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

showing 25 out of 174 POW selections from 6/15/2016 to 12/3/2016

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

POW Sat 12/3/2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Fri 11/25/2016

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

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

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

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

POW Thu 11/17/2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Fri 11/4/2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Tue 10/25/2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(rim shot)

POW Wed 10/19/2016

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

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

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

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

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

Overall, such a joy to solve.

POW Mon 10/10/2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Mon 10/3/2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Fri 9/30/2016

★ Right on my wavelength. The top half of the grid kicked off my solving experience with a bang. I already liked TONE LOC (I like my old school rap) when I hit HACKATHON, and then I uncovered INK BLOT right after that. BABY BJORN and DIVE BAR were next — and I hadn't even gotten to the middle stack yet!

Beautiful triple in VICHYSSOISE (I misspelled it roughly eleventy times before finally getting it right), GHETTO BLASTER, and LBJ. The GHETTO BLASTER holds a lot of cultural significance for me — it makes me think about "Do the Right Thing." One of the most powerful movies of all time, I still feel for Radio Raheem.

HACKATHON might be one of my favorite recent debuts, as it's such an evocative term (a bunch of coders getting together to hack up quick prototypes). There's something so fresh, so juicy about that; makes me want to go back to my college days or my startup days when anything and everything was possible — if you were willing to stay up three days in a row (I was).

All that, for just the very minor prices of TAROS (is it really pluralizable?) and OCTO = yes, please! (I'm fine with OTB, since it's a real thing, apparently common to some folks.)

The bottom half of the puzzle didn't have the same jam-packed zing for me, but HERE GOES, GLOBULIN, and SLAM POETS still stood out. But I LOVE LA is one of those mid-length entries that constructors lean on (I've used it many times) because of the perfect vowel-consonant alternation. It's so darn useful in spots like this. I wouldn't personally count it as an asset — I wonder if people of other generations might?

LIEABED … still thinking. Do I love this or hate it?

Still, there was more than enough in the top half of the grid that I had big smiles overall. I have a feeling it might not play as well for crowds unfamiliar with HACKATHON or BABY BJORN, but considering I have a (very sweaty) BABY BJORN and love to work on coding projects, the ton of colorful, vivid answers hit all the right notes for me.

POW Tue 9/20/2016

★ Such a fun puzzle! I'm still addicted to "The Great British Bake-off," and my mouth watered as I read the clues. I normally skip over any clue that looks too long, but I stopped to read [Layers of sherry-soaked torte, homemade custard and fruit served chilled in a giant stem glass] several times. I can barely look at that without going to the fridge and wishing there was an ENGLISH TRIFLE waiting for me!

Fun punchline, too. Although the ENGLISH TRIFLE, BAKED ALASKA, and PLUM PUDDING do look a lot like cakes, they technically aren't. NO PIECE OF CAKE is so apt. Neat a-ha!

Speaking of NO PIECE OF CAKE, this puzzle wasn't a piece of cake for me — but in a good way. I stopped very early at … RUCHE? I double-checked all my crossings to find my error, but everything was fine. Then I remembered that Tracy is big into certain crafts, so learning that word for decorative edging gave me a grin. Very glad every crossing was a gimme, though!

Very nice gridwork overall. DARE WE SAY is fun, and I can't type YOU SEND ME without breaking into song. And I really liked her mid-length stuff. PRUSSIA, SVELTE, NICOISE, SUCKER — what interesting words. Great to see MELINDA Gates get her due, too. Amazing what the Gates are attempting to do for the world.

A couple of minor gluey bits in Max BAER (yes a boxing champ, but from such a long time ago), plural Spanish TIOS, GLO. But all of these are so negligible. Tracy took such care in putting together each and every section of her grid.

Another minor point: I usually don't care if a grid entry is duplicated in a clue, but DARE WE SAY felt cheapened to me by seeing ["I dare you"!] for the DO IT clue. The two in close proximity made it stand out even more. This is an awfully nit-picky thing, but it did jump out at me as inelegant.

Just about everything I want in a Tuesday. Delicious puzzle.


★ It's been seven years of constructing, and I've only now started to realize how difficult it is to create a captivating Sunday 140-word puzzle. Part of it is the sheer difficulty of adhering to Will's limit of at most 140 words — WAY harder than some other editors' 144 max — but a bigger part is coming up with a concept that holds solvers' attention through a 21x21 grid. This gets even tougher when considering how varied the NYT's solving population is.

