Click the links above to see these puzzles organized by constructor, or to try solving them.
★ Not knowing the painting, I hadn't really considered this one for the POW at first. Thankfully, having two J-named partners with knowledge in the arts made me really appreciate the theme. The difficulty of the execution naturally results in some compromises, but I found them well worth it. Memorable puzzle.
★ As a crossword commentator, I live for days like today. I initially was disgruntled by (what I thought were) gibberish rebus squares all along the walls of the puzzle. On my average solver days, I would have set it aside without another thought.
Thank goodness I analyzed it afterward, because what an amazing a-ha moment! It's my favorite puzzle of the year in any venue so far, and I hope to convince any haters out there why it's so incredible. I struggle to think of a single puzzle in the past several years that I've liked better.
Like me, there will be many solvers out there who entered "STRAW" in the first square, "STRA" in the one below it, "STR" in the one below that, etc. Made no sense why [Targets of some cryosurgery] was a bunch of nonsense rebus squares. It took me a couple of minutes to realize that each of these answers is literally CLIMBING / THE WALLS, i.e. the STRAW of STRAW BALE actually starts at the square marked "30"! Similarly, that square starts the STRA of STRAINED, and the STR of STRONG DRINKS, all "borrowing" from the WARTS entry.
Sometimes a puzzle is awesome from a solver's perspective, sometime it's incredible from a constructor's view, but rarely do I find both in spades. The aspect I appreciate the most as a constructor is that Jeremy found a way to innovate without relying on rebus squares — squishing multiple letters into a single square in different ways. Jeremy's approach of using a "turning answers" approach to the nth degree is amazing, all while sticking with a single letter in each box.
And the technical challenge of it! Sure, each of the six instances is somewhat separated so he could build each one independently, but he still needed to stick to crossword symmetry. To balance STRONG DRINKS with DIGESTIVE AID, and NOT EVEN A LITTLE with TASMANIAN DEVIL … I did figure out how to arrange things to get some computer assistance, but it's still a wickedly difficult task to pull off so cleanly.
As if all that weren't enough, Jeremy keeps at it with great mid-length fill like ME FIRST, SCRAP HEAP, HAS A SMOKE, etc. Pure RAPTURE on my part.
I can't remember when I've been this elated to have the chance to gush about a crossword. I've always looked forward to seeing Jeremy's byline, and this enforces my notion that he's one of the best in the business.
★ Jim and I often discuss what makes a great crossword, and I find my criteria shifting ever so slightly. I used to be much more concerned with squeaky-clean fill, but now I'm relenting; more willing to let a handful of gluey bits slip by if that means a puzzle delights me. What's more important that being delighted, after all? Today's crossword generated a big smile across my face.
First, it was nice to see Judge Vic not start with the traditional four sets of triple-stacks. That's a tried and true strategy, proven to allow at least 12 long slots. But it's nice to get the variety, the experimentation in the grid design. I like how Vic incorporates a pair of 12-letter entries — 12s, 13s, and 14s are usually avoided due to the difficulty in integrating them into a themeless. And it was nice to see the goodness spread out, getting an OUT OF THE BLUE out of the blue for example, rather than having all the long stuff concentrated in the corners like usual.
Although I really liked entries like TARBOOSH, PACE CARS, YULE LOGS, DARK AGES, the clues are what made the puzzle sing for me. I'm usually quite happy with three or four clever clues, but it felt like they didn't stop today:
So even though I'd rather have near zero gluey bits in my themeless crosswords, I'll take some OST, ESA, RAG sort of stuff any day if it means I get so much delight.
★ By nature, crosswords targeting a particular subject area will delight a portion of solvers while leaving others shrugging their shoulders. Count me in the former category — BOND, SOLO, ROCKY, and AXEL (Foley) were huge parts of my childhood. Total delight.
I especially liked the wordplay on BOND TRADERS, as it describes so perfectly the switching of Connery to Lazenby to Connery for the lead role. Plus, BOND TRADERS! I know there are very few actual traders on the floor of a stock/bond market flashing specialized hand signals, but the phrase still evokes a colorful image in my mind.
ROCKY START also gave me a smile, as plenty of people complain about the way Rocky I starts the series. My wife and I recently sat down to watch Rocky I (her first time, my nth), and her reaction at the end was (SPOLIER ALERT!):
"What the bleep?! Rocky doesn't win?" Or something to that effect.
TRIPLE AXEL was also apt, since there were three "Beverly Hills Cop" movies. It felt a little odd though, since people refer to BOND, SOLO, and ROCKY by those singular names, and AXEL isn't quite to that level.
Saving the best for last, Han SOLO. My childhood hero, a stereotype-breaking space cowboy, an olio of human greed, moxie, and honor that surprised even him. (FLYING SOLO would have made this perhaps my favorite puzzle in a while. Sigh, a man-boy can dream.)
As if that weren't enough, it's a rare puzzle where the fill catches my eye. CETOLOGY is such a cool, odd word that I wanted to study it (both whales and the word itself). It's usually hard to wow me with single-word entries, but getting DACTYLS, CHIANTI, LARIAT, SUBTITLE along with DEEP END and AL DENTE was a barrage of goodness.
