It looks like you're using an Ad Blocker. Please consider supporting our site by purchasing an account.


Jeff Chen's "Puzzle of the Week" selections with his commentspow

showing 25 out of 190 POW selections from 10/3/2016 to 3/20/2017

Click the links above to see these puzzles organized by constructor, or to try solving them.

POW Mon 3/20/2017

★ Neil deGrasse Tyson! Fanboy SQUEEEE! (Sorry for breaking your eardrums.)

Huge fan of Tyson's — Jill and I watched all of his "Cosmos" remakes. In a time when science gets dismissed by all too many people, I love Tyson's efforts to educate and make change with humor. What a pleasure to get an amusing astronomy theme from him and Acme.

I had heard HEAVENLY BODIES before, in this [Total hottie?] sense, but the others felt fairly fresh. I particularly liked the more esoteric terms like STAR CLUSTER and GAS GIANT, showing off Tyson's depth in astronomy.

Did you understand the clue for RED DWARF? [Bashful?] refers to Bashful, one of the Seven Dwarfs — the one who frequently turns red. Concise, amusing, spot-on. Perfect!

There were a few rough aspects to the grid — the north, in particular, felt clunky. AIRE (suffix), ITSA (partial), AS BIG (quasi-partial) all in one area is not good. Adding a cheater square up there, perhaps at the A of AIRE, might have helped, while still allowing for PAYPAL. The overlap of LITTLE DIPPER and GAS GIANT does make things slightly tricky, but a section that unconstrained ought to be smoother, especially when it's so close to where most solvers start a puzzle.

At 80 words, this is over Will's usual max of 78. I don't mind that, if I get some nice bonuses in the fill. But aside from PAYPAL, there was only PUMICE, TWEETS, PSYCHO that added to the quality of my solve — not enough for my taste. No doubt that the grid construction is challenging, especially with five themers and a central 11-letter entry splitting up the puzzle, but I would have liked to see what happened if the three black squares after KNEAD were removed, allowing for a long down answer where AFAR and HOOVES are right now. Would have required moving around a ton of black squares, but even getting a single pair of great bonus entries can add so much.

That all said, when a theme shines, I don't mind grid flaws nearly as much. So happy to get this concept that's so appropriate to Tyson. Well done to Acme for bringing him into the NYT constructors' fold!

POW Mon 3/13/2017

★ I get nervous every time I see BERMUDA TRIANGLE in a crossword — it's been used so many times in various crossword progressions, often involving a square. What a pleasure to get the unexpected FINAL SALE next, and then TENNIS ACE. I enjoy when I can't figure out a Monday theme until the very end. POINT OF NO RETURN gave me a smile. What a fun way to interpret "situations where a return is not possible."

I also hesitated after uncovering ATTY, an abbr., to start the puzzle. But things turned around very quickly, getting YO MAMA / FUTILE / DOGSLED, all such fun answers. (I admit, I keep a spreadsheet of YO MAMA jokes that make me laugh.)

So much strong bonus fill past that, too. BLARNEY as an Irish term for nonsense, BRA SIZE, THIN AIR, THE FED, even GARGLE, such an amusing word. Don't forget the UNDEAD! Although there weren't any long bonus answers, Alan did so well by employing a huge quantity of mid-length bonuses.

And all of that with just some minor ENE, OCT, NOID! That last one stuck out more than the others, as "no I.D." feels shaky to me, but I do fondly remember "Avoid the Noid" commercials.

All in all, such an enjoyable Monday experience. A fun theme, a ton of great bonus fill, and not a lot of liabilities or odd entries to distract. Very well done, especially for someone still early in his construction career.

POW Mon 3/6/2017

★ Such a well-constructed puzzle. The fill is so smooth, so interesting — such a difficult thing to accomplish for a Monday puzzle.

Susie tells us "that's a wrap!" today (what, no one laughed?), riffing on different types of coats. Although all of the phrases were snazzy, I liked CITY SLICKER and CHEVY BLAZER the best for this theme, because those terms aren't related to the "coat" meaning. Amusing reinterpretations.

The others — BUBBLE WRAP, SUGAR COAT, DUST JACKET — all have regular usage that refers to some sort of coating, i.e. BUBBLE WRAP is used around packages. It would have been nice to get a few others like CHEVY BLAZER where there's a big change in meaning (can't think any off the top, though!).

This five-themer layout isn't easy, the nine-letter SUGAR COAT dividing the puzzle in half. Typically, that causes problems for constructors in the four corners of the puzzle, as those regions tend to be pretty wide-open. Not Susie! She starts out with proper themer spacing and carefully distributes her black squares, ending up with some delightful entries in those big corners: INKLING, BEESWAX, CD RACKS, and DRACULA.

And with such little crossword glue! There's EXT, LAC and FGS, but as a solver, it's easy for me to skim past those short and minor offenders. Okay, SST isn't great as an outdated initialism (supersonic transport), but it's easy to overlook the one goopy glob of crossword glue in otherwise stellar execution.

Given that the theme was all about protective clothing, I would have preferred RAIN HAT and BROGAN to not be in the grid; muddied the theme a touch for me. But that's a minor nit.

This is my kind of Monday puzzle. The theme isn't anything groundbreaking, but it made for a wonderful solving experience. Getting the aforementioned bonus answers, plus some more in RUGRATS, ACROBAT, OCEANIA, FOOTRACE — it all helped to evoke a ton of IMAGERY. Very well done.


