Evan Birnholz’s April 10 crossword solution, “It’s the only way”


The 45th Annual American Crossword Tournament has passed. I was there and managed to finish in 22nd place, my best result here! This is the first ACPT held in person since 2019, and I was looking forward to being back and seeing friends from the puzzle scene after all this time apart. I wrote a whole thread of personal highlights here. You can also watch videos of the championship rounds, courtesy of Ben Zimmer (A Division Finals here, B Division Finals here).

But let’s talk about today’s puzzle. We immediately give you a rather disturbing note:

Oh no! A gang of thieves has stolen the Across clues from this puzzle. But don’t panic. They left the clues Down, and you can still use them to figure out the answers Across. When the puzzle is complete, you will find instructions to identify the culprits. Good luck!

No Across clues at all? How can you solve a crossword when you don’t have half the clues? And there’s a meta to boot, so it feels like a significant challenge.

Believe it or not, it can be done. Solving downs only is a technique that has become quite popular in recent years among expert solvers who enjoy solving puzzles on live-streaming platforms like Twitch. The Wall Street Journal ran an article on Downs’ resolution only in 2019, featuring quotes from several such experts like Erik Agard, Jenna LaFleur, Joon Pahk, Matt Gritzmacher, and Andy Kravis. I’ve come a long way from their solving speed, but I caught the Downs-only solving bug myself, and a few years ago started co-solving New York’s annual Super-Mega Downs puzzle Times with my brother and my wife. . We can’t do such a gigantic puzzle in one sitting without half the clues, but it’s still fun to tackle it, once in a while, over a period of days. (Note: The 2021 Super-Mega was an Across solution only; same principle, just no Down hint.)

WSJ crossword editor Mike Shenk was quoted in Coral Amende’s book “The Crossword Obsession” as saying he enjoys solving New York Times puzzles. using only Down indices, also. “[It’s] much more satisfying, I find, than doing it the usual way. If you can do a Saturday puzzle with just the Downs, that’s really satisfying,” Mike said. Some computer programmers have even developed programs to automatically strip Across hints from electronic puzzle files, to solidify the difficulty and prevent you from peeking at Across hints if you were tempted.

One reason for attempting a Downs-only puzzle is to give yourself an extra challenge, but it’s useful for another solving reason: it can help improve your ability to recognize letter patterns. The general way to approach a Downs only puzzle is to get as many Downs answers as possible. Then you play Wheel of Fortune with Across answers not included. In a weird way, Downs-only solving can help you become a faster solver: when you have enough letters in an Across answer to make a reasonable guess, you can fill it in and move on. If you don’t have to worry about finding half of the clues, you can save time.

What I tried to do in today’s puzzle was to make each Down clue easier than normal to give you the best chance of completing everything. Watch 1D: [B in the Greek alphabet]. It is BETAthen drop it directly. Then, 2D: [Gemstone frequently imported from Down Under]. It could be some four letter gems – JADE, ONYX, OPAL, RUBY – so skip it if you’re not sure and come back. 3D: [Part of a street designated for cyclists]. It’s eight letters, so maybe not the easiest answer to get, but you know it’s about cycling, so something like BIKE LANE sounds promising. BIKE PATH is plausible, but for a street where you might see cars, you’re much more likely to call it a BIKE PATH. 4D: [Lowest card in a 5-high straight, or the highest card in a royal flush] is a AS. Just from these three answers, you now have B?BA at 1A, E?IC at 18A, and A?E at 26A, and you can use this information to populate the Across answers. If you’re stuck between JADE, ONYX, OPAL and RUBY for 2D, you can exclude JADE and RUBY right away as that would give you BJBA or BRBA at 1A which is gibberish. ONYX gives you BOBA at 1A and AX at 26A, but also ENIC at 18A, which would be an uncommon answer at best. The only choice that gives you valid words everywhere is OPALWhich give BOBA at 1A, EPIC at 18A, and ALE at 26A.

Of course, you shouldn’t expect to get all the answers Down on your first pass, even with simple clues – there will always be some ambiguity in a crossword. But with time and patience, it can be conquered… and even if you leave part of it blank, you can hopefully still decipher the final meta-answer. The completed grid should look like this when you’re done:

Now we can understand the meta. We are told that there are instructions to identify the people who stole the Across clues. (That wasn’t me! I had nothing to do with it.) But the longest Across answers in the puzzle spell out the instructions:

  • 22A: TAKE THE FIRST LETTERS OF
  • 47A: ANSWERS THAT HAVE
  • 83A: THE WORD IN THEIR
  • 113A: CUES AND SPELL A STRIP

So now it’s just a scavenger hunt for clues. Here are the 12 clues that contain the word “down”:

  • 2D: [Gemstone frequently imported from Down Under] is OBOYFRIEND.
  • 13D: [Part of a basketball hoop that’s cut down during the NCAA tournament] is NOTHEY.
  • 14D: [Property that parents often pass down to their heirs] is ESTATE.
  • 32D: [Turns down, as the lights] is DSMI.
  • 34D: [“Somebody’s gotta turn down the temperature. I’m really sweaty!”] is “IIT’S HOT.”
  • 38D: [Member of a 6 Down team] is ROWER. 6D: [Racing team that competes on a river] is TEAMso I used this as a sort of sneaky but actually useful meta cross-benchmark.
  • 57D: [Single-named Irish singer who sang the lyric “May it be an evening star / Shines down upon you”] is EDOES NOT HAVE.
  • 76D: [Breaks down in tears] is VSRIES.
  • 82D: [Waters down] is JHINS.
  • 87D: [Cool down, as champagne] is ITHIS.
  • 95D: [Marked down, like products at a store] is ON SALE.
  • 114D: [“We’re ___ gonna take this lying down!”] is NOTTO.

The first letters of the answers with the word “low” in their clues spell out the boy band A DIRECTION. A bunch of dastardly thieves, pulling off a heist like this. It’s like they’re telling us what puzzle crime they’re about to commit just from their name, or maybe their song “Drag Me Down.” But we caught them!

If you managed to solve the entire puzzle and identify ONE DIRECTION as the culprit, congratulations! And if you’ve done your best but haven’t finished everything, don’t worry – give yourself a pat on the back for attempting a weird and challenging type of crossword that you may not have had. not tried before. I would also recommend trying other puzzles just for Downs, like the 15×15 puzzles from the start of the week with easy hints. It can’t hurt to practice more, and you might actually enjoy it.

One last thing: Because you can’t be too careful when posting a Downs-only puzzle, I have several people to thank for resolving this issue and offering helpful feedback. In alphabetical order: Patrick Blindauer, Neville Fogarty, Josh Forsythe, Amy Goldstein, Evan Kalish, Mike Katz, Mike Knobler, Claire Natola, Brad Ramirez, Lori Steenhoek, Scott Weiss and Danny Williams. Sometimes it takes a whole village to write a crossword puzzle.

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