Like some (many? most?) of my choices, not all will agree that this one was the NYT Puzzle of the Week. For those that disagree with my choice, I answer: 1.) there are indeed at least two other puzzles this week I seriously considered and 2.) hokey religions and and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.
★ Joel has such an interesting perspective. The construction was SO smooth that I assumed it was a 76 or perhaps a 74-word puzzle. A 72-word themed puzzle is hard enough to achieve with a few gluey bits, so to nail it with nary a glop is amazing.
My personal style is a little different. I always try to work in six snazzy long downs (unless grid constraints are severe), but that tends to ignore the mid-length 5-, 6-, 7-letter fill, leaning heavily on the short stuff that Joel points out as pretty boring for solvers. I hadn't really considered how important that mid-range stuff is, but I see what he means when I look at fill such as JUNTA, IM SURE, and ACCT NO (which looks really cool in the grid — a nice surprise to have to work at uncovering a Monday entry). I like those entries no matter how they're clued.
And his approach also gives the solver interesting trivia. Who knew WYOMING was the least populous state? I wouldn't, because my approach to grid design tends to ignore these 7-letter entries. (Also because I get WYOMING and Wisconsin confused.)
Finally, IM GAY brings us a reminder of a momentous event in TV history, Ellen coming out. Great stuff.
I might have liked a third fruit instead of BITTER PILL — if only BITTER PEAR or RANCID BANANA were metaphorical, sigh — but the theme coheres well enough. (I'm afraid the consistently very high quality of Joel's work has me spoiled ugli.)
A great construction, and a Monday puzzle chock full of interesting fill and tidbits.
★ Very, very cool idea. I bet many solvers filled in "APERA" as a rebus square and wondered who the heck APERANNA SUI was. (I still think Aperanna is a nice name.) Following along the loop, especially ROLLER COASTER looping around R (O L L E R C) OASTER, was really fun. And the fact that the resulting answer looks like ROASTER in the grid, a normal word — what a bonus!
P (A P E R) AIRPLANE also is neat, some types of planes able to gracefully execute loop-de-loops. It's not quite as neat as ROLLER COASTER since "PAIRPLANE" is obviously odd in the grid, but still, PAPER AIRPLANE fits nicely with the theme.
I get that a SHOELACE gets tied in a loop, but that themer didn't work quite as well for me. SHOELACEs don't really get tied in vertical loops, do they? I brainstormed a little bit, and could only come up with two other possible themers which might fit the vertical loop motif: STUNT PILOTS, which would look like S (T U N T P I L O) TS, or STUNT MOTORCYCLE. Maybe those are too close to PAPER AIRPLANE though.
These types of puzzles where the themers bend, twist, etc. are usually tough to execute, because of all the extra real estate taken up. So I like that Jason just uses three, and spaces them out nicely. Also very cool to incorporate R CRUMB into that difficult RC???? slot. The fill isn't particularly sparkly — more CATALYTIC and ATYPICAL than the beautiful BITCOIN and FIRE AWAY — but I appreciate the relative grid cleanliness.
Finally, two great clues. I love Greek mythology, so getting ARGUS and the [100-eyed giant of myth] was pleasing. (Although I would have been equally happy with ARGUS Filch, the groundskeeper of Hogwarts.) And [Illegal motion penalty?] thankfully had nothing to do with football (still not over the Seahawks' SB XLIX loss) but cleverly hinted at TILTing a pinball machine.
★ A really nice debut puzzle. Most people would stick to four — or even three — theme answers in their first go-around. But Will goes big with six! Laudable.
And what an amusing theme. I laughed, picturing a junior editor starting out on the job, overzealously throwing around red ink. For all my grumbling about pop songs and hip bands, none of which I know, here's a case where I really welcomed them! It's doubtful that even the most clueless editor would correct THE BEATLES, but I can easily see the person smugly changing LINKIN PARK and deeming the LUDACRIS spelling as truly LUDICROUS.
Smart layout, intersecting two pairs of themers and using black squares to create a lot of space and separation between themers. Doesn't allow for a lot of jazzy fill, but that's okay for me, since the themers were mostly vivid.
A rough patch here and there, but that's to be expected in a six-themer, especially where there's a lot of overlap. And really, only the CWT / TO ERR / EDUC north area stuck out to me. No surprise that it came in one of the two areas with most themer overlap – where four white spaces sit between THE BEETLES and LUDICROUS. I might have tried moving the black square at the end of ITERATE up to the R of RODEO in order to reduce the overlap. Hard to say if that would have caused problems in the center of the puzzle, though.
My wife tells this joke she thinks is hilarious:
Q: What did the fish say when it swam into a wall?
So DAMS, clued as [Challenges for salmon] made me smile.
And fun repurposing of "Grape Nuts" cereal, a WINO being a [Grape nut?] of sorts. I also enjoyed the homonym play on [Dehli order?] for SARI, a clothing item common in India.
ADDED NOTE: there was a last-minute change to the grid, and apparently the old version was printed by mistake in the NYT hardcopy. It affects only the western section of the puzzle (TOO BAD became TAIWAN, etc.). SARI for the confusion.
