But only one can claim to be the best in the country.
That distinction goes to Howard Barkin, a New Jersey software analyst who won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament earlier this month.
In an interview with Business Insider, Barkin broke down how the average person can improve their crossword skills.
1. Start off with easier puzzles
The New York Times crossword puzzle — the gold standard of crosswords in the United States — increases in difficulty each day of the week. The easiest puzzles come on Mondays, and get progressively harder through Saturday.
(Sunday puzzles, while bigger in size, are about the same level of difficulty as a Thursday puzzle.)
Don't get discouraged trying to do a puzzle that's out of your league, Barkin told Business Insider. Start on a Monday and work your way up.
2. Try to learn a little of everything
Decades ago, crossword clues were generally limited to dictionary definitions, Barkin said. However, modern puzzles require solvers to catch references to pop culture, sports, current events, geography, and history.
"You don't have to learn them very deeply, you just have to be aware of certain things," Barkin said. "Anything they could possibly ask on Jeopardy. You have to have an open mind to learn just about anything."
Barkin reads as much as possible to stay on top of his game.
His preparation paid off at the tournament, when one of the puzzles called for a seven-letter word for "Talkative Windows assistant." The clue tripped up a number of competitors. Barkin recalled a tech article he had read about Cortana, Microsoft's voice-recognition software that debuted in 2014, allowing him to finish the puzzle and stay on his championship pace.
3. Google is your friend
Purists may disagree, but there's nothing wrong with looking up an unfamiliar word or name you come across."If you don't know something, don't be ashamed to Google it. That's how you learn," Barkin told Business Insider.
"Who is that? What are they famous for?" he said. "Don't just say, 'I don't like opera.' I'm not an opera fan, but if I see a clue about it, I'll look it up and read about it."
4. Start with the blanks
In every crossword, there are a few clues that are simple fill-in-the-blanks. You want to knock those out first, Barkin said. The clues are usually on the easier side, and they'll give you a confidence boost.
At the national championship this month, even some of the trickiest puzzles had a handful of straightforward fill-in-the-blank clues, including "Eeny meeny _____ moe" and "Beethoven's 'Moonlight ______.'"
5. Recognize words that appear over and over
Do enough crosswords and you'll notice that some words seem to appear in puzzle after puzzle. These are usually short words that use common letters and have an unusual ratio of vowels to consonants, like "era," "idea" and "Oreo."
"I think I've seen every possible way you can clue that cookie," Barkin said.
The unique compositions of these words make them a godsend for puzzle makers, who can plug them into tight corners of the grid.
But some of the most crossword-friendly words are obscure to the average person. Unless you're an opera fan, you probably don't know what an "aria" is, and it's unlikely for someone who isn't a baseball diehard to be familiar with the name "Ott." And even fewer people have heard of an "ogee," an S-shaped curve used in architecture.
"In my entire life I've seen [ogee] come up maybe once in the wild," New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz told Business Insider.
6. Stay cool
It can be frustrating when you get stuck on a clue, but you'll never finish the puzzle if you lose your composure. Try moving to another corner of the grid, and coming back to the troublesome clue later.
"You're really competing against yourself," Barkin said. "It's not a chess game where somebody's move affects you. The pressure you put on is on yourself, because you're competing against a puzzle."
That holds true whether you're solving a puzzle on your coffee break or competing against 600 other people in a tournament.
"I can't control what the person next to me does. It's kind of a cool mental test like that," he said.
1. Start With the Monday Puzzles
tl;dr: Mondays are the easiest and they get harder as the week goes on.
This is probably a beginning solver’s most common mistake.
You know what it’s like: You have some downtime on a Saturday and you look around for something to pass the time. Your officemate keeps bragging about his ability to finish The New York Times Crossword. You hate your officemate.
So, not to be outdone, you pick up the paper or download our app and turn to the Saturday puzzle. How hard could it be?
Fun Fact: The Saturday crossword is actually the hardest puzzle of the week. Contrary to popular belief, the Sunday puzzles are midweek difficulty, not the hardest. Mondays have the most straightforward clues and Saturday clues are the most vague or involve the most wordplay. Some later-week puzzle clues may require specialized knowledge.
Just to drive the point home, let’s take a look at the difference between a Monday clue and a late-week clue for a popular crossword entry. OREO cookies (answers in puzzles are generally written in all capital letters) are such a popular entry in crosswords that they have been dubbed by some as the “official” cookie of the crossword. A typical Monday clue for OREO will be very straightforward and drive you almost directly to the answer.
“Cookie with creme filling”
“‘Twist, Lick, Dunk’ cookie”
And here are some late-week clues, which might require more specialized knowledge about these delicious treats:
“Snack since 1912”
“It has 12 flowers on each side”
“Sandwich often given a twist”
We weren’t kidding you. There is a big difference between a Monday puzzle and a Saturday puzzle.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t work your way toward solving a late-week puzzle – and we recommend that you do, because they’re fun – but it takes experience and patience.
If you’re just getting started, though, make your life easy and solve as many Monday puzzles as you can. Eventually, you’ll be ready for more of a challenge, and that’s when you move on to Tuesday puzzles.
Puzzle hack: Start with the Mondays and solve as many of them as you can before pushing yourself to Tuesday puzzles. You can thank us later.