Tips and tricks from a crossword wizard

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If you’ve ever struggled with our daily mini crosswords, you can probably blame Paolo Pasco. The good news is that the constructor who fooled you is now the American Crossword Tournament champion at the age of 23. The ACPT is the largest speed solving tournament in the world and welcomes more than 800 participants this year. The three finalists solve puzzles on a large whiteboard in front of an audience; wins come down to literal seconds.

When I first met Paolo, he was 13 and already creating star grids that were as elegant as they were playful. Nowadays I rely on him as The Atlantic Ocean‘s leading crossword contributor. To put into perspective what a phenomenal speed solver Paolo is, he solved the latest Inferno (our special magazine puzzle that gets harder the deeper you go) in one minute and 27 seconds. The average solving time for that puzzle is 16 minutes and 28 seconds. I recently spoke with Paolo about his victory, his quick-fix tactics and, inevitably, the 2024 Marvel masterpiece Mrs. Web.

Weaving the web

Caleb Madison: Is this the big winner I’m talking to?

Paolo Pasco: Look who said I’d never be the big winner.

Madison: Honestly, that was to motivate you. Because if I hadn’t said that so often when you were younger, maybe you wouldn’t have worked so hard to defy me.

Pasco: That’s true.

Madison: Okay, I have some serious questions so no one thinks we’re taking this lightly. When did you start solving crosswords, and how did you switch to quick solving?

Pasco: I think I’ve been solving puzzles most of my life. I have a fairly early memory of solving Sudoku on the kitchen floor with chalk on a sheet my mother had printed out at work. That’s what these became – you know those Dell puzzle magazines they have at airports and supermarkets?

Madison: Yes.

Pasco: I would do a lot of that, but I would skip the stuff that required you to know trivia. Because I was a child; I didn’t know things. When I was in eighth grade, my family was taking a big road trip to Stanford for my brother’s graduation, so I downloaded the New York Times Crossword iPad app just to have something to do. I solved some packs and I realized, wow, these are pretty cool. And you didn’t even have to be a trivia god to make any progress with it. It’s much more fun than just a quiz in a box.

Soon after, I started getting a lot of those “Will Shortz’s Favorite Crossword Puzzles” books. Lots of puzzles from this one young upstart named Caleb Madison.

Madison: Heard of him.

Pasco: I think it was a combination of the app and those books that made me realize that these puzzles were made by humans and that there is a human sense of fun behind them. Around the same time I started doing crosswords.

The quick fix started in 2015 or 2016. In the summer of 2016, my kind parents registered me for the indie tournament Lollapuzzoola. And I competed and won the lower division. That was kind of my first feeling of, OHI can actually solve these on paper, and quickly. I remember someone said to me at the tournament, ‘I remember seeing G. Paolo Pasco on the rankings on the website, and based on your times I would have thought you were one of those guys who solved the puzzle on someone else’s computer. and just copies it.” Since then, everything has been about proving to him that I’m not one of those guys.

Madison: How did you train? Are there any tactics you found particularly helpful in reducing your time?

A photo of Paolo Pasco completing his crossword puzzle
Paolo Pasco during the quick-solve competition (Donald Christensen, courtesy of American Crossword Puzzle Tournament)

Pasco: The standard advice people give, which I think is good, is to print out lots of puzzles and solve them on paper. It’s a little different when you’re competing in an online tournament than on paper, because with online navigation, if your cursor is on 14-Down, you don’t have to do any work to see the clue. So training your eyes to move back and forth from clues to the grid without losing your place, and remembering clues when you can, really helps.

Madison: So when you look at the clues, you’re not just looking at the clue you’re currently solving; you try to get a sense of all the clues around it so you don’t have to look back.

Pasco: Yeah, I think this, especially for big puzzles where you navigate the grid with your eyes, saves a lot of time because you do it so often. Looking down, I try to remember the next three clues.

Madison: Oh that’s interesting.

Pasco: As for the less common tricks, solving just downs was very useful for intuitively understanding word patterns – for example, thinking as I Eblank, blank, E, then the first is probably a vowel, and the second is probably a consonant. If you have a large area where nothing inevitably sticks out as something to hold on to, then there’s value in putting something in there to get something in there and just see if that works. If it doesn’t work then it doesn’t work, just to have the idea that something could happen. I think I feel most comfortable solving one item, seeing what goes over it, and building from that, a sort of web. Did you see Mrs. Web?

Madison: I was going to say, that sounds a bit like one of those webs Mrs. Web had to do with in the film.

Pasco: Yes. So ultimately I would like that web to connect them all together.

Madison: Describe that last moment when you get up there and finish the puzzle. Do you check your grid very, very quickly?

Pasco: Oh god, I think I made a policy while solving that when I was done with a section, I would check every clue in that section to make sure it was correct.

Madison: So you check it along the way?

Pasco: Yes. I think that was a conscious decision because I knew that the two people I was up against, Will Nediger and David Plotkin, are both very fast. So if I spent a lot of time checking at the end, then it might be time for someone else to sneak in. Last year was kind of like that scenario for me. There was one letter left, he hesitated too long on it, and Dan Feyer snuck one past the goalkeeper.

Madison: Last year you finished in second place?

Pasco: I came second with a margin of one and a half seconds.

Madison: Wow.

Pasco: And if I had just gone with my gut and entered the letter I suspected, I would have won. But I hesitated and Dan got a well-deserved victory.

Madison: Have people started treating you differently now that you’re the champion?

Pasco: I mean, I hope they don’t. I feel like it’s a very “big name in a small room”.

Madison: Did you say it in a restaurant in New York? Maybe you can get a better reservation, or free snacks.

Pasco: I do want the question ‘Do you know who I am?’ Removing. at least once.

Madison: Anything else you’d like to say to the good folks back home about your big win?

Pasco: I feel very happy. I really didn’t expect this to happen. Oh, I also want to thank my family very much for everything. Because they were so kind when their kid had one of the weirdest hobbies you can have, and not only encouraged it, but also entered them into a crossword tournament to spend the whole day with this weird hobby. I hope it paid off.

Madison: I think so. I mean, it’s pretty exciting to be the best in the world at something. Not many people can do that.

Pasco: The current best in the world. Until David Plotkin or Tyler Hinman or Dan Feyer or Andy Kravis joins again next year.

Madison: You get a year in which you are the best. Most people don’t even get an hour.

Pasco: WHERE.

Madison: A warm congratulations. It’s very exciting. And you can be very proud. You deserve it.

Pasco: Thank you.