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

showing 25 out of 143 POW selections from 11/13/2015 to 5/1/2016

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


★ The first thing I noticed was that a incredibly wide-open grid, so I checked how many words it was. When I counted only 130 words, a nearly record-breaking stat, I worried. Joel and Byron are two of the best in the business, but people can't just pull off the impossible. Even they would have to resort to plenty of crossword glue, making for a clunky solve.

STARZ ... or *Z!

I didn't get very far very fast in my solve. I kept on looking for a revealer to help me figure out why answers were starred. It got frustrating when I couldn't break into so many of the huge swaths of white space.

But the click finally happened ... and what a click! The starred clues aren't really starred … they represent the word STAR. (STAR)Z is a CABLE CHANNEL, for example, and (STAR)ted talks = BROKERED A SETTLEMENT. Great concept. I remember similar-ish theme ideas, but this one felt fresh.

Even better, all of their theme answers were phrases in the language. Sometimes with themes like this, you might see things like EMCEE MCMAHON (instead of the normal ED MCMAHON) — entries sounding like dictionary definitions. I love that Joel and Byron took the care to make their entire grid appear as if it were just a normal crossword.

And the theme clues! Each one looked so normal that they kept me totally in the dark. My favorite was [*Z, for one], which made me think about a letter, a chemical symbol, a physics particle. STARZ to *Z is brilliant.

Finally, to do all that in 130 words … just astounding. Sometimes I hem and haw about some of Byron's entries sounding made up, but only OPERA CRITIC sounded a bit funny (are there such specialists these days?). RUBY SLIPPER, UNION STRIKE, NADERISM (think Ralph Nader), all great stuff.

PAUL PIERCE will be tough for some, but the crossings were chosen with care to make him gettable. And what a great story: a top prospect falling all the way to the number 10 pick of the 1998 draft, then dedicating his career to making all the GMs who passed him up rue their decision (almost all of them did).

There was one rough patch I didn't care for: the NE corner, with its concentration of SPEE/SMEE and the GARRET/FAROESE crossing. I couldn't actually finish the puzzle because of that corner. But I can overlook one small region because of all the goodness Joel and Byron worked in.

POW Fri 4/22/2016

★ There is so much to love about this puzzle. This stuck-in-fourth-grade-man-child loves the SMARTY PANTS / MADE YOU LOOK combination (I pulled that gag on my nephew the other day), and ORDER ONLINE makes for a beautiful third element in the starting triple-stack.

There was actually an "Order of the Dragon" created to defend Europe against the Turks in the 15th century. Cool!

70-word puzzles often have a limited number of long slots to begin with, but Robin pushes to squeeze in 14. That's important to me, as I've found that I need at least 10 strong entries in order for a themeless to really sing to me. There are a few neutral ones like EDGINESS and RADIATORS, but check out all the goodness in IVY LEAGUE, GREEN EGGS, LIVE A LITTLE! And this data junkie loves seeing a SPREADSHEET.

Also nice was that Robyn took advantage of her mid-length slots, often tough to convert to assets. NAIL GUN with its [Sharp shooter?] clue is great, and ZYDECO is such a cool word. And really, Robyn had me at DRAGON, giving us a taste of Harry Potter's beautifully crafted world filled with Chinese Fireballs, Norwegian Ridgebacks, Hungarian Horntails, Peruvian Vipertooths, Ukrainian Ironbellies okay okay I'll stop!

It's not a perfect puzzle, as there are a handful of gluey bits marring it. That's very common with triple-stacked 11s, entries like YOO and TYRE making that fine upper left corner possible. And we constructors all have our bugaboos, one of mine being five-letter partials wasting a slot that could be something as cool as MR YUK. So it's hard for me to give A REST a rest.

Overall though, so much to love here. I got a ton of enjoyment out of this one. A well-deserved POW!

POW Thu 4/14/2016

★ Jason builds three WATERSLIDES today, neat river-esque images flowing diagonally. I especially like how he disguised each of the three bodies of water — a river RUN, a STREAM, and a BROOK — within phrases that hide their meanings.

MR YUK is fairly self-explanatory, yeah?

Impressive execution, especially considering how tough it is to fill a grid around diagonal entries. The center section is masterful — with three long diagonal entries, Jason needed to cross one of them through WATERSLIDES, making that region incredibly constrained. What finesse in there, with nary a drop of glue. And working in BERRA, RITE AID, DREIDEL, along with the end of EPHEMERA and the start of ELON MUSK? Incredibly smooth along with quite a bit of color.

There is a slight price to pay, as the black squares nearly separate the puzzle into distinct chunks. But Jason did leave enough interconnect so that the semi-choked grid flow didn't bother me too much.

Speaking of connection, look at that awesome word MRYUK, which connects two chunks. It's rare to debut a five-letter word, since most all of them have been used ad infinitum, and I often cringe when there is a debut, since it's often a partial or really esoteric. But even though MR YUK wasn't familiar to me, it can be pieced together with some thought. Great a-ha when I finally got it.

I commiserated with Jason on our similar HAIR LOSS, but what a great clue: [It usually reveals more than you want].

Overall, the quality of execution earns Jason the POW! A very tough construction, and Jason pulled it off with just a touch of what some people might grumble at as esoteric: ANOMIE, AEOLUS, ENNEAD, OMOO. It would have been nice to get at least some symmetry in the theme answers, but there is something to be said about the beauty of water's randomness cutting through land that's reflected in today's grid.


★ I love Randy's use of the big 21x21 canvas. Too often, Sunday puzzles feel to me like an overinflated 15x15. The imagery of a GONDOLA sitting on a GRAND CANAL and a RAFT on the COLORADO RIVER is so pretty; a wonderful use of the huge space a Sunday puzzle allows for.