★ A 64-word themeless is so difficult to pull together that the constructor must often rely on neutral or boringish entries. Not today. Impressive grid and even more impressive cluing.
I figured Byron would have to rely heavily on the common letters (RSTLN E), so figuring out DESI ARNAZ JR took me forever. Seeing a NAZ?? ending made me go back and erase several times. And testing out a J and an R at the end – NAZJR, what a bizarre string! – just couldn't be right. I was mixed as to whether DESI ARNAZ JR is crossworthy in his own right, but that curious run of ending letters plus the brilliant clue, [Ball boy?] (Lucille Ball's boy), makes me give him a thumbs-up.
Speaking of cluing, Byron's clues hit the Saturday sweet spot for me. Personally, I have a tough time with "deep dictionary" clues, where the constructor/editor pulls out definition number 45 in an attempt to stump the solver. I don't find that very satisfying, working like a dog and then ultimately having to go to the dictionary to understand what I just solved. Byron tends to use seemingly innocent clues with a devilish bent, giving me a fist-pumping elation when I get them. Here are my favorites:
Notice how each one of these avoids the giveaway question mark. Brilliant.
And even the part I liked the least, the NW with its RUCHED and GRIPPE, felt at least fair to me. Plus, it reminded me of a good discussion Jim and I had about whether AGUE was a "good" or a "bad" entry. Jim's point was that even though it's not in the language today (my doctor wife corroborates this), it has literary value. Granted, Jim is a big Dickens fan, but still, I enjoyed being reminded that some entries I dislike are ones that others will love.
★ Sometimes I miss the cleverness a puzzle brings. Today, I wondered why AGUA was a Latin American capital – perhaps it was a currency unit of Guatemala or Nicaragua? And the theme didn't really make sense to me. I saw the sets of two MAN entries "spread out" from where they were supposed to be, but that seemed like it didn't really jive with CUT OUT THE / MIDDLEMAN. So I shrugged and went on with my day.
One of the many great things about providing daily commentary about puzzles is that it forces me to go back and revisit them. Not only does it help my own construction skill development, but I uncover elements I missed the first time around. So to finally grok that AGUA was actually (MAN)AGUA, with the middle of three MAN entries cut out … yes! A great a-ha moment.
The same goes for RAIN(MAN)'s middle MAN cut out, and THE ICE(MAN) COMETH as well. I particularly liked that central one, the cut out MAN sitting in the middle of HIT(MAN) and (MAN)ANA.
I'll explain Will's and then John's cryptic clue for ETA, since I still didn't get it after John hinted above at its awesomeness. (I had to ask John about it, FYI.) Apparently when fraternities and sororities launch new chapters at different schools, they label them with Greek letters, i.e. the first chapter is the Alpha Chapter, the second is the Beta Chapter, etc. So although it requires a deep understanding of an esoteric subject, but the repurposing of the bankruptcy term "Chapter 7" is really neat.
I might have liked all the MAN entries to be more hidden as in MANDY and MANAGUA, but overall, a beautiful, clean execution on a great idea. I know it's not currently possible, but how awesome would it be to open up your newspaper and find three chunks physically cut out of your crossword, like so?
★ I looked at 1-Down, [Word before top or party], six letters, and filled in POOPER. Took me few seconds to realize that POOPER TOP 1.) wouldn't pass the breakfast test, 2.) isn't a real thing, and 3.) is a funny phrase evoking images of double-story outhouses that I'll be using more frequently. Talk about COMIC RELIEF!
Onto the puzzle! Four famous comedians hiding at the front of phrases, Sid CAESAR, Eddie MURPHY, Billy CRYSTAL, and Chris POOPER TOP. Er, ROCK. I couldn't personally identify Sid Caesar out of a lineup of him plus four Lilliputian Taiwanese orcs, but the name is quite familiar. And I like how he helps spread the puzzle's appeal to the older generation who might not recognize (or choose to ignore) the more recent guys.
It would have been great to get a more recent comedian, and a female one or two, but who else would fit this theme pattern? If only there were such a thing as a CK AIRPLANE or a CHAPPELLE BERET or a CHO MAMA.
Hey, CK ONE! That "a thing," isn't it?
Really nice gridwork today, Susie producing a smooth solve. All throughout I was impressed at how little glue I encountered, only hitching at the ELD / ENE area. OLD / ONE would be so much better! But OLD HAT sits up at the top of the grid. Ooh, I hate when that happens!
And I really liked the way Susie worked in so much Scrabbly goodness. Sometimes I feel like Xs and Js are jammed in with a big shoehorn and hammer, but I love the smoothness around the J and X in the NW, and the selection of Vs in the SE. I can imagine the temptation to try to squeeze a Q in the SE, resulting in EQUI or something. Vs aren't as spicy as Qs or Xs, but they still do the job of adding seasoning to the puzzle.
You know what was funny for me? The use of the question mark in the clue for COMIC RELIEF. Just when I thought I knew when it should be deployed. I mean, those comedians do provide COMIC RELIEF, yeah?
Overall, a very well-executed puzzle causing me to amuse myself to no end.
★ Loved this concept. Word ladders got overdone a while back, so Will doesn't run them very frequently. And when he does, they usually require an additional layer of clevereness. This one hit that sweet spot for me, kooky sentences formed by word ladder chains. LOUD LOUT LOST LAST CAST? Yes, please! The ideas I generally like best and remember are those I would have never dreamed up, and this is one.
Not all of them read so smoothly. HUGE LUGE LUGS LOGS is amusing. But tacking on the LOTS at the end makes it feel wonky. And WILT WILL FILL FUEL FULL is gold, but it doesn't adhere to the tight word ladder constraint. Switching those last two words to make WILT WILL FILL FULL FUEL wrenches it in my ear. Still, the difficulty of making any reasonable-sounding word ladder sentence is so high that I reveled in uncovering each one.
And what a smooth solving experience. My solve was assisted by the fact that I could piece together the word ladders by comparing four-letter chunks, but the general cleanliness also helped. I really only hitched around the TUNG OIL section, and that was mostly because of the very difficult cluing. ["Was ist ___?"] is admirable in its attempt to do something new in cluing LOS, but hotchy-motchy! that made that area tough. I'd much more appreciate it if it hadn't been next door to that TUNG OIL oddball.
The cleanliness is especially impressive considering Joe made this a 136-word puzzle, giving us a whole lot of 5 and 6s, which often make for sections tough to fill (and crack into). I wouldn't have minded if Joe had gone up to 138 or 140 words, making that TUNG OIL section more interesting, but I do like working my mental muscle.
I also would have liked more clever clues, as many of them felt misdirectional in a not super fun method. [Darn, e.g.] for OATH felt too tricksy to me. (["Darn," e.g.] is what it was going for.) [Arrangement of hosing?] gets points for effort, but it didn't stick the landing, as the clue sounds pretty forced. A final clue I'll point out is [Majority group], which made no sense to me. I was all set to deride it when Jim pointed out the "Age of Majority" is a very real thing. Darn! (The oath, not the mending.)
Overall though, absolutely loved the theme. Great stuff.
★ I don't know how he does it. Stacks of 12/13/12 are hard enough to accomplish in one direction. But to do it in both the horizontal and vertical directions, crossing each other? It's an impressive visual feast, executed with both smoothness and lively fill.
How is this possible? Maybe Patrick leans heavily on the RSTLN E common letters, as he has sometimes done in the past? (Not that there's anything really wrong with that, as he always picks out colorful entries.) Well, no. There's a V in the marquee SPACE INVADERS, making it both a semi-Scrabbly and a lively entry.
Another trick constructors employ is to section off tricky areas in order to work more easily with them. Nope, that's not it – check out how much real estate floats around the middle. The flow is not choked off at all, and that middle is chock full of five-letter words, not a four or a three serving as a crutch.
Black magic is the only remaining answer.
And he doesn't stop there — each of the four quadrants is packed with almost the same level of goodness as any normal person's themeless corners. EYE COLOR and SEAN PENN make a great pairing in the SE. And STORY ARC and PANIC BAR are such lively answers. Even the potentially neutral ODOMETER turns into an asset with its colorful clue, related to the "clocking" crime.
Sure, there is a bit of wastage in the long slots, entries like DRESSES and … well, STATION HOUSES is a little dry. (Plus it feels somewhat duplicative of the HOMES in STARTER HOMES.) But overall, there's a double-digit count of snappy entries, a visual wow factor in the middle of the grid, and super-smooth fill. I resolved to spread around the POWs a bit more this year, but I couldn't help myself with this one.
★ My wife's favorite themeless experience is when you go through a first pass and turn up nearly empty. A feeling of despondence consumes you, but one of those toeholds suddenly trigger a thought, and you can enter another answer. And another! Chunks break open, and neurons fire. Ten minutes later (20 in my case), a seemingly impossible solve is cracked. Tremendously satisfying.
I had that experience today, daunted at first by those gigantic white spaces. I entered three answers in my first pass and wondered if 1.) I'd be able to finish and 2.) how much glue I was going to encounter — I often find that these wide-open grids require a lot of glue to hold them together. To my relief and amazement, I encountered virtually nothing ugly the whole way through. Yes, there's a HALER and a TEK from Shatner's esoteric "TekWar," but what else? The cleanliness is astounding.
And what nice long entries. Often with this style of crazy-wide-open puzzle, you see neutral words depending on –NESS or –ERS. But to get ADULT MOVIES, HIS EMINENCE, PIN CUSHIONS, MINOR PLANET just to start? Really nice selection. If the worst of your 11 long answers is IN EXISTENCE, I call that quite the success.
As is usual with some of these types of stunt grids, I don't love the feng shui. The puzzle is broken so distinctly into three parts. I know from the constructor's viewpoint how much easier it is to make a low-word count puzzle when you can section areas off and work on them one at a time. But, as a solver, it bugs me to see such fragmentation.
Overall though, a puzzle in the Patrick Berry mold — uber-clean with a smart selection of long entries. I really like David's desire to experiment with themeless grids; it's cool to see the variety in his products. I don't always love the solving experience his more experimental stuff, but I thought this one was a big winner.
P.S. For those of you who don't get the brilliance of the CDS clue, it's referring to ultra-low interest rates. I work in investment management, so it got a big smile from me. Reader Greg Johnson points out that it can also refer to music CDs, which are falling out of favor — doubly cool!
I appreciated Joe's selection of themers, all in-the-language. There were a few obvious ones like DELETED SCENE and ABANDONED SHIP, but I had to do some serious thinking to figure out what DROPPED ???? was. At first I tried DROPPED (the) BALL and felt outrage that Joe could let such an inexact phrase go through! Then I just felt silly when I realized it was DROPPED CALL. Great stuff (Joe's choices, not my idiocy).
The grid is so nice, too. I worried upon seeing the eighth theme entry running down the center of the grid. This sort of interlock is visually impressive but often produces compromises. Aside from BOP IN (which I think I actually like after an initial wince), the center is clean, just a CURST (I think I also like this too, upon further consideration) and an ETO. Strong work.
Joe does spend more black squares in that center section though, because of said interlock. Those two smooth curves help frame that difficult central area, making it easier to fill cleanly. Spending black squares like means that the rest of the puzzle must contain more white space, upping the level of filling difficulty (20 8-letter fill words = unheard of!). Check out the four themeless-esque corners. They're all pretty good, even featuring such nice entries as APP STORE and PANDEMIC, but each one does have a bit of THE TOP, LENOS, ERTES, INTL glue.
Not one of these globs is a NO NO NO! type infraction of course, but that all-important NW corner did set not the greatest tone for me. THE TOP feels partial-ish, with ETAS and HEMI making me worry what was to come. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded.
A neat concept + strong execution = a really enjoyable Sunday solve. Might have been one of my all-time favorites if each of the fill-in-the-blanks had been as mystifying and then hugely rewarding as SU(PERSON)IC.
When I opened it up, I wondered how those NW and SE corners would turn out. Not many people attempt quad-stacked 8s, because they too often require pots of glue to hold them together. Kevin has done at least one before, and the experience shows, as both of those corners come out clean as a whistle. Better yet, the long answers are generally fresh and snappy, not at all the neutral types of entries I expected. POT FARMS, AFROBEAT, STARBASE, TENTACLE makes for quite a quartet.
The other corner is anchored by NET SALES, a bit dull since with its common letters, we see it quite often in themelesses. But otherwise, to get PRENATAL with its great clue, HATE MAIL, IPAD MINI with clean crossings is really impressive work.
Normally I'm not one who notices how Scrabbly a puzzle is. Patrick Berry quite often stays away from the Big Four (JQXZ), and his work is almost always standout. But he does usually pepper a grid with a few Vs or Ks to keep things interesting. With just one K, this puzzle did feel a bit "Wheel of Fortune" to me, leaning heavily on the RSTLN E.
And there were a few entries that I didn't care for. UNO DUE TRE felt like a wasted slot, not nearly as in the language as UNO DOS TRES or UN DEUX TROIS, but of course I'm sure Italian speakers enjoyed seeing it. ULSTER was interesting to learn about — a type of coat worn by Holmes — but the clever clue was lost on me, as even after filling in the letters, it didn't make sense until I went to go look it up, and at that point I had forgotten what the clue was.
That's all nit-picking though, as my enjoyment level was really high. To get such a high quantity of assets and few liabilities in a 66-worder is an impressive feat. Along with Will's in-depth commentary of how he analyzed and edited the clues, it was a real joy from start to finish to post-game analysis.
Having a good memory for crosswords sometimes interferes with my enjoyment of puzzles. Here, my initial thoughts turned back to an earlier puzzle as soon as I figured out the concept. It's no problem at all to have two puzzles with a similar (or the same) trick, but I would have liked to have more time separating the two; a year at least. Could also have been different if they hadn't both been Thursday puzzles. If one had been a Wednesday and one a Thursday, people who never attempt a Thursday puzzle wouldn't have even noticed.
Putting all that aside, it's very nicely executed. Joe does a great job of inserting strong long fill without much or a price to pay. I particularly liked the SE corner, with DINGBAT and CLUB SODA straddling the themers down there. And ODE TO JOY along with GROOVES (and a gold star clue!) in the opposite corner? Yes please! It's not easy to stick the landing like this when you're working with crossing themers (even if one of them is short), so Joe does well to keep it to really, really minor stuff like ANON, PEI, ISR.
I would have liked more symmetry (both the long answers and the shorts answers), but having the pairs intersect is really cool. Perhaps it's too much to ask that the short ones be paired in symmetry as well. I do remember sifting THROUGH the total solution space and noticing that it was smaller than I would have thought.
Finally, I love the extra touches. The clue echo of SMUT and SKY, both "blue" things but in very different ways — that's the kind of "clue echo" that works perfectly for me. IQ TEST and its [Measure of brightness]. HOE being something that could loosen up a lot (of land). Excellent stuff adding pleasure to my solve. I really enjoyed it, and likely would have absolutely loved it if it had run six months from now.
