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On diversity in crosswords: Sitting down with New York Times constructor Yacob Yonas ’15

<h5>Courtesy of Yacob Yonas</h5>
Courtesy of Yacob Yonas

Crossword puzzles are hard. Really hard. Every avid solver remembers their first completed puzzle, after much Googling, erasing, and guessing.

“There’s this perception that to solve your first Monday puzzle” — the easiest day of the week in the super-popular New York Times crossword — “you need to bang your head against the wall,” said Yacob Yonas ’15, a software engineer at Runway and a freelance crossword constructor for the Times. Since 2018, he’s made 11 puzzles for the paper. 

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“Try a lot, fail a lot, and eventually something will click,” he said. “But if you don’t know most of the references, you’re going to be S.O.L.”

Therein lies the problem with crossword puzzles, especially in recent years. Constructors orient the references in their puzzles, their themes, clues, and answers, toward crossword puzzles’ traditional audience: old white men. If you don’t know them — too bad. 

Yonas only got into crosswords in 2016, after a friend mentored him on wordlists, constructing software, and specialized vocabulary. Here at the University, there now exists at this paper a pipeline to train and educate new constructors. But The Daily Princetonian’s Puzzles section still has no Black constructors, a persistent issue across the crossword community. Yonas and other Black constructors are working to change that.

More Black constructors — Yonas among them — published puzzles in the Times in 2021 than in either 2018 or 2019. This was spearheaded by “Black Constructors’ Week,” an effort organized by Yonas. And nearly twice as many female constructors published in the two years from 2020–2021 (148) than in the 2018–2019 (89). 

More diverse constructors means more clues accounting for the perspectives and experiences of historically marginalized groups. For example, in the Times puzzle, the answer GAY was clued in reference to homosexuality only four out of its 29 appearances between 1994 and 2015, instead usually being clued as either the emotion or, more obscurely, the 18th-century playwright John Gay.

Since 2015, the answer has been consistently clued in reference to homosexuality (most commonly as “The ‘G’ of L.G.B.T.”). A similar trend exists for TRANS and QUEER. LESBIAN made its first appearance in the Times puzzle in 2019. Answers are becoming more relevant to more diverse groups of people.

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It’s an uphill climb, though. One commenter during the Black Constructors’ Week wrote, “I prefer puzzles to be fun, not dry activist treatises that promote political ideology.” 

Members of comment sections often take up the mantle of judging what are “good” or “bad” answers. Commenters will often decry a puzzle as “bad” if its answers do not fit their body of knowledge. Another comment, on the same puzzle, wrote: “The puzzle foregoes intelligence and skill for driving home its political point.”

These comments may go unnoticed in the depths of obscure blogs — but sometimes, such sentiments exist on a larger platform. XWord Info is a database of the entire history of The New York Times crossword; its statistics, clue archive, and analysis are invaluable tools for every constructor. The website calls itself “the essential resource for crossword constructors and enthusiasts.”

Every Times puzzle is reviewed on this website by Jeff Chen, a professional constructor who has collaborated with 51 different contributors, far more than any others in the field. Chen is the sole operator of XWord Info.

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In a XWord Info essay that was influential in the puzzle community, Kameron Austin Collins GS 16 applauded Chen for lowering the barrier of entry for prospective constructors. Collins is Black and participated in the Times’s Black Constructors’ Week. He is a crossword contributor for the New Yorker and has published 20 puzzles as a freelancer for the New York Times.

“[That essay] changed the tone of the conversation” around crosswords, Yonas said.

“Jeff has regularly mentored constructors, underrepresented and not,” Collins wrote in the essay. “His column reads — in sum, and in the broader context of XWord Info — like a running tutorial on how to make publishable crosswords.”

But Chen’s common knowledge is as subjective as any of those commenters. He was skeptical of  the answer OLIVIA POPE, Kerry Washington’s character in “Scandal” for which she was nominated for an Emmy and Golden Globe award. He didn’t like the answer CHAKA with the clue “Singer Khan,” thinking it too obscure; the funk singer has won ten Grammy awards and has two platinum albums. Chen asked “WTF?” to the answer HAUDENOSAUNEE, the traditional name of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Collins’s essay explains that because Chen and his website has an educational mission to be “the essential resource for constructors and enthusiasts,” his opinions teach constructors that they should hew to the same old answers, making the same old references, for the same old solvers. 

Chen wrote of the answer INUKTITUT (the language of the Inuit people), “I wonder if it alienated some solvers. Not everyone loves forced learning.” This is the problem: solvers don’t want to learn. This problem around learning — especially learning about communities other than the typical solver’s own — is persistent in the world of puzzles. If an answer is unknown to a solver, it must be a bad puzzle.

So what, then, is the solution? Yonas thinks that solvers need a change in attitude. 

“We should get to the point where people see it as a thing to learn rather than a way for people to prove that they’re smart,” he said. “If we make more references, make a more diverse constructor base, then we can get closer to making that happen.”

“If we had more people lifting up things they learned, things that challenged the way they see the world, it would enforce a different behavior,” he continued.

Answers referencing diverse communities ought to be seen as valuable learning experiences, not annoying esoterica, Yonas argued. More solvers with this ethos will encourage editors to publish more answers that go beyond ‘baseball and opera’ — the vernacular of the rich old white people who tend to solve puzzles with their morning coffee.

“Making more diverse and relevant references to all communities will bolster the solver pipeline. Then there is a natural pipeline from solvers to constructors,” he said. “If you make solvers more diverse, it makes constructors more diverse.”

When asked what he intends to do to help these efforts, Yonas had a simple answer: “I’m most concerned with bringing the puzzle to people who didn’t think the puzzle was for them.” 

Gabriel Robare is the head puzzles editor and a writer for various other sections at the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

If you are interested in joining the ‘Prince’ Puzzles section, email puzzles@dailyprincetonian.com.

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