The idea of a puzzle based on noughts-and-crosses came to me over ten years ago: I can’t be sure when. My first idea was that the grid would be 13 × 13 (that never changed) divided into 12 ‘games’, the symmetrically placed central lines spelling out a message and/or instruction. But what? I’d known the alternate US name ‘tic-tac-toe’ as it can be spelt; when I checked in Chambers and saw that the ‘e’ could be dropped, I had one of the lines: TIC-TAC-TO GAMES. At this stage I had decided that, to get the Oes and Xes there would have to be an alphanumerical substitution that would yield only 0 and 1, and that the preamble would have to include an instruction such as ‘multiply by ten, and make a further substitution’ to get the Xes from the 10s. But I lacked a 13-letter line to cross the one I had, one which crossed in the middle at T. Driving up to Sydney’s northern beaches — like many who read this, I suspect, I do a lot of thinking about crosswords while driving — I realized that MULTIPLY BY TEN had 13 letters, though its middle letter was not T. The fourth, however, would do the trick, though mildly upsetting the symmetry.
When I set to work in earnest I had my 13 × 13 grid with the fourth rank and the seventh file, and nothing else. How to fill it? I have had four test-solvers over the years, at least two of whom have asked why did I not make the substitution A = 0, B = 1, C = 0, D = 1, etc or similar, which would have placed no constraint on choice of letters; why the more elaborate mapping? I felt from the outset that that would draw solvers’ attention to the fact that the game involved was a binary one, and I wanted to avoid that. So I next considered A= 0, B = 1, C = 2, D = 0, etc, or some variant of it; there was no way of allotting numerical equivalents cyclically in groups of three without at least one vowel’s having the value 2, so eliminating it/them. I felt not to have a full palette of vowels, including Y, at my disposal would be too much of a constraint. After a bit of experimenting I settled on A = 1, B = 2, C = 1, D = 0, E = 1, etc, so eliminating from the fill B, F, J, N, R, V, and Z. I knew that N and R would be missed, but was not too unhappy about the others.
My idea for the original was that solvers would have to highlight the winning play in whichever games had one; the preamble stated ‘highlight the winning play or plays’. As most ‘games’ would not conform to an actual game of tic-tac-to (I rejected the idea of arranging words so that all games were theoretically feasible), for the good reason that each would have nine plays, that meant that I needed to allow for one unfinished game. I decided to place this critical game in the SE corner, leaving two cells empty. So I looked for a word for the bottom rank that had to have the last three letters yield numbers consistent with a tic-tac-to game. I used some program or application — I can’t remember what — to find a word whose middle letter of 13 was N. From the list I eliminated any with the outlawed letters, and found CHALCANTHITES, quite wonderfully containing ‘Chal can’t hit’: a sentence, rare enough, with clueing possibilities. I looked no further.
It must have been at about this stage that I decided that the method of entry would be different. I wanted to clue both description and instruction completely — ie without unches; the former could be partitioned into TIC-TAC, TOGA, and MES (should I use a French word? or did ME allow of a plural?) and the latter to MULTI-, PLY, BY, and TEN; or the last five letters as BYTE and N. I was not happy about MES or clueing either a one- or a two-letter entry. Dimitry — rather, one of his puzzles — gave me an idea.
During Easter 2007, I was holed up on a farm in Victoria with Dimitry’s Listener #3922 (thanks to Stephen Rice for identifying this). I do not now recall how it happened, or even what the solver had to do, but it must have been a carte blanche, because for some time I began entries in the wrong cells, not leaving sufficient space for the entries, and so had to spill over to the next line; eventually the penny dropped and I was able to complete as intended. But I remember thinking that it could be a useful way of constructing a puzzle. So this would be the puzzle in which I could use it: MES could become MESENTERY, say, or just MESA; there was no limit to the possibilities for N. I considered other break-downs: (FRAN)TIC, TACT, OGAM, ES(SE), say; (TU)MULT, I, PLY, BYTE, N( ) would have a one-letter entry again. I decided to stick with one of the original partitionings. The fill proceeded slowly, as I would at times carelessly include a forbidden letter, usually an N or an R. I should have liked the entries to have been consecutive without any intruding unches, or at least to begin so. My first grid had the first five ‘Across’, but only the first two ‘Down’, entries consecutive; in the one eventually published, three and four respectively (but would have been six had OPSIMATHIC been allowed). Given the method of entry, perhaps it is possible to construct such an unchless grid, but the constraint upon choice of letters increased the difficulty, and the task proved beyond me.
The puzzle sent to the first test-solvers, Dysart and Radix, was harder in that the clues were given without identifying in which rank or file each began. In addition, the preamble did not mention that there were two (at that time) empty cells; instead it stated that ‘127 cells are checked’, which enabled the arithmetically minded solver to deduce that two were empty. The vetters thought that it would be fairer to state that outright. The grid at the time had an unfortunate flaw: both I and A of TIC-TAC were, unintentionally, unches; this meant that, as the clue then stood, the entry could possibly be entered as TACTIC, which rendered the puzzle virtually unsolvable. Solvers were originally required to enter 48 (later, 96) bars; Radix’s much more precise suggestion, which I incorporated, was ’32 boundaries of three bars each — 16 across, 16 down — to create a number of regions’. He also prophetically queried the plural CHALCANTHITES, and suggested a change of title, from ‘The Winning Play/s’ to the present one. I’m not sure why many solvers dislike entering bars — in a grid, that is! — but I accept it, and so that requirement was removed.
I cannot be sure, but I think I submitted the puzzle for vetting in mid-2007; it entered the logjam that Roger and Shane inherited. In the meantime, another Listener puzzle which involved noughts-and-crosses appeared, in 2010 I think, and I feared that that would do for mine. When last year I received a vetter’s report, one of the comments was that the clues to each first entry — to CUISSE-MADAME, ‘Sadaam Hussein and mice chewed this nashi? Yes and no: wrong variety (12)’, and to CASTAWAY, ‘He may find company absent (8)’ — were too hard to make a start in what the other neatly called ‘a demi carte blanche’ (or was it ‘a demi-blanche carte’?). ‘Saddam’ is, of course, the accepted spelling, but I found surprisingly many ‘Sadaam’s on the internet, possible misspellings.
The unching was quite deliberately unXimenean: I felt that the difficulty in placing the entries called for greater checking than usual, though there are probably too many fully checked entries. After I had received the first report I noticed that, of the ten cells in a 2 × 5 block in the NE corner, six contained unches; that seemed unfair in a puzzle with unusual entry method, so I set about loosening it (there are now only two). The puzzle subsequently had another two testers; I think only two of the four mentioned the constraint on letter choice — the lipogrammatic aspect of most of the grid. I shall be interested to see whether many solvers comment on that.
I have received a number of complimentary comments on the clue to LOLIGO. My original was ‘Behold, progressing from head, ‘limbs’ eight (eight? two others) here (6)’. I hope the chief vetter, Roger Phillips, will not mind my revealing that his comment was ‘The things from which letters are to be progressively taken must be words: expecting the solver to take “two others” as a unit is unfair’, and tweaked the clue to the far superior published version: brilliant!