I'm biased in that I like Josh in the first place. We've only met a few times at the ACPT, but he's fun to hang out with and exudes that sort of younger person's vibe, excited about the cool life developments still unfolding in front of him. Sometimes I get cranky about constructors trying to go "too hip," but that's not at all the case with today's fresh-feeling puzzle. LINKED IN is quickly becoming an essential business tool, ZOOLANDER was hilarious (and is popular enough that "Zoolander 2" is in the works!), and PO-PO is fun slang for the po-lice (I imagine PO-PO being said in the voice of Bunk from "The Wire""). Three pieces of strong, fresh fill is right at my sweet spot, not giving me the feeling of too much "stuff I'm too uncool to know" crammed into one place.
And the grid engineering is fantastic. Josh starts with four sets of triple-stacks, one in each corner, but he does so much more. Not only does he extend two great answers toward the center in KIM JONG IL (although I sure wish he had been clued to the state's outrageous claims of his golfing prowess) and ZOOLANDER. But check out what he does in the north and south — sets of three 7s extending off his stacks! And not just neutral entries, but NEOCONS with its clever clue, the snappy EGG WASH, and the historical and glad-I-learned-something-today SALT TAX.
So much interconnect shouldn't realistically be feasible, but Josh somehow pulls it off. Check out the raw number of slots for long answers: 14 of 8+ letters, 8 of 7 letters. And he takes great advantage of these slots, converting almost all of them into assets, with very few left as what I would call neutral (LOOKED AT, INDIRECT, BLESSES, SCIENCE). He was extremely picky about his use of these longish slots, and that was much appreciated.
I'm not a big fan of the "only seen like this in crosswords" entries like B TEN (B-10) and H AND M (H & M), but I can understand that some people like them for how bizarre they look inside a grid. Two in one puzzle is a bit much for me, but I do appreciate that they were at least from different walks of life.
Along with the great clues for EYE OF NEWT (a different sort of microbrew ingredient), ALARM (back to the hooch with a "buzz" misdirection), JERSEY (SF Giants, represent!), and RABBI (a party at many a wedding), this puzzle sang to me. Such a tremendous pleasure to be able to write about it.
I usually assess themelesses with a ridiculously dorky MBA-speak ASSETS and LIABILITIES scorecard, incrementing ASSETS for each colorful entry and upping the LIABILITIES count for each glue bit. (If there's a "puzzle-killer" — an absolutely heinous entry — the entire grid gets tossed right out of consideration.) One aspect I usually don't account for is a "wow factor." It's pretty rare for me to be impressed just by the look of an empty grid — for example, quad-stacks used to get this bonus from me when they first appeared, but now they don't. I would add perhaps three or four extra points to the ASSETS column today because of the wide-open grid with a pattern I don't remember seeing, and I would also raise my LIABILITIES limit to maybe eight. Sometimes it's worth slogging through more glue than usual in order to see something new and different.
The danger in ultra-low word count grids is that they're so hard to fill that the constructor sometimes finds it good enough to just fill the darn thing, period. That used to be good enough — take a look at some of the record-setting grids and the swaths of glue they contain — but not anymore. Liz gives us some beauties, including three interlocking grid-spanners, plus a spate of really nice 7s and 8s: OBAMANIA, EVEN ODDS, ADMITS IT, HOGWASH are all great on their own right. Strong, amusing wordplay makes REDWOOD, CORSAGE, DEICERS, even ORDAIN and HORSE stand out as well.
It does have its flaws, as I would expect. There's the weirdly spelled AMEBA (which I've been guilty of using in the past), and a lot of the four-letter words are unsightly. Hit the "Analyze" button below and you'll see that the alphabetical list starts with ABER AROO DORN (although I like me some Worf) and ENTO — not a great sign. And although it's neat that there are no three-letter words in the grid, I would have much preferred a strong grid-spanner to replace THREE LETTER WORD, which feels a tad gimmicky to me, especially given that this sort of thing has been done before.
Overall, I loved the initial impact of the grid — a rare occurrence for a themeless for me — and the solving experience was really entertaining. I was able to overlook all the glue in order to savor the strong entries and playful cluing.
No! After speeding through the ultra-smooth solve, I began to realize how neat it was. Homophone pair puzzles have been done over and over again, so I think it's important to do something different, or add another layer. Perhaps jam three homonyms together? Or in this case, take a final syllable and find an unexpected homophone for it. ROTC PAPARAZZI was brilliant — the sheer craziness of RAZZI and ROTC sounding the same is really cool. (Note: regular reader Evan Kalish asked about the ROTC rhyme, so I'll clarify that ROTC is indeed commonly pronounced "rot-see.") Same goes for PEWTER and PUTER, LUNAR and LOONER, and COLLIE and CHOLY.
I asked Patrick how he did it — these themers aren't really something you can find through brute force database searching. He said he came up with the idea while eating a pomegranate, and found theme candidates the old fashioned way: paper, a rhyming dictionary, and a whole lot of brainstorming. Very cool.
