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Saturday Stumper Solving Hints

The difficulty of the Newsday Crossword increases gradually from Monday through Friday, but the weekly Saturday Stumper is meant to be considerably more difficult than Friday’s.  (The Sunday puzzle, while larger, is generally equivalent in difficulty to a Wednesday or Thursday puzzle.)  This increase in difficulty is meant to provide something “just right” to puzzlers at every skill level.

Despite its difficulty, the Saturday puzzle is by far the most popular puzzle of the week. When I temporarily stopped doing the daily puzzles for Newsday a few years ago, it was the Saturday puzzle that was most asked for, and the one I started doing again first upon my return.  Nevertheless, I realize that most Newsday puzzlers have at least a little trouble with the Stumper.

These hints should give you valuable insight into the puzzlemaking process.  They reveal the devices and tricks that are used to make the Stumper difficult.  They are adapted from a weeklong seminar on crosswords that I taught at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

My Smithsonian students found them very useful.  I hope you will too.

What makes the Stumper difficult?

Compared to the Monday-Friday puzzles, the Stumper:

  • Has no theme
  Has more longer words and fewer shorter words
  Has clues for common words and facts that are less obvious than earlier in the week

It’s very important to keep in mind that, like every other day of the week, the Saturday puzzle has virtually no unusual and obscure answer words.  So you should always assume that the answer is a word that you know.

Do Stumpers vary in difficulty?

Yes.  Those I create myself (under the byline “S.N.”) are generally more difficult than Stumpers constructed by others that I edit.

What makes the vocabulary clues difficult?

    • Deliberate misdirection: Clues like “Fine skipper” for SCOFFLAW, and “Government program” for THE WEST WING use phrases whose actual meaning is different from their surface meaning
      Part-of-speech ambiguity: Verbs like PUT and SET can be either present or past tense
      Words and phrases that can have many meanings, like RUN, COME TO and BREAK

You should always be on the lookout for clues like these.

What makes the factual clues difficult?

References for well-known names/words that are not generally known.  For example:

Builder of the first Madison Square Garden – BARNUM

Literally, “jumping flea” - UKULELE

The Towering Inferno Oscar nominee – ASTAIRE

Where should I start?

There are always a few somewhat easier clues in a Stumper, so you should look for and start with those. Or you might start with unfamiliar factual clues that can be easily looked up.

What should I do if I get stuck?

Make use of whatever assistance may help you: dictionaries, reference books, word finders, Internet, whatever. It's the best way to learn word meanings and facts you may not be familiar with.   For Saturday Stumpers especially, it's certainly not “cheating” to do so.

I’ve never tried Saturday Stumpers before.  How can I get started?

The best way to start, before you even try to solve a Stumper, is to review at least several weeks’ worth of Stumpers clue-by-clue with the answers (which are printed in Monday’s paper or available immediately online).  This will help to familiarize you with the special style and techniques used in Saturday puzzles.

How can I improve my ability to solve Stumpers?

Whether you complete a particular Saturday puzzle or not, you should always review each answer in the printed solution with the corresponding clue.  Your goal should be to understand how each clue leads to the answer.  Use whatever reference books or sources that may be necessary to help you.  In doing so, your Stumper skill will undoubtedly improve over time.

Another way is to find a solving partner or partners, whose knowledge and vocabulary are different from yours.   Crossword solving in groups can be great fun, besides.

Best of luck to you. – S.N.

P.S. I’ve written a more detailed article on cracking the Saturday Stumper, which I’ll be glad to e-mail you upon request.  Just use “More Saturday Stumper Hints” for the subject line, and please include your full name and hometown.