Friday, October 24, 2014

Playfair Square - October 2014

October 2014 | Harper's Cryptic puzzle solution

This was some real bullshit.

We say this even though we were the winners this month, and this is a plural “we” as ye shall see. Sweet V necessar-y. But the sweetness of victory can't stop the smell of pee (the smell is coming from the puzzle).

There are those within our readership who welcome this type of fuckery and unto you we say, “excelsior!” Go for it. Love it. But this type of next-level nonsense was imposed on we vanilla variety cryptic doers, and why? Why do the puzzle instructions trigger psychogenic hallucinations? Why do we feel a Python script is necessary to decrypt this tomb of terrors? Where is that fun lateral-thinking “knowing it's right” quality? Why has it been replaced with a K-hole of trial and error and self-doubt (and nightmares)?

The Theme

Four answers encoded with a “Playfair” square. From Wiki:
The technique encrypts pairs of letters (digraphs), instead of single letters as in the simple substitution cipher and rather more complex Vigenère cipher systems then in use. The Playfair is thus significantly harder to break since the frequency analysis used for simple substitution ciphers does not work with it.

Yar. At times like these, we think of Bohemian Rhapsody: Did you think you could stomp me and spit in my eye? Did you think you could love me and leave me to die??

Freddie Mercury | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
Natürlich Freddie Mercury is this month's Nerd Hot Guy
And then we draw power and defiance, and feel confidence in our self-reliance. And we have the courage to start solving the problem. Which, starting is the hardest part. Hard part's over.

Ok so: we solved the entire puzzle, including theme clues, but for:
  • 1A) Floor kiss—it's not worth much in Moscow (6)
    (Floor = KO) + (kiss = PECK) = KOPECK
The other three themers:
  • 33A) Objects to having in new girls' school heads (6)
    to having in new girls' = THINGS

  • 10D) Criminal cowers—I'm held up in a bank, maybe (6)
    COWERS * anagram = ESCROW

  • 20A) Baroque motets produced by some Poles (6)
    MOTETS * anagram = TOTEMS
And so then by filling in the rest of the grid, we had a solid group of pair mappings to work with.

TH maps to S and something else (no cross)
IN maps to NG
GS maps to ST

This was clutch. Because the only way these mappings could work was if I N G were in the same row (or col) and if G S T were /also/ in the same row (or column). It made much more sense for them to be in the same row, though, as a character string in the code word at the top of the Playfair square. And prolly all five of them in the same row.

Ok COOL. We pulled out our trusty Scrabbo set. So useful for times like these.
Scrabble | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
We set up our Scrabbo tiles as I N G S T at the top, as a string in the keyword:
Scrabble 2 | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
The other mappings:

ES maps to HG
CR maps to DA
OW maps to something (no cross) and X

TO maps to I and something else (no cross)
TE maps to GA
MS maps to LT

So exactly as the Wikipedia entry on Playfair says, it confused and perplexed us mightily that mappings for individual letters are not unique. In particular on TOTEMS that MS maps to LT but in THINGS GS maps to ST. Shouldn't the S to T part necessarily have a unique correspondant? Right?

Wrong. The pair has a unique map. Not the individual letter. We were slow to grasp that. We read it, on the Wikipedia. But even then, nope. Still didn't GRASP

We left the tiles on the table for Sweet V and took a nap. When we awoke, the Sweet One had solved it.
Vlad solved it for Erica | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
The Playfair Square Solution | Harper's October 2014 | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
Erica loves Vlad | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
Yielding the Northern Hemispherically seasonally appropriate key word HARVESTING.
The Harvest | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
How did he do it!! “The Scrabble tiles were clutch,” he said. “I could slide columns around and then check.” Once S T I N G was tried, the rest fell into place quickly. Dear Readers with efficient systems for solving are invited to leave comments belowwwwww.

Keyword decrypted, thus yielding the unchecked crosses (underlined below):
We hope this was at all helpful to you in parsing the stupid terrible awful bullshit nightmare of the Playfair Square. If you were unlucky enough to attempt it without a Sweet Vlad by your side, may the g0ds have halped ye.


