Listen With Others

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How hard should a Listener puzzle be?

Posted by Encota on 18 Oct 2021

I very recently put very similar thoughts in a letter to the Editors and thought it might be interesting to share them here.

“One of the really attractive qualities of The Listener to me is the unannounced variation in the level of difficulty. Keep the variety of difficulty coming!  For me, most puzzles last a few gentle hours.  And for me, a perfect ‘annual’ mix (should you be interested) would look something like:

  • 10 to 15 puzzles per year that take through to the Monday morning until I have completely solved them.  These are ones where, in the early stages at least, I am often wholly unconvinced that I’ll be able to finish successfully! Very satisfying when you do!
  • Another 10 or so where I put the finishing touches in first thing Saturday morning (either parsing that last clue or two, or finalising what the endgame is actually talking about!)
  • The majority to last me a good few hours i.e. until mid-to-late Friday (as part of the ‘starting at Friday 4pm club’!)
  • Perhaps up to five a year that are easy enough for me to solve in under 2 hours.  I can normally solve most things but I am not the speediest of solvers!
  • Under an hour for the whole thing is too easy – these are Listener crosswords, after all!

Roger & Shane, from what I have seen from your test-solving of my published puzzles, I solve at perhaps half your speed, if you wanted to try and vaguely ‘calibrate’ the above at all.  I hope this is of some use – I am sure you have some form of ‘profile’ already in operation.”

Does anyone else have a view that they’d care to share, just for fun? Re-reading the above, I think I’d already adjust the first bullet to read ‘up to 10’. 15 is a bit brave 🙂


Tim / Encota


10 Responses to “How hard should a Listener puzzle be?”

  1. shirleycurran said

    We solve as a twosome but he is the skilled solver and my role is to check, work out Listener endgames (where I tend to manage when his patience has reached its limit) and make a neat copy to send (as well as writing my Listen With Others blog) all of which we do on Friday evening IF WE CAN. We live in Europe, so start at 5 on Friday but our experience almost completely echoes the Encota/Tim one though we might triple, rather than double the time Roger and Shane take.

    Where I would differ is with the final bullet point ‘under an hour is too easy – these are after all Listeners’. We are not allowed to quote the information John Green so kindly sends us but my own experience and comments directly to me when mine have been considered ‘relatively easy’ have several times come from solvers who have made the simplest careless error (even solvers in the elite ‘all-correct’ ranks) and mindlessly dashed off what they considered ‘easy’ without carefully checking the pre-ramble. “My only error was in yours”, they tell me in January, when the statistics are sent.

    Just as in the EV and IQ series, it is evident that the Editors balance the tough and easy so that we can almost count on a doddle after a stinker but I’ll wager that the recent pair of ‘truly deadly’ and ‘gentle stroll’ will have produced about the same count of errors – not as easy as you think!

    You probably know that I compile one of the easier Tuesday Telegraph Toughies (meant to be more difficult than the ‘back-pager’) once a month or so. ‘Floughie’ say a couple of whizz solvers, but when I volunteer to tighten them up a notch, the editorial advice is “No – we want to attract more solvers and it is good to have less convoluted and more approachable crosswords now and then”. So I would happily endorse the full range of Listener puzzles, and, like Tim, maintain the unannounced levels of difficulty.

  2. Andrew MacLeod said

    Hi Tim

    It’s interesting that you refer to the unannounced variation in the level of difficulty. I have often wondered if specifying the difficulty would perhaps encourage new solvers to attempt the Listener. If there was a difficulty rating system that rated puzzles out of 10 and a puzzle had a rating of 1 or 2 then perhaps someone otherwise put off by the Listener’s reputation for being difficult (or simply put off by the preambles) might be more inclined to give it a go. The only reason I ever got into the Listener was because I used to do the 4 numericals each year but then one week, after I had become a bit better at solving regular cryptics, I saw that the Listener was “Metrical Variations” by Hedge-Sparrow – the title suggested that the theme was potentially going to be right up my street (I was correct in that thought). Perhaps I might have been more willing to try a non-numerical Listener before then if I had known that there was half a chance that I would be able to make any progress.

    I suppose for experienced solvers, even without any explicit rating being stated, the difficulty of the puzzle is given away by other things like the name of the setter, e.g. a Sabre puzzle is likely to be difficult, the length of the preamble, grid type etc.

    I agree that a variety of difficulty should be maintained, even if it means there are a few puzzles each year that are relatively straightforward to solve.

    I don’t log my solve times but I would expect that they conform to some sort of bell curve. I always feel that the mix of difficulties in a given year seems just right and I don’t think this is down to chance so like you, I suspect Shane and Roger have some sort of system in place.


    Andrew (Android)

  3. Ben Bush said

    Totally agree that unannounced difficulty is one of the joys of The Listener. I love that sometimes I can dash it off in an hour or so and sometimes I can be scratching my head for a week. I tend to send my entries in pairs, so a stinker in the second week of my arbitrary cycle can be a real challenge (I’m looking at you, Cryptic Spice).

    I think the balance is about right, and probably not so far off Encota’s bullets. The only thing I might add is that having one or two a year that are properly hard – perhaps even beyond your 10-15 Monday morning jobs – is just as welcome (for me) as a few that encourage new solvers to join the fun. Again, the fact that you don’t know what you’re going to get each week is part if the excitement.

  4. Encota said

    Ben, I read your sending entries in pairs comment with interest. I always aim to do exactly the same: perhaps an additional measure of difficulty is how many times does one have to send in just the one entry, to buy another 7 days worth of solving time for the more difficult second puzzle of the pair!? I don’t keep count but it’s probably once or twice a year in my case – usually induced by a combination of a busier-than-average weekend and a tougher-than-average puzzle.

