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The New York Times’ Wyna Liu, editor of their wildly popular Connections game, shared a tip on TikTok recently that might sound backwards. The game asks you to look for groups of similar words, but here is her bombshell: if you see a lot of similar words right away, ignore them and move on. She’s right, of course. To find similarities, you have to look for differences. 

But first, why trust me? Because I’ve played every Connections puzzle since the game came out of beta. I write the Connections hints that you read every day (or should, if you’d like a bit of help). I’ve only lost once, a shame that will follow me to my dying days, but that makes me more relatable and human, right? 

Along the way, I’ve discovered tips and tricks that make solving easier. Many times, it pays to ignore the most obvious ways of solving, and focus your effort on the trickiest parts first. Here are my best tips for solving Connections. 

Don’t act on your first impression

First off: suppress all the thoughts that begin to spark in your head when you first look at the board. There’s often some misdirection: they’ll put WONDER next to BREAD, or MATCH next to BOX. Those pairs might “go together,” in a sense, but they’re almost always red herrings. 

Monday’s puzzle had a particularly egregious example: BUMBLE, TINDER, MATCH, and HINGE were all on the board. (So, for that matter, was GRINDER). But there was no category referring to dating apps. TINDER and MATCH were ingredients for a campfire; BUMBLE was the verb meaning to make a mistake; and HINGE was, simply, a door hinge. 

A way to think of this is that the red herrings can themselves have a theme. We had a snake theme for the red herrings back on Friday. But PYTHON actually went in a group of programming languages, BOA in a group of things made with feathers, and MOCCASIN with other shoes. So when you see a theme, even if it has four words, check out the rest of the possible groupings before committing. 

Don’t stop at four

If you see four words that seem to go together, don’t stop there. Are there, perhaps, five words in that category? Six? This was Wyna Liu’s tip, and it’s a crucial one for avoiding knee-jerk guesses. 

Sometimes I’ll select my four candidates, and then before I hit submit, make a point of reading every other word on the board to be sure those are the only four words that could make up the given category. If there are more than four, you can’t solve that category yet. Move on to something else.

Look for the words that don’t fit

A word with only one meaning is a rare gem in Connections, and is often the key to everything. For example, in Monday’s puzzle, KINDLING is a word that only means one thing—the small sticks you use when starting a fire. So we probably have a category that relates to fire building. (And we do! This is where MATCH and TINDER go.) 

If you see a word with one meaning (or only obscure meanings), and it appears not to relate at all to other words on the board, chances are you’re looking at some kind of sneaky wordplay. For example, ETHER is a term from organic chemistry, an early anesthetic, and a word for various imaginary air-like substances. What was it doing in a puzzle without any of those things? It was an anagram for the word “three.”

Pay attention to detail

CANT is not the same word as CAN’T. DESERT is not DESSERT. GRINDER is not the name of a dating app; you’re thinking of Grindr. It’s not cheating in my book to double-check your spelling or to look up the meaning of an unfamiliar word. 

Don’t burn your mistakes

Guys, don’t guess. The information you need is all in the puzzle somewhere. If you’re down to the last two categories and you’re truly stumped, then you can break out your guesses—and please use them strategically. 

Speaking of which: if you get a “One away!” message on one of your mistakes, pay attention. Jot down which words were in that grouping, or take a screenshot. If you attempt that same grouping again, when you’re a little more desperate, only switch out one of those words. If you get “One away!” again, that tells you that the word you swapped in and the word you swapped out are a pair: they are either both right or both wrong. 

If you’re stuck, grab a notebook

Here is my biggest pro tip, the reason I rarely lose: if I feel stuck, I grab a piece of paper and begin writing down groupings. All the groupings I can see, whether they have two words or seven. The same word can appear in more than one of your handwritten lists. Think of it as brainstorming.

You’ll notice patterns during this process, and you’ll be forced to test them out. GRAZE and NIBBLE and HUNT may feel like they go together, but once you have to write them down, you’ll see that GRAZE and NIBBLE have companions that relate to eating, like SNACK, while HUNT can also go with outdoor actions like STALK and TRAIL. I try not to submit my first guess until I’m sure of at least two groupings—and most of the time, I can figure out all four on paper before I start clicking any buttons. 

Sometimes I like to imagine how I would solve Connections if it were an old-fashioned newspaper game, meant to be done on paper with the solution printed in tomorrow’s edition. You would simply have to come up with all four groupings and then wait to see if you were right. This is what led me to the thought that I could print out all sixteen words and shuffle them around until they made four groups. (No printer? You could handwrite them on scraps of paper, of course). If you often find yourself running out of guesses before you’ve solved the game, try doing it on paper first. It’s a great self-teaching tool.

Sometimes the game is just mean

Finally, one last reason you’re losing: Because the puzzle makers are evil villains who want to see you suffer. Remember, they often think up a theme for their red herrings just to throw you off the trail. They decided “things you can draw” (CURTAIN, BATH) was a cute little grouping. They expected you to recognize Wonder Woman by her accessories (LASSO, TIARA). They’ve been known to use homophones, homonyms, and anagrams. They’ll sometimes require special knowledge, like the names of teams in a sport you don’t watch, or streets in New York City

The only consolation here is that you’ll never see four devilish groupings in a puzzle—only one or two. Sometimes I’ll stare at a full board, unable to see any groupings, and say to myself: Come on Beth, at least one of these has to be easy. Find the easy one. And usually, somehow, I do.

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