The first puzzle in this series appeared in The Listener magazine on 2nd April 1930. It continued, mostly weekly, until the magazine ceased publication in 1991; the last such puzzle was No 3089. The series then moved to The Times on Saturdays, continuing the numbering sequence. It is currently to be found at the end of the main part of the paper, in the final double-page spread, but it may also be accessed on-line at The Times Crossword Club website (Premium Membership).
From the outset, the puzzle differed from conventional crosswords in having a “theme”, ie, each puzzle contains a feature that affects the clues and/or the grid in some way. Themes are generally either logical in nature, eg, using a code or cipher, or involve some topic, eg a literary work, a quotation or some set of related objects or concepts.
Initially some of the logical themes were occasionally repeated, but this is now rare since the increasing band of active setters have demonstrated an ability to produce sufficient fresh themes week after week. As a result, solvers who attempt all puzzles will encounter over 50 very different themes each year. Themes are often related to specific dates, eg, an anniversary of an author, Christmas, the Cup Final, etc.
Most puzzles contain a more or less conventional grid, usually with sets of across and down clues ordered conventionally. The theme itself may be explicitly stated or have to be deduced. Instructions for this usually appear in a preamble, although sometimes further instructions are derivable from the clues or the grid entries.
This reflects the thematic feature of the series. It is unavoidable that the instructions contained will often use technical terms, although the editors seek to ensure these are consistent between puzzles. The following are the principal terms that may be encountered.
The prime reference for non-thematic material is The Chambers Dictionary. This is popular with setters and experienced solvers, partly because of the variety generated by the many archaic and Scottish words included, as well as some variant spellings. A switch to the 2014 edition took place with effect from the first puzzle of 2015.
The Oxford Dictionary of English (3rd edition) (not to be confused with the Oxford English Dictionary) is a recognised reference for encyclopaedic entries, of which Chambers has no systematic coverage. It can be usefully supplemented by a reasonably sized atlas and a biographical dictionary.
On occasion, a setter has no alternative but to use a very rare word or spelling, to be found in The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), but the editors try to ensure the associated clue is straightforward, so solvers rarely need to access that dictionary.
As to thematic material, setters are advised that “Preference is given to ideas that can be confirmed using commonly available reference books”. In addition to an atlas and biographical dictionary, solvers will sometimes find it useful to be able to access The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.
An increasing number of solvers research thematic material using the internet, but the editors are adamant that they will not accept a puzzle based on material that can be readily accessed only in that way. (Overseas solvers may have to use the internet in place of UK-specific references, such as a Road Atlas.) All solvers can, of course, use this resource if they wish, but they should bear in mind that there is no quality control on the information available; it has been known for a solver to find an erroneous entry. Caveat emptor.
From an early date, the series included some puzzles where the entries were numbers, or even a mixture of numbers and letters. Usually these involve some arithmetic or mathematical theme. It is now normal practice to schedule these as the penultimate puzzles in February, May, August and November, although this may be perturbed by the need to publish a letter-based puzzle on one of those dates, for thematic reasons.
Solvers are not required to use high-level mathematics or computer programming. But in many cases a simple electronic calculator will speed up the solution process.
Like many series of puzzles there is a prize for a small number of correct entries, drawn randomly. But the Listener series involves much more; indeed, every entry is checked, something that is unique for a crossword series in a national newspaper.
The Listener statistician keeps records for all those who submit at least one puzzle in a year. A few months after the end of the year he collates these records and offers, for the cost of an SAE (stamped-addressed envelope), a fascinating account of the year, including numbers of entries (correct and wrong) for each puzzle, a list of the most successful solvers overall and an individualised record for the applicant with a full explanation of every error he or she made.
The most successful solver of all is awarded the Solver Silver Salver and is responsible for nominating the best puzzle of the year, which wins a trophy for its setter.
The prize draw is carried out on the closing date (usually the second Thursday after the puzzle appears). But solvers may still send entries up to the day before the solution appears (three weeks after the puzzle’s publication), provided they alert the statistician in advance and provide good reason, eg, a foreign holiday. Such notifications should be sent to the address for the submission of entries and contain an SAE if an answer is required.
Provided there is sufficient space, the solution for each puzzle contains an explanation of all elements of the puzzle, but not detailed reasoning for each clue’s answer. Careful reading of this will help new solvers develop experience in the puzzle.
The following references will help with clue analyses. The author of the first in the list has been a regular setter in the Listener series for many years.