A new book and a current hunt
AJ Jacobs is from the “my journey” school of nonfiction and takes a magpie approach across about 20 varieties of puzzle, sharing titbits and examples. So the reader who has recently fallen down the rabbit hole of extreme sudoku might want to start with the chapter describing scavenger hunts; the wordplay buff might enjoy contemplating the crucial difference between a labyrinth and a maze.
The highlight is titled “Chess Puzzles (Chess Problems)” and the pace appropriately slows. Jacobs offers his chess set to former world champion Garry Kasparov, who describes himself as “the first knowledge worker whose job was threatened by machines”. Author and grandmaster alike are pleasingly given to contemplating why and how people like to answer riddles, clues and codes. When Kasparov solves a problem (or puzzle) that involves sacrificing a queen, and remarks that a machine player does not have the concept of sacrifice, there’s an exchange I found valuably cheering:
So should we try to eliminate our irrational psychological barriers when solving problems?
‘You cannot do that,’ Garry says, ‘because then we’ll lose our humanity.’ It would, he says, have catastrophic effects in other areas of life.
Like, I suspect, many of us, Jacobs places the crossword at the centre of puzzling. We open with his excitement at having been an answer in the New York Times puzzle, and the amusing and poignant difference it makes when you consider whether you’re fodder for a Tuesday or for a Saturday.
We’ve talked here before about an odd decision made by Stephen Sondheim. Wishing to convert American solvers to the delights of British-style cryptics, he compiled some himself – but in the form of our newspapers’ weekend puzzles, with no black squares and eye-wateringly demanding endgames; that is, the hardest crosswords there are. Likewise, Jacobs centres his cryptics chapter around a fiendish Spectator puzzle by Pabulum, which means we get a little glimpse of the Spectator editor who sets locally as Maskarade. Beginners are, as always, redirected to start with the Guardian’s quiptic, the Observer’s Everyman or the Times’ quick cryptic.
One aspect of The Puzzler is time sensitive: the introduction (available here) contains an encoded message, which unlocks a series of bespoke puzzles for which American readers can receive a cash prize but which British solvers might enjoy for the urgent and varied challenge.
Our next book
Len Deighton’s spy Harry Palmer is prone to solving the odd clue, so many of us have been watching ITV’s The Ipcress File revival, hoping for some Morse-like appearances of crosswords in the plot.
So far, we haven’t been given much. Harry solves a clue on a bed in episode two:
‘Monastic order enjoys breakfast.’
As we’ve discussed here before, fictional crosswords are prone to including clues which are almost but not quite cryptic.
Given the care ITV have put into this series (viewers on catchup will miss the period continuity announcements from the old-fashioned telly), we can hope for more, ideally starting with the next Harry Palmer story. Horse Under Water is the only one that hasn’t been adapted for the screen, and the chapter titles resemble crossword clues.
Let’s open the comments and reconvene in four weeks? We could begin with whether we prefer the lead character’s name in the adaptations (Harry Palmer) or the books (where he doesn’t have one).
Past Book Group books
Find a collection of explainers, interviews and other helpful bits and bobs at alanconnor.com
The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop