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Conversion by Samuel – A Setter’s Blog

Posted by clanca1234 on 6 February 2010

Part of the work of a thematic crossword compiler (an easy kind of work, admittedly, but work all the same) is to come up with ideas for puzzles. Maybe I’m alone in this, but after setting my first three or four puzzles, I found that everywhere I go, everywhere I look, everything I see, everything I hear, one of my first thoughts is ‘could I make a crossword out of that?’ Invariably the answer is a resounding ‘no’, or an even more resounding ‘are you insane?’, but one night a few years ago, I started thinking about names or pseudonyms that might be of the same length.

My wife was sitting watching Masterchef (“cooking doesn’t get tougher than this!’ Gregg Wallace is fond of shouting. Doesn’t it, Gregg? Really? I’d love to lock him in a room at gunpoint, tie his arms behind his back, set a pack of vicious dogs on him, tell him he has to make a perfect chocolate fondant in the next half an hour or he gets shot, and then see just how tough he thinks preparing a slap-up meal for an ‘ingredients expert’ in a TV studio really is, compared to that).

Anyway, I digress. So, I started jotting down related names of the same length. I joined what must be a very long line of setters who rue the fact that JEKYLL and HYDE don’t have the same number of letters, wondered why Superman (8 letters) was inconsiderate enough to come up with Clark Kent (9 letters) when Dave Kent would have done just as well for the purposes of anonymity, and then happened to glance down at a copy of that day’s Times, where, in the sports section, I suddenly saw the sentence:

“Cassius Clay, on his conversion to Islam…”

counted up the letters of Muhammad Ali, shouted out “crossword setting doesn’t get tougher than this” (I swear that, on the television, Greg Wallace turned to face the camera with a startled expression as I yelled this out) and a puzzle was born.

I always try to shoehorn as much thematic material into a Samuel puzzle as possible, and so over the next few days my mind worked overtime. First of all I went scurrying off to my study to find ODQ, and see if any Ali quotations had made it in. I’m not sure why I bothered – some of his sayings would have been well-known enough even if they weren’t in ODQ. “I’m the greatest” and “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” seemed the obvious ones. I’d already decided on converting CASSIUS CLAY to MUHAMMAD ALI in the grid, and the clear thing to do would be to make this change complete the quotation.

Initially I looked at getting these diagonally in the grid, but, being honest about it, so many puzzles have thematic material on the diagonals, that I thought that something different was called for. A count of the letters in “float like a butterfly…” gave 32, which could be arranged in an 8 by 8 square, and this was obviously the shape of a boxing ring. Within seconds, I had a title for the puzzle which would strike a chord with old-school Listener solvers, ‘Squaring the Circle’, as a boxing ring is square. This elicited another triumphant yell, but by this time both Emma and Gregg were obviously used to my exclamations, as neither of them batted an eyelid.

At this point I thought for a few days, to see what else I could come up with. A few nights later, I had come up with the idea of the grid containing RUMBLE inside JUNGLE and THRILLER inside MANILA, in homage to perhaps the two most famous of Ali’s fights, and other dingbats were coming into my head (eg SNYLISTON vertically in the grid being ‘S on NY LISTON’. I decided to have a trawl through YouTube at Ali’s old fights, and when I saw the referee starting the Ali/Bugner fight, and he cried out ‘seconds out, round one!’ at the start, I had an entry gimmick for my clues. I did toy with having some clues ’round two’ or ’round three’, but this seemed too complicated, so I abandoned this pretty quickly. The link between COOPER and FOREMAN appeared in my brain at this point, I abandoned the jungle and manila ideas, and tried to get a fill.

Cripes. It was a nightmare.

This took four or five months of on/off work, hindered by the fact that the letters of the quotation were so unhelpful. I even gave up at one point, set another puzzle, and came back to it. Maybe somebody more skilled at grid filling than I could have come up with something better, but there was only one possible arrangement of the quotation in the grid that allowed checking letters to be completed by MUHAMMAD ALI arranged linearly, and that arrangement was not nice. Either the average entry length got too low, or I filled myself into a corner, so to speak. Eventually, and having to accept that the non-Chambers FAT FARM would have to be in the grid, I got a fill. The one saving grace was the present of KNOUT entered as KOUT in the bottom left hand corner, which made me chuckle. I’m easily amused.

Cluewriting was okay, with only half or so of the clues needing ‘conversion’ before solving, although a few of these were tricky. I had a late panic when I saw an article spelling MUHAMMAD as MUHAMMED, but I knew that I had already checked this spelling in ODQ, Chambers Biographical Dictionary, Ali’s official website, Wikipedia and older versions of Collins, so all was okay. My test solver liked it, and then it was off to the Listener. I had been concerned that, as the puzzle was about a living person (and a living person in fragile health, at that) that it might get rejected on these grounds, but some time later I learned that it had been put into the portfolio after I’d rewritten a few clues for the first vetter.

I had previously toyed with keeping the puzzle under my hat, so to speak, for another 10 years or so (Ali’s 75th birthday was due in 2018), but I was pleased that it was scheduled for the weekend of his birthday (if not a landmark birthday). The title of ‘Squaring the Circle’ got lost somewhere in the process as I was concerned that it might give the game away. Indeed, one piece of feedback received did postulate this as an alternative title to the puzzle, so perhaps it was a good thing that I eventually settled on ‘Conversion’.

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3 Responses to “Conversion by Samuel – A Setter’s Blog”

  1. erwinch said

    Thank you, that was an interesting insight into how you come up with suitable themes for puzzles – you consider everything!

    I found this one hard to get going on but then straightforward fun.  As others have said, foreman was at best a dubious profession but you might have got around it by finishing the first paragraph in the preamble with the following:

    These include two entries that are clued without definition, two professionals that were found wanting.

    Since they were both professional boxers, or does that give too much away?

  2. I thought that “profession” was justifiable, because under “foreman” Chamber gives the sense “an overseer” (in the OED this is sense 4b, “An overseer or bailiff”), which seems close enough for crossword purposes.

    It was a very enjoyable crossword: the thematic amendment of entries was inspired, and seeing the quotation appear in the grid was very helpful for solving some of the harder clues.

    The title “Squaring the Circle” has appeared thrice before (3240 and 3765 by Amicus; 3998 by Centigram). Though I guess that shouldn’t have stopped you from re-using it if appropriate: “Call My Bluff” has been used by five setters, as have “Sixes and Sevens” and “Half and Half”.

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