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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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