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


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

showing 25 out of 182 POW selections from 2/19/2016 to 8/6/2016

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

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.

POW Tue 6/7/2016

★ Very pretty graphic, with a THREE / STORY / HOUSE and its SLATE ROOF memorialized in NEEDLEPOINT. HOME / SWEET / HOME indeed!

Be it ever so humble ...

I was amazed by how much Pete packed in today, especially THREE / STORY / HOUSE right atop each other. It's very hard to stack three specific answers when you have no flexibility. Then you throw in SLATE ROOF to further constrain things. I was worried at how many compromises Pete would have to make — and that was before I realized NEEDLEPOINT was part of the theme!

Pete did a nice job of deploying his black squares to separate the themers. You absolutely have to use some so THREE / STORY / HOUSE doesn't interact much with the SLATE ROOF. Then, the NEEDLEPOINT intersecting the SLATE ROOF has to be separated from HOME / SWEET / HOME as best as possible, otherwise you're forced to make a ton of compromises.

What with the enormous level of inflexibility — I can't remember when I've seen a puzzle constrained to this level — I like Pete's result. Sure, I hit RUHR / OTOE, SHERE, MEECE (ugh), ISERE right off the bat, but none of them are horrendous. And throughout the puzzle we get some of the usual suspects like ESSO, OPEL, DER, MAI, STE, but there's not a major offender in there. Some would even argue that ESSO is perfectly fine, since it's a major Canadian gas brand.

PHOEBES … apparently it's a fairly common bird in the Americas? Even after piecing it together from the crosses, I stared at the word in DISbelief. Some poor older solvers might choke on the OTOH crossing, four letters that will look random to non-texters. Even knowing that one, somehow PLOEBES seemed more plausible to me.

ASHTONS is a more clear-cut case. Not only is it a pluralized name, inelegant to start with, but it takes up a valuable 7-letter slot. Missed potential; could have been something as fun as CEDILLA.

All in all though, it's actually MUCH less crossword glue than I had expected, given the off-the-charts level of constraints. It's such a fun and pretty image; well worth the trade-offs to me.


★ I wish all constructors would get the chance to talk with Tom in person. I've only been able to do so once a year (at the ACPT), but I've enjoyed it so much. Tom is quickly becoming one of the best constructors in the crossworld, and he's so humble about it. It's inspiring to see someone with so much talent and drive to succeed keep a solid head on his shoulders. Not even out of college yet, I'd bet he'll be among the most-published constructors when he's done.

Now that's a JAWBONE!

Today's puzzle is both clever and simple, in-the-language phrases that hint at a sort of WORD SEARCH. For example, FOLLOWING SUIT is clued with [Where you can find … "jacket" or "yourself"?] Both "jacket" and "yourself" can be found FOLLOWING SUIT, i.e. "suit jacket" or "suit yourself." I really like this twist on the typical "word that can follow X" theme, giving a tired trope a fresh feel.

I also like that Tom picked such a wide assortment of theme phrases. The only word he repeats is the minor TO (CLOSE TO HOME, NEXT TO NOTHING), and uses a great selection of themers, from BEFORE LONG to POST OFFICE.

The theme does a wonderful job of catering to both novices and experts — very important considering the breadth of the NYT's large Sunday solving population. It's easy to create a simple theme like an add-a-letter, and it's fascinating to create a mind-bending puzzle, but either can alienate large swaths of Sunday NYT solvers. (I've heard from some solvers that they love my crazier stuff, but also from others that they never actually figured out what was going on.) Finding that balance is hard to do, and I think Tom does it just about perfectly today.

Sure, there are a few gluey bits here and there — STO, and maybe SISI is a bit arbitrary — but just like most every one of Tom's puzzles, it's so well-executed. He's already in the rare air where I have to restrain myself from giving him the POW! in order to spread the kudos around.

POW Mon 5/23/2016

★ What a great debut! Theme is fun and consistent — all zippy phrases in the form of (part of the body) + OF THE + (noun). Some might grouse about the OF THE repetition, but I like it. Cool find, a tight set of four themers which just happen to fit into crossword symmetry.

The old-school ... er, new school? HOVERBOARD

The grid is strong compared to the average construction, and way above most debuts. Ori had to work with four pretty long themers, ones that forced placement of some black squares. Note that entries of length 12-14 are "awkward" in that they cannot go in rows 3/13, which usually is best for good spacing (try it and see what happens). Squeezing themers together makes for a tougher than usual challenge.

I'd usually expect a newer constructor to use a "Utah block" around a 13-letter themer, i.e. blackening in RAT to form a chunk of black squares to help separate themers. That's acceptable, but not elegant. Ori not only leaves things wide open, but manages to work in the beautiful HOVERBOARD on the side.

He doesn't stop there. Some constructors would be satisfied with maybe a pair of long entries as bonus fill. I like Ori's big thinking, working in HALF MOON too. POWDERED doesn't do that much for me, but it does get a nice clue, referring to how it can describe donuts or wigs.

All this while keeping his short fill perfectly clean — way cleaner than 95% of all crosswords. I had such an incredibly smooth solve. Even after scouring the grid, I couldn't find a thing I could point out as iffy.

Now, I would have liked BUTT OF THE JOKE and EYE OF THE STORM switched, so that the body parts would roughly mirror a person standing up. So it's not a perfect Monday puzzle in my eyes. But it's close. Extremely well done!

