This in-app crossword helper will change your Sunday mornings
Essentials Week spotlights unexpected items that make our daily lives just a little bit better.
My name is Rachel, and I am a cheater.
No, not that kind of cheater. I cheat at games. Uno, mostly, on family vacations. There was a very sticky incident with a game of Mille Bornes once. And getting caught in the act during a round of Hi-Ho Cherry-O when I was a young kid still shamefully burns in my memory.
Lately, I’ve been engaging in a different sort of cheating. And while I know that my typical illicit game play is wrong, I feel — mostly — no shame about this new kind. Because, for now, it’s justified.
My new game is the New York Times daily crossword puzzle, friends. My cheat: the check button.
Allow me to introduce you to this invaluable hack, and justify its morally questionable use. For without it, I would have languished in crossword puzzle purgatory forever, never learning, never getting any better, and quitting before I even finished a Monday.
Crossword cheaters of the world unite.
I began playing the New York Times crossword in the app some time during 2016, when, as a new New Yorker, I figured out that it was a good way to distract me from the stench and misery of my subway commute. Access to all the Times puzzles already came with my subscription — all I needed to do was download the crosswords specific app.
The problem was that I was instantly horrible. Most crossword puzzlers will tell you that being good at crosswords isn’t so much about knowing things as it is about knowing the things that crosswords want you to know. You can only get so far without knowing that “emo” is the Times’ chosen musical subgenre; that lassos are apparently also known as “lariats”; that if the clue is anything related to opera, the answer is probably “aria.”
Acquiring that knowledge takes nothing but practice and paying attention. So, what’s a crossword puzzle beginner to do?
The Times puzzle checker button has been absolutely essential to my crosswords education. The third icon from the right in the upper right hand corner is a two-colored circle; aptly, it appears to look like a life raft. When you click on it, a menu with four options pops up in the bottom of the screen; “Check Square,” “Check Word,” “Check Puzzle,” and “Reveal/Clear…” The latter button gives further options for what you want to show or delete.
The top two buttons have been my crossword saviors. When your cursor remains on a word and you use the life raft, the word or letter will turn blue if it’s right, or red with a black slash through it if it’s wrong. I view this kind of … help… as a kind of half measure of cheating: They’re not giving me an answer, they’re just telling me if my answer is right or wrong.
The most basic way I use it is to check whether a word is correct while I’m going along. It gives me permission to type answers that might be right, but that I might not write down if I were to do crosswords in indelible ink (like the newspaper pros). In this way, what the tool has given me most of all is confidence, and a better understanding of and trust in my crossword instincts.
My most dastardly use of the tool is to check letter by letter. In a half-filled puzzle, it’s usually easy to tell whether a square contains a vowel or a consonant. If you run through the vowels, using the “check letter” feature, you’ll eventually find the right one.
Because I make liberal use of the tool, I’ve gotten better. I used to use the “check” tool in every puzzle. Now, I complete Mondays and Tuesdays without it. (Crossword puzzles advance in difficulty throughout the days of the week.) I try to solve as much as I can without the “check” later in the week, trying to put my new-found confidence into action. I can even finish the jumbo-sized Sunday puzzles now, only starting to use the “check” feature about half-way through. It’s satisfying and fun.
As I write this, I imagine academic purists clutching their pearls. Crosswords aren’t just a game like 2048 or Ballz (heh). Crosswords are supposed to be a more worthy way of passing the time, simultaneously exercising your mind and improving your knowledge. Sure, other puzzle games like Candy Crush or Sudoku still exercise your mind. But the crossword is the tweed-wearing grandpappy of passive time well spent.
Moreover, crosswords are a status symbol of mental superiority and education. If you play crosswords, it says that you care about not wasting time, that you’re smart enough and with a large enough vocabulary to play word games. You’re bookish and witty. Crosswording is perhaps one of the only endearing manifestations of elitism.
Refined parental figures I know do crosswords in the actual newspaper. New Yorker tote-toting subway riders do crosswords in the app. Writers and journalists talk about their crossword wins and frustrations on Twitter. The crossword play I observe in the real world even mirrors the puzzle’s portrayal in film and TV, where crosswords are reserved for learned, lovably anxious characters. Brooklyn 99‘s Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) teases, then reveres, and ultimately loves, his romantic interest Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) for her detail-oriented intelligence — which the show frequently signifies through her love of crosswords.
So, part of the point of doing crosswords is to show off to yourself, and anyone who happens to learn that you crossword, how much you know, and what kind of a person you are.
If I’m honest, it’s this perception that caused me to pick up (or, actually, download) crosswords in the first place. Playing mindless games felt somehow beneath me, a New York City graduate student, at the time. It was about bolstering the writerly persona I was adopting; helping to convince myself that I belonged.
Which is why it feels so sacrilege to divulge my cheating ways in digital print. Cheating at crosswords seems wrong because it sullies the integrity of the vaunted game; the app itself shames you when you cheat, with a patronizing pop-up that informs you “checking” will disqualify you from counting this puzzle towards a “streak.”
Admitting that I cheat goes a step beyond the ignobleness of the act. Acknowledging my crossword smarts inferiority is particularly shameful because I risk exposing the fraudulentness that I always feel is lurking at the center of my intellectual worth. I can’t do crosswords without help. There is a lot I don’t know. Who am I to play the crossword?
But without cheating, I never would have gotten anywhere with the game. What I imagined as the pastime of the educated urbanite would have been closed to me, just as sure as friendship with a Prospect Heights bar patron would be if I’d entered in my Southern California athleisure and Uggs.
Cheating does not confirm the fears of impostor syndrome that nag when I press that life boat. Conversely, playing crosswords does not make me a type, just like those subway riders or TV characters. Playing crosswords, and cheating at crosswords, neither confirms nor negates the idea that I am educated or sophisticated or clever. It means that I like word games, and I’m still learning this one.
Which is why I implore you to cheat. Crosswords actually are a better use of time than bouncing a ball around a screen. Winning them, and building my knowledge and skills, is an accomplishment that I haven’t gotten from any other iPhone game. Don’t let any sense of purist elitism, or perhaps your own feelings of inferiority and embarrassment, keep you away.
Crosswords can be for anyone, I promise. Use that “check” button with abandon, for as long as you need it. But don’t let it become a crutch forever. Notice when it’s time to rely on yourself, and not the little life raft. Soon you’ll be able to swim on your own.