Listener Statistics

One of the things most amazing to me about the Listener puzzle is that, even though prizes go only to the first three entries drawn at random each week, every entry is checked, and a full record is kept of how each individual solver does through the year. Given that there must be a thousand or so people who submit at least one entry during the year, this seems both wonderful and awfully obsessive-compulsive to me. And a tribute to the cult-like following that the Listener crossword has acquired over the decades.

Around the end of each March, you can send in a self-addressed stamped envelope and receive a ten-page report about the previous year’s puzzles. This report lists:

  • all the year’s puzzles, identified by number, name, and constructor, along with statistics about how many correct and incorrect entries were received for each and how many of those entries were from new solvers
  • a list of the most common errors made in each puzzle
  • the top 200 or so solvers, along with the numbers of the puzzles (if any) they got wrong
  • a table summarizing how many of the people who sent in x errors during the year got y correct (for example, of the seven people who sent in exactly 27 entries during the year, one got 26 correct and two each got 25, 21, and 20 correct, and what possible interest there is in these data I cannot fathom)
  • a report of the annual dinner that is held for the constructors (in British terminology, setters) of that year’s Listener puzzles, which many solvers also attend

I made the list of top solvers this year (yay!), getting only three puzzles wrong out of the year’s 53. The first page of the list is taken up by those who made none, one, or two errors, so my three are enough that I only make it to the second page. And not even near the top of the second page! Those who miss the same number of puzzles are further ranked by when they made their errors (the longer your string of correct solutions from the beginning of the year, the better), and as I made my first error on the second puzzle of the year, I am near the bottom of those who made three errors. I haven’t yet counted exactly where I am in the rankings, but it looks like somewhere around 70th or 75th. Not a dazzling performance, but not too bad.

I knew about one of the errors already — while looking at the published solution to one of the puzzles, I spotted that I’d put in the wrong spelling of an archaic word that has several spellings given in Chambers Dictionary, apparently having never taken the time to go back and double-check that my chosen spelling fit the wordplay in the clue (it didn’t quite). As this puzzle was late in the year, my excuse is that I was preoccupied with finishing The Manga Flute. But the other two errors were a surprise, both of them looking like silly copying errors I must have made when preparing my entry.

Into the stapled packet of photocopied pages is folded a single, additional, loose piece of paper. It is a list of the exact errors that you personally made during the year — yes, it really tells you that you got 18 Across wrong on this puzzle and 25 Down wrong on that puzzle and so on. Do you not find it both wonderful and freaky that, in this day and age, there is somebody in England, who cannot possibly be getting more than a modest stipend at best for all this, who week in and week out is actually keeping track of these things for a thousand or so solvers, and will send you your individual stats for the year just for a self-addressed stamped envelope? Overseas solvers like me don’t even have to send stamps, just the self-addressed envelope.

But even this is not the part I find most wonderful and freakiest of all. It is that this list of your own personal errors is neatly written out — yes, I mean by hand — on a sheet of lined paper, the three-hole looseleaf notebook kind. Amazing. Just amazing.

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