POW Wed 5/18/2016

★ This one triggered a smile in my heart, as one of my very first puzzles used a similar pronunciation twist. I liked C.C.'s interpretation, FORESEES describing the four letter Cs in ANTARCTIC CIRCLE, FORTIES = four Ts in THAT'S A MOOT POINT, and FORAYS = four As in FANTASY BASEBALL. Nice touch to have each "descriptor" cross its theme answer.

The OORT cloud

C.C. does a very nice job today with her grid. Not easy to work with crossing theme pairs, and to use three sets is tricky. FORESEES is particularly challenging, since it's so long. Good work in incorporating FORESEES, so it crosses both ANTARCTIC CIRCLE and THAT'S A MOOT POINT.

Even with those constraints, C.C. still worked in some bonuses. STRIKE TWO and STREET ROD were much appreciated bonuses during my solve.

I've noticed that C.C. has really been cleaning up her grids. It used to be that I'd notice a good handful of gluey bits here and there, but today's grid is very nice. Not even much minor SRS or TOR kind of stuff — well done. Some might balk at the OORT cloud, but it's a huge "object" in astronomy, and the crossings are fair.

Well, KESHA / VEDA and AVA / VONAGE might be tough for some. Even I've heard of KESHA (not that I could tell you if she's an actress, singer, or dancer), but I paused for a long moment before typing in that V of AVA / VONAGE. I wonder if VONAGE is more ubiquitous in other regions of the country.

And I did wonder why these particular theme phrases. There are a ton of phrases containing exactly four Cs in no particular order, same with T and A. It would have been nice to get more tightness, like if there were two words with pairs of Cs, or phrases with four Cs spaced every other letter apart, or something.

But it was really fun to see how a different constructor started with the same seed idea, and took it in such a different and interesting direction. This puzzle is my favorite of the week, so congrats to C.C. for her fifth POW!

POW Mon 5/9/2016

★ Easily the best Monday puzzle I've done all year, and perhaps one of my all-time favorites. Dan has such an interesting idea — phrases where the first word is the nickname of a state, and the second word contains that state's abbreviation. The SHOW ME state (Missouri), gets its MO in SHOW ME THE MONEY. What a great find! And being from CA, I loved GOLDEN State's GOLDEN CALF. Simple idea, yet innovative, interesting, and accessible to solvers of all levels. Just perfect for a Monday.


I also appreciated that Dan added in long bonus fill, even though he was working with a fairly theme-dense puzzle. PARTY HOP and SEQUENCE in the across direction, and a bit of PLAYDOH, SO TRUE in the vertical, added even more spice to my solving experience. A bit of ACHE FOR and RANG IN ain't bad, either.

BAY MARE (Massachusetts, the Bay State) was a little mystifying to me, but some research shows it's a real thing. It's pretty impressive that Dan found a themer that worked in so few letters.

And Dan did all of this with meticulous care in his short fill, just a minor ADM and EDS. Such a smooth solve, exactly what I want out of a Monday.

What to even point out, in the name of a balanced critique? Maybe the revealer could have been worded a little better? I had to read that a few times before understanding the gist of it. Maybe a final revealer could have helped — STATE NICKNAME, perhaps?

So well executed on all levels: theme, long fill, short fill, puzzle flow. I'd give Dan a gold star and a trophy if I had one, but he'll have to settle for the POW! If I had a POM (Puzzle of the Month) like Matt Gaffney, this one would easily be in the running.

POW Wed 5/4/2016

★ Jacob's name is rising even higher in my list of constructors whose bylines I love seeing. He has a distinctly poetic voice, and it's again seen in spades with this poem (appropriately enough). So neat that each of the seven words of INTO EACH LIFE SOME RAIN MUST FALL is exactly four letters. There's something evocative and powerful about the sentence itself, and something so elegant about the four-letter consistency.

Jill frowns upon me growing such a magnificent beard. Boo!

The grid is a 16x15, wider than normal, to accommodate the "hidden" poem and LONGFELLOW / FITZGERALD. I'm a huge jazz fan, but I wasn't aware that Ella Fitzgerald sang this tune. Beautiful; I'm glad to learn about it.

Many constructors would go over the 78-word limit when faced with a 16x15, reasoning that they should be allowed a proportionally higher limit. I like Jacob's choice to stay relatively low in word count, which lets him work in a ton of good fill like ALARM BELL, NOT REALLY, TEAR STAIN, RUMOR MILLS.

No doubt, with all the theme words stairstepping down the diagonal, plus LONGFELLOW and FITZGERALD, plus all the long bonus fill, there was bound to be some gluey fill. AOUT (pretty deep French), HOI (only one way to clue it), and ORU (do Oral Roberts students actually call it ORU?) are necessary to hold that dense middle together. But I like that Jacob kept everything minor, spreading out his GSA, RRS, AIRE short stuff throughout the grid.

One other nit: I wasn't a huge fan of "hiding" the poem's words within longer entries. EACH in PREACH is nice, as is MUST in MUSTER, but LIFE in LIFER isn't really disguising it at all. And making IN TOO and OF ALL necessary … I'd rather have seen each of the theme words simply as a normal entry in the grid.

Personal preference. Overall, this was another Stulberg winner for me. I'm not much of a poetry fan, but somehow Jacob inspires me to want to dig in.


★ 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.