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Listener No. 4339, Mixed Doubles: A Setter’s Blog by Shackleton

Posted by Listen With Others on 19 April 2015

This was the first Listener crossword idea that I ever had; the general idea of creating the toughest small crossword, a Listener puzzle that solvers would struggle with, hopefully enjoyably, for several hours before realising at the end that they would be submitting an absurdly simple crossword as a solution (it is no coincidence that this puzzle appeared on the week of April 1st). One of the attractive aspects of this idea was that it would give our illustrious marker John Green a bit of a respite from his painstaking weekly task.

My first attempt at creating such a puzzle was back in 2003, and the original dénouement was a 3×3. It took me forever to compose, was ridiculously complicated with a long preamble and far too many clues (and not very brilliant ones), was not thematically cohesive, and I believe would have been a real pain to solve with very little reward. Ross Beresford and Derek Arthur, who were the Listener editors at the time, manfully struggled through it. They rightly and thankfully rejected it of course, but Ross wrote a very kind rejection letter, giving some helpful pointers, and generally providing encouragement.

Since then, I have learnt my trade as a Listener setter, how to take a theme and work on it so that it is cohesive and slowly revealed through the course of the solve, how to strive to simplify things, how to write reasonable clues, how to put myself in the solver’s shoes and provide good value for the work they have to do. I resurrected the idea in 2009, when the current 2×2 scheme emerged – I remember mulling over it during an extended work trip to the West Coast of the USA in 2009, during which I drove from LA to Seattle with a colleague; he was a captive audience as I sounded out the ideas, but fortunately he was also a receptive and encouraging one as he was an occasional EV solver.

The puzzle was three times in the Listener queue. I substituted it on the first couple of occasions with date-constrained puzzles that needed priority. But on both occasions I took the opportunity to rejig the clues, so they were probably rewritten several times over before I was finally satisfied.

There were a couple of wordings in the preamble that were designed to put the solver off the scent. The first was the wording “… the main diagonal (marked by blocks)”, which explicitly defined what a ‘block’ was (necessary later for the unambiguous interpretation of the instruction) but was also designed to misdirect the solver into a diagonal frame of mind. The second was the wording “in tandem” which precisely defined the structure of the clues, but which, in conjunction with the lines and circles, was also designed to deflect the solver’s thoughts to the song “Daisy, Daisy…”.

There were also a couple of unplanned but unavoidable and in fact welcome red herrings in the grid. In particular, the MOTH that appeared so prominently in the more difficult fourth quadrant, and the ZOO that leapt out once the lines/circles had been drawn in the first three quadrants.

With a carte blanche, my hope is always that solvers will use a combination of solving and pure logic to place the bars – I think that this is one of its attractions. In this case the distance 12 answers (whose clues were easier) could be immediately placed, and hopefully this provided a reasonable entry point into the puzzle. The unusual form of symmetry in Mixed Doubles also provided inspiration for the Mango puzzle Nuts and Bolts (Listener No 4260) written together with my Mango colleagues (the late great Roddy Forman, and Steve Mann), a puzzle that was written sometime after Mixed Doubles, but that appeared over a year earlier.

John Guiver (Shackleton)

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Mixed Doubles by Shackleton

Posted by shirleycurran on 17 April 2015

ZOOX 001We were, of course, delighted to download a Shackleton crossword but the murmurs of dismay began at once. “It’s carte blanche!” said the other Numpty (which, of course, if the grid is going to be symmetrically filled, isn’t a major problem) but then I read ‘The grid has mirror symmetry about the main diagonal (marked by blocks)’. That, to me, was slightly more worrying. I know it shouldn’t be, but I really find it difficult to mentally grasp that. Worse was to come! We now learned that ‘Clue numbers give the horizontal/vertical distance of the entries’ starting cells from the main diagonal’.

There was to be an instruction and first letters of the down clue ‘part’ of each ‘tandem’ clue were going to give us a phrase from a song. We were also forewarned that there were to be four extra words hidden in the clues and that the answers to those clues were to be entered ‘in part symbolically’.

Just one little hint there. That intriguing word ‘blocks’ and even their presence! Even I don’t need little black squares to tell me where the diagonal is – of course I know that it is where any desperate setter will hide his/her message – going from one corner to the other – so why those little black ‘blocks’?

ShackletonAnyway, that was enough to keep us going till midnight! I took a deep breath and checked that Shackleton’s membership of that elite toping club has survived the years: of course it has! ‘Henry the fusty old drunk …’ gave us H and two obsolete words YE and HYE. The tandem clue continued ‘behind bar bought everyone drinks, initially about 8 or 12 pints’ Well, Cheers, Shackleton! HIN appeared after a little research.

There was more! ‘Fly to Scotland? Possibly worker , stocked with wine …’ which gave us that old crossword setter’s favourite ASTI in BEE (BEASTIE), and only one clue further on, ‘Turn to vintage wine when penning new (obscure Listener) …’ which gave us T’ + RED around N(ew). The clues were just running with ale, vintage, red etc.!

Oh but this solving was tough. We (well, the other Numpty actually) slowly solved, producing PARTAN, CYAN, PLAN, TWAS, APED, APOLLO, BEEGAH, EPOS, NAAM. I find it extremely difficult to solve clues that are tagged on to each other and desperately began to attempt to construct a grid.

We were in luck, as ADMIRER/ HAS BEEN gave us the two clues that had to start in the corners since they were to begin 12 cells from the diagonals, and a lucky guess put NAAM and EPOS intersecting with them. PARTAN (which Mrs Bradford kindly gave us – in a crossword like this her ‘Crossword Solver’s Dictionary‘ is invaluable -) and CUMMER fitted with those but then I bungled and, full of joy because I had managed to solve a couple of gentle anagrams (SASHAYED and SEEMLIER), slotted them in too high in the grid. I wonder how many other solvers struggled as much as we did to get a grid fill!

We had a stroke of luck, though. Feeding the letters we had, at the start of the ‘down’ parts of the tandem clues into TEA with a number of ????? gave what had to be the theme, ‘The animals went in two by two!‘ So that was why we had tandem clues and ‘Mixed Doubles’ and it wasn’t going to be a tennis court at all or Daisy on a bicycle made for two! Such a familiar song – was it Burl Ives who used to sing it, with the ELEPHANT and the KANGAROO and the outsize HIPPO getting stuck in the door? Hoorah, hoorah!

Shackleton 2X2 001Then came the pdms. Four extra words emerged from the clues: HYBRID, CROSS, STEER and BUFFALO (obviously thematic in some way) and, after a little bit of head-scratching, we realized that the symbols that had to be used in those clues would be numbers so we had T1LESS and M1YMAN (TONELESS and MONEYMAN) intersecting with each other in the top left hand corner, and 2SOME (TWOSOME) and 3DECK (THREE-DECK) strategically placed in the grid. (But no 4 – at this stage, I was bemused – I was now convinced that we were constructing an ARK with four windows!)

With our almost full grid (and shortly after midnight – this one was really challenging!) we had to tease out the instruction and found that we had to FULLY EXTEND EACH BLOCK NSEW.  Aah! Those blocks. I did that and produced a little set of quadrants. Almost at once, I found the necessary animals in them – well, five of the animals, ANT, WASP, BEE, ELEPHANT and KANGAROO, in the three numbered squares.

Red herring time! Those letters had spelled out ZOO. Wondering how to fit the HIPPOPOTAMUS into the fourth square (since we were told there were going to be six), we looked at the four words that were to guide us and saw that we had ZO (HYBRID and CROSS) and it seemed logical that STEER and BUFFALO would give us OX. Sure enough, putting an X into the same section of the fourth quadrant produced BEHEMOTH. I went to bed, not quite convinced, as there was no 4 in that ‘Ark window’.

When light dawned a few hours later, the full genius of Shackleton’s compilation dawned with it. We had a delightful little 2 X 2 crossword with just four clues!

1ac Hybrid (2) = ZO

3ac Steer (2) = OX

1dn Cross (2) = ZO

2dn Buffalo (2) = OX

This was simply magic. Thank you, Shackleton!



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Listener 4339: Mixed Doubles by Shackleton

Posted by Jaguar on 17 April 2015

Shackleton makes his reappearance in the Listener after a prolonged absence stretching back to 2013, and perhaps unsurprisingly he provided us with a cracker. Straight away there are at least two novel ideas, at least ones new to me, in the choice of grid symmetry and the clue numbering system, in terms of how far the clue starts from the diagonal. Oh, and a carte blanche to boot, four extra words somewhere, and clue enumerations not necessarily trustworthy. So that’s all right then.

At least the most obvious starting points, the clues starting furthest from the diagonal, weren’t too inaccessible, and ADMIRER, SOAK, Tosh (or, as it turned out instead, PHOH, but never mind…) and HAS-BEEN fell out soon enough. What was really needed was some crossing entries to confirm positions and get something to go on for the rest.

It was a case of working from the SW and NE corners and towards the centre, with helpfully generous clues like the double anagram for SEEMLIER/ SASHAYED proving and entry into the SE corner in due course.

