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★ Loved this concept. Word ladders got overdone a while back, so Will doesn't run them very frequently. And when he does, they usually require an additional layer of clevereness. This one hit that sweet spot for me, kooky sentences formed by word ladder chains. LOUD LOUT LOST LAST CAST? Yes, please! The ideas I generally like best and remember are those I would have never dreamed up, and this is one.
Not all of them read so smoothly. HUGE LUGE LUGS LOGS is amusing. But tacking on the LOTS at the end makes it feel wonky. And WILT WILL FILL FUEL FULL is gold, but it doesn't adhere to the tight word ladder constraint. Switching those last two words to make WILT WILL FILL FULL FUEL wrenches it in my ear. Still, the difficulty of making any reasonable-sounding word ladder sentence is so high that I reveled in uncovering each one.
And what a smooth solving experience. My solve was assisted by the fact that I could piece together the word ladders by comparing four-letter chunks, but the general cleanliness also helped. I really only hitched around the TUNG OIL section, and that was mostly because of the very difficult cluing. ["Was ist ___?"] is admirable in its attempt to do something new in cluing LOS, but hotchy-motchy! that made that area tough. I'd much more appreciate it if it hadn't been next door to that TUNG OIL oddball.
The cleanliness is especially impressive considering Joe made this a 136-word puzzle, giving us a whole lot of 5 and 6s, which often make for sections tough to fill (and crack into). I wouldn't have minded if Joe had gone up to 138 or 140 words, making that TUNG OIL section more interesting, but I do like working my mental muscle.
I also would have liked more clever clues, as many of them felt misdirectional in a not super fun method. [Darn, e.g.] for OATH felt too tricksy to me. (["Darn," e.g.] is what it was going for.) [Arrangement of hosing?] gets points for effort, but it didn't stick the landing, as the clue sounds pretty forced. A final clue I'll point out is [Majority group], which made no sense to me. I was all set to deride it when Jim pointed out the "Age of Majority" is a very real thing. Darn! (The oath, not the mending.)
Overall though, absolutely loved the theme. Great stuff.
★ I don't know how he does it. Stacks of 12/13/12 are hard enough to accomplish in one direction. But to do it in both the horizontal and vertical directions, crossing each other? It's an impressive visual feast, executed with both smoothness and lively fill.
How is this possible? Maybe Patrick leans heavily on the RSTLN E common letters, as he has sometimes done in the past? (Not that there's anything really wrong with that, as he always picks out colorful entries.) Well, no. There's a V in the marquee SPACE INVADERS, making it both a semi-Scrabbly and a lively entry.
Another trick constructors employ is to section off tricky areas in order to work more easily with them. Nope, that's not it – check out how much real estate floats around the middle. The flow is not choked off at all, and that middle is chock full of five-letter words, not a four or a three serving as a crutch.
Black magic is the only remaining answer.
And he doesn't stop there — each of the four quadrants is packed with almost the same level of goodness as any normal person's themeless corners. EYE COLOR and SEAN PENN make a great pairing in the SE. And STORY ARC and PANIC BAR are such lively answers. Even the potentially neutral ODOMETER turns into an asset with its colorful clue, related to the "clocking" crime.
Sure, there is a bit of wastage in the long slots, entries like DRESSES and … well, STATION HOUSES is a little dry. (Plus it feels somewhat duplicative of the HOMES in STARTER HOMES.) But overall, there's a double-digit count of snappy entries, a visual wow factor in the middle of the grid, and super-smooth fill. I resolved to spread around the POWs a bit more this year, but I couldn't help myself with this one.
★ My wife's favorite themeless experience is when you go through a first pass and turn up nearly empty. A feeling of despondence consumes you, but one of those toeholds suddenly trigger a thought, and you can enter another answer. And another! Chunks break open, and neurons fire. Ten minutes later (20 in my case), a seemingly impossible solve is cracked. Tremendously satisfying.
I had that experience today, daunted at first by those gigantic white spaces. I entered three answers in my first pass and wondered if 1.) I'd be able to finish and 2.) how much glue I was going to encounter — I often find that these wide-open grids require a lot of glue to hold them together. To my relief and amazement, I encountered virtually nothing ugly the whole way through. Yes, there's a HALER and a TEK from Shatner's esoteric "TekWar," but what else? The cleanliness is astounding.
And what nice long entries. Often with this style of crazy-wide-open puzzle, you see neutral words depending on –NESS or –ERS. But to get ADULT MOVIES, HIS EMINENCE, PIN CUSHIONS, MINOR PLANET just to start? Really nice selection. If the worst of your 11 long answers is IN EXISTENCE, I call that quite the success.
As is usual with some of these types of stunt grids, I don't love the feng shui. The puzzle is broken so distinctly into three parts. I know from the constructor's viewpoint how much easier it is to make a low-word count puzzle when you can section areas off and work on them one at a time. But, as a solver, it bugs me to see such fragmentation.