  5. I do perceive a puzzle’s toughness in a way when I solve it, but as Andrew said above, it’s implicit in all the other elements of the puzzle: a grid which requires a high proportion of clues to be cold-solved, maybe, or an unusual clue/entry treatment. Preambles used to scare me rigid, but I actually look forward to the unintelligible ones now.

    I’m generally satisfied with any puzzle if the difficulty is consistent through all the puzzle’s stages, but I agree that too many sub-two hour puzzles might make me start looking elsewhere for my fix. We’re nowhere near that stage yet.

  6. Thanks for the post, Tim.

    Although I’m not a ‘starting Friday at 4pm’ club member, my solving experience is pretty much the same as yours in terms of time taken. For various reasons, I have found that my solving (in fact crosswording) window has become fairly narrow each day, and the difficult puzzles can therefore stretch well into the week following publication. It also explains why I don’t even attempt Magpie puzzles.

    The order you list the difficulty is, I guess, Magpie grading in reverse order E–A. It is not often that I don’t make it over the line although that has happened once this year and that was the first time in nearly ten years! It is also likely that I take at least twice the time that Roger and Shane seem to take, going by how long they took tackling my two published puzzles. It would be interesting to see their notes on Enigmatist’s Spice Girls (not the one I failed to send, but if you read my blog you’ll note that I did make a mistake). And while I am not much in favour of A graders (sorry, Shirley), I am happy to concede that they can prove a bit of a break, especially after a grade D or E. That said, I believe that the Listener has a special place in terms of difficulty but I guess that has had to adapt over the years to its position in The Times (for which we should be thankful).

    Anyone reading my LWO blogs years ago will know that I used to do a blog every week. For about ten years that included an animation alongside. Most animations are completed in 2–3 hours, but it is not uncommon for them to take a whole day. That is why I have started including them only when the theme is particularly noteworthy or, like Bond, amuses me. I have now similarly cut back on the blogging itself, especially if there is really nothing very interesting to say. That in itself is not a criticism, but my blogs try to be amusing and I don’t always have the necessary inspiration.

    Returning to Listener difficulty, much as a grading alongside publication would be fun, I know from test-solving that my assessment may be different from others, including the setter’s — sometimes easier, sometimes more tricky. I may experiment over the next few puzzles with a grading system although it may be some time before I put them in my blogs. I may also experiment with a perceived difficulty before solving based on setter and preamble, as well as actual difficulty based on clues and endgame.

    Watch this space.


  7. shirleycurran said

    We’ve been talking about this suggestion of giving a grading and realized that, although the on-line sites that talk about the puzzles are not approved of, they do exist and fairly quickly react to listeners with Mr Clever Clogs saying “Far too easy: I solved it in 20 minutes.” (suggesting an A grade) and the opener over on the other site sometimes saying “This one is tough: I haven’t solved it yet.” Like it or not, we are stuck with those sites and they get, for example, over 100 hits for the recent really tough one – clearly indicating an E grade.

  8. Alan B said

    I would prefer not to be told the grade of a puzzle, although if that information were to be given I admit I would not do anything with it – and I might even end up disagreeing with it!

    I never time myself when I tackle these puzzles: what I can say is that some puzzles make me think more and therefore take longer to complete. (I usually work on a Listener puzzle in a few or several sessions over a few days. I don’t send in my solutions or keep stats.)

    I do Listener puzzles mainly for the consistent quality of their clues but also for the variety of their thematic designs and themes. I always get a buzz from solving well-constructed clues, however gentle or tough they might be. I relish tough challenges, but if I find either the theme or the clues too demanding, or the puzzle has become a slog for any other reason, I just stop.

    Incidentally, I have tackled, completed and enjoyed three excellent numerical puzzles since March 2020 (when I came back to themed barred-grid puzzles after a very long gap).

    Returning to the point of this blog, I’ll just say that the Listener should keep on producing the same wide range of themes and difficulty levels while maintaining the same outstanding quality, but as far as I’m concerned there is no need to assign grades to them.

  9. Brock said

    I’m a slower solver than any of you that have posted so far, I think, although I tend to solve over most of the week, typically not starting until Saturday evening or Sunday. I really enjoy the mixture of subjects and difficulties that the Listener provides unannounced, and would NOT like to see them graded. Interestingly I often find some that others find easy relatively – or even very – hard, for instance if it requires a piece of general knowledge related to sport or famous people’s names. I complete just about everything that is thrown at me, but I am probably more likely to make an error in submission for the straightforward ones.

  10. Check said

    Although I appreciate the grading system found in the Magpie suggesting “one to do at the pub with a pint” vs “one to slave away at on the sofa”, I enjoy the mystery of Listener difficulties as you end up going in ‘blind’. There’s certainly some setters I’d instinctively think are going to be on the friendly side and some I instinctively block out a few hours on Sunday afternoon for, but surprises are common and it’s all part of the ‘journey’, if you will.

    I started trying thematics for the challenge but stayed for the variety, both in themes and the continuing emergence of puzzles that I either still cannot finish, or those that take me by surprise at how much of a (pleasant) slog they become. The balance of this with easier puzzles works out perfectly, as I have an ever-growing backlog of unfinished (or unstarted) puzzles that I keep around for when I have the time – and improve in my ability/knowledge!

    Regarding solving speed, I remember saying to Shane regarding harder puzzles that “I already have a full time job!”, to which he responded “so do I”. It’s good to read that many others are in the same boat with their relative time taken to crack what’s on offer :^)

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