3), as given on the Times Crossword Club's website, rather than (4), as it appears in the printed edition of the paper (at least in my copy).

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: slightly disappointed, but relieved

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Monday's puzzle (No. 25,981) evoked a slightly unexpected response from the TftT blogger, who asserted that the word "must" in 9ac:
Reckon I must have millions invested in property (8) [ESTIMATE]
(select between the square brackets for the answer)
was "just a filler". He was backed up by another (very experienced!) solver who commented: 'I agree that "must" at 9A is unnecessary. The clue works just fine without the word so why is it there?' Of course anyone familiar with Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword will know that the setter almost certainly included "must" to reflect the distinction between the pronoun "I" and the letter "I". Since it's the letter - rather than the setter - that needs the letter M appended, the clue without the word "must" really ought to read "Reckon I has millions invested in property (8)". Although it wouldn't have bothered me all that much if the clue had read "Reckon I have millions invested in property (8)" - indeed I might not even have noticed the solecism - I would argue that the setter (or was it the crossword editor?) was wise to include it, since omitting it would almost certainly have called down the wrath of the strict Ximeneans. The case for "must" is strengthened here because it arguably improves the surface reading, whereas it can sometimes make a clue sound rather artificial.

There are times when I wish Ximenes had never laid down his "rules" for crossword-setting: the archival Times crosswords I've been tackling have almost without exception been great fun, despite providing copious examples of exactly the things he hated. But once his book was published, there was really no turning back, and although progress has been gradual over the past (nearly) 50 years, most modern cryptics (most of the ones I tackle at any rate) follow X pretty closely. And I don't think that's really turned out to be too much of a hardship for setters. I started entering X's Observer clue-writing competitions before his book was published, and learnt quite quickly from his comment slips what sort of things he liked and what he objected to. On the rare occasions when I compose a clue nowadays, I do try to stick to his rules as far as possible. And indeed I have been known to raise an eyebrow if I spot a particularly glaring infringement in a clue written by someone else.

* * * * *

I'm writing this while listening to Kate Gross on Michael Berkeley's programme Private Passions on BBC Radio 3. Her death on Christmas morning was a sad reminder of the fleetingness of life, and that I perhaps ought not to be frittering so much of my time away on crosswords now that I'm in my 70s. And yet it's hard to break an addiction which still, despite my senior moments and ever-slowing pace, brings me a lot of pleasure. As far as this blog is concerned, I'm aware that it's becoming a little predictable, so I've decided to try to write something on the first Sunday of each month (just to let you know I'm still alive :-) and only write at other times when I've something out of the ordinary to say. Of course I'd be delighted to hear from you at any time on any crossword-related topic (or on any other topic you think I might find interesting).

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: busy

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(In what follows, select between the curly brackets for checked letters, and between the square brackets for the answer.)

Friday's Times crossword (No. 25,968) contained the clue:
Risky time for Buzz to rue losing power lines (2-5)    {R‑E‑T‑Y}    [RE-ENTRY]
I took "Buzz" to be Buzz Aldrin, and because there used to be an understanding that the Times crossword didn't include the names of living persons, I assumed that he'd snuffed it and that I'd either missed his obituary or forgotten all about it. Actually I'm not quite sure that the mention of someone in a clue like that really counts, and in any case (as commenters on TftT pointed out), Buzz could refer to Buzz Lightyear of Toy Story (a film that Janet and I started to watch on the earnest recommendation of Janet's granddaughter, but abandoned within twenty minutes as not really our thing - though at least that was enough for me to learn the names of the two main characters). Anyway I looked up Buzz Aldrin, and was pleased to find that he's still alive.

But it got me wondering when the Times crossword's "no living persons" rule actually came in. Certainly the archive puzzles that I've been tackling recently seemed to have no such restriction. The latest one, No. 3,192 from 16 May 1940, contained the clue:
He simply plays the fool (5,4)    {R‑L‑H‑Y‑N}    [RALPH LYNN]
I suspect this would baffle most younger solvers, and maybe some older ones as well. However, my mother used to be very fond of the Aldwych farces, and I've watched several myself on film, so the name of the actor who played the "silly ass" rôles is entirely familiar to me, as are the names of his co-stars, Tom Walls and Robertson Hare. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, I suspect that a couple of phrases that Janet occasionally uses have come from the same source via her mother, as I've otherwise only ever come across "the tale of the old iron pot" and "fiddling and diddling" in Rookery Nook (I think, or it could be some other play by Ben Travers). For the record the answer to the clue still had over 20 years to live in 1940.

Current Location: Ealing
Current Mood: curious curious

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