Meet the crossword setter, Professor Serpent: ‘There’s no point in making it too hard or too easy’ | Crosswords

Jack is a reputation that pops up in the Genius, the Guardian’s month-to-month superior puzzle. Jack is often known as Jason Crampton, who’s often known as Skipjack however most frequently as Serpent – in the Unbiased, the Inquisitor, Enigmatic Variations and the Listener. Oh, and likewise in subscription journal the Magpie, the place he’s on the editorial staff. Let’s meet Serpent. Or Jack.

Hi there Jack. Has the pandemic generated further curiosity for the Magpie magazine, or for more durable puzzles extra typically?
Completely! The variety of Magpie subscribers elevated final 12 months, as has the variety of options we obtain every month. The variety of subscribers to the Cracking the Cryptic YouTube channel – run by Mark Goodliffe and Simon Anthony, who co-founded the Magpie – has grown enormously.

Joyful to listen to it. Do you’ve got a favorite of your personal puzzles?
Of my blocked puzzles, maybe my favorite is the one I wrote following the demise of my canine, Bo: each throughout entry contained his title and the unchecked cells in the central row spelt out GOODBYE.

Right here’s a review of it (and a link, which might work on some devices). When did you get the crossword bug?
I began fixing cryptic crosswords at college. I acquired the setting bug once I attended one of Boatman’s masterclasses.


Like others we’ve spoken to right here. And the way did you select your pseudonyms?
Serpent is a cryptographic algorithm, so it was linked to my day job as a professor of data safety.

I had meant to decide on different cryptographic algorithms if I wanted additional pseudonyms however then determined that phrases associated to Serpent can be higher, therefore Basilisk. Skipjack is another cryptographic algorithm, however everybody thought it was a reference to tuna! And Jack is a contraction of Skipjack.

Professor, eh? Every other setters you realize of in the similar echelon?
At the very least a pair: Monk is a professor of arithmetic at Leeds College and Sabre – setter of brilliantly fiendish barred puzzles – can be a maths professor, at Arizona State College.

Ah, Sabre. My outdated foe. What makes a profitable clue? Or an unsuccessful one?
I feel profitable clues comprise at the very least considered one of the following: humour, misdirection, indirect definitions and creative wordplay. An unsuccessful clue comprises inaccurate cryptic grammar or definitions.

A weak clue makes use of pedestrian definitions and an inventory of wordplay directions that merely need to be adopted.

Serpent/Jack with Alma, a German short-haired pointer
Serpent/Jack with Alma. {Photograph}: Jason Crampton

We’ve talked right here earlier than about how the enterprise of crosswords can contain as a lot maths as it does literacy. What’s the overlap between your outdated day job and the puzzles?
The wordplay might be considered expressions in a proper language, in which wordplay parts signify variables and wordplay indicators signify operators on these variables. I discover it very useful to consider clues in this manner once I’m analysing whether or not the cryptic grammar of a clue is appropriate.

Setting a crossword is a bit like setting an examination: there’s no point in making it too hard or too straightforward, so there need to be a couple of entry factors.

Additionally, the technique of getting ready puzzles for publication, particularly when one is attempting to first get printed, is similar with getting ready tutorial papers for submission. There are numerous causes a paper or a crossword might be rejected, so it’s necessary to present an editor as little as doable to seek out fault with.

Fairly. Now, you’re uncommon in utilizing the similar title in your weekday puzzles as your tough weekend ones. How do you alter the degree of intricacy?
Many barred puzzles comprise fairly obscure phrases, limiting the prospects for disguising the definition.

Clues for these phrases typically find yourself as an inventory of directions for establishing the reply tacked on to a simple definition. I feel I’m uncommon in additionally attempting to keep away from obscure vocabulary in my barred puzzles: I attempt to populate my grids utilizing a fairly restricted dictionary.

This implies I can write clues which might be comparable to those who I write in blocked puzzles. The disguise in the surfaces – plus any thematic clueing gimmicks – suffice to make the clues troublesome sufficient.

What are the instruments of your commerce?
Qxw for grid development. Crossword Compiler for assembling puzzles in a format acceptable to editors. The Chambers dictionary and thesaurus apps for my cellphone/pill.


Qat for pattern-matching and looking, which is completely important for barred puzzle development. Qxw and Qat are each accessible from Quinapalus’s website. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and Wikipedia for barred puzzle analysis.

Qat is exceptional. What sort of individuals do you suppose are drawn to barred robust puzzles?
I feel there are individuals who love crosswords however, after years of apply, discover the every day cryptics too straightforward; they relish the extra problem of fixing puzzles with clueing gimmicks.

Others aren’t that in every day cryptics however love troublesome logical puzzles. For them, it is the endgames of the barred thematic puzzles which might be significantly fascinating.

I’m in the former camp, so my barred puzzles are likely to have fairly troublesome clues however comparatively easy endgames. Different setters write comparatively easy clues however the endgames are extraordinarily intricate and issues of actual magnificence.

How do individuals reply if you inform them that you just’re a crossword setter?
In just about the similar manner as once I used to say I used to be a professor in a maths division! “You have to be actually brainy” or “I might by no means do maths/resolve crosswords”.

However they’re additionally fascinated by it and actually in how I’m going about setting them. I attempt to persuade those that don’t resolve crosswords to attempt them. I inform them they solely want an affordable vocabulary, some endurance and an curiosity in how language can be utilized in imaginative methods.

What’s the future for cryptic crosswords?
It’s actually troublesome to say. I feel there’ll at all times be a distinct segment marketplace for robust barred puzzles. They are going to survive in specialist magazines like the Magpie, even when they disappear from the newspapers.

There are some good younger setters of such puzzles and new ones are at all times rising. Nevertheless, crossword puzzles are comparatively costly to supply in contrast with puzzles comparable to sudoku and kakuro, so I might see every day cryptics being seen as a luxurious that newspapers can no longer afford with promoting revenues declining. I hope I’m fallacious!

However it could also be that specialist on-line crossword websites will emerge that cost subscribers for every day puzzles. I hope there can be sufficient individuals keen to pay for puzzles of the high quality discovered in the Guardian and the different broadsheets.

Many because of Serpent/Jack, whose suggestion for our collaborative playlist Healing Music Recorded in 2020-22 to Accompany a Solve or Even Listen to is from his outdated schoolfriend Richard March, who “has been concerned in recording cowl variations of traditional songs to lift cash for musicians unable to earn a residing throughout the pandemic”.

Largely jazz competition: For What It’s Value

The Delivery Forecast Puzzle Guide by Alan Connor, which is partly however not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop.

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