GONDOLA floating on the GRAND CANAL — pretty!

This type of puzzle (with pairs of stacked answers) is so tricky to pull off. In a recent one of similar conceit, Jason and I struggled mightily with the grid skeleton, going through dozens of iterations before finally arriving at something workable. Grid symmetry causes a huge problem — for instance, when you place GONDOLA, that forces you to use a symmetrically-placed seven-letter answer (NO TASTE in today's grid). Each time you force a long slot like that, the grid becomes more constrained. Pretty soon, you run into spots which are overly rigid and even impossible.

Randy does help himself by using a few shorter themers — GRAND CANAL and ARABIAN SEA — which helps reduce overlap between themers. But having to work in the long OIL TANKER and another long symmetrically-placed entry is not easy at all. Randy does so well, incorporating the nice STEEL MILL, along with very few dabs of crossword glue. ATMAN is a tough word to remember for me, but it's legit. ONCLE might be a bit deep into French for some, but it's not hard to figure out. And UNDAM … well, there was bound to be minor crossword glue needed to hold that section together.

I love that there's a lone UBOAT hanging out. It would have been nice to get that one at the very end though, tricking the solver by breaking the established pattern.

Knowing how difficult it is to execute on a puzzle like today's, I was extremely impressed by Randy's work. I wish all Sunday constructors would think as big as Randy did, while taking the care to execute on the concept as well as he did — such strong bonus fill (BALALAIKA!) with only a minimum of gluey bits. Loved it.

POW Fri 4/1/2016

★ An excellent construction from Peter, one of the best in the business. How fitting that he was chosen to tackle the penultimate NYT puzzle. I'm still in shock at the announcement buried within the grid. I suppose all good things must come to an end at some point.

CLOISONNE work — pretty!

Peter's puzzles tend to be a tad heavy on proper nouns for my taste, especially ones that some might consider esoteric. But this one is all good — Issa RAE was unfamiliar to me, but the crossings are all fair, and including "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl" in the clue made me want to check that out.

Peter tackles a tough 72-word grid even though he has four 15-letter themers. That theme density is tough enough in a 78-word grid! He uses his black squares very wisely, breaking up the grid such that no one subsection requires him to fill a gigantic white space. There's not one area that shines brilliantly for me, but spreading out the goodies — BROCADE, CLOISONNE, RIOT ACT, OCEANARIA — left me with a great impression.

Along with virtually no gluey bits — maybe just a USS, and that is pretty much fine — it's very well executed. A fitting penultimate puzzle. Tomorrow's is utterly jaw-dropping — Peter forgot to mention that it has one final extraordinary layer: it only uses four letters in the entire grid: R, U, S, and E.

(Before you email me with angry protests, check out the first letters of each sentence in Peter's commentary.)

POW Fri 3/25/2016

★ I feel like Ian and I are on the same wavelength. Just last week, I was trying to convince a co-constructor to use HATERADE in a Sunday grid we're working on! Along with the colorful phrases HAIR OF THE DOG, STONE AGE, PAPER CUT, LINER NOTES, it made for such an enjoyable themeless solve.

HE DIDN'T SHOOT FIRST! Okay, maybe he did.

Cluing was strong, too. LINER NOTES shined even further with such a deceptively innocent clue: [Statements for the record]. In this case, it was hinting at a vinyl record. [A, B, C, but not X, Y, Z] had me thinking about math, not a VITAMIN. People from Little Rock will appreciate the [Little rock] clue for PEBBLE.

And one of my favorite movie characters of all time, HAN SOLO, gets a quintessential quote: "Look, I ain't in this for the revolution, and I'm not in it for you, Princess." Who else could that possibly be? Granted, the writing is a bit hammy, but I'm a sucker for a great descriptive quote as a clue.

I always appreciate the care Ian takes to avoid gluey crossword bits. His themeless puzzles are so smooth, hardly a glob that makes me wince. Today, I did hitch at AGUE, a bit unusual for a Livengood puzzle, but Jim (Horne) and I had a discussion about AGUE where he argued that it's a fine piece of language seen often in historical writing. I'm not totally sold, but I can see his point.

With so many assets (I count roughly 13) and so few liabilities (maybe 0.5 apiece for AGUE and ESTER), Ian comes through with another POW! I like how he's always working with new grid patterns, whatever might fit around his choice of snazzy entries.

If there is anything, I'd like to see him push himself more, perhaps working with a lower word count, more long slots, stacks, whatever. Seems like he's more than conquered the 72-word themeless (the max number of words allowed).

POW Mon 3/14/2016

★ Another fine offering from the early-week master. Today, Lynn takes single words and breaks them into a verb + famous person command, i.e. PLAYWRIGHT gets interpreted as telling Wilbur WRIGHT to PLAY. Fun idea. It's beautiful how Lynn found so many that work with perfect consistency.

Cool logo!

I liked almost all of the themers just as normal words, too. SHAREHOLDER, BATTLEFIELD, GRINDSTONE, FIREBIRD, PLAYWRIGHT are all colorful entries I'd count as assets to any puzzle. That's not often the case with single-word entries! IRONWOOD didn't quite sing for me because I was confused — was it some TV show (I was thinking of "Ironside") or some sort of slang, perhaps for a hybrid golf club (there really ought to be such a thing). It is a pretty interesting term though, a general name for trees known for their hardness.

So much density — six themers is always tough — yet Lynn executes the grid so smoothly. Hardly any short gluey material needed to hold it together. ILIA will be tough for some, but it's a perfectly legit term and the crossings are fair. The grid is well laid-out to ensure smoothness, Lynn wisely stacking PLAYWRIGHT atop IRONWOOD, and FIREBIRD atop GRINDSTONE.