★ I'm such a sucker for any sort of science or math puzzle. Put in a W BOSON or a TITRATION CURVE or a GOLDEN RATIO, and you've made this solver elated (and probably pissed off many others). So even though the periodic table has been mined for all sorts of crossword themes over the years, I loved Tim's new twist. Fe (iron) found right within the EIFFEL TOWER … just as in real life! Another perfect one in a WEATHER BALLOON containing He (helium). Such a fun concept.

Not all of them worked that way, but there were still interesting connections. A LEPRECHAUN hoards gold. AEROBIC EXERCISE involves oxygen. A DAGUERREOTYPE uses silver, lithium is one type of MOOD STABILIZER, etc. Although these were a bit looser than Fe in the EIFFEL TOWER, all of them had enough of a connection that I enjoyed.

Nice mix of snazzy long fill and smooth short fill. I like how Tim used his long entries to help break up some of the monotony that can come with a bunch of 3-5 letter entries. Strewing FAKE IDS, SONNY BOY, LIL ABNER, STAKEOUT, EPIC HERO, ITS COOL across the grid made for great variation — never too many shorties all at once without getting some spicy long bonuses.

And the smoothness of the fill = excellent. A couple of minor ENL, ETD dabs of crossword glue, but I easily overlooked those.

Well, there was IL DUCE. Not loving Mussolini in my crossword. Although IDI / AMIN works his way in, as does STALIN. Hmm. Not sure why IL DUCE is worse, but I cringed at it.

BETHEL was my only other source of hesitation. It is an oddball word, but ultimately, as the lone esoteric word in the grid for me, I enjoyed learning it. I like learning a thing or maybe two from my crossword.

I would have liked all two-letter chemical symbols, as it's a bit too easy to work with O and U, but NUCLEAR REACTOR was so spot-on that I didn't mind. All in all, great entertainment.

POW Sat 2/25/2017

★ Loved this one. A 66-word grid without extraneous black squares ("cheaters") is extremely tough to fill with snazziness and smoothness. Mark has so many great entries, BIOBURDEN my favorite (my previous career was in biotech). SWIPE LEFT is a Tinder thing (so I'm told), so that gives the puzzle some freshness.

What stood out for me was that so many of Mark's one-word entries were so good. I love Arthurian lore, so EXCALIBUR elated me. The word EBULLIENT feels so bubbly, so effervescent, so … EBULLIENT! And what a great clue for ARMADILLO, that it hops straight up when startled.

The fact that ABORIGINAL and ORIGINAL have similar meanings ... I stared at those first two empty squares for the longest time, wondering if there was some trick going on utilizing empty squares. Love it.

Single-word entries are often harder to make memorable than multi-worders — MINIATURE vs. something as neat as the mid-length BBQ RIBS for example — but Mark shined today.

Speaking of mid-length entries, BBQ RIBS wasn't the only standout. CAPISCE?, PUP TENT, OPEN NOW, TOY CAR, ALIMONY all added to my solve. Great stuff.

And what the heck kind of long entry starts with DS*? I was sure I had something wrong, especially since I was thinking about [60s sorts] as people from the 60s. LSD maybe? No, it was 60s ... as in 60 percent! What a fantastic clue/entry pair.

Nice and smooth grid, too. I did hitch on the BANC / BIEN crossing, as I don't know my Indochina War trivia. But this is a Saturday puzzle, so a ["Tres ___!"] clue would have been way too easy.

AIRSOFT was the one head-scratcher for me today. I used to run a boys' group, where we did all sorts of laser tag-type events, so it's mystifying that I hadn't heard of this. But one head-scratcher in a puzzle is fine and even welcome; a good source of learning.

DEWED was just about the only real complaint I had. "Dewy," yeah? But that vowel-consonant alternation in DEWED is so constructor-friendly.

All in all, such a delight to solve.

POW Fri 2/17/2017

★ A ton of sizzling material!

It's easy enough for strong constructors to make a good, single triple-stacked quadrant, and even not so hard to make it both colorful and clean. Check out that great SW corner, for example: IN BAD TASTE / NEON YELLOW / HIDDEN MIKE are all fantastic answers, and nary a dab of crossword glue necessary to hold it all together.

But I've come to appreciate going above and beyond, linking stacked entries — what a delightful combination in INDIAN FOOD and Thai STICKY RICE. Same goes for CHAIN EMAIL and TEXT ALERTS. Four strong corners, two of them mini-themed on their own = very cool.

I also appreciated the long answers jutting into the middle, BOHO CHIC a beautiful entry. TEN HUT and CREAKY are two good mid-length answers, too. I wasn't sure about ONES ALL, as it felt like a partial, but in the end, I think it works.

On that note, there were a few answers I wondered about:

  • HONKY TONKS as a plural noun? I associate it with a musical style, but it does have dictionary support as a noun. And it's so fun to say, that I gave it a thumbs up.
  • CHAIN EMAIL … is that what those are called? After struggling to come up with something more accurate or snazzy, I decided it indeed was the correct term.
  • PISH. This isn't something I hear every day, but the word amuses me.
  • HOT LICK. I played in jazz bands for ten years but never heard anyone say this. I have seen it in reviews and critiques, though, so I think it's fine.

Overall, so many great entries — I'm hoping ELAINE CHAO brings some sensibility to the current administration, another yummy entry in RACK OF LAMB with a BUTTER DISH right next to said lamb (don't judge me with your STEELY GAZE) — and these are in addition to all the ones I've already mentioned. I love it when a constructor can pack so much juicy fill into a single grid.

And just a little AMO, SGT, TRE to hold it together. The last two are so minor I even hesitate to mention them.

Beautiful work of craftsmanship.

POW Tue 2/7/2017

★ Great puzzle. Finn gives us a twist in the "definitional" theme type, i.e. a single word with multiple meanings. Entertaining to think about Queen or Queens in four different ways.

