Jack is a name that appears in Genius, the monthly advanced puzzler. Jack is also known as Jason Crampton, also known as Skipjack but mostly as Serpent – in The Independent, The Inquisitor, Enigmatic Variations and The Listener. Oh, and also in the subscription magazine The Magpie, where he is on the editorial team. Let’s get to know Snake. Or Jack.
hello jack Has the pandemic sparked additional interest in Magpie Magazine, or in harder puzzles in general?
Absolutely! The number of Magpie subscribers has increased over the past year, as has the number of solutions we receive each month. Subscribers to the YouTube channel Cracking the Cryptic – run by Mark Goodliffe and Simon Anthony, co-founders of The Magpie – have grown tremendously.
Good to hear. Do you have a favorite puzzle?
Of my blocked riddles, perhaps my favorite riddle is the one I wrote after my dog Bo died: each cross entry contained his name, and the unchecked cells in the middle row spelled out goodbye.
Here’s an overview of it (and a link that might work on some devices). When did you get the crossword bug?
I started doing cryptic crosswords at university. I got the attitude bug while attending one of Boatman’s master classes.
Like others we spoke to here. And how did you choose your pseudonyms?
Serpent is a cryptographic algorithm, so it was associated with my day-to-day work as an information security professor.
I had planned to choose other cryptographic algorithms if I needed more aliases, but then decided that serpent-related words would be better, hence basilisk. Skipjack is another cryptographic algorithm, but everyone thought it was a reference to tuna! And Jack is a contraction of Skipjack.
professor, right? Any other setters you know in the same season?
At least a few: Monk is Professor of Mathematics at Leeds University and Saber – setter of brilliant, devilish grid puzzles – is also Professor of Mathematics at Arizona State University.
Ah, saber. my old enemy What makes a successful tip? Or an unsuccessful one?
I think successful clues contain at least one of the following: humor, misdirection, skewed definitions, and inventive wordplay. An unsuccessful hint contains inaccurate cryptic grammar or definitions.
A weak clue uses pedestrian definitions and a list of pun instructions to simply follow.
We’ve discussed here before that the crossword puzzle business can involve as much math as it does literacy. What’s the overlap between your old job and the puzzles?
Pun can be viewed as an expression in a formal language in which pun elements represent variables and pun indicators represent operators for those variables. I find it very helpful to think of clues this way when analyzing whether a clue’s cryptic grammar is correct.
Creating a crossword is a bit like creating an exam: there’s no point in making it too hard or too easy, so there must be a few entry points.
Also, the process of preparing puzzles for publication, especially when attempting to publish them first, has similarities to preparing academic papers for submission. There are many reasons a paper or crossword can be rejected, so it’s important to find fault with an editor as little as possible.
Pretty much. Now it’s unusual that you use the same name in your weekday puzzles as you use in your tricky weekend puzzles. How do you change the difficulty level?
Many grid puzzles contain fairly obscure words, which limits the possibilities for obscuring the definition.
Clues for these words often end up as a list of instructions for constructing the answer, attached to a simple definition. I think I’m unusual in avoiding obscure vocabulary in my blocking puzzles: I try to fill my grids with a fairly limited dictionary.
This means I can write clues similar to what I write in blocked puzzles. The disguise in the interfaces – plus any thematic clue gimmicks – is enough to make the clues difficult enough.
What are the tools of your craft?
Qxw for lattice construction. Crossword compiler for assembling puzzles in an editor-acceptable format. The Chambers dictionary and thesaurus apps for my phone/tablet.
Qat for pattern matching and searching, which is absolutely essential for constructing blocking puzzles. Qxw and Qat are both available on the Quinapalus website. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and Wikipedia for finding locked puzzles.
Qat is remarkable. What kind of people do you think are attracted to difficult puzzles?
I think there are people who love crosswords but after years of practice find the daily cryptics too easy; They enjoy the added challenge of solving puzzles with revealing gimmicks.
Others are not so interested in everyday cryptics but love difficult logic puzzles. The endgames of the locked theme puzzles are of particular interest to them.
I’m in the former camp, so my grid puzzles have fairly difficult clues but relatively easy endgames. Other setters write clues that are comparatively straightforward, but the endgames are extremely complicated and things of real beauty.
How do people react when you tell them you’re a crossword puzzler?
Pretty much like when I said I was a professor in a math department! “You must be really smart” or “I could never do math/crossword puzzles”.
But they are also fascinated by it and very interested in how I stage them. I’m trying to convince those who don’t do crossword puzzles to give it a try. I tell them all they need is a reasonable vocabulary, some patience and an interest in using language in imaginative ways.
What is the future for cryptic crosswords?
It’s really hard to say. I think there will always be a niche market for difficult grid puzzles. They will survive in trade magazines like the Magpie even if they disappear from the newspapers.
There are some brilliant young typesetters of such puzzles and new ones keep emerging. However, crosswords are relatively expensive to produce compared to puzzles like Sudoku and Kakuro, so I could see that daily crypto is seen as a luxury that newspapers can no longer afford in the face of declining advertising revenues. I hope I’m wrong!
However, specialized online crossword sites may emerge that charge subscribers for daily puzzles. I hope there are enough people willing to pay for jigsaw puzzles of the quality found in the Guardian and other broadsheets.
Many thanks to Serpent/Jack whose suggestion for our collaborative playlist Healing Music Recorded in 2020-22 to Accompany a Solve or Even Listen to came from his old school friend Richard March who “was involved in recording covers of classic songs to raise money for musicians who are unable to make a living during the pandemic”.
Alan Connor’s Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book, which is partly but not mostly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop.