Crosswords: what to do when a puzzle looks harder than it actually is

<span>‘When you think something’s hard, it then is.’</span><span>Photograph: David Sillitoe/The Guardian</span>
‘When you think something’s hard, it then is.’Photograph: David Sillitoe/The Guardian

I was finding a recent puzzle a challenge, and wrote as much by the setter’s pseudonym: HARD. A few clues further in, it felt not just hard, but also … familiar. How could this be?

I had a look through my clipboards, and there it was. Due to a filing error, this was a puzzle I had solved a month earlier.

Written by the setter’s pseudonym: EASY.

The phenomenon is sometimes easily explained, like those moments in 2021 and 2022 where I said to myself: well, well, the quick is getting harder and harder, not like the old days – before remembering that I was in bed having tested positive for Covid-19.

Other times, less prosaically, it’s to do with my expectations. Often, when I’ve been struggling with a clue in one of the weekend puzzles with no black squares and added endgame shenanigans, I realise that it’s nowhere near as demanding as I’d thought. The “cross” in the clue is not a ZHO somewhere in the answer or even a ZO (a Himalayan hybrid cattle; Chambers also gives DSO, DZO and incredibly DZHO), but an actual cross. An X. A clue that could have appeared in a reasonable puzzle.

When you think something’s hard, it then is. I mention this because there have been enough remarks recently suggesting that the Observer’s entry-level Everyman puzzle (of which I am the sixth incumbent) is “getting harder than it used to be” to make me worried that some solvers might be tempted to believe it.

Everyman is not supposed to be a taxing exercise. Looking at the recent range: it almost never uses a reverse hidden. It clues E with “constant” less than once a year. It never mentions Bolivian poets. Perhaps our new quick cryptic series has been so effective in its approachability, it has redefined the centre?

(The reference to Bolivian poets is from Reginald Perrin, who wondered if it was the puzzles or him. “Can’t finish the crossword like you used to?”)

More likely the best way of thinking about this is, as usual, to turn it into a game, or at least a kind of challenge.

Can anyone find an Everyman puzzle – one of those fine examples from before the 2020s – that is easier than today’s Everyman? The first in the archives is 2,965, from an issue dominated by the invasion of Iraq.

If anyone is successful, I will donate £100 to the Minesweepers Fund (if it still exists) and use the vintage Everyman to recalibrate the Difficultothon 3000 algorithm that helps me gauge the fiendishness of Everyman clues.

In the meantime, does anyone have a trick to help them solve (other than looking things up, which is fine)? Do you avoid looking at the setter’s pseudonym, perhaps? Or do you, like me, find that getting halfway to looking something up is the prompt that as often as not brings the word to mind?

The crossword blog returns on 10 June