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Theme Answers -- Election Day 1996

If you don't know how you got here, it was probably from here, or maybe here.

On Tuesday, November 5, 1996, a standard 15 by 15 crossword puzzle constructed by Jeremiah Farrell appeared in The New York Times that the editor, Will Shortz, said was the most amazing puzzle he'd ever seen.

Before I go on you need to decide whether you want to play the puzzle.  If you do then you should play it now, before you read much further.

To play it, which you should want to do before reading much further, you will need to download and install Litsoft's Across Lite, which is a crossword-playing program.  It's free, it works the way you'd want, and it won't hurt your computer.  If you haven't already, learn more about it here, then download it and install it, then come back.

All righty, now that Across Lite is installed (that was easy, wasn't it?) you're ready to play this remarkable puzzle.  Choose either of the following files.  As long as you don't peek, it does not matter which one you choose; if you do it might.

                Nov0596a.puz   or   Nov0596b.puz

OK, now that you've played the puzzle or decided you really don't want to, go ahead and scroll down.

























xwd_nov0596.gif (4,891 bytes) 11132003
Copyright 1996 New York Times

At left is the entire puzzle grid showing only the important answers.

  • Near the top, "Forecast" = PROGNOSTICATION
  • The all-important clue is  39A: 
    "Lead story in tomorrow's newspaper (!), with 43A"

  • 43A is "See 39A" = ELECTED
  • Near the bottom, "Title for 39A next year" = MISTER PRESIDENT

So, the four theme entries work out to this:



The puzzle is predicting who will win the 1996 presidential election despite the fact the polls hadn't closed as of the morning the puzzle ran.  How could the constructor and the editor be so sure they'd picked the right candidate?

In case you haven't already learned, or figured out, why this puzzle is so clever, take another look, below, at the most important part of the grid while you read the clues for the seven Down answers crossing the crucial seven-letter answer at 39A.


  Moving strictly from left to right, here are the clues for the seven Down answers that intersect 39-Across.

39D  Black Halloween animal
40D  French 101 word
41D  Provider of support, for short
23D  Sewing shop purchase
27D  Short writings
35D  Trumpet
42D  Much-debated political inits.

Hover, then click.



If you played this puzzle, whether it was back in 1996 or just now, did you ever catch on that two entirely different answers were possible?  I know I didn't.

And I now see why I should have.  The clue at 39 Across contains a clue that something unusual is going on, because of that quite uncharacteristic use of an exclamation point (!) inside parentheses.

I don't remember from seven years ago which candidate I filled in for 39 Across, but I do remember I had no idea there could be two answers.  I am curious to know what percentage of players who finished this puzzle correctly remain entirely oblivious, to this day, to the possibility of a different answer.  Well, actually, eight different answers.

This is an outstanding NYT crossword that, I'll bet, not enough people know about.

To begin with, the constructor had to realize, well ahead of time, that there would be an important election between William Jefferson "Bill" Clinton and Robert Joseph "Bob" Dole, and that their names could be made to be the same length, and that no letter in the same position would match, and that diagonal symmetry and all the other rules of grid layout could be maintained.  To even think of this theme gimmick is noteworthy.

To implement it is extraordinary.  The constructor figured out not two or three but seven Down clues that could have two meanings depending on the swapping of one letter for another.

And not just any pair of seven-letter answers, which would be tough enough, but an exactly prescribed set, which means the answers that cross the answers that cross those answers will also be more difficult to invent, not to mention that some of them have to fit the other two theme answers.  And the seven Down answers are not spread out any symmetrical way the author might have wanted, they had to be consecutive.

Altogether, this is a true tour de force of puzzle-making.

Will Shortz, the editor who decided to publish this puzzle, said, "As soon as it appeared, my telephone started ringing.  Most people said, 'How dare you presume that Clinton will win!'  And the people who filled in BOB DOLE thought we'd made a whopper of a mistake!"


Now, aren't you glad you took my advice and played the puzzle first?

And now, you also see why I provided you with a choice of two puzzles, Nov0596a.puz and Nov0596b.puz.  If you peek in Across Lite, the "a" version shows the Clinton answer and the "b" version the Bob Dole answer.

Here are other sources on the subject of Jeremiah Farrell's NYT Election Day crossword puzzle.  Oddly, only one of them mentions his name.


Update of January 2004: I tracked down Professor Farrell and impesturated him for answers to certain questions, and he consented to a sort of e-nterview.  Here is his generous response.