Will doesn't run this theme type often, since the grid entries tend to sound forced, as if from a dictionary. Finn does well to choose themers that can stand alone — CHESSBOARD, NEW YORK CITY, RUPAULS DRAG RACE, and ROCK AND ROLL / HALL OF FAME are all great entries. Much better than PIECE IN CHESS or FEMALE MONARCH or something.

Fantastic that Finn was able to divide up ROCK AND ROLL / HALL OF FAME in the most natural place. Cross-referenced answers are a pet peeve of mine since they break up my solving flow, but if you have to, do it this way. If Finn had required a 7 and a 14-letter themer and needed to pair them with ROCK AND / ROLL HALL OF FAME (7/14), that would have worked, but it would have been inelegant.

I enjoyed ARROWHEAD and BRUNO MARS (I didn't know who the latter is, but I've at least heard his name in the news). I'd have loved to get one more pair of bonus entries, perhaps by shifting NEW YORK CITY to the left and then trying for a nine-letter entry where MEAT and JOAD are. I'm sure it would have caused some problems, but a guy can wish.

This might have also solved the Y??U issue — a shame to have the one odd entry in an otherwise stellar grid. I did like the attempt to save it with a clue relating to the more recognizable YALE, but "random rivers" is one of those categories most constructors try hard to avoid.

There was one other spot I hitched on: the SXSW x NSFW crossing. I (mostly) knew these — South by Southwest and not safe for work — but there's no way for someone to infer these. I likely would have asked for a revision in this corner.

But these are minor issues. Overall, I dug the spin Finn put on the "definitional" theme type. Smooth, enjoyable solve.

POW Thu 2/2/2017

★ Fantastic debut. Check that — fantastic puzzle, period. I quickly realized something backwardy was going on halfway through, and I enjoy a good backwards puzzle. But I got a little annoyed that random words were reversed. YOU HAVE TO BE CONSISTENT, YOU STUPID CONSTRUCTORS, MYSELF INCLUDED!

Boy, did that slight(-to-gigantic) irritation flip to delight in a big way when the a-ha hit. Alex runs an orderly ship, the first several across entries going left to right as usual. But as soon as you hit BACK TO FRONT, you need to start entering the acrosses ... in BACK TO FRONT order! And then when you get to FORWARD HO, you go ... FORWARD again. Things switch again, appropriately at IN REVERSE, and then flip one last time at LEFT TO RIGHT.

This in itself was a fresh and amusing take on a backwards-type puzzle. But the friendly-sounding cluing made it stand out even further. I didn't get what [watch out now!] and [you can relax ...] meant during my solve, but afterward, it all came across so fun and amusing, like a square dance caller yelling out instructions or something. Colorful, really playful, right on my wavelength.

And the gridwork! Usually backwards puzzles have enough glitches in the matrix that my entertainment level diminishes. It's especially tough to construct something like this, where only certain entries are flipped. I was utterly amazed at how well Alex did with his fill. (I've used the dual-grid trick he described once before with a backwards puzzle — I originally learned it from Patrick Merrell some time ago. It's quite handy!)

There were a couple of toughies in TAMA, COATI, and GERI, but they are all legit(ish). And a minor ERN, that's it? Whoa. Such care to give us a smooth solve is very, very much appreciated.

There weren't a huge number of long bonuses, but RECORD DEAL and DAVINCI were both great, and EPONYM helped out too. (PINKEYE, though … eew.)

Loved this puzzle. It's so rare for me to see something as innovatively fun as this, while still working within all the general rule of one-letter-per-square. Can't wait to see what Alex has planned next.

POW Mon 1/23/2017

★ Really enjoyed this one. Very nice that Bruce perfectly divided up RUMP EL STILT SKIN into its syllables, sticking them at the starts of snappy phrases. I particularly liked RUMP ROAST and the legend of EL DORADO. I'm more familiar with golf's SKINS GAME than a SKIN GAME, but the latter does appear to be legit. And STILT WALKER … don't they just call them "person on stilts"? But again, the term does appear to be in use, and it's a fun word to say.

I always enjoy a good a-ha moment, and it's tough to get one on a Monday. If the theme is too hard, solvers won't understand (see: Bruce's mom). I thought this one was just about right, hiding in plain sight until I got to the very end and finally put those syllables together. Good choice to have an oblique revealer in FAIRY TALE — I think it would have been too hit-solvers-over-the-head-with-a-hammer obvious with RUMPELSTILTSKIN as a revealer.

And what nice fill! Not a surprise to me that Bruce's puzzles have taken a quantum leap since (warning: shameless plug ahead) he went all in on the XWord Info Word List. I loved getting the bonuses of PASTA BAR / E READER / DAD BODS (I'm trying very hard to avoid the first in order to avoid the third), SOFA BED. That's one great corner.

Bruce's puzzles used to be fairly well sprinkled with crossword glue, but this one is so nice and clean, generally.

I did have some qualms about the SW, though. SAULT crossing ELO is rough, almost making me disqualify the puzzle from POW! contention (given that this is a Monday puzzle). And STRING UP … I know there are a lot of nooses in Wild West movies, but … ick.

But overall, such a fun hidden theme, giving me a solid a-ha, and a well-executed grid. It's so difficult to make a Monday puzzle that's interesting to more experienced solvers, while also keeping the fill easily accessible to noobs. Great job!

POW Fri 1/20/2017

★ PuzzleGirl! So great to see her name back in the NYT lineup. That combo of TONY SOPRANO and his TOY SOLDIERS in a HOTEL ROOM being THE DEVIL YOU KNOW makes for such a neat middle of the puzzle. A few other long answers spice up the corners, in particular, the AMEN CORNER. This engineer highly approves of EXHAUST FAN, too.

