Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Game of Clue

If you don’t do word puzzles on a regular basis, you probably don’t appreciate what a skill cluing is, and you may not realize that Mike Shenk is currently the best cluer in the business. Shenk edits the word puzzles in the Wall Street Journal, and constructs several of the puzzles as well, including the Acrostic, as appeared today. I’ve always enjoyed acrostic puzzles, but Shenk’s acrostics leave my jaw dropped in wonder at the brilliance of his cluing.

A good acrostic clue is like a good trivia question: The answer should not be well-known or obvious, but you should be able to suss it out, or at least home in on a possible answer. That’s the way Shenk’s clues are, and they often have the added benefit of teaching you something about the answer. (You can find and solve the puzzle for yourself here; there are no out-and-out spoilers in this post, although there are several hints. If you've never done an acrostic because you find them too daunting, this post might help you get started.)

Let’s look at some of the clues Shenk used in today’s puzzle:

• The first one I got was “U. Popular name for the Queen’s Yeomen Warders.” Ten letters. I’d never heard the term "Yeomen Warders" before, but that didn’t deter me. In fact, this was the first answer I filled in. What group does the Queen have, known by a nickname, who do something that could be construed as yeomen warding? C’mon, this isn’t hard.

• "Q. 1955 courtroom drama with a title taken from Proverbs 11:29 (3 wds.)” This shows how the seeming minutia around the meat of a clue are often the key signal to what the answer is. If it had said, “Drama with a title taken from Proverbs 11:29,” I would have had no idea. I’d have had to crack open the Bible. But a courtroom drama from the 1950s with a three-word biblical-sounding title? Once I assumed it wasn’t “Twelve Angry Man,” it was a snap.

• “T. Her first novel was 1920’s ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles.'” Again, if the clue had been “Author of ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles,'” I would have been utterly lost. But we know it’s a woman, who started her writing career in the 1920s, and wrote more than one novel, at least one of which dealt with mystery. The title of that first novel, which appears on first glance to be the crux of the clue, is almost irrelevant. Another gimme.

• “L. Prime minister whose education secretary was Margaret Thatcher.” “British prime minister from 19whatever to 19whatever” would have been perfectly acceptable, but look how much more this clue does for us. We now know that it’s a prime minister prior to Mrs. Thatcher – probably not immediately prior, since it presumably takes a while to rise from education secretary to the Big Cheddar, but no more than a decade or two prior, either. Plus we learn that Mrs. Thatcher was someone’s education secretary, which I didn’t know. (Note too that Shenk never has to use the word “British.”)

• “J. Networking service launched July 15, 2006.” “Networking service” is pretty nebulous, but the key here is that it’s some kind of connecting thing that has been operational for less than six years, but in that time has grown famous enough to be used as the answer in a Wall Street Journal acrostic. In retrospect, I should have gotten this a lot quicker than I did. When you know the answer, you can see that Shenk could have gone a hundred different ways with this one, but I can't say that any other way would have been better.

There’s lots more, 23 clues and answers in all. A crossword puzzle can’t have this kind of involved cluing, since there are three or four times as many clues. Only an acrostic or other kind of puzzle with fewer, longer answers calls for cluing this elegant and indirect, and Mike Shenk shows, time after time, that he’s up to the challenge. Well done, Mr. Shenk.


  1. As I know you are aware, Patrick Berry's clues are also a work of art. I have learned to never look at the answers to his Rows Garden puzzles. Given enough time, I'm sure I'll figure out even his most obscure clues. Sometimes it takes months.

  2. At first, I intended to make this post about both Mike Shenk and Patrick Berry, but then I thought I had enough to say just about Shenk. I don't think Berry's clues are quite up to the level of Shenk's, but then again, Patrick Berry is probably the greatest word-puzzle constructor who ever lived, so there's that.

    I recently finished (well, about 96 percent of it) Berry's book Puzzle Masterpieces, which I highly recommend. I'd link to it, but I don't know how to do HTML in comments. It's not hard to find on the Amazon site.

  3. You know, I've always avoided acrostics because of the tedium of copying letters between the clues and the grid. But solving this one online was a real pleasure. You don't hear applause when you complete an acrostic with a pencil! I'll have to do more of them.