EV 1589 Hints – Big Dave's Crossword Blog
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EV 1589 Hints

Enigmatic Variations 1589 (Hints)


Hints and tips by Phibs

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The Playfair cipher was devised in 1854 by Charles Wheatstone (he of the electrical bridge), but is named for Lord Playfair, who promoted its use in military communications. Playfair puzzles are the Marmite of the barred puzzle world, and I think it’s fair to say that neither the Numpties nor I could be numbered among their fans – however, there are others who reckon they are the best thing for sliced bread, and who are we to question their taste?

Although Ximenes once playfully chose CAB as the key phrase in a Playfair puzzle, it is usual for words or phrases of ten or more letters to be chosen. No letter can appear more than once in this phrase, and it cannot contain both of the letters (here I and J) which do duty for each other.

Preamble: Answers to the three asterisked clues are to be encoded using a Playfair code-square before entry in the grid. The three unclued entries have been encoded using the same code-square, as has RQAKHNNE WZFADE. Chambers Dictionary (2016) is recommended

There is only one way to proceed – solve the clues and populate every cell except the six unchecked ones in the unclued shaded entries; the answers to the asterisked clues must not be entered in the grid, but once their encoded entries (which will be gobbledygook) have been established using the crossers you will be able to create quartets which relate the letter pairs from these answers to the corresponding pairs in the entries.


19a    Courageous, removing black side piece of wagon (4)
The subtractive (5 minus 1) wordplay and a quick check in Chambers should get you to the somewhat obscure answer here without too much trouble.

31a  First note of scale is din in stage production (4)
The first wordplay element (luckily for Julie Andrews and Homer Simpson) has been ‘generally superseded by doh‘, while the second element is in plain view. The stage production is probably Henry IV Part II.

33a    Old Swiss hero of Verdi opera (6)
A (1,4,1) charade, the last element of which is a shortened form of a word in the clue.


1d    Old rival loses standard struggle (4)
The archaic (‘old’) word for a rival in the wordplay here is nowadays almost exclusively used to describe a model of supreme excellence, particularly when it comes to virtue.

7d    Barrie’s pirate caught initially having smoke in Cornwall (6)
The first part of this (4,1,1) charade is the name of Captain Hook’s boatswain, a genial sort as buccaneers go, and “a man who stabbed without  offence”.

11d*     Crawl perhaps on a bearing of 225 degrees over island, Malta (4)
Three abbreviations in a 2+1+1 pattern make up the answer.

26d    Japanese sea bream has large caudal fin (4)
The letters contributed by the sea bream also form the first part of the name of a Chinese system of exercise and self-defence, while the second element is an abbreviation familiar to everyone except the Chambers editors.

Definitions in clues are underlined

A Playfair puzzle can be decidedly tricky if the clues, particularly those for the encoded entries, are tough, but that was not a problem here. So we should have the answers to the three asterisked clues, together with the encoded forms of each…

Let’s say that the answer to a clue is DARTER, while the completed light in the grid is AYMWKM. We therefore know that:

DA encodes to AY, RT encodes to MW and ER encodes to KM

(for this illustration I happen to be using the example square provided in the preamble)

There are probably several ways to move forward from there, but I tend to look at the pairs of letters that (assuming the quartet represents a rectangle) are going to be in the same row (in my example D and A, A and Y, R and M, T and W, E and K) and those that will be in the same column (in my example, D and Y, A and A [but see below], R and W, T and M, E and M, R and K).

I then link pairs together. Finding, for instance, that T and M are in the same column and E and M are also in the same column, I can infer that T, M and E are all in one column.

But…what if we find that a group of two or more letters appear to be in both the same row and the same column? Then we are looking at a line and not a rectangle, so wherever any two of those letters appear as a pair on either side of an encoding, all four letters in that encoding are in the same row or column – so if D, A and Y appear to be in the same row and the same column, and DY->AC, then D, Y, A, and C are all in the same row/column and A (cyclically) directly follows D, with C similarly following Y. Even more specifically, if a letter appears on both sides of a known encoding – so in this example DA encodes to AY – that means that these letters appear consecutively in a specific sequence (cyclically) in the same line – for ab->bc the sequence is abc (so in the example, DAY), for ab->ca the sequence is bac.

I then try to piece together the square.

If you can find all the letters in cyclic sequence within a column, eg SZNCL, remember that the letters which don’t appear in the code word are listed alphabetically at the end of the square, so it is likely that at least two, and potentially three, of the letters in the column will be part of this ‘remainder’, therefore they will occur in alphabetical sequence at the end of the column. SZNCL cannot be a row, so it must be a column, almost certainly NCLSZ. Also, it’s inconceivable that one of the first five letters of the alphabet could appear on the bottom row, and in practice unlikely that one will be on the bottom two rows. Conversely, a row with, say, V W and Z in is almost guaranteed to be at the bottom.

If you don’t fancy the decoding, there are programs available which will do the hard yards on your behalf – googling ‘Playfair breaker’ will get you to one of the best.

Having constructed the square, you can then decode the title of the puzzle – don’t forget (as I regularly do) that this is the reverse of the encoding process, so in our example LSTF would decode as CLUE. In combination with the title, the four decoded letters of the two unclued eight-letter words and the six of the twelve-letter one should be more than enough to enable you to identify them and therefore to complete their encoding – if you find any conflicts when encoding the remaining pairs, you have gone wrong somewhere.

How difficult or otherwise the endgame proves (assuming that you attempt it without electronic assistance) will depend entirely on how well one can get one’s head around the code breaking process, although I will say that in the spectrum of Playfair puzzles this one is very much at the friendly end.

Phibs Toughness Rating : 🥾/🥾🥾 (For the initial grid fill, and overall if you use a code breaker – otherwise it’s highly subjective)

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3 comments on “EV 1589 Hints
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  1. My heart ssnk when I saw we had a Playfair to contend with. However the clues must be the easiest set I have come across in EV filling in most at first reading. No hints required.
    The Playfair code phrase was helped partly by one of the 4 letter words and partly because of it being lodged into my mind by another clue.
    Many thanks to Piccadily

  2. A simple crossword with a time-consuming and [dare one say] tedious Playfair code attached. I really couldn’t be bothered and used the Playfair breaker you mentioned Phibs. The decoding was then straightforward and that was it.
    Thanks to Piccadilly and to Phibs for the big hint.

  3. Agree with others. Easy clues, although I missed the obvious in 31a till it wouldn’t decode to the expected answer…
    Thanks to Piccadilly and Phibs

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