It was also a case of reading the damned preamble! For quite a while I was puzzled about the apparent YW pair at the end of the song before I remembered that the various letters had to be read in standard grid order and not clue order. Nothing like making it harder for yourself, eh? But having crossed that hurdle, and as Saturday came and went, I had at least figured out the end of the song line, “TWO BY TWO”, and recalled a childhood song about Noah’s Ark. First major PDM, with about a third of the grid fill to go. Including all the extra-word/ symbolically-entered clues, of course, but I had some inkling that the first half of 6.1 was threedeck ((the creek + D[ec])*), to be entered 3DECK. What the heck has 3 got to do with anything? And, for that matter, I couldn’t make much sense of the presumed extra word “steer”. But was the other half of this clue 2SOME? Nah… at any rate I couldn’t make sense of the word-play, still can’t.

Roll on Sunday, and the final charge to the finish line. More of a whimper, perhaps, although at least I was on the look-out for possible 1’s somewhere. And there they were, in MONEY-MAN and TONELESS. The extra words appeared to be “cross” and something else — “hands”, I reckoned, but I should have seen that you don’t need both “hybrid” and “reviewed” to indicate the anagram, so it was one of those really. Regardless, the grid was filled at last, and the instruction at least was clear enough, with a resulting set of black-out cells fitting perfectly with the pencilled-in numbers all in the top-left. What could it all mean, though?

Back to the preamble, again, and the reference to circles (and animals from the song) guided the search for KANGAROO and ELEPHANT; both appearing indeed in circles. Then ANT, WASP and BEE followed in a Z, and all together they formed a ZOO. Which is all very nice, apart from the meaning sixth creature, and ZOO having exactly nothing to do with 1, 2, 3. Apart from ORCA in the fourth block I couldn’t see any animals, not even a hippo. So near, yet so far!

More staring, and making sense of the extra words seemed vital. Eventually… Steer = Buffalo = OX, and Hybrid = Cross = Zo, and the 1 2 3 are marking clues in a 2×2 crossword. Well, obviously.

With a sigh of relief, I could erase everything else and not have to worry about why it was EPHOD, how the clue for GABLE worked, and so on. How kind of Shackleton to reward solvers who made it to the end of this epic with so little to check at the end, and a new benchmark for 2015’s Gold Cup competition has surely been set in some style.


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Listener No. 4339: Mixed Doubles by Shackleton

Posted by Dave Hennings on 17 April 2015

I was wondering where Shackleton had got to! It had been nearly two years since his last Listener (no. 4246, Construction) with its Led Zeppelin and the Tower of Babel linked by Stairway to Heaven. And who can forget no. 4079 Sine Qua Non in 2010 with Beethoven’s Morse Code Symphony!

Listener 4339This week we had an almost carte blanche, three lonely blocked squares on the main NW–SE diagonal. Did that mean that we were dealing with a standard 13×13 block puzzle? The number of clues (which were each two clues run together) indicated otherwise. Symmetry was about the main diagonal, and clue numbers gave the horizontal/vertical distance from that diagonal. There was an awful lot else was going on as well, but I decided that a cup of tea was needed first in order to recover from reading the preamble at least three times.

Clues numbered 0 must start on the main diagonal,, so I tried them. With a lot of concentration, the first Up east, torpedoed in sound where gravel has accumulated, succeeded in tilting over (5) yielded ERECT and ESKAR. The second was Henry, the fusty old drunk behind bar bought everyone drinks, initially about 8 or 12 pints (3) yielded HYE and that old Hebrew measure HIN. If this last clue (BEHIND – first letters of Bought Everyone Drinks) was anything to go by, I had a tough time ahead… and Shirley would be going apoplectic with the number of alcohol references in one clue!

So much for the 0 clues. Of course, I was absolutely nowhere near being able to slot them into the grid! I tried the clue 12 squares from the diagonal since the two entries would have to start in the top right and bottom left corners. I wondered why I hadn’t started on this clue first: Married profligate who’d adore wild bash, even after contracting ex (7). They turned out to be fairly straightforward: ADMIRER and HASBEEN.

Perhaps the clues weren’t going to be too tough† after all. I decided to go through them in my usual sequence, spending a bit of time on each one. I reached the end with precious few solved. I had been wrong… †they had tough written all over them!

And so began a solid five hours of attempting to cold solve these double clues. I was constantly aware of the fact that there were four clues with an extra word which had to be entered in the grid with some sort of symbolic substitution. I had identified none of these at the end of my first five hour session.