What's most impressive though, is Patrick's ability to create a Sunday-size puzzle which falls more into the Monday-ish level of difficulty that's accessible to newer solvers. Will generally pegs Sunday puzzles to be pretty difficult (roughly as hard as a Thursday), but I've noticed that there's a fairly wide range over the course of a year. That's a brilliant move, as the Sunday NYT xw has so much more exposure than other days of the week that it's good to put a gradient of difficulty within Sundays. Makes it more accessible to a wider range of solvers; a good strategy to continually increase readership.
But coming up with a super-smooth, relatively easy Sunday puzzle is incredibly difficult. If creating a super-smooth Monday puzzle is like getting a man into space, doing a similar task with a 21x, 140-word grid is starting a colony of lunar ballooners. The much more difficult specs mean that you have to use longer words on average (can't lean as heavily on 3, 4, 5-letter words), and knitting together a grid with roughly twice as much area without duplicating the usual ATE / EAT, ONE, IRE suspects that are so easy to miss … that's a monster of a task.
As usual, Patrick sticks the landing, even giving us a bevy of ALI BABA, EVIL EYE, RIB CAGE, SANDLOT (what great use of seven-letter entries!), while keeping the glue to an … ERNO? That's about it, for an entire Sunday puzzle? (Actually, ERNO Rubik is a bit of a hero of mine.) Patrick is one of the best when it comes to navigating the trade-offs between sparkly fill vs. clean smoothness.
So this puzzle might not look like eye-popping, but it's pretty close to the epitome of a perfect easy-level Sunday puzzle inviting in newer solvers. Really well done.
Let's start with the raw quantity of assets. I count (roughly) 18, an amazingly high number. Typically I enjoy a themeless if it has ten assets as the very least, and the NYT averages 12(ish). I'm in awe of how smoothly Peter worked AFFLUENZA through that pair of MOONWALKS / PIZZA PIES. Beautiful but very difficult way to up one's asset count. Same goes for HONEY BEAR running through TAX CHEAT / WORKHORSE / HOLE IN ONE.
With such a high asset count, I'd expect some liabilities on the ledger making this possible. Sure, there's XKES, and … ETD? LTR? Let's put the liability count at two, since those last two are so minor. An (assets – liabilities) count of 16? Takes sky-high expertise to make this happen. I'm satisfied when that (assets - liabilities) number is over ten, so 16 is just silly.
And Scrabbly letters: the JQXZ count is four, pretty high. Dare I say, Peter has already broken my CROSSWORD UNHOLY TRINITY (CUT) principle? Damn you, Wentz!
I don't like to give unbalanced reviews — there's almost always some good and some not so good in any puzzle — but I feel like I'd have to stretch to ridiculous nits to say more about the puzzle's drawbacks. Maybe say something about how THE FED (great answer) isn't really a market leader (or shouldn't be, more accurately) so should have a question mark? I could have used a few more clever clues, perhaps something about PIZZA PIES being a "toss-up," or an interesting bit of trivia for a HOLE IN ONE?
Eh, forget it. With the sizzling grid and clues like ASNER referencing Lou Grant, KNEE PATCH extending the life of pants, not the length, and TAPS echoing Eine kleine Nachtmusik, I near 100% loved this puzzle.
Although there's not a huge theme density at 37 theme squares, the fact that there are essentially five seed answers (four short ones plus RED / PARTING / SEA across the middle) ups the level of difficulty. Matt does well to spread his themers around, placing the four loose ones into different quadrants of the grid, which allows for high flexibility in fill. Take for example, the SE corner. With just EGYPT fixed into place, Matt has great freedom to place colorful entries like SAO PAULO, TIRE IRON, and PEEPER, working that corner through dozens of possibilities.
And the clues are strong, with themeless-level cleverness. YETI gives us a really interesting bit of trivia. [Snake's place, in part] mystified me, until I realized the "snake" was actually a capitalized "Snake," i.e. the Snake River. Great use of placement, hiding that capital letter at the very beginning of the clue. BERG also gave me a great a-ha moment when I realized 4/14/12 was talking about 4/14/1912, not 4/4/2012. Excellent piece of deception.
Just like any puzzle, it's not perfect, with its smattering of OSTE, IDAS, ALEE, A MAN. But notice how these four bits of crossword glue are spread out? That deft touch made those four bits less apparent for me during my solve. And I did find PESACH a bit of an ODD ONE, but it was buried in the recesses of my memory banks somewhere. A Jewish buddy of mine confirmed that it's totally legit.
Overall, a highly entertaining solve for me. I like puzzles that break molds and conventions, and I found the mixture of the trickiness of a Thursday and the chock-full goodness of a themeless to be spot on.
For all you aspiring crossword constructors out there, this is a textbook example of specificity. Many people ask me what makes a good crossword, and this idea of "specificity" is a tough one to grasp. Will explains it well with his use of the word "completeness." A reasonable theme here could contain entries ending in KINGS, HORNETS, NETS, BULLS, etc., but the constructor then has 30 to select from. To have four and only four names that could have been used feels a bit magical — that specificity is mighty elegant. Not everyone agrees with me (Jim and I have differing viewpoints, in fact), but high specificity is something I personally highly value.
I like the unusual layout, too. Acme does use 24 three-letter words, which did feel noticeable during my solve, but I love how it enabled so much long fill: ANSEL ADAMS, GLITTERATI, CATALYST. Adds so much to the quality of solve.
