Feb 22, 2015

Interview with Alex Vratsanos

This is our first encounter with constructor Alex Vratsanos, who has had 10 puzzles published by the New York Times alone. Alex hit for the cycle (his puzzles appeared in every day of the week) with his 8th puzzle last June. That's a record!

Alex was also published by the Chronicle of Higher Education (a collaboration with George Barany),  and in Twenty Under Thirty, and he has several additional puzzles that have been accepted by the LAT.

XWord Info Picture

How did this theme come to you and what were the other theme answers you also considered but discarded?
This concept of using a decade to indicate a letter count came to me in early summer 2014, though in the form of the '80s. Finding nothing usable with eight E's, I ran through the remaining possibilities and found that '60s was the only one that had a chance of working. I guess I got very lucky to find six theme entries that were the right lengths and could intersect.
I don't think I could make a 6-themer work for a 21*21. I would not be so imaginative & daring to start the first theme entry at Row 6 and stack two pairs the way you did. Can you tell us a bit about your grid designing process? What were the trouble spots during the filling?

With the six theme entries in place, I started the fill at those words that crossed three of them. After finding ones that worked, I turned to the areas between TAKIN' IT TO THE STREETS and the other Across theme entries, leaving the areas at the top and bottom of the grid for last. I am very pleased with the changes Rich made, the biggest one being shortening the title (from "Puzzle of the '60s") and in adding the asterisk to it and the theme clues. I also must thank my friend Ned White for the support he gave to this puzzle during its development.

What's your background? And how did you get into crossword construction?

I constructed my first crossword in August 2006, while still in middle school. Over the next few years, I learned the language and rules of crosswords and submitted my first one in February 2009, but it wasn't until June 2011 that I received my first acceptance and publication. I have since had about 20 puzzles accepted by the major outlets, but this is my LA Times debut. Outside of Crossworld, I am currently completing an A.A. in Business Administration at Lehigh Carbon Community College, and plan to begin pursuing a B.S. in Accounting at Kutztown University this fall.

What kind of theme & fill fascinate you and what kind do you try to avoid in your grids?

Being a Scrabble fan, I try to include entries with the less common letters where I can. On the other hand, I try very hard to avoid partials and dupes of short words like IN and ON.

Which part do you enjoy the most in the construction process: theme development, filling or cluing?

Of those three, filling is my favorite and cluing is my least favorite.

What kind of reference tools do you use for crossword construction & cluing?

I use Crossword Compiler for constructing, and I take advantage of all the online and print resources that most constructors use. Once I have a puzzle pretty far along, I run it by George Barany and his team, and they in turn make incisive suggestions on how to improve it.

Besides crosswords, what are your other hobbies?

My other hobbies include chess, a variety of sports and other games, and staying up to date on the stock market. I guess that may not sound like much, but my academic studies and job at Walmart #2145 take up a lot of my time. I am very glad to have had time to answer these questions, though. :-)


maripro said...

Terrific interview. I'm so glad to get to know a little about Alex. I'll be watching for his puzzles from now on.

Irish Miss said...

It's always a pleasure to gain some insight into how the constructors approach and execute their finished product. Thanks for sharing with us, Alex and CC.

Steve said...

I find it interesting that Alex tried to find eight "E" entries at first - that would have had me totally confused because I pronounce the "T" in "eighties" (and seventies, et al), I don't elide those consonants.

There's a real difficulty with finding "sound" themes that work - you have to take into account the different ways people pronounce words.

C.C. and I had a puzzle rejected by the NYT a little while back because Will Shortz didn't pronounce a couple of the theme words the way that we did.

Lemonade714 said...

Interesting young man; odd that he started constructing in middle school. My boys were into video games and skatebaords

Tom Wilson said...

This is the first time I've ever looked up the name of a crossword puzzle creator, let alone write a note. I have to take Mr Vratsonos to task with a clue from a recent LA Times crossword that was published in the Omaha World Herald on Friday Feb 5, 2016. The clue for a four letter word was "Historic Omaha suburb", with the answer being "Boys". While there is reference to it as a suburb in the extremely accurate (sic) WIKI-pedia the usage has been always as one word or phrase; i.e. BOYSTOWN. It is of course extremely well known from the money, and as headquarters for an amazing organization serving youth across the country. One of it's graduates is a member of the Super Bowl winning Denver Bronco's (#48 Shaquille Barrett), and it is a village that at one time was way out in the farm land outside of Omaha, but now if totally surrounded by the city. No one locally calls it "BOYS", it is "BOYSTOWN".

Not ranting, just feeling like accuracy is important.

Argyle said...

Perhaps you should have read the expo (here) before commenting.