9 Jun 2009, 6:26 p.m.

Some Thoughts on Solving Advanced Cryptic Crosswords

I've recently been enjoying - if that's the right word - advanced cryptic crosswords. These are those extra challenging puzzles that crop up in the weekend supplements of the broadsheet newspapers here in the UK.

Advanced cryptics aren't quite like normal crosswords. They tend to be set out on a "barred" grid, as opposed to the more familiar "black and white" version, they typically employ obscure or obsolete vocabulary, and they often feature "special instructions" in the preamble of the puzzle. For example, the solver may be expected insert or remove letters before writing in the grid entry, or resolve clashes between "across" and "down" answers. It can be a bit like solving a puzzle layered on top of a puzzle on top of a puzzle.

Examples of the genre include Inquisitor and Beelzebub in the Independent, Mephisto and The Listener in the Times, Enigmatic Variations in the Sunday Telegraph and, perhaps the father of them all, Azed in the Observer.

I'm not even close to being an expert on these, but I've picked up a few...er...clues over recent months, and I thought it couldn't hurt to share what I've found out so far, and perhaps see if readers have any further advice. So here are my thoughts on solving advanced cryptics.

Don't Panic!

This is pretty much Rule One, and it's something Ciaran taught me. It's important not to get psyched out by a puzzle, otherwise you won't get anywhere. Remember that - advanced or not - it's just a crossword. If you've tackled a handful of dailies, you will find a way in to an advanced.

Start by looking for an easy clue; there will be something, perhaps some "plain" (unthemed) clues, or an obvious anagram. You might need to be quite patient, but they will be there.

The clueing will also tend to be very fair and unambiguous. This is partly because the advanced cryptics are compiled by the very best setters in the business, but also because they generally adhere to what's known as "Ximean" clueing standards. The details of Ximenean clueing are perhaps beyond the scope of this post, but in short it means that the clues are inherently solvable, with a bit of patience, and it's typically quite clear that you have the right answer once you've figured it out.

The Grid

Once you get a few entries written in, you'll find that while the barred grid may initially seem unfamiliar and scary, it actually makes life significantly easier for the solver. This is thanks to the relatively high number of checked squares (those forming part of both an "across" and a "down" grid entry).

The ratio of checked squares to "unches" tends to be about 4:1 compared to about 4:3 for a typical daily, so you'll find that some clues almost solve themselves once you get going.

Reference Materials

It's worth noting that you aren't really supposed to be able to manage these crosswords without at least a dictionary to consult. Unlike a daily, which you would typically tackle on the train to work, without access to reference materials, it really isn't considered cheating to rummage through a dictionary - in fact it's part of the game.

Whilst it may not always be mentioned explicitly, the de facto standard reference for advanced cryptics is Chambers, which is held in such high regard by solvers that it has at least two affectionate nicknames: "The Big Red Book" and sometimes simply "C".

Chambers is actually a fantastic thing to own anyway - a real treasure trove for anyone with even the slightest interest in words and language - so I'll recommend getting hold of a copy even if you don't care for arcane, time-consuming puzzles. The online version is pretty spiffy too, with some very flexible search options which have dug me out of a solving dead-end on numerous occasions.

There are other useful sources: an Oxford Dictionary of Quotations will serve you well, and there's always The Internet.


I mentioned that these puzzles tend to employ quite obscure vocabulary, and it bears repeating. You really aren't expected to have come across all of the answers in normal use - hence the need for a copy of a Chambers!

Thus, what you will need to be able to do is spot the indicators which will give you a hint as to what type of obscure we're dealing with. These are of course many and varied, but the three broad types that I've noticed most often are as follows:

  • "Poet" words: advanced cryptics often employ vocabulary or spellings that were only ever used in as little as one literary work. A typical indicator would be "the poet's" or "to the poet", and this almost always refers to Spenser - whose works have provided rich pickings for the lexicographers at Chambers over the years. Shakespearean terms crop up fairly regularly too, of course, but Spenser's usually your man here.
  • Archaic forms: indicators like "once", "formerly", and "of old" are sprinkled liberally around the clues of these puzzles, and signify that you're after an obsolete or archaic term or spelling.
  • Regional or dialect terms: keep an eye out for anything that suggests a particular part of the world. "In Perth", "Hamilton's", or "at Loch Ness" are surefire signs that you're looking for a regional term. More often than not, that region is Scotland, so a Linguistics degree from Edinburgh University will stand you in good stead :) Failing that, the regional search in the online version of Chambers is invaluable.

So Where Do I Start?

You probably won't want to start with The Listener or Enigmatic Variations, as these tend to be the hardest of the hard, and some weeks it can be almost impossible to fill in more than a few squares.

Perhaps a better starting point would be the Independent on Sunday's "Beelzebub" or the Sunday Times' "Mephisto". These show most of the hallmarks of the barred crosswords, but tend not to employ special instructions or themes - meaning that you can typically just write in the answer once you've found it.

Most weeks, the Observer publishes a "Plain" Azed which is always a top quality puzzle, and has the distinct advantage of being available online for free. The Azed style is fairly distinctive though, so it might be worth checking out the excellent advice given by Peter Biddlecombe in his Azed for Beginners post over at Fifteensquared.

Once you get going, it's only a matter of time before you tackle a Listener out of curiosity, with disastrous implications for your productivity over the ensuing week!

Posted by Simon at 01:53:00 PM
8 Jul 2009, 1:22 p.m.


Thanks for such a helpful introductory post. As a former (and future) Listener obsessive myself, I occasionally evangelize about thematic cryptics, and I'll be sure to point people in this direction when I next do so.