I would have liked more long fill, though. I got BOGGED DOWN by so many short answers in the grid. SUBTLETIES is a nice long entry, and WOBBLY is fun, but there's very little else in terms of answers greater than five letters. Why do I care about this piece of data? Because most short answers have been used over and over again in crosswords, so it's difficult to introduce color through them.

I liked the theme, but I personally would have preferred maybe five or even four themers in order to get some more vivid bonus fill. Still, Monday puzzles which are both super-smooth and also interesting don't come around very often, so I'm happy to give it the POW!

POW Wed 3/9/2016

★ I liked so much about this puzzle. The theme is nothing to write home about — phrases ending in sweet spreads, i.e. PRESERVES, JELLY, JAM, and MARMALADE — but John hid them pretty well using different(ish) meanings. SLOW JAM was my favorite, and MOON JELLY was fun too.

Don't recall LADY MARMALADE? Think of the "Moulin Rouge" soundtrack!

I enjoy seeing constructors push themselves, and John's employment of a mirror-symmetry, 69-word grid is appreciated. All those long slots allowed John to work in EYETEETH, PILASTERS, BERYLLIUM (I was kicking myself for not being able to remember element number 4!), and the curious VOLTE-FACE. I had never heard of VOLTE-FACE, but it's such an interesting word. Plus, that trap of plunking in ABOUT FACE was fun to extract myself from.

Now, I don't particularly like the sets of three black squares in the SW / SE corners; inelegant visuals. Those could have been eliminated by moving SLOW JAM and LADY MARMALADE up a row, which would have also elegantly put exactly two rows of space between each pair of themers. But I can understand why John did it — having as much space between themers as possible usually makes for more flexibility in filling.

And there were a few bits of crossword glue — APAT, IRATER (more irate, yeah?), EPT — but John's original cluing of EPT to the pregnancy test, makes it much better for me (I wonder if Will felt it wasn't a big enough brand?). EPT, as in the opposite of INEPT … yeesh. I imagine some will find that fun, though.

Finally, the cluing made this such an enjoyable Wednesday solve:

  • In business-speak, PIVOTing is code for "having to find a business model once you realize your current one is dog poo."
  • BOISE is a place where you'd need an ID — abbr. for Idaho — to get your mail delivered properly.
  • In the world of middle grade writing, being ORPHANED is the source of many inside jokes. Kind of macabre and an overused trope, but how better to put your main character in a situation where he/she is forced to play the hero role, unable to rely on mom/dad's assistance?

Overall, such a fun Wednesday puzzle, giving me much more of a workout than usual.

POW Thu 3/3/2016

★ One of the best aspects of working with Jim Horne on XWord Info is discussing puzzles. We often have a very different take, and sometimes he completely changes my opinion with thoughtful reasoning. It was only through some back and forth with him that made me realize there were enough things about today's puzzle that I loved; well worth the liabilities. Overall, it's POW material.

Man, this concept is going to be confusing to non-musical people

The concept will be rough for non-musicians, as the idea hinges upon knowledge of the chromatic scale. Each note can be described in two different ways, i.e. G sharp is equivalent to A flat. If only it were consistent all the way up! There are a few notes like E and F which are only a half step apart, so E sharp is not equivalent to F flat … but to F natural! Confusing, isn't it?

What finally flipped my thinking was Jim's visual interpretation (see the answer grid below). I can often take care of grid fixes, but this one was beyond my capabilities. I love the way it looks, so elegant, much more so than writing F NATURAL all into one little square — where I already had E SHARP already written.

I did have some issues. ENHARMONIC describes perfectly the idea of one note described in two ways … but it's in such an odd location, just off the centerline of the puzzle. That would have been perfectly fine if the symmetrical entry had also been thematic, but STORE SIGNS doesn't relate.

I also liked the presence of MUSICAL NOTE, but TWO TONE CARS didn't do it for me. I can see how it hints at the concept of a single tone being describable in two ways, but it doesn't feel very apt.

There was a little bit of crossword glue needed to hold things together (RESOAK, I see you), but that's not surprising considering three pairs of long crossing answers. And some great fill in FANGIRL, CURE-ALL, FELLINI, QUIT IT and I ROBOT really enhanced the solve.

So all in all, a great idea and a lot of colorful phrases overcoming the problems I had with it.

ADDED NOTE: Astute reader David Jones noted (pun intended) that STORE SIGNS actually hints at a box "storing" a musical sign. Subtly clever!


★ As a huge fantasy basketball fan, I loved this puzzle. I'm sure there will be solvers who don't care for it — I pitched this same idea to Rich Norris at the LAT a few years ago, and he rejected it because things like DOUBLE DRIBBLE wouldn't be familiar enough to enough of his solving population — but my guess is that it'll be accessible enough to a big chunk of NYT solvers.

Now THOSE were the good old days, when bridge could get you on the cover of SI

Plus, March Madness is coming up, people! If you don't know your POINT GUARDs throwing NO LOOK PASSes to sharpshooters hitting NOTHING BUT NET, you don't know what you're missing.

I liked the wacky definitions, most of them funny enough to give me a smile. NO LOOK PASS clued to an acrophobe's nervous journey through the mountains was really amusing. Again, it's going to be tougher for people who don't know what NO LOOK PASS really means, but again … March Madness is almost upon us!

I thought Tim's execution was super solid, too. It's normal to have a few gluey bits in a 140-word Sunday crossword — almost impossible not to — so to keep it to short ROI, AZO, ATTS stuff is really good. And it was so nice to get bonuses like NAMEDROP, MARS BARS, even ATOMIZES, OLD PRO and POW WOW. NOT SO BAD, I DARE SAY. (It's like Tim planned that, isn't it?)

Tim and I have worked on a puzzle or two together, and he knows some of my eccentric hobbies, so it was awfully fun to see Charles GOREN, "Mr. Bridge" in the grid. You had me at GOREN!

And the cluing was really fun. It only takes a handful to really pep up the Sunday crossword, and there were many more than that:

  • An AIRPLANE as a "runway model"
  • A SNAIL as a "mobile home resident"
  • CHAD hinting at the "fallout" from the 2000 election, i.e. the HANGING CHAD

I tend to get bored by Sunday puzzles (due to my short attention … something shiny!) but this one kept me highly entertained until the end.

POW Fri 2/19/2016

★ With four POWs in the span of 12 months now, Jacob easily makes my top ten puzzlemakers list. I love his voice, with touches of art, history, the classics, academia, and a little pop culture, making for what I consider the quintessential NYT puzzle, perfect for the target audience. Today's puzzle hit the mark for me on the theme alone, and the fact that Jacob turned it into a mini-themed themeless made it very memorable for me.

OFFENBACH has a little BACH in him!

I've been immersed in classical music for decades, and it never occurred to me that BACH was "hidden" in OFFENBACH. Not only that, but they're both German-born! Same goes for Alban BERG and SCHOENBERG, both Austrian-born. And to find a third example, VERDI and MONTEVERDI, both Italian-born, is just amazing. It's mind-blowing that the crossword symmetry works out perfectly!

And Jacob just kept on going with the brilliance, placing his black squares so that each of the "hidden" composers has his own Across clue. So cool to see VERDI at "18-Across." There really is no 18-Across of course, but here, Jacob slyly puts it to use. (If you're still missing it, look at the square with the "18" in it.)

As if that weren't enough, the fill is strong. I expect a ton of strong material in any themeless, and I lower those expectations a bit when there's a mini-theme that constrains the grid. I didn't have to today, with so much goodness: FEMBOT (anyone else plunk in DR EVIL?), IN ORBIT, the crazy looking BENEDICT XVI, NOM DE GUERRE, LAERTES, I WANT IN, even SUCCOR, CLONING, and Chuck YEAGER.

There is a smattering of ATA, GORSE (huh?), and two somewhat esoteric rivers right next to each other (YSER + ARNO = a no-no), but it was all so minor to me. The amazing discoveries of "hidden" names, sneakily giving those names their own Across clue, and solid themeless-quality fill made it one of my favorite puzzles in recent memory — possibly of all time.

POW Wed 2/10/2016

★ I have a feeling this one is going to leave some solvers cold, but I'm a sucker for most anything math-related. John gives us types of numbers at the starts of phrases: NATURAL, WHOLE, RATIONAL, and IMAGINARY. He could have used a NUMBERS revealer, but that would have been pretty dull, falling into the "words that can follow X" theme type that has fallen by the wayside. The clue for INTEGER was so long that it took me a while to figure out what it was saying, but what a neat way to tie together the puzzle. Innovative and interesting.

Pi can be so irrational ...

For those with math-aversions, NATURAL numbers and WHOLE numbers are more or less equated with INTEGERs (numbers without a decimal point). RATIONAL numbers can be WHOLE numbers like 1, 5, 144, but they can also be 15.4 (IRRATIONAL numbers are those that can't be expressed by a fraction, i.e. pi or the mathematical constant e.) Finally, IMAGINARY numbers are those including i (the square root of negative one).

Ah, takes me back to the good old days.

Yes, I'm weird.

Even if the theme didn't float your boat, the execution should. It's tough to work in four grid-spanners (15-letter entries) without a little compromise here or there in short fill. To add in a seven-letter revealer + some very nice long fill in BLUE LAW, SIPHONING, SEA ROVERS (wasn't sure what that was, but I decided I like the term after Googling it), and the crazy plural NAUTILI + virtually no gluey answers = dynamite execution.

Okay, I can see the argument against STOMA, given that it's pretty esoteric unless you're a biologist. But it's a real word used in botany, and all the crossings are very fair, so it didn't bother me. (I like botany, anyway.)

Finally, you have some nice short stuff in MOTIF, HUFF, the JUDEA/JAMS crossing nearly the same as yesterday (EERIE!), WICCA, ROIDS, and a hilarious clue in ASS-backwards … all in all, I found this puzzle to be a real winner.

POW Wed 2/3/2016

★ Great puzzle. How often do you see two symmetrical revealers — both totally apt? Occasionally you'll see that double-revealer sort of thing in a Sunday puzzle, but it'll be with a revealer in the grid and a perfect title (one of Tom's previous puzzles did this really well — I've appreciated that one more and more with time). Today we get MIDDLE CLASS and CENTER FIELD, which both describe the concept so well: school majors hidden within themers.

Bellatrix LeStrange, Voldemort, and Lucius Malfoy, some of the DEATH EATERS

As if that weren't enough, Tom made some beautiful discoveries. THEATER in DEATH EATERS is brilliant and contemporary. MATH in UMA THURMAN is also fun, and it kind of hints at efforts to get girls more interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). (Okay, maybe that's just me.)

But wait, there's more! Fitting six themers into a 15x puzzle is hard enough that I expect to see some crossword glue and little to no long bonus fill. Tom works in SKYDIVER and EAST ASIA with a great "1984" clue, and manages to do so with really no price to pay. Some may balk at LOCI, but it's a common enough term in both MATH and ECON. Ha!

I had to scan through the grid a few times just to pick out MSS and … that's it for crossword glue. It's amazing that Tom crammed in so much theme and bonus fill with virtually no trade-offs. It seems to break the laws of physics, but it's a testament to the hours Tom clearly put in, working and reworking the grid to make it great.

