Saturday, June 10, 2017

Begin and the NYTimes Crossword Puzzle

SATURDAY PUZZLE — We happen to know that one of the most popular times to pick up The New York Times crossword for the first time and attempt to solve it is over a weekend and, on the surface, that makes perfect sense. Most people are off from work. They have downtime and seek to fill it. And what better time to take up a new hobby than when you have hours to devote to it?

What most people eventually find out is that there is a “trickiness curve” to the solving week, and that their best bet for learning how to solve comes from starting with the Monday puzzles. I suspect this is why some people feel that they can’t solve a crossword puzzle; it boils down to when they first meet up with it. If they pick up a puzzle for the first time on a Saturday or Sunday and take a peek at what’s in store for them, I wouldn’t blame them one bit for placing it gently back down and tiptoeing away, never to try again.

But you have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is at the beginning. Start with the Monday puzzles, and work your way through the week.

I’ll show you why that is: Take a look at the clue for 1A, “Begin at the beginning.” What a coincidence, and what a nicely written, misdirected, Saturday-level clue. On the surface, it sounds like my advice, doesn’t it? That’s not what it means at all, though, at least not on a Saturday. The answer is MENACHEM, as in the former prime minister of Israel MENACHEM Begin, and those of you who are just starting to solve are probably sitting there, wondering why Mr. Diehl and Will Shortz might do that to you.

The answer lies in understanding that this is very typical wordplay for a Saturday. They want you to rack your brains, and the trick to solving a clue like this lies in learning to understand what the clue is really asking you to do. It’s asking you to recognize that the word “Begin” is capitalized not just because it’s the beginning of a sentence; that’s an old crossword trick. It’s also capitalized because it’s someone’s name, and the “at the beginning” part of the clue is asking you to think of what might go before “Begin.” It’s an eight-letter entry, and the only Begin I know of whose first name contains eight letters is MENACHEM.

Quite a brain twister, isn’t it?

Now, if you’re just starting out, Mondays are a great place to strengthen that solving muscle. In a Monday puzzle, that same entry might be clued with a much more straightforward, in-your-face clue, like “Former Israeli prime minister ___ Begin.” It might not be quite that easy, but you get the idea; the clue would supply you with more than enough basic information to solve it and your brain just loves filling in missing information.