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Crosswords Online: Cruciverbalizing on the Web

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Many things can be converted into bits and transferred over the Internet, which is one reason why small pockets of special interests, hobbies, and pastimes flourish on the Web. One such interest is that of cruciverbalists, or crossword puzzle solvers. It may come as a surprise to the uninitiated, but not only has the passion for crossword puzzles flourished in recent years thanks to the Internet, but it's one of the few areas where content providers are actually making money.

The crossword puzzle was invented in 1913, and the first puzzle was published in the New York Sunday World. In the 90 years since then, little has changed - sure, new types of crosswords were invented, and they swept the world (at least parts of the world - there are no crosswords in Chinese), but the fundamental structure and usage of the crossword puzzle remained essentially the same until puzzles hit the Internet.

The Internet has of course provided increased availability of crossword puzzles, but crossword constructors have also used the medium to develop contacts and work together. On 13-Jun-99, Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword puzzle editor, even published a cryptic crossword that had been created jointly on a Usenet newsgroup by more than 40 people living on five continents. Crossword puzzle constructor Will Johnston says that, thanks to the Internet, "we are getting more quality puzzles per day, and constructors have more places to submit than before."

Big Apple Paper: 15 Letters -- For most American cruciverbalists, the New York Times crossword puzzles are the benchmark for quality, difficulty, and just plain trickery. Progressing in difficulty as the week moves ahead, they offer a range of puzzles that few other publications can provide. The New York Times made an early step into paid Internet content when they started offering their Premium Crosswords via their Web site in 1996. (Free registration with the New York Times is required to access the page below.)


The Premium Crosswords service includes the daily and Sunday puzzles, bimonthly acrostics, additional cryptic crosswords and special puzzles, and more than 2,000 archived puzzles dating to 1996. And as a testament to how attractive it is to cruciverbalists everywhere, the New York Times has managed to parlay this service into a profitable venture. Today, some 40,000 crossword puzzle fanatics pay $35 a year to access the service (the price just went up from $20 per year in April; when the service first began it cost $10 per month).

Will Shortz says he is "proud and honored" at this success and adds, "The fact that tens of thousands of people would pay for the Times crossword (when it's available free with the newspaper) is proof of its popularity and validation of its quality." Of course, many of the subscribers to the Premium Crosswords service don't buy the New York Times, or live in areas where it is not readily available.

The New York Times Web site also has a forum for crossword puzzle fans, who discuss the daily puzzles and converse about other puzzle-related topics. Some of the foremost puzzle constructors contribute to this forum, and the community that has grown around these puzzles is solid and quite eclectic.

There are many other Web sites and pages about crossword puzzles, with links or collections of downloadable puzzles. Crossword constructor Ray Hamel has the most comprehensive Web page with links to puzzles, puzzle resources, software and articles about puzzling.

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Beverage for Puzzle Solving: Four Letters -- Some puzzle sites offer Java interfaces to solve puzzles. The New York Times even provides several ways to solve puzzles using its Java applets: you can solve against the clock, with the ten fastest times displayed; you can solve with a friend, helping each other out; and you will soon be able to solve in head-to-head competition with others. My experience with these Java applets is mixed - in some cases they work well, whereas in others they work partly or not at all. Browser choice matters too; some Java applets work fine in Internet Explorer, but don't even load in Safari. The New York Times acrostic puzzles don't work at all under Mac OS X, though other puzzlers report that they work fine under Mac OS 9.2; this may be a temporary problem with Apple's Java implementation, which is usually much better in Mac OS X.

You can also download crossword puzzles from the Internet in two formats: PDF files you can print out and solve on paper, or .puz files, which are used by several programs available for the Mac and other platforms. These .puz files contain information defining the grid layout, the clues and the answers, and enable you to solve crosswords on-screen with special software. The New York Times and many other puzzle sites, including other major newspapers such as The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, use the .puz format, so it has become the de facto standard.

Puzzles in the .puz format either come with solutions in the file or let you "unscramble" the solution (if you use Across Lite, described below) the next day by entering a four-digit code. You can then check the entire puzzle, individual words or letters to see if they are correct, and, if you get stuck, display the solution for a letter or word, or for the entire puzzle.