Angela's layout is heavily dependent on seven-letter entries, and those can be tough to make sing. There are a few so-so answers like SINCERE, NETTLES, MARIANO (sorry, this Yankee-hater can't abide by that), but Angela does well to work in the colloquial MR RIGHT (aka "Jeff Chen"), DREAM ON!, and AFROPOP.

Not only that, but she spruces up some of the entries that don't sing by themselves with great clues. EPITHET as ["The Great" or "The Terrible"] is fun, giving such a huge range. ASTAIRE gets a nice piece of trivia, his book known as "The Man, the Dancer." And TARTANS gives us cool names in "Royal Stewart" and Clan Donald" (the patterns associated with those clans). It's stuff like this that makes me wish my name were MacChen.

Even [Activate, as a wah-wah pedal] for STEP ON and [Chat, across the Pyrénées] for GATO ("chat" is the French word for "cat") help spice things up.

Now, I didn't care for some entries. SAINTE feels a bit of a cheat, tagging on that uber-friendly ending E. The HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) is outdated, although one could argue it's historically important. STD isn't a great abbreviation, nor is PSS. With SEL and the arbitrary TEN AM, it was on the verge of being too much for me.

(KEB and PITTI are tough proper nouns, but I think both of those are both crossworthy and done with fair crossings.)

And this puzzle might not do much for those who haven't seen "The Sopranos." TONY SOPRANO is a toughie — he'll elate some, and cause others to shrug.

But overall, I was personally so entertained by this one, that middle in particular.

POW Thu 1/12/2017

★ For my money, Joe Krozel is one of the most innovative, interesting constructors out there. Some of my friends have grumbled that pushing the envelope doesn't always lead to great solving experiences, and I can see their point. But I felt that today's puzzle not only broke (pun intended) new ground, but it was an immense pleasure to solve.

Several constructor friends and I have brainstormed concepts with a grid separated in two, but none of us have ever thought of this cool idea. Joe found three solid phrases relating to a separated grid — and separated those phrases! Not only that, but each piece of each broken phrase makes a fine word in itself. BUSTED APART = BUS / TED + APART, BANANA SPLIT = BAN / ANA + SPLIT, BROKEN IN TWO = BRO / KEN + IN TWO. Just genius.

Will has rejected every one of my attempts to use this "up-down" style of symmetry, saying that it just looks odd, and I can usually see his point. But Joe uses a set of heavy black lines that evokes left-right symmetry, maintaining a pleasing visual effect.

And the fill! With some trick puzzles, fill necessarily shows strain to make the trick work. Joe does so well, giving us some excellent IKEBANA, TRANSISTOR RADIO, RAGTIME, THE NORM, SANGRIA, etc., flowing all the way down the right side. Okay, UNTAME isn't very good, but all the great entries overwhelmed that one for me.

The left side isn't quite as snazzy, but it does have a nice TAXICAB, PLANETS, NITWITS, ARMHOLE, without much crossword glue holding it together — just an UNA and a TELE made for a silky solve.

It's not often that I'm green with envy, wishing that it had been my name on the byline, but that was the case today. If I did a Crossword of the Month like Matt Gaffney, this one would be sure to be on it. Loved it.


★ I was baffled for the longest time — was PROSE POETRY supposed to be PROSE ROSE POETRY or something? Headslap moment when I realized it was P. ROSE POETRY. Brilliant! So many celebs go by their first initial and their last name (or part of it), like D Wade (Dwyane Wade), J Law (Jennifer Lawrence … or Jude Law?), etc. Great idea, cluing all these normal phrases as if they were parsed into celeb-ish names.

And the poetry for P. ROSE! "Charlie Hustle is my name / I am banned from the Hall of Fame" = fantastic. Great entry and even better clue, like something Muhammad Ali might have said in taunt. (I didn't know the MALI EMPIRE, but I really liked learning about this historical powerhouse.)

I did find it odd to get Stephen HARPER's first name right in the clue, but I'm the first to admit that I couldn't have guessed who Stephen Harper was, even given eleventy-billion guesses. So I appreciated the hint.

These young guns are two of the best in the new generation. I love me some Agard puzzles — his indies are some of my favorites out there — and Peter Broda blew my mind with a hero metapuzzle a while back.

Sometimes with the indies, I have a hard time getting into the hot / trendy people they throw in; names that you either know or don't, ones that either elate you or leave you shrugging.

So to get fresh, juicy bonus entries that even this old crotchety fella can appreciate was great. VICE UNIT! BEER DARTS! (I didn't know that one, but it wasn't hard to figure out from the clue.) URL HIJACKING! And HARRY HOUDINI with its appropriately confounding clue about when Houdini was buried (for a stage trick) vs. his death = brilliant.

There were a few tough themers — if you never watched "Friends," CHANDLER BING would be rough. And even rougher if you don't know who C. HANDLER (Chelsea Handler) is.

But overall, loved, loved, loved it. Such fun to do the puzzle, and even more fun to analyze why that was. More please, sirs!

P.S. RETCON = retroactive continuity. Even as a writer, I didn't know that — fun to learn!

POW Wed 12/28/2016

★ Such a fun idea, THE CARPENTERS potentially made up of people with carpentry-sounding names: ELIJAH WOOD, STUDS TERKEL, BRAD STEVENS, and MIKE HAMMER. Nice touch to use two first names and two last names.

