Welcome to the first guest puzzle on this site, courtesy of Andy Kravis (pictured above). Give it a solve, and then check out my interview with Andy below. (Reader beware: there a major spoilers near the end of the interview, so please solve the crossword first. But do read the interview.) And if you’re interested in writing a guest puzzle here, drop me a line; we’ll make something happen.
Who is Andy Kravis?
I’m a third-year student at Columbia Law School, but I’m originally from Michigan (Go Blue!). My area of expertise is gender and sexuality law, and right now I’m applying for teaching fellowships with the hope of one day teaching Sexuality, Gender, and the Law.
When I’m not doing either law school or puzzling in its multifarious forms, I like to try to get out and do some karaoke or bar trivia. Sometimes I go to cultural events: I just went to see Chromeo and Justice at the Hammerstein Ballroom, which was a pretty rad show. (Is “rad” a thing that the youth still say?) And in my continuing quest to successfully impersonate a normal human being, I sometimes read books and watch TV and listen to music and surf the Internet.
What first got you into crossword puzzles?
My mom, actually. When I was thirteen or fourteen, she started letting me help her solve the Sunday New York Times puzzle that came in the Detroit Free Press every week. Before long, I went to Borders and picked up some Sunday NYT collections to do on my own. But I wasn’t good enough to finish any of the puzzles, so for a long time the books sat on my bookshelf collecting dust.
The impetus for me to start solving more seriously was Wordplay. I watched it and thought competitive solving looked like a fun thing I might be good at, though it wasn’t until I moved to New York for law school in 2010 that I really considered entering a tournament. I ended up going to the 2011 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT) and having a blast, and I haven’t looked back.
You came in 50th at this year’s ACPT, taking home silver in the C Division. That’s pretty darn good. Do you train at all for the tournament? How do you think you’ll fare next year?
At my first ACPT two years ago, I came in 169th. My preparation that year was (a) registering before the tournament, and (b) working on a book of Sunday NYTs anytime I was in the bathroom. And, surprise of surprises, Puzzle 5 destroyed me. But all things considered, a pretty good showing.
It dawned on me not long after the tournament that I could probably do pretty well the next year if I solved more. And so I did. At first the routine was NYT, LAT, CS, and Newsday every day. Then I picked up Brendan Emmett Quigley, Jonesin’, the Onion puzzle, Wall Street Journal/Chronicle of Higher Education Fridays, Tausig Thursdays, the Gaffney weekly meta contest, the Post Puzzler, and the Reagle and Hook/Cox/Rathvon Sundays. After a while, that became too overwhelming a number of puzzles to solve every week. So I dropped CS and Newsday because I didn’t like their applets, and I limited myself to two Sundays (usually NYT + the one rated highest on Crossword Fiend). All of which led to the extremely favorable result described above.
But to answer the question, no, I don’t really do anything differently in the weeks/months leading up to the ACPT or any other tournament. I almost never solve on paper, and that seems like “a thing” top solvers “do,” so maybe I’ll try that this year. I also don’t know whether I could really solve any more puzzles than I already do. Beyond the puzzles I solved regularly at the time of ACPT 2012, I’ve picked up the Fireball crossword, and there’s the rather excellent spate of independent weeklies and monthlies that I feel both obligated and privileged to solve (including but not limited to the site currently displayed, Blindauer, Agard, and the Muller Monthly Music Meta). And that’s a lot of puzzles.
By way of a prediction for next year’s ACPT: there’s definitely still room for improvement. Specifically, I made a couple of boneheaded mistakes on Puzzles 2 and 5 this past year that cost me about 20 spots. Assuming no change in skill between now and then, and assuming I have a perfect tournament, I’d say 20th isn’t out of the realm of possibility. But somewhere around 40th is a safer bet, I think.
If I recall correctly, I solved one of your puzzles in the LA Times earlier this year. Was that your debut puzzle? How long have you been constructing crosswords?
Yes, I had a Sunday LAT in April of this year, and yes, it was indeed my debut puzzle. It was a collaboration with the incomparable Will Nediger, with whom I go way back (all the way to my college quiz bowl days). I had the idea for the theme and came up with most of the theme answers, and Will did a lot of the grid design and helped me fill it.
