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

showing 25 out of 143 POW selections from 6/6/2015 to 11/2/2015

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

POW Mon 11/2/2015

"It's a TRAP!"

As I solved, I picked up the theme pretty quickly from PADDED and MIRACLE, and I confirmed it upon hitting PUSH UP. I was expecting a ho-hum BRA to be tucked in as a revealer somewhere, so what a pleasure to uncover the great punchline — I laughed out loud when I hit BOOBY TRAP. This is a puzzle where the theme alone (from two female authors) makes it an easy puzzle of the week choice for me.

I'd normally go into detail about how Loren and Acme could have incorporated more long fill as colorful as ODDSMAKER and avoided gluey bits like A STAR and SYM. But the laugh I got outweighed all those little details, so I'm not going to go into depth in analyzing the nits today. Such a fun and amusing crossword, exactly what I want out of my five minutes on a Monday.

It might have been a little icky if a male constructor(s) had made this one, but knowing both Loren and Acme (and really enjoying their senses of humor) made it even better. Great smile on my face after solving.

POW Wed 10/28/2015

★ What a fun idea, riffing on FOOD COURT to describe edible offenders. Hilarious to think about grains of rice making payoffs to politicians. And I laughed at uncovering the BAKED BEANS (baked = high on pot). All four of the "defendants" were right on. Very well done!

For the love of God, AMADEUS!

Because the FOOD COURT in the center sort of splits the puzzle into a top and bottom half, there's not much opportunity for long fill. It's so important to make the mid-length stuff count. I think Jay and Daniel did a nice job there with WIRETAP, SNIPERS, PSYCHIC.

And what a great clue for AMADEUS: [Famous middle name that means "love of God"] Not only is it gettable for Wolfgang AMADEUS Mozart fans, but people who don't know him can work it out from the etymology trivia.

The clue for GENERAL worked well for me too: [Word in the names of two of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies]. General Electric came easily, but I had to think to get General Motors Company.

The clue for WIRETAP — [Invasive bug] — is so innocuous. Some sort of boll weevil, right? Really strong cluing in the mid-length material today.

The shorter fill did drag me down. Even with a tough arrangement of themers like today's, all I want to do is appreciate how fun the theme is without getting bogged down in gluey bits. It started in the north, with UNC and SNO together. I applaud innovating with a tin monoxide reference to SNO, but it felt like putting lipstick on a pig. There was enough ATRAS, OUSE, OPE, ENERO, MINOT, SRS stuff — all minor, but not in aggregate — that it distracted me from the neat theme.

I wish more cheater squares had been deployed, maybe where the R of RUSTS and L of LOYAL are, to smooth out the north and south. I dug the theme and mid-length fill so much that I wanted this to be a perfect puzzle.

A few years of working with Jim has evolved my thinking. Yes, the short fill bugged me, but the big question for me these days: was I delighted by the puzzle? A resounding yes for this one.

POW Sat 10/24/2015

★ Really dug this one. I like odd grid patterns, and this one has a cool-looking middle. Slant-stacks (answers on top of each other but shifted) are easier to create than straight-up stacks because the ends have fewer constraints, but they're still hard. And running EIGHT long answers through them — that's notable.

Barrel organ, sadly with no monkey

Now, Andrew doesn't have a huge number of long slots in this grid — just 13 that are 8+ letters long — and most of them are located in that tough-to-build middle section. With only 13 long slots, it's important to me to get most all of them converted into great material. Andrew delivers, with KICK ME SIGNS and BARREL ORGANS my favorites.

The only one that's neutral in my eyes is SOLVENTS, and even that could have been made into an asset with a more interesting clue. With a more esoteric chemistry answer like ENOL or AMINE, you need a straightforward clue. SOLVENTS I think is well-known enough to be fair game for a clever clue, though.