Five themers of length 10/11/13/11/10 is tough to build around, especially since that middle 13 tends to force big, wide-open corners. I wasn't surprised that the old pro BEQ had no problem filling those corners with panache and cleanliness — a ton of great fill everywhere I looked. OIL RIG, STIGMA, CUJO in the upper left. SLINKIER, PATTERNS, and SPOOLED are pretty good in the upper right. And my favorite = WHAMMO, SAVE IT, and the hilarious-sounding PLOTZ! That is a fantastic use of mid-length slots, which too often get filled with blah entries.

BEQ's puzzles often have a very fresh, contemporary feel — sometimes too much so for my taste. I wasn't sure whether I loved HOWRU = HOW R U, or hated it (probably more the former). SOO I've seen before as in the SOO locks in the Great Lakes. That's minor-ish for me in terms of crossword glue, but SOO… as ["Your point being…?"] left me with a groan. It seems like that opens up a Pandora's Box of WELLL and NOOO and OOOOPS.

VIKES looks odd, but it does appear to be the term the Minnesota Vikings' fans use.

A couple of standout clues = a real treat on a Wednesday. For me, the best was [There might be a spat about this]. Mystifying, until I realized "spat" was talking about decorative spats worn about shoes, not quarrel-type spats. Beautiful how it didn't require a telltale question mark.

I initially wondered why BEQ chose BRAD STEVENS out of all the BRADs out there (BRAD PITT the obvious choice), but his commentary makes sense of the decision. I like it when constructors inject some of their personal tastes into a puzzle, just as long as it doesn't result in too esoteric entries. BRAD STEVENS is relatively new as a coach, and I wouldn't feature him as a theme entry, but I can see BEQ's rationale.

An entertaining concept with standout execution.

POW Thu 12/22/2016

★ (AL)UMINUM SIDING added to today's puzzle, featuring the chemical symbol for aluminum, Al. Check out the grid below for the deets. We've also corrected the appropriate answers so they match the clues. We wouldn't want to add ERT or LEGE to our database!

Neat concept. (AL)BERT EINSTEIN MED(AL) is such a great feature entry for this puzzle, just perfect how 1.) it has an AL on either side, 2.) it's 19 letters long, making it exactly 15 letters without the ALs and 3.) it's such a great-sounding entry. Reminds me of another puzzle featuring OUTSIDERS.

The first step in this construction is quite easy — you start with a 19x15 grid, with AL down each side in columns 1, 2, 18, and 19 (and black squares appropriately extended out to the sides). After you're done, you can lop off those extra columns, and voila!

HOWEVER … the execution is not easy at all. There are a reasonable number of words that start / end with AL, but limiting yourself to just that subset makes things so rough when constructing the sides of the puzzle. I was impressed that Mark, a debut constructor, was able to work in some great long entries like ALOHA SHIRTS, COLOSSAL, and PURITANICAL, without resorting to that much crossword glue. Yes, IN LA and REMAT are not good, but those are minor prices considering how tough those sides must have been to construct.

I would have loved for ALUMINUM SIDING to be one long entry, as it felt inelegant to split it up, but to do that, Mark would have needed a matching 12-letter entry. It would have forced the puzzle to be more open; less segmented, as 12-letter entries are very inconvenient to work around.

On that note, I would have liked the puzzle to breathe more — it's very partitioned. It was smooth overall, though, and if I had to choose between smooth vs. good puzzle flow, I'd tend toward the former.

I thought about this puzzle a lot after finishing it, and that's a sign of an excellent puzzle. Great stuff, especially from a debut constructor!

POW Thu 12/15/2016

★ Sam "S Diddy" Donaldson told me a long time ago that he was over rebuses; that they were so far overdone that he couldn't take them anymore. I tend to agree with him, although when they have a little somethin' extra, I still really enjoy them. That was the case for me today, grinning at Jacob's neat FA LA LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA entry as an entire row of rebi.

I quickly figured out that there was a rebus element when SP(LA)SH didn't fit in, and that triggered my usual sad trombone feeling. But when a FA popped up, I perked up. Could it be related to FDR's super-cute dog, FALA?

What a neat moment when I got to the FA LA LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA finale. Maybe I'm just a sucker for holiday songs and feelings, but I enjoyed that discovery.

From a constructor's standpoint, it's tough to work around so many rebus squares, so I enjoyed the craftsmanship, Jacob giving us a super-smooth grid. I mean, only a bit of IND / RDS around that very tough lower right corner? Great work. And some EASY RIDER, REGULAR GUY, FAJITA, LAPLAND, GRAPPA bonuses, only needing some minor crossword glue (RRS, old-timey SOTS) to make it all happen? That's the type of master craftsmanship I've come to expect from Jacob.

And from a solver's standpoint, it's rare to get an entire long entry made out of rebus squares, so that was a cool surprise. Again, something so pleasing about having that ubiquitous Christmas carol line so tidily packed in.

I'm still not totally sure why most of the themers have exactly one FA and one LA — I liked the consistency of each themer having a FA and a LA, but felt like it might have been better if they had contained the FA LA LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA sequence in order or something? Or if the song went, "Deck the halls with boughs of holly, FA LA FA LA FA LA FA LA, FA LA LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA" that would have made more sense to me.

The puzzle gave me such a warm and fuzzy feeling, however, that I shrugged off my doubt. Off to find some gay apparel!

POW Sun 12/11/2016RETRONYMS

★ RETRONYMS are words/phrases that are coined after a technological leap has been made, i.e. before email was invented, SNAIL MAIL was just MAIL. I love how Tom 1.) found so many good examples of these, and 2.) used a "non-existent" across number to refer to the old word — neat how he puts a black square above the M of MAIL so that he can refer to "34-Across" for MAIL.

