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

showing 25 out of 121 POW selections from 1/2/2015 to 6/13/2015

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

★POW Sat 6/13/2015

★ A great puzzle from some of my favorite people in crosswordland. Always a treat to get a Wilberson themeless, usually a range of entries going all the way from erudite to hip. That upper left corner, with a Riemann ZETA function (an elegant math function) crossing a football TAXI SQUAD, exemplifies what I love about their co-constructions.

Interesting grid today, with far less long slots than average. The upper left and lower right feature the standard triple-stacks of longish answers, and both of them are beautiful. They contain six excellent answers, and five of them felt super fresh. (SOUTH POLE I've seen a few times in themelesses, but it's still quite a good entry what with its nice [Lowest point?] clue.)


Where this diverges from usual themeless layouts is that there are fewer 8+ letter slots — only 10. This tends to make me worry that there won't be as much stellar material as I like, but Brad and Doug make great use of their seven-letter slots, with SYNCHRO, REGIFT, and UNIBROW. And it was amusing to see STAN LEE clued with respect to his Marvel movie cameos. He's such a visionary … and such a terrible actor. Yeesh.

Along with some supporting sixes — the interesting-sounding UBANGI river and the trivia of multiple FERRETs being called a "business" stood out to me — it makes for a count of roughly 13 assets. That's not a sky-high number, but it's fine as long as the liabilities are kept to a minimum.

And cleanliness is one area that Doug and Brad excel at. The top left stack only needing the minor glue dots of WIS and ETD, the lower one nearly perfect (SAS doesn't bother me, as it's a major airline), and what else? "AMY'S Kitchen" makes tasty, reasonably-healthy frozen food, so that's minor to me as well. Maybe GOOS, as it's an odd plural.

Overall, a great mix within the grid entries, something for everyone. I'm not usually very good with the upscale references, but I did enjoy learning more about Mahler's quartet of OBOES in his "Symphony of a Thousand" (which Jim tells me is not often performed because it's so expensive to put on) and the fact that there's Le Cordon Bleu as well as Cordon Bleus, the distinguished chefs. Along with some great clues like [Pen set] = SWINE, this one was a real treat.


★ Wait! Wasn't yesterday's puzzle the POW!? I had such a tough time choosing between yesterday's and today's puzzle that I decided to reject the Tyranny of Or.

Such an entertaining Sunday puzzle (and timely, given American Pharoah's historic Triple Crown win on Saturday)! Stories connect people over the generations, so I like it when my crossword spins a tale, entertaining me from the start to finish. Sam takes common calls heard in horse racing and puts on a wordplay twist with appropriate horse names. The tale of Ace Detective taking the EARLY LEAD, all the way to Inseam winning BY A LENGTH = I was amused the whole way through.

Wait. This is temporary, isn't it?

Nice job on the longer fill, too. It's unusual to see fill as long as TEMPORARY TATTOOS and ONE AFTER THE OTHER, which is too bad — they add so much to the solving experience. A bunch more long guys in DUTCH OVEN, MCDONALDS, OYE COMO VA, and DYSLEXICS similarly enhance the solve.

Interesting that this is a 142-word grid, higher than Will's usual maximum of 140. I did notice that there seemed to be more short words than usual, especially in the middle of the puzzle, but it didn't bother me too much. Once in a while I think allowing 142 or even 144 is perfectly fine if it allows for something special in the theme or for cleaner fill.

Speaking of cleaner fill, Sam did a pretty good job here. But if it meant getting rid of things like RSTU, TO HOE, OROS and OKLA/AUST so near to each other, I think I'd fine going up to 144 words. An additional pair of cheater squares to smooth things out would be fine with me too.

Loved these clues:

  • [Tool made to scale] made me think about prototypes made at half-scale. But an ICE AXE is made to scale mountains.
  • [One in a pipeline?] is a great way to describe a SURFER riding a curling wave, shooting the pipeline formed by a breaking cylinder of water.

Often I find the large Sunday format a little tedious since it takes so long to solve, but the story here kept me very entertained. I'd love to see more storybook crosswords like this.

★POW Sat 6/6/2015

★ Wow. Just wow.

I love when a puzzle surprises me. I got the entire SNOW WHITE corner in my first pass, so filled in MIRROR MIRROR without hesitation. In my second pass I got the EVIL QUEEN corner without much difficulty. Just a mini-themed themeless, with MIRROR MIRROR sitting in the diagonal = nothing to write home about, right?

Mirror mirror, in the grid ... how the #$%#? did Jason do what he did?

But that central swath remained oddly blank. I had IM OUT and NOIRE plunked in at 1-D and 2-D, but nothing else would fit. Finally, I wondered if MIRROR MIRROR was contributing to my confusion. [Small tower on a castle] had to be TURRET — maybe it fit in the mirror spot, 18-A?

Then came one of the best a-ha moments in recent memory. NOIRE doesn't go straight down, it doesn't start at the reflected position … it reflects along the MIRROR, as if it were a ray of light bouncing off! Same with TURRET reflecting at the second R, same with IM OUT reflecting at the M … same with ALL THE ENTRIES HITTING MIRROR MIRROR. EVERY ONE OF THEM.

Now, some people may scoff at this tour de force, but when a handful of words turn at a 90 degree angle, the surrounding fill gets harder. When you have this constraint all along a full corridor — that's dozens of tough intersections to work through — it's an absolute gem to only need OF MAN. Otherwise, it's so clean and colorful, working in THE MASTERS and Erik ESTRADA and a PRISON RIOT.