Common Mac Puzzle Program: Two Words -- The most widely used program for solving .puz crosswords is Across Lite, which is available for almost a dozen platforms, including the Mac, Windows, Linux, Solaris, and several others. The Macintosh version is available for both 68K- and PowerPC-based Macs, and runs in System 7 on up. The Mac OS X version is, for now, available only to subscribers to the New York Times Web site. Other versions are available for free from the developer, Litsoft.


Across Lite does what it is designed for very well. When you open a puzzle, it selects the first answer and displays the clue at the top of the window, as well as in a list at the side. (There are many display options so you can choose the type of layout you prefer.) Type the letters of the answer, and then press the Tab key to move to the next answer. You can change direction (from across to down, or vice versa) using the arrow keys. Clicking anywhere in the puzzle makes the square you clicked active, and displays its clue.

Across Lite also offers excellent printing options, such as allowing you to choose whether the puzzle and clues print on one page or two. Many solvers prefer using a pencil and paper, and Across Lite is a good program for printing crosswords if you don't want to do them on screen.

However, Across Lite is quirky. Menu items often don't function properly, though clicking in the grid can cause recalcitrant menu items to work when chosen. This is annoying, and one can hope that future versions will work correctly. In addition, you can't open .puz files with Across Lite in Mac OS X by double-clicking them; the Open With association doesn't stick, no matter how many times you try to set it. So you must use the Open button or menu item to open puzzle files.

The other Macintosh program that can open .puz files is MacXword, a Mac OS X-native program that offers many of the same functions as Across Lite. It is $15 shareware and lets you solve puzzles in the same way, but it lacks some of Across Lite's layout and printing flexibility. Another drawback is that MacXword can't unscramble puzzles whose solution is protected by a code, as is true for the New York Times puzzles.


But MacXword is more Mac-like, has a cleaner interface, and all its menu items work. It also offers a nifty feature for solvers, like myself, who can't find all the answers. Selecting OneAcross Lookup from the Solution menu opens a dialog containing information on the clue and the number of letters the answer contains. Click OK, and it sends this information to the One Across Web site, which is a kind of online crossword puzzle dictionary. Die-hard puzzlers may think this is cheating, but it helps me find some of those obscure words that would otherwise prevent me from finishing puzzles.


Similarly useful for Mac OS X users is the $25 shareware program Crossword Assistant, which helps you find words when you already have a few of the letters. For example, if one word in a puzzle is "tidbits", and you have the second, fourth and fifth letters from words that cross the answer, type "- i - b i - -" in Crossword Assistant's text field. The bottom section of its window then displays all the matches in its 150,000-word dictionary, allowing you to find the word that fits the clue. Registered users receive another dictionary with an additional 165,000 words, and you can add your own dictionaries or word lists to the program. Crossword Assistant can also help you solve anagrams by presenting all the words that match the letters you input.

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Gett-ng Y--r D-ily F-x -- Thanks to being able to access the New York Times crosswords online, I've acquired the habit of doing a puzzle when I start work every morning. With a steaming pot of tea by my side and my iBook in front of me, nothing gets my mind ready for the day ahead like the mental stimulation of a crossword puzzle. In the past I would have to wait for the newspaper to arrive, or ration puzzles from previous days' papers. But now, I just go to the New York Times Web site and download the day's puzzle. I still can't solve them all, but the challenge is just a click away.

Not all crosswords cost money, and both Ray Hamel's page mentioned above and a page maintained by constructor Will Johnston offer links to the main crossword puzzle sites available on the Web, both subscription-based services and free puzzles.

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So, for a reasonable cost, or even for free, cruciverbalists can have their daily fix, and solve crossword puzzles either onscreen or on paper. It may seem like a niche market, and it is, but the advantages provided by the Internet allow it to turn a tidy profit, something relatively few other types of content have accomplished.

[Kirk McElhearn is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. He is currently working on a book entitled Unix for Mac OS X: Learning the Command Line, to be published by Addison-Wesley in September 2003.]

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