Also really enjoyed the bonus entries Tom worked in. CAPRI PANTS, THAT HURTS, COW TIPPING, SUIT AND TIE — great stuff. Some may wonder if EPIC BATTLE is a real thing or not, but this Lord of the Rings fan says to haters YOU SHALL NOT PASS!

Ahem. Ignore me.

The bonus entries were much appreciated, since halfway through, I had already figured out the trick, and the impact of the theme didn't quite last all the way through the puzzle. It's a good thing I kept hitting nice entries, PET CRATE, SAYS ME, ALL MINE, ROBOTIC, and DEAR GOD giving me lifts everywhere.

There was just slightly too much crossword glue for my taste — AGUE is so old-timey, CMDR, CTS, the odd EFT, along with more minor stuff — but I'm totally fine with it as the price to pay for getting so much good bonus fill.

That amount of crossword glue is atypical of a Tom McCoy puzzle — I think he's one of the best in the business when it comes to entertaining, smooth, Sunday puzzles with bonus fill. He brings up a good point about the "fake across entry" trick giving him a little more inflexibility than usual. I built one with this trick a while back, and it was surprising how much more difficult the grid became. It's already so hard to execute on a Sunday 140-word puzzle, and any additional constraint, like cementing so many black squares into place at the outset, makes the gridwork even tougher.

Although I wondered if that would have been better as a Thursday puzzle, where the impact might have more easily lasted all the way through a 15x grid, I still enjoyed it a ton. Love experiencing concepts I've never quite seen before.

POW Sat 12/3/2016

★ I generally shudder when seeing quad-stacks. Because there are so many inflexible crossings to work with, it's inevitable that there are going to be at least a handful of groan-worthy globs of crossword glue holding a quad together.

Or is it? There's hardly anything in this super-smooth grid. SEE IT is a partial in disguise ("Now you ___ …") and the ORY / OR M middle made me cringe, but that's all? Couldn't be.

Well, if there's very little crossword glue, then the long entries are bound to be dreadfully boring.

Or are they? Besides SYSTEMS ANALYSTS, which I've seen anchor stacks many a time, the other seven are very good to great entries. MASTER CRAFTSMAN kicking off the puzzle? Yes! CREATURE FEATURE! Heck yeah! EMANCIPATION DAY! I didn't know what that was, but what a great occasion to learn about! I'm using a lot of exclamation points because I really enjoyed how snappy those long entries are!

(The engineer in me even admits to liking SYSTEMS ANALYSTS, much to the chagrin of the constructor in me.)

And getting ETERNITY, FEED LOT, ART STUDIO / SLEEP AIDS, HASIDIM, SOY PROTEIN running through those stacks, making for a wide-open solve … whoa!

I didn't totally get the RENTS clue: [Gets things on time?] I imagine it's sort of an "on borrowed time" type of wordplay? Anybody? Bueller?

After making hundreds of crosswords over the years, it's rare that I sit in such awe of a construction. Even after emailing back and forth with Jason to try to learn some techniques from him (neat that our Finder helped him discover TARDIS when he needed a six-letter word starting with TARD??), I'm still well out of the realm of total comprehension. I really enjoy getting a peek into a master's head.

I've made some triple-stacks before, even some with snazzy entries and clean crossings (don't ask about all the other stinkers), but this my friends, seems like real-life magic. Loved it.

POW Fri 11/25/2016

★ Beautiful puzzle; quintessential Patrick Berry. Here a few identifying factors that I identify with PB's themelesses:

  • A wide-open, well-connected grid with no real choke points
  • Well under the maximum of 72 words, creating a good challenge for solvers
  • Interesting layout of black squares, always trying something new
  • Some very good long answers like TEA CADDIES, HEAVEN SENT, RISING STAR, SPACE SUITS
  • Very little to no gluey short answers needed to hold everything together
  • Some neutral answers converted into assets through the use of a great wordplay clue, i.e. [Immersive experience] misleading toward a surround-sound theater experience, away from a dunking BAPTISM
  • No really flashy answers, but also no trendy answers that might mystify / dissatisfy big chunks of the solving population

Themelesses always involve trade-offs, and each constructor has his/her own weightings on how important each of the above categories are. Some do low-word count puzzles with a lot of neutral / bleh answers, some have really flashy entries with a ton of crossword glue holding everything together, etc. Patrick's blend of factors works really well for me.

I don't always absolutely 100% love Patrick's themelesses — there's rarely a single mind-blowing entry that makes one of his stick in my mind — but they hit every criterion I use for evaluation at such a darn high level. I really, really, enjoyed this one, an ultra-smooth, wide-open solve with a lot of very good entries and not a single hiccup in gluey short fill.

POW Thu 11/17/2016

★ I'm a sucker for visual puzzles, and simply having a MUMMY buried within a pyramid of black squares might have gotten this puzzle the POW! alone. What a brilliant image!

I had the luck to go to Egypt a few years ago before things started getting unsafe, and that made this puzzle even more enjoyable. Descending into those claustrophobic pyramids during 120-degree weather was harrowing, but what a once-in-a-lifetime experience. All those stories about lost tombs and building projects of massive scale … wow. Just, wow.

As if that wasn't enough, Tim and Joe give us some more pyramid graphics in other back square patterns, plus some fun theme material. PYRAMID SCHEME, TOMB RAIDER, PHARAOH ANT are more indirect than TUT, but they gave me enough to feel like the puzzle wasn't just a pretty picture.

And bonus fill to boot, with a themeless-esque open feel! I loved uncovering RARE GAS, MEGAWATTS, LAST GASP, even RASTAMAN (are you singing Bob Marley's RASTAMAN Vibration now too?), and TEA BAGS that come with strings attached.