And to do this in a 70-word puzzle? Amazing. Check out the bottom left corner, which stacks four long answers atop each other. Sure, you can complain about EEE, but this is a wonderful corner pulled off with a tough constraint. Constructors usually never stack four long words (8+ letters) atop each other for good reason — areas like this are nearly impossible to get both colorful and clean. Jason does a nice job with both of them.

The concept did make me think that MIRROR MIRROR might be even better if 1-D and 14-A started with the same sequence, so they were truly "mirrored." But even this is a sign that the puzzle did its job plus a whole lot more, spurring me on to think about it well after I finished solving.

Bravo, one of my favorites this year.

★POW Tue 5/26/2015

★ Such a great example of the "both words can precede X" theme type. This trope can be a little dry, in that the theme phrases are often so hard to come up with that they end up being dry. Not here! BIRDS NEST (soup), MATCH GAME, LIFE STORY are fantastic. CHILD SEAT isn't bad either, although to me it's not quite as vivid as the others.

Remind me why I wasn't popular in high school?

With five themers and an expanded 16x15 grid, I'd expect there to be maybe four pieces of good long fill worked in. Glad to see Gareth hit that mark with strong material, giving us TANDOORI, UBERGEEK, MAGNOLIA / DAHLIA, and RATED AAA. (I'm a finance UBERGEEK, so sue me.)

The wide-open upper-right and lower-left corners are especially nice. A lot of six-letter entries enmeshed with an eight-letter one usually requires some glue to hold everything together. True, there's an AOUT and a TERR in those corners, but those are miniscule prices for the nice material. TUSHES and STREAK in symmetrical places — a hidden mini-theme, perhaps?

And to work in a bonus bit of material in TRYST in an elegant location — here, in the SE-most down slot — added to my solving experience. I usually find that "bonus material" strewn randomly through the grid is distracting and a bit of an annoyance, whereas this felt more planned and elegant.

With two strikes against you from the start (having to keep the solver entertained through an oversized grid and using a well-worn theme type), it takes a lot to create a memorable solving experience. For me, Gareth succeeded in spades.

★POW Wed 5/20/2015

★ Loved this; themers that look like three repeated words but can be parsed in kooky ways. VIS A VIS VISA was readily apparent, as was ABE LABEL ABEL. But it took me a while to figure out what RIDERIDERIDE should become. What a fun division in RIDER I DERIDE. Similar hijinks in PIESPIESPIES, which I originally thought was the odd and repetitive PIE SPIES PIES. Not so! PI ESPIES PIES is brilliant.

Some strong clues too:

Twain sure had a lot of depth

Now, I would have liked some more long fill in this puzzle. This is a tougher task than for a typical four-theme entry puzzle, because of the themers' 12-letter lengths. Normally, you'd be able to take out the black square between DOG and JIBE to make an eight-letter slot, but no dice today since that square is necessary to finish off VISAVISAVISA. Same goes with the black square between CLASSY and ADAM.

There's room to explore blowing up the black square between MARSHAL and DONS, but that does make for a bigger space to fill in the west and east. And shifting black squares around in the center is a real possibility, but that would likely mean redoing the entire puzzle.

Still, the grid does contain a little zip with PRAIRIE / DOG, MARSHAL, even a SPLAT and a SPUME. And it is nice and bereft of gluey bits (aside from IRAE, maybe PSA too) — what a 78-word puzzle ought to be.

A trait of a great puzzle is that it makes me want to think about it further. So much fun to wrestle with these themers; I'd love to find more.

★POW Tue 5/12/2015

★ I had the good fortune to meet Paul at the ACPT this year; what a nice guy. When everyone was giving me dirty looks about my difficult Puzzle #5 (Will said he needed a "bastard puzzle" and thought of me. Thanks … I think?), Paul smiled and said he was looking forward to it. (Then again, I didn't see him after the puzzle session ...)

I don't know much about art, but a docent once mentioned how some famous painting did an amazing job of capturing kinetic motion. Not being able to recall the painting or even the artist, I obviously wasn't paying attention, but the idea stuck with me. Paul's puzzle reminded me of it today. What a neat concept, representing an ELASTIC BAND (that's what they call rubber bands in Canada, eh?) stretching, stretching, and then SNAPping. Cool to see something actually "moving" in the puzzle.

When that perfect hand comes along, you bet and you bet big, then you take the house!

And Paul's longer fill added so much to my solving experience. BET IT ALL and SWINDLED, both colorful entries. There's a reason I've seen "Ocean's 11" 21 times. And ISOMERS ... I'm awed by at nature's persnickety behavior, like when the R-isomer of a drug is active in a molecular target, while the L-isomer is inactive or even toxic. Crazy stuff.

Totally confused by [Big prune?]? Clever clue; "prune" and "lop" being synonymous verbs. And for those of you WHIPPERSNAPPERS, "Three's Company" was one of the many sitcoms I watched as a latchkey kid. It's such an offensive show! But man oh man did I love it.

I would have preferred not to have CASITA cross ITA. Yes, ITA got disguised as IT A, but it strikes me as inelegant, since CASITA is a Spanish CASA + diminutive ITA. And REEARN by itself is passable — REEARNing someone's trust is almost as good as "earning back" trust — but adding in RESALE made it feel like too much. Finally, seeing a DRAGON in the lower left isn't quite worth getting both an AGR and ENS.

But today is a case where Jim's viewpoint won me out; a really neat theme far obscuring the little nits I had to pick. Great solve today.

★POW Fri 5/8/2015

★ Another clinic from Ian today. At 72 words (the max for a themeless), the grid is nothing fancy or envelope-pushing, but Ian makes such great use of his long entries. A puzzle's sizzle often comes from its 8+ letter entries, and with only 14 of those slots available today, it's so critical to convert nearly all of them into snappy entries.

