PASSING GRADES

New York Times, Sunday, February 16, 2014

Author: Yaakov Bendavid
Editor: Will Shortz
Yaakov Bendavid
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This puzzle:

Rows: 21, Columns: 21 Words: 134, Blocks: 64 Missing: {QZ} This is puzzle # 5 for Mr. Bendavid. NYT links: Across Lite PDF
Yaakov Bendavid notes: Once again, I'm thrilled to be published in the NY Times, my 5th puzzle. In my previous puzzles — all Sundays — I never had as few as six theme answers, as in today's offering. Having only six ... more
Yaakov Bendavid notes: Once again, I'm thrilled to be published in the NY Times, my 5th puzzle.

In my previous puzzles — all Sundays — I never had as few as six theme answers, as in today's offering. Having only six meant I could spread them out more, and I had much more fun/leeway filling in the non-theme answers. I love choosing interesting or rarely-seen long non-theme answers and then filling in the shorter answers around them. Among the 17 non-theme answers of 8 letters or more, we have BED OF ROSES, AGITATING, COMO ESTA and LOVE NEST.

DAIRY GODMOTHER was the seed; my original clue — which made my family laugh — was "She might make you a cheesecake you can't refuse." The clue was changed by Will, keeping it one hop away from the original phrase instead of two.

My first idea for a clue for SCIENCE DICTION was "Exceptional quality of Sir Patrick Stewart's Captain Picard," but you'd might have had to be a Trekkie to get it; I think Will's Stephen Hawking clue works quite well.

The first few versions of the puzzle — there were over 20 — had a 7th theme answer stretching across the middle row, but I found that it made everything too crowded and led to very weak fill (and something like 24 3-letter words). It was clued "Lament of the Best-in-Show runners-up at Westminster" with the answer: WE HAVEN'T THE DOGGIEST. Pity I couldn't fit it in since coincidentally the puzzle appears the same week as the Dog Show. Thanks to XWordinfo, it has seen the light of day.

Jeff Chen notes: Themers today are phrases with their F's changed to D's, thus giving 'passing grades.' At just 134 words and six themers, this is another one in Will's experiment of mashing up a Sunday-size puzzle with a ... more
Jeff Chen notes: Themers today are phrases with their F's changed to D's, thus giving "passing grades." At just 134 words and six themers, this is another one in Will's experiment of mashing up a Sunday-size puzzle with a themeless. It's hard enough to create a Sunday-size puzzle with 140 words, and SO much harder to reduce to even 138 words. Get down to 136, and you have to be a grid ninja in order to pull it off. 134... there are few Sunday puzzles in Will's tenure that have achieved this level. Super hard to do.

The theme itself is pretty entertaining — "wacky" phrases are often going to be hit or miss depending on one's sense of humor. DAIRY GODMOTHER amused me (especially with Yaakov's original clue!), as did SCIENCE DICTION, but the rest I was plus/minus on. It seemed to me with a simple letter swap, there could be many more humorous options. And TWO DIVES FOR A TEN felt like it was an outlier, in that this poor themer still failed, with its F. I would have preferred all F's changed to D's, but I don't think it's a huge deal; there's no law against it. I'm sure some people will get their knickers in a bunch about this supposed travesty though. Mrrrrrow! (That's supposed to be the sound of a hissy-fit)

More notable to me today was the longer fill. Great use of the longest slots, BED OF ROSES being particularly nice. Even the unexpected COMO ESTA (apparently it's used in more formal situations, whereas COMO ESTAS is more informal) was really nice to uncover. Add in LOVE NEST, BLONDE ALE, and ORANGE OIL and you have some great stuff.

I wonder if sticking to 136 or even 138 words would have been better though, as some of the longer slots had so much more potential. LEFT SIDES feels pretty arbitrary, LOOSE TEA doesn't seem nearly as nice to me as LOOSELEAF TEA, and JILTERS could have been so much more. Makes me wonder what could have been if LOOSE TEA had been broken at the S, or JILTERS was broken in half (and their respective sections refilled).

Finally, my favorite clue gives an insider's nod to crosswords: "Iglu and yoghurt, e.g." for VARIANTS. Here's to you, EMEER and TIPI!

I appreciate the experimentation; it's an important way to try pushing the boundaries. I think I still want either more themers or more clever wordplay-type clues in my Sunday puzzles, but the variety allows me to better clarify and understand my own tastes.