Those parallel downs in the NE and SW do require some crossword glue to hold everything together: IMA, AND I, UTA, DEM, YDS, but that's really not too bad, and it felt like a good trade-off in order to get those long parallel downs. It would have been perfect if DISCOUNTED and SEMITROPIC had been snazzier entries, to the level of ANSEL ADAMS and GLITTERATI, but that parallel down structure usually doesn't allow for such goodness. I personally don't use it too much anymore since it's so difficult to come up with great long downs with perfectly smooth surrounding fill.
Some tough crossings — AZT/ZOWIE (I imagine some will finish with AYT and YOWIE) along with SHTETL/EERO (SHTATL/AERO anyone?), which might have nudged this puzzle out of the Monday spot we usually see Acme's puzzles in. All in all though, such a fun theme with tight specificity and resulting elegance; a pleasure for this NBA fan. Now if we could only resurrect the good old Run TMC days…
What most impressed me was how smooth Greg managed to get this puzzle. I think Mondays ought to be accessible to newcomers — not necessarily easy, though. That's a big difference. I didn't see any little bits that an outsider would scratch their head at, and that's such an huge accomplishment in a Monday puzzle. Extremely tough to achieve, as so often a constructor must rely on a little glue to hold the grid together.
Some people are going to cry foul at OKAPIS, and I agree that it's a tough entry to figure out. But as much as I think the Monday puzzle should be accessible, I don't want it to be palp, either. Each of the crossings is fair, and it reminds me of a story about a guy I met in El Salvador. He was from South Africa and had recently traveled to America for the first time. When I asked him what the highlight of trip was, he said "seeing those funny animals, with the cute little noses, and the fuzzy tails… you know..." (He couldn't pull the name out after five minutes of trying, and it took me forever to figure out to what he was referring.) I'm sure OKAPIS are as well-known to him as SQUIRRELS are to us. I like Monday crosswords that expand one's world view, as long as they do so in a fair way.
I wondered why the six themers around the perimeter weren't all the way on the edge. Seems to me that would be a more elegant way to execute this idea. I can see that the V of REVERSI is much easier to use in the ????V? pattern than the horribly constrained ?????V pattern though. I almost always prefer themers in elegant spots, but if it's a choice between elegant spots or clean fill, I'll almost always opt for the latter.
Interesting idea, well executed. So hard to make those 7x3 chunks smooth, but Greg did it six times around the perimeter with nary a hiccup.
Additionally, Robyn goes the extra mile and reduces her word count to 74. The NE and SW corners add so much meat to the puzzle, with those juicy parallel 9's. Normally I prefer multiple-word colorful phrases, but HERCULEAN pops, and organic CHEMISTRY was one of my favorite subjects in school. Tack on a smile-inducing clue for the latter and I APPLAUDED. (Way to trigger subliminal feelings of appreciation, Robyn!). Great use of cheater squares in the two corners to help smooth out those corners, really just an MCI as a ding.
The one section I was plus/minus on was the north, with Cheri OTERI and ESSEN. I'm perfectly fine with OTERI as an answer; I just wish she were more NYT-worthy. Her friendly alternation of vowel-consonant makes her much more crossword-friendly than her co-SNL-alum Kristen WIIG, who I think has earned it much more so than OTERI.
And ESSEN is definitely a place, but I wish it were historically or culturally more important for all the xw-exposure it gets. Those E's and S's make it crossword gold, but I remember the first time I uncovered it, wondering what other esoteric geography I'd have to know. I'm of the opinion that once a term crosses the threshold of NYT-worthiness, I don't much care how often it gets used (I'm perfectly fine with ONO any time I see it). Before then, I prefer it to be used sparingly. It's unfortunate that the ??E?I pattern at 6-D is so constraining — I might have moved a block around to avoid that pattern.
That's pretty nit-picky stuff though. Overall, this is the type of puzzle I like to show newbies; pointing out 1.) the specific, tight, clever theme and 2.) how doable it is. Really well done.
Very neat how David incorporated the special squares within some of the theme answers. Yet another nice touch. What would have made it Puzzle of the Year quality for me was some rationale built in to explain why there were six special squares. Not absolutely necessary, but man oh man that would have been the icing on the icing already on the cake. If the number six were somehow integral to the theory of general relativity...
I love it when a puzzle makes me think more about what could be done. How cool would it be to have some sort of physical representation of the bizarre effects that occur when one approaches the speed of light? Hmm...
One small nit I'll pick is that I found it slightly odd that half the special squares worked one way, and half were flipped. On one hand it made it more challenging to uncover them, but it felt to me like having them all work identically would have been more elegant. Personal preference.
A final note, on vocabulary. As much as I like current slang or fun terms, entries like PLUTARCH never go out of style, in my eyes. A timeless entry, appropriate for the educated tone of the New York Times, and especially appropriate for a puzzle with this EINSTEIN-ian theme. I doubt I'll ever gripe about seeing PLUTARCH, whereas I can't say the same thing about the latest "celebrity" who may be fun for small niches of people to see, but who may not have long-term staying power.