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

showing 25 out of 132 POW selections from 3/22/2015 to 8/24/2015

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

★POW Mon 8/24/2015

★ I have three criteria I look for in a great Monday puzzle. Let's see how Lynn does:

1.) Theme that doesn't evoke an "Oh, I see that sort of thing all the time." I was utterly baffled as I uncovered the first themer, finding the sequence … USTI? Baffling. I actually went back to make sure I hadn't entered something incorrectly. Even more confusing was to uncover USTI a second time. I wasn't sure if I could enter that string twice more automatically or not, because it looked so strange.

Skin diver ascending

Finally, I hit ITS UP TO YOU … and scratched my head. It took a moment to realize Lynn's wordplay: ITS up to U = write ITS upside-down and have it run up to the letter U. Great, great a-ha, especially for a Monday; a perfect balance of easy enough for beginners and interesting for veteran solvers.

2.) Colorful fill. Even with five themers, I would expect at least two pieces of sizzling fill from a great puzzle. Lynn leaves herself two long slots, and SKIN DIVING / ROMANESQUE are both beautiful entries. Now, with five themers and two long entries, there shouldn't be much room for other long stuff. But Lynn still gives us extras with HAVE FUN, SHAR PEI, TWEETER and KISS ME.

I didn't care for THE DOLE — how often do you hear the phrase without "on"? ON THE DOLE is also a potentially offensive term, so it's not my favorite from that respect either. Slight ding.

3.) Clean short fill. With everything Lynn packs in, I wouldn't be surprised to see a bit of glue to hold it together. AM I and IS IT are partials (more or less), but what else? Some might groan at UMA since she hasn't been in a big role in a long time, and the ARAL Sea gets more coverage in crosswords than it probably deserves, but those are fine by me. Stellar work.

Another home run. I absolutely loved this puzzle. I'm very thankful that Lynn is part of our CrosSynergy team. If you'd like to get CS daily puzzles sent straight to your email inbox, you can subscribe at:

★POW Wed 8/19/2015

★ Something so pretty about those WATER / FALLS, yeah? I'm a sucker for a puzzle with a visual element. It's a shame that this couldn't have been printed in color, but I went ahead and added my own artist's representation of bubbling waterfalls below.

How about a little symmetry, eh, Mother Nature?

I remember talking to Parker Lewis years ago when he first got back from his Peace Corps mission, and one of the ideas he was tossing around was WATER falling in different parts of the grid. Not quite the same as Tim's, but too similar. Ah, getting scooped ...

Bendy themers always up the difficulty in grid filling. Here, it's not as bad as usual, because Tim chooses to go without symmetry in his waterfalls, giving himself high flexibility. Normally I'm not a fan of that, finding it inelegant, but there's something picturesque about the non-symmetry of the falls, just like in nature. Water goes where water wants to go, after all.

It's clear to me that Tim spent a lot of time and iterations figuring out where the falls could go without causing serious compromises in the grid. Not easy to work VICT / TORIA and YOS / SEMITE into regular words … nice to weave YOS into the end of ARROYOS instead of going with the easy road of YOYOS.

Now, it's not without its flaws. I know Suze ORMAN pretty well, as I think she's done some nice things with empowering people to take charge of their personal finances, but solvers not knowing her might be gnashing their teeth at the OMRI Katz crossing. Maybe it's fair, as both of them are semi-famous? Not ideal, though.

Similar situation in the lower left corner, UTZ unknown to this West coaster. REZA is awfully tough to pull out from memory if it's there at all, so that was rough. I do like the color the Z adds in, but I don't think it's worth the price.

Even though there are some compromises typical of the bendy themer type puzzle, I really dug the visual impact. Neat idea, and good execution.

★POW Thu 8/13/2015

★ I love seeing a new trick. Plenty of puzzles have utilized blank squares, but I can't remember any quite like this, where SERVICE BREAK is interpreted as SER VICE (note the "break" in the middle). Great idea.

