Notes for Azed 2,566

There are usually one or two points of interest in an Azed puzzle, and here we pick them out for comment. Please feel free to add your own questions or observations on any aspect of the puzzle (including clues not listed below) either by using the comment form at the bottom of the page or, if would prefer that your question/comment is not publicly visible, by email.

Azed 2,566 ‘Playfair’

Difficulty rating: 5 out of 10 stars (5 / 10)

Don’t be put off attempting this puzzle by the Playfair aspect – it’s perfectly possible to do what I did, solving the four clues without definitions, identifying the link between them, working out the code phrase, and simply encoding the thematic entries into the grid.

I’m not a fan of Playfair puzzles, which I don’t see as a good way of attracting solvers into the world of the barred puzzle. I think it is suited only to puzzles which might be described by aficionados as ‘erudite’ and by less enthusiastic solvers as ‘recondite’. Decoding the cipher has always struck me as tedious, and therefore I am pleased that in recent Playfair puzzles Azed has offered an alternative route by providing clues to the code phrase itself. At the end of these notes I have added a description of how I set about finding the code phrase from the clues, thus avoiding the the decoding process, including parsing for the four clues lacking definitions. After that, I have included the hints that I have given in the past for Playfair decoding where no alternative route to the code phrase is available; this can be ignored by anyone who goes down the ‘guess the code phrase’ route.

I felt that while there were a few simple clues in this puzzle, many made no concession to the extra difficulty associated with the  Playfair aspect, which made cracking the code by establishing the correspondence between clear and encoded forms even less appealing. Anyone who solved it without assistance did very well; if they did it by working back from the encoded entries to discover the code phrase, then they did even better – though I wonder why they bothered, since in order to crack the code they must have solved enough of the asterisked solutions to enable them to establish the code phrase with sufficient certainty to at least try encoding a couple of the thematic solutions.

8a Bishop in usually striped cloth? Not necessarily (4)
A low-tariff &lit, involving a single-letter abbreviation of ‘bishop’ inside a three-letter word for a Syrian cloth of goat or camel hair, usually striped. The ‘not necessarily’ is there to indicate that the bishop in the definition, who may be Syriac or Coptic, is no more likely to be seen about town wearing striped cloth than any other type of fabric.

11a Piano’s left out of tune, though not old, relating to a chord? (6)
An anagram (‘out of tune’) of PIANOS L (‘left’) without O (‘though not old’); the definition takes advantage of ‘chord’ being an old spelling of ‘cord’.

14a What implies Benin is swell (5)
The IVR code for Benin (formerly Dahomey) is DY, and the solution suggests this pair of letters.

17a Oil extraction centre, where you find youngsters, dropping out, in old breeches (8, 2 words)
YOUTH (‘youngsters’) without OUT (‘dropping out’) are found within an archaic Irish word for close-fitting breeches, producing a (3,5) solution.

18a Mark reef at sea: there’s bony fish (4)
A triple definition clue, the first (verb or noun) being the one of the three that is most commonly used by landlubbers.

21a Poet’s bar, supplying special, was out mostly (6)
A two-letter abbreviation for ‘special’ is followed by a five-letter word for ‘was inaccurate’ (‘was out’) without its last letter (‘mostly’). The solution is a Shakespearean word, hence the qualification “Poet’s”.

33a Plastic resin: it was liquid (5)
A two-letter abbreviation for ‘sex appeal’ (‘it’) plus a three-letter word meaning ‘was liquid’ (or at least ‘behaved like a liquid’). ‘It’ is that indefinable quality ascribed to certain female film stars, most famously Clara Bow. She starred in the 1927 film “It”, about which Variety said “You can’t get away from this Clara Bow girl. She certainly has that certain ‘It’…and she just runs away with the film.” Consequently she became known as ‘The It Girl’. Sadly it was not Clara but a character in Elinor Glyn’s novel ‘It’ that Dorothy Parker was referring to when she wrote in a review “And she had It. It, hell; she had Those”.

35a Wild gale or rain? Have this brolly fabric near (6)
A nice composite anagram, where a rearrangement (‘Wild’) of GALE OR RAIN can produce the solution (‘this brolly fabric’) plus NEAR. The material in question, also called zanella cloth, is a mixture of silk and wool or cotton in a close diagonal twill weave (so I understand). The material of choice for lightweight umbrellas in the nineteenth century, it also found favour as a dress material, and makes an appearance as such in Anne of Green Gables: “Oh, how pretty it was—a lovely soft brown gloria with all the gloss of silk; a skirt with dainty frills and shirrings; a waist elaborately pintucked in the most fashionable way, with a little ruffle of filmy lace at the neck. But the sleeves—they were the crowning glory! Long elbow cuffs, and above them two beautiful puffs divided by rows of shirring and bows of brown-silk ribbon.”

2d Old manor: worried when it’s not included in deed (4)
The idea here is that when this four-letter historical word for a manor is put inside DE….ED it produces an eight-letter word meaning ‘worried’ (in  the US, or ‘seasoned highly and broiled’ in the UK), although you have to read the wordplay in the right way.