Overall though, a puzzle in the Patrick Berry mold — uber-clean with a smart selection of long entries. I really like David's desire to experiment with themeless grids; it's cool to see the variety in his products. I don't always love the solving experience his more experimental stuff, but I thought this one was a big winner.
P.S. For those of you who don't get the brilliance of the CDS clue, it's referring to ultra-low interest rates. I work in investment management, so it got a big smile from me. Reader Greg Johnson points out that it can also refer to music CDs, which are falling out of favor — doubly cool!
I appreciated Joe's selection of themers, all in-the-language. There were a few obvious ones like DELETED SCENE and ABANDONED SHIP, but I had to do some serious thinking to figure out what DROPPED ???? was. At first I tried DROPPED (the) BALL and felt outrage that Joe could let such an inexact phrase go through! Then I just felt silly when I realized it was DROPPED CALL. Great stuff (Joe's choices, not my idiocy).
The grid is so nice, too. I worried upon seeing the eighth theme entry running down the center of the grid. This sort of interlock is visually impressive but often produces compromises. Aside from BOP IN (which I think I actually like after an initial wince), the center is clean, just a CURST (I think I also like this too, upon further consideration) and an ETO. Strong work.
Joe does spend more black squares in that center section though, because of said interlock. Those two smooth curves help frame that difficult central area, making it easier to fill cleanly. Spending black squares like means that the rest of the puzzle must contain more white space, upping the level of filling difficulty (20 8-letter fill words = unheard of!). Check out the four themeless-esque corners. They're all pretty good, even featuring such nice entries as APP STORE and PANDEMIC, but each one does have a bit of THE TOP, LENOS, ERTES, INTL glue.
Not one of these globs is a NO NO NO! type infraction of course, but that all-important NW corner did set not the greatest tone for me. THE TOP feels partial-ish, with ETAS and HEMI making me worry what was to come. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded.
A neat concept + strong execution = a really enjoyable Sunday solve. Might have been one of my all-time favorites if each of the fill-in-the-blanks had been as mystifying and then hugely rewarding as SU(PERSON)IC.
When I opened it up, I wondered how those NW and SE corners would turn out. Not many people attempt quad-stacked 8s, because they too often require pots of glue to hold them together. Kevin has done at least one before, and the experience shows, as both of those corners come out clean as a whistle. Better yet, the long answers are generally fresh and snappy, not at all the neutral types of entries I expected. POT FARMS, AFROBEAT, STARBASE, TENTACLE makes for quite a quartet.
The other corner is anchored by NET SALES, a bit dull since with its common letters, we see it quite often in themelesses. But otherwise, to get PRENATAL with its great clue, HATE MAIL, IPAD MINI with clean crossings is really impressive work.
Normally I'm not one who notices how Scrabbly a puzzle is. Patrick Berry quite often stays away from the Big Four (JQXZ), and his work is almost always standout. But he does usually pepper a grid with a few Vs or Ks to keep things interesting. With just one K, this puzzle did feel a bit "Wheel of Fortune" to me, leaning heavily on the RSTLN E.
And there were a few entries that I didn't care for. UNO DUE TRE felt like a wasted slot, not nearly as in the language as UNO DOS TRES or UN DEUX TROIS, but of course I'm sure Italian speakers enjoyed seeing it. ULSTER was interesting to learn about — a type of coat worn by Holmes — but the clever clue was lost on me, as even after filling in the letters, it didn't make sense until I went to go look it up, and at that point I had forgotten what the clue was.
That's all nit-picking though, as my enjoyment level was really high. To get such a high quantity of assets and few liabilities in a 66-worder is an impressive feat. Along with Will's in-depth commentary of how he analyzed and edited the clues, it was a real joy from start to finish to post-game analysis.
Having a good memory for crosswords sometimes interferes with my enjoyment of puzzles. Here, my initial thoughts turned back to an earlier puzzle as soon as I figured out the concept. It's no problem at all to have two puzzles with a similar (or the same) trick, but I would have liked to have more time separating the two; a year at least. Could also have been different if they hadn't both been Thursday puzzles. If one had been a Wednesday and one a Thursday, people who never attempt a Thursday puzzle wouldn't have even noticed.
Putting all that aside, it's very nicely executed. Joe does a great job of inserting strong long fill without much or a price to pay. I particularly liked the SE corner, with DINGBAT and CLUB SODA straddling the themers down there. And ODE TO JOY along with GROOVES (and a gold star clue!) in the opposite corner? Yes please! It's not easy to stick the landing like this when you're working with crossing themers (even if one of them is short), so Joe does well to keep it to really, really minor stuff like ANON, PEI, ISR.
I would have liked more symmetry (both the long answers and the shorts answers), but having the pairs intersect is really cool. Perhaps it's too much to ask that the short ones be paired in symmetry as well. I do remember sifting THROUGH the total solution space and noticing that it was smaller than I would have thought.
