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Listener No 4498: Name That Tune by Ace Of Hearts

Posted by Steve Tregidgo on 4 May 2018

I first encountered The Listener a couple of years ago and was very daunted. I would buy The Times in Feb/May/Aug/Nov and try the word Listeners (with rare success) when the numerics didn’t show up. This year I’ve been solving in earnest and (according to my spreadsheet, the existence of which probably tells you a lot by itself) I’ve completed 10 of the 12 I tried: one incomplete, one complete but I fell into an endgame trap so got it wrong.

I’m not the fastest or best solver, usually finishing in days rather than hours. I’m pretty good with a cryptic clue and an endgame, but barred grids lead to obscure words and I just don’t know them all. That’s usually resolved with a stab at the wordplay and a trip to the dictionary to see if the result is something sensible, but that doesn’t always work out — especially when the obscurities are in the wordplay. Inevitably there are times when I turn to a pattern-matcher (such as Chambers Word Wizard, which has more words than the main website but none of the definitions — but that’s what the book is for) to break a deadlock and give myself another crossing letter to work with elsewhere. And of course I then go back to the clue to work out the parsing in retrospect.

This was the first circular puzzle I’ve attempted to solve so I was quite excited to start with. And it was apparently about pop music, not the posher sorts of music I know nothing about, so that made me doubly keen.  And indeed the theme soon fell out after solving half the perimeter and a handful of radials: the first two radials got me “MA…” and a browse of pop sobriquets quickly led me to Johnny Cash (cheekily hinted at in the very first clue, no less) and “Ring Of Fire”. Some lucky positioning of the other radial solves gave me “Folsom Prison Blues” and “A Boy Named Sue” almost immediately.  So with the perimeter, the third ring and all of the letters latent, the radials would be a breeze, right?

Of course not. Entries in two directions, starting anywhere, missing letters… it was very tough to see the words hidden in those radials. (And it didn’t help that I confidently entered 36R, MASTFED, backwards, blocking me on the perimeter and driving me nuts looking for something like ANAEMIA but that would fit…) This post is about the techniques I used to get me through it — techniques I don’t normally resort to, but which were necessary for this difficult puzzle.

First came the trusty sheet of A4. I drew out a table with one row for every radial, containing the letters I had for each one, both forwards and backwards and (nearly) doubled in length to handle the wrapping. So for 32R (INLOCKS) I had “I_K_OLI_K_O” and “LO_K_ILO_K_”, with “N” written in a column between them. Since I didn’t have the luxury of “I_LO_K_” to stare at, I squinted a bit at the two patterns with the extra letter in mind, spotted INLOCKS and got myself a C for 33R — and so on. This worked for many, and with the radials I’d solved on the first pass I had more than half the grid filled.

This was not enough and my staring powers were waning. It was time for a more drastic step to give me a foot in the door: a computer.

The problem with using a pattern in Word Wizard is that there are 84 of them: 6 inwards plus 6 outwards, multiplied by 7 because of the missing letter. (Two or three missing letters means even more patterns.) I wanted something which could look them all up for me without me having to type something fiddly in 84 times. I found an online dictionary which supports regular expressions (basically a more sophisticated sort of pattern-matcher) and wrote a short computer program to turn the likes of “I_K_OL” + “N” into “^(ni[a-z]k[a-z]ol)|(in[a-z]k[a-z]ol)|(i[a-z]nk[a-z]ol)|(i[a-z]kn[a-z]ol)|(i[a-z]k[a-z]nol)|….” and see what matched.

That yielded a couple of successes which got me unstuck, but I needed another nudge near the end so I tried something else: instead of a regular expression, I had my program generate each pattern (“NI?K?OL”, “IN?K?OL”, and so on) and submit them one at a time to the Word Wizard, and collate the results. That unstuck me a couple more times, enough to give me crossing letters that I could use for the remainder. Brute force is not an approach I like to use often, but I’m still learning and need the help at this stage.  And I still used some problem-solving skills — just different ones than expected!

Thanks to Ace Of Hearts for a fine puzzle.


2 Responses to “Listener No 4498: Name That Tune by Ace Of Hearts”

  1. annechambers said

    If you aren’t using it already, get Anne Bradford’s Crossword Solver’s Dictionary, either on paper or Kindle (works on iPhone/iPad). I made little progress with the Listener Crossword until a friend recommended this. The Chambers Dictionary app is also much lighter than the paper version.

  2. Steve said

    Thanks for the recommendation. Funnily enough when I sent off to Mr Green for stats this year I mentioned that I aimed to improve in 2018 due to my acquisition of Chambers, and he wrote back with a recommendation for Bradford’s. The next time I was in town I found her Dictionary in a charity shop and soon got her Lists from ebay — a worthwhile fiver on the two!

    I’m very tempted by the Chambers app but at the moment am actually enjoying the heft of the book — even if it’s decidedly linear in its lookup capabilities. (Also it was a Christmas present and I’d feel guilty about supplanting it digitally so soon…)

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