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On-line Crossword Formats

Dateline: 03/16/97

The crossword puzzle is the most popular word game in the world. Today, there's a myriad of puzzles on the Internet in all sizes, shapes and colors. But how many people actually solve them on their computer screen? Pencil and paper is probably still the preferred way of doing crosswords. Many people enjoy them at the kitchen table with the morning coffee or curled up in bed with reference books close by. Fortunately, for Internet puzzlers, we can now have our cake and eat it too! Some crossword programs give you the option of working on-screen or printing out the puzzle and solving in a conventional manner.

Here are some of the basic formats that crossword fans will encounter in cyberspace.

The Primitive

The simplest way to publish a puzzle on line is in text format (.txt) The grid is represented using the pound sign (#) to symbolize black squares and the underscore ( _ ) for white squares. For example:

Fig.1 Text gridThe text in Fig.1 represents the grid in Fig.2Fig.2  Grid

The clues are entered in plain text.

This is the simplest way to send puzzles through e-mail or post them to a BBS or newsgroup.


<HTML>, as you may probably know, is the language used by browsers such as Netscape Navigator or MS Internet Explorer to display Web pages. Puzzles appearing on personal Web sites are generally presented in this format, though this is changing as more 'user-friendly' crossword programs are developed. The grid appears as an image (usually a .GIF) and the clues are inserted as text. The advantage of this method is that most people will have no trouble viewing the puzzle with a standard browser and no special applications or plug-ins are necessary. The drawback is that this type of puzzle is not interactive and will have to be printed out for solving.


Some people may use a complicated <TABLE> method whereby the cells of the grid are defined by table rows <TR> and columns <TD>. This is very time consuming to create and is not recommended now that most people have no trouble creating or viewing image files.

Closely related to the <TABLE> method is the use of a <FORM> to display the grid. This has the advantage of allowing the solver to enter answers onscreen but most people will probably prefer to print the puzzle nonetheless.


The JAVA format allows a puzzler to solve puzzles on-line or on-screen after downloading the page. These puzzles are interactive with one merely positioning the cursor over a square and the clue is displayed automatically, usually in a text box above and/or below the grid. Some Java crossword puzzles allow the solver to check answers as well as give hints if you're stumped! To enjoy these puzzles, it's necessary to download Java programs, called 'applets' which enable your browser to display the puzzle. These 'applets' vary from simple ones which allow the user to input the letters in a grid to the elaborate which display hints and indicate if an entry is correct without giving away the answer. These puzzles can only be solved onscreen.

Puzzle in Java format


There are other interactive puzzles on the Internet which use CGI (Common Gateway Interface). These puzzles can only be played while on-line. Normally, the solver enters letters in a text box and clicks on a "Submit" button. The data is then relayed to the host and the updated grid is reloaded. These puzzles tend to be very slow and tiresome to play and, unless you have unlimited Internet access, can cost you a substantial amount in connection fees. Not recommended.

Specialty Programs

There are several programs available which make on-screen crossword solving more enjoyable. One example is Across Lite® from Literate Software Systems. The puzzler downloads the program which will display any on-line puzzles in the Across Lite® format. This puzzle program is gaining in popularity on the Internet and is used by numerous newspapers, including the New York Times, for their on-line editions. Additionally, puzzles in Across Lite are 'bandwidth considerate' as they require only 4-5 Kbytes of memory compared to <HTML> puzzles which can require 30 to 50 Kbytes for the grid alone. This program also allows you to print a nicely formatted hard copy for solving off-screen.

In upcoming features, I'll be bringing you reviews of crossword programs and comparing their individual strengths and weaknesses.

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