Crossword Blog: The Confusing Life of AJ Jacobs | Crossword

A new book and a hunt in progress

AJ Jacobs hails from the “my journey” school of non-fiction and takes a magpie approach through around 20 varieties of puzzles, sharing tidbits and examples. So the reader who has recently fallen down the extreme sudoku rabbit hole might want to start with the chapter describing treasure hunts; the word game lover might enjoy contemplating the crucial difference between a maze and a maze.

Search for books by AJ Jacobs in the Guardian Bookstore

The climax is titled “Chess Puzzles (Chess Problems)” and the pacing slows appropriately. Jacobs offers his chess set to former world champion Garry Kasparov, who describes himself as “the first knowledge worker whose job was threatened by machines”. The author and grandmaster enjoy contemplating why and how people like to answer riddles, clues, and codes. When Kasparov solves a problem (or riddle) that involves sacrificing a queen and notices that a machine player doesn’t have the concept of sacrifice, there is an exchange that I found very encouraging:

Should we then try to eliminate our irrational psychological barriers when solving problems?
“You can’t do that,” Garry said, “because then we’ll lose our humanity.” This would, he says, have catastrophic effects in other areas of life.

Like, I suspect, many of us, Jacobs places the crossword puzzle at the center of the puzzle. We start with his excitement at having been an answer in the New York Times riddle, and the fun and poignant difference it makes when you wonder if you’re fodder for a Tuesday or for a Saturday.

We have already talked here about a strange decision made by Stephen Sondheim. Wishing to convert American solvers to the delights of British-style puzzles, he compiled some himself – but in the form of our newspaper’s weekend puzzles, without black squares and demanding, tearful endgames; i.e. the most difficult crosswords ever. Similarly, Jacobs centers his puzzles chapter around an evil Spectator puzzle from Pabulum, which means we get a little glimpse of the Spectator editor which locally defines itself as Maskarade. Beginners are, as always, redirected to start with the Guardian’s quiptic, the Observer’s Everyman, or the Times’ quick cryptic.

One aspect of The Puzzler is time-sensitive: the intro (available here) contains a coded message, which unlocks a series of bespoke puzzles for which US readers can receive a cash prize but which UK solvers could enjoy for the urgent and varied challenge.

Our next book

Harry Palmer solves a crossword
Harry Palmer solves a mysterious clue. Photography: ITV

Len Deighton’s spy Harry Palmer is bent on solving the strange clue, so many of us watched ITV’s The Ipcress File revival, hoping for Morse-like crossword appearances in the plot .

So far we haven’t received much. Harry solves a clue on a bed in episode 2:

“The monastic order enjoys breakfast.”
Eggs Benedict.
I’m starving.

As we have already discussed here, fictional crosswords are likely to include clues that are almost but not quite cryptic.

horse under water
Horse Underwater in the Guardian Bookstore.

Given the care ITV has put into this series (catch-up viewers will miss the old-school TV period continuity announcements), we can expect more, ideally starting with the next Harry Palmer story. Horse Under Water is the only one that hasn’t been adapted for the screen, and the chapter titles look like crossword puzzles.

Let’s open the comments and meet up in four weeks? We could start with whether we prefer the name of the main character in the adaptations (Harry Palmer) or in the books (where he has none).

Old books of the book group

Find a collection of explanations, interviews and other useful material at

Alan Connor’s partly but not primarily cryptic shipping forecast puzzle book can be ordered from the Guardian Bookstore

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