5d Treat youngsters cruelly, Squeers-style – protective garb needed (7)
Wackford Squeers ensured that both he and Dotheboys Hall lived up to their names, with his predilection towards beatings regularly leading him to ??? ????.

7d Shuffle letter sequence around (not hard?) (5)
Kudos to anyone who solved this without the help of crossing letters. The letter sequence which must be moved around is DEFGHI, but without the H (‘not hard’). I beg to disagree.

9d House denied love latterly, a heap of waste (4)
The sort of house that involves little ducks and obese ladies loses its closing O (‘denied love latterly’) to produce a dialect word for a pile of rubbish that shares its name, and some might say its qualities, with a search engine

10d After battle of the sexes perhaps following shrink? (7)
Not one of Azed’s finest – the battle of the sexes is a BED WAR, and it precedes the usual single-letter abbreviation for ‘following’.

11d What might describe mineral fragments? Well, not these (8)
But this is better. A three-letter word for [a] well is followed by a five-letter word for the people or things that aren’t these (‘not these’).

16d Tennents? This aye disposes of watery beers (8)
Tennents produce Scotland’s best-selling lager, and they (or certain key individuals on their payroll, anyway) could be described by this ‘now mainly Scottish’ word. The wordplay involves a composite anagram, where the solution (‘this’) and AYE can be rearranged (‘disposes of’) WATERY BEERS.

21d Traipse south over clay, losing energy (4)
Solving this clue requires two pieces of knowledge – firstly that the clay which must have its E removed (‘losing energy’) is LUTE, and secondly that a traipse is a slattern.

22d Rarely grasp what was written about soil’s efflorescence (7)
Here we have an old four-letter spelling of a word for ‘written’ invariably seen today with six letters  containing (‘about’) REH, apparently ‘an efflorescence of sodium salts on the soil in India, etc.’ No, me neither.

29d Group of seven? Faces losing six (5)
A seven-letter word for ‘faces’ loses the Roman numerals representing six to produce the members of a group that appeared in the puzzle a few week ago, comprising seven philosophers, statesmen and law-givers of sixth-century Greece.

(definitions are underlined)

How I set about this puzzle

Completing a Playfair puzzle essentially depends on blind-solving the entries which are encoded in the grid, so that is usually the best place to start. Here it seemed the only sensible place to start, since Azed had told us that the solutions to the asterisked clues were linked, being described (collectively, it seemed reasonable to assume) by the code phrase. The most promising clue looked like 25, ‘Cask soak knocked back (6)’; surely this would involve a three-letter word for a cask and a three-letter word for ‘soak’, with either the whole lot or the second word alone reversed (‘knocked back’). I could only think of two three-letter words for ‘soak’ – one being SOT and the other that setters’ favourite RET. Since Azed used ‘soak’ in the sense of ‘drunkard’ in the surface reading, I surmised that his innate deviousness meant that it was more likely to be a verb in the wordplay, so RET was my choice. Between TER??? and ???TER, the latter seemed more promising, and adding TER to the end of a word for a cask (or a peg or nail) gave me the first themed word, together with a good idea of what the link to the others would be.

19, ‘Fish that’s not cooked inside, sent back (6)’ came next, a reversal (‘sent back’) of a three-letter word for ‘not cooked’ reversed (‘sent back’) inside a common three-letter fish, confirming my suspicions. I guessed 1 immediately from the ‘Pop, poorly’ anagram, and although the thematic item at 38 was slightly less familiar, the wordplay was clear enough – a five-letter word meaning ‘subordinate’ inside a three-letter acronym for a special forces unit of the British Army which shares its motto with Derek Trotter.

Since the Playfair code phrase can have no repeated letters, the eleven letter (plural) word that links the four thematic items sprang readily to mind. The abbreviation took a little longer, but when it came to me I was able to write the thirteen-letter (2,11) code phrase into a 5×5 square and encode the four thematic solutions into the grid. Happily they fitted with a few other solutions that I’d put in there while I was trying to think of that second word!

No code cracking required, thankfully. Incidentally, the unchecked letters in 1 are B and U, in 19 GK, in 25 EC, and in 38 A and F.

Playfair Puzzles

The only real option with a Playfair puzzle that provides no hints to the code phrase is to solve the non-Playfair clues to get all of the checked letters in the Playfair solutions (or at the very least the pairs of letters which are both checked in the grid, but don’t forget that you can draw conclusions even from an incomplete quartet), work out the non-encoded answers to the Playfair clues, and then create quartets by relating the checked letter pairs from the encoded answers to the corresponding pairs in the non-coded solutions (eg solution = SOLVED, part completed light in grid = J?TPAG, LV encodes to TP and ED encodes to AG, while SO encodes to J?).