That's a tough task, but look at all the great material Ian strews about the grid. Starting with a SNAPCHAT / KETEL ONE / ICE RINKS and ending with IRON CHEF / NEWSHOLE (vaguely and amusingly lewd-sounding) / GREEK GOD — what a way to bookend the puzzle. Spreading NOISEMAKERS and ANKLE MONITOR and STONEMASONS around made the solve so pleasing all over, from top to bottom and left to right.

Fox hunt leader of old

A note on ROGER FEDERER and SIMON COWELL. Both gridworthy, no doubt, but I value SIMON COWELL so much more than ROGER FEDERER in a crossword. It's really fun to get your favorite sports (or movie, or whatever) figure into a grid, but celebs can be awfully polarizing. You elate the people that are also fans, but alienate those that don't know (or don't wish to know) the person. So unless there's great cluing potential, I find reliance on names a bit unsatisfying.

ROGER FEDERER probably has clever cluing potential, but [Five-in-a-row U.S. Open winner] sounds like a Wikipedia entry, while [Fox hunt leader of old] is a gold-medal play on SIMON COWELL's former role on the Fox talent search show, "American Idol."

Finally, Ian's short fill. Because a 72-word puzzle is relatively easy to fill compared to a 68 or or a 66, it's important to distinguish it by keeping the glue to a minimum. Ian's always good about this, and today is no different. I have to be pretty nit-picky to point out ANON, which has a bit of a fusty feel to it, but is also common in poetry. And NEC will draw some complaints as three randomish letters stuck together, but I find it hard to argue that a company with a market cap of roughly $10B isn't gridworthy. It's not something I'd strive to use, but I personally find it to be a minor blip.

Very entertaining, smooth solve.

★POW Wed 4/29/2015

★ Great concept. Jim and I often debate what's important in a crossword — he usually argues that the theme is by far and away the most important aspect, while I prefer a balance of theme and smooth execution. Today though, I agree with him. The theme tickled me so much that the few slight dings rolled off my back.

Lida Rose, I'm home again, Rose ...

Great idea to lay out a set of letters such that certain groupings form certain shapes — and regular words to boot! Geometry was my gateway drug into math and math puzzles, so seeing GEAR laid out as a PARALLELOGRAM and LEAK as the only RECTANGLE was really cool.

It would have been absolutely perfect if the letter set was a little tighter, for instance if ELK were the only RIGHT TRIANGLE that spelled a real word, or even if all RIGHT TRIANGLES (like ARK and LEG and GEL) had been pointed out. POLYGON is a neat catch-all, but it would have been even neater if it pointed out only the shapes which didn't fall into the other classes. Kind of strange that ELK was pointed out in two places, while KEG was ignored.

Loved these clues:

  • [Find (out)] makes FERRET such a fun entry. The animal itself is cute and interesting, but FERRET OUT is a vivid term.
  • LOB is slang for an [Easy question]. GRAPEFRUIT is even better, but I still like getting a LOB.
  • [Jet setting] confused the heck out of me, obscuring that NW corner. Beautiful a-ha to figure out that a HANGAR is a setting for many jets.

I could do without the creepy NECRO prefix in my puzzle, but getting DOGGONE and the bonus themer of VERTEX was worth it.

This puzzle interested me so much that it made me curious to dig deeper and study its execution. I love when that happens.

★POW Sun 4/26/2015WHICH IS WISH

★ I love recognizing puzzles that I think are outstanding — great fun to gush about something I really enjoy. Identifying a Puzzle of the Week makes me very happy, and I make a conscious effort to spread out the POW!s to different constructors. Patrick makes this so hard, since most of his puzzles are very good to fantastic.

No. 617 Squadron RAF, aka the Dambusters

I find simple sound change puzzles — "ch" to "sh" today — difficult to gush over; just personal preference. But during my solve I kept on noting great things. And in the end, I found it impossible not to give him the POW. It's easy to wow me with a lively themeless or a kooky Thursday, but to make me say I loved a basic sound change puzzle is a near miracle.

Here are the notes I took during my solve:

  1. Ooh, Patrick Berry!
  2. The title ... oh no, I hope it's not just a simple sound change puzzle.
  3. Patrick used a LOT of cheater squares in this puzzle. He's usually not shy about deploying them — and I totally agree with that — but eight cheaters is a lot. It makes the grid uglyish.
  4. Wait. This is a 136-word Sunday puzzle? Surely that means Patrick's going to require a few more compromises in his fill than usual (that is, more than zero).
  5. [Indicator of freshness?] = SLAP. Fun and funny! Quintessential Berry-type cluing.
  6. Neat trivia for RAF. "Dambusters" = a great nickname.
  7. [Dead man walking?] for GHOST is fantastic.
  8. No wait! [Compact containers] made me think of mini-Tupperware. But PURSES are "containers holding women's compacts." Brilliant!
  9. Uh oh, uncovering my first themer. SHEEP THRILLS ... hey! That's actually funny.
  10. Next themer. MUSH TO MY SURPRISE ... that's hilarious!
  11. MOSHER … it is in the dictionary, but I've never heard anyone use it. Still, it's the only iffy entry in the grid.
  12. VITTLES / POSEUR along with LETS / ROLL! = a fantastic corner.
  13. Look how much excellent mid-length (6 or 7-letter) fill Patrick used! BE SAFE, NOW NOW, TAKETH, IN FOR IT. That's great bonus material.

Sorry, other constructors this week. Making a puzzle easy enough to play to a wide crowd AND interesting/funny enough to entertain veteran solvers is really impressive.

★POW Sat 4/18/2015

★ Along with others from this past week, this puzzle brings out the differences Jim and I have around puzzles. Monday's puzzle sizzled for Jim since it brought back great Beatles memories and feelings for him. Not as much for me, as I appreciate the Beatles more from a historical perspective.

Young Ned having his mind warped by beatnik parents

The Simpsons trigger something primal in me, a reminiscence of great times as a kid, seeing this ground-breaking cartoon series emerge and evolve. Seeing NED and OKELY DOKELY really did it for me — NED is a wonderfully tragic, complex character who started as a Bible-thumping stereotype but who has now lost his wife, questioned his faith, and struggled with raising two young kids — but those answers couldn't possibly have done anything for a non-Simpsons watcher. This puzzle sang for me, but it's definitely not going to be everyone's POW choice.

So many aspects of this puzzle hit for me. With roughly 14 asset entries and 4 liabilities, it easily fits into my "what makes a good themeless" criteria. Sure, things like ARY undoubtedly take away from the solving experience, but when you pack in such stellar entries like ELEANOR RIGBY, BOOK EM, THE CLASH, BELIEVE YOU ME and the marketing blooper Graham CRACKOS, I say OH COME NOW! The tradeoffs are more than worth it.

And the cluing. BABYSIT by itself is a ho-hum answer, but a great clue can turn a neutral entry into an asset. [It's easy to do for an angel] had to be FLY or HAUNT PEOPLE AND TORTURE THEM FOR THEIR MISDEEDS, right? Nope, the "angel" refers to an angel child, one easy to watch over.

[Quick move?] nicely uses the convention of "shortly" or "quick" or "in brief" to denote an abbreviation or shortening.

[Step on a scale] avoids the giveaway question mark, referring to a step on the musical scale, not stepping on a physical scale.

I recognize that the specificity of the grid entries isn't great for a huge audience with broad tastes, but man oh man was it spot-on for me. Nice to have the huge variety in constructors — if you don't like today's, it's likely you'll enjoy tomorrow's or that of the day after.

★POW Mon 4/6/2015

★ Great change of pace M ONday puzzle, the seven days of the week "broken" by black squares a la DAYBREAK. The northwest corner is just about my personal ideal — three very nice long entries, some contemporary entries in LIFE OF PI and PRIUS, a touch of James Bond in MARTINIS, higher education represented firmly with FERMI, and a wordplay clue around OTIS' development of the elevator. Beautiful variety.

Seven theme answers — actually, 14 — is rarely easy to implement. Most often it calls for trade-offs, forcing the constructor to choose certain aspects over others. I like Finn's prioritization of getting the seven days equally spaced, in every other row. That felt spot-on, given how the days within a calendar get laid out. Would have been a bit odd to have MON and TUE entries crammed together in adjacent rows, for example.

It would have been nice if the days were all parts of the longest across answers though — darn those pesky trade-offs! THU being part of NEOLITH and UNITARD was much more elegant to me than WED being part of WOW and EDDA, for example. And COLLAPSED and EASY MONEY not being part of the theme felt slightly awkward.

Pimp My Ride, hosted by the awesomely Scrabbly Xzibit!

But you can rarely get everything when you shoot for the moon. I really appreciated Finn's effort to go the extra mile on this difficult construction, decorating the NE corner with the fresh entry, HOT MIC. Totally worth the ONE IN partial.

A final note, regarding PIMP. Will and Joel and I were shooting the breeze at the ACPT last weekend, talking about what types of entries are just fine and which push the line. JAILBAIT was the main one we mulled over, but PIMP also popped up during the discussion. I'm perfectly fine with PIMP, as the "Pimp My Ride" TV show is pretty popular, but I can see how some solvers might be turned off by it. Tricky.

Such a treat to get something different and well-executed on a Monday.

★POW Fri 4/3/2015

★ Another beautiful Berry construction. He seems to be settling into a 66- or 68-word groove, a sweet (and challenging for mere mortals) spot that allows him to incorporate 15ish excellent answers into the grid while keeping gluey bits to near zero. Also appreciated is his continual testing out of new black square patterns, giving us a new experience every time.

The most impressive aspect of this one is that it features two 14-letter entries — squished together! As Doug Peterson once told me, 14-letter answers (and 13s too) are super difficult to build themelesses around, since they constrain your grid in weird ways. That one black square at the end of a 14 starts fixing your skeleton into place almost immediately, reducing much-prized flexibility.

Played close to the diaper. Er, chest.

And the way he does it — 1.) choosing to put minimal space in between the 14s and 2.) separating them with a long word. Daunting task! Typically that would result in either a bit of glue to hold it all together, or a only neutral word right in the middle. But AFRIKANER is sparkly, made even better by giving us interesting trivia about Charlize Theron's background. Very impressive.

The clever cluing is another of Patrick's hallmarks:

  • [Impressive way to turn up?] is an impressive way to describe a figure skating jump.
  • Trade secrets are played close to the chest. So is a UKULELE.
  • [Magazine that's on the market?] refers to Forbes' coverage of the stock market. And crossing FORBES with STOCK EXCHANGES!

I vowed to try to spread the POWs around, but it's tough to do when Patrick consistently turns out such great work. I made some comments about him using few Scrabbly letters in order to avoid gluey entries, and now he comes back with three Xs, incorporated with silky smoothness? I'm running out of points to make in order to give a balanced review.

Hmm. Well, there aren't any "current" entries, i.e. this puzzle could have been equally enjoyed by NYT solvers from 10 years ago? As much as I disavow things that kids these days do (SNAPCHAT, BINGE WATCH, SELFIE STICK), perhaps a light touch of that might have been nice?

Ah, I'm stretching. Fantastic work.