That also happened to be the first puzzle I ever constructed. We finished the first draft of that puzzle in April 2011, so I’ve been constructing for about a year and a half. I’ve managed to come up with about 15-20 puzzles since then, in which time I’ve gotten the go-ahead from Will Shortz on a Wednesday puzzle. That was about six months ago, so I should be making my NYT debut any minute now. I’m also going to be one of the Twenty Under Thirty, whose namesake publication is coming out quite soon as well. Most of the rest of my crosswords won’t ever be published because of many reasons (e.g., loose themes, weird fill, not zippy fill), so I’m still trying to figure out what to do with them other than sending them to my mom. Hence this guest spot!
We have something in common – we’ve both appeared on Jeopardy! But you’ve been on a few other game shows, too. What’s that been like? Which one did you enjoy the most? Any future plans on that front?
Yes! And you also had an inspired turn on Merv Griffin’s Crosswords – I tried out for that one, but never got on.
So first, I did the J! Teen Tournament when I was 13, and had the distinct honor of losing on J! twice, to high school seniors. J! was always the dream, and there’s a part of me that’s sad I went on before I could really appreciate how cool it was / before I had any high school education. That said, it was really awesome. Really, really awesome. Alex Trebek did a jig during one of the commercials, singing my name over and over again and dancing. I promptly proceeded to tank a Daily Double, and the rest is history.
Then I did Wheel of Fortune College Week when I was 20. That’s for sure my favorite so far, mostly because it was my only win, and I won convincingly (like, one Bankrupt away from being the first person in a whole bunch of years to solve every puzzle in an episode). Wheel is pretty much the crossworder’s dream game show, right? (Other than Crosswords, with the caveat that actually Crosswords is kind of a nightmare because you can do extremely well and still lose.)
And during my first year of law school — so almost exactly 2 years ago — I got to be on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Millionaire was a bit rough, as the questions in my game were just completely out of my wheelhouse. On the plus side I met not only Meredith Vieira on set, who is a sweetheart, but also Jan O’Sullivan in the green room, who is now one of my closest crosswording friends.
I think if I could make a living being on game shows, that’s what I’d do. And it’s funny you should ask about my game show plans: I just got a call from the staff of Ask Me Another on NPR, so that could very well be in my near future, fingers crossed. (It’s a great show for us puzzly people. I just finished listening to the podcast of the episode that fellow crossworder Ken Stern won; I highly recommend listening to some of the episodes if you’ve never heard it before.)
I’d also love to make a career out of writing questions/puzzles for game shows (call me, anyone reading this right now who can make that happen).
The same goes for me – I’d love to write for a game show! What inspired this puzzle? Any trouble making it work? There’s a lot going on in there! (Readers, even if you’ve already solved the puzzle, download the solution now if you haven’t already to see all of the neat stuff going on here.)
I think the first time I had a go at this theme, I had just finished solving a puzzle that made use of the numbered boxes in a clever way (one of the theme answers may have been 23SKIDOO, with the S in the 23-box). That got me thinking about how I might use the numbered boxes in other clever ways, which is when the periodic table popped into my head. Noble gases seemed like a good set to work with: there was a well-known name for the group, there were a manageable number of them, and they all had two letters (because a one-letter rebus isn’t really special, now is it?).
The first version of this puzzle was a 15×15, and it didn’t have the NOBLE/INERT switcheroo in it. I finished that version in July of 2011, and it was a pretty decent puzzle, if I do say so myself. But it had one major problem (along with several minor ones): Radon is element 86, and there’s no way to get the numbered box 86 into a 15×15 puzzle.
The flaws in the first attempt led me to, as we say in the business, s#!tcan the idea. It wasn’t until the recent emergence of this blog and Erik Agard’s blog that I thought of a 17×17 reworking of the theme as a self- (or guest-)publishable project. And around that time it also dawned on me that NOBLE and INERT were not only the same number of letters but also interchangeable, so I decided to incorporate that extra feature into the new puzzle.
The hardest part about this making this puzzle was designing the grid. What I failed to appreciate was that numbered boxes always begin at least one entry (that is, newly realized by me, why they are numbered). And given that an entry had to start with RN, RNASE was a necessary evil, in large part because the preferable three-letter entry RNA is no longer a three-letter entry when the digraph RN occupies one box rather than two. Also extremely challenging was getting Box 54 to not occupy the center of the grid, where it kept wanting to sit right in the middle of the revealer. Last I checked, they’re not the kroble gases.
At any rate, my goals in constructing are first and foremost to construct a puzzle people will enjoy solving, and secondarily to learn something about how crosswords work, which I hope will make me a better constructor and solver. So I hope this is an enjoyable solving experience, and I appreciate any feedback!