A crossword puzzle fan's biggest dilemma used to be simple: pencil or ink? Now that Web logs post the answers to multiple puzzles every day, a puzzler has a new choice to make: sneak a look or tough it out?
Every day, just hours after The New York Sun and other newspapers post their puzzles online, Web sites such as Diary of a Cross-
word Fiend (crosswordfiend.blogspot.com), Rex Parker Does the New York Times Crossword (rexwordpuzzle.blogspot.com), and Green Genius (norrin2.blogspot.com) publish the finished puzzles.
How do they get the answers? By doing the puzzles themselves, often with astonishing speed. They also write commentary on the puzzles, and invite discussion in the form of postings from others. The commentary generally starts with the quality of the puzzle, including how well the puzzle-maker has realized his theme through the relationship of the 10 or so longer answers on the grid. The riffs might include the thought process that led to a solution, illustrations of the people or events clued, and personal associations to any and all of the above. One blog, Crossword Bebop (crosswordbebop.blogspot.com), makes such improvisational associations its entire focus.
A puzzle solver such as Green Genius ó aka Robert Loy, a writer who blogs the Sun's crossword from his home in Charleston, S.C. ó uses the puzzle as a mental pencil sharpener each morning before going to work. Michael Sharp, an English professor at the State University of New York's Binghamton campus, also devotes serious time to his blog, Rex Parker Does the New York Times Crossword. (Rex Parker is his nome de crossword.) Since he started posting the answers to the Times puzzle last September, traffic on his site has increased to 4,000 unique hits a day. His blog is the one most often mentioned by puzzle professionals.
"My way of blogging is idiosyncratic and personal. It creates a conversation about the puzzle," Mr. Sharp said. "The good part of criticism about puzzles is not saying whether they're good or bad, but the way it creates talk around something that had been a silent experience."
Donald Brooks, a New York theater designer who runs the site the New York Times Crossword in Gothic, also finds an element of personal expression in his hobby. He illustrated yesterday's post with images of the ancient Egyptian god Set because "S-E-T" was a key to the puzzle's theme. "I try to make it come alive a bit with the pictures," he said.
Initially, some puzzlers were nervous about the copyright implications of posting the answers. Blank crossword grids and clues are protected by copyright, but those filled in with whatever letters one chooses and discussing how the clues relate to one's answers are not. It's as much a matter of free speech as any other kind of writing.
Because he comments on every clue, Mr. Sharp has found that most of his new user traffic comes from solvers using Google to research clues on the Internet. "All of a sudden, particularly after I'd been going six weeks, which is the lag time before the puzzles appear in syndication, I had this completely unexpected audience for my posts," he said.
Mr. Sharp credits the proprietor of the group blog Diary of a Crossword Fiend, Amy Reynaldo, with helping to popularize Rex Parker. "She was one of the first to come to the site and only one to write about it in a systematic way," he said.
Ms. Reynaldo's approbation gave the Rex Parker site a seal of approval from a pioneer in the field of crossword blogs. It also helped increase Mr. Sharp's traffic by providing an alternative to her own site, where the postings are written at an expert level that tends to focus technical aspect of the puzzle. "Her site is oriented toward top solvers and mine more toward the everyday schmoe who just does the puzzle," Mr. Sharp, a top solver himself (ranked 166th in the last American Crossword Tournament), said.
Editors of the newspaper puzzles, including Peter Gordon of the Sun and Will Shortz of the Times, see the blogs as a welcome addition to the crossword community.
"I read them every day, and it's great to get their feedback," Mr. Gordon said. He pays particular attention to the commentary about his puzzles on Green Genius and Crossword Fiend. "You put the puzzles out there and people go into such detail for every puzzle, with pictures and everything," he said.
"I find it flattering that there are at least four daily blogs," Mr. Shortz said. "I don't always agree, but it's interesting and significant that someone would spend that much time every day to discuss the puzzle."
Mr. Shortz noted that until the blogs started, the only way to discuss the crossword with a larger audience than one's friends was through the New York Times online forum, which has been running since 1995. It is a bulletin board-style site moderated by Will Johnston, who also runs the Puzzles Pointers crossword reference Web pages (www.fleetingimage.com/wij/xyzzy/nyt-links.html).
As a result, he said, "I feel that my work as editor is under much greater scrutiny than any previous editor, which makes me work harder. Now, if you don't like the puzzle or think something's wrong with it, you can post your comments for everyone to see." Still, Mr. Shortz said, "I don't think the bloggers are representative of solvers as a whole: They are better than most, and they are younger. Most of the New York Times solvers are over 50."