My introduction to crossword puzzles was through cheating. My grandfather would sit in his recliner with a pen and a folded-up newspaper, and from time to time, he’d throw out a question to another person in the room—including, when I was old enough, occasionally me. Soon I was sitting on the arm of the chair, helping him with some of the clues.
I didn’t learn until much later in life that some people consider googling for factual information—or asking another person for such information—to be “cheating” at crossword puzzles. (A poll on r/crossword asked whether googling was cheating, and the answers were 40% yes, 31% no, and the rest “other.”)
To take another old-fashioned example, how do you play the game Solitaire—you know, the one where you stack the cards in order, alternating red and black, but your available cards are determined by how lucky you were in shuffling the deck? I know that properly you’re supposed to turn over three cards at a time, and I start out that way. But soon I’m turning over one at a time to avoid forfeiting the game. I’ve met people who feel it’s acceptable, as a last resort, to peek under the face-up cards in the initial stacks to see what might be hiding there. We all have our own ideas of what really counts as cheating.
You’re only “cheating” yourself
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If you’re playing a game against another person, cheating is a question of ethics. Playing Banker in Monopoly so you can quietly embezzle the play money is a low-down dirty cheat (and the reason why, at a young age, I was banned from family Monopoly games). There’s no such ethics in one-player games, though; the only person you’re playing against is yourself.
Since I write the hints for Connections, a reader once accused me of publishing “cheats” for the game. “Would you publish cheats about how to beat ATM machines?” they asked.
Cheating brings us together
Between Connections and ATM machines, only one gives out cash prizes. If you cheat at Connections, that doesn’t affect me in the least. In fact, if you cheat at Connections by asking me whether I think PICKLE and JAM go together, I might even help you out by telling you. This is what I do with my daughter every night at bedtime; she plays Connections on my phone, and since I’ve already written the hints, I give her just as much help as she asks for—no more, no less.
In fact, I’d argue that cheating turns a solitary game into a social one. Whether you’re asking your tween son for a seven-letter hero who battles Dr. Wily, or logging on to Reddit to see if anybody has shared a hint you can use for today’s Redactle, cheating gives us a way to connect with each other.
Cheats make games more fun
Games have to hit a sweet spot to be interesting. A game that’s too easy presents no challenge to solve; imagine a Sudoku grid that had every square filled in before you even started. On the other hand, if they’re too hard, they stop being fun.
Some games have difficulty settings, or are available in different variations according to the challenge you would like. I was taught to play Solitaire by turning over three cards at once; the official Bicycle site says you turn over one card at a time. It also, however, notes that there are 150 variations on the game, so if you find this one too hard or too easy, you have other options.
Or take Celeste, for example. (If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a 2D platformer that our friends at Mashable ranked among the very best games of the 2010’s.) It comes with an assist mode that allows players to fine-tune some aspects of the game, making them easier if you find the game too hard, or turning impossible things possible for players with certain disabilities. The game menu describes why it’s there: “Celeste is intended to be a challenging and rewarding experience. If the default game proves inaccessible to you, we hope that you can still find that experience with Assist Mode.”
When a game doesn’t provide a tuneable assist, we’re on our own to provide it. And I think if you ask any enthusiast of a single-player game, like Wordle or Solitaire, they’ll have their own self-imposed rules for what really counts as cheating. For example, I won’t look up crossword answer keys or “what is 34-across today?” but I do allow myself to google or ask around for basic factual information. I’ll also break out the browser window a lot sooner for a hard Saturday NYT puzzle than an easy Monday.
You see, this is all in service of enjoying the game. Cheating on a solo game is not a way of obtaining something we shouldn’t have; it’s a way of enjoying ourselves. Every game is made up, really. Cheating just lets you have some of the fun of making up the rules yourself.