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© 2014, The New York TimesNo. 23,476
Across Down
1. Summer refreshers : ADES
5. Israel's Netanyahu, informally : BIBI
9. Bowler and sailor : HATS
13. Tracking systems : RADARS
19. Ports : LEFTSIDES
21. Memphis deity : ISIS
22. Actress Cuthbert of "24" : ELISHA
23. One who turned Cinderella's pumpkin into pumpkin cheesecake? : DAIRYGODMOTHER
25. Drive away : DISPEL
26. Reference : ALLUDETO
27. New York's Jacob ___ Park : RIIS
28. Crude coconut opener : MACHETE
29. Cherry part : STEM
30. Worth mentioning : OFNOTE
32. Iglu and yoghurt, e.g. : VARIANTS
33. Bad beginning? : MAL
36. ___ cycle : REM
37. Dustin Hoffman title role : RAINMAN
39. County or lake of Cooperstown, N.Y. : OTSEGO
42. Dunking cookie : OREO
44. Be too syrupy : CLOY
45. Liquor unit : DRAM
49. Snorkeling bargain? : TWODIVESFORATEN
52. Hip-hop artist with the 2013 #1 album "Born Sinner" : JCOLE
53. Up to, shortly : TIL
54. French noodles? : TETES
55. What makes blue jeans blue : ANIL
56. "She's got electric boots, a ___ suit" ("Bennie and the Jets" lyric) : MOHAIR
57. Rust-causing agents : OXIDANTS
59. Vex : ANNOY
60. Stomachs : ABIDES
61. Fit to ___ : ATEE
62. Tin can plinker, maybe : BBGUN
63. Challenge for a speech coach : LISP
64. Oscar winner Leachman : CLORIS
67. Setting of "The Crucible" : SALEM
68. Nappy fabric : MOLESKIN
72. Undeveloped : LATENT
73. Elizabeth Taylor role of '63 : CLEO
74. Roman ruler before Caesar : SULLA
75. Subj. of Snowden leaks : NSA
76. Dismantle on a ship : UNRIG
77. Transportation company that skimps on safety? : NODRILLSAIRLINE
80. Conk : BEAN
81. Wisecrack : JAPE
82. Of the flock : LAIC
83. Lawn care brand : SCOTTS
84. Mythological monster : CHIMERA
87. Addr. book datum : TEL
88. Even if, in brief : THO
89. Corkscrewed : SPIRALED
92. "___ no turning back" : THERES
95. Dress accessory : SASH
99. Knacks : TALENTS
100. Reason for an ophthalmologist's visit : STYE
101. It might be answered "Muy bien, gracias" : COMOESTA
104. Sergeant's order : ATEASE
105. Stephen Hawking's computer-generated voice? : SCIENCEDICTION
107. Church vessel : CENSER
108. Bring in : EARN
109. Duvel pub offering : BLONDEALE
110. Prepares to propose : KNEELS
111. Kind of rug : AREA
112. Buttonhole, for example : SLIT
113. NASA's ___ Research Center : AMES
1. Acting family : ALDAS
2. Did a Vegas job : DEALT
3. Return option : EFILE
4. Pulled strings, maybe? : STRUMMED
5. Former 6'9" N.B.A.'er Hayes, to fans : BIGE
6. "What did ___ deserve this?" : IDOTO
7. Comfortable state : BEDOFROSES
8. Suffix with age : ISM
9. Band's cue : HITIT
10. More wan : ASHIER
11. Draws : TIES
12. Old atlas initials : SSR
13. Force under Stalin : REDARMY
14. Keys on a piano : ALICIA
15. Two things seen beside James Bond at a casino? : DISHANDCHIPS
16. Popular ski spot : ASPEN
17. Butler of literature : RHETT
18. Register ring-ups : SALES
20. Screenwriting guru Field : SYD
24. Call from a balcony : OROMEO
28. Massenet opera : MANON
31. Indoor balls : NERFS
32. In a loathsome way : VILELY
34. Starting trouble : AGITATING
35. Tryst site : LOVENEST
38. Director's cry : ACTION
39. "The Simpsons" character with a habit of calling things "gnarly" : OTTO
40. Candy bar that comes two to a pack : TWIX
41. Most arias : SOLI
43. Insect repellent ingredient : ORANGEOIL
46. Artery : ROAD
47. "That's ___!" : ALIE
48. Bodies of eau : MERS
50. Little: Suffix : ETTE
51. Per ___ : ANNUM
52. Use for a résumé : JOBSEARCH
56. Spammer enabler : MAILLIST
58. "Oh yeah? Let's see you hold your breath for TWO minutes!," e.g.? : DAREINCREASE
59. Better qualified : ABLER
62. Like Bruce Willis, in his later movie roles : BALDER
63. She "drank champagne and danced all night," in song : LOLA
64. Crude weapon : CLUB
65. 46-Down division : LANE
66. Spanish alternative? : OTRA
67. Checked (out) : SCOPED
68. Myocyte : MUSCLECELL
69. Sweater, e.g. : KNIT
70. "___ it rich?" (Sondheim lyric) : ISNT
71. Highlands refusals : NAES
74. Better at conniving : SLIER
77. Handles : NAMES
78. Triangular sail : LATEEN
79. Infuser contents : LOOSETEA
81. Altar no-shows : JILTERS
85. Gingerbread house visitor : HANSEL
86. Enrobe : ATTIRE
89. Heap : STACK
90. Eucharist holder : PATEN
91. TV actress Graff : ILENE
93. Spotted scavenger : HYENA
94. "Ditto" : SODOI
96. "Take me ___" : ASIAM
97. Lifted : STOLE
98. Hosiery brand : HANES
100. Kind of tissue : SCAR
102. Coin grade : MINT
103. Repetitive behavior condition, for short : OCD
105. View from a boardwalk : SEA
106. Grammy Awards airer : CBS

Answer summary: 12 unique to this puzzle, 1 debuted here and reused later, 3 unique to Shortz Era but used previously.

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