Cryptical Elliptical – Frank McNally on the mystery of the 90-second crossword solvers

An Irishman’s Diary

It has been many years since I was in the habit of doing this newspaper’s cryptic crossword, fine institution that it is. Having mastered its complexities then – as I thought – I sought new challenges elsewhere. In mental athletics, as in physical, the dictum is “no pain, no gain”.

But a correspondent on Twitter recently drew my attention to what appear to be alarming developments in this area during my long absence. These concern mainly the online version and the “leader-board” that now lists the top ten fastest completers on any day.

According to which, as I write, someone with the username “Delatum” has finished today’s puzzle in 1 minute 31 seconds, pipping “junemiller”, who did it on 1.37, with “BMLynch” trotting in after them in a leisurely 1.45.  How are such times this possible, wonders my correspondent: “I can’t even read the clues in 91 seconds, let alone work them out and fill them in.”

Pondering the same question, I recalled that my lifetime-best for the old Crosaire was just under six-and-a-half minutes (wind-assisted). And it was rare day then that I did it in under 10. There were nearly always one or two words you got stuck on.


My PB – probably recorded in Bewley’s café, circa 1993 – must have been of those occasions when there was nothing sticky anywhere except the almond bun I had to put off eating until I sprinted across the finish line in 6.29.

Now that all-time best would get nowhere near the leader-board most days. And the obvious explanation – surely? – was that the crossword had dumbed down. There was only one way to find out. I uploaded the online version for the first time ever, did a few breathing exercises and stretches to get the circulation going, and hit “start” on my iPhone stopwatch.

It began well, at least: 8 Across and 1 Down were easy. The old reflexes hadn’t gone yet. Then I had to skip a few clues before I found another answer. And suddenly the clues I was skipping were more numerous than the ones I could solve. Soon I was bogged down, having made barely a dent on the grid. Finding that 15 minutes had already elapsed, I limped out of the race, embarrassed.

Was it possible that the use of performance-enhancing substances is now a feature of the elite crossword solving scene, I wondered? Were competitors swallowing dictionaries in pharmaceutical form? Or could it be that economies of truth as well as time are occurring? That people are solving the puzzle in advance, mentally or on paper, and only then filing it in online, at great speed, in pursuit of some dubious glory?

Why anyone would do that, I have no idea. But while I’m wrestling with the question, and in memory of Myles na gCopaleen, who died 55 years ago today (April 1st), here’s something he wrote in 1946:

Time: Friday night

Sets alarm for 3am Saturday morning, dresses hastily and cycles into town. Dismounts at Irish Times office, drenched to the skin. Obtains first copy of paper to come off press. Cycles home, pulls wife out of bed to make breakfast, then disappears into backroom to study crossword puzzle. Thumbs dictionaries, almanacs, anthologies, thesauri. Begins to get odd words out […] Has breakfast. Goes back to work on the puzzle. Is still working at it as day wears on. Claws at stubbly face, stares, lies back, grunts, walks to window and looks out. Gives sharp cry and writes down word. Paces room, hunches shoulders, has both cigarette and pipe going simultaneously. Dog yawns noisily, is kicked savagely in ribs. Another word comes. Rolls up trousers and examines knee. […] Pares fingernails. Removes slippers and socks and starts doctoring corn. Whistles The Lanty Girl. Writes down further word. Has lunch on tray, cannot leave room to have it properly. Sharpens pencil. Gets two words simultaneously. Keeps on and on and on.

Time: Saturday night.

Arrives at golf club clean, freshly shaved, with five half ones on board. Is approached by studious confrere.

Did you see the Times crossword today?

No. I didn’t see a paper at all today. What about it?

Well it’s pretty stiff this week. (Produces paper). I’ve spent hours on it and can’t get it out at all. Wasted the whole morning on it. I think some of the clues must be wrong.

I thought last week’s was easy enough.

You did? Well, look at this one. ‘Exhausted at reports,’ 9 letters. What could that be?

(Very slight pause)

Um…PROSTRATE, I suppose.

Ohhh! (Sensation.) Begob, you’re quick at it. And 2 down here, five letters . . .