My favorite part of the day is when my husband and I sit down to do the New York Times crossword puzzle together. Until recently, we completed puzzles together in print, either in the newspaper or in spiral-bound collections of old Sunday puzzles. Now, thanks to a $39.95 annual subscription to the digital version of the puzzle, we do it on an iPhone.
Take it from a Luddite who still refuses to read e-books: Digital puzzling is superior in every way to paper. It’s faster to fill in squares, easier to erase mistakes, and features a handy gray “pencil” setting to indicate hazy guesses. The Times’ digital crossword package also includes some nice extras, including access to years of old puzzles. The app keeps track of how fast you solve and how many puzzles you solve correctly in a row, like a fitness tracker for the sedentary. And the jaunty little tune that rewards a successful solve is downright Pavlovian.
And then there’s the “Mini.” The Mini is a five-by-five grid, promoted on the app’s home screen and online. Like the regular puzzle, there’s a new one every day. Unlike the regular puzzle, it requires not even a single minute for a competent solver to complete, let alone a single brain cell. Recent clues and answers, for example, included:
“___ that sink in for a second” (LET)
“‘HBO’s ‘___ Detective’ ” (TRUE)
“LeBron’s sport, informally” (BBALL)
The New York Times crossword puzzle, which has appeared daily since 1950, has earned its reputation as THE crossword puzzle: challenging yet accessible, with a good mix of trivia and wordplay. The Mini, by contrast, is the People magazine crossword puzzle of the New York Times. (People’s crossword puzzle: “NCIS: ___ Angeles.” The Mini: “Treat for an early bird.”) Unlike the regular puzzle, it’s free to play—picture the heroin sample dealers offer to get people hooked, only instead of heroin, it’s a thimbleful of skim milk. If the Mini gets you interested in filling out a grid of intersecting words based on clues, great, but it bears very little relation to the Times puzzle itself. In fact, I might go so far as to say that it’s a disgrace to the NYT crossword brand.
The Mini made its debut a little less than a year ago, and the Times’ own crossword blog called it “very popular” only last week. Presumably it’s not going anywhere. But it seems to me that the Mini devalues the Times puzzle brand at a time when it can least afford to lose stature. Competition is gathering in the wings. BuzzFeed announced last week it is soliciting crosswords “with a modern pop sensibility,” and the Wall Street Journal also plans to add a daily 15-by-15 grid to its lineup.
Some critics have even claimed that the quality of the larger NYT puzzle has been falling off in recent years. Champion solver “Rex Parker” (the pseudonym of SUNY Binghamton English professor Michael Sharp), who critiques the puzzle every day on his popular blog, huffed over Tuesday’s grid:
This puzzle is unacceptable. No constructor I know, not a one, would've let a grid this unpolished get to print (to say nothing of the generally lackluster clues). ... I am genuinely tired of pointing this stuff out, but since most puzzle professionals won’t say a damned thing publicly about how poorly conceived and edited the NYT puzzles can be of late, I'm kind of on my own here (although privately any constructor or editor worth his/her salt will tell you exactly what’s wrong with this puzzle, exactly what could be easily changed, exactly where the wincing happens, etc.—you can probably do same).
He concludes: “This is the kind of puzzle that gives crossword puzzles their reputation as a moribund pastime for the moribund.”
Of course, crossword puzzles, including the Times’ still-dominant version, aren’t moribund. They’re perfectly suited to the digital age, and the fact that the Times can charge $40 a year for them—even subscribers to the digital paper don’t get them for free—indicates they are still thriving. But compare the leaden directness of the Mini clue “LeBron’s sport, informally” to some of James’ other appearances in the main puzzle—for instance, “Org. for ‘King James’ ” (NBA). The latter is a neat misdirection, first seeming to hint at royalty or perhaps something biblical, while “LeBron’s sport, informally” challenges you only to come up with a shorter way to type “basketball.”
Not every crossword puzzle has to be Mt. Everest, of course. One of the most satisfying things about doing the Times puzzle every day is the rhythm of progressing from breeziness to arduousness over the course of the week. In a good crossword—even an easy one—the answers manage to feel inevitable but still just sideways enough to flatter your own ingenuity. The Mini, though, is a four-letter word for “Are you kidding me?” It doesn’t tickle your mind so much as punch you in the brain with its blatancy. It’s so clearly designed as a mere loss leader for the actual crossword that finishing it has the exact opposite effect that a good puzzle should have—it’s less a tiny surge of accomplishment than the sense that you’ve wasted an entire minute of your time.