Jun 24, 2016

Interview with Howard Barkin

For those who are not familiar with the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Howard Barkin, our constructor today, is the reigning champion. 

You can watch the finals here. Forward to the 1:53 mark if you're too impatient. Howard is on the left. The great Dan Feyer, six-time (consecutive) ACPT champion, is in the middle. On the right is David Plotkin, another super solver.

Howard is also wonderful constructor. Besides L.A. Times, he has been published by the New York Times and BuzzFeed

 
Source: ACPT 2016


How long did it take you to solve this puzzle and what's your average time for a LAT Friday?

I don't solve my own puzzles, so no time on this. On average, and depending on whether there are tricks involved, Friday LAT is solved (online) between 2 1/2 and 4 minutes. On paper, between 3 and 5.

What were the other RING candidates you considered but discarded?

Originally I wanted all theme answers to be fully standalone phrases, with GELATIN MOLD as a ring, but that was not quite specific enough. BOXING ARENA was also a proposed option but again, that is not specifically a ring. So this became BOXING VENUE.

Where were the trouble spots in your filling process? It's not often that a 15-letter theme entry starts on Row 4 rather than the traditional Row 3.


I did want to make a customized, original design and challenge myself a bit. The top-right corner really didn't lead me to the kind of fun fill I wanted, so it's a little bit plain. The KOI / GALEN area was also tricker than expected.

Can you tell us  a bit about your background? How did you get into crossword solving and later on construction?

I got into solving as something to pass 30 minutes on a lunch break of a rather unpleasant job I had at the time. I tried different kinds of puzzles, but crossword solving was the most fun for that time limit. The hobby went from there to a more focused interest.

As far as constructing, I dabbled a little bit in it at first, trying to write (terrible) puzzles on paper and in a spreadsheet. I returned to it in 2013, where I slowly learned the finer points of construction and style; my first LA Times was published that year. I try to construct a little nowadays after the kids are in bed and all the dishes and laundry are done ;).
  
What kind of theme and entries interest you the most and what kind do you try to avoid in your grids?

I tend to construct from my comfort zones. My first puzzle centered around baby items in a CRIB, after my first daughter was born. I like fun little wordplay themes, where letters are in a pattern or changed; something light that you can enjoy with tea or coffee, basically.
 
Which part do you enjoy the most in the construction process: theme development, filling or cluing?

For me, the filling is the most fun; trying to find the best combination of familiarity to meet the intended difficulty of the puzzle. I tend to try to make more accessible puzzles, so as many people as possible can feel good about solving it.

 
Do you use Crossword Compiler to make puzzles also? What kind of reference tools do you use for cluing?

Yes, I use a combination of Crossword Compiler and CrossFire, each of which has its benefits to make construction easier. I also use Xwordinfo's clue finder and Onelook.com for matching specific patterns. But these tools only help to find what has already been done, and how often, or whether or not a particular fill or pattern is viable.
There is no substitute for your own brain.

How many puzzles do you solve every day? Do you prefer solving online or do you print out the puzzles and solve leisurely?

These days, between work and family, there are days in which I solve no puzzles, and some days in which I may binge solve 5-10 puzzles to catch up. For that I solve online for the convenience. But for LA Times puzzles, these are syndicated in a local paper, so I prefer to solve on paper, leisurely with a cup of coffee. Speed-solving is an entirely different thing.

Does constructing puzzles improve your solving time? Also, how does solving puzzles influence the way you construct?

I would say that in general no, it does not improve solving time. What constructing does for solving is give a better idea of what the constructor would do, given certain letters. This helps very much when stuck in an area, to figure out possibilities for letters and break open the tough part.

Besides crosswords, what else do you do for fun?
 
Being daddy to my two daughters (4 and 1 at time of writing)  is the biggest thing. I still occasionally play street hockey at night in our local league - it's pretty popular here in New Jersey. We play by ice hockey rules, but without skates on an indoor court. Just played as a goalie last night and I'm pretty sore today - I'm not getting younger, but it seems the other players are ;).

2 comments:

Lemonade714 said...

Thank you C.C. for introducing us to Howard. I kept waiting for a hockey reference in today's puzzle and was pleased to learn he played as well watched. Yo Splynter.

Howard in addition to being a champion speed solver is a regular poster on other blogs and is very well liked in the CW community.

Thanks HB are for coming to play in our corner

Anonymous said...

Classy. Nice.