Here’s a not-so-well-kept secret for you: Everyone can solve the New York Times Crossword.
If you’re already rolling your eyes, take it from us: Jackie Frere, community engagement manager, and Isaac Aronow, associate editor of Gameplay. Jackie was someone who had tried the Monday crossword once, failed, got embarrassed and gave up completely. Isaac has been solving for a while but fell out of practice at the start of the pandemic. We challenged ourselves to see if we could start fresh and complete a Saturday New York Times Crossword in the matter of weeks. Spoiler alert: We did.
In case you didn’t know, the daily New York Times Crossword has a difficulty curve as the week goes on. Monday is the easiest puzzle, and then Tuesday is a little harder, climbing up to Saturday, which is the hardest day of the week. Sunday puzzles are sometimes asserted to be the most difficult puzzle of the week, but much of that difficulty comes from the larger size of Sunday puzzles, rather than the clues, the answers or the themes.
The Mini doesn’t have a difficulty curve like the daily crossword, so how tricky it is depends more on the individual puzzle you do, rather than the day of the week it runs on. Minis rarely include advanced solving elements like a rebus (more on those later) but will often include intermediate solving elements that are common in midweek puzzles. If you’re comfortable solving minis, we suggest that you’ll be comfortable solving daily crosswords up to Wednesday.
It takes time, practice and a little help from the Games team, but you too can solve a Monday puzzle and, eventually, a Saturday crossword. Let us show you how.
Start with the Mini
If you haven’t heard of the Mini, it’s a five-by-five daily crossword created by Joel Fagliano, a senior puzzle editor. It’s free, it includes pop culture clues, and it can most likely be solved in a matter of minutes — or seconds, the more you play.
Dip your toe in the crossword water by solving the Mini every day. You’ll gather a feel for how the tools work on the app or the web, and you’ll start to gain confidence in your solving skills.
Let’s solve the Mini from Feb. 8, 2022 together:
Once you’ve gotten the hang of completing the Mini for about a week or so, it’s time to try a Monday puzzle.
Diving into the daily
Opening up the daily crossword can be daunting, especially if it’s your first time solving. Don’t be scared! Contrary to popular belief, the crossword is not a competition over how much trivia one knows. Yes, random facts and knowledge will come in handy when you’re filling out the crossword grid, but believe in yourself.
When attacking the grid head-on, take a few tries to figure out your style of solving. Jackie likes to go around the grid and fill in what she knows. Then she’ll continue to go back through and see if her memory has been prompted by any letters that were filled in or if an answer has “just come” to her the second or third time around. Isaac likes to start with easier clue types, like fill-in-the-blanks or abbreviations.
Rachel Fabi, a Wordplay columnist, takes a different approach. “I start every puzzle the same way: I start in the northwest and work my way through,” she said. “So it’ll be going back and forth between across and downs in the corner and then building off of what you have, until you have the whole thing.”
Have you gotten as far as you can? Try using autocheck to make sure your answers are correct. Do you need to adjust anything? Go ahead. If you’re still stuck, check out Wordplay, your new best friend. Wordplay is a daily column written by Games editors that explains tricky clues, answers and more about the New York Times Crossword. That one word Rachel, Deb Amlen or Caitlin Lovinger provides there may be the key you need to unlock the rest of your puzzle. And they’re great at explaining what certain crossword clues are asking you to do, or how they might trick you.
Now that you have some tools under your belt, let’s solve the Monday from March 21, 2022 together:
Take some time to get comfortable with solving Monday puzzles, and don’t be afraid to use the tools we mentioned above. “The more you solve, the better you get and the quicker you are with these things — but just trust yourself; you’re going to get further than you think you will,” Sam Ezersky, a digital puzzles editor, said. “And when you keep coming back to these Monday puzzles, you’re going to continue to make more progress.”
For extra homework, read Deb’s guide on “How to Solve the New York Times Crossword.” It’s filled with tips, tricks and definitions of crossword lingo. We didn’t say this would be easy!
Here are five Mondays Rachel Fabi, Wordplay columnist, recommends:
Aug. 2, 2021
Aug. 30, 2021
Sept. 20, 2021
Nov. 29, 2021
Feb. 7, 2022
So you’re ready for Tuesday
Honestly, Tuesdays aren’t that much harder than Mondays. A big lesson to learn is to make your solving experience your own. Some hard-core puzzlers may consider using autocheck or Google to be cheating, but at the end of the day, you should solve the puzzle in the way that’s most comfortable for you. Google a word or answer if you don’t know it. You might learn something new and use that piece of information in a future puzzle.
The beauty of a crossword puzzle is that you won’t know all the answers. That’s the fun part! It’s a learning game. But you will be surprised by how much you do know. And if you’re stuck, don’t be afraid to take a break. “You have to set it down and come back to it,” Sam said. “I will boldly say that every time you set this thing down and you come back to it an hour later, you are absolutely going to see something that you didn’t see prior.”
Another tip to help you crack open a puzzle is knowing a few things about clues. First, clues and their answers must always match. A plural clue will have a plural answer, a clue in another language will have an answer in the same language, the parts of speech will always be the same and the tenses will match. As well, clues with initials or abbreviations in them will always have initialed or abbreviated answers, so the answer to “J. Lo’s former partner” will be AROD, and not ALEX RODRIGUEZ, but there’s an exception for abbreviations used for the sake of brevity — U.S., V.I.P. or M.L.B., for example.
And by now, you may have noticed that Mondays and Tuesdays always contain a theme. It’s possible to solve the daily without figuring out the theme, but Rachel suggests always identifying the theme if possible. “It’s so much more satisfying when you figure it out early and then use that to predict what’s coming,” she said. The theme can give you an extra hint if you haven’t figured out other long answers in the grid.
We’ll expand more on the concept of themes and themeless puzzles in part 2. But first, try solving Tuesdays until you feel ready for another challenge.
Here are five Tuesdays Sam Ezersky recommends:
June 8, 2021
July 20, 2021
Aug. 24, 2021
Sept. 28, 2021
Dec. 7, 2021