Azed No 1967 ‘Playfair’ (7 Feb 2010)

reviewed by Dr Watson for & lit. – The Azed Slip Archive

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Y Dr Watson’s estimate it’s nearly fifteen years since Azed’s last Playfair competition puzzle, no 1207 in 1995. The puzzle was a regular special appearing every two or three years before then, but the format is beset by two problems. Firstly the number of interesting and clueable codewords is limited, and second the puzzles are notoriously difficult and were attracting a diminishing entry. So since 1995 Playfair has been limited to Christmas puzzles where the codeword can be deduced directly from the solution, and a few non-competition puzzles (who’d want to clue HYDROMAGNETICS?).

But it’s back this month, and Azed has adjusted the format slightly to improve solvability, by making the encoded words thematic (‘linked semantically to the codeword’ as the preamble boldly states). Dr Watson found this change a great help. The encoded solutions are all second-fiddlers of various kinds, leading to the strong possibility of SUBORDINATE or SECONDARY or similar as the codeword. A bit of experimentation led to the discovery of SUBORDINATELY with a satisfying 13 letters (and probably a wealth of anagrams for clue-writers).

However it’s fair to say Azed made no concessions in the rest of the puzzle, and the clues are if anything a little on the hard side, with a possible trap at 7 down that could cause problems. So more a challenge to entertain diehard regulars and test the resolve of newer competitors than a gentle introduction to the mysteries of Playfair.

There’s little to say about solving Playfair that hasn’t been said elsewhere. The most helpful technique is to look for letter pairs where the encoded and unencoded forms share a letter, as this indicates an adjacent pair in a row or column of the Playfair square. Here UNDERMAN and JUNIOR contain two such pairs each.

Notes to the clues:


1.       Footman having to plough yard.  EYBIWK (FLUNKY; flunk + y).  The first of the encoded solutions and a straightforward clue. To plough is to fail one’s exams. The unchecked pair at the end ensures that the solver has built and understood the Playfair grid.

5.       Old US ’tec, amateur when dodgy behaviour’s around.  SHAMUS (ham in sus).  Another detective word to add to the gumshoes and busies. The wordplay isn’t obvious, as the abbreviation ‘Am.’ looks a likely contents.

12.     Black man making bear (American) run.  BROOK (B rook).  A difficult clue to parse, containing two definitions, ‘bear’ (brook2) and ‘(American) run’ (a brook or stream). A rook is a chessman.

13.     Blood was high, leader lost, in retreat.  KNUT ((s)tunk, rev.).  A knut (see under nut in Chambers) is a young blood (‘a swaggering dandy’). With the first letter unchecked, Dr Watson had to trawl the dictionary to find it.

16.     Team showing signs of aging, relegated?  SIDELINED (side lined).  Thankfully, Azed knows and often shows that clues don’t need to be difficult to be clever and entertaining.

18.     Wallaby No. 2 in penalty infringement, right?  RCERNIFS (OFFSIDER; offside r).  The least familiar of the subordinates, in the Northern hemisphere, anyway. Dr Watson spent some time looking for wallabies in Chambers, but ‘Wallaby No. 2’ is the slightly suspect definition. ‘Wallaby’ itself doesn’t mean Australian, though it does refer to the rugby team. So a Wallaby No. 2 wouldn’t necessarily be subordinate, in fact he’d be their hooker. An offsider could be a sidekick, but that’s stretching the pun too far.

19.     Staff inadequately blunder – many will conceal this.  BIEGOPTA (UNDERMAN; hidden).  An easier clue, though Azed steers the solver away from the thematic meaning of the solution.

28.     One in Utgard encountered people identically headed.  ETEN ((m)et (m)en).  Utgard is the land of etens or giants in Norse legend. ‘Met’ and ‘men’ are decapitated in the same way, having their M’s removed.

32.     Younger mussels one goes for in jar.  LIANRS (JUNIOR; Unio for a in jar).  An awkward clue in two ways. The instruction to replace ‘a’ with a synonym of ‘mussels’ (Unio is a mussel genus) is presented in a roundabout way. And then there’s the question of what to do with the J that doesn’t appear in the Playfair square. The answer is to treat is as an I.


1.       In the forest depths, poetic tomb’s reconstructed after life’s end.  EMBOST ((lif)e + anag.).  Dr Watson was delighted to discover a word (emboss2) meaning both ‘to go into the depths of a wood’ and ‘to make foam at the mouth’.

5.       Lawrence – or one such initially joining the navy in south-east.  STERNE (T.E. RN in SE).  The two Lawrences are Lawrence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, and T.E. Lawrence, of Arabia.

4.       Menial taken in by Olympian, a superior pro.  HETAERA (eta in Hera).  An eta was a Japanese of low social class and Hera the wife of Zeus, while a hetaera was a courtesan of ancient Greece.

7.       Greatly belittling what’s small and unimportant, now forgotten, I lie about one.  MINIFICATION (min(now) + I + a in fiction).  The wordplay is unbalanced, possibly deliberately, using six words to indicate the first three letters. But this is less of a problem than the  horrible trap that awaits the hurrying solver. The unchecked letters allow ‘minimisation’ or ‘-ization’ as well as the correct solution, and Chambers lists ‘belittle’ as one of its meanings. Anyone thinking ‘well, it must work somehow’ and not scanning up the ‘minis’ is in for a disappointment. Hopefully inability to resolve the ‘s’ and ‘z’ with the wordplay will have led solvers to give the clue more thought.

17.     Independent couples embracing computer science is flattering, you might say.  IMITATES (I + IT in mates).  An allusion to the saying ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’.

18.     Quarry worker or pop musician?  ROCKMAN (2 meanings).  Accepting that pop and rock music overlap, a very straight clue for a word not found in Chambers. Dr Watson recalled that The Beatles were originally called The Quarrymen, but it was a red herring.

21.     A cornerstore’s tangled with ——: an error possibly!  TESCO (comp. anag. & lit.).  A neat reference to the supermarket giant’s relentless domination of the retail trade, but Dr Watson wasn’t entirely happy with the clue, which, if it is & lit., appears to have two anagram indicators, ‘tangled’ and ‘possibly’.

23.     Palaeozoic arthropod showing round eye part, for unlimited viewing within.  OLENUS (O + U in lens).  A well-constructed clue to a type of trilobite. U is the least restrictive film classification.

27.     Characters leading in great operatic roles? Here’s one.  IGOR (first letters).  The semi-& lit. clue refers to Borodin’s opera Prince Igor.

Other solutions:

Across: 10. MUSTELINE (must4 (rud)e line);  14. OROGEN (anag.);  15. RAMIST (Ra mist);  24. SCREWBALL (screw ball);  25. MATOKE (atok in me);  26. SORTIE (anag.);  29. COIGN (Co(ps) + anag.);  30. TERRAFORM (anag.);  31. ESSENE (anag. + E).  Down: 2. YARR (hidden);  3. BLOOD-LETTERS (lo + anag. all in betters);  4. IMOGEN (mog in i.e. + n);  8. UNUSEFUL (sun-u(p), rev. + anag.);  9. SET-TOS (set + sot, rev.);  11. SINIC (comp. anag. & lit.);  19. BEMETE (met in bee);  20. PREIFE (hidden rev.);  22. ABROMA (A bro ma).

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