Recognize the letter this hinge is named after?

I liked how Jim used his longest across answers for this themers. COMMER CIAL (break) is a great answer, and SPR ING (break) VACATION is pretty good too. With a gimmick that's hard to uncover, it's so helpful to have an idea of where the tricksiness might show up.

Since theme answers go both across and down, it would have been great for all of them to be longer than the surrounding fill. SHAVETAILS is a neat answer, but for me, it mutes the impact of the theme since there are so many short themers. A bit confusing.

On the other hand, some people also like finding those little hidden surprises, like B AD lurking so innocently. I can dig that.

H HINGE is likely going to cause some consternation, especially as it crosses the difficult ANTHER, but I thought it was neat. It's a very common hinge, and that HH start is so wacky. The real question: when will THINGE show its amusing head in a NYT crossword?

Hmm. I could have gone without HAG and OLD BAT in close quarters. Two derogatory terms targeted at a similar demographic felt like too much to me. Perhaps that's too touchy, but it bugged me.

So, some flaws in the puzzle, like SHORT L UNCH (break) feeling awfully made up, and I would have loved a few more long, zingy "break" answers (MADE A CLEAN BREAK, CAUGHT A LUCKY BREAK, etc.). But these days I can overlook quite a bit if the theme tickles me. Very fun solve.

★POW Tue 8/4/2015

★ Fantastic puzzle. Simple theme — FIFTH, SIX-PACK, and CASE found at a LIQUOR STORE — but those three containers are disguised nicely within colorful phrases. I didn't know what was going on until I hit the revealer; that sort of opacity switching instantly to transparency makes for a great a-ha.

I didn't know Kevin SPACEY had a logo! Oh wait ...

And Joel's fill. It's usually strong, but today it's spot-on, with something for everyone. Classic PIANO MAN for the ANTIQUERs; a LISTICLE (portmanteau for a list-like article) along with Elon Musk's SPACE X and COMIC CON for today's generation.

Joel uses the parallel down arrangement in PIANO MAN / SCRUB OAK and LISTICLE / ANTIQUER. This layout usually guarantees that some of the long guys will be dull, or some of the crosses will be ugly. You might argue that AMICA is esoteric, but I kind of like it, as it's easily inferable from the French AMIE, and the crossings are all fair. ISTS is the only marginally iffy bit in the lower left, and I personally think it's fine. So both of these corners came out fantastic, a big win considering the difficulty level.

I had a slight hitch at CASE CLOSED — Washington State liquor stores only sell hard liquor. I suppose you might get a case of fifths or something, but whoa, that's a lot of liquor! Probably a state by state thing.

Joel and I have debated over two different strategies on adding zest to an early-week puzzle. One way is to use a lower word count (72 or less), which tends to get you more 6s and 7s than normal. The other way is to pack in a lot of sizzling long fill (8+ letters), but that usually means going up to 76 or 78 words and causes a lot of 3 and 4-letter words.

Today, Joel gives us the best of both of these strategies, with great long fill, some nice 6-letter entries, and not very many stale short entries. Along with a solid theme I can't remember seeing, it's a big winner.

★POW Tue 7/28/2015

★ I love a gimmick puzzle, and I especially love 'em when I can't see 'em coming. It was a blast to arrive at AEIOU and realize that rows one, six, and 11 only had As as vowels, rows two, seven, and 12 only had Es, etc. Really nice job to keep that hidden until the very end.

Peter Pettigrew, the man who delivered the Potters to Voldemort. What a poltroon!I only had two minor pauses which made me think something tricky was going on, which is saying a lot about Caleb's craftsmanship:

  1. Caleb's a strong enough constructor that I hitched slightly at the ACH / TKT northern region, because it's a small, unconstrained chunk that should be fillable with nary a gluey bit. But sometimes a constructor has a great clue for CHECK, or loves baseball and wants to put in AT BAT, so I shrugged and quickly moved on.
  2. I paused a second time at POLTROON, staring at that odd-looking word, but then I decided I liked its craziness.

Stunt puzzles not only usually have telltale gluey bits galore, but they often lack colorful fill. Not a problem today. I love what Caleb did with TIGHT KNIT, THE CREEPS, and SHOT HOOPS, all zingy entries … which happen to be thematic, what with their use of only one vowel! Sneaking a KLUTZ down at the very bottom was also nice. Great word in itself, and it so nicely only has the single U.

The grid is a bit segmented for my taste — those two stairsteps nearly slicing the puzzle into three sections — but I can understand how that would make the construction job much easier to handle. An incredibly difficult task can be made into simply a very difficult one, if you can break it down into smaller pieces.

And I'm with Caleb re: computer-assistance. I respect the opinion that construction by hand is an incredible talent, but I find it similar to arguing that people should forgo computers and stick to typewriters. Why turn down modern assistance if it helps make a better product?

Overall, a neat idea and a very strong execution. This is one that will stick with me.

★POW Sat 7/25/2015

★ Kevin has hit for the cycle, thus displaying a wide range of skills across early-week, tricksy Thursdays, themelesses, and Sundays. Impressive to be a generalist that can handle pretty much any sort of construction, but even more impressive is that he might just be the best constructor out there right now, when it comes to quad-stack themelesses.

Colony of hemi-spheres

Now, I use the term "quad-stack" differently than others, broadening the term to mean any stack of long entries of 8+ letters. It's an incredibly difficult task to pull off cleanly and colorfully. Two entries stacked atop each other is easy — even when you have a difficult letter combination, you can usually move black squares around to accommodate. Three atop each other is much harder, requiring the constructor to try many more long answers in order to generate friendly letter triplets for the crossings.

Quad stacks … hoo boy. Not quite an order of magnitude more difficult than triples, but at least a factor of three or four. So it is just amazing to see Kevin's NW corner. TIME BOMB / EGOMANIA / ALSO RANS / COURT VISION are all vivid entries, and there's not a single gluey bit running through them. Not even a minor offender!

The SE does have PERSONAL, which feels to me like it just takes up space, but Kevin more than makes up for that by running TEEN POP / BOX SCORE / WIN THE WAR ... right through the quad-stack! It's a crazy bounty of goodness down there.

The rest of the puzzle is awfully nice, too. Neat to give an insider's nod to violist Liz Gorski with VIOLA SOLO. LIBRARIAN is not a sizzling word … until you clue it with the uber-catchy Marrrrrrrrrr …. IAN! from the Music Man.

Aside from the usual suspect of ARA and the oddity of AROINT, the puzzle is squeaky clean. Liability count of just two = amazing work, especially when considering the difficulty of construction.

And a beautiful clue in [Northern hemisphere?]. Funny to think of an IGLOO as a hemi-sphere.

It'd be tough for me to find another puzzle with quad-stack regions as good as these. Stunning work and such a fun solve.

★POW Tue 7/14/2015

★ This puzzle tickled me. Perhaps it's the piles of drivel that I read to my daughter that make Dr. SEUSS stand out? Not all his work is amazing, but so much of it makes reading board books (over and over and over) at least palatable. Love the "Because after all, / A person's a person, no matter how small" quote from "Horton Hears a Who," for example. It's easy to make rhymes, not so easy to make ones with a neat story and a flowing meter.

Christian Bale's combover or Bradley Cooper's afro? I loved them both.

Kevin and Brad did a nice job of getting in a good amount of longer fill without introducing too much glue. I love MALE EGO, the easily bruised thing, and it's nice to see the full EMO BANDS instead of the usual EMO. I also liked getting Brad's erudite vibe in the mid-length stuff: PRECIS, NEWELS, MENSA, and ABSCAM, thankfully updated with an "American Hustle" clue.

I did notice a ton of 3-letter entries, which made me feel like I was switching from one answer to the next awfully fast. There are a whopping 28 of them, which explains it. Thankfully, most of them were innocuous, with just a bit of TES and UNA, and ABA and ANA kind of things.

I would have also liked to have the DR in Dr. SEUSS as part of the revealer, or at least SEUSS positioned in a central or final across slot. Tough to do with five themers, though.

Most of the time, I'm not wild about puzzles that have most of their oomph in the clues, but seeing snippets of Dr. SEUSS did it for me — beautiful idea. I'm big fans of both Brad (who publishes my stuff in the Chronicle of higher Education) and Kevin (who I roomed with at the ACPT two years ago), so I was glad to see a solid and entertaining Tuesday puzzle of out their collaboration.

★POW Mon 7/6/2015

★ A fun theme that can appeal to young and old; executed with skill, achieving both smooth and colorful fill. Top notch work.

Man oh man I had a crush on Samantha

I don't expect much out of Monday puzzles, and when I filled in WALK AROUND without even reading the clue (I had most of the crossings), I shrugged. But it was a great a-ha moment when I realized it was actually WALK A ROUND. And my pleasure skyrocketed when discovering PLAN AHEAD was the hilarious PLAN A HEAD!

Clever wordplay is a pleasure to see, and it's especially nice when it's done at a level that almost all solvers can appreciate. I really enjoyed Joel's recent Twitter wordplay, but I did get some shrugs from people who couldn't relate because they didn't know or care about Twitter. Today's puzzle does such a nice job of playing to a wide audience.

Lynn is so tight with her consistency. Five common phrases, with the second word's A broken out. They're all in the same verb tense, and each themer is two words becoming three. Perfect.

Lynn is so careful about avoiding the ugly gluey bits, too. I'm always so impressed at how she manages to keep the number of liabilities down to well under five, and she never uses an egregious one. I have a feeling she stops and resets many a time in order to achieve such silky work.

The four 7x3 stacks in the corners can be difficult to fill with color and smoothness, but Lynn does a nice job of deploying her black squares to make each section manageable. I love that NW corner, with BEWITCH / ALA MODE / ILL PASS — and with all the crossings astonishingly smooth.

The SW corner contains my favorite entry, JAVA MAN, but cramming in COMCAST and APOSTLE does come with a slight compromise in CSA and SGT. CSA is more iffy to me than SGT, since SGT is so common, but CSA is still pretty minor. I also like how Lynn's glue is usually in the three-letter length. A five-letter ugly — ITS NO or SSTAR, for example — is so much more noticeable.

Loved this one.

★POW Thu 7/2/2015

★ I love me some Thursday trickery, forcing me to work for my a-ha moment. Tim does just that with INVISIBLE INK making the -INK letters disappear in clues, leaving only single letters. [P] baffles, but when you add in the (invisible) INK, PINK indeed hints at MEDIUM RARE.

Are we SURE his first name doesn't start with G? Granklin, maybe?

I like that Tim chose NOT to use all possible "?INK" words — MINK and RINK are missing — getting a complete set would have been tempting, but would have likely forced many rough spots to fill. Seven themers is a huge task as it is.

I wouldn't expect much colorful fill given the difficulty of packing in seven themers, but I love Tim's arrangement, leaving the upper right and lower left corners ripe for good material. I didn't know DR. MARIO but it's fun. Along with REAR END and I HEAR YA, that's a lot of bonus material in just the two corners.

Tim also did well in selecting themers colorful enough that I'd expect to see them in themelesses. SPLIT SECOND, MEDIUM RARE, and STOOL PIGEON are all beautiful. FOUNDER and CONNECT didn't do a lot for me, but FOUNDER gave me a real head-scratching moment as GO UNDER felt much more fitting to the [S(INK)] clue.

Are we SURE there wasn't a President with initials = GDR?