Personally, I often don't enjoy the Sunday puzzle as much as I would like — I often get tired of it halfway through or even sooner. And I have very high expectations for Jeremy — I think he's one of the greats when it comes to Sunday puzzles — so I was honestly a little disappointed to figure out that this was "just" a theme including the dashes inside entries like UH-OH and PUSH-UP BRA. Felt like I had seen similar punctuation-related themes before (2015, 2013, 2007.)

Great a-ha moment to discover that wait, there was more! Took me over half of the puzzle to finally realize that Jeremy had replaced some regular words with hyphenated phrases — PHOENIX, AZ going to PHOENIX A-Z was so amusing. And each themer using an interesting word-to-hyphenated-word substitution helped hold my attention. My favorite was AMERICAN GOT HI-C for its unusual breaking of GOTHIC into GOT HI-C, plus the amusing result.

Jeremy is so good with his long fill. There wasn't as much as we usually see from him — CROP CIRCLE, TIME LOCKS, and VIP LINES the standouts — but there's a reason for that. Any time you have to work with crossing entries, a grid quickly becomes tough to fill. He could have gotten away with relying on short dashed fill like UH-OH and HA-HA everywhere, but I love how he pushed himself to work in THE PO-PO (slang for the police), FREE WI-FI, and PUSH-UP BRA. Doesn't leave much room for long fill throughout the grid, but when all your theme material is this good, that doesn't matter very much.

Really tough to hold my attention all the way through a Sunday puzzle. Big thanks to Jeremy for this one that greatly succeeded!

POW Sat 9/10/2016

★ Beautiful grid from one of the best in the business. Peter has such a knack for assembling snazzy, colorful entries in a way that doesn't require much — if any — crossword glue. Sometimes themeless constructors tell me, "But I only needed to use four little gluey bits!" (I say this myself at times.) Years ago, that would have been good, perhaps even exceptional. But now, it's tough when the bar gets set by constructors like Peter, who finds ways to make vivid puzzles with virtually no glue.

It's a slightly different take on the usual themeless pattern, with Peter "turning the corner" up in the NW and the SE. It's hard enough to create a triple-stack of great answers without many gluey entries. It's even harder when you run a 7x3 chunk straight through that triple-stack. And it's still harder yet to do this without resorting to 1.) ugly short answers or 2.) neutral answers that just take up space.

The NW is just jaw-dropping. SPIFFED UP / PHNOM PENH / ALEX ROCCO is a strong triple (I didn't remember who ALEX ROCCO was, but as a lover of "The Godfather," a clip of Moe Greene made him come immediately to mind). And to run SPARE ME / PH LEVEL / IN EXILE — three colorful assets — straight through that stack = no wastage of potential at all. Converting so many intersecting slots into prime material is incredible. Plus, two Xs up there!

Okay, some might balk at fMRI (functional MRI). I knew this immediately through my pharma background, but I can see why it might elicit grumbles. Thankfully, that starting F is easy to get through the crossing entry, and MRI should be known to most all.

Excellent work in the opposite corner, too. This nerd loves NERD ALERT (I'm making a siren sound right now as I wave my arm in the air), and getting JOYRIDE and MAE WEST through that stack is good stuff. ALL OVER is more neutral, but getting two strong answers running through the PALMOLIVE / AREA CODES / NERD ALERT stack is hard to do. I wasn't quite as taken with this corner since AREA CODES has been used many times in crosswords, thus taking away from its impact. But still, great work.

It's not perfect — TOEJAM made me slightly gag, and SKEE-LO was tough even given my fascination with rappers — but there's so much strong material and clues. Even something as innocuous as [Non-PC sort] meaning "not a PC but a MAC USER" is a highlight. Great stuff all throughout.

P.S. In craps, ELEVEN and seven are called "naturals." I dig craps terminology.

POW Thu 9/1/2016

★ Schrödinger! Ben adds to the short list of puzzles displaying duality, using the GENDER FLUID concept of identity. The four special squares are animated below — part of a house can be a ROOM or a ROOF, fabricate can be MAKE or FAKE, etc.

I really liked the fresh feel of this puzzle. Ben gives us material that both feels simultaneously new and timeless. ESPNU is such a weird string of letters, but ESPN U is definitely gettable even if you're not a subscriber. LOW ART, QUEER as part of LGBTQ, a great term in the clue for PUENTE — Nuyorican = Puerto Rican in New York — even MUSTY / FUSTY, it was a joy to solve all throughout.

