Listen With Others

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Listener 4761, “Outside the Box”: A Setter’s Bog by Arcadia

Posted by Listen With Others on 21 May 2023

First, a few words about myself. I have been involved in problem solving for most of my life, in both work and leisure. I remember helping my mother tackle the Listener crossword in the 1960s but my real love was chess. One of the first match games I recorded was in a school team playing a local club’s top board, Adam Sobey, who I later found to be a regular setter of Listener crosswords.

Chess and crosswords took a back seat to work and family for many years, but retirement allowed me to return to both — particularly chess, where I had some personal and team success. Lockdown stopped all that and, not wanting to play online, I thought I’d try setting crosswords as well as solving them. My first, awful, effort,was rejected in kindly fashion by Shane, who suggested that I read Don Manley’s Chambers Crossword Manual and take advice from expert setters. A chess connection led me to Andrew Varney (Brock), then to his Avian co-setter Rob Pinnock (Hedge-sparrow), and subsequently to Stu Thomas (Cagey) and Ed Hall (‘Eck). I am most grateful to all four for their constructive criticism and suggestions.

The idea for Outside the Box came from an email exchange with Rob in which I mentioned a favourite story from the 1970s, about the professor who gave his students the classic Thinking Outside the Box problem to test their solving skills. The problem seems to have been first published  by Sam Loyd in 1914 under a different title, but it has been a management consultants’ cliche since the 1960s. For those who aren’t familiar with the puzzle, try googling the phrase. When the students came  back with a variety of imaginative solutions, the professor realised that he had been thinking inside a box of his own making. This led James L Adams of Stanford University, into a study of innovative  thinking, expanded into a book Conceptual Blockbusting which has been through many editions.

 Professor Adams died in January last year, so this puzzle is my memorial to him. In constructing the grid, I decided first to include the standard solution and my favourite alternative — the paintbrush. Of the students’ other solutions, one with three lines in a zigzag (relying on the dots having some size) could be accommodated , as could one requiring a single line to continue under the table — tweaking the original idea of continuing it around the world. I then mapped out where these solutions might fit in the grid. Being a novice at grid construction, I decided to start with one which met Ximenean requirements and then use Quinapalus to help me fill it. The “typical Azed grid” on Page 127 of the Crossword Manual fitted the bill, with a nice space in the SW corner for the standard solution. I then made a succession of tweaks — over a hundred in all — before arriving at something which best fitted the requirements. I was unable however, despite many tries, to avoid a couple of reversals after application of the paintbrush.

The two main issues for my test-solvers were whether the puzzle was soluble without any numbering — it was — and whether my clues were sound — not all of them! After further editing it was in a fit state for submission, with a preamble which started “We had finished our morning chores, me doing the crossword and my wife painting the front door….” and finished with “‘, go back to your painting’, I muttered. ‘And you get back in your box’, said my wife”. Happily, the editors seemed to like the idea and the humour, but they cleverly cut down the length of both preamble and clues. And my long-suffering wife has been happy to tell all her friends that she’s mentioned in Saturday’s Times!

My thanks to all the solvers who managed to unravel the tortuous preamble and for your generous comments on the presentation of the idea, the clues and my attempt to inject humour into what is clearly for many a very serious exercise.

Finally, an apology to oenophiles about the misleading surface reading of the final clue. Proper Burgundians would never describe the Loire’s Vouvray as “true white wine”.


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