Anyone familiar with newspaper crossword puzzles knows that anyone with even only a modicum of intelligence can solve even the most difficult puzzles, given a little perseverance / (years of) practice. Crossword puzzle afficionados have long since memorized all the obscure words that tend to crop up in puzzles.

The same could be said of expert Scrabble players: The have memorized all of the two-letter words needed to add on to words already on the board, and understand that 1) the positioning of words on the board to maximize scores and 2) strategy (e.g., denying one's opponent easy wins) are of more importance than mere vocabulary.

In the movie The Imitation Game, by the time Turing - who, it is emphasized, has zero German-language skills - approves the publication of the crossword puzzle in order to procure suitable candidates for induction into their "code-breaker" team, he is already working on "Christopher" (the computer). In other words: It is already clearly established that, by this point in time of the story, Turing understands that linguistic talents (e.g., a fluency in languages - incl. the German language) are utterly unimportant in breaking Enigma.

Then why does he favor the use of this method (publishing a crossword puzzle which candidates must complete within 10 minutes) - it's actually implied that he conceived of this method himself - to find potential code-breakers?
Shouldn't he instead have been scouring the universities, looking for students of Philosophy and Logic (Bayesian Logic, anyone?) and Game Theory to fill the ranks of his team?

  • 10
    The answer suited for Movies & TV might be "because this is a true historical detail" as the answers indicate. Questions of "why does he favor..." and "shouldn't he instead have..." are reasonable, but I'd have expected them on the History SE instead. – Jeff Bowman Jun 19 '20 at 19:50
  • 13
    Game theory didn't exist back then. – Džuris Jun 20 '20 at 10:59
  • 8
    I think you underestimate how hard a cryptic crossword can be. Knowing lots of words is not enough. Try of few of the Listener crosswords and you will see that memorising all possible English phrases is not quite enough. – Francis Davey Jun 20 '20 at 21:57
  • 9
    You radically underestimate the skill required to solve cryptic crosswords. It is a test of mental agility as much as of memory and general knowledge: and mental agility of a type that is strongly related to the problem domain of code-breaking. – user207421 Jun 21 '20 at 6:54
  • 5
    To elaborate on @FrancisDavey’s and the @MarquisofLorne’s comments: if the crosswords you’re familiar with are standard American-style ones, then you may well be misunderstanding the kind of difficulty involved in a British-style cryptic crossword. They can range from quite easy (the Guardian Quiptic puzzles) to extremely hard (the Observer’s Azed), but the puzzling involved is much more a sort of open-ended imaginative verbal/logical thinking — much less about knowing “obscure words” or fulfilling the constraints of a close-packed grid configuration. – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Jun 21 '20 at 11:47

I suspect the main issue here is that the crossword in question was a British-style cryptic crossword, whereas your opening paragraph suggests you are imagining an American-style newspaper crossword.

  • 1
    there are x-word puzzled hard to understand even with the answers. but i still think someone willing to solve even the most basic form of x-word would have been considered temperamentally suited for grueling and detailed work involving sequences of characters. – releseabe Jun 21 '20 at 13:18

If you read books that deal with the British code breakers, they seemed to have various criteria for finding people; for example, they wanted "upper class" females because it was felt they could keep a secret. At the same time, they found people who by almost any measure were very bright, such as Turing and Alexander (who was the best chess player in Britain and also a mathematician). Golombek was another top chess player and there were other talented mathematicians like Jack Good (who won the Smith's Prize which if you look it up has some amazing winners).

As for crossword puzzle solvers: Firstly, even with brilliant leadership there turned out to be a tremendous amount of grunt work required that probably it was felt that x-word solvers would be tolerant of. Secondly, some crossword puzzles are pretty challenging but as you indicate, maybe don't prove that the person is brilliant. Probably they recruited people who said they liked puzzles, as even want ads today specify, and interviewed from among them. Note that it was Turing who developed ways of automating the process but when the project started they needed human "computers" (and needed even after automation) which are people who are good at and willing to do routine detailed tasks that today are performed by electronic computers but the term originally meant a human who did basic math by hand.


The Telegraph explains:

“Whether it’s a simple cipher, or something as complex as the codes of the Enigma machine which the Bletchley codebreakers were working on, the trick is making links between letters and words,” says Michael Smith, the author of Station X: The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park (and who interviewed Mr Sedgewick for the Telegraph in 1998). “Crosswords are the same sort of lateral-thinking exercise.”

Just as with crosswords, where working out 15 Down gives you a few letters in the Across clues, you can use the information from cracking part of a code to crack the rest of it; it is, says Smith, a very similar logical procedure.

But more importantly, crosswords are about getting inside the mind of your opponent, and in the same way, codebreaking was about getting inside the mind of your enemy. The codebreakers came to know the people encoding the messages individually, by their styles, as crossword-solvers come to know setters. One, Mavis Batey, worked out that two of the Enigma machine operators had girlfriends called Rosa: “She worked it out, trying different options, like in a crossword. Once it worked once, it was an obvious option elsewhere,” says Smith.

Note that this article also contains the crossword used to recruit the Bletchley codebreakers.


There are excellent answers above but I would still like to add a couple of excerpts from the book The Code Book by Simon Singh:

  • "As crossword addicts know, when a word is partly completed it is often possible to guess the remainder of the word.": Educated guessing is an important part of code breaking and who's better than crossword addicts in filling up gaps?

  • "It was felt that crossword experts might also be good codebreakers, complementing the scientific minds that were already at Bletchley...": I guess this is self explanatory.

Edit: enter image description here

This is a screenshot of the actual crossword in question, courtesy the eBook version of the above book, which credits it to The Daily Telegraph. If you solve (a majority of) it in under 12 minutes, then congratulations, you could have helped crack the Enigma.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .