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IT'S ONLY "A" GAME

New York Times, Sunday, January 12, 2014

Author: Andrew Chaikin
Editor: Will Shortz
Andrew Chaikin
TotalDebutCollabs
11/12/20140
SunMonTueWedThuFriSat
1000000
RebusCirclePangram
000

This puzzle:

Rows: 21, Columns: 21 Words: 140, Blocks: 72 Missing: {Q} Spans: 1 This is the debut puzzle for Mr. Chaikin NYT links: Across Lite PDF
Andrew Chaikin notes: Last year, I was creating a game called 'May Own A's,' for the 57th Equinox word-game party in Berkeley. (That party's theme was condiments, naturally.) When I found that glorious 21-letter 'backward-gram,' I ... more
Andrew Chaikin notes: Last year, I was creating a game called "May Own A's," for the 57th Equinox word-game party in Berkeley. (That party's theme was condiments, naturally.) When I found that glorious 21-letter "backward-gram," I knew it was meant to be a Sunday Times puzzle instead. The idea of the theme extending to the clues themselves felt fresh enough to take seriously.

This was the first crossword I ever sent to Will, so I wanted it to be unimpeachable. Thus: many, many versions and revisions. Tyler Hinman graciously provided many rounds of feedback — laser-focusing me on clean, fresh, quality fill — and convinced me over and over to kill my darlings, in order to root out yucky partials and other woeful entries.

In one version, the SW corner had OBIWAN and YODA, which I desperately wanted to link to my STAR WARS entry elsewhere... Had to kill it. A later version had SHORTZ there instead — meta! — but it crossed with the unspeakable OGPU. Tried a few full-pangram versions, but the fill suffered. Knocked the puzzle down from 142 words to 140, removing 8 blocks in the process.

The theme clues I submitted to Will were ornately A-laden constructions. The STAR WARS clue was the much-geekier "Cash-fat astral saga that has J.J. Abrams (and lacks Khan and Data)." Since J.J. is a puzzle nut, I thought the shout-out would be cool. The BALACLAVAS clue featured Slavs, Tatars, and Kazakhs; the SAND MANDALA clue went to Dharamsala. Will rightly streamlined them — sometimes down to a single, tantalizing word. I trust the Master's instincts completely.

I think my favorite clues are the ones that work in meta-wordplay, like the A MAN...PANAMA clue, which includes another A-only palindrome ending in a country, or those two A-only ANAGRAMS. It felt a bit like George Perec's lipogrammatic novel A Void, where translator Gilbert Adair whipped up an E-less version of "The Raven" ("Blackbird, by Arthur Gordon Pym") and other "highly familiar madrigals." Finding famous A-only films (and a British TV show!) that actually won BAFTA Awards was satisfying as well.

Some other wordplay clues that didn't make it in: "Where Skilling made a killing" (ENRON) is a beheadment; "It turns chefs into chiefs" (AN I); etc. The puzzle's final clue ("Vientiane native") is a letter-bank, for all you NPL-ers.

Will Shortz notes: In 2002 I published a crossword by Patrick Berry in which the only vowel in the entire grid was A, so I wasn't so impressed here that just the theme answers are univocalic. But the twist of the theme clues also ... more
Will Shortz notes: In 2002 I published a crossword by Patrick Berry in which the only vowel in the entire grid was A, so I wasn't so impressed here that just the theme answers are univocalic. But the twist of the theme clues also having A as the only vowel? Love it! Fourteen theme entries in a Sunday puzzle is impressive, too.
Jeff Chen notes: Before I started this gig last year, doing the NYT xw was fun in itself. But I always wanted more, specifically to hear Will's thought process regarding why he chose each puzzle and how he changed it to his ... more
Jeff Chen notes: Before I started this gig last year, doing the NYT xw was fun in itself. But I always wanted more, specifically to hear Will's thought process regarding why he chose each puzzle and how he changed it to his liking. There have been many highlights in the past six months, but having Will write and send daily comments on the puzzles is among the top.

One observation that's been eye-opening is the diversity within his target audience. Before we started communicating, I always thought Will strove for the jaw-dropping, mind-blowing puzzles and filled in around them with "ordinary" stuff because he just couldn't get enough of the former. But now I've come to see that a significant portion (probably a large majority, actually) of his constituency shies away from anything too new, being very appreciative of puzzles that are familiar or push the envelope just slightly.

All of this is a long way of saying that even though today's puzzle doesn't blaze entirely new ground, it probably meets the needs of more solvers than the rule-breaking, game-changing puzzles. We've seen many puzzles before where theme answers use only one vowel, but it's a nice addition to have all the clues use only that same vowel. Some of them get a little tortured for my taste (the clue for RASTA MAN brought back unpleasant memories of Jar Jar Binks*) but overall the extra layer was appreciated.

A nice debut. There are definitely some compromises because of the high theme density and the way the themers interlock (the SO I/ON UP/ID DO section is so heavily constrained by the placement of the theme answers, for example), but also some nice long fill (RAW ONION, PYROMANIA, LAB ANIMAL are all great stuff). To start a construction career on a 21x is no small feat. Looking forward to more from Andrew.

*meesa still not forgiven you, Georgie Lucas

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© 2014, The New York TimesNo. 23,441
Across Down
1. Last name in Scotch : DEWAR
6. Stream : FLOW
10. Bloke : CHAP
14. Like blokes : MALE
18. Napoleon, e.g., twice : EXILE
19. Steakhouse order : RARE
20. Test subject : LABANIMAL
22. *Grand-slam drama that stars Bacall's man : CASABLANCA
24. *Half an Xmas "Halls" chant : FALALALALA
25. 1976 horror hit, with "The" : OMEN
26. Point value of an A in Scrabble : ONE
27. Little to no : SCANT
29. Heavily favored : ODDSON
30. All-inclusive : ATOZ
32. Beat poet Cassady and others : NEALS
33. Captain Hook's right hand : SMEE
34. 69-Across, e.g. : TABLET
37. Scrams : BOLTS
38. *Astral saga that has a Darth part : STARWARS
42. Cutting edge : BLADE
43. Gulager of TV's "The Virginian" : CLU
44. French Oscar : CESAR
46. Bit of Google programming : BOT
47. Staple of a waiting room : SOFA
48. Work on the roof, say : THATCH
50. "Movin' ___" (TV theme song) : ONUP
52. One of die Planeten : ERDE
53. Kitty, e.g. : PET
54. Count ___ : CHOCULA
55. "___ Anything" ("Oliver!" song) : IDDO
56. "The Witches" writer : DAHL
57. King Arthur of tennis : ASHE
59. Kris ___ (music duo) : KROSS
61. Like classical poetry : METRICAL
63. *Fab "backward-gram" à la "Sam, aha! Bahamas!" : AMANAPLANACANALPANAMA
67. Burger topper : RAWONION
68. Segway inventor Dean ___ : KAMEN
69. Apple product : IPAD
70. Bird's gullet : CRAW
71. Chip on one's shoulder, say : TUDE
73. Kowtowers : TOADIES
75. Pilates targets : ABS
78. Take on : HIRE
79. Poses : SITS
80. Stone figures? : CARATS
81. Equal to the task : ABLE
82. Objective : END
83. Louis Armstrong, to friends : SATCH
85. Two-time U.S. Open champ : ELS
86. Houston's old ___ Field : ENRON
87. *Black cat that packs grass and chants "Jah" : RASTAMAN
91. Prefix with -hedron : ICOSA
93. Best-selling novelist Susan : ISAACS
94. Great Basin natives : UTES
95. An op-ed has one : SLANT
96. Air apparent? : SMOG
97. Worships : ADORES
100. "Common Sense" pamphleteer : PAINE
101. Valedictorian's pride, for short : GPA
102. Bygone Bombay bigwig : RAJA
106. *Landmark vassal law act : MAGNACARTA
108. *Warm mask/cap amalgams : BALACLAVAS
111. Burning desire : PYROMANIA
112. Puts away : ICES
113. Friends, in Firenze : AMICI
114. Big name in faucets : MOEN
115. Depict : LIMN
116. Swarm : TEEM
117. Where Sharp Electronics is based : OSAKA
1. Chrysler Building style, informally : DECO
2. Physical, e.g. : EXAM
3. Smart-alecky : WISE
4. *"M*A*S*H" star : ALANALDA
5. One in a gray suit : REB
6. Modernist Kafka : FRANZ
7. A bridge might have one : LANE
8. "The Lord of the Rings" villain : ORC
9. "Pop" goer : WEASEL
10. Online gaming guilds : CLANS
11. Gatekeeper's cry : HALT
12. Lawyers' org. : ABA
13. Picasso's designer daughter : PALOMA
14. Tilex target : MILDEW
15. Latin 101 verb : AMAS
16. Score creator Schifrin : LALO
17. Style : ELAN
21. Subject of the documentary "An Unreasonable Man" : NADER
23. Spoils : LOOT
24. Two-faced : FALSE
28. *Haphazard : CATCHASCATCHCAN
31. Gift shop buy : TEE
32. Sign at an intersection : NOUTURN
33. Apple product, perhaps : STRUDEL
34. Recipe amt. : TBSP
35. Skin soother : ALOE
36. *Gala that saw "Black Swan," "Avatar" and "Ab Fab" attract claps : BAFTAAWARDS
37. *Bar glass that's half Bass, half dark malt : BLACKANDTAN
38. *Lama's art that can't last : SANDMANDALA
39. *"Shazam!" : ABRACADABRA
40. Noted political maiden name : RODHAM
41. Designer McCartney : STELLA
43. Comedian Margaret : CHO
45. "___ hear" : SOI
48. Something woeful : THEPITS
49. Item of attire for 54-Across : CLOAK
51. Square meals that are round : POTPIES
52. Minneapolis suburb : EDINA
54. Jackie of "Shanghai Noon" : CHAN
58. Maine senator after Mitchell : SNOWE
60. Striped Girl Scout cookie : SAMOA
62. Knocks : RAPS
63. Zodiac symbol : ARCHER
64. Pier place : MARINA
65. Adams and Alcott : LOUISAS
66. Most handy : NEAREST
72. '70s self-help course : EST
74. Word repeated in the "Superman" intro : ITS
76. Alliance : BLOC
77. Meaning: Fr. : SENS
81. *Flashback and halfbacks : ANAGRAMS
84. Eyelashes : CILIA
86. That, in Tijuana : ESO
88. Source of excitement : TURNON
89. TV/movie group associated with this puzzle's theme? : ATEAM
90. Agave drink : MESCAL
92. In the slightest : ONEBIT
93. Apple product : IMAC
95. The Adversary : SATAN
96. Jerk : SPASM
97. Day-and-night, in a way : AMPM
98. Belafonte hit : DAYO
99. Dungeons & Dragons figure : OGRE
100. Strait-laced : PRIM
101. Elation : GLEE
103. Reebok alternative : AVIA
104. Hike, with "up" : JACK
105. The East : ASIA
107. It goes before E except after C : ANI
109. Whiz : ACE
110. Vientiane native : LAO

Answer summary: 8 unique to this puzzle, 2 debuted here and reused later, 1 unique to Shortz Era but used previously.

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