Not all the fill was great, but that's to be expected with such wide-openness. TWO HEARTS felt partial-ish, and crossing TWICE was inelegant. I doubt many people will like seeing ANIS, but that's the only real glob of crossword glue, and I found it worth the price of LITHUANIA / LAST GASP. Tim and Joe could have cleaned up that region by putting a black square at the T or G of LAST GASP, but I like their decision here.

It also would have been nice to get less random-ish placement of the M U M M Y letters, but I can't think of a better way to do it (maybe have those letters be part of theme answers? or have them regularly spaced somehow?).

I imagine TOMB RAIDERs slipping diagonally into the pyramid from the T of MAD AT or first A of AMANA, just like I crept through chutes into the real pyramids. Totally tickled by this puzzle; a perfect example of the astounding creativity crosswords can exhibit.


★ I have to admit I didn't understand this one at all after uncovering PANTS AND A SNEAKER. Of course an aerobics instructor would wear pants! And a sneaker! But why not two?

I felt silly when I realized that 1.) it was PANTS AND A SWEATER and 2.) how much fun, that you hear PANTS in an aerobics class, and everyone is a SWEATER (one who sweats). Amusing play on double-meanings of words.

I liked most all the themers, but I loved SLACKS AND LOAFERS for an unemployed person — slacking and loafing are two of my favorite hobbies. And some of the themers also gave me amusing visuals. A gardener wearing BLOOMERS AND HOSE, love it!

I wasn't as much a fan of the central answer because 1.) it was the only one with three items, so I had a hard time figuring out that I needed implied commas in TURTLENECK, BOA, AND CROCS and 2.) TURTLENECK is associated with the turtle (to some extent), as is BOA / feather boa, and CROCS even have a crocodile for a logo — no real wordplay for me here.

Incredibly well-constructed. Plenty of constructors have tried to go down to 132 words, but very few have been successful in creating a both snazzy and smooth product. Joel uses four big corners and a diagonal swath of white in the middle of the puzzle, both of which should result in at least a few dabs of crossword glue, or at least some bleh/neutral answers. I love that lower left, with TRIBUTE BANDS, TAPENADE, WEB APP, (we were) ON A BREAK! ("Friends," anyone?), TEMPEST, with such clean results. Great stuff.

There were a few tiny HICCUPs here and there — as good as L'ETAT, C'EST MOI / DRONE BEE / the ICE MAN are in the upper right, TOOTER feels contrived. And in the lower right, PISTES is a bit esoteric. But to get so much jazzy fill like CHAKRA, KRONOS, CHIPPER, even CANNIBAL with a jokey clue, that's great stuff.

A playful theme plus top-notch execution is a rare feat on a Sunday 21x.

POW Fri 11/4/2016

★ A ton of flashy, catchy answers. That bottom left corner is especially shiny, with four strong answers — WOW JUST WOW / ASK ANYONE / SLOW DANCE / TUNA STEAK — stacked right atop each other, with only the very minor ASTI needed to hold it all together. Stacking three long answers is hard enough, but when you throw in a fourth (even if it is shifted over somewhat), it gets much harder. That's fantastic work.

WOW JUST WOW might not do much for some people, but it's one of my favorite types of entries, taking advantage of the crossword convention of ignoring punctuation. WOW JUST WOW looks odd, but think of it like this: WOW. (eye roll) JUST … WOW. (shake head.) Love it.

Interesting to hear David say that HOT STONE MASSAGE wasn't one of the seed entries. I would never have thought to build opposite corners like this, hoping that they would mesh in the middle — seems like you'd too often end up with unmatchable starts / ends for that long slot. But David kept his middle section pretty closed off with liberal use of black squares, so he set himself up to facilitate the start / end of that grid-spanning entry meshing in the middle. Clever!

Also nice to hear David point out EILAT as the least desirable entry, as that one stood out to me as well (a name I know only from crosswords). Is it a truly gluey entry, though? I'm on the fence about that. Major cities ought to be fair game, and never having traveled in that part of the world, I don't know enough about EILAT to gauge its tourist draw or its place in history. Tough call.

AMICO was second behind EILAT for me, but that felt more minor to me (it's easily inferable from the common "amigo" and "amicus brief"). It speaks to David's construction abilities that he was able to keep it to just these entries in terms of crossword glue, especially considering all the long answers stacked atop each other.

I wasn't a fan of the mini-theme — four of the first five answers clued to "pot" or "pots" — a rare case that a mini-theme actually detracted from a themeless for me. Felt a bit haphazard; inelegant. I'm glad I went back afterward to review the construction though, because once I got past that opening sensation of oddness, I really enjoyed the craftsmanship.

POW Tue 10/25/2016

★ THIS ROUNDS ON ME! Er, THE ROUNDS ON ME. Hmm. I've never actually heard anyone get up and declare either one, but the former is the way I imagine it happening.

Jeb (John E. Bennett) and I live pretty close to each other, so we meet up occasionally to talk shop. When he mentioned this one to me, I smiled — great minds think alike! I actually like his interpretation better than mine, what with 1.) the pretty circle, or "round" formed by the drinks, and 2.) the fact that all of his are alcoholic beverages.

I also appreciated his touch of GIN and STOUT, ones that can easily be clued not as the drink. As Jeb mentioned, that did hide the theme for a little bit.

I always worry when I see diagonal answers, since it's so tough to construct around them. But I like what Jeb did in the top left corner a lot. It is true that he had a lot of flexibility, being able to use any six-letter alcoholic beverage, but he made SHERRY work so nicely. DEATHS did give me a pause, since it's a bit of a no-no to include downers like this, but needing virtually no crossword glue to hold a section like this together is great work.