Finally, I love the extra touches. The clue echo of SMUT and SKY, both "blue" things but in very different ways — that's the kind of "clue echo" that works perfectly for me. IQ TEST and its [Measure of brightness]. HOE being something that could loosen up a lot (of land). Excellent stuff adding pleasure to my solve. I really enjoyed it, and likely would have absolutely loved it if it had run six months from now.
I'm biased in that I like Josh in the first place. We've only met a few times at the ACPT, but he's fun to hang out with and exudes that sort of younger person's vibe, excited about the cool life developments still unfolding in front of him. Sometimes I get cranky about constructors trying to go "too hip," but that's not at all the case with today's fresh-feeling puzzle. LINKED IN is quickly becoming an essential business tool, ZOOLANDER was hilarious (and is popular enough that "Zoolander 2" is in the works!), and PO-PO is fun slang for the po-lice (I imagine PO-PO being said in the voice of Bunk from "The Wire""). Three pieces of strong, fresh fill is right at my sweet spot, not giving me the feeling of too much "stuff I'm too uncool to know" crammed into one place.
And the grid engineering is fantastic. Josh starts with four sets of triple-stacks, one in each corner, but he does so much more. Not only does he extend two great answers toward the center in KIM JONG IL (although I sure wish he had been clued to the state's outrageous claims of his golfing prowess) and ZOOLANDER. But check out what he does in the north and south — sets of three 7s extending off his stacks! And not just neutral entries, but NEOCONS with its clever clue, the snappy EGG WASH, and the historical and glad-I-learned-something-today SALT TAX.
So much interconnect shouldn't realistically be feasible, but Josh somehow pulls it off. Check out the raw number of slots for long answers: 14 of 8+ letters, 8 of 7 letters. And he takes great advantage of these slots, converting almost all of them into assets, with very few left as what I would call neutral (LOOKED AT, INDIRECT, BLESSES, SCIENCE). He was extremely picky about his use of these longish slots, and that was much appreciated.
I'm not a big fan of the "only seen like this in crosswords" entries like B TEN (B-10) and H AND M (H & M), but I can understand that some people like them for how bizarre they look inside a grid. Two in one puzzle is a bit much for me, but I do appreciate that they were at least from different walks of life.
Along with the great clues for EYE OF NEWT (a different sort of microbrew ingredient), ALARM (back to the hooch with a "buzz" misdirection), JERSEY (SF Giants, represent!), and RABBI (a party at many a wedding), this puzzle sang to me. Such a tremendous pleasure to be able to write about it.
I usually assess themelesses with a ridiculously dorky MBA-speak ASSETS and LIABILITIES scorecard, incrementing ASSETS for each colorful entry and upping the LIABILITIES count for each glue bit. (If there's a "puzzle-killer" — an absolutely heinous entry — the entire grid gets tossed right out of consideration.) One aspect I usually don't account for is a "wow factor." It's pretty rare for me to be impressed just by the look of an empty grid — for example, quad-stacks used to get this bonus from me when they first appeared, but now they don't. I would add perhaps three or four extra points to the ASSETS column today because of the wide-open grid with a pattern I don't remember seeing, and I would also raise my LIABILITIES limit to maybe eight. Sometimes it's worth slogging through more glue than usual in order to see something new and different.
The danger in ultra-low word count grids is that they're so hard to fill that the constructor sometimes finds it good enough to just fill the darn thing, period. That used to be good enough — take a look at some of the record-setting grids and the swaths of glue they contain — but not anymore. Liz gives us some beauties, including three interlocking grid-spanners, plus a spate of really nice 7s and 8s: OBAMANIA, EVEN ODDS, ADMITS IT, HOGWASH are all great on their own right. Strong, amusing wordplay makes REDWOOD, CORSAGE, DEICERS, even ORDAIN and HORSE stand out as well.
It does have its flaws, as I would expect. There's the weirdly spelled AMEBA (which I've been guilty of using in the past), and a lot of the four-letter words are unsightly. Hit the "Analyze" button below and you'll see that the alphabetical list starts with ABER AROO DORN (although I like me some Worf) and ENTO — not a great sign. And although it's neat that there are no three-letter words in the grid, I would have much preferred a strong grid-spanner to replace THREE LETTER WORD, which feels a tad gimmicky to me, especially given that this sort of thing has been done before.
Overall, I loved the initial impact of the grid — a rare occurrence for a themeless for me — and the solving experience was really entertaining. I was able to overlook all the glue in order to savor the strong entries and playful cluing.
No! After speeding through the ultra-smooth solve, I began to realize how neat it was. Homophone pair puzzles have been done over and over again, so I think it's important to do something different, or add another layer. Perhaps jam three homonyms together? Or in this case, take a final syllable and find an unexpected homophone for it. ROTC PAPARAZZI was brilliant — the sheer craziness of RAZZI and ROTC sounding the same is really cool. (Note: regular reader Evan Kalish asked about the ROTC rhyme, so I'll clarify that ROTC is indeed commonly pronounced "rot-see.") Same goes for PEWTER and PUTER, LUNAR and LOONER, and COLLIE and CHOLY.