There are probably lots of ways to move forward from there, but I tend to look at the pairs of letters that (assuming the quartet represents a rectangle) are going to be in the same row (in my example L and T, V and P, E and A, D and G, S and J) and those that will be in the same column (in my example, L and P, V and T, E and G, D and A, O and J) and then link with other pairs (so if I find that L and P are in the same column and P and S are in the same column, I know that L, P and S are all in one column). And if I find that a group of letters (L, P and S, say) appear to be in both the same row and the same column? Then we are looking at a line and not a rectangle, so wherever any two of those letters appear as a pair on either side of an encoding, all four letters in that encoding are in the same row or column – so if L, P and S appear to be in the same row and the same column, and LP->IK, then L, P, I, K and S are all in the same row/column and I is (cyclically) to the right of or below L, K to the right of or below P. Oh yes, and Z is probably in the bottom right hand corner!

To which I will add a couple of points:

1. If a letter appears on both sides of an encoding, ie DR encodes to RI, that means that the letters (here D, R and I) appear consecutively in a specific sequence (cyclically) in the same line (could be either a row or a column) – for AB->BC the sequence is ABC (so in the example, DRI), for AB->CA the sequence is BAC.

2. If you can find all the letters in cyclic sequence within a column, eg SBLYU, remember that the letters which don’t appear in the code word are listed alphabetically at the end of the square, so it is likely that at least two, and potentially three, of the letters in the column will be part of this ‘remainder’; therefore they will occur in alphabetical sequence at the end of the column. And not only is Z likely to be in the bottom right-hand corner, but some of its near neighbours at the end of the alphabet will also be on the bottom row.

For a Playfair puzzle to be solvable, the encoded solutions must be obtainable without the help of any checked letters, and the clues for the intersecting words (showing the coded letters) cannot be too difficult (particularly if they only have one checked letter apart from the coded ‘checks’). There was nothing in this crossword that broke those rules.

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11 Responses

  1. Jim says:

    Aargh! I am having technical problems. The instructions in my newspaper have a grid containing ORANGESTICK then the remainder of the alphabet in order, bar J. The instructions then say “This IC becomes CE”. What am I missing?

    • Doctor Clue says:

      Hi Jim

      Does the text in your preamble start “In a Playfair word square the code phrase (in which no letter recurs) is followed by the remaining letters of the alphabet.”?

      If ‘no’, then you are missing a chunk of the preamble and I would suggest getting a complete copy of the puzzle from the Guardian web site: here

      If ‘yes’, then let me know and I will advise further…

      • Jim says:

        No, it starts at “Thus IC becomes CE”. I will go to the website. I hadn’t thought of that. I have done one of these before so I might remember when I see it. I didn’t enjoy it, though. As you say in your intro, the manipulation back and forwards just feels bureaucratic.

        • Doctor Clue says:

          Ah, then your confusion is entirely understandable. Just let me know if I can be of further assistance.

          • Jim says:

            Thanks again. I think I understand. About to start now. Can I assume: a) ONLY clues with asterisk need to be encoded; b) the ‘ORANGESTICK’ grid is an example, bearing no relation to this puzzle? I will have to work out why SG, not GS, and OP, not PO, later (if I ever get there).

            • Doctor Clue says:

              Yes, just four solutions to the asterisked clues need to be encoded; everything else must be entered normally.

              Yes, it is the example which Azed always uses. When the letters to be encoded are at the corners of a rectangle in the Playfair square, the first letter is always encoded as the other corner letter in the same row, so in Azed’s square OC would give GE, while CO would give EG.

              Unless you really fancy the decoding challenge, I would strongly recommend trying to work out the code phrase so that you can just encode the four answers straight into the grid.

              • Jim says:

                Excellent. I now have all but four plain clues solved, and three of the four to encode. Is the code phrase the word that links the asterisked clues, plus an abbreviation for their origin? I will try that, but don’t want to spend the rest of the night chasing a wild goose.

                • Jim says:

                  All done. The theme was certainly helpful; no repeat ketters in the code phrase helped; even the encoding was not as difficult as it sounded from the explanation.

                  Helped with 15, 20 and 31 Down too. Many thanks for your help.

                  • Doctor Clue says:

                    Excellent. One of the problems I have with Playfair puzzles outside of a Listener-type environment is that they sound so darned complicated.

  2. Tim Coates says:

    I did wonder with 8a whether the “not necessarily” referred to the possible spelling of the striped cloth with one or two b’s, according to Chambers.
    The Playfair gave me a hit of nostalgia remembering 40 years ago doing The Listener crossword with a work colleague. This one was a bit of a struggle but I got there in the end with some help from you.

    • Doctor Clue says:

      Hi Tim, and thanks for your comment re 8a.

      I toyed with that idea myself, but couldn’t quite make it work. On reflection, though, I’m not quite sure of Azed’s intention. It certainly works as a fairly standard &lit as per my first explanation, but as you suggest could it conceivably be an &lit clue with an extra twist, based on the fact that the B (bishop) doesn’t necessarily have to be in the cloth (depending on which spelling of the latter is chosen) in order to produce the ABBA bishop? The clue as a whole would then essentially offer a definition and two alternative wordplays – container and contents (ABA with B inside) and double definition (ABBA without B inside). I don’t think that many crossword editors would publish a clue of that form, but this is Azed and I certainly wouldn’t put it past him.