It has taken a bit of time to find and assemble my notes and early results that pertain to the "Election" puzzle and its analogs.  I hope this account will be of interest to you.

For the 1996 election puzzle itself, let me quote Will Shortz from Coral Amende's fine book The Crossword Obsession (Berkley Books, New York, Oct. 2001, ISBN 0-425-68157-X).

WILL SHORTZ: As I’ve often said, this is my favorite crossword of all time.  It actually started back in fall 1980, when I was an associate editor at GAMES.  Constructor Jeremiah Farrell sent me a crossword in which 1 Across could be either CARTER or REAGAN (clued as “Winner of the 1980 Presidential election” or something like that).  Either answer fit with the clues for the crossing words.  For some reason, Maleska, who was the editor at the Times then, had rejected this puzzle.  I thought it was pretty amazing, and told Jerry so.  Unfortunately, GAMES was a bimonthly magazine, and it was too late to get the puzzle into the November/December issue.

Sixteen years later, Jerry remembered my enthusiasm for the idea and constructed a new (and much improved) version of the puzzle involving CLINTON and BOB DOLE.  When the puzzle appeared on Election Day, my phone at the Times started ringing at 9:00 and continued the whole day.  Almost nobody seemed to realize that either answer fit the grid!  The solvers who filled in CLINTON thought that I was being presumptuous at best, and maybe that I was inserting a political opinion into the puzzle.  And the solvers who filled in BOB DOLE thought that I'd made a whopper of a mistake!  Peter Jennings did a piece about the puzzle on ABC News that evening.  He did explain both answers.  And both answers appeared in the Times the next day, along with an explanation.

Will is correct in the details about that 1980 election puzzle.  I can add that Maleska's concern was "What if Anderson wins?"  (John B. Anderson, Independent, received less than 7% of the popular vote in 1980.)

Early in 1981, I decided that this theme of multiple answers was too good to relegate to the ash can and constructed a 15x15 crossword puzzle called "A question of Priority" and submitted it to Miriam Raphael's "Champion Crosswords."  She ran the puzzle in her 1982 collection #3 (Cornerstone Library ISBN 0-346-12556-1).  The key entry was at 56 Across, “The answer to an old priority question,” and the solver was supposed to fill in the 15-letter result “The _ _ _ Came First.”  Of course the three blanks could be filled in with either HEN or EGG.  I like this puzzle because in some zen-like way there is a correct answer but it remains unknown to mere mortals.

In 1996, when it was clear that Clinton and Bob Dole (as he always referred to himself) were nominated, I set to work on the election puzzle.  It took me about 10 hours to construct the first version, which contained the key entries across the middle.  Will Shortz edited much of the puzzle eventually and he and his staff greatly improved it.  They didn’t touch the “election” part.

A sidelight.  The July 9, 2003, NYT Puzzle by Patrick Merrell was about last year’s Tour de France.  The entry at 35 Across was clued “[Prediction] Lance Armstrong at the end of the 2003 20-Across.”  The 13-letter answer could be filled in with either FOUR-TIME CHAMP or FIVE-TIME CHAMP.

This ambiguous answer was so close to the ideas in the Election puzzle that Shortz and Merrell decided to acknowledge my puzzle by starting the first seven across clues with the letters FARRELL in the acrostic style.  I was gratified by this unexpected tribute.

Patrick Merrell is a talented freelance illustrator and graphic designer (http://patrick.merrell.org).  His “Treasure Hunt” puzzle in the Sunday, July 20, 2003, NYT, is one of my favorite puzzles.  I hope that Patrick continues his puzzle career.  His is very imaginative.

As for me, I no longer construct crosswords.  I spend my time writing articles and books on combinatorial games and puzzles.  Some of my students are helping construct wooden models of such puzzles to be used by blind students at the Indiana School for the Blind.

For your essay, however, I offer your readers the following little 3x4 telekinesis puzzle:

First, toss a coin and note the result.

   ACROSS                       DOWN
 1 Your coin shows a ____     1 Half a laugh
 5 Wagner’s earth goddess     2 Station terminus?
 6 Word with one or green     3 Dec follower?
                              4 Certain male

The result in 1-Across should not surprise you.  I caused it to happen at very long range, and at a time of your choosing, by telekinesis!


Jeremiah Farrell
Professor Emeritus, Mathematics
Butler University, Indianapolis, Indiana

What a guy(!)


Update of February 2, 2006: An article in today's Kansas City Star refers to this puzzle as well as to a movie named Wordplay, about which you can read more here.


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