Crossword Plagiarism

I’m terrible at word puzzles, so I don’t spend much time with them: solving, creating, or following. But crossword puzzles are so ubiquitous that I can’t help being interested (Wordplay was a fascinating documentary). In characteristic fashion, FiveThirtyEight adeptly reports an emerging plagiarism scandal in the crossword puzzle community. Traditional puzzle “news” is rare, so this is big.

Update: Timothy Parker, the crossword puzzles editor, has stepped aside while USA Today and Universal Uclick investigate the claims detailed by FiveThirtyEight.


I recently went through a pile of newspapers that had accumulated over the past few months, only to discover this:

Compare the given numbers around the edges…


Generate puzzle, publish, then rotate 90° and reprint a few weeks later. I never would have thought of that! It’s a real time saver. I guess I’ve been doing this whole puzzlemaking thing wrong all these years.

I haven’t been able to find any indication of how popular Numbrix puzzles have been since their 2008 debut, but seeing as they have stuck around in vos Savant’s “Ask Marilyn” column and are now available as a daily online version, they must attract at least some measurable level of reader, uh, solvership.1

Numbrix puzzles are an easier variant of Hidato, which allow diagonal connections and do not restrict the grid boundary and number chain length to be, well, anything in particular. Like Sudoku and many other types of number-based puzzles, Numbrix can be generated and solved via computer algorithm, although vos Savant claims she generates every puzzle by hand:

According to vos Savant, she created Numbrix partly for her readers and partly for herself. “I developed the puzzle to offer readers an enjoyable diversion that would exercise their fluid intelligence (meaning: logic plus memory) at the same time,” she says. “But the real fun for me was constructing every puzzle by hand — no real Numbrix puzzles are generated by a computer — and proofing it the same way to create puzzles that had unique solutions.”

– Chris Warren “How to Play Numbrix” 21 July 2011.

That only makes the above revelation all the more conspicuous. But the blame may not rest solely on vos Savant, since Parade now lists Jeff Marchant as a contributor of Jadium puzzles, which claim to be harder than the similar Numbrix because they contain fewer givens. However, after researching all of these different types of number chain puzzles, it is still unclear to me what exactly the difference is between Numbrix and Jadium puzzles (both can contain 16 givens), what the division of authorship is between vos Savant and Marchant, or if the puzzles are still being generated by hand.

I’m not trying to disparage comptuer-generated puzzles in general, or vos Savant’s Numbrix in particular, since I use a lot of computerized tools while creating my own puzzles, although much of the heavy lifting in creating Knossos Games is still done on paper. Why should a computer have all the fun? Because of their hand-crafted nature, I don’t publish puzzles with great frequency. But that also means the expectations I have on my own puzzles are very high. While those aren’t always met, I’d be absolutely mortified by the above mistake.