There's a bit of a revolutionary war between the advocates of British-style or cryptic puzzles vs. American style or, as as they're known in some circles, normal puzzles. It turns out I've done a reverse Benedict Arnold. I've become a fan of the American style.
An upcoming post will describe what I call the Crossword Puzzle Moment that makes American puzzles work. This entry is about cryptic puzzles, why they're great, and why they're not quite as good.
First, here's the argument against the American form. It's what I used to believe and why I didn't bother with them for years. Normal puzzles ask for a series of facts. If you happen to know the capital of Bolivia (tricky in this case because there are two possible answers, Sucre or La Paz, and they're both five letters!) then you write it in. If you don't, you're stuck and the game is over. You might as well spend the rest of your evening watching Reality TV Shows while you wash down your barbequed cheeseburger with a refreshing Coca Cola.
Cryptic puzzles, on the other hand, represent the height of puzzling sophistication and rely, not on mundane facts, but on your ability to sort out puns, anagrams, hidden words, classic or pop references, bad jokes, and extremely twisted logic. What could be more fun? Here's an example I still remember from the Globe and Mail many years ago: Half the alphabet studied by physicists (4 letters.)
This is an ingenious clue, and like all ingenious clues you can figure out the answer if you can warp your brain in precisely the correct way. Half the alphabet? Hmmm. Well, there are 26 letters all together. Half the alphabet would be 13 letters. Does that help?
Not immediately. If you took just the vowels you'd fall short. Maybe it's the ones with descenders or something? Nope, that doesn't work either. Well, let's see. If you take the first 13 letters, what happens? That would be all the letters from A to M. Is that helpful?
The problem with Cryptic clues is that they require an aha cranial event that might or might not occur. The mark of a good clue is that if you stare at it long enough, the letters dissolve into view in front of your eyes. Cryptics can't promise that. Still, the best ones are fun and satisfying and, yes, I miss the Globe and Mail. The Nation has great cryptic puzzles but they don't publish every day.
Anyway, back to our alphabet clue. If you haven't seen it already, the answer is indeed A to M. ATOM. What a great clue.
As Tiny Tim never said, Happy Thanksgiving, every one.