No doubt, there are compromises. Between STOOL PIGEON and INVISIBLE INK is one obvious place I'd expect some glue, as there are so many answers that need to cross both themers. I never like seeing the odd ENROL, as I only see it as ENROLL outside crosswords. ORISON crossing IVES will likely cause some trouble too.

And in the symmetrical position, DARE ME sounds a bit made up. YOU DARE ME? sure. DARE ME, not so much. Generally though, I think Tim did a good job of navigating the trade-offs, using a whole lot of themers and keeping the gluey bits to a reasonable number considering the constraints.

Most of all, I appreciated the innovation and clever thinking behind the trick today. Hooray for tricksy Thursdays!


★ I thought more about why I like Jeremy's puzzles so much. Part of it is he just seems like a good guy — it's been amusing trying to get him to stop calling me "sir" — but mostly, I love his creativity even as he sticks to the "one square, one letter" rule. Trying to innovate while keeping a single letter in a single square is incredibly difficult.

What happens in Vegas ...

Jeremy does it again today, executing brilliantly on an idea the likes of which I can't remember. He takes snazzy phrases where the second to last word is IN, and uses a crossing to imply that "in." WHAT HAPPENS (IN) VEGAS … for example.

But wait, there's more! He finds crossings so that the final word forms another valid word in its crossing. For this example, VEGAS becomes VEGA(N)S, obfuscating the theme. Very cool to see these entries which can read as two completely normal words. Even though there are thousands of X IN Y phrases, it couldn't have been easy to find a set that displayed crossword symmetry AND had this property of the Y word intersecting the X so that it formed a different, regular word.

And Jeremy has a knack for colorful phrases, the likes of which I identify with only a handful of themeless constructors like Josh Knapp and Peter Wentz. The best constructors are always on the lookout for punchy phrases that can add zest to a puzzle, like TOWN DRUNK. Even YO DOG works in that regard. Check out Jeremy's older puzzles to get a sense of how much great vocabulary he's introduced.

Now, just as with any puzzle, I didn't find it perfect. To me, the phrases would have been more apt if they had been X THROUGH Y instead of X IN Y. But that's minor; a tiny speed bump.

Finally, two standout clues:

  • [Guard at a gated community?] = ST PETER. I'm going to have some questions to answer at that gate.
  • [Green dwarf] had to be one of those _STAR kind of filler entries, right? D'oh, it refers to a tiny BONSAI.

Another extremely well-executed Sunday puzzle from Jeremy. I tip my hat to you, sir.

★POW Fri 6/19/2015

★ A ton of great material + a wide-open grid pattern I haven't seen before = win. I've often wondered why triple-stacker (and quad-stacker) specialists don't use mirror symmetry more often. It's not great for traditional themelesses, but it's perfect when you want to feature one grid-spanning stack without having to create a symmetrical one.

Orwell says: this puzzle is more equal than others

Such nice grid-spanners in the quad. Beautiful choices, each and every one. I STILL DON'T GET IT is a marvelous entry; so colorful and in the language. The prices to pay are ARE I, ENDO, LESE, and the awkardish IN A PEN / MISADAPT, but I think those are reasonable given the quality of the long answers. When you throw in how MAS worked in the beautiful COWGIRL and CAFÉ AU LAIT with MANIACAL laughter, the bottom half makes for a strong puzzle just by itself. I'd actually be okay with a little more glue, given how eye-poppingly open and fresh this grid looks.

But wait, there's more! I was impressed that MAS didn't stop there. Getting JOHN STEINBECK and ORWELLIAN … plus two nice corners in the top! I'm a huge SATCHMO fan, and although I didn't know GI BLUES, it's a fun entry. Working all this in with just a few AN OX, ADANO / KNAR kind of things made my solve very fun.

Bravo to MAS for for trying something different; branching out from his typical triple-stacks — we've seen so many of those that they've gotten repetitive for me. I would likely have given this the POW just for the bottom half alone, but the top half was sure a bonus. Looking forward to more experimentation with new and eye-catching grid patterns.

★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.