★POW Wed 3/25/2015

★ Not knowing the painting, I hadn't really considered this one for the POW at first. Thankfully, having two J-named partners with knowledge in the arts made me really appreciate the theme. The difficulty of the execution naturally results in some compromises, but I found them well worth it. Memorable puzzle.

★POW Sun 3/22/2015UPSIDES

★ As a crossword commentator, I live for days like today. I initially was disgruntled by (what I thought were) gibberish rebus squares all along the walls of the puzzle. On my average solver days, I would have set it aside without another thought.

Thank goodness I analyzed it afterward, because what an amazing a-ha moment! It's my favorite puzzle of the year in any venue so far, and I hope to convince any haters out there why it's so incredible. I struggle to think of a single puzzle in the past several years that I've liked better.

Like me, there will be many solvers out there who entered "STRAW" in the first square, "STRA" in the one below it, "STR" in the one below that, etc. Made no sense why [Targets of some cryosurgery] was a bunch of nonsense rebus squares. It took me a couple of minutes to realize that each of these answers is literally CLIMBING / THE WALLS, i.e. the STRAW of STRAW BALE actually starts at the square marked "30"! Similarly, that square starts the STRA of STRAINED, and the STR of STRONG DRINKS, all "borrowing" from the WARTS entry.

Deal with the devil. J'accuse!

Sometimes a puzzle is awesome from a solver's perspective, sometime it's incredible from a constructor's view, but rarely do I find both in spades. The aspect I appreciate the most as a constructor is that Jeremy found a way to innovate without relying on rebus squares — squishing multiple letters into a single square in different ways. Jeremy's approach of using a "turning answers" approach to the nth degree is amazing, all while sticking with a single letter in each box.

And the technical challenge of it! Sure, each of the six instances is somewhat separated so he could build each one independently, but he still needed to stick to crossword symmetry. To balance STRONG DRINKS with DIGESTIVE AID, and NOT EVEN A LITTLE with TASMANIAN DEVIL … I did figure out how to arrange things to get some computer assistance, but it's still a wickedly difficult task to pull off so cleanly.

As if all that weren't enough, Jeremy keeps at it with great mid-length fill like ME FIRST, SCRAP HEAP, HAS A SMOKE, etc. Pure RAPTURE on my part.

I can't remember when I've been this elated to have the chance to gush about a crossword. I've always looked forward to seeing Jeremy's byline, and this enforces my notion that he's one of the best in the business.

★POW Fri 3/13/2015

★ Jim and I often discuss what makes a great crossword, and I find my criteria shifting ever so slightly. I used to be much more concerned with squeaky-clean fill, but now I'm relenting; more willing to let a handful of gluey bits slip by if that means a puzzle delights me. What's more important that being delighted, after all? Today's crossword generated a big smile across my face.

Pretty sure I'd look awesome in a TARBOOSH ...

First, it was nice to see Judge Vic not start with the traditional four sets of triple-stacks. That's a tried and true strategy, proven to allow at least 12 long slots. But it's nice to get the variety, the experimentation in the grid design. I like how Vic incorporates a pair of 12-letter entries — 12s, 13s, and 14s are usually avoided due to the difficulty in integrating them into a themeless. And it was nice to see the goodness spread out, getting an OUT OF THE BLUE out of the blue for example, rather than having all the long stuff concentrated in the corners like usual.

Although I really liked entries like TARBOOSH, PACE CARS, YULE LOGS, DARK AGES, the clues are what made the puzzle sing for me. I'm usually quite happy with three or four clever clues, but it felt like they didn't stop today:

  • [One cast in a Harry Potter film] wasn't a person but a SPELL.
  • [Star role of old films?] hinted at a SHERIFF wearing a tin star.
  • [Strain to make?] had nothing to do with really trying hard, but PUREEing.
  • APSES can be a minor gluey bit, but [Quartet in a cathedral, maybe] got me thinking about when I played in a brass quintet at various churches back in the Bay Area. Great misdirection.
  • [Addition to the mix] refers to a sound mix; REVERB often added in during production.
  • Finally, nice job with [Compulsory courses], making me think the answer would end in S. CORE education, drat!

So even though I'd rather have near zero gluey bits in my themeless crosswords, I'll take some OST, ESA, RAG sort of stuff any day if it means I get so much delight.

★POW Wed 3/4/2015

★ By nature, crosswords targeting a particular subject area will delight a portion of solvers while leaving others shrugging their shoulders. Count me in the former category — BOND, SOLO, ROCKY, and AXEL (Foley) were huge parts of my childhood. Total delight.

The NYSE trading floor, back in the day

I especially liked the wordplay on BOND TRADERS, as it describes so perfectly the switching of Connery to Lazenby to Connery for the lead role. Plus, BOND TRADERS! I know there are very few actual traders on the floor of a stock/bond market flashing specialized hand signals, but the phrase still evokes a colorful image in my mind.

ROCKY START also gave me a smile, as plenty of people complain about the way Rocky I starts the series. My wife and I recently sat down to watch Rocky I (her first time, my nth), and her reaction at the end was (SPOLIER ALERT!):

"What the bleep?! Rocky doesn't win?" Or something to that effect.

TRIPLE AXEL was also apt, since there were three "Beverly Hills Cop" movies. It felt a little odd though, since people refer to BOND, SOLO, and ROCKY by those singular names, and AXEL isn't quite to that level.

Saving the best for last, Han SOLO. My childhood hero, a stereotype-breaking space cowboy, an olio of human greed, moxie, and honor that surprised even him. (FLYING SOLO would have made this perhaps my favorite puzzle in a while. Sigh, a man-boy can dream.)

As if that weren't enough, it's a rare puzzle where the fill catches my eye. CETOLOGY is such a cool, odd word that I wanted to study it (both whales and the word itself). It's usually hard to wow me with single-word entries, but getting DACTYLS, CHIANTI, LARIAT, SUBTITLE along with DEEP END and AL DENTE was a barrage of goodness.

Like some (many? most?) of my choices, not all will agree that this one was the NYT Puzzle of the Week. For those that disagree with my choice, I answer: 1.) there are indeed at least two other puzzles this week I seriously considered and 2.) hokey religions and and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.

★POW Mon 2/23/2015

★ Joel has such an interesting perspective. The construction was SO smooth that I assumed it was a 76 or perhaps a 74-word puzzle. A 72-word themed puzzle is hard enough to achieve with a few gluey bits, so to nail it with nary a glop is amazing.

My personal style is a little different. I always try to work in six snazzy long downs (unless grid constraints are severe), but that tends to ignore the mid-length 5-, 6-, 7-letter fill, leaning heavily on the short stuff that Joel points out as pretty boring for solvers. I hadn't really considered how important that mid-range stuff is, but I see what he means when I look at fill such as JUNTA, IM SURE, and ACCT NO (which looks really cool in the grid — a nice surprise to have to work at uncovering a Monday entry). I like those entries no matter how they're clued.

The least populous state, West Virginia!

And his approach also gives the solver interesting trivia. Who knew WYOMING was the least populous state? I wouldn't, because my approach to grid design tends to ignore these 7-letter entries. (Also because I get WYOMING and Wisconsin confused.)

Finally, IM GAY brings us a reminder of a momentous event in TV history, Ellen coming out. Great stuff.

I might have liked a third fruit instead of BITTER PILL — if only BITTER PEAR or RANCID BANANA were metaphorical, sigh — but the theme coheres well enough. (I'm afraid the consistently very high quality of Joel's work has me spoiled ugli.)

A great construction, and a Monday puzzle chock full of interesting fill and tidbits.

★POW Thu 2/19/2015

★ Very, very cool idea. I bet many solvers filled in "APERA" as a rebus square and wondered who the heck APERANNA SUI was. (I still think Aperanna is a nice name.) Following along the loop, especially ROLLER COASTER looping around R (O L L E R C) OASTER, was really fun. And the fact that the resulting answer looks like ROASTER in the grid, a normal word — what a bonus!


P (A P E R) AIRPLANE also is neat, some types of planes able to gracefully execute loop-de-loops. It's not quite as neat as ROLLER COASTER since "PAIRPLANE" is obviously odd in the grid, but still, PAPER AIRPLANE fits nicely with the theme.

I get that a SHOELACE gets tied in a loop, but that themer didn't work quite as well for me. SHOELACEs don't really get tied in vertical loops, do they? I brainstormed a little bit, and could only come up with two other possible themers which might fit the vertical loop motif: STUNT PILOTS, which would look like S (T U N T P I L O) TS, or STUNT MOTORCYCLE. Maybe those are too close to PAPER AIRPLANE though.

These types of puzzles where the themers bend, twist, etc. are usually tough to execute, because of all the extra real estate taken up. So I like that Jason just uses three, and spaces them out nicely. Also very cool to incorporate R CRUMB into that difficult RC???? slot. The fill isn't particularly sparkly — more CATALYTIC and ATYPICAL than the beautiful BITCOIN and FIRE AWAY — but I appreciate the relative grid cleanliness.

Finally, two great clues. I love Greek mythology, so getting ARGUS and the [100-eyed giant of myth] was pleasing. (Although I would have been equally happy with ARGUS Filch, the groundskeeper of Hogwarts.) And [Illegal motion penalty?] thankfully had nothing to do with football (still not over the Seahawks' SB XLIX loss) but cleverly hinted at TILTing a pinball machine.

★POW Wed 2/11/2015

★ A really nice debut puzzle. Most people would stick to four — or even three — theme answers in their first go-around. But Will goes big with six! Laudable.

What a ludicrous way to spell Ludicrous!

And what an amusing theme. I laughed, picturing a junior editor starting out on the job, overzealously throwing around red ink. For all my grumbling about pop songs and hip bands, none of which I know, here's a case where I really welcomed them! It's doubtful that even the most clueless editor would correct THE BEATLES, but I can easily see the person smugly changing LINKIN PARK and deeming the LUDACRIS spelling as truly LUDICROUS.

Smart layout, intersecting two pairs of themers and using black squares to create a lot of space and separation between themers. Doesn't allow for a lot of jazzy fill, but that's okay for me, since the themers were mostly vivid.

A rough patch here and there, but that's to be expected in a six-themer, especially where there's a lot of overlap. And really, only the CWT / TO ERR / EDUC north area stuck out to me. No surprise that it came in one of the two areas with most themer overlap – where four white spaces sit between THE BEETLES and LUDICROUS. I might have tried moving the black square at the end of ITERATE up to the R of RODEO in order to reduce the overlap. Hard to say if that would have caused problems in the center of the puzzle, though.

My wife tells this joke she thinks is hilarious:

Q: What did the fish say when it swam into a wall?
A: Dam.

So DAMS, clued as [Challenges for salmon] made me smile.

And fun repurposing of "Grape Nuts" cereal, a WINO being a [Grape nut?] of sorts. I also enjoyed the homonym play on [Dehli order?] for SARI, a clothing item common in India.

ADDED NOTE: there was a last-minute change to the grid, and apparently the old version was printed by mistake in the NYT hardcopy. It affects only the western section of the puzzle (TOO BAD became TAIWAN, etc.). SARI for the confusion.