I asked Patrick how he did it — these themers aren't really something you can find through brute force database searching. He said he came up with the idea while eating a pomegranate, and found theme candidates the old fashioned way: paper, a rhyming dictionary, and a whole lot of brainstorming. Very cool.
What's most impressive though, is Patrick's ability to create a Sunday-size puzzle which falls more into the Monday-ish level of difficulty that's accessible to newer solvers. Will generally pegs Sunday puzzles to be pretty difficult (roughly as hard as a Thursday), but I've noticed that there's a fairly wide range over the course of a year. That's a brilliant move, as the Sunday NYT xw has so much more exposure than other days of the week that it's good to put a gradient of difficulty within Sundays. Makes it more accessible to a wider range of solvers; a good strategy to continually increase readership.
But coming up with a super-smooth, relatively easy Sunday puzzle is incredibly difficult. If creating a super-smooth Monday puzzle is like getting a man into space, doing a similar task with a 21x, 140-word grid is starting a colony of lunar ballooners. The much more difficult specs mean that you have to use longer words on average (can't lean as heavily on 3, 4, 5-letter words), and knitting together a grid with roughly twice as much area without duplicating the usual ATE / EAT, ONE, IRE suspects that are so easy to miss … that's a monster of a task.
As usual, Patrick sticks the landing, even giving us a bevy of ALI BABA, EVIL EYE, RIB CAGE, SANDLOT (what great use of seven-letter entries!), while keeping the glue to an … ERNO? That's about it, for an entire Sunday puzzle? (Actually, ERNO Rubik is a bit of a hero of mine.) Patrick is one of the best when it comes to navigating the trade-offs between sparkly fill vs. clean smoothness.
So this puzzle might not look like eye-popping, but it's pretty close to the epitome of a perfect easy-level Sunday puzzle inviting in newer solvers. Really well done.
Let's start with the raw quantity of assets. I count (roughly) 18, an amazingly high number. Typically I enjoy a themeless if it has ten assets as the very least, and the NYT averages 12(ish). I'm in awe of how smoothly Peter worked AFFLUENZA through that pair of MOONWALKS / PIZZA PIES. Beautiful but very difficult way to up one's asset count. Same goes for HONEY BEAR running through TAX CHEAT / WORKHORSE / HOLE IN ONE.
With such a high asset count, I'd expect some liabilities on the ledger making this possible. Sure, there's XKES, and … ETD? LTR? Let's put the liability count at two, since those last two are so minor. An (assets – liabilities) count of 16? Takes sky-high expertise to make this happen. I'm satisfied when that (assets - liabilities) number is over ten, so 16 is just silly.
And Scrabbly letters: the JQXZ count is four, pretty high. Dare I say, Peter has already broken my CROSSWORD UNHOLY TRINITY (CUT) principle? Damn you, Wentz!
I don't like to give unbalanced reviews — there's almost always some good and some not so good in any puzzle — but I feel like I'd have to stretch to ridiculous nits to say more about the puzzle's drawbacks. Maybe say something about how THE FED (great answer) isn't really a market leader (or shouldn't be, more accurately) so should have a question mark? I could have used a few more clever clues, perhaps something about PIZZA PIES being a "toss-up," or an interesting bit of trivia for a HOLE IN ONE?
Eh, forget it. With the sizzling grid and clues like ASNER referencing Lou Grant, KNEE PATCH extending the life of pants, not the length, and TAPS echoing Eine kleine Nachtmusik, I near 100% loved this puzzle.
Although there's not a huge theme density at 37 theme squares, the fact that there are essentially five seed answers (four short ones plus RED / PARTING / SEA across the middle) ups the level of difficulty. Matt does well to spread his themers around, placing the four loose ones into different quadrants of the grid, which allows for high flexibility in fill. Take for example, the SE corner. With just EGYPT fixed into place, Matt has great freedom to place colorful entries like SAO PAULO, TIRE IRON, and PEEPER, working that corner through dozens of possibilities.
And the clues are strong, with themeless-level cleverness. YETI gives us a really interesting bit of trivia. [Snake's place, in part] mystified me, until I realized the "snake" was actually a capitalized "Snake," i.e. the Snake River. Great use of placement, hiding that capital letter at the very beginning of the clue. BERG also gave me a great a-ha moment when I realized 4/14/12 was talking about 4/14/1912, not 4/4/2012. Excellent piece of deception.
Just like any puzzle, it's not perfect, with its smattering of OSTE, IDAS, ALEE, A MAN. But notice how these four bits of crossword glue are spread out? That deft touch made those four bits less apparent for me during my solve. And I did find PESACH a bit of an ODD ONE, but it was buried in the recesses of my memory banks somewhere. A Jewish buddy of mine confirmed that it's totally legit.
Overall, a highly entertaining solve for me. I like puzzles that break molds and conventions, and I found the mixture of the trickiness of a Thursday and the chock-full goodness of a themeless to be spot on.
For all you aspiring crossword constructors out there, this is a textbook example of specificity. Many people ask me what makes a good crossword, and this idea of "specificity" is a tough one to grasp. Will explains it well with his use of the word "completeness." A reasonable theme here could contain entries ending in KINGS, HORNETS, NETS, BULLS, etc., but the constructor then has 30 to select from. To have four and only four names that could have been used feels a bit magical — that specificity is mighty elegant. Not everyone agrees with me (Jim and I have differing viewpoints, in fact), but high specificity is something I personally highly value.
I like the unusual layout, too. Acme does use 24 three-letter words, which did feel noticeable during my solve, but I love how it enabled so much long fill: ANSEL ADAMS, GLITTERATI, CATALYST. Adds so much to the quality of solve.
Those parallel downs in the NE and SW do require some crossword glue to hold everything together: IMA, AND I, UTA, DEM, YDS, but that's really not too bad, and it felt like a good trade-off in order to get those long parallel downs. It would have been perfect if DISCOUNTED and SEMITROPIC had been snazzier entries, to the level of ANSEL ADAMS and GLITTERATI, but that parallel down structure usually doesn't allow for such goodness. I personally don't use it too much anymore since it's so difficult to come up with great long downs with perfectly smooth surrounding fill.
Some tough crossings — AZT/ZOWIE (I imagine some will finish with AYT and YOWIE) along with SHTETL/EERO (SHTATL/AERO anyone?), which might have nudged this puzzle out of the Monday spot we usually see Acme's puzzles in. All in all though, such a fun theme with tight specificity and resulting elegance; a pleasure for this NBA fan. Now if we could only resurrect the good old Run TMC days…
What most impressed me was how smooth Greg managed to get this puzzle. I think Mondays ought to be accessible to newcomers — not necessarily easy, though. That's a big difference. I didn't see any little bits that an outsider would scratch their head at, and that's such an huge accomplishment in a Monday puzzle. Extremely tough to achieve, as so often a constructor must rely on a little glue to hold the grid together.
Some people are going to cry foul at OKAPIS, and I agree that it's a tough entry to figure out. But as much as I think the Monday puzzle should be accessible, I don't want it to be palp, either. Each of the crossings is fair, and it reminds me of a story about a guy I met in El Salvador. He was from South Africa and had recently traveled to America for the first time. When I asked him what the highlight of trip was, he said "seeing those funny animals, with the cute little noses, and the fuzzy tails… you know..." (He couldn't pull the name out after five minutes of trying, and it took me forever to figure out to what he was referring.) I'm sure OKAPIS are as well-known to him as SQUIRRELS are to us. I like Monday crosswords that expand one's world view, as long as they do so in a fair way.
I wondered why the six themers around the perimeter weren't all the way on the edge. Seems to me that would be a more elegant way to execute this idea. I can see that the V of REVERSI is much easier to use in the ????V? pattern than the horribly constrained ?????V pattern though. I almost always prefer themers in elegant spots, but if it's a choice between elegant spots or clean fill, I'll almost always opt for the latter.
Interesting idea, well executed. So hard to make those 7x3 chunks smooth, but Greg did it six times around the perimeter with nary a hiccup.
Additionally, Robyn goes the extra mile and reduces her word count to 74. The NE and SW corners add so much meat to the puzzle, with those juicy parallel 9's. Normally I prefer multiple-word colorful phrases, but HERCULEAN pops, and organic CHEMISTRY was one of my favorite subjects in school. Tack on a smile-inducing clue for the latter and I APPLAUDED. (Way to trigger subliminal feelings of appreciation, Robyn!). Great use of cheater squares in the two corners to help smooth out those corners, really just an MCI as a ding.
The one section I was plus/minus on was the north, with Cheri OTERI and ESSEN. I'm perfectly fine with OTERI as an answer; I just wish she were more NYT-worthy. Her friendly alternation of vowel-consonant makes her much more crossword-friendly than her co-SNL-alum Kristen WIIG, who I think has earned it much more so than OTERI.
And ESSEN is definitely a place, but I wish it were historically or culturally more important for all the xw-exposure it gets. Those E's and S's make it crossword gold, but I remember the first time I uncovered it, wondering what other esoteric geography I'd have to know. I'm of the opinion that once a term crosses the threshold of NYT-worthiness, I don't much care how often it gets used (I'm perfectly fine with ONO any time I see it). Before then, I prefer it to be used sparingly. It's unfortunate that the ??E?I pattern at 6-D is so constraining — I might have moved a block around to avoid that pattern.
That's pretty nit-picky stuff though. Overall, this is the type of puzzle I like to show newbies; pointing out 1.) the specific, tight, clever theme and 2.) how doable it is. Really well done.
Very neat how David incorporated the special squares within some of the theme answers. Yet another nice touch. What would have made it Puzzle of the Year quality for me was some rationale built in to explain why there were six special squares. Not absolutely necessary, but man oh man that would have been the icing on the icing already on the cake. If the number six were somehow integral to the theory of general relativity...
I love it when a puzzle makes me think more about what could be done. How cool would it be to have some sort of physical representation of the bizarre effects that occur when one approaches the speed of light? Hmm...
One small nit I'll pick is that I found it slightly odd that half the special squares worked one way, and half were flipped. On one hand it made it more challenging to uncover them, but it felt to me like having them all work identically would have been more elegant. Personal preference.
A final note, on vocabulary. As much as I like current slang or fun terms, entries like PLUTARCH never go out of style, in my eyes. A timeless entry, appropriate for the educated tone of the New York Times, and especially appropriate for a puzzle with this EINSTEIN-ian theme. I doubt I'll ever gripe about seeing PLUTARCH, whereas I can't say the same thing about the latest "celebrity" who may be fun for small niches of people to see, but who may not have long-term staying power.
Some beautiful long entries today. One of Patrick's strengths is choosing ones that are both 1.) in the language and 2.) amenable to a sneaky clue. Many constructors select "feature entries" that are the name of their favorite indie band or some piece of lingo/esoterica not very well known. Those can be great, but their clues usually have to be definitional (as if coming out of Webster's) for them to be fair. I so much prefer entries that adhere to both criteria. BINGO NIGHT, for example, is a fantastic answer in itself, and the clue about one's number being called makes it even better.
Given the high bar Patrick's set for himself, I was a little surprised to see the partial C'EST and the obscure card game SKAT, and in adjacent across answers. With just two liabilities, that's less than typically seen in themelesses. For any other constructor I'd shrug them off, barely noticing them. I like how C'EST enables the snappy triple of ROBOTIC / COAL MINE / BACK TALKS, and there doesn't seem to be any way to easily mend that little bit.
I took apart the south section to see how tough that would be to modify. Turns out it's awfully difficult. With DRAGGED OUT, LOUIE LOUIE, and GEOLOGIST (great clue, BTW!) in place, the only fix for SKAT I could find was to place a black square at the S to make KAT (and IDLE, singular). But that causes problems in the north section, turning it from a flawless fill to something not so hot. GET TO becomes something like ATTO; not great. Knowing how much care Patrick puts into his work, I can only imagine him gnashing his teeth, going to all sorts of lengths to figure out how to get rid of a single glue entry.
Sometimes Patrick's puzzles can feel a bit light on Scrabbly letters, since he tends to favor entries with more common letters in order to facilitate cleaner fill. Today's there's just a lone J, but it's integrated so well, not a piece of glue needed to get it in, smooth as silk. And a lovely clue for PJS, making me think about infomercials at first.
I wouldn't say it's quintessential Berry given the two small dings on the bottom row, but it still gave me Berryesque pleasure. Always a treat to see his name on the byline.
And the execution is incredibly well done. With five themers plus two short reveals, I'd normally expect some compromises in the fill. It would have been nice to get one pair of long themers in, but I appreciate that he's taken advantage of the 6's and 7's, filling them with such good stuff as ANY DAY, MISSUS, and my favorite, EPSILON with its microeconomics clue. One of my old MBA profs (also a crossword fan) frequents the same coffee shop as me, and I'm going to have to admit that I needed the E to drop it in. Sigh, all the stuff I've forgotten.
Another notable feature of this puzzle is the "fresh fill." As a younger constructor (Joel recently graduated from Pomona), I really appreciate his restraint in tossing in stuff I've never heard of. When it's just KIMYE and YOLO (according to a kid I work with, it stands for "Yo oaf, love ouchies!" — something said before punching the receiver in the arm as hard as possible), I enjoy learning these things. Although sometimes they kind of hurt.
Great clues, too. The one for ALLEYS is fantastic.
I always try to point out stuff I loved as well as stuff I thought could use improvement. Hmm. It would have been nice if CASEY and QRCIU were in more elegant locations. Perhaps pushed all the way to the top and bottom? But that's awfully minor. Those two answers are symmetrically placed, and I bet Joel did this so that the Q in IQS wouldn't be something awkward. ??Q is a tough pattern to fill, after all. Perhaps a touch more puzzle flow? Taking out the black square below NYT would have made the puzzle slightly less partitioned (and closer to the usual 78-word maximum). Would have also allowed for one pair of longer fill entries, but it would have also made the puzzle harder to fill cleanly.
So overall, a great idea, nearly impeccable execution, just nits to pick if I look hard. One of my favorite Thursdays in recent memory.
Sometimes I'm guilty of wanting Sunday puzzles to do too much. I have to remember that I'm not the average NYT solver. So many people leave the NYT Magazine out on the kitchen table, working on the puzzle over hours or even days (by themselves or with friends), and if the theme is too tricky or intricate (a "puzzle more for constructors than solvers"), it's not satisfying if they don't grok it. This puzzle is a fastball straight down the middle for that demographic; a known theme type, not too difficult, with a high degree of solving satisfaction. Even a couple of chuckles.
And check out how well-executed it is. Nine themers is good theme density, and there's a lot of strong fill. I wouldn't expect any less from these two veterans. I like how they break convention a bit. Note how the first themers are in row four? That's unusual, since putting themers in row three is the norm (that helps maximize spacing between theme entries). But they take good advantage of this arrangement in the NE and SW corners. Look at the juicy stuff: WASHRAG, AT PEACE, and the crazy GETSANA = GETS AN A. Now that's using your seven-letter spaces wisely. And a big thumbs-up to SPY-FI. I don't know if that's a term in common use, but I'm going to start using it.
Just like most Sunday NYT puzzles, it had a couple of rough spots. ALY/KIEL tripped me up pretty good, for example. AVY/KIEV sounded just as good, by gum! And as much as I liked OH HAPPY DAY! it caused a high level of fill constraints. Check out the pile-up of UOMO / UNHIP / RPTS / ORA / ANS. Perhaps another piece of long fill would have produced a smoother region. Or a set of cheater squares could have been employed to smooth things out. The rest of the puzzle is relatively smooth, so this concentration of glue stuck out a bit for me.
Finally, one of the nicest a-ha moments in a while. I could not for the life of me what [Polo grounds?] was talking about. I knew some trickery was happening because of the giveaway question mark, but it would not come until I had almost all the crossing answers. Great big headslap when I realized it was all about the (Marco) "Polo grounds." Beautiful stuff.
I hear grumbling every now and then about constructors relying too heavily on software, but why wouldn't you use all the tools at your disposal? Sure, you need to exercise care as you lay out and fill a puzzle to make sure it's clean and snappily filled, but computers make that so much easier. Trying out dozens or even hundreds of grid arrangements is invaluable. And if software enables new developments and directions, I'm all for it.
My experience today started out mixed. I like triple- and quad-stacks, as they're a visually stunning sight. But we've had so many of them that I apply normal criteria to them these days: snazziness plus cleanliness. So when I ran into a smattering of ETH, ITT, the old-timey ALDO / POLA next to each other, HOTL / ANGE, I was a little disappointed, truth be told.
But when I finally hit that WAITING entry, I paused, thinking that there was no way someone could spell out a word in Morse code through the black squares. Impossible! I grinned as I checked the Morse code chart and saw DOT DASH DASH in row four corresponded to W. Joe pulled off something new, different, and cool yet again.
Granted, some people will point out that this is more a puzzle for constructors than solvers. And I wish that the word WAITING had instead been MORSE CODE or even something meta like DOT DASH, but that does seem impossible. I imagine that very few words would fit into a crossword grid like WAITING did. A CHALLENGE TO YOU ALL: is there anything even remotely thematic to Morse code that one could form out of a symmetric grid?
I love seeing these puzzles that push the boundaries. If you have a chance, go back and read Joe's other Constructor's Notes. Even if you don't like some of the puzzles, I would find it difficult not to admire his pushing of the envelope.
Note the wide variety, chosen over a multitude of film eras. Joel picks a couple early ones, a recent winner, and a few scattered in between. Nice that there's something for everyone.
And as I'd expect out of a Joel puzzle, it's expertly crafted. Very little glue, which is so tough to do in a Sunday puzzle, and even harder to do in a 136 word Sunday puzzle. Not many people dip into that range, and very few come out with a puzzle as clean as this. Just a bit of EMAG, OSS, ELEM, ESE kind of stuff is well worth the price of strong fill as DRUG LAWS, WATER RAT, MEL TORME, APPIAN WAY, SEASHELLS, etc.
The sheer volume of good long fill is incredible. Hit the "Analyze" button below the grid to see just how many non-theme long answers he's incorporated. As a point of reference, many Sunday puzzles are successful if they incorporate just two pieces of good long fill. I'm still not quite sure how he made it look so easy, but a big part of it is that Joel was very careful to spread out his white space so not one section was vast and thus hard to fill.
Speaking of ESE, it took me forever to understand the clue even after I finished the puzzle. [Tip of the tongue?] refers to ESE getting added to words to form a dialect, i.e. BROOKLYN becomes BROOKLYNESE. Took me a while, but I like the playful repurposing of a common phrase to add spice to an otherwise blah entry.
As Will noted, my favorites were the ones which seemed perfectly normal. [Dramatic cry from people who get subbed] for example made me think about LEAVE ME IN or PLAY ME or something, but it's actually [Dramatic cry from people who get sNubbed]. That's fantastic misdirection. Same goes for the like of [Be-___] which really is [BeN-___].
I did like some of the wacky clues too, like the one for LEIA. But some of them were weaker than others, and a few of those lesser ones gave away the trick for me a little too easily. If each one of the clues had been perfectly normal sounding, I might have added this one to my short list for all-time favorites. Additionally, I wonder if running it on a Saturday was a good thing? I loved the change-up, but I think Will's right about some people grousing about missing out on their Saturday workout.
[Cagey parts, e.g.] to [CagNey parts, e.g.]. [Covert, maybe] to [CoNvert, maybe]. [Covered with slug mud] to [Covered with sluNg mud]. And [Refusal from a boy lass] to [Refusal from a bonny lass]. Dang, I had so much fun solving this well-constructed gem.
Sometimes I wonder what might be considered offensive to certain populations. I had a slight hitch when I saw HILLBILLY — I use the term myself, but it'll be interesting to see if Will gets complaints from people in rural areas. It's been used in other papers before, but this will be the first instance in the NYT. I've had similar thoughts about COMMIE as well. Interesting to think about the seemingly harmless words that carry potentially derogatory meanings.
The grid is near flawless. I worried at first that there wouldn't be as much zing as I usually like to see, because there aren't many long spaces for fill. But David and Bernice take good advantage of the 7's, spreading CATCH ON, I MADE IT, OLD CHAP, and TEE SHOT into the four corners. I love that they didn't try to shoehorn too much into any one corner, because that's often why glue-y fill becomes necessary. This grid is so incredibly smooth. Perhaps the only entry that people might point to is... ELL? But even though I don't hear ELL in everyday usage, it's a real word, so I don't think that's a fair criticism.
It tickles me to see David and Bernice's photos together. So neat to see the different generations work together.
It's also a perfect example of adding pizzazz into a puzzle without having to resort to a lot of long fill. Sure, there's the nice SORE LOSER and BOTTLE FED and BUGABOOS, but what really impresses me is Lynn's careful eye for the shorter stuff. ODD JOB. BREW PUB. JAKARTA. ALADDIN. Putting together a crossword is hard enough that sometimes it feels like a small miracle just to get a grid filled using regular words you can gloss over like… well, like GLOSS. I love it when a constructor grabs hold of each step of the filling process, carefully sorting through many options before landing on opulent words… like… like MAGI.
I like to eyeball a grid even before I start solving, and it's almost always a good sign to see white space apportioned out like this. There's nothing too big (making for a challenging fill) or too small (sectioned off areas can make for a choppy solving experience). Just right. At 78 words it hits the maximum allowed number of answers, but that matters not one bit to me. Using 76 or even 74 words can often allow for some really nice long fill, but Lynn shows that you can give a quality solving experience in 78 words too. It just takes more care, which she clearly put in here.
Finally, look how smooth the short fill is. So little to even point out. OLEO is an outdated product, but you do still see the word on some dairy aisle boxes. And NEHI may be a brand gone by the wayside, but I have fond memories of Radar O'Reilly drinking Grape Nehis on M*A*S*H. Outstanding work; bravo.
I'll go back to my personal system of analytics to take measure of this puzzle. First, the ASSETS:
An astonishing 18. More typically, I usually count about 12 in an average NYT themeless. Now, let's evaluate the LIABILITIES:
Judgment of what's an ASSET and what's a LIABILITY is completely subjective of course (some might argue that RESTATE isn't great, but I hear about companies restating earnings all the time).
So how does the puzzle hold up? We have fewer than five LIABILITIES, and ASSETS minus LIABILITIES = 14 (much higher than my threshold of 10), so this puzzle easily crosses my thresholds. Not surprising, considering how much fun I had solving this bad boy.
Not to say that it's perfect — very few puzzles are. For me, the biggest issue was the slash in the middle of the puzzle tending to create a two mini-puzzle solving experience. It wasn't a serious problem, but it did hinder the puzzle's solving flow for me. I've used a similar effect before, because it makes puzzle construction easier. One of the biggest challenges in themeless creation is working with interlocking areas, where one change ripples through the puzzle. If you can section off your puzzle into separate pieces, it makes construction much easier.
Well done; such a pleasurable solving experience for me today.
I couldn't visualize how David put this together! So I reconstructed his puzzle skeleton, which helped me understand much better. It's actually a 72-word grid with crossing themers, a really tough puzzle to pull off. To get this to work, and on a debut puzzle no less... super impressive.
I might have liked the revealer to be placed in the horizontal direction, which is easy to do by "flipping" the puzzle about a line from the NW to the SE (any crossword can be flipped like this and still have all the answers read correctly). For me, it would have been so nice to have the puzzle flipped like this, so that the revealer had been in the usual location. I'm so used to having most revealers running horizontally, located somewhere around the bottom of the puzzle. I'm such a creature of habit.
When I construct, I always look for the most constrained and/or biggest chunk of space I need to fill. Notice how the north and south, with their 6x3 chunks and the themers bordering them, stick out? That's where I'd typically start filling, as they'd be among the hardest parts to fill, if not the hardest. The rest of the puzzle is quite smooth, darn impressive given the 72-word nature of it and the crossing themers, so it was a bit unfortunate that ECARTE reared its ugly head right off the bat, and in the south we get SDI (which Will has mentioned that he's on the verge of not allowing anymore), OSH, TAVI, and the crossing I got wrong, PETER TOSH / SOLANO. I expect to not get a lot of pop music references, but I'm from California and hadn't heard of SOLANO. I don't think I'll be the only solver to have issues there.
All in all, an impressive debut. Great idea and pretty darn good execution.