A clinic on crossword-making. Neat theme with two perfect revealers, high theme density, long bonus fill, virtually no glue required. A standout puzzle, one that I appreciated even more as I studied its architechure.

POW Tue 1/26/2016

★ Timely puzzle, a tribute to DAVID / BOWIE. I like it when tribute puzzles have some added layer or are understated, so this one worked great for me. I didn't see GROUND / CONTROL / TO / MAJOR / TOM coming until I hit DAVID / BOWIE, for a nice a-ha. It's a memorable snippet from arguably Bowie's most recognizable song; a lovely way to remember a man who made such huge contributions to pop music and pop culture in general.

Sam has his own indie puzzle site, and it tends to run a bit too crude or "bro" for me, so I like the more subtle personal touches he put on this puzzle. I HEAR YA sounds so much like Sam, and the clues ["Well, aren't you something!"] for LADIDA and [Yes ‘n no"] for KINDA also carry his voice. Entries like NUMLOCK give the puzzle a younger, fresher feel, and starting the puzzle with YUKS is so pleasing. Well done.

Speaking of TO TASTE though, I don't really want to hear about diarrhea in my puzzle. I appreciate how beneficial IMODIUM is, but it wouldn't be at the top of my personal list to include in a puzzle.

Otherwise, nice and clean work. The only piece of fill that stuck out was IT ON, and that looks necessary given that IPOD NANO runs through three themers, and that north section is very constrained by two themers along its bottom. Just a minor ding, especially considering how much theme material there is.

I would have loved if DAVID BOWIE had been the final theme answer, so the a-ha moment would have come later — and seeing BOWIE to the left of DAVID was odd — but it's tough to squeeze in so much theme. If you can split up a themer into two parts like DAVID / BOWIE, it does give you more flexibility in a grid layout.

I've heard some solvers accuse constructors of morbidly pre-making a puzzle to commemorate a celeb's death — that's some bizarre thinking — but rest assured that this one was constructed afterward and swapped in at the last minute. As I understand it, it's not easy to go through the NYT's logistical process to do this, so I'm glad they did. Very nice tribute.

POW Sat 1/23/2016

★ Beautiful construction. I'm still surprised at how few constructors use giant chunks of black squares in "stair" shapes. Tim Croce turned me onto this idea a few years ago, telling me how they can make wide-open constructions immensely easier — nibbling away at the spaces you have to fill turns out to be a gigantic help.

Mister Fantastic, aka Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four

Low-word count puzzles tend to be dry, with a lot of neutral filler to hold them together, but not today. Very impressive to see GUIDERAIL stacked above REAGANOMICS and KINDA… SORTA… Running FAMOUS AMOS and GOSSAMER through that big NE corner makes it even more stunning.

Years ago, a friend and I submitted a themeless with ZOE SALDANA at 1-Across, but Will felt we had made the puzzle too name-heavy, which could turn off a large chunk of solvers. It made sense — back then I was admittedly worried that Saldana wouldn't be well-known enough to make many solvers happy. But now she's a real star, featured in several blockbusters. I bet I'll get some reader mail grousing about her crossing with LEDA and its tough clue, but I think Saldana's someone important enough that if a NYT solver doesn't know her, he/she really should.

The Marvel Universe fascinates me, so I liked Mister Fantastic's debut. I would have loved it if it hadn't been in the odd-looking MR. form, and if it had a more interesting clue; something to entice people to look him up — his two Harvard Ph.D.s by the age of 22, his ability to change his structure into a near-fluid state, that he's on the autism spectrum ... okay, I'm a dork, but Marvel has created some complicated, multi-faced characters.

At 45 black squares, this themeless gets onto our "most black squares" list. I'm mixed on the effect. My initial impression was that there was a ton of white space eaten away. But the wide-open "X" shape is pretty cool-looking.

Overall, I really enjoyed the puzzle, a fantastic amount of sparkly fill worked into a wide-open grid, with just some ICER, GAMA (feels odd with the DA), ILS, SIGNEE (man, did I want that to be SIGNER) crossword glue. Impressive work.

POW Tue 1/12/2016

★ Very cool idea, names of fashion designers hidden within phrases (highlighted below), with INTERIOR DESIGNER as a perfect revealer. I'm a little tired of the "same word hidden in four different phrases" theme type, but it's a different story when four different (but related) words are hidden.


It's especially neat when the hidden words are pretty tough to hide, i.e. 4+ letters or ones that contain tricky letter sequences. Finding ARMANI within FARM ANIMALS is a great discovery, and the KL in KLEIN makes it tough to identify a phrase across which KLEIN can span. I thought ANKLE INJURY was the weakest of the themers since I hear "sprained ankle" or "twisted ankle" much more frequently, but it is something you see in the sports pages.

With wide 16x15 grids, it's important to keep the solver's attention. So I appreciate C.C.'s (Zhouqin's) efforts to work in BITTER END, STEADY JOB, OSCAR NOD, even things like BOCELLI, GOOGLED, DELAWARE, TOLD YA. All makes for a more interesting solving experience.

I wondered if the MUSCAT/BOCELLI crossing would trip people up, although I think it's perfectly fair. NYT solvers are expected to know, or at least recognize world capitals. And BOCELLI being one of the most famous opera tenors of all time means a NYT solver really ought to know him.

The ALOMAR / LEDA crossing was more questionable for me. On one hand, Roberto ALOMAR is in the Hall of Fame, one of the most storied second basemen in baseball history. On the other hand, I feel for people who grouse about crosswords having way too much baseball in them. And LEDA, the Queen of Sparta, is a toughie even for this Greek mythology lover.

There's also too much of the S STAR (feels like cheating what with the two starting Ss), ENL, ITI, OEDS (odd to pluralize it), AMT, SRA for my taste, but that's the price to pay of working in so much good long fill into a puzzle with five long themers. If I had my druthers, I'd like to see fewer gluey bits at the expense of not as much nice long fill, but I can appreciate the balance C.C. struck.

Very nice theme concept with a perfect revealer.


★ Patrick is one of my favorite people in the puzzle business. His cartoon art is right up my alley, and there's something to his humor that reminds me of my days of reading MAD Magazine (those days being yesterday, today, and tomorrow). Perhaps that's because he's contributed to MAD!

What, Me Worry?

Today's puzzle has that flavor, with "what they said" followed by "what they really meant." I smiled at pols saying "No new taxes!" but thinking JUST MORE OF THE OLD ONES. My favorite was "I'll slow this country's spread of drugs!" really meaning EXPECT CUTS IN MEDICARE.

I did find the last one to be not like the others, though. As much as I'd love to see a politician with the humility to say IVE GOT A LOT TO LEARN, that sensibility doesn't fit with the other five themers, nor does it carry a humorous bent. Still, 5/6 ain't bad.

Sunday 140-words puzzles are incredibly tough to build smoothly. Even for an uber-pro like Patrick, finishing with some gluey bits like A DRAG (partial), RNAS (not really pluralized in real life), SETHS (plural names aren't very elegant), LST (tough acronym, especially for younger solvers), A BAN (partial) is par for the course.

What helped me brush those aside was some really fun cluing:

  • Who knew that Winnie the Pooh was introduced by AA MILNE as Edward Bear?
  • Ian Fleming was a fan of James BOND, the ornithologist? Another great piece of trivia.
  • I love me some bridge, so a [Bridge table foursome] being LEGS was fun.
  • STRAYS may be measured by the pound. The dog pound, that is.
  • SANDERS are used in the evening — the evening of boards.
  • [Put on a nonpolitical button, say] was perfect for this puzzle, misdirecting away from SEW.

A really fun solving experience for me, the humor in the theme and the clever cluing far outweighing the small dabs of glue here and there.

POW Tue 12/29/2015

★ I was so amused by this puzzle. Something so fun and chuckle-worthy about telling an airline to KEEP IT UP! Same goes for telling a charcoal salesman YOU'RE ON FIRE! Sure, some might be a little tortured to fit its "compliment receiver," but I loved the kookiness. Plus, I felt really good after solving this crossword. There's something to be said about a puzzle's positive theme imparting an uplifting feeling.

That doesn't look dangerous at all ...

I admit I hitched upon the first themer, wondering what fruit had anything to do with NOT BAD AT ALL (nothing). Thankfully, each subsequent themer worked great for me, and by the end of the puzzle I knew this was POW! material.

Some of the themers are short (just seven letters), but packing six themers in is tough. Jeff did a really nice job of alternating his themers side to side and spacing them out, so he could lay out a skeleton that used a good amount of snazzy fill. TRAMPOLINE and BARREL ROLL would be sufficient, but working in LAMBADA / SPLASHY / OCTOPI / LOW RES made for even more of a bonus.

I also liked how Jeff introduced KWAME and CAM'RON to the Shortz era. Both names were mysteries to me, but I was still able to solve the puzzle since Jeff made all the crossings easy, setting me up for a win. That left me happy to go look these two up. I like old-school rap, so it was neat to read up on CAM'RON, who got a leg up with a nod from the Notorious B.I.G. himself.

I imagine some daily solvers will grouse about having to learn yet another rapper, but with super-fair crossings and interesting stories to be learned, I have no sympathy for the kvetchers.

The themers were a bit loose — seems like you could do this type of theme with dozens of compliments and their "recipients" — but I loved the kookiness as well as the STELLAR execution. It's one of my great pleasures to compliment people when they excel, so it makes me smile to give Jeff this POW! Super job (he said to the building fixit person).

POW Sun 12/27/2015BINARY CODE

★ Loved this puzzle. C.C. (Zhouqin) and Don's wide range of plays on double-letters is really cool. I vaguely remembered NN as MINNESOTA TWINS from somewhere, but most of the others felt fresh. OO = the Os in ONION RINGS ("rings" within ONION) is such a clever find. PP = the central letters of SHOPPING CENTER. AA = NCAA FINALS, i.e. the final letters of NCAA. So many different discoveries, all using in-the-language phrases!

Boris and NATASHA

LEADOFF DOUBLE did throw me for a second — shouldn't "leadoff" mean that the double letters are at the front of the word? — but after thinking about it, it's just that the FF is a "double" within LEADOFF. It works, but the unintentional mislead made me feel like it was the weakest of the bunch.

But I'll pause here to repeat how much I loved the idea and the nine themers.

The execution was very nice, too. A 140-word puzzle is so tough to cleanly and snazzily fill, especially when you have nine themers. Not much long fill, but what great usage of their 7-letter slots. HALFCAF, AIR FARE, OH GREAT, LUDDITE, NATASHA (with a clue from "Rocky and Bullwinkle"!) = all wonderful entries. I wasn't sure what SANGRITA was (sangria, anyone?) but I don't drink much besides beer and scotch these days.

A great majority of the time, I see too much glue in NYT Sunday crosswords for my taste. It's understandable, as a 140-word puzzle is just really darn hard to put together without some glue. So to keep it to really minor ENS, EST, INTL, SPEE kind of stuff is excellent work. I really dislike DNAS, since it and RNA are rarely pluralized outside crosswords, but that's the only real standout.

Again, incredibly fun idea with a wide range of findings for those double letters. One of my favorite Sunday puzzles of the year.

POW Thu 12/17/2015

★ There seem to be two camps when it comes to rebuses — the haters and the lovers. Given that there have been SO many rebuses, I lean slightly toward the former side, but I really like when a rebus is not just a rebus. David's interpretation of DIE + DIE = DICE made for a highly entertaining solve.

It is a truth universally acknowledged ...

Not only was the concept really fun, but I loved David's selection of themers. BO(DICE) RIPPERS was my favorite, evoking images of Harlequin Romance covers. PRIDE AND PREJU(DICE), CAN(DICE) BERGEN, and LONG ISLAN(D ICE)D TEA are all great picks, too. It would have been nice to get one more where DICE was broken — perhaps COME(DIC E)FFECT or NOMA(DIC EMPIRE)? — but there are a very limited number of phrases breaking like that. And a second D / ICE break would be tough, since not much starts with ICE that wouldn't have the same etymology as ICED.

I also liked how David only used DIE once by itself in the fill, in DIE OUT. Hiding the rebuses in RUSH(DIE), (DIE)TS, GRENA(DIE)R avoids duplications. With so rebus-filled entries required for this puzzle, it's impressive to not dupe DIE.

I also liked the big, open corners in the NE / SW. Sometimes this sort of thing is optional, but today David used so many black squares in the middle of his grid — necessary to partition all the various DIE entries — that he was forced to keep the corners wide open. They came out generally well, with some nice long stuff like INCENSED and ABROGATE, with very few gluey entries like ASSOC.

I wasn't a fan of the lower right corner. Yes, there's a lot to work around with two DIE answers and a relatively big corner, but HEIL … yikes. Maybe I've grown too sensitive over the years. At least clue it to "The Producers" or something? And A DUE / ASA / CTRL / TSURIS are all fine(ish) on their own, but they sure pile up in that corner.

Perhaps a little too easy for a Thursday puzzle, but it sure provided me with a lot of entertainment. Well done.

POW Wed 12/9/2015

★ I haven't loved a Wednesday puzzle this much since one of Jacob's a few months ago. He has such a nice puzzle voice, flavored by poetry, world history, literature, and foreign languages. Today's reveal was so cool — finding out BARAK, ÉCLAIR, and BLITZ all meant LIGHTNING in foreign languages was one of those "I can't wait to share this with someone!" moments. Somewhere in the back of my head I knew about BLITZ ("blitzkrieg" meaning "lightning war") but the others were new.

EHUD BARAK of Israel

I did wonder about EHUD BARAK. That's a tough name to piece together, especially crossing another proper name, Pablo NERUDA. With only 450K Google hits, some might argue that BARAK isn't worthy of being a feature entry. I can understand that perspective, but I think major world leaders should all be fair game. And given his necessity in making the theme work (can you think of anyone else famous with the name BARAK?), my conviction that it's fine is even stronger.

The BIRMINGHAM BLITZ wasn't familiar to me, but it's such a colorful name with an interesting WWII clue that I wanted to look it up. Given that this was just one of many bombing attacks during WWII, I don't think I would feature this entry in a themeless grid, but it works as part of today's theme.

There wasn't a lot of long fill today, but EXIT VISA and I SUPPOSE are bonuses. And Jacob pushes his 6-letter fill to do a lot of the work in making the grid colorful — AFL-CIO, BEAM UP with a Star Trek clue, Catherine of ARAGON, MOSHED all pepped up my solving experience.

I don't love seeing the DTS, which sounds pretty old-timey, but that's minor. Terrific execution on short fill.

Even if there had been less colorful long fill or a few more gluey bits, I still would have picked this one as the Puzzle of the Week. I love it when a crossword theme wows me.

POW Thu 12/3/2015

★ Neat idea, requiring two steps to figure out what was going on. After uncovering the IV in the central themer, I had a feeling Roman numerals were somehow involved, but it was a neat a-ha to discover that IV was interpreted as FOUR, which is part of FLAGS O(F OUR) FATHERS. Sort of a multiple-square rebus in a way, but also sticking to the usual one-letter-per-square criterion. I can't remember seeing something quite like this since Francis Heaney's incredible FLAG DAY puzzle, so I really enjoyed the novelty.

AZIZ Ansari

I've fixed up the database entries below, so you can see exactly what the themers are, post-decoding.

Because the idea was so interesting, I liked getting five themers, each one a treat to figure out. It was nice that Patrick managed to work in a little bonus fill too, TRUE GRIT being an incredible movie (and book — highly recommended!) and PELICANS pretty colorful too.

I would have liked more order in the themers, though. While having a random set of numbers (not in sequence) does make the puzzle even more challenging, the idea of going from I to II to III to IV to V (in order) is so appealing. I suppose THREE is a pretty tough string to incorporate into a phrase, as is FIVE. Even having random numbers but going in ascending order would be nice.

I also would have liked the four corners to be less cut off from the rest of the puzzle. The NW and SE are better, since two answers flow into each, but the top right and the bottom left have only one entry in. Although I love AZIZ Ansari ("Master of None" was a surprisingly moving series), I can see how that corner, especially the crossing with ZZZ, might cause some solvers to get really stuck and frustrated. Interesting fact that [Last entry in the Random House Unabridged Dictionary] is ZZZ — "a representation of the sound made by somebody sleeping or snoring, often used in cartoons." Curious that it's actually recognized as a word!

Loved the concept here, and as with most all of Patrick's puzzle, strong execution. Very enjoyable trick to uncover.

ADDED NOTE: Patrick mentioned that he had a different "order" in mind — one "trick" square in the first themer, followed by one, two, two , and then three. Clever idea; lulling the solver into thinking that maybe there was just a normal rebus going on.

POW Mon 11/23/2015

★ I have the good fortune of living near Parker, so we meet up every other month or so. Nice to be in an area with many fellow puzzle people! Parker showed me an earlier version of this puzzle, and I remember being impressed by the idea. It's so fun to see FIFTH, FOURTH, THIRD … and then not get SECOND and FIRST! Cool to have another completely natural sequence-completer in HALF and WHOLE; one which was unexpected.


I also remember feeling like there were too many gluey bits in his earlier grid, so it was a relief to see Parker's final product. Not only is the crunchy stuff limited to the very minor LIRE, STS, SGTS, but Parker also worked in quite a bit of long fill. This is important, since the larger-than-normal grid (16x15), must captive the solver for that much longer. Uncovering bonus entries like NICE ONE, ALOHA STATE, STILL LIFES, EDIT MENU, ICE CREAM (yum!), AIRLIFT, even OCULUS Rift (one of the leading virtual reality headset companies) kept me entertained. Quite a nice construction, especially considering just having five themers is hard enough.

As Parker and I discussed his redo, I mentioned that the FIFTH ELEMENT was the weakest themer, since 1.) it omits "The" from the title and 2.) my guess is that it won't reach "classic" status. I thought there had to be something better. Could have been FIFTH WHEEL, FIFTH AVENUE, FIFTH COLUMN, but finding a "WHOLE ___" phrase with a matching length made it tricky. I liked WHOLE FOODS paired with FIFTH WHEEL, but WHOLE SHEBANG does make for a great final themer.

Nice to get a few insider's nods, with MASAI (Parker did Peace Corps in Africa a few years ago) and APP (he recently got a job as an ioS app developer).

A theme that cleverly misdirects + is accessible to novices + a smooth and meaty grid = a beauty of a Monday puzzle.

POW Thu 11/19/2015

★ I loved this concept, AUTOCOMPLETE interpreted as AUTO-COMPLETE. Just delightful to scratch my head, knowing that SOLAR PLEXUS had to fit in somehow but unsure how to accomplish that. Great finds in KATHIE LEE GIF(FORD), SOLAR P(LEXUS), HELP ME R(HONDA), ANNO DO(MINI).

Cutting edge TOPIARY

I unfortunately didn't care for STRING T(RIO), as it 1.) wasn't a general car make like the others (Kia is the make, Rio is the model — what, no SLOVA(KIA)?) and 2.) I grew up playing cello in STRING QUARTETS. I can't remember ever playing in STRING TRIO — classically, it's so often two violins, a viola, and a cello. STRING TRIO is a valid thing, but to me it's just not nearly as strong as the others.

BELON(G TO) was also weaker in my eyes, as I felt like that entry didn't match the snazziness of SOLAR P(LEXUS) and the others. And as Andrew mentioned, the mix of makes and models felt inelegant.

That said, I still loved this idea and most of the execution. It would be so cool if electronic solvers had the LEXUS automatically filled in upon entering the SOLARP string!

Pretty darn good execution, too. I liked getting FAN CLUBS, SPONGE BOB, and especially TOPIARY. [Clip art?] might be one of my favorite clues of the year. Nice to BEEF UP the puzzle with a dash of long stuff.

Some will grumble about the ENIAC / NOYES and HOLI / ILE crossings. The ENIAC was an important part of computing history, and NOYES is a famous author, so that one feels perfectly fine to me. Having a lot of Indian friends, I'm very familiar with Diwali, but HOLI is tough. I had to concentrate on that one square, wondering what the Marquises were. Thankfully, only ILE looked reasonable, so in the end, I thought it was fair, too.

A few minor hiccups in choice of themers for me, but a huge thumbs up to such a cool idea, well-executed.

POW Fri 11/13/2015

★ In an effort to spread around Puzzle of the Week awards, I've recently held Patrick to an impossibly high standard. So many of his themelesses could have been a no-brainer POW choice — almost all of them are that good — but I can usually find some minor nit to pick, some point of critique that us mere mortals can learn from.

Not today. It's a great feeling to be able to gush over a PB puzzle, even as I compare it against his own lofty standards!

Good ol' HONES TA BE

What really sold me on this one was those daunting NW and SE regions. Almost no one quad-stacks entries these days, because it's so difficult to fill them cleanly and colorfully. Usually there's some crossing answer which causes a groan, or some answer within the stack which is pretty neutral at best.

Patrick doesn't just use a (quasi-)quad-stack today — he RUNS LONG ANSWERS THROUGH THEM. Not only that, but he DOESN'T SEGMENT THESE CORNERS FROM THE REST OF THE PUZZLE, which usually people need to do in order to pull this off. Such beautiful grid flow.

I never work with these sorts of gargantuan swaths of white space. They're just too hard to execute on. So it's stunning to see all the snazzy material, all pulled off with the usual PB uber-cleaninless. Take the bottom right. SHOULDER STRAP / WHITE FLAG / HONEST ABE / IN ESSENCE is great enough by itself. (So challenging to parse HONESTABE, which I thought was some football player #16, HONES ????) Run IT'S A PLANE through that all, along with no gluey crossing entries = amazing.

Same goes for the upper left. RICE A RONI, BLENDED IN, SAY CHEESE, DEEP SEA DIVERS, with ACEY DEUCY running through them (and no junky fill). Dang, that's incredible.

FILLIP was a tough word for me and I don't know I'd ever use it to replace "bonus," but I liked learning it. AQUIVER doesn't sound as good to me as ALL AQUIVER, but it's no problem.

The only complaint I had was that PB's puzzles as of late have been so wide-open, so difficult to start, that I've found them much harder than any other Friday puzzle. Maybe Saturday would be a better slot.

Some of my friends call PB the Crossword Jesus, and it's puzzles like this that justify that name.