The bottom left exhibits a few of the usual traits I'd expect out of a section with diagonal answers — not surprising, given how open the corner is compared to the top left. I did like TRAIN CAR, HOT MEALS, even GIMBAL (sue me, I'm an engineer). I didn't like NNE/ACAP/PCT/ERST holding it together.

A different type of compromise in the bottom right. The short stuff is all fine, but the longer stuff ... RETESTS is a bit iffy, and EAGEREST feels more than a bit iffy. Working around these diagonal answers, if it ain't one thing, it's another.

Given the degree of difficulty here though, I enjoyed the final result despite my initial hesitations, especially that pretty ring of drinks, and the theme felt uplifting. I like it when a puzzle leaves me with good spirits.

(rim shot)

POW Wed 10/19/2016

★ Great wordplay today, with five PRO- words split up and given a kooky interpretation. What a clever revealer for these "professions" in PRO VOCATION! So much fun to get PRO TESTER as "a professional in testing," and then even more fun to get that spot-on revealer. Awesome solving experience.

At first I hitched on PROPOSER. Is that a real word? Turns out it is, especially when referring to Parliamentary procedure. I also wondered if a CURER was a real word (from PROCURER). Hmm. And it would have been nice if PROFILERS had been singular, like the other themers.

Then I decided I was being way too nit-picky and I should just sit back and enjoy Tom's finds.

A couple of nice bonuses, in PANORAMA / EARDRUM and YOURE ON! ANDERSON isn't as colorful to me, especially since the cross-reference made me jump around the grid, but it still works. (I have "Aqualung" stuck in my head now — thanks a lot, Tom.) I really appreciated Tom's effort in those two corners, since he could have easily put more black squares at the R of OPENER and D of DRIVEL and made his life easier at 78 (instead of 76) words.

In terms of smoothness, I didn't care for the ARA / HROSS / LIS section — three dabs of crossword glue glaringly concentrated in one place — but again, I liked the theme so much that it didn't bother me as much as it usually would. Anyway, this is a common region of stress for puzzles that utilize a central 11-letter themer — once you place those black squares at the sides, you take away a ton of flexibility.

Overall, such a joy to solve.

POW Mon 10/10/2016

★ Easy-breezy, smooth puzzle with a fun theme — creatures with a monster in their names — everything I think a Monday should be. At first I didn't get why GIANT of GIANT SQUID fit into the concept, but a quick headslap came after recalling the GIANTs in fairy tales, Harry Potter, etc.

Did you notice Patrick's elegant touch, two airborne animals in the top half of the grid, and two undersea ones in the bottom half? Love that! And I can imagine an ordered sequence, with a VAMPIRE BAT flying high, a DRAGONFLY closer to the ground, a DEVILFISH swimming not too deep, and a GIANT SQUID lurking in the depths. Absolutely perfect.

Nice bonus entries, too. Patrick uses the "long downs" approach with RUTABAGA (I'm not sure why, but it's such a funny-sounding word) and OFF NIGHT, a typical way to incorporate longer fill. Working long bonus fill into the across direction can be trickier, since those answers tend to have a lot of overlap with themers. Some very good choices in STALLION and BEATNIKS, and both are integrated so smoothly. Throw in a little NOONDAY, ITS TIME, and BAROQUE, and this solver got a lot more than he expected out of a Monday puzzle.

Such a smooth solve. I didn't care for ORONO, since it's a pretty small town and constructors tend to lean on it due to its vowel / consonant alternation, but all the crossings are fair. I debated whether ARIEL should be known by NYT solvers, but what else could that R be?

Normally I don't care for fill that's related to the theme, but it was fun to get a little STINE in the grid. For those in the know, he's been called the "Stephen King of children's literature." Perfect for this puzzle!

Although I'm a total wuss when it comes to anything remotely scary, I really enjoyed this puzzle.

POW Mon 10/3/2016

★ LONDON BRIDGE is FALLING DOWN today, with a neat visual and a great selection of themers. I've been dying to work SOCIAL LUBRICANT into a puzzle, so it was really fun to see. STAND ON ONES HEAD, LONG STEMMED, and WENT OVER THE EGDE are all nice too.

I like when a puzzle lulls me into thinking I know what's happening, and then it throws me for a loop. Working quickly through LON to DON, I figured this had to be a word ladder. What a pleasure to get SOCIAL LUBRICANT as a sizzling entry, and even more so when I realized the next trigram wasn't DOT or DEN or something.

And what an entertaining visual, LON DON BRI DGE actually looking like the bridge broke up, Tacoma-Narrows-style, and sections plummeted in sequence from right to left. Love it.

Nice bonuses in RV PARK — excellent use of a six-letter slot — ACTING OUT, STATE SEAL, NY GIANTS, SHOWCASE, even ARABIC with its crazy clue (see Jim's note below). Great extras made the solve even more enjoyable.

There were a few questionable spots, ones that made me hesitate about giving this the POW! XKES is a toughie, basically random letters. Thankfully Jacob made all the crossings straightforward.

That SUZI / ZWEIG crossing … I guess it's fair, since what other letter could look more reasonable? I briefly considered SUKI / KWEIG, but that looked strange. I do like the Scrabbly Z, but oof, that caused me a moment of panic.

Were those two rough patches worth the price all the great extras? I did like all the bonuses, and given that Jacob had to work with five long themers, some signs of strain were to be expected. Going up to 76 words could have smoothed out those two crunchy spots — the end product is not as novice-friendly as I like to see in a Monday — but I'm okay with Jacob's decision.

I really enjoy getting something a little different on Mondays, and this fit the bill. Very entertaining.