Puzzles for practice
There is no shortage of cryptic crosswords available to practice on. The most important consideration is to find puzzles that are at the right level of difficulty for you. You will need to have access to the solutions, and ideally access to explanations of the clue wordplay.
This article will help you find puzzles to practice on that are suitable for you. It covers the following aspects:
- level of difficulty — finding puzzles that are the right level of difficulty for you
- practical considerations — publication formats, the need for a plentiful supply of puzzles and the possible costs involved
- crosswords online — the issues involved with solving on screen
- a selection of puzzles — a choice of puzzles at each level of difficulty.
Cryptic puzzles differ in their level of difficulty
Published cryptic crosswords follow a common set of principles that govern how clues are constructed. The main difference between them is how difficult the clues are to solve.
Puzzles appearing regularly in a particular publication will be broadly consistent in their level of difficulty. Assessing the level of difficulty of puzzles is not an exact science, but they can be classified into four categories of increasing difficulty — easier, intermediate, challenging and advanced.
The first three categories align with a simple segmentation of the UK national press:
|Puzzle difficulty||Press segmentation||Newspaper titles|
|easier||'Mass-Market'||The Sun, The Mirror|
|intermediate||'Mid-Market'||Daily Mail, Daily Express|
|challenging||'Quality Press'||The Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian, The Independent|
For example, The Sun's cryptic crossword is typically easier than the Daily Mail's, which is in turn easier than the Daily Telegraph's.
The factors that determine clue difficulty are explained in detail in Learn How to Solve Cryptic Crosswords.
Gauging the right level of difficulty
In order to improve your solving skills, you need to be tackling puzzles that are at the right level of difficulty for you. Too easy and you won't be stretched — too hard and your progress will be slow.
Here is a scheme to gauge whether a puzzle offers an appropriate level of challenge for you:
- too easy: If you have solved all or nearly all the clues within 10 minutes, then it's not sufficiently challenging.
- too hard: If after 20 minutes you have solved no more than one or two clues, then it's a 'bridge too far' and one to return to later on in your development.
- about right: If after 20 minutes you have solved at least half a dozen of the 30 or so clues in a typical puzzle, then you have found a suitable puzzle to work on. You have the capability to solve clues at this level of difficulty, and it's going to stretch you. With practice and access to supporting resources, your performance will improve.
Finding a puzzle that's right for you
If you are a beginner, then start with an easy puzzle. If this is too easy, then move on to progressively harder puzzles until you find one that is giving you the right level of challenge.
There is no shame in starting at the beginning — like any skill, solving improves with practice and application.
Be realistic about your progress
The learning curve for a cognitive skill like solving cryptic puzzles is rarely smooth. Typically, periods where there is little evidence of progress can be followed by abrupt step-changes in performance.
There is a lot of specialist knowledge that solvers gradually accrue through experience. Here are some examples:
- that the word 'worker' in a clue may require ANT in the solution
- that 'see' can be a noun meaning 'bishopric' and so may require ELY in the solution
- that an archaic meaning of 'without' is 'on the outside', and so 'without' can serve as a sandwich indicator.
Learn How to Solve Cryptic Crosswords includes exercises and reference tools designed to fast-track familiarity with the more common examples of this specialist cryptic crossword knowledge.
Moving on up
If you find that your regular puzzle has become largely a task of filling in the answers, with very little head scratching in between, then is time to move up a level to something more challenging.
This can be a big jump, so be prepared for what may feel like a step backwards as you find your feet at the next level.
To start with, stick to the same puzzle — the publication's editorial policy will ensure a degree of consistency which you will find helpful. Once you are getting the measure of clues at this level, then shop around, because the exposure to different cluing styles and approaches will broaden your skills.
Aside from the level of difficulty, there are a number of practical considerations to consider when choosing puzzles to practice and develop your skills:
Crosswords are published in printed media, online and as apps for mobile IT devices.
Many newspapers and magazines regularly feature a cryptic puzzle, and collections of these may be available in book form. Most of the national UK newspapers also make their puzzles available online, for which there may be a subscription charge.