Of the Schrödinger squares, my favorite was SAME sex … or was that SAFE sex? As Peter Gordon once emphasized, a great Schrödinger should exhibit real duality, making the solver pause as he/she tries to figure out which of two equally-correct-sounding possibilities is the "right" one. And with both options here as appropriate as well as colorful phrases, it's the huge winner of the four special squares.

I wasn't as taken with some of the other Schrödinger squares, filling in either M or F without giving it a second thought. [Reveal a secret, say] seemed like it had to be FESS UP. Afterward, thinking about it, MESS UP did fit, but FESS UP was the clear choice without looking back. Same with MAKE for [Fabricate] — FAKE does fit, as with fabricating a lie, but it feels like much more a stretch than MAKE. [It's combined at the beginning] felt like a tortured way to say PREFIX, but PREMIX didn't give me a pause.

But overall, I really liked the idea of using GENDER FLUIDity as the rationale for a Schrödinger, and the smooth, fresh fill — with all kinds of great DYSTOPIA, ODYSSEY, EQUUS, DANDY entries — made for an extremely enjoyable solve.

P.S. [Snake's place, partially] — the Snake river winds through OREGON. Tricky clue!

POW Tue 8/23/2016

★ Ice cream swirls today, CHOCOLATE, RUM RAISIN, BUBBLE GUM, and PISTACHO swirling within the puzzle. And what an impressive construction! There have been tons of puzzles done with 2x2 chunks of letters (square D E A L kind of things), but rarely 3x3s. That's because they are so incredibly tough to execute on without resorting to the ugliest (capital Ug) type of crossword glue to hold those areas together. Most 2x2 chunks suffer, so think about how much harder a 3x3 is — I'd estimate it's a factor of 5 tougher.

Joel is one of the best gridworkers in the business, so I always expect a lot out of his puzzles, but this one goes above and beyond. I braced myself in each of those four areas, ready to cringe at some ridiculous random set of letters trying to pass off as a real entry … but there was nothing even creaky! TOI is very minor, and although NEHI will draw some assorted groans, it is a real brand. (Plus, it's Radar O'Reilly's drink of choice!) It's astounding that Joel managed to pull off this ambitious construction so smoothly.

He did have the advantage of flexibility — both in where the swirl started and which direction it went. Both of those seemed a bit random for my taste, but then again, that's how swirls really do appear in ice cream.

I did hitch on pistachio, as it's my favorite flavor of ice cream … and I've never seen a swirl in any pint I've eaten. Looking it up, there do appear to be pistachio swirl cakes, but no pistachio swirl ice cream. Dang it, now I really want someone to make just that! Hopefully Ben or Jerry is a crossword fan (please pass this along to them if you know ‘em) and heeds my desperate plea.

So that is a ding for me — CHOCOLATE, RUM RAISIN, BUBBLE GUM swirls = real things. Sigh, PISTACHIO. I'm not even sure what that would look like in ice cream form, but dang it, I want to know now!

The swirls smack dab in the 9x3 stacks were even more impressive, given the fact that 9x3 stacks in themselves are hard enough to get clean and colorful. To pull one off with a mostly fixed 3x3 chunk right inside is plain insane. EX HIPPIES did feel slightly made-up, but it's a funny enough answer that I decided I liked it. With great stuff like MATCH GAME, NO CONTEST, THAT'S A LIE — and just an ESTS and a TOI / ALII to pay — these are some brilliant sections.

Neat visual (see below for how it looked in print), gold-medal execution = very fun solve.

POW Mon 8/15/2016

★ Such a well-executed puzzle. Colorful themers, strong long fill, nary a gluey bit in sight, and a really fun revealer: HEADS WILL ROLL, describing an EGG roll, BARREL roll, DRUM roll, and LOG roll. Hits most every criterion I look for in a Monday puzzle.

Okay, there was one point I considered before giving this the POW. Will has said that he's not taking "words that can follow (or precede) X" puzzles anymore, and rightfully so. Over the years, these have been done to death. And I can just hear people asking me, "Isn't this essentially a words-that-follow" puzzle?

