In the world of obsessive, pedantic, dorkery – a realm in which an argument over whether the word “utilise” has a legitimate place in language is an acceptable way to pass the time whilst waiting for the bus – there is perhaps no greater trump card than the pulling out of a completed copy of The Times cryptic crossword, neatly folded four ways, its little boxes all filled in using (in an ideal world) green ink. The meaning of this gesture is clear to those who care. “I AM AN INTELLECTUAL!” it screams. “BACK OFF! I CAN DO ANAGRAMS IN MY HEAD. AND I FIND PUNS AMUSING.”
This post is meant for the few, who have a raging desire to become sages amongst the bimbos – to master the puzzle of champions, and indeed, the champion among puzzles.
Here are ten rules to help you on your way to greatness:
1) There are always two ways to solve a clue. The premise of a cryptic clue is that it allows you to reach the same answer by two different routes; that’s the perfect symmetry of the thing. If you can’t get to the answer one way, you have another path open to you. Here’s a simple example: Particular flavouring given a Spanish wine (9)
The meaning of the answer to a Times clue is always given in the first or the last couple of words. So, in this case, the answer is going to be either a particular flavouring or the name of a Spanish wine. Or just a wine. If you don’t know any names of wines then you’d be stuck if you were in an ordinary crossword. But not here. The answer is Tarragona. “Tarragon” is the flavouring and given an “a” that makes Tarragona, which you would then discover is a wine-making region in north-eastern Spain.
2) There are no wasted words. The advantage of being on the Times crossword here is that there are no wasted words to worry about. Another, less worthy, crossword might have said A particular flavouring is given a Spanish wine (9). Then we’d be all at sea with an extra “a” and “is” to account for. Remember, if a word in the clue cannot be built into the answer, then the answer is wrong. Once you’ve learned the rules of the Times cryptic, much of the mystery is stripped away and you’ll realise it’s really quite a methodical process.
3. The anagram: In an anagram clue there is always a word signalling that you should “mix it up”. These signals tend to be words like: “about”, “shift”, “revised”, “exploding”, “crazy”, “disordered”. Look out for these and then work out what needs to be anagrammed. The rest of the clue is the answer. For example: Slab transported in e.g. post van (6-5). Here, “transported” is the word telling you to mix it up. And the answer is 11 letters long, so we know that “in e.g. post van” are the letters that need rearranging and that “slab” is the answer to the clue: Paving Stone.
4. The combo: These are very common; part anagram, part word substitution. This is one of my favourite examples: Poor Jack glum about serious disease (4,3)
So, we know the answer either means “poor” or “serious disease” or “disease”. The word “poor” suggests an anagram. But “Jack” and “glum” together are too many letters and that leaves the “about” hanging. BUT if you anagram Jack and find a word meaning “glum” to go “about” it (sad, blue, low), you end up with Lock Jaw, which I once had, and can assure you is a very serious disease.
5. The written-in: There’s always one clue in the puzzle in which the answer is literally written into the clue- usually spanning two or three words. Here’s a goody: Local cut taxes, partly, in Asian city (8) The Asian city is Calcutta and if you look closely at lo(cal-cut-ta)xes, you’ll se it. Again, note that there are NO extra words, “partly in” tells us the clue is partly in the other words.
6. The “funny” pun. My least favourite type of clue, but a hugely important one as it ups the nerd factor of the puzzle by about 45 percent. “Funny” pun clues are denoted by exclamation marks or question marks. (Usually you should ignore all punctuation in Times clues. It is only there to deceive and confuse you.) This example has both exclamation and question marks, just to give you a hint of how comedic it is likely to be. Look for foamy water, as you might say? It’ll come with this! (8) The answer is Seaquake. Oh HA! Ha ha ha! It’s a wonderful pun you see? Look for foamy water? Seek wake? Seaquake? Wonderful.
7. The “sounds-like.” These are clues in which there is a signal word telling you that the clue sounds like the answer. Signal words are often to do with hearing, like ear, heard, listen etc. E.g. Was aware of broadcast novel (3) Here the signal word is “broadcast”. The answer is New because it sounds like “was aware of” (knew) and means “novel”.
8. The acronym: This is when you take letters from each word of the clue to make the answer. Often signalled by words like “initially” or “firstly”.
9. The take-away: Simple but effective. You work out the clue, take a letter or two away and end up with the answer. I.e. Treacherous person losing wife’s support (5) Here you are looking for a word for a treacherous person with a “w” in it, because you are a seasoned crossword-completer and you know that “losing wife” tells you to remove a “w”. So “snake” won’t do, but “weasel” will. Take away “w” and you have “easel” – the support.
10. The visual gag: This is the most rare but the best of all crossword clues. Unlike the “funny” puns this is pure comedy gold. Real ROFL stuff. Like the “sounds-like” you need a signal word, in this case: sees, spies, looks etc. Take this gem: Islander witnesses gay kiss (7). Now you probably wouldn’t know that a Manxman is a male native of the Isle of Man in the Irish sea. But a gay kiss being a kiss between two men (or women but the Times is old skool in this respect) would give you the all-important MAN X MAN. A hop skip and a jump to Wikipedia for confirmation and there you are, completed Times crossword in your hand, self-satisfied smirk on your face, and the envy (or object of ridicule) of all your peers.