Derek Harrison's Crossword Message Board

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Competition clues

What makes a competition-winning crossword clue? I was musing on this the other day as I contemplated whether to enter the latest CCCWC, and had a read through a few recent Azed slips (which I never normally do).

Something perfectly sound and enjoyable in a regular cryptic (such as a double definition or a plain anagram) would hardly pass muster in Azed, so a composite anagram or a cunning &lit clue showing a higher level of technical skill will often do the trick for the great man – a bit like Olympic dives earning extra marks for the degree of difficulty. A convincing and smooth surface reading with a touch of wit is desirable, and of course the clue must work in a strict Ximenean sense.

It often pays to aim for a touch of topicality, usually on political matters – as a bizarre example, the Chilcot report was referenced at least three times among the VHC contenders for ESPRIT FORT. But in my view the outcomes can sometimes be absurdly convoluted, self-consciously clever and effete, and the reader may have to spend inordinate time deconstructing the parts to see whether everything works. The most recent prizewinners for SIMPATICO were:

Clue at head of slip – I. Simpson? Not unless awfully, awfully pleasing (anagram of CLUEATSISIMPSON minus UNLESS)
MPs in cabinet shuffled round, leaving Benn treated kindly (anagram of MPSINCABINETO minus BENN)
Here’s entry to Azed comp – is it crafted with winning appeal? (anagram of ACOMPISIT)

By the way, I mean no slight at all on the competitors, who have done a brilliant job in fulfilling the brief (and I love Homer’s crosswords). But in my uncharitable view, those two whimsically self-referential podium finishers and any overly verbose compound anagrams cannot be broadly appealing outside this congratulatory circle. A puzzle made up entirely of this sort of prizewinner would be too stodgy. The problem is, regular clue types are unlikely to win prizes.

What about the CCCWC itself? Here, the much larger panel of non-professional judges must be borne in mind, and it is also clear that a more libertarian approach is accepted. For example, the winning clue for MONTGOLFIER employed ‘first made’ to indicate the letter M, which would generally be a no-no in Azed, and a recent near-prizewinner used completely the wrong letters in an anagram.

I think in this case it is worth looking beyond the obvious treatments that are likely to pall for judges on repeated viewing, e.g. using an anagram of LEFT MOORING for MONTGOLFIER (however appropriate it may be). Witty or slightly risqué clues seem to have a good chance of earning points, and there is probably rather more licence in clueing treatment permitted.

Just a few random thoughts, not meaning to be too controversial. I did also notice that January’s CCCWC word was plain-JANe, followed by February’s liFEBoat…perhaps a pattern here?


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