Yes and no. I came up with a tiered system:

  • Lowest level: using the word ROLL at the end of the puzzle for a revealer, with the clue [word that can follow the starts of …]. I think many will agree that this is pretty boring.
  • Middle level: using a dry phrase as a revealer, i.e. ROLL TOP [Type of desk, and a hint to the starts of …]. A little better, but still not punchy.
  • Higher level: using a colorful, themeless-worthy phrase for a revealer. ROLL CALL ["Sound off!" and a hint to the starts of …] is pretty fun.
  • Best: using a colorful, themeless-worthy phrase for a revealer — which cleverly hints at the position of ROLL: HEADS WILL ROLL indicates that the first word — or "head" — of each phrase is a type of roll.

And EGG HUNTS, BARREL RACE, DRUMSTICKS, LOG CABIN are all phrases I'd give check-marks to in a themeless. As are HOT SEAT, FAMILY TREE, END OF STORY, even IM NEXT. Sam wisely spreads out his long fill so he doesn't have to struggle with filling it. Beautiful results, only the minor blights Sam pointed out. And ET TU I'm perfectly fine with.

Doesn't hurt that I'm a huge Andrew Luck fan. Go COLTS! And go Sam! Really well done.

POW Thu 8/11/2016

★ I'm impressed at the range of creative ideas Tim comes up with. There have been a lot of plays on multiple Cs = seize, seas, sees, etc., but I haven't seen this implementation before. So cool that Tim found self-defining phrases … each one with exactly two of the letters in question! E E for "ease" = LIFE OF RILEY is genius; what a cool find. G G for "geez!" = GOOD GOLLY is also fantastic. FLIRT WITH = T T = tease is pretty nice too. Such cleverness.

I also liked CONFISCATES = C C = seize and SCRUTINIZES = I I = eyes, but those weren't quite as fun, being one-word entries. And RUN THROUGH for U U = use = a confused Jeff. I stared at that one, trying to figure out if I missed something. Even after thinking about it for a while, I couldn't equate the two. Finally, some dictionary searching turned up that "run through" can be defined as "use up," as in a person using up or running through all their cash. So that's legit.

With six themers, I'd be really happy with just a smooth grid and two good bonus pieces of fill. Tim goes above and beyond my expectations, with some delightful CANDY CORN, NIMROD, DRY WIT, IZZATSO, even tickling my mechanical engineer's brain with a PULLEY, one of the major tools giving mechanical advantage. EPILOGUES ain't bad either; nice to see that spelling, as opposed to "epilogs," which I don't often see in real life.

Okay, there's a dab of crunchiness in the lower right, with ENERO (deep Spanish, with too-easy vowel-consonant alternation) and HOS, but really, that's about it. Excellent work.

Neat idea, some great finds, excellent consistency (exactly two of the critical letter for each themer), high theme density, snazzy and clean fill. I couldn't ask for much more.

POW Sat 8/6/2016

★ Sometimes you're right on a constructor's wavelength, and I think I mind melded with David today. From start to finish, such an enjoyable solve, featuring a high count of stellar entries along with just a modicum of crossword glue. Beautiful work.

I thought it would be a breeze when I filled in FLASH MOB without a crossing (a more clever clue would have been great for a Saturday puzzle). But I struggled to finish that corner, with a big smile on my face after uncovering LL COOL J. That terminal J is so odd looking! And then to race ahead with JEDI MIND TRICKS = awesome for this Star Wars lover.

As an aside, many — MANY — people ask me to reduce the rapper references in my crosswords. I don't actually care for much rap these days, but it's hard to argue that LL COOL J isn't a megastar that most every NYT solver really ought to know. He's excelled in both music and acting, so I don't buy the "why do I have to know all these rap stars" grumbling. Sorry, buddy, expand your horizons.

David does something interesting with his grid layout, compressing JEDI MIND TRICKS and UNIVERSAL DONOR (I just gave blood donation #124, so I loved this entry) together. It's tough to feature 14-letter answers in a themeless, as they fix so much into place, cutting down your flexibility. I love David's push to not just use these difficult lengths, but also to run a bunch entries through the middle of them — including the long and strong entries BUM A RIDE and USA TODAY.

(What a shame USA TODAY wasn't clued to #gridgate. Lost opportunity; so awesome that a plagiarist got what was coming to him.)

I wasn't as big a fan of the lower right as the rest of the puzzle — YEARS AGO and DIAPER PIN feel a bit … well, YEARS AGO. But STREAKING is a nice single-word answer, and to get some GRINGO / OLYMPIA makes up for some of the lost potential. (I'm a huge Lord of the Rings fan, so GIMLI was a gimme for me. Your results may vary.)

Overall though, such good use of most every portion of his grid, UPSILON, NEODADA, I LOST IT converting those 7-letter slots into nice assets — not to mention BLITZEN and THE HULK!

Not a SINLESS puzzle what with a bit of ESE, ETAT, OEIL (it is an admirable attempt to save those latter two by linking them together in [Coup d'___]), but what a snazzy and clean solving experience, right up my alley. I really liked that I gelled so well today with someone from two generations behind me.

POW Fri 7/29/2016

★ Really fun solve ... and so familiar! John sent me two versions of this puzzle, asking for my feedback. One was a "clean" version — this one — and the other was "less clean." They differed mainly in that bottom right corner, with LAST RESORT / URBAN DECAY in the "less clean" one where ANGLOPHONE / INTERSECTS is now. I felt like the puzzle would be just tremendous if he could work in LAST RESORT / URBAN DECAY … but without the uglies like TEN CC, EELER, GOER, STYE that it required to hold that corner together. Ultimately, it proved impossible, though. Ah well.

We also discussed INRI. That to me is a pretty big offender (stands for "Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Iudaeorvm"), one I'd go to any length to get rid of, since to a good chunk of solvers it could seem like four random letters stuck together. I liked INRE much better, since I use that all the time in memos. But that required FOGS to become FOGG (with SICKOS becoming GECKOS), and John really disliked FOGG. Curious how subjective this business is! To me, Phileas FOGG is the beloved protagonist of "Around the World in 80 Days," a book that made a tremendous impact on me. But to people who haven't read the book, FOGG will be … just four random letters stuck together!

Other than INRI, it's such a well-made puzzle. Themelesses featuring 15-letter answers often have compromises, i.e. not very many feature answers, a lot of crossword glue, some stilted sounding fill. But to get not only TEACHABLE MOMENT and BIOLOGICAL CLOCK, but CHEST HAIR, GRAY MATTER, the ONE PERCENT, THE BEE GEES, etc. plus some really strong mid-length INKBLOT, CHURCHY, SPY KIDS, BAUBLES, is awesome. Very good use of all his slots.

QAID might cause some head-scratching. Merriam Webster does list it as a variant spelling of CAID, but it's so hard to pin down the "correct" spelling of those words like HIJAB and NIQAB. So I give it a pass.

All in all, I still would have loved for that bottom right corner to be snazzed up — ANGLOPHONE and INTERSECTS don't feel like standout answers to me — but as a whole, I really enjoyed the solve.

POW Sat 7/23/2016

★ Even knowing all the answers beforehand, I really enjoyed the solve. Debbie got in touch with me a while back, and I worked with her to complete her first themeless. Will thought it was very good, but given the huge competition in themelesses, it didn't have enough snazzy material to cross his high threshold. I really liked that this feedback drove Debbie to develop another one, which you see today. Hard work + careful adherence to feedback = success!

Debbie saved 18 versions of this puzzle, and I thought I'd list out some feedback I gave her through the different stages, in case that helps out aspiring themeless constructors:

  • Version 6: This one didn't have enough fresh, eye-catching material. And one corner in particular seemed problematic. It had SVENGALI, and HAVE AN IN was pretty nice, but ELIAN / ERNS / INES / SANER felt like it really weakened that corner. The grid also had SROS and ESALEN — too much glue in all.
  • Version 10: ONESIDED / ONE AM dupe. Also, THE MONEY felt too much like a partial to me.
  • Version 13: Introducing FLAME WAR added a lot of spice. She had TV REMOTE next to it, but SEASONED was the third in the triple — that one wasn't nearly as strong. Also, the bottom left corner contained CLARITIN and HOME BASE. They're both fine answers, but neither wowed me. I suggested she ought to redo that, trying to work in stronger answers, in order to show Will she was listening to his advice.
  • Version 15: Getting IT'S A SIGN felt like it added a lot to the bottom left corner, along with LIVE A LIE. Debbie hadn't filled out the bottom right, but this partial grid felt like it could be NYT-worthy if she could get a really nice triplet of answers to finish it out.
  • Version 17: TRADE NAME / SETH ROGEN / DEAD WOOD in that bottom right corner was a really nice result. However, it required DHA, and Will doesn't like tough acronyms that aren't widely known. He has a valid point — to many, DHA will look like three random, ungettable letters.
  • Version 17.1: The grid as shown. I didn't care for GO I, but that and DST allowed for IPAD MINIS, AFROPOP, PET NAMES, BARNUM (I was plus/minus on NOT SO SURE).

Revision has to stop at some point, and I think Debbie did really well to call it only when she felt like her profile of assets and liabilities was very strong. I love seeing that work ethic.

Such a great combination of colorful assets — 15 by my count — along with just a smattering of HRS, WBA, GOI, DST made for such an enjoyable solve.

POW Wed 7/13/2016

★ I greatly admire constructors who can come up with novel ideas. So many crosswords have been made over the years that just about everything feels like it's been done to me. Tom comes up with a neat concept today, one that feels fresh, using TLAs (three letter acronyms) to replace a regular word. PICK ME, U.P.S.! had me chuckling, and MAMMA M.I.A. was clever. But my favorite was LET ER R.I.P. — not only is it a colorful base phrase, but the result is so enjoyably kooky. COMMON E.R.A. and DISAPPEARING A.C.T. (American College Testing) didn't do as much for me, but they still work well, consistent with the others.

Tom does so well with his grids. Many constructors would cite the fact that they have five longish themers, and call it good to produce a smooth, if unexciting, grid. Tom works in not just two, but four long downs, all of them really nice. Amusing to have GRAVE PERIL intersecting LET ER R.I.P., and ASYMMETRY is snazzy. We even get a ROM COM and a MEANIE — fun stuff.

Fun PALIN clue. It's so easy to take potshots at her, but this quote, "Buck up or stay in the truck," reminds me of the various Bushisms out there. I think I'll choose ... stay in the truck? I guess?

All this, with just a minor SCIS abbreviation and a NEURO prefix. I don't mind ILIE at all, since ILIE Nastase was a very famous tennis player. Sometimes he gets clued as a partial, just for a little variety, but I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that Tom was thinking of the tennis player.

I wasn't too hot on the D, E, A, N, S list cluing both ANDES and SEDAN, because having an "order for a Dean's list" didn't feel totally in the language. Still, A for effort, and it's nice to get some novelty here and there.

When someone gets too high on my POW! list, I up my bar for them so I can spread the love. But with an entertaining, innovative idea, and a beautiful grid to boot, I tip my hat to Tom this week.

POW Sat 7/9/2016

★ This puzzle exemplifies why I think Josh is possibly the best themeless constructor out there. I've always been impressed with his puzzles, but this one sizzles. I can't remember the last time I did a themeless where nearly everything I turned up was pure gold. From PIRATE SHIP to FAT SUITS to OLD MASTERS, to TESLA COIL to NOSEGAYS to DO YOU MIND! Not only were almost all the long entries fantastic, but there was a little something for everyone, making it accessible and enjoyable for a huge range of solvers.

Josh goes big by working with 18 (!) long slots of 8+ letters. I've found that it's nearly impossible to convert so many slots into stellar material, because once you start fixing a few in place, you get less and less flexibility as you go. Josh does a great job of spreading his long slots around, but it's impossible to isolate any one of them — each must interact with a ton more.

And what results! I'm usually happy to get 10 colorful answers in a themeless, but I count roughly 17 here (things like ERRONEOUS feel more neutral to me). During my solve, it seemed like Josh was pulling some sort of magic trick. When I went back and studied the grid, what he did made more sense — by staying at a relatively high word count (70), he was able to use a lot of short words to stick his longer ones together. And by never packing too many long slots together, he was able to avoid any one area that had too much white space. It still seems a little magical even after I study it, though.

All this, without using much crossword glue. There's an ELL and an SYST, but those are so minor. Dabs of crossword glue tend to drag down my solving experience when there are more than about five (or one is egregious), but these two little guys were negligible.

And so many amazing clues! I won't point them all out, but if you're an aspiring constructor, go back and study the clues for HURL, GREEN ALGAE, HINGE, HOP, BLACK EYE. Brilliant wordplay in there.

My favorite themeless so far this year. Standing O for Josh.

POW Thu 6/30/2016

★ Debut, and what a brilliant idea! The mysterious clues kept me in the dark for the longest time, even after I had uncovered TOP / OFF. And it continued even after I pieced together DEFECTIVE BULLET — how could "B0B" possibly describe that? What a fantastic a-ha moment, realizing that you have to lop off the top of "B0B," getting DUD as a result. Here are the others, with a helpful graphic from Jonathan:

  • TB8L gives IDOL
  • 8V8TB forms OVOID
  • My favorite, VMB making VIVID. Cutting off the top of M results in an I V I — so cool!

I'm typically not a fan of "definitional" puzzles, where the grid answers sound like they're taken from Merriam Webster. But it worked so well today, since I really needed those definitions in order to finally get my moment of clarity. SUPERSTAR would have been a fine, in-the-language answer for IDOL (and EGG SHAPED for OVOID), but I kind of like how SHAPED LIKE AN EGG feels like it's prodding me to keep on thinking. I needed that nudge!

There's a bit of APER AMOR ATALE crossword glue in the grid, but it's pretty minor stuff, especially considering all four themers are very long. It's not easy to pull off a perfectly clean grid using four grid-spanners, but Jonathan did well. Check out the west and east sections, which are usually the hardest (since you have to work with the beginnings or ends of two long themers) — the east is the roughest spot with TARDE (tough foreign word), ATALE (partial), RETAG (sort of arbitrary RE- word), but the west is so nice. Not a dab of crossword glue in there.

I might have liked a little more bonus fill, but that's a minor complaint when the theme idea is this good. SILLY ME is awfully nice, anyway, and I do like me some Harry Potter referenced in SEEKERS.

All in all, a fantastic debut. So, so, so enjoyable; a very memorable theme.

POW Wed 6/22/2016

★ Loved this puzzle. I've seen dozens of anagram puzzles, so it takes something special for one to stand out. I honestly groaned a bit when I read the clue [What NOTICING can anagram to], preparing for a slog of rearranging letters. But something odd happened — I realized that there were more letters in the grid slot than in the anagrammed word! Took a couple of crossings to finally realize that NOTICING had become GIN + TONIC separately, which of course combine to form the common GIN AND TONIC. Great idea!

The JAZZ SINGER, featuring songs by Al Jolson

Each of the four themers worked so beautifully. KISS AND TELL was my second favorite, KISS + TELL anagrammed to the common word, SKILLETS. Fred laid out the themers so nicely, hitting us with his best one first, and ending the puzzle with his second-best to make sure we came away with a strong final impression.

Great bonus fill, too. JAZZ SINGER is a colorful phrase that also includes three rare letters, and WORKAHOLIC is snappy too. Nice also to see EVIL EYES and STORM OUT, along with KEYTAR (a keyboard/guitar combo), even some SMOLDER (crossing KISS AND TELL!), MAN MADE, Dorothy LAMOUR.

All this with virtually no crossword glue? RES and INST are minor offenders, and maybe you could argue that ENID is a bit esoteric, but that's not much at all in total.

Fun PAN AM clue. Some might say that this is an outdated entry since PAN AM is no longer around, but it's a historically important company. And having "flying boats" is pretty interesting. EMBED's clue felt a little strange — a foreign correspondent is really called an EMBED? — but it does appear to be valid usage.

All in all, such an enjoyable solve; a memorable twist on the anagramming theme type.

POW Wed 6/15/2016

★ Love this theme. I hadn't heard of FIFTY FIRST STATE before, but what a beautiful phrase and concept! Jason kept me guessing until the end, wondering how 51st, 6th, 3rd, and 5th might all tie together. Excellent a-ha moment when I hit AND ANOTHER THING — a perfect revealer. As Jason mentioned, I found it so much fun that each one of these themers is derived from "adding one," but they each become something all their own.

One of my personal heroes

As if that weren't enough, Jason executes so well. Today's is a tough construction task, with longish themers plus a middle one cutting the grid in half. He does strong work in the four corners, incorporating some DASHING STOPGAP INFIDEL type bonuses while keeping the crossword glue to a minimum. All I could find was an ERN in the SW and an ELEC in the NE — excellent result, especially considering the difficulty of his task.

LOVE the EBERT clue: [He once asked "How far down can a thumb go?"]. EBERT was such a big part of my youth, my dad and I often watching "At the Movies" together. His wit and quotability make him my pick for the 21st century Alexander Pope or Oscar Wilde.

FEH might be unfamiliar to some, but the crossings are fair. And I find it fun to get the assorted MEH BAH GUH sort of entries in crosswords. (I'm easily amused.)

Wonderful puzzle; very close to my idea of the perfect Wednesday.