I’ve had a suspicion for a few years now that the New York Times crossword puzzle has become far easier, but the only evidence was that my solving times had improved measurably despite the fact that my late-30s brain now moves at the speed of sludge. How could I be performing at a higher level today than 10 years ago, when I was a sharp 20-something whose synapses fired like lightning? Yes, it’s technically possible I am getting better at crosswords in general—this conclusion would appeal to my ego—but the futility of the wilting brain in all other walks of life made it seem doubtful. I mean, I have to sit and ponder things now, like an old man on a porch swing. Why would I be faster at crosswords?
And yet, a decade ago it would have been a real achievement to complete the three hardest days of the puzzle, Friday through Sunday, with no errors. The first time it happened, it was a very big deal for me, nerdy as that sounds. Back then, a tough Saturday puzzle could take up to an hour. Today, it’s extremely rare that a puzzle will stymie me for longer than 20 minutes, Saturday or otherwise, and when it does it’s usually because I’m tired or buzzed or both.
Finally, a few weeks ago, I decided to run a live experiment, and for help I enlisted some friends with whom I spend 10-15 minutes each day talking and complaining about Will Shortz’s puzzles on a Slack chat room. Some are on roughly equal footing with me, and most are much better—the kind of geniuses who routinely solve Friday and Saturday puzzles in under 10 minutes. To test my hypothesis, I asked them to complete the following act of unpaid labor with me (unpaid for them, that is):
Finish three weeks of Thursday-Saturday puzzles from 2021, three weeks from 2015, three weeks from 2005, and three weeks from 1995.
That’s nine puzzles from each era, and 36 overall, which feels like a decent sample size. Some of my friends completed every puzzle, while some (like me) completed only a portion. Here’s a breakdown of how our times looked by era (asterisks indicate that the solver finished all puzzles):
The headline here is that for every single one of us, 2021 was the easiest slate. I’ll spare you the more granular breakdown, but it was the same if you looked at any individual day. The lower our skill level, the more pronounced the difference, and in fact my times are the least reliable of all, because on several of the older puzzles, I gave up after 45 minutes (even that felt like a lot of wasted time) and assessed myself a penalty. To answer my own question from the first paragraph, those puzzles I found so difficult in my 20s are still just as difficult today. If I had stuck it out for the final sections, I believe I would have completed the puzzle eventually, but the time would be even worse. In that way, I’m almost a perfect test case, because my level is such that I’ll almost never fail to solve a modern puzzle, but take me back 10 years, and some will stump me. I’m an historical tweener.
(There’s one caveat here, which is that topical references will obviously be much easier in the 2021 puzzles, since, well, we live in the year 2021. That said, solving a crossword is more about recognizing letter patterns and general knowledge, and the few pop culture clues sprinkled throughout—though easier in 2021—aren’t numerous enough to make a huge difference, and are certainly not enough to explain the massive time disparity between eras.)
The numbers showed what they showed, and our collective anecdotal experience was unanimous: Things have gotten much easier. Why? Hard to say, but I suspect Steve Melnick, one of the solvers in the table above, pinpointed the likeliest scenario for what he called “The Great Easing.”
“It’s the bane of all public companies,” he wrote, “the need for growth. The crossword is a profit center. Growing means expanding the profitable base with easier, more modern puzzles, even at the risk of alienating hard-line traditional solvers who have memorized every 4 letter river in the world.”
The question that follows is whether the Great Easing is a good thing. On that, to my mild surprise, our opinions were also mostly in accord.
“I vainly prefer the modern puzzles,” wrote Ria Ali, “if only because I’m better at solving them. But also, it’s considerably less fun when you are scrambling to even find a foothold to begin solving…usually, I don’t fill something in and toy with it in my mind unless I’m reasonably sure it’s right. Since I didn’t even know where to begin on some of these, I found myself putting in a lot more iffy guesses just to get something down and see if it would open something up. Naturally, this took a lot more time and was a lot more frustrating.”
“I totally prefer the new way,” Chris Wurst agreed. “While I can certainly see that there would have been joy in surmounting one of those older puzzles, being able to do so more frequently and in a way that feels so much less punitive if you don’t know a certain answer, is much more fun and rewarding. I probably wouldn’t do the puzzles daily if they were as hard as they used to be.”
Dan Wachtell, the fastest solver in our group, has noticed a more recent change.
“It’s discernible even over the past nine months since I’ve started tracking my times. A Saturday puzzle that used to take me 10-15 minutes, or maybe eight or nine on a fast day, is now down to five to six minutes regularly, with eight to nine being the outlier, and even more so since the start of this calendar year. That fear that I might not finish—which was very real as recently as a year or two ago—is completely removed from the equation.”
But he added that even with the easing, there’s still a thrill in posting a very fast time.
Jeremy Weissman put it this way: “If I pull a Saturday puzzle from the archive. I have a healthy fear I won’t be able to finish it without cheating on a lookup…getting stuck in crossword hell—going around and around, grinding through letter combinations on multiple crossings where you have no shadow of a guess—feels like a real misuse of human capability. Losing 15 minutes to a death spiral like that can ruin your appetite to do more puzzles for a long time.”
I tend to agree. There is something to be said for what Weissman called the “eureka moment” of the older, harder puzzles, and he put it brilliantly when he acknowledged that in the newer iterations, “you’re unlikely to have that sublime, Inception-style moment where you somehow just know the constructor wants FERTILECRESCENT here, and you feel like you’ve crawled into their brain for a second.”
That is something to mourn. But my idealism doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: when I was presented with the opportunity to recreate that old feeling in this exercise, the fact is that I lacked both the time and patience to see it through. However I might wax poetic about the good old days, when the puzzle was a sterner test, the proof is in the pudding. It’s simply more accessible when it’s faster and easier, and the fact that some of the very good solvers agree shows, at the very least, that we’re in a new era. Call it a concession to the digital age, or call it evolution, but Will Shortz’s Great Easing has done what it was meant to do.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .