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

showing 25 out of 63 POW selections from 11/13/2013 to 5/3/2014

Click here to see the gallery of POW winners organized by constructor.


★POW Sat 5/3/2014
MAKESAMESSATAD
OPERAMUSICBOBO
BOYSOPRANOSPOT
ISEEDIETZHUH
LEDMMEWIIMOTE
TIARAAGENTJ
PSALMISTCOHO
ALASKANKINGCRAB
LAYSCOMELAST
PCHELPFETUS
HEELERSSHEFCC
ANYGOTATKARL
SAKEBABAORILEY
IMITSLAMDANCED
GEDSTEAPOTDOME
★ Beautiful work today out of the SAY HEY KID himself, Sam, one of the prodigies of the crossworld. Talk about a tough construction today. Sam starts where most themeless constructors finish, with two sets of triple-stacked 8's and two set of 10's. Then he connects the 8's across the middle of the grid. And then uses two more long answers to connect that central answer to the 10's. Finally, he throws in a couple more 7's and 8's to boot! And with such snazzy results, the overall pa-pow is impressive.

What's really outstanding about this puzzle is how effectively Sam manages to use his long spots. Everything from MAKES A MESS to TOP HONORS to SLAM DANCED to SAY HEY KID, such awesome answers in the corners. But it doesn't stop there — ALASKAN KING CRAB across the middle? MURDER INC, one of my favorite entries in recent memory as a connector? Out of 17 (!) slots for 8+ long entries, I really liked (or loved) 13 of them, and the other four were fine. A really impressive hit rate.

And the cluing. As with any strong Saturday, I expect a handful of clues that push me one way and give a great a-ha when I finally find my footing. [Bond film?] was really nice ("bond" as in glue, not "Bond" as in "Bond, James Bond"), [One hanging by a thread?] made me think of SPIDERS or TRUANTS or something, so TASSEL provided me a smile.

This puzzle is not going to be for everyone, as some hold the opinion that any puzzle with a handful of GLUE entries cannot be stellar. I'd certainly agree that I'd prefer not to have ODO, ABAA, and especially A POSE (DIETZ I'm still on the fence about), but I find these well worth the price for the TEAPOT DOME / BABA O'RILEY / BOY SOPRANO / ABOUT THAT snazziness.

My one hesitation, and it was big enough that I waffled whether or not to give this the POW, was the clue for ALASKAN KING CRAB. Sometimes I feel like a clue is trying too hard, or comes off too cutesy, or in this case, a bit creepy. I'm all for fun or funny innuendo, but there was something icky to me about the juxtaposition of "luscious legs" and eating crab legs (perhaps it evoked an image of George Costanza (from "Seinfeld") mixing his favorite pleasures?). Even the "long, luscious legs" phrase made my skin crawl a bit. Surely others will laugh at this clue, but I bet there will be others like me that were uncomfortable with this language. It's too bad that it was at the centerpiece entry.

ADDED NOTE: I had an enlightening conversation with Jim, who thought the aforementioned clue was fantastic. It's always eye-opening when I hear an opinion so different from mine — nice to get the reminder that most everything in art is subjective.

Overall, I thought this puzzle was dynamite. TOP HONORS to Sam this week.

puzzle by Sam Ezersky

★POW Sat 4/26/2014
CAMPHOWDAREYOU
EVERINAUGURALS
DIDOMELONBALLS
ALITOATSEAEAR
RACECARDWTS
SUMMITOKBUT
EASTLASEWYOKE
CALVINANDHOBBES
OREOACEATOAST
NEWTOHYDROX
ERNWIFESWAP
ARTLIMOSSEEME
RETROVIRUSAWAR
ANYONEELSETOTO
BELTSANDERSNIT
★ An absolute beauty from Evan, exactly on my personal wavelength, giving me everything I want out of a Saturday puzzle. This gives me the perfect opportunity to lay out what I personally look for in a Saturday puzzle.

1.) Sparkling entries. CALVIN AND HOBBES, RETROVIRUS, WIFESWAP, SKYBOX SEATS, PROTEST VOTE, BELT SANDER, MELON BALLS, RACE CARD, HOW DARE YOU! Need I say more? No, but I will. It's awfully difficult to get your shorter entries to shine, but OK BUT is fantastic. It's like when Brendan Emmitt Quigley debuted WHAT THE. Genius stuff.

2.) Brilliant clues. Misdirectional clues are my personal favorite, especially ones which don't have the giveaway question mark. [Fashion clothes] led me to think about YSL, IZOD, etc., but it's the simple SEW. [Mann's "Man!"] plays on the "man's man" phrase with amusing results. And I absolutely loved [Elasticity studier's subj.], as it made me feel smart to know a piece of esoteric trivia. Finally, thinking about Dana Carvey doing his impressions of PEROT on SNL made me laugh out loud. This puzzle manages to hit all the sweet spots in cluing.

3.) Quality short fill. Often the hardest criteria to manage, it's near impossible to get away without a handful of ugly entries. Layout often dictates where the tough places will be (I personally spend about as much time working with a puzzle skeleton as I do with filling), and Evan does a great job with spacing. Note how there aren't any big sections of white space that stick out? Sometimes it's pretty easy to predict where the problem spots will be, but not today. Evan's deployed his black squares masterfully, spreading out the difficult spots. Sure, he's got a WTS here, a A WAR there, but those little bits are so dispersed, I hardly noticed them.

Extremely well done. Not just a pleasure to solve, but a pleasure to review.

puzzle by Evan Birnholz

★POW Tue 4/15/2014
LADENSEMISVAL
ASONETRADEEMU
HIGHTREASONRIM
RAGABASSDODGE
INSIDEEDITION
PRECISANT
LABELAMIDOMIT
USALOWBLOWAPE
SAGEPEAKHORSE
ATEPERSON
OUTSIDECHANCE
PRIEDSLOWHIFI
AILBASEONBALLS
RADINERTORLON
THETANKSADEPT
★ Gary hit my sweet spot today, throwing his fastball waist-high and straight down the middle, serving me up one to smash over the left field fence. (Well, over the shortstop's head anyway. Maybe ten years ago...) I'm not a huge baseball fan, but I don't have to be to really enjoy this puzzle.

I appreciate a good a-ha moment. The best kind is when I don't have any idea what's going on while solving, and everything snaps to at the end. It's very difficult to do this on a Monday or a Tuesday puzzle, because anything too tricky is going to escape the more novice solvers. And often when I get to the end of an early-week puzzle, it turns out to be a slight variation on a well-trafficked theme type. Today's was perfect for me, four pitches HIGH, INSIDE, LOW, and OUTSIDE which when taken together give a BASE ON BALLS (the technical term for a walk). Very nice — snappy phrases all hiding their theme material until the very end.

I also like some meat in a puzzle's fill, and Gary doesn't disappoint. He uses a traditional placement of two long downs, and both of them are really nice: DOGGIE BAG which is a great entry in itself, and MARSEILLE, classing up the joint with its reference to the classic work of literature, "The Count of Monte Cristo." Throw in some other nice shorter stuff like TIDBIT, ORCHARD, and VERDI, and that satisfies my desire in this arena. Sure, I like to have more than that if possible (ideally at least two sets of long downs), but not if it comes at the price of quality fill.

And Gary does a nice job in that arena of shorter fill. I didn't notice anything glaring as I solved, giving a clean, flowing feel to the puzzle. When I went back, I did pick up ORLON, which is so much less commonly used in everyday language than NYLON or RAYON (Google all of them to see hits), but that was really it. Some people will complain about PRECIS, but it's a common enough term in academia and certain professions. Maybe others will complain about LUMEN, but it's an extremely common term in engineering and photography (I would go on and on about the difference between luminous flux and radiant flux, but you've already fallen asleep). I think both are well worth learning if they were unfamiliar to any solvers.

Well done, Gary! I didn't want to give yet another Tuesday puzzle the POW! (this will make four Tuesdays in a row) but I thought this one hit all the right notes for what a Tuesday should be.

puzzle by Gary Cee

★POW Tue 4/8/2014
TACHMADAMLETO
SPRYANODEOXEN
KEEPITDOWNWANT
SWEDESASSCHA
GUTSYWRAPITUP
PIELITHEIRATE
STATBRAGRO
MOVEITALONG
MIXNBASASH
EASESGOUDASEA
CUTITOUTUPSET
OREANIAUDITS
LOAMKNOCKITOFF
ARLOEERIEAVIA
WASPYARDSSETS
★ Another highly polished piece of work from one of the masters. Five theme answers, all common three-word admonitions with IT in the middle, interpreted in wacky ways. It's especially nice that they're all clued as "That's enough!" to a specific type of person. My favorite was KEEP IT DOWN to a hot-dog eating contestants, as it hits on my fascination with competitive eating. There's a sport-specific term called a "reversal" which I won't go into.

Where Ian really makes a name for himself as a constructor is his ability to jam-pack snazzy fill into a puzzle with clean overall results. With five medium-length themers, many constructors would call it good to have simply one pair of long downs. Ian's moved way past that point, giving us GAS STOVE, SEES FIT, CREW TEAM with its fun clue, APE SUIT. And that's just in two of the corners!

Because the central entry is an "inconvenient length" (it sort of splits the grid into an upper and a lower half), it forces open white spaces in the NE and SW. As anyone who's tried to fill a moderate-size chunk of crossword grid knows, it's not easy to do with quality. Sure, it's a simple thing to fill a subsection so that it works, but it's another matter completely to do it without a single blemish. With only a single glue-y answer (CHA) to hold it all together, Ian still manages to work in EXACTA, TEN HUT, ECOLAW. Ian even rescues CHA with a really fun clue.

How does he do it, you might ask? Some people assume that constructors just hit a button and let the computer do the work for them. Some constructors actually do that, but the auto-fill process almost always spits out subpar fill. I've had the pleasure of working with Ian on a few grids, so I've seen that he takes a significant amount of time with every grid he makes, trying out multiple layouts, testing out dozens of possibilities in the critical junctions to figure out what will help him fill cleanly. From there, it's a matter of trial and error guided by hundreds of puzzles worth of grid-building experience to produce a clean result.

What's most impressive is Ian's track record of consistency. Whenever I see his name on a byline, I know I'm going to get a fun theme with more than a handful of long fill and a minimum of cruddy answers. This puzzle is no different, especially difficult given that the best Tuesday puzzles are smooth enough for relative beginners but interesting enough for more experienced solvers. I tip my hat to you, sir!

puzzle by Ian Livengood

★POW Tue 4/1/2014
ARGOSKATRIFLE
MOUSEPADSORION
BESTTHREEMISDO
ISHHEMPBASHES
ERATENE
HUMBLERAISIN
IVIESMTIDACOB
NEXTHEADSLIRA
TAUNOLTEMONTY
SPRINTCOUGHS
ATEHOOT
SCENTSAUDISEC
TOSCAOUTOFFIVE
UNPINUNINSURED
BENDYRTESNINE
★ I cannot resist the allure of the Schrodinger puzzle. It's so cool when there are two answers which work equally well. Sometimes one answer is more tortured than the other, but most all of them today are very nice. A prime example of a home run is FISH and FIST, both of which are landed by a hook (a FISH by a fishhook and a FIST by a right hook). Very clever clue for both!

These types of squares are very difficult to pull off, so it's even more impressive that Andrew was able to incorporate so many of them. Thirteen answers are affected, with eight squares needing to work with duality. Just getting one or two to work well is hard enough, so tossing in a huge handful is incredibly impressive.

And given the theme density, I would expect the fill to suffer greatly. Not only does Andrew need to work around the themers BEST THREE / OUT OF FIVE, but he has to place five "coins" throughout the grid. Each of those "coins" requires two answers to be placed (one across, one down), and a set of intersecting across/down answers generally makes for tough constraints. When you have five of them, you're asking for trouble.

As if that wasn't enough, there's the HEADS/TAILS in the center, making the entire puzzle heavily constrained. Sure, there are a few bits like AMBI, SKAT, and OST (all in the NW area), but the grid is remarkably clean. I wondered if Andrew could have gotten rid of the OST and AMI by placing the first coin in the SW corner instead of the NW? That SW corner feels much less constrained and ripe for a "coin," although this would require a different set of dual-working answers than ISH/IST and GUSH/GUST due to length requirements.

And yes, the grid is too segmented for my taste (the entire NW and SE can be sectioned off by adding just one set of black squares, which breaks up the flow of the puzzle), but I'll happily take that sort of thing when the payoff is good enough.

My final reaction: at first I felt like there was almost a little too much going on. What with all the coins and the answer in the middle and the theme answer telling me BEST THREE OF FIVE, I wasn't sure what to look at first. I started to overthink it all, brainstorming how nice it would have been to make it some sort of predictive magic trick, or to tie the central answer to the coins themselves somehow. And then I decided to just sit back and enjoy it.

Neat idea, and a grid executed with obvious care and devotion to clean fill. Much appreciated by this solver!

puzzle by Andrew Reynolds

★POW Tue 3/25/2014
PRISMSLAMCHEX
SASHACALIOILY
ITAINTOVERUNTIL
SORTAINSIDE
ARCHLYJARTEM
WALKOFFHOMER
OBIEOLEGPITH
LAMBROUGECHAP
TEASOREMHERE
BUZZERBEATER
FOGLAYONRAMP
SCRUFFREDID
THEFATLADYSINGS
OREOIOTALIARS
PETSGLAMEIGER
★ Tuesday is a hard slot to fill. It's supposed to be a relatively easy puzzle, so no tricky themes will fly. This makes it awfully difficult to create something interesting enough to satisfy both experienced solvers as well as be okay for relative newbies. Often, that means you get a product that is straddling the line, sort of making both sides happy, but not really addressing either party's need. Tough challenge!

So I really like today's offering. The theme is not complicated, in fact, it feels slightly thin to me given the revealer takes up two of the four long entries. But it does its job, giving two nice examples of sports terminology related to not giving up until the end. It would have been really nice to have a football-related one in there to cover the major sports (fine, Howard Barkin and the Canadian contingent, maybe a hockey one too!).

FYI, a BUZZER BEATER is when a basketball team wins a game at the last second (just beating the game-ending buzzer). A WALK-OFF HOMER is when a guy (or woman) homers in the bottom of the ninth inning (or in the bottom of an extra inning) to end the game. And as Jim pointed out to me, it's awfully nice that a WALK-OFF HOMER always happens in front of a home crowd.

(shaking my fist at stupid Kirk Gibson for beating my A's)

Where I think this puzzle shines is in the fill. Yes, there are some rough patches (I see you, ENISLE/GRE/SSR corner), but David does such a nice job of filling out the grid with long stuff (SHISHKEBAB and RICHARD III), along with Scrabbly goodness (ZAFTIG, FLOOZY, JOGGER), and new words I enjoyed picking up (XYLEM, RABAT, MANOLO; nice that they're from such different areas of knowledge). It took me longer than usual to finish this puzzle, but I enjoyed that extra duration, savoring all the fun entries like SCRUFF and its clue, HAREM and the fact that "Scheherazade" looks so crazy in the clue.

This puzzle won't do much for the non-sports fans in the audience, of course. I wonder if there would be a way to do this theme such that the themers are from different areas? Like themes related to cat-and-mouse detective stories? Or presidential elections (DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN)?

Anyway, fun to toss around ideas. I appreciated that David did something kind of different with a Tuesday, making it a very fun outing for me.

puzzle by David Woolf

★POW Sun 3/23/2014BRIGHT IDEAS
ADDSONEOSRECATEAM
MONACONFCSOUTHMAMBA
IHAVENOTFAILEDIVEJUST
MEACRINGECAN
FOUNDTENTHOUSANDWAYS
HELPROEGLOGOLAY
ADEMOPSTHATWONTWORK
SOCEPISOARBAHNNE
TRUSTSSHOTATUSELESS
YALTASPATBUSLANE
SEALEARSNLIDOS
BLOSSOMTHUSNEPAL
MUSSINANUTMEGBESETS
OHMCUMMOESJARNBA
THOMASEDISONTESSCAT
EUROBENTATSBICS
THEWIZARDOFMENLOPARK
KEGPAELLAARC
INCANDESCENTLIGHTBULB
QUITOLUNDGRENEERIER
STREWSENORESLATER
★ Beautiful puzzle today, everything I personally like to see in a Sunday-size grid: nice theme answers, strong, clean fill, and a visual element. Plus, an inspirational message! Often, I get a little worn-out by a 21x21 crossword puzzle, but this one kept me delighted from start to end. Doesn't hurt that I just saw Ian at the ACPT and had a drink with him, really enjoying chatting about crossword construction as always. Nothing better than talking shop with fellow constructors.

Except if Will is paying, of course.

One aspect I thought Ian did very well was in capturing elements of many different types of puzzles. Quote puzzles by themselves tend to be on the dull side (unless the quote is spectacularly funny or insightful), but not only does Ian restrict the quote part to three entries, he ties it in with the puzzle's visual. I had to work to uncover the quote, and it was totally worth it.

It's also neat when a constructor's personality and interests shine through. Ian is a sports guy, so seeing beautiful long entries like NFC SOUTH, CHICAGO BULLS, and my hometown THE NINERS was a pleasure. Some may accuse him of making the long fill too sports-oriented, but it's not like he's used TOLEDO MUDHENS or the TACOMA RAINIERS. Come on, it's THE NINERS, people! Grumble grumble, stupid play calling / decision making at the end of last year's NFC championship game, grumble grumble.

It did take me a little while to figure out the AHA MOMENT running around the light bulb, because I skipped the notepad (those just tend to seem superfluous) and tried to read it from the lower left corner going clockwise. It's the natural thing to do, right? Getting an OMAHA TNE wasn't quite doing it for me though, so I begrudgingly went back and read the notepad. Fine, I'll follow directions!

As with all of Ian's stuff, the fill is so smooth. He's the one who got me on a kick against partials, especially five-letter ones. It's amazing how much good stuff he packed in while avoiding ugly stuff, just some short NNE, CIR, ADE, SOC, ULT, OLEO kind of filler, barely noticable (I had to go back and search it out). I totally agree with his use of cheater squares in the middle row of the puzzle (before SEAL and after IDOS), which I'm sure made those sections smoother. That section above SEAL (where FEDORAS is) I'm sure would have been crunchier if not for that cheater square.

Can't say enough good stuff about this puzzle!

puzzle by Ian Livengood

★POW Sat 3/15/2014
HOLMESIANTBARS
ATAGLANCEARPEL
KISSYFACEMAPLE
ESTSENTHAILED
TILEHORNETS
SUBWAYSERIFS
ALAINHUMANRACE
CENTWARPSEURO
SEATMATESPECAN
NEUTERDOZENS
SMARTEDAARE
TIPJARBUMSCRU
PAEANBODACIOUS
ATEITIRISHMOSS
TALLSBEEKEEPER
★ This puzzle was right up my alley. A pretty standard-ish layout with 70 words, but jam-packed with great entries, from the classic HOLMESIAN all the way to the fantastic up-to-date TWITTER JAIL. For those of you not on Twitter, users are limited in their number of tweets per hour and per day, and those that go over (thus annoying the crud out of their followers) get put in TWITTER JAIL. Neat term. And for those of you who think it's impossible to go over 100/tweets an hour, someone I know recently got put in TWITTER JAIL after the explosion around her book deal. Amusing that she had to ask a friend to post that she wanted to respond to each tweet but couldn't.

When I first started choosing Puzzle of the Week selections, I thought I would tend to select more Thursdays, because I like when constructors break the rules. But I've come to realize that I really appreciate Saturdays, especially the fact that the constructors and Will really up their ante when it comes to cleverness of clues. I really enjoyed the clue echo of [A line, e.g.], and [A lines, e.g.], neither of which had to do with the A-line dress.

Even the clues for some of the shorter ones: [How the description of most things usually end?] was very clever for EST, in the sense of clever, cleverer, and cleverEST. Nice to interpret the word "most" in an unexpected way.

Typically ULEE is not something I like to see in a grid, but when it's combined with BEEKEEPER ("Ulee's Gold" is a crossword classic due to the friendly nature of the ULEE pattern) I like the echo as well as the insider's nod to the crosswordy bit.

The only hitch I had was at the AUDIE / AARE crossing, but thankfully I've seen the AARE river enough in crosswords that it's nearly automatic (again, very crossword-friendly combination of letters). And from a construction standpoint, I love MUTANTS, but I wonder if a pair of cheater squares where the S is (and symmetrically the T of TAMARIN) would have allowed for a smoothing out of TBAR, RELET, and ARPEL all in the same little section. I love TAMARIN as an answer though, so the trade-off would have to be pretty good.

Saving my favorite for last, the answer and clue pair for KISSY FACE was great. "Smacked" had me thinking it was something offensive which would initiate a slap, and even when I got the KISS pat of the answer, it took me a while to see KISSY FACE. All in all, a really nice grid with some feature entries and more than a handful of wordplay clues. Beautiful stuff.

puzzle by Ed Sessa

★POW Tue 3/4/2014
DRDOOMIBMPC
JARULEBRAID
EVENEREARNS
DISCOVERINGIDA
SSEDINEETAT
AHIAWAYBLARE
BENJAMINQUELLS
EDGEDINFURCOAT
LADPRINT
GOFLYSHADRODS
EUROAMENIBET
ITASKUNKSCALA
SENSEIOLDTIMER
HACKITMISSTATE
ATEASESNLYSER
★ As I've said before, I'm a sucker for a neat visual puzzle, and Bruce and Pete deliver today. I didn't recognize the odd diagonal at first, but when I uncovered BENJAMIN, I got a big smile, recognizing the black squares were in the shape of a kite. Very cool! What a neat idea, to use an unusual type of symmetry in order to create a beautiful image.

It's very rare to have a puzzle with diagonal symmetry. At first glance it might be hard to recognize, but draw an imaginary line from the SW to NE corner, and you'll see that the puzzle is symmetrical along that line. Check out our unusual symmetry page — only three other puzzles in the Shortz era display this diagonal symmetry. And for my money, this one stands out even further because of the clever use of black squares.

One more comment about the visual element, and I'll go onto something else, I promise. Aside from the kite, did you notice the two Tetris pieces floating in the grid? At first I thought they were a little unsightly because they have extra black squares (cheaters), but after I finished, I noticed that they looked a lot like lightning. Might just be me, but I stood up and clapped.

Because of the unusual symmetry, the theme answers had to be broken up, BENJAMIN / FRANKLIN, DISCOVERING / ELECTRICITY, and the brilliant GO FLY / A KITE to tie it all together. The necessary cross-referencing did put me off a little, but I suppose it couldn't be helped. Perhaps cutting down some of it, i.e. if 16A had just been [With 23-down, puzzle subject]? Also, DISCOVERY OF felt much more natural to my ear than DISCOVERING, but that might be six of one, half a dozen of another.

And then there's the fill. Love, love, love seeing DR DOOM in there, one of the greatest supervillains of all time, along with JA RULE, OLD TIMER, GEISHA crossing SENSEI, and the BRAINY IBM PC. Sure, there's an OLEO of the MARNE and YSER rivers, SSE, ETAT, A TEST stuff, but I personally will take that trade-off any day. I appreciate super-clean puzzles, but when I get so much snazz, I don't mind the price of admission at all. I know some people will disagree, sticking to their guns about puzzles needing to be ultra-smooth and clean of dreck, but I like this trade-off a lot. Maybe it would be possible to make this puzzle both super-clean AND totally smooth, but I doubt it given all the constraints.

Bravo! Even more fun than the time I dissected an instant camera, stupidly ignoring the WARNING: GIANT SHOCK POTENTIAL DO NOT OPEN label. I tell you what, that capacitor was much bigger than I anticipated. Thanks for nothing, BENJAMIN FRANKLIN.

puzzle by Bruce Haight and Peter A. Collins

★POW Wed 2/26/2014
PIGSAVIATECAF
AMOKNASSAURIO
CUBISTREPORTERS
SPICEYESAIDES
ANGASPIRE
POMPOUSASSIST
ORAREPLICARAW
PSIVOILEICE
EONCARBONSSHE
STARKISTNAKED
ATTILASAD
SURLYGASIDIOM
SLEEPERCELLISTS
ESESEANCECLOG
TATOLDESTTEES
★ Beautiful debut puzzle today, absolutely loved it. I'm not sure I've ever seen a debut I've liked quite this much, given its fun theme, excellent long fill, and not a lot of glue-y crosswordese. I had to look it over a few times to make sure I was indeed seeing a new name. Super impressive, Ruth!

First, the theme. At surface level, it's a basic "add a letter sequence" concept, nothing new there. But each time the IST is added, it changes the meaning of the base word completely, i.e. CUB to CUBIST, and in a funny. STARK to STARKIST is just genius, especially given how snazzy the base phrase, STARK NAKED, is.

Often with "wacky phrase" themes, I find myself not super amused by one or more of them, but today, each one worked really well for me. Perhaps it helped that in my 20 years of playing cello, I sat in the very back of the orchestra, sleeping my way through rehearsals (I was that guy who always came in too early before the rests were over). Some might not find SLEEPER CELLISTS as amusing, but it was spot on for me. And the base phrases are all so solid: CUB REPORTERS, POMPOUS ASS, STARK NAKED, SLEEPER CELLS. Wonderful. Yes, two nouns are plural while one is singular, but that almost seemed too nit-picky to even mention.

Then we come to the fill. Typically a debut contains not as much long fill as I like to see. But CREDIT RISK is fantastic (I love business terms, so sue me), and MAIN STREET hits in the same way. Then Ruth works in EURASIA, CALYPSO, GUEVARA, and even SKI CAP, taking advantage of her 6's and 7's, which often don't get used to their full potential.

Given the nice long stuff, I'd expect some compromises in the shorter. But not only does Ruth keep it to some measley ESE, OR A, MSGS stuff, she works in 6x3 regions at the north and south, giving us the juicy NASSAU and SEANCE. Most constructors avoid that 6x3 arrangement, preferring to stick with 5x3 because that slight widening from five to six often makes for a rougher filling challenge. No problems today, just smooth sailing.

An extremely pleasurable solve for me, and an equally pleasurable time writing up my comments. This is a fantastic example of why I really like the "open call for anyone who wants to construct" policy. Looking forward to more from Ruth.

puzzle by Ruth B. Margolin

★POW Fri 2/21/2014
TRAMPCABSSPOT
REBARYOREPENH
INIGOCLOGDANCE
OEDIPALWEIRDER
SEECLODRESUME
JOLTEDLOS
CAMERAOBSCURA
GOBIGORGOHOME
CRESCENTMOONS
HEDSHAKES
REDCAPSTEMMBA
INORDERIDAHOAN
STREAKERSKIOSK
TEMPEDITEDSEL
OASTSOBSREESE
★ Another beauty from the master. 66-word themelesses are not supposed to be this smooth. It's a fundamental law of crosswords that the lower your word count, the crunchier your compromises get. Seriously, it's like he's breaking the laws of nature. J'accuse!

The aspect I like best about this puzzle is not the amazing grid, which is saying a lot. The cluing is so fun, so tricky, and gives me an incredible a-ha moment at every turn. As with most of his recent puzzles, I had to wrestle this one to the ground, taking over 30 minutes to finish, but what a feeling of accomplishment after figuring out "Provider of early projections" had nothing to do with business or political races, but the old-style CAMERA OBSCURA. And "They run out of clothing" had me thinking about colorfast issues (even though I still don't understand why laundry colors and whites need to be separated), and coming up with STREAKERS was a thrill. Add in half a dozen more top-notch clues and it's a work of art.

And then there's the grid. True, there aren't many Scrabbly letters, just a J, but I didn't care. When you incorporate GO BIG OR GO HOME, CYCLOTRONS, PROP COMIC, SHOEMAKER, and CAMERA OBSCURA all in a giant central area... it leaves me slack-jawed, gaping at the miraculous construction.

And it doesn't stop there. Look at the incredible SW corner, a wide swath of white, containing COED DORMS, GREEN TEA, CHRISTO, RED CAP, STREAKERS. I'd be pretty happy to construct to accomplish any one of these subsections in one of my themelesses (this is one area I'm trying to better develop in my own construction skill set), much less an entire puzzle like it.

When I originally started providing construction commentary, Will asked me to give both positive feedback as well as constructive criticism. The latter is almost always doable since most every puzzle requires trade-offs and judgement calls. But what am I supposed to point out today? "Panhandler, of a sort?" might not be to everyone's tastes? INIGO wasn't clued to my favorite "Princess Bride" line? I'm at a bit of a loss today.

Okay, I've run out of superlatives. There have been some good puzzles this week (and will be some more to come), but as one constructor put it, it's tough to have a puzzle run anywhere close (in date) to a Patrick Berry. It's like climbing next to the lead route-setter at my gym, who climbs routes four levels higher than I do... in his &$#!*# sneakers.

puzzle by Patrick Berry

★POW Wed 2/12/2014
SHEESHNEPALI
SHARPEIINDIANA
TURNINGTHETRICK
PTAHOIDIA
TKOSNELLPOS
CLICTOTIEOVID
AEROROASTNEVE
TRIMMINGTHETREE
EEKAYE
MACDELOLESST
IDOLIZEMALACHI
SILICONAGEDOUT
TELLINGTHETRUTH
SUITETHANERIE
XESSHUNTMSN
★ I'm a sucker for a visual element in a puzzle. Throwing in mirror (left-right) symmetry makes it even more enticing. And incorporating enough snappy entries to make it play like a themeless? MAN CRUSH ON PETE COLLINS DECLARED! Whoops, excuse me.

I enjoyed so many elements of today's puzzle. I really dug the three T's in the puzzle's black squares, and liked even more the fact that there weren't any other "free-floating" black squares in the grid. Very cool-looking. Aesthetics are subjective of course, but I really appreciated the prettiness of those three T's hanging out in the middle of the grid.

True to the three T's, Pete give us three grid-spanners, all following the same pattern: T* THE T*. I actually prefer some of Peter's original themers, TRUE TO TYPE being especially nice. I did like TRIMMING THE TREE and TELLING THE TRUTH, but TURNING THE TRICK sounded a little off to me. TURNING A TRICK (ahem, not NYT material) or DID THE TRICK sounds so much better, yeah? But Google/Bing clearly disagrees with me, "TURNED THE TRICK" getting a huge number of hits.

Minor idiosyncrasy, but I tend to prefer past tense phrases in my xws. TOLD THE TRUTH has more elegance than TELLING THE TRUTH, in my eyes at least. Often, I don't add the "-ING" variation of a phrase into my word list, unless it sounds perfectly normal to my ear (usually it doesn't though). Awfully hard to find three past tense phrases that 1.) fit the T* THE T* pattern and 2.) are long enough, though.

Best of all today: the snazzy entries! SHAR PEI, HIGH NOON, NIHILIST, STRIKE ZONE, LETHAL AGENT, AGED OUT (xwordinfo donates to Treehouse for Kids, a non-profit I volunteer for) = so much goodness. Well worth the cheap price of admission (the ERN, EPI, ENE kind of stuff). I would have liked the puzzle even more if there had been more wordplay clues. But then again, filling everything quickly in off the straightforward clues made me feel smart. (in Homer Simpson voice) I am so smart! S M R T!

Well done, I like it when a lively puzzle lets me smugly sit back and call myself the world's biggest genus.

puzzle by Peter A. Collins

★POW Sat 2/8/2014
BASFLIPONESLID
ACHJUKEBOXHERO
TRAOREGONTRAIL
HOMBREWIEISNT
SPEEDDOSYMHA
HOLEPHOTOOP
ELECOLDSAWHER
BISHOPSLEAZY
ASSDOGSITMIRA
REVOLTSBRAN
CBERKOSTEMPO
PARILAVHEREON
ORANGEPEKOETUE
SOVIETUNIONANA
TBONESTEAKSLDL
★ A beautiful puzzle, chock full of great entries and great clues. It's tough for me not to give out a POW automatically when I see the Wilberson byline. There is a touch of lesser stuff, but when it allows for such snazzy entries as (earworm alert) JUKEBOX HERO, T-BONE STEAKS, and HAIR METAL I barely shrug at the stuff like ODER and CBER.

Brad ain't kidding when it comes to stacked 11's. Look what trouble they force in the NW and SE corners: six three-letter words just to start. In a themeless, more than twelve(-ish) three-letter words starts to become noticeable, and you'll almost always need a couple here and there to make a grid work.

Then there's the fact that you have all those parallel down crossings to deal with in a stack of 11's. It's easier than dealing with a triple stack of 15's, but typically triple-stacked 15's are the singular focus of a themeless. Check out today's vertical stacks (on the left and right sides), just waiting to throw a monkey wrench into things as they connect up to the stacks of 11's. But Wilberson tames them, bringing us some good BATHSHEBA and EZRA POUND... with HOMBRE running through the former!

There's a ton of other good entries, but in the interest of space, let me point out just some of the clues that sizzle. "It once had many satellites in orbit" innocently makes you think about planets and astronomy. But no, it's talking about the Soviet Socialist Republics — THAT kind of satellite. And "Dieter's beef" doesn't refer to a dieter, but a person from Germany's olden term for its government (or perhaps Dieter, a common-ish(?) name in Germany). What a way to rescue the otherwise boring ACH!

It's that type of attention to detail, to enhancing the solving experience, that makes this pair such a force. DOS could easily have been a broad "Cuts" or something, but they take care to design the tricky "Lock combinations?" And they mix in some interesting trivia with the clue for BISHOP; I found it fun to learn that the fianchetto is a chess opening. Extremely well done, I'll be studying this one further.

puzzle by Doug Peterson and Brad Wilber

★POW Mon 1/27/2014
STABUHOHMACHO
TRUESOLOALLEN
AIRTRAVELGEESE
LEASEIDUNNO
LDSPEACEKEEPER
PENNMETAMA
LIFELINEOATEN
IRISDOLCEBRED
KABOBFACECARD
ENOLOSROWS
DINNERTABLESHE
AENEIDRAPID
NICADTIMESHARE
CACTICELLADEN
ONIONHUBSBEDS
★ Beautiful start to the week. Crosswords have evolved a lot over the past five years, so putting a new spin on this type of theme is important. And TIMESHARE is a perfect way to do that, each of the theme answers "sharing" TIME, i.e. AIR TRAVEL goes to AIR TIME and TIME TRAVEL. Neat concept, perfect for a Monday. Comprehensible for many beginners, interesting for many experienced solvers.

And check out the theme density! Typically constructors shy away from six long theme entries, because it causes all sorts of crossing problems. Four of James's themers are shorter (eight or nine letters) which makes the construction easier than having all 10+ letter entries, but James also throws in something unusual for a six-themer: two long downs. CLEOPATRA and FIBONACCI are fantastic entries. And he also tosses in MAGNETO and BLEND IN. Awesome!

The two long themers are fantastic, but they do come at a price. EMEER is one of those words that makes me cringe, especially on a Monday. EMIR is the more common spelling, never having taken the dreaded "variant" tag in a NYT crossword clue. Out of curiosity, I tried to rework that east area on my own, but with CLEOPATRA running through that area, I couldn't come up with anything better. It would take replacing the ????P???A pattern with ACAPPELLA or WIKIPEDIA or something, which is a pretty major change.

I was curious to see if one of these other long down alternatives could get rid of EMEER (and OLEIC too, hopefully)... but not THAT curious. Anyway, James's grid also incorporates I DUNNO and HOLD EM in that region, so it seems like a favorable trade-off overall. Still, EMEER...

If it hadn't been for EMEER, OLEIC, and the lesser ugly ECOL, this might have been one of my favorite Mondays of all time. And even with them, I found it mighty enjoyable. Well done.

puzzle by James Tuttle

★POW Sun 1/26/2014IT'S ALL RELATIVE
SLAPONSTREETELNORTE
CASINOSHERPALOUSIER
RIPSAWWEASELSCATTER
ICENAYGREEKSKNEADS
BALDYOKUMTEXACO
ELLEJUANNEOGENEESE
GLOBSRUDYARDAXED
AMBROSEFORGOSKETCHY
TREELETEASEUPENTERS
NEWELCREMELIBYANS
ODIHALSLANASAD
THEMAGIBATESSLIGO
OCCUPYSNOOZEESTEVEZ
BEHEADSGRIERCHINESE
IREDEASTENDBOERS
TADWARTHOGARALETNA
NADINEENACTSHOT
ABSORBSHIELDHEMEMO
STANDONEDWOODRETTON
KENNEDYALEGUPENCORE
ANTONYMTENETSDUMPED
★ The literal interpretation of OVER/UNDER (TWO under PAR = EAGLE, etc.) has been done many times in crosswords, so constructors have to up their game if they want to go this direction. Dan does just that, adding a new layer to his theme. It took me quite a while to figure out what was going on, but I had a nice a-ha moment when it finally dawned on me. BEWITCHED is literally under A SPELL... under a spell, get it? Clever stuff. It was fun to struggle with each of the six theme pairs.

Sometimes Sunday-size puzzles feel tiresome, like a regular 15x15 that's been stretched out just because it can be. I like the fact today that Dan has chosen enough long entries that makes a 21x21 puzzle the only option. TALK TO YOU LATER = (over) AND OUT, that's something you couldn't do in a 15x15. I really like when the puzzle *should* be a 21x21.

And Dan does a nice job on the fill. Like last week, this puzzle contains a high number of six and seven-letter answers, which have the potential to spice things up. WARTHOG, SKETCHY, BEHEADS, ANTONYM, THE MAGI = excellent! Loading up on six and seven-letter answers is a great way to add snazz to a puzzle. It's an audacious approach, which makes construction very difficult. His shorter stuff does suffer a bit, with ELOGE, NONNO, OSTEO, and the ASKA/BTEN/SANT trio, pulling things down. All in all though, an admirable fill with an above-average result.

Finally, a minor gripe I think others will share. It's perfectly acceptable to have an entry like SLIGO in a 21x, because it's just so darn hard to construct them. Only the Berrys of the world don't need to rely on these types of esoteric answers. But if you have them, I believe the crossings ought to be fair, with clues that aren't back-breakers. "Macros, e.g." for LENSES? Yikes. Maybe if you're a photography buff that's fair, but I thought TENSES or SENSES were as sensible as LENSES.

Very neat theme today, with a lot of great constructing.

puzzle by Daniel A. Finan

★POW Mon 1/13/2014
OFFERPLUSCOP
NOLTEEONSEROS
TREATPHONECALL
HAWIOTAVILLA
ESSRHONEVALLEY
GOOSESAIDYDS
ONLYSERIES
GONEBALLISTIC
CALMLYERAS
FARSOBFAMINE
STONEWALLEDSIP
TOMEIOUZOHST
ONEANDALLPASTE
PARTACLUTWEET
LOOBESSSEARS
★ An absolutely beauty of a Monday puzzle. It has everything I personally look for: 1.) innovative theme, 2.) spicy long fill and 3.) fill accessible to the novice (little to no ugly stuff). There's more good stuff coming up this week, but Monday constructions are perhaps the hardest type to pull off well, and Lynn's nailed it.

The theme isn't necessarily ground-breaking, but it contains an added level of complexity which helps makes it more interesting for the experienced solver. We see a lot of puzzles where a certain word is hidden within theme phrases, but having two words hidden helps to distinguish it.

And with five long theme entries, I'd expect to see a lack of good long fill and a lot of short ugly stuff. Lynn has done something unusual, shoving her top two entries into one region of the grid (instead of spreading them out, one to the left and one to the right). That usually creates difficulties in filling such a dense area, but she makes it look easy. Having a five-letter word sandwiched by theme entries (VILLA between PHONE CALL and RHONE VALLEY, and TOMEI between STONEWALLED and ONE AND ALL) often will result in bad fill due to the severe constraints, but she uses a set of cheaters in the very NE and SW to smooth things out. I fully approve — as Patrick Berry has said many a time, he'd always choose to use cheaters if it results in better fill.

The grid arrangement allows Lynn huge flexibility in the NW and SE corners (the theme answers barely constrain her at all in these regions), and look at all the goodness she's packed in there. ON THE GO / FOR A SONG / FLEW SOLO all in parallel, with only ESS as a (very minor) blight? Yes, please! I didn't notice any really bad fill as I solved, nor did I notice anything even with a careful scan afterward. A stonker of a job.

Uber-professional work, a total pleasure to solve; a near-perfect Monday puzzle. Beautiful start to the week.

puzzle by Lynn Lempel

★POW Fri 1/10/2014
ACCENTKASDAN
TRALEETRIPOLI
MURDERCHILLOUT
SIDEDISHESARMS
SPRYCENSUS
WELLCRACKSHOT
ISAYOATERSNAG
SHYOPTSFORELM
PIEMACHOSHIKE
PREACHERSEDEN
INAPETDEAD
EGGSBATHPILLOW
PRINTADSOCTAVE
PIGEONSSTAKED
SPARTATAPERS
★ Patrick Berry earns his second POW! with this beaut. Why do I have a feeling that I'll be handing out many more POWs to him in the future? Given his propensity to make innovative grids incorporating very nice fill and little to no dreck, I'm looking forward to it. And when POWs rise to be worth one beeeellion lek (I'll pay everyone when we meet up in Albania), he'll be laughing all the way to the bank.

At xwordinfo we have a page displaying common grid patterns. Scrolling down, you'll see that several of them are of the themeless variety. It's totally fine for a constructor to take a grid from a grid library and fill it, but there's an artfulness, a higher skill to crafting a grid from scratch. That might sound hoity-toity, but the big advantage it brings to the table is the ability to fit in exactly the lengths of entries you desire. Not only that, but you can adjust block placement as you construct, allowing for snappier or smooth fill. Often times I find moving a few blocks here or there solves a lot of problems.

There's something awesome about hugely wide-open grids with patterns I've never seen before. I had a moment of awe with my first glance of the giant tilted football in the middle of the grid. You might ask, why don't more constructors attempt grids like this? Having tried it myself, I can answer that: because it's insanely hard to do with beautiful execution. There are so many pitfalls, so many times when you work yourself into an ugly entry and have to reboot ad nauseam.

As with every puzzle, not everything came up roses. I wasn't a fan of THENCEFORTH, which at the best felt like a "glue" entry to hold things together, and MACHOS feels iffy. Also, today's Scrabble score is pretty low, just counting one V and a smattering of Ks. But that's all a very small price to pay for the amazing nature of today's grid.

Yadda yadda yadda great entries like CRACK SHOT, CHEAT SHEETS, SCRATCH PADS, COPACABANA, BATH PILLOW (all in the center section!) blah blah blah nary a bad entry etc etc etc wonderful clues like "Cribs" for CHEAT SHEETS and "One who wants in on the deal" for CARD PLAYER. Seriously though, I joke to assuage my grief that I'll likely never be as good as Patrick. But that's okay; being around greatness inspires me to work harder. I'll be studying this one further to see what I can learn.

puzzle by Patrick Berry

★POW Tue 12/31/2013
AFLACMYBADBHT
LLAMAAERIELEE
LIVINGLARGEINN
SPAOUTSJUNCO
HORATIOALGER
XANADUSKYE
TWIRLPOLEFOB
ROCKETSREDGLARE
ALEHAGSIBIZA
IDOLAVALON
PREMIUMLAGER
LOUPEETTAARF
AIRCHIVASREGAL
GLOUMBERIMAGE
ESSTOMEIPUREE
★ I often say how hard it is to construct a smooth but interesting early-week puzzle, and Tracy has succeeded today. I really liked the theme (phrases whose final words are anagrams of each other), and the solve was silky smooth. Beautiful work!

Note how snappy the theme phrases are. It's rare to see a puzzle with such strong themers, because most of the time a theme is heavily constrained by demands of consistency and/or specificity. But here Tracy picks out five winners, each one a phrase I'd be happy to use as long fill in one of my own puzzles. Some might deem ROCKETS RED GLARE as a partial, but I think it works on its own quite well. As an aside, notice how Tracy chose a 15-letter middle entry, which makes the grid construction MUCH easier than if she chose a 9, 11, or 13-letter entry.

And really nice use of Scrabbly (JQXZ) letters in the fill today. Sometimes a constructor will shoehorn one in where it doesn't really fit, causing a jarring solve. But J in DEEJAY, Z in ORZO, and X in XANADU are really nice. JUNCO was unfamiliar to me, but since it was the only thing I had to look up (and it's a common bird), it was welcome. Sure, nobody likes to see ULE in their puzzle, but since there's not much else on the offenders list, it gets a pass.

Interesting that the toughest part for me was the SW. I took six years of French in high school, but could barely pull out PLAGE. Then again, I can barely keep "Chen" and "chien" straight. (Makes for awkward family reunions.) I have a feeling there will be complaints today about PLAGE (and how the corner could have been "better" filled), but sometimes a constructor uses certain words for a reason. Perhaps they have a special fondness for the entry, or they like the similarity to the Spanish word PLAYA and its Burning Man associations, who knows*? If this were a Monday puzzle I might object, but I found it to be a useful exercise in recall.

Very well done!

*ADDED NOTE: Tracy and I exchanged emails, and she said: "I absolutely did choose the word french word PLAGE for the lower SW corner having just been to the French side of the island St. Maarten when I constructed this puzzle. Since it translates to 'beach', I thought it tied in nicely with my mini-theme of islands/beach towns such as Ibiza, Malta, and Avalon." Cool!

puzzle by Tracy Gray

★POW Thu 12/26/2013
IDAHOSAFTERALL
ARRANTTIAMARIA
NUCLEARENGINEER
GOOGLESTRONG
SIENNAALEE
DRJGREENALGAE
IKESVARIG
POTENTIALENERGY
AIREDDOPE
RIFLERANGEZAP
BARAINARUT
ECARDSVARIES
GENERALDISARRAY
EMIRATESSIERRA
MESSTENTOLDSAW
Tim Croce is most well-known for his wide-open themeless grids, but he also works on themed puzzles, and today's is a stonker. GENERAL DISARRAY is interpreted as "phrases which contain GENERAL anagrammed", and Tim comes up with some beautiful theme entries, POTENTIAL ENERGY and NUCLEAR ENGINEER being my favorites (I'm a physics dork, so sue me).

At a certain point in their careers, most constructors tend to get comfortable with the basics of gridwork. Many stay at that point indefinitely, but some choose to push the envelope, trying to see what new and exciting developments can happen. I love Tim's effort today to give us a wide-open solve (only 70 entries!), imbuing the puzzle with a quasi-themeless feel. The theme itself doesn't contain the typical trickery we've come to expect from Thursdays in the Shortz era, but the addition of the wide-open grid really enhanced my solve.

Typically, most constructors would break up rows 1, 2, 14, and 15 into three entries apiece, but Tim has split them only into two entries apiece. This gives us the juicy TIA MARIA, MESS TENT, EMIRATES, OLD SAW, etc. And in addition, RAN RAGGED and SEAFARERS appear in the NE and SW; excellent entries. There are a few prices to pay, notably IERI and BEGEM which both seem to me like icky bits, but overall the trade-off is well worth it to me.

And there's the combination of ANAL and AREOLA clued as a site of some piercings. Buh-bye, old Gray Lady! I'm sure there will be some whose sensibilities are rankled by this, but count me among those happy to see more cheekiness mixed in. I also appreciated the vibe of the cluing, notably "Brobdingnagian" for LARGE and "Search for, in a way" for GOOGLE. A really fun solve today.

puzzle by Tim Croce

★POW Fri 12/20/2013
MANCAVEMUGSHOT
EQUATORUSOTOUR
SUNSETSDETENTE
HASHEARROPEIN
CARTOONDYED
SCRAPZAPATA
PHOBOSSAMADAMS
EELLEATHERNOT
CROPLANDSOOTHE
HOTTUBINERT
VAYABICYCLE
AGENDAKEATECH
RIOTACTBRAILLE
ITWORKSYESMAAM
GASMASKEDHELMS
★ Another beautiful construction from Ian, the first constructor to earn his second POW! during my iron-fisted regime of terror. Er, happiness. Same difference. Almost all themeless puzzles require trade-offs, with snazzier entries or lower word counts coming at the price of ugly fill. Today's is a beauty, a huge amount of lively long fill and almost nothing by way of subpar answers. Almost Berryesque, I daresay. Sacrilege, I know!

When Ian sent his commentary, I thought at first he was joking. Start with the short stuff? And fill in the longer stuff from there? Ha, that's funny! And then I started to wonder ... is this madness, or genius? (Such a fine line.) And to my surprise, Ian said indeed, he was being serious, trying a new approach to minimize ugly short fill. Heck, if the long fill is so nice with such a minimal amount of dreck, maybe he's onto something.

The only hiccup I saw was in the SW corner, with VAYA/VARIG/AGITA. I had to look up the last two, and was glad I did, as they seem like pieces of information I ought to have in my knowledge base. I knew VAYA (con Dios) from spending way too much of my 20s steeped in King of the Hill episodes when I could have actually been doing something useful (like watching Simpsons episodes). If a solver hadn't been exposed to KotH though, Dios help them in the VAYA/VARIG crossing.

One issue I had was it was over too quickly. Perhaps I'm simply on Ian's wavelength, but my solving experience flew by. I would have liked more wordplay clues like "Touch-type?" for BRAILLE (brilliant!), and it felt like too many clues were leaning too far into the straightforward side (SEATBACKS and LEATHER seem ripe for clever wordplay clues, for example). Oh well, if nothing else the variety in difficulty level is good. Great work from Ian today!

puzzle by Ian Livengood

★POW Thu 12/12/2013
CEDILLAESIASON
OPENOUTNASTASE
RAMBLERGRAMMAR
NUIAGESAGOOKD
ELLEOSAGEMAAS
RELYTGIJANN
STEEDSONIONS
BEAMGIGI
COVERTISAYSO
BOLOAWECOHN
DENTKNITSSURE
ENDPADTHAILIN
EGOTISMABALONE
MARINERNEMESES
SYSTEMSERASERS
★ This puzzle is a thing of beauty. It took me a long time to realize what was going on — ERASERS is parsed as ERASE Rs — and when I cottoned to the trick, I marveled at the fact that the grid is so clean and sparkly, both with the Rs or without! It's rare I come upon a twist I've never seen before, and even more rare when it's this elegant. Bravo!

Note the extremely difficult constraint of creating a themeless (72 words) where all entries with Rs must also read normally with their Rs missing. Because of this, I expected there to be severe compromises in fill. And because the trick is so neat, I was prepared to be okay with some ugliness. I've tried something sort of similar (but easier) and found it near impossible. It caused me to break into tears in front of random people (sorry, dentist) and ultimately land on something that was too ugly to submit. That makes me appreciate this grid that much more.

True, there aren't that many marquee answers that you might see in a regular themeless — PAD THAI, AGES AGO, I SAY SO, M(R) AND M(R)S, SH(R)INE(R) is low for a straight themeless — but there also aren't many ugly bits that you typically see as "glue" to hold a themeless together. To have only TGI, SAE (self addressed envelope), and our friend ISAO Aoki, that's very good in terms of clean themeless fill. I've heard people grouse about Rapa NUI before (same with ULAN Bator) but I personally don't mind those at all. I like stories about those giant stone heads on Easter Island, and I think it's fun to know the name RAPA NUI.

The most minor of nits: I would have loved to see no cheater square after RELY (and the symmetrical one before COHN). I realize it must have made the fill cleaner, which I very much appreciate, but such a beautiful puzzle would have been even more visually elegant without the cheaters. A matter of personal opinion, that's all.

Standing O, David. Er, Mr. Steinberg. El Presidente. Save a job for me when you take over the world.

puzzle by David Steinberg

★POW Sun 12/8/2013TWO OUTS
ABBAAMORESPAUKES
BRACEROPERSHANGRILA
LIBERTARIANCURVEBALL
ELOSIMONLEBONIRA
SLOWNINESUNSLENDER
TONELESSATRESTEERO
SEADOGEEKEGO
LITTERMATEMAELSTROM
ARABSILENTILDUCE
LINESGASOHOLSTRETCH
ANDRESSTIRSINZANILY
WAYLAIDADOPTEDPAEAN
IMLOSTBRITONMIND
PENNYANTEEASTORANGE
ELISKYAMYMAR
WALKEXTRASCSIMIAMI
SLEEKLYHERPAINELAM
PIEFEATHERBEDBRA
BATTLECRYHAPPYENDING
BRAINDEADANSELARNIE
CMONSOYSKITSJOES
★ I've been hesitant to give Patrick Berry POWs! even though most of his puzzles deserve them, in order to give others a chance. But this week I couldn't help it, as I found this Sunday puzzle so very entertaining. Extremely well done.

It took me a while to figure out exactly what was going on, but it finally dawned on me that Patrick selected phrases/long words, which form different phrases/long words when you delete two letters. For example, "Red wine drinker's paradise?" is SHANGRI-LA SANGRIA. I'll admit that at first I thought it seemed arbitrary to just pick any two letters to remove, but as I went along, it felt more and more like a puzzle within a puzzle; like I was in The Matrix. Darn glad I took the blue pill, because each of the 12 (!) theme entries was a fun challenge within itself.

Normally when there's such high theme content, the fill breaks down all over and Agent Smith is signaled to clean up the glitches in The Matrix. I mean, Patrick stacks theme answers atop each other, and then overlaps more themers atop those! But instead of glitching out, he went all Neo on us today, smoothing the experience with a WEST BERLIN, KLUTZ, CSI: MIAMI, AT REST, OSPREYS, etc., showing us that he knows crossword-fu.

It wasn't perfect, but as we all know from The Machines' experience, total perfection makes humans skeptical, and we think that there's a conspiracy going on. So the TEENA MARIE / ELAM / MARNIE crosses in the southeast corner placate us, leaving us with the impression that our slightly flawed world is still real.

A final note of technical commentary: look at all the cheater squares (black squares which don't affect the word count) Patrick uses. Some have said that cheaters make a puzzle less elegant; that they're a crutch. In some cases, like in some themeless puzzles, I find them to be visually inelegant. But Patrick has said a few times that he'll always choose to add cheaters if it makes the fill smoother. I did notice the preponderance of cheaters (five pairs) at first, but I completely forgot about it as I went. 21x puzzles are so much harder to fill cleanly than 15x's, so I think for this puzzle, Patrick's decision to use so many cheaters is sound.

Fantastic work . Often times I get tired in the middle of doing a Sunday puzzle because it feels like the same old thing over and over again. But even though today's puzzle took me well over my usual time (about 30 minutes vs my usual 15-20), I relished the experience and looked forward to writing all about it. More smooth, fun, uber-professional Sunday puzzles like this, please!

P.S. If you haven't seen The Matrix a few hundred times yet, I forgive you. Maybe. And don't take the red pill.

puzzle by Patrick Berry

★POW Mon 11/25/2013
JESTSMITEPSIS
ALOHAIBEXLINT
MILANLEAPEDNA
IDRATHERBEIN
CIDPEDOLEBED
HONKIFYOULOVE
AWAITUSEINKS
NASTFINEDPENA
GNATUNCBEFIT
MYOTHERCARISA
AMPRUEHADTHY
WILLBRAKEFOR
ASIAAVESMAJOR
KENOMENUEVADE
ERGSANTSNERDY
★ Before we start, let's acknowledge the elephant in the room: all Asians actually do look alike. So as a public service, here's a quick primer. Kevin is the brilliant Asian, Joon is the Asian of Einsteinian brainpower, and I'm the smart one (and Asian). Seriously though, Kevin has worked in high-tech, helped President Obama get re-elected, and has a top-secret in-his-garage project in the works. Joon is the physicist who blew up Jeopardy! records. I'm the one who can morph the space-time fabric (as well as reality)*. Claro?

Excellent Monday puzzle from Kevin. It's not often that a Monday carries a novel theme, one I've never seen before. Bravo for breaking the mold! Neat to see this collection of well-known bumper sticker starters, each one immediately apparent to me. Even better, I couldn't think of any others right away that would fit in. Consistency and specificity, that's excellent theme work.

Far more impressive though, is the quality of his construction. It starts with the fact that the four themers are of inconvenient lengths (12 and 13), which makes grid layout challenging from the start. But Kevin sets it up so that he takes advantage of these lengths, using the black squares in rows 4 and 12 to end long downs (SIDE BENEFIT and DNA SAMPLING).

Then look at the sheer quantity of long downs: TEAHOUSE/EXPELLED, FUTURAMA/IN HEAVEN stacked together, along with RHESUS, MILADY, SANDPIT, BAD OMEN. With so much packed in, I'd expect a host of ugly entries (especially around the stacked long downs), but I didn't notice anything during my solve. Going through a second time I saw the unseemly ERGS, but that was it. Just amazing how clean and Monday-friendly this thing is.

Will brings up an interesting point about PLEB. To me, PLEB is perfectly fine — it's more esoteric entries like AMOUR PROPRE that I don't care to see in a Monday puzzle. So much about crosswords is subjective, isn't it?

Finally, I always enjoy getting a constructor's personality shining through the puzzle, and seeing FUTURAMA, CHANG (another dude who looks like Kevin, Joon and me), SATAY, all felt Kevin-ish. Man, that's some good stuff. Great way to start the week.

*I'm also the good-looking one.

puzzle by Kevin G. Der

★POW Wed 11/20/2013
AHEADGPAASSOC
VALSEARTTULLY
OBELIZOORHODA
WACGEEPOIWGN
INTENDNAPOLI
NERDSHAPEANOD
GROGERRETRE
AMACDROMSHY
EARROWNOFEEF
ALGARITORUSE
RUNNINGONEMPTY
SPEEDSBEATEN
HITSIMAGEFARM
ONITLIBRAIKEA
TECSKASEMAEON
★ Man oh man I loved this one. I realize some people are going to hate it because it breaks all kinds of rules and it's light on theme density (or simply because they like to be a contrarian), but I'm a sucker for a puzzle with a good visual. Everyone's entitled to their opinion.

What a cool image, using a couple of well-placed circles to suggest a gas gauge. Sure, the dial doesn't really have an ARROW, but what would be better? NEEDLE? POINTER? Not sure. I really liked how Peter used mirror symmetry in order to place the revealer close to the bottom, so it didn't give away the trick halfway through the puzzle. When I finally uncovered RUNNING / ON EMPTY I smiled at his use of the unchecked squares E and F to represent empty and full. Very cool.

And I really like having so much good long fill. Stuff like OLD GLORY, EARSHOT, MOONBEAM (clued to Governor MOONBEAM would have been even better!), etc. If this is what Will means when he says he's looking for some puzzles with less theme density but more good long fill, I wholeheartedly agree.

And saving the best for last, being an electromechanical dork I loved seeing ELECTROMAGNETIC and FEYNMAN in the grid. Some people believe FEYNMAN was kind of arrogant and/or a jerk (if you haven't read "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman" you owe it to yourself to do so) but he was both brilliant and extremely entertaining. I got a lot of pleasure out of uncovering these entries.

Very well done, Pete. Sure, there's some of ugly-looking ASSOC, ALG, TOR, and people might complain that they shouldn't have to know Ndamukong SUH, but overall, what a giant serving of win for me today.

puzzle by Peter A. Collins

★POW Wed 11/13/2013
OJSTABLEIKEA
PUPSHRIEKSILL
ADOMINCEGARLIC
LINGERIEDANZA
GRATEPARMESAN
OLEARYSWAIL
NABSFOUROBE
CHOPBASILLEAVES
ERBUNIXNEAT
ASISREBIRTH
CRUSHPINENUTS
LANCEOBVIATES
ADDOLIVEOILAVA
PIETMILORDTIN
SIRSPESTOELK
★ Fresh theme today, a recipe for making PESTO. I hadn't had freshly-made pesto until maybe ten years ago, and it changed my life (I had a sad little life at that point). It's really cool that Jean was able to find a way to put a simple recipe into a crossword, figuring out how to get symmetrical answers.

And what an audacious challenge in construction! Not only does Jean have five theme answers plus a short revealer, but she uses a 72-word grid (top of the themeless range). In these cases, the fill often suffers greatly, but Jean has put together an expert construction. It took me a long time to finish this puzzle because my cooking skills are roughly limited to opening a jar of spaghetti sauce and eating it with a spoon. But after completing it, I sat back in admiration.

The long fill is awfully nice. SPONGE BOB is a great entry, and I admire how well Jean tucked LINGERIE in the across direction — between two theme answers! I've never attempted that because it's always seemed like it would produce too many compromises, but now I'm inspired to try. And although there isn't that much else in terms of long fill, Jean uses her sixes and sevens well, with MILORD, REBOOT, ARNIES army, and a REBIRTH.

As with almost every puzzle, not everything is shiny and clean. Thankfully, Jean did well to keep it to just a few bits that were pretty easy to ignore. The military awards (OBE, DSO, DSC) are hard to keep straight, ERB isn't quite the monogram JFK or even EAP is, and while a prefix or two is fine, a six-letter one, ENVIRO, is harder to gloss over. But it's amazing how clean everything else is, even finding a way to fill those biggish NE and SW corners with good stuff. Even appeasing our Canadian overlords with the inclusion of the ALCAN highway! (shout-out to Martin Ashwood-Smith and Jeffrey Krasnick in the northern hinterlands)

Recipe puzzles tend to be awfully tough for me, but I sure enjoyed this one, especially since the result was a favorite creation of mine. Well done, POW quality.

puzzle by Jean O'Conor