Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald. With Craig Butt.
It’s a source of much frustration and deep contemplation.
The cryptic crossword.
And it’s a frustration well recognised as best shared, which is why one group of crossword enthusiasts banded together over The Age’s cryptic puzzles.
Antonios Sarhanis and two friends created a brains trust – an online community of crossword aficionados – to crack The Age‘s Friday offering from David Astle (the feared and revered DA). They call themselves ‘The DA Trippers’.
Mr Sarhanis said he often puzzled over the cryptic in a cafe with friends, and he wanted to capture this spirit of collaboration online.
“Cryptic crosswords are a communal thing – you need a lot of different thoughts and angles – so it’s a good social activity over coffee,” he said. “I consider them a form of meditation because they require indirect thinking.”
The community boasts a small group of dedicated trippers who delight in cracking each clue, and hundreds of people who view the blog each weekend, seeking out hints.
DA himself wholly approves.
“The reason we do crosswords is not because we’re paid to solve,” DA said.
“We come back because there is pleasure. The pleasure is multiplied if it’s shared, and the pleasure is also deepened when you get more into the lunacy and joy of the language and illusions.”
Mr Sarhanis believes DA may have started making his puzzles even harder now he can watch his fans’ mental processes unfold online, and the crossword guru does not deny it.
“If there’s a consensus that things are getting easy, it often does incite me to just crank up the degree of difficulty a few notches,” DA said.
“I do visit the DA Trippers, so it’s hard not to see how the tribe is coping. To know that your crossword is being adored, abhorred, pulled apart, rebuilt, having its entrails pulled out and pushed back in, that is a wonderful reckoning.”
In the past, trippers have announced they’ve cracked Friday’s cryptic as early as 4.03am, long before the morning’s copy of The Age has hit the newsstands. (These people are presumably accessing the day’s newspaper online.)
“There are some crazy freaks who are able to solve it very quickly and very early. I’m envious of them,” Mr Sarhanis said. “I used to think I was good at crosswords, until I started this blog.”
For anyone wanting to get into cryptic crosswords, the Friday DA (colloquially known as the ‘Don’t Attempt’ because of its sheer difficulty) is probably not the best place to start.
“To master my crosswords would probably take 70 years, to be honest,” DA said.
“You’d become very confident, from scratch, in a matter of months. You’d be getting quite a few clues out. But to actually get a grid out without being assisted, I’d imagine that would take – from a novice – a couple of years.”
In Mr Sarhanis’s case, it took seven years before he was able to complete his first DA grid. He got it framed to mark the milestone.
He suggests easing yourself in by tackling The Age‘s Monday cryptic from LR. A good way of learning the tricks is to look at the answers to yesterday’s crossword and work backwards, he said.
Or you could go along to a live solve Mr Sarhanis is hosting at the National Gallery of Victoria on Friday. At midday, a crossword-themed stage and bleachers will be set up in the NGV International forecourt, and he will be seeking the audience’s participation to solve a blown-up version of the day’s cryptic and a “mind-blowingly amazing” DA crossword from the archives.
“We can all have a bit of fun solving the whiteboard, as though we were all were at a cafe having coffee,” he said.
The live solve kicks off Word Alert, a three day celebration of crosswords, spelling and grammar at the NGV’s Melbourne Art Book Fair.
Word Alert will include spelling bees, a crossword tournament, and a class on how to solve cryptic crosswords.
“Hopefully this’ll be the first of many,” said DA, unable to attend due to other committments. “I’d love to be involved in future.”
But if Friday’s cryptic crossword is a particularly devilish one, is there a chance the live solve will still be going on well into Sunday afternoon?
“There’s no plans to do that,” Mr Sarhanis laughs. “But often a DA can take multiple days.”
Age subscribers can access the crossword in the online version of the daily paper here.
Five tips for getting started with cryptic crosswords
Go straight to the answers. Look at the answers and work backwards. Work out how did that person get freckle out of ‘spot of reckless carry-on’. When you see that ‘freckle’ is being carried by of reckless, and it means spot. Once you see, working backwards, how that clicks, then the click gets addictive.
Look for the shortest clue. Short clues, particularly only two words, usually signify double definition. If the clue is something like ‘book store’, seven letters, then you know that you’re looking for a word that means ‘book’ and ‘store’, which is ‘reserve’.
Find your mojo. Find your right level, so you can build your confidence.
Get a copy of The Big Issue, or an equivalent puzzle, that gives you a cryptic and quick set of clues for the same answers. That’s really helpful. That way, you can identify what the definition is within each clue.
Find a friend. There’s no doubt. If you can sit down with someone, whatever their level – someone with an appetite equivalent to yours – then things happen faster, quicker and sweeter. That’s the ethos of the DA Trippers.
Cover image of Antonios Sarhanis by Simon Schluter.