  • 6A) Grouse hunting, initially, after old soldier enters Kansas City (6)
    (hunting initially = H) after (old soldier = VET) enters (Kansas City = KC) = KVETCH
Nice. We have an excellent friend, Miguel, whose dad cybersquatted the site “” for years. He was sure it'd be a seller: an online forum [for Jews] to talk about health [problems]. medkvetch. No takers. Catchy title, though! Kvetch | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
  • 14A) Saint-Exupèry's fictitious nation (English) (7)
    (NATION + (English = E)) * anagram = ANTOINE
Antoine, quit playing. Big Gay Al | Antoine quit playing | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues

This was an excellent psych out! So certain were we that a Le Petit Prince reference was in store. B‑612. Non non!

PS that we and our mommazon took a trip to France the other week. Nice and not-Nice. We had to make a lot of “Nice/nice” puns before our mom caught on. But once she was wise, she was a ruthless punster like her daughter. Michele and Erica | Palais, Paris | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
  • 15A) Go right up to nameless, upset Ann Davis at a screening (5)
    (Go right = GEE) + ((ANN * nameless = AN) * upset = NA) = GEENA
Strong. Love Geena. Geena Davis | Commander in Chief | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
  • 18A) Part of the Masters of Sex cast act in Entering the Womb (10)
    (act = DO) + IN entering (womb = MATRIX) = DOMINATRIX

From Old French matrice (“pregnant animal”), from Latin mātrīx (“dam, womb”), from māter (“mother”).

Source: Witchinary

Takin' the matrix back to its mother roots! Like 14A), this clue was another psych-out: we were certain it'd be a Lizzy Kaplan or Michael Sheen reference. By the way, have you watched Masters of Sex? Our brother and mommazon love it, so we gave it a shot. But it's so annoying to sit through the “revelations” about human sexuality. Like they have to reconstruct the female orgasm from primitives. Like: “woman's sexual pleasure, a recent invention, a new discovery! Kama what now?” It saddens us a little for the people who lived through that time, alienated from their own bodies and the bodies of their partners. But mostly we get annoyed. Ain't no time for that.
  • 20A) Close Encounters II—semantic issues from it (10)
Oh, just wonderful! Loved. Big anagrams like this always love. Shout out to young Dick Drife.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
  • 23A) Edward Snowden, for example, is more desolate having got leadership removed (6)
    (more desolate + BLEAKER) * leadership removed = LEAKER
Thought this might be something fun and inflammatory like “AMERICAN HERO.”
Edward Snowden at TED | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
  • 28A) Stuck in a hotel, perhaps (7)
    LODGING (synonyms)
Stuck in a hotel ... just a few lines down from the Snowden clue and is that mere coincidence???
  • 30A) Build up or tear down, it's all the same to my ears (5)
    RAISE (homophone)
Yesss! Love. Similar to UNITE / UNTIE. A word so nearly its own opposite, contradictory, containeth multitudes. Excellent.
  • 31A) Relaxed state, finally, in death, introduced by heads of England (8)
    (state finally = E) in (death = END) introduced by (heads of England = LOOS) = LOOSENED
“'Ello, love! Gotta use the loo, Cheerio!” That sentence is a good example of what we might say to you were we showing off our British accent. Just imagine how good our British accent is. Pret-ty good!
  • 1D) Group of soldiers cut off the rear? (6)
    DETAIL (de-tail)
Sweet. Simple. Narrative. Lose the question mark at the end and we think it's perfect. Detailing a lobster | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
  • 4D) Victory over Stravinsky produces zip (5)
    (Victory = V) + (Stravinsky = IGOR) = VIGOR
Excellent!! So fun. Igor Stravinsky | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
  • 5D) It's liable in N.Y. to be mismanaged on a regular basis (10)
Sweet sweeping anagram! Cutting narrative. Beautiful. Not sure why for to include the periods in “N.Y.” except to maybe specify “New York [City]” but then, mismanagement could perhaps duly apply to the whole state, non? N'est-ce pas? Sorry, did we just French? We were just in France, did we mention? Accidentally Frenched you, there.
  • 7D) Through with looking old, finish off medicine that keeps you up for hours (6)
    (Through = VIA) + ((looking old = GRAY) * finish off = GRA) = VIAGRA
Nice. Excellent narrative. Through with looking old [in my pants]! Where's the medicine that will keep [my penis] up??? Viagra | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
  • 8D) Understanding the heart of XXX? (7)
    (XXX = TEN TEN TEN) * heart = ENTENTE
Whoa. This was a fresh take on XXX. Inventive. Lovely.
  • 17D) Silences working things needed for driving (8)
    SILENCES * anagram = LICENSES
This one not pertickly specktaclar, just a fun straightforward annagramma, but calling it out cuz it reminds us of working on a Canadian Tire spam email at that corporate marketing gig and one of the late edits was to change “license” to “licence.”


  • 16A) First sign of a thaw in cure for disorder in reading (3,3)
    IN CURE * anagram = ICE RUN
What kind of run, now? Our margin notes speculated “SAP RUN?” and “PIG RUN???”
Cute pigs | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
  • 24A) Polish 14A, brilliant only for self-revelation (5)
    brilliant only = ANTON
Relies on getting ANTOINE for 14A, and boo. We hate those non-standaloners. “self-revelation” as an indicator for hidden words ... annoying. But also fresh. Haven't seen that one before.
  • 27A) Gin, i.e.: distilled strong spirits (5)
    GIN IE * anagram = GENII
Ummmmmmmm too easy. This is a mysterious uncommon? Handed over on a platter right in the first two words? Djinn | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
  • 2D) Geometric pattern that's a cross between an endless test and a short-cut is a number, an indefinite number of times (8)
    ((test = QUIZ) * endless = QUI) + (short CUT = CU) + (number = N) + (number = N) + (times = X) = QUINCUNX
We like quincunx, and shout out to June 2012 where last it appeared in the Harper's. But “number” to mean “N” ... twice?? Quincannot. Quincome on.

The Tacky!

Nothing outright tacky to us, aside from the play-nastiness of the Play-Unfair Square. Invented by this guy, Charles Wheatstone: Charles Wheatstone | via Wikimedia | Tacky Harper's Cryptic Clues
Image via Wikimedia

Awesome for use as a code. Hard to break. Hard to even, like, do with the instructions AND answer key in front of you. Does it belong in a garden variety cryptic ermmmmmmmmmmmmmm no.

Ok but so this victory! We got a voicemail (from Puzzle Minion???) informing us! No letter this time. That was nice. A phone call. Old school. Classy.

Please leave a comment. Especially if you have comments on how to solve a Playfair Square without enormous efforts of trial and error.


  1. Lemme give you a quick insight into the process of solving the square, or what I remember of it consciously. The trick was noticing that, if a configuration was valid as far as one tuple of letters was concerned, then circular shifting the corresponding rows/columns by the same amount also yields a valid configuration for that tuple. By circular shifting, I mean shifting a row (for example) to the left, then moving the leftmost letter to the right of the row.

    1. I've also heard this referred to as "toroidal shifting."

  2. Congrats on the win. I may have been disqualified from this month's contest on a technicality:

    1. I think link you posted might be strictly internal to your account so no-can-see, but drag to be disqualified. Have you done the November puzzle? I think I found ... /errors/. I know. I *know*.

      Waiting for real official answer key to check against cuz the last thing I'd want is to falsely accuse Maltby & co. of errors.

    2. Bleh, social media is hard. It was a picture of the postmaster returning my envelope because I forgot to write "Harpers" and only put the puzzle title. I actually did that months puzzle early so I resent it in the hope it would sneak back in. The lengths I go to for a shot at glory.

      I did November's puzzle. The only possible error I noticed was that the definition seemed out of place in one clue.

    3. re: postmaster
      Crimey, that's a drag. Drag, that's a crime! I believe in you, tho. Some month soon, ye shall drink from the cup of glory.

      re: error
      Footer of the puzzle says mail in by "October 10." And 31D is the clue that seemed erroneous to me. Let's discuss next week!

    4. Oh right, I noticed the date too. Definitely an error, otherwise Harper's is continuing to pull back the number of monthly winners from 3 to 1 to "only the time travelling elite."

      Hm, 31D was obscure but the cluing checks out to me. I thought 11A had an ordering issue.

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