Luckily, I had solved a few such as PARTAN, CORCASS, FOETAL, HYE and SEEMLIER, which, together with CUMMER, POMFRET, CREOLE and HIN, enabled me to get some sort of jigsaw going in the southeast corner. Apart from that, however, the grid looked very sparse. I wondered if Shackleton was about to stymie me.

I restarted the following morning, coffee by my side. Obviously sleep had helped my brain as I began to make good progress. Not that everything went particularly quickly, but after about three hours, the grid was looking a lot healthier.

I had even managed to get to grips the symbolic substitutions, which were the numbers ONE, TWO and THREE. Now, you might expect that a setter would make these clues slightly easier. But this is the Listener, and this is Shackleton! Dull hybrid energy lesson reviewed after head of TU hands over first year marks — they may make some greens cross (6) led to TONELESS and MONEYMEN, with ‘hybrid’ and ‘cross’ being the extra words. As some riverboats steer up the creek with 1st of Dec temperature awful, ecstasy in bunk for Buffalo couple (5) was THREE-DECK and TWOSOME (T + WOESOME – E), ‘steer’ and ‘Buffalo’ being superfluous. I wondered why there wasn’t a FOUR in the southeast corner††.

Another couple of hours later and the grid was full. It was time to see what the last and first letters of the two individual clues spelt out. Fully extend each block N, S, E, W and The animals went in two by two. Aaah! That old nursery rhyme sung to the tune of When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

It didn’t take long to draw circles through the ELEPHANT and the KANGAROO, and a straight line through the ANT, WASP and BEE (which went in three by three). The last one seemed to be a MOTH in the southeast quadrant, but a bit more searching revealed a BEHEMOTH which, biblically, is assumed to be the hippopotamus, and a large cross went through it.

Listener 4339 My EntryFinally, most of the hard work that I had laboured through had to be jettisoned to reveal a large 2×2 crossword (†† that’s why) consisting of two ZOs and two OXen. All became clear, including the title, and I could sit back and relax.

And admire a masterpiece! Thanks, Shackleton. Either the Ascot Gold Cup has found this year’s winner… or we have another delight in store later in the year.

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Listener No. 4338, A Game of 15: A Setter’s Blog by Glow-worm

Posted by Listen With Others on 13 April 2015

Although this series is occasional in the extreme (only seven “Games”, spread over sixteen years!), it’s still quite a challenge to find a theme with appropriate material for an acceptable puzzle. The game needs a number of characteristics: it mustn’t be too well-known at first glance, maybe involving a little research; it must offer a handful of possibilities suggested by the title; and ideally one can see a path through a linear development, with moves connecting to each other.

Fairground games are quite useful, and time spent on Norwich Cattle Market, Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach, and Nottingham Goose Fair over the years, reminded me of hooking a duck (but rarely one with a decent prize attached….) Straightaway the first two criteria were satisfied: the game (as has proved) was not always guessed immediately; and both “hook” and “duck” opened up all sorts of possibilities.

Linear development, however, was a problem; unlike a snooker puzzle I did many years back, where it was possible to take solvers right through the game in the right order, here we were limited to a single, simple action, and apart from receiving a prize (or not) that was that. So I realised the game had to provide a clutch of challenges, all based on the phrase, but not linear, except for the process to find Donald. So for me it was more like a compendium of games, where you could take what you liked, in whatever order, and, I hoped, have fun. I agree with some bloggers that the preamble was a bit turgid; however our editor is a stickler for accuracy, fairness and clarity, and I think he and I did the best we could on solvers’ behalf.

The filling was surprisingly comfortable; 15 was where I wanted it — in the centre of things and vertical; NO GO and CUDDLY TOY went in quickly, and matching them at the bottom was not too bad, once I’d found BOOMERANG as a prize. In went GAIN and PRIZES and we were off. Looking at the spread of words I felt that nothing was unfair, and indeed the editor changed no entries at all.

All the other challenges were within the clues, and I did wonder at one point whether too many of them would be “non-normal”. I guess not as it turns out. A huge bonus was that all the ducks were capable of being jumbled independently, so no need to chop up words, and the three redundant definitions were never going to be a problem to insert. Like most solvers, I enjoy a final unexpected moment — with a smile if possible, so how to do this? Ringing letters was hardly original, but it did allow Donald to pop up at the end.

Yes — “rod” was pure serendipity: ADORE had been in from the start. Why not, I thought, and it did seem to tidy everything up. Sorry if some felt it was quite unnecessary!

The puzzle was great fun to do, and I must pay tribute to my checker, Charlotte, whose careful work helped me on my way. Thanks for all your kind comments, and here’s to another “Game” sometime!

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