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Solve Any Crossword

Puzzle savant Erik Agard explains how he does it. Tap to read.

Erik Agard never burns out on crossword puzzles. Not after he’s finished competing at one of the handful of tournaments he attends each year. Not after posting to his website a puzzle he just constructed. Not after doing five puzzles a day for as long as he’s been solving. “Not even during training mode,” he says.

Training mode?

“It’s about 300 puzzles, in two weeks. A lot of reps. I’m not solving from sunup to sunset, but it’s a lot of hours.”

An unassuming twentysomething basketball fan who lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Agard is one of the world’s best crossword solvers. He is to word puzzles what Michael Phelps is to swimming pools. He can do a Monday New York Times puzzle in about a minute and a half—it would take most of us that long to just fill in random answers— and a Los Angeles Times puzzle in a little over a minute. He’s naturally gifted, but he also works at it to get better.

Erik Agard has a soft spot for puzzles.

And so can you. Just follow his five tips to solve faster and better.

Find a foothold
“First, try to find an answer that you’re pretty sure about. That can be wherever. If it’s a harder puzzle, sometimes you have to look around the grid to find that. It helps a lot to start in the top left as opposed to the bottom right because if you have the first letter of a word filled, in as opposed to the last letter of a word, it’s typically easier to get.”

Think laterally
“You really have to be able to step outside of your first reaction. Say the clue is "Supreme leader?" First of all: A question mark always means the puzzle is messing with you. You have to realize that it’s not just the phrase “Supreme leader,” but it’s Supreme as in Diana Ross.

Agard (left) with legendary New York Times Crossword editor Will Shortz.

Memorize the words that only seem to appear in crosswords
“If you venture back to 1993 in the archives, steel yourself for learning some new vocabulary. Like ‘oleo.’ It’s akin to margarine and it’s a big crossword word. It still appears from time to time in The New York Times Crossword.

“Before Will Shortz started editing the Times Crossword in ’93, there was an editor named Eugene Maleska, and his style was more toward archaic or what he might call “erudite” answers. The one that sticks out to me is ‘unau,’ and it’s just some sloth from New Zealand, but it was in puzzles constantly.”

A good crossword tests your knowledge of everything from pop songs to brunch drinks.

Try multiple apps
“Crosswords With Friends and Daily POP Crosswords are the closest to my platonic ideal of what a crossword should be: fun, educational, drawing on a good breadth of knowledge (they have different topics for different days of the week, like in XWF there's a Movie Monday, Sports Fan Friday, etc.), and devoid of those obscurities like ‘alee’ and ‘oleo’ that can make other crosswords seem like such an alien language sometimes.”

Move on if you’re stumped

“The grids are always fully interlocking. So if you can’t get an answer right away, you can always get other areas and work your way back up into it.”

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