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Thursday, 7 November, 2002, 10:25 GMT
Tales from a cryptic crossworder
Roger Squires, Guinness record holder for compiling crosswords
Roger Squires, the world's most prolific crossword compiler, has set one of his hardest puzzles yet - a 3D teaser that is part of an online treasure hunt expected to take gamers up to a year to crack.

I hold the world record for the most crosswords set - almost 59,000 now - and I was recently asked to supply a crossword that would fit onto a Rubik's Cube.

Terry Pratchett
Author Terry Pratchett is among the contributors
It's for TimeHunt, an online treasure hunt on the themes of time, science and Renaissance thought. My wife and I looked at the list of other people who have contributed puzzles in one form or another, and we recognised 90% of the names - Terry Pratchett and Germaine Greer among them.

I joined such illustrious company because the inventor is a fan of my Guardian crosswords.

I think it's one of the most difficult puzzles I have ever provided. The solver has to find clues which only fit on the cube in one formation. By its nature, some solutions go one way, others in different directions.

TimeHunt puzzle
The 3D puzzle Roger set for TimeHunt
I currently produce 32 crosswords a week for The Times, Daily Telegraph, Glasgow Herald and other newspapers.

I set crosswords under the names of Rufus, for my initials RFS; Dante, after a famous magician in the 1940s because I'm an ex-magician; and Icarus, because I always used to fly too high and come down to earth too rapidly when I was a navigator in the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm.

In fact I'm in the Goldfish Club, for crashing into the sea. We were coming into land and the plane stalled near the aircraft carrier. We fell about 300 feet and sank right next to the propeller. The pilot was killed but I managed to get out 60 feet beneath the sea. I popped up like a cork, covered in oil, and was picked up by a helicopter.

Record holder

It was in the Navy that I started setting crosswords. My air crew banned me from playing cards after seeing me shuffle a pack and give myself 13 spades.

Guinness Book of Records website
Roger first became a record holder in 1978
So while they played cards for money, I did crosswords. And when we went to sea without newspapers, I started to set my own puzzles.

When I came out of the Navy, my first published crossword appeared in the Radio Times. I asked one of my mentors what was the chance of earning a living at it, to which he replied 'there's no way'. I've proved him wrong; I'm a full-time crossword compiler.

The more I do, the quicker I can fill the grids. It's getting fresh ideas for clues that can be the problem.

Cast of the TV sitcom Hi De Hi
Roger was a magician at a holiday camp not unlike that in Hi De Hi
Quite often if I'm stuck, I refer to my card index - I've got about 60,000 clues in there, dating from 1963. I can work out new clues by twisting old clues.

I am certainly not a brain box, I regret to admit. I did qualify for Mensa back in the early 1960s but haven't taken a recent test and they say one's IQ deteriorates with age.

I only went to one meeting near Wolverhampton, and I felt alien. The talk was given by a lady fulminating against TV standards - her name was Mary Whitehouse and at that time nobody had heard of her.

Wonders of technology

Computers have made my job much easier. It does take a lot of the drudgery out of filling in the grids. I've got a program that gives an immediate choice of words that fit that part of the crossword, so I just skim down and select one that I can clue - perhaps by twisting the word around, or finding a good anagram.

Brief Encounter (1945)
In Brief Encounter, Celia Johnson said nothing was more stressful than doing The Times crossword
In the old days, I used to get through a dictionary every three months. They used to fall to pieces because I was always skimming through looking for a word to fit.

As an ex-magician, I try to entertain by being misleading, but I don't try to be obscure. I find too many compilers try to use unusual words which most people don't know, or methods which are rather abstruse.

There are two things I look for when setting clues. When you see the answer, you think 'oh, of course'; and a crossword clue is like a joke - you shouldn't have to go too far out of your way to explain it. Above all, it should be fun. I solve and compile for fun.

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26 Oct 00 | Entertainment
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