Some people prefer solving on paper, for which a pencil is preferable so that you can correct mistakes. Solving online offers extra features but also brings some additional considerations, and these are covered in the next section — Crosswords online.
Number of puzzles available
You will need to have access to a plentiful supply of puzzles to practice on. Newspaper puzzles are typically pubished on a daily or weekly basis. The number of puzzles available from an online source can vary greatly.
In general, solving cryptic crosswords is a low cost pastime — it doesn't require any special facilities and getting access to crosswords need not be expensive.
If you start buying a daily newspaper purely for the crossword puzzle, then work out what this will cost over the course of a year. If the same puzzle is available as a collection in book form or online, then these are likely to be cheaper options.
Cryptic crosswords available online can be solved on personal IT devices such as laptops, tablet computers and smartphones. The software applications required to do this are typically provided by the crossword publisher at their site. Some applications run over the internet and some require you to download and install the application first. You may have to put up with adverts if the puzzles are made available for free.
Availability for different platforms
A personal IT device may not support the capability to solve on screen all the crosswords that are published online, so you will need to check what is possible on yours. Owing to the pace of consumer IT product development, the use and availability of crosswords on personal IT devices is likely to be a rapidly changing landscape.
Special features of solving 'on screen'
Because of the interactive capability of IT, applications for solving puzzles on screen offer features that add to the solving experience. Some of these features can't be replicated when solving on paper.
Typical features include:
- check — whether an answer you have entered is correct
- reveal — 'cheat' facilities to reveal individual letters or the whole word
- solution — reveal the completed grid with all the answers filled in
- timing and other data capture to record and display your progress.
Before you start solving a puzzle on screen, find out if there is a facility to save your answers as you go along.
The experience of solving 'on screen'
Your experience of solving on screen will depend on the software application, the size and resolution of the screen on your IT device, and the ease of entering letters into the grid.
I find that being able to see the whole grid and all the clues on screen simultaneously makes for the best solving experience. Some applications and IT devices require you to scroll up and down to access clues and sections of the grid.
Some publishers of online puzzles provide a print facility so you can solve on paper, and you may prefer to do this.
The final part of this article presents a selection of published puzzles at increasing levels of difficulty. Internet links are provided for puzzles available online, and summary information about each puzzle is presented using the following key:
|P||available in a printed newspaper|
|B||Book||collections available in book form|
|A||App||collections available as an app|
|OF||Online, Free||available online, free of charge|
|OC||Online, Charge||available online for a subscription charge|
|1 The Sun||Two-speed||D||P||-||B|
|Best for Puzzles||Easy Cryptic||D||-||OF||-|
|2 Teazel||Best Cryptic||-||-||-||A|
1 The Sun crossword has two sets of clues — quick and cryptic — leading to the same answers. This provides some extra assistance when learning how to solve the cryptic clues.
2 Sample puzzles available for free.
Most regional and local newspapers also publish cryptic crosswords, and these are typically at an intermediate level of difficulty.
There is a big jump in difficulty from intermediate level puzzles to the challenging puzzles in the UK 'Quality Press'. However, there are some puzzles which can serve as stepping stones to bridge the gap:
|4 Times||Quick Cryptic||D||P||OC||-|
Prize puzzles in the UK 'Quality Press' and those appearing in the weekend editions are typically a little easier than their standard daily puzzles.
4 You need to subscribe to the Tlmes online to have online access to the Times crosswords puzzles
The standard Daily Telegraph crossword is typically easier than the other puzzles in this category
alberichcrosswords.com is a site that features puzzles from aspiring setters, and offers exposure to challenging puzzles with a wide range of cluing styles. Alberich is the nom de plume of Neil Shepherd, who sets for the Independent and Financial Times.
4 You need to subscribe to the Tlmes online to have online access to the Times crosswords puzzles
These are specialist puzzles for experienced solvers, and typically harder than the standard puzzles in the 'Challenging' category.
Advanced puzzles tend to use barred grids consisting of white squares only, as opposed to the black and white 'blocked' grids of the standard puzzles. They are often thematic and may incorporate another layer of encryption with additional instructions.
There are also two clubs which provide advanced puzzles to their subscribers: