For more than 50 million Americans, solving a crossword puzzle is a part of life.
But only one can claim to be the best in the country.
That distinction goes to Howard Barkin, a New Jersey software analyst who won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament earlier this month.
In an interview with Business Insider, Barkin broke down how the average person can improve their crossword skills.
1. Start off with easier puzzles
The New York Times crossword puzzle — the gold standard of crosswords in the United States — increases in difficulty each day of the week. The easiest puzzles come on Mondays, and get progressively harder through Saturday.
(Sunday puzzles, while bigger in size, are about the same level of difficulty as a Thursday puzzle.)
Don’t get discouraged trying to do a puzzle that’s out of your league, Barkin told Business Insider. Start on a Monday and work your way up.
2. Try to learn a little of everything
Decades ago, crossword clues were generally limited to dictionary definitions, Barkin said. However, modern puzzles require solvers to catch references to pop culture, sports, current events, geography, and history.
“You don’t have to learn them very deeply, you just have to be aware of certain things,” Barkin said. “Anything they could possibly ask on Jeopardy. You have to have an open mind to learn just about anything.”
Barkin reads as much as possible to stay on top of his game.
His preparation paid off at the tournament, when one of the puzzles called for a seven-letter word for “Talkative Windows assistant.” The clue tripped up a number of competitors. Barkin recalled a tech article he had read about Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-recognition software that debuted in 2014, allowing him to finish the puzzle and stay on his championship pace.
Howard Barkin posing with his trophy after winning the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament
3. Google is your friend
Purists may disagree, but there’s nothing wrong with looking up an unfamiliar word or name you come across.
“If you don’t know something, don’t be ashamed to Google it. That’s how you learn,” Barkin told Business Insider.
“Who is that? What are they famous for?” he said. “Don’t just say, ‘I don’t like opera.’ I’m not an opera fan, but if I see a clue about it, I’ll look it up and read about it.”
4. Start with the blanks
In every crossword, there are a few clues that are simple fill-in-the-blanks. You want to knock those out first, Barkin said. The clues are usually on the easier side, and they will give you a confidence boost.
At the national championship this month, even some of the trickiest puzzles had a handful of straightforward fill-in-the-blank clues, including “Eeny meeny _____ moe” and “Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight ______.'”
5. Recognise words that appear over and over
Do enough crosswords and you’ll notice that some words seem to appear in puzzle after puzzle. These are usually short words that use common letters and have an unusual ratio of vowels to consonants, like “era,” “idea” and “Oreo.”
“I think I’ve seen every possible way you can clue that cookie,” Barkin said.
The unique compositions of these words make them a godsend for puzzle makers, who can plug them into tight corners of the grid.
But some of the most crossword-friendly words are obscure to the average person. Unless you’re an opera fan, you probably don’t know what an “aria” is, and it’s unlikely for someone who isn’t a baseball diehard to be familiar with the name “Ott.” And even fewer people have heard of an “ogee,” an S-shaped curve used in architecture.
“In my entire life I’ve seen [ogee] come up maybe once in the wild,” New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz told Business Insider.
Flickr Creative Commons/Chip Griffin
6. Stay cool
It can be frustrating when you get stuck on a clue, but you’ll never finish the puzzle if you lose your composure. Try moving to another corner of the grid, and coming back to the troublesome clue later.
“You’re really competing against yourself,” Barkin said. “It’s not a chess game where somebody’s move affects you. The pressure you put on is on yourself, because you’re competing against a puzzle.”
That holds true whether you’re solving a puzzle on your coffee break or competing against 600 other people in a tournament.
“I can’t control what the person next to me does. It’s kind of a cool mental test like that,” he said.