★POW Sat 2/7/2015

★ A 64-word themeless is so difficult to pull together that the constructor must often rely on neutral or boringish entries. Not today. Impressive grid and even more impressive cluing.

Elder Ball and progeny

I figured Byron would have to rely heavily on the common letters (RSTLN E), so figuring out DESI ARNAZ JR took me forever. Seeing a NAZ?? ending made me go back and erase several times. And testing out a J and an R at the end – NAZJR, what a bizarre string! – just couldn't be right. I was mixed as to whether DESI ARNAZ JR is crossworthy in his own right, but that curious run of ending letters plus the brilliant clue, [Ball boy?] (Lucille Ball's boy), makes me give him a thumbs-up.

Speaking of cluing, Byron's clues hit the Saturday sweet spot for me. Personally, I have a tough time with "deep dictionary" clues, where the constructor/editor pulls out definition number 45 in an attempt to stump the solver. I don't find that very satisfying, working like a dog and then ultimately having to go to the dictionary to understand what I just solved. Byron tends to use seemingly innocent clues with a devilish bent, giving me a fist-pumping elation when I get them. Here are my favorites:

  • [Good for rushes, say] could have been TRASHY, given the rushes I – er, you – get from reading a romance novel. But it's good for the growth of rush plants too.
  • [Preserves, in the end] made me think of KEEPS IN, as with an edit one is waffling about. What a great a-ha when I realized that this referred more to the Egyptian way of preserving things.
  • [Banquet offering] cleverly hides the capital B in the Banquet line of TV dinners. So much for my first guess, SALAD BAR.

Notice how each one of these avoids the giveaway question mark. Brilliant.

And even the part I liked the least, the NW with its RUCHED and GRIPPE, felt at least fair to me. Plus, it reminded me of a good discussion Jim and I had about whether AGUE was a "good" or a "bad" entry. Jim's point was that even though it's not in the language today (my doctor wife corroborates this), it has literary value. Granted, Jim is a big Dickens fan, but still, I enjoyed being reminded that some entries I dislike are ones that others will love.

★POW Thu 1/29/2015

★ Sometimes I miss the cleverness a puzzle brings. Today, I wondered why AGUA was a Latin American capital – perhaps it was a currency unit of Guatemala or Nicaragua? And the theme didn't really make sense to me. I saw the sets of two MAN entries "spread out" from where they were supposed to be, but that seemed like it didn't really jive with CUT OUT THE / MIDDLEMAN. So I shrugged and went on with my day.

One of the many great things about providing daily commentary about puzzles is that it forces me to go back and revisit them. Not only does it help my own construction skill development, but I uncover elements I missed the first time around. So to finally grok that AGUA was actually (MAN)AGUA, with the middle of three MAN entries cut out … yes! A great a-ha moment.

I was SO sure there was an Oscar-winner called "Rain" ...

The same goes for RAIN(MAN)'s middle MAN cut out, and THE ICE(MAN) COMETH as well. I particularly liked that central one, the cut out MAN sitting in the middle of HIT(MAN) and (MAN)ANA.

I'll explain Will's and then John's cryptic clue for ETA, since I still didn't get it after John hinted above at its awesomeness. (I had to ask John about it, FYI.) Apparently when fraternities and sororities launch new chapters at different schools, they label them with Greek letters, i.e. the first chapter is the Alpha Chapter, the second is the Beta Chapter, etc. So although it requires a deep understanding of an esoteric subject, but the repurposing of the bankruptcy term "Chapter 7" is really neat.

I might have liked all the MAN entries to be more hidden as in MANDY and MANAGUA, but overall, a beautiful, clean execution on a great idea. I know it's not currently possible, but how awesome would it be to open up your newspaper and find three chunks physically cut out of your crossword, like so?

★POW Tue 1/20/2015

★ I looked at 1-Down, [Word before top or party], six letters, and filled in POOPER. Took me few seconds to realize that POOPER TOP 1.) wouldn't pass the breakfast test, 2.) isn't a real thing, and 3.) is a funny phrase evoking images of double-story outhouses that I'll be using more frequently. Talk about COMIC RELIEF!

Onto the puzzle! Four famous comedians hiding at the front of phrases, Sid CAESAR, Eddie MURPHY, Billy CRYSTAL, and Chris POOPER TOP. Er, ROCK. I couldn't personally identify Sid Caesar out of a lineup of him plus four Lilliputian Taiwanese orcs, but the name is quite familiar. And I like how he helps spread the puzzle's appeal to the older generation who might not recognize (or choose to ignore) the more recent guys.

Cho mama's so funny ...

It would have been great to get a more recent comedian, and a female one or two, but who else would fit this theme pattern? If only there were such a thing as a CK AIRPLANE or a CHAPPELLE BERET or a CHO MAMA.

Hey, CK ONE! That "a thing," isn't it?

Really nice gridwork today, Susie producing a smooth solve. All throughout I was impressed at how little glue I encountered, only hitching at the ELD / ENE area. OLD / ONE would be so much better! But OLD HAT sits up at the top of the grid. Ooh, I hate when that happens!

And I really liked the way Susie worked in so much Scrabbly goodness. Sometimes I feel like Xs and Js are jammed in with a big shoehorn and hammer, but I love the smoothness around the J and X in the NW, and the selection of Vs in the SE. I can imagine the temptation to try to squeeze a Q in the SE, resulting in EQUI or something. Vs aren't as spicy as Qs or Xs, but they still do the job of adding seasoning to the puzzle.

You know what was funny for me? The use of the question mark in the clue for COMIC RELIEF. Just when I thought I knew when it should be deployed. I mean, those comedians do provide COMIC RELIEF, yeah?

Overall, a very well-executed puzzle causing me to amuse myself to no end.


★ Loved this concept. Word ladders got overdone a while back, so Will doesn't run them very frequently. And when he does, they usually require an additional layer of clevereness. This one hit that sweet spot for me, kooky sentences formed by word ladder chains. LOUD LOUT LOST LAST CAST? Yes, please! The ideas I generally like best and remember are those I would have never dreamed up, and this is one.

Not all of them read so smoothly. HUGE LUGE LUGS LOGS is amusing. But tacking on the LOTS at the end makes it feel wonky. And WILT WILL FILL FUEL FULL is gold, but it doesn't adhere to the tight word ladder constraint. Switching those last two words to make WILT WILL FILL FULL FUEL wrenches it in my ear. Still, the difficulty of making any reasonable-sounding word ladder sentence is so high that I reveled in uncovering each one.

Turns out TUNG OIL is very real and very useful!

And what a smooth solving experience. My solve was assisted by the fact that I could piece together the word ladders by comparing four-letter chunks, but the general cleanliness also helped. I really only hitched around the TUNG OIL section, and that was mostly because of the very difficult cluing. ["Was ist ___?"] is admirable in its attempt to do something new in cluing LOS, but hotchy-motchy! that made that area tough. I'd much more appreciate it if it hadn't been next door to that TUNG OIL oddball.

The cleanliness is especially impressive considering Joe made this a 136-word puzzle, giving us a whole lot of 5 and 6s, which often make for sections tough to fill (and crack into). I wouldn't have minded if Joe had gone up to 138 or 140 words, making that TUNG OIL section more interesting, but I do like working my mental muscle.

I also would have liked more clever clues, as many of them felt misdirectional in a not super fun method. [Darn, e.g.] for OATH felt too tricksy to me. (["Darn," e.g.] is what it was going for.) [Arrangement of hosing?] gets points for effort, but it didn't stick the landing, as the clue sounds pretty forced. A final clue I'll point out is [Majority group], which made no sense to me. I was all set to deride it when Jim pointed out the "Age of Majority" is a very real thing. Darn! (The oath, not the mending.)

Overall though, absolutely loved the theme. Great stuff.

★POW Fri 1/9/2015

★ I don't know how he does it. Stacks of 12/13/12 are hard enough to accomplish in one direction. But to do it in both the horizontal and vertical directions, crossing each other? It's an impressive visual feast, executed with both smoothness and lively fill.

Space Invaders screen shot

How is this possible? Maybe Patrick leans heavily on the RSTLN E common letters, as he has sometimes done in the past? (Not that there's anything really wrong with that, as he always picks out colorful entries.) Well, no. There's a V in the marquee SPACE INVADERS, making it both a semi-Scrabbly and a lively entry.

Another trick constructors employ is to section off tricky areas in order to work more easily with them. Nope, that's not it – check out how much real estate floats around the middle. The flow is not choked off at all, and that middle is chock full of five-letter words, not a four or a three serving as a crutch.

Black magic is the only remaining answer.

And he doesn't stop there — each of the four quadrants is packed with almost the same level of goodness as any normal person's themeless corners. EYE COLOR and SEAN PENN make a great pairing in the SE. And STORY ARC and PANIC BAR are such lively answers. Even the potentially neutral ODOMETER turns into an asset with its colorful clue, related to the "clocking" crime.

Sure, there is a bit of wastage in the long slots, entries like DRESSES and … well, STATION HOUSES is a little dry. (Plus it feels somewhat duplicative of the HOMES in STARTER HOMES.) But overall, there's a double-digit count of snappy entries, a visual wow factor in the middle of the grid, and super-smooth fill. I resolved to spread around the POWs a bit more this year, but I couldn't help myself with this one.

★POW Fri 1/2/2015

★ My wife's favorite themeless experience is when you go through a first pass and turn up nearly empty. A feeling of despondence consumes you, but one of those toeholds suddenly trigger a thought, and you can enter another answer. And another! Chunks break open, and neurons fire. Ten minutes later (20 in my case), a seemingly impossible solve is cracked. Tremendously satisfying.

I had that experience today, daunted at first by those gigantic white spaces. I entered three answers in my first pass and wondered if 1.) I'd be able to finish and 2.) how much glue I was going to encounter — I often find that these wide-open grids require a lot of glue to hold them together. To my relief and amazement, I encountered virtually nothing ugly the whole way through. Yes, there's a HALER and a TEK from Shatner's esoteric "TekWar," but what else? The cleanliness is astounding.

Pluto and Earth, volume comparison

And what nice long entries. Often with this style of crazy-wide-open puzzle, you see neutral words depending on –NESS or –ERS. But to get ADULT MOVIES, HIS EMINENCE, PIN CUSHIONS, MINOR PLANET just to start? Really nice selection. If the worst of your 11 long answers is IN EXISTENCE, I call that quite the success.

As is usual with some of these types of stunt grids, I don't love the feng shui. The puzzle is broken so distinctly into three parts. I know from the constructor's viewpoint how much easier it is to make a low-word count puzzle when you can section areas off and work on them one at a time. But, as a solver, it bugs me to see such fragmentation.

Overall though, a puzzle in the Patrick Berry mold — uber-clean with a smart selection of long entries. I really like David's desire to experiment with themeless grids; it's cool to see the variety in his products. I don't always love the solving experience his more experimental stuff, but I thought this one was a big winner.

P.S. For those of you who don't get the brilliance of the CDS clue, it's referring to ultra-low interest rates. I work in investment management, so it got a big smile from me. Reader Greg Johnson points out that it can also refer to music CDs, which are falling out of favor — doubly cool!