I think a great puzzle should have (assets minus liabilities > ~10), so did Andrew hold his liabilities to three or less? EROO sticks out like a sore thumb, an inelegant suffix. Hard to avoid in that tough south section, what with BEDTIME STORY, ALPINE LAKE, and DENSE FOG bordering it. But other than that … SSA is minor (Social Security Administration), and AGE ONE is iffy to me. It is an important age milestone though, so I give it a pass.

Some might complain about NIQAB — I plunked in HIJAB as I think many will — but I like how these ported words have multiple acceptable spellings.

The NW corner, which was too sectioned off from the rest of the puzzle for my taste, had the one real worry for me. As I was solving, I had 14-A [Toughen] as ?NURE. I was rooting so hard for it to be the spelling I knew from before I started crosswords: INURE (not ENURE). Whew!

Overall, enough assets to overcome the small number of liabilities, plus a cool-looking grid. A great solve.

POW Sat 10/17/2015

★ Loved this one; a perfect way to cap off my favorite theme week since the amazing Patrick Berry puzzle suite back in 2011. I've seen OUTER SPACE interpreted many ways in crosswords (phrases starting with SP and ending with ACE, having the word SPACE outside the grid, etc.) but nothing quite like this. Tim's version of OUTER / SPACE includes a ring of blanks all around the perimeter, which visually represents that "region beyond the Kármán line" (an astronomy term). So cool!

Tae Bo, anyone?

I cottoned to the idea quickly (Billy BLANKS is awesome), but what a bonus to get thematic(ish) material in what I expected to be a themeless! The quartet of CONSTELLATION, USS ENTERPRISE, LUNAR ECLIPSES, and ALIEN INVASION would be too loose for a themed puzzle, but it makes for a great mini-theme. And I'm fascinated by the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), so I liked seeing that. SOL was fun too, especially since it's the term for a Mars day. ("The Martian" was one of my favorite reads of the year so far.)

Nice execution on the 13x13 grid, too. I had a tough time recalling LAPUTA from "Gulliver's Travels" and ASSIZES made for an impossible crossing for me, but I liked it enough to ignore that blip. Getting APE SUIT and AFC EAST and some ARCANA SLOGAN ALL SET stuff was nice, all with just a FAIN to hold it together. FAIN is pretty outdated crossword to me, but since it's the only piece of short glue, I didn't mind so much.

I also liked that Tim found so many ways to clue BLANKS. It did feel repetitive to me after a while though, and given that each one of those could have been a synonym of BLANKS like EMPTIES or VOIDS, some variety might have been fun. Not having to intersect those answers with anything sure opens up a lot of freedom! I suppose there is a certain consistency and elegance to having all BLANKS, though.

A great end to this theme week; clever concept with good execution. I always like seeing constructors do crazy and unique things, and Tim's mind-bending concept is perhaps the best of the best this week.

POW Mon 10/12/2015

★ What a great start to this "breaking the mold" theme week! I'm a sucker for puzzles with visual elements, and I love Patrick's unique style of art, so this one worked very well for me. A snippet from Patrick's "Zep" bookThe theme — spoonerizing A POCKET FULL OF RYE into "a rocket full of pie" — is simple enough for a Monday and it made me laugh. Plus, Patrick's drawings are just nice to look at.

I liked how NURSERY RHYME and SPACE STATION apply to the two drawings, too — great to get some bonus theme material to flesh out the puzzle.

What with effectively five theme answers (including the big spaces for the two drawings), it's great that Patrick works in some colorful fill. There's not a lot of long stuff, just LIME TREE and STARGATE, but a dose of geography in BOGOTA, WARSAW, and LIBYA zest things up. Even the six-letter entries like EUREKA! and YES YOU serve their purpose well.

I personally dislike partials more than any other sort of glue (except random Roman numerals), so I didn't care for IF AT or AS BIG, but otherwise the puzzle is so smooth. Very well executed.

It stinks to be an Across Lite solver today (which I usually am). The puzzle makes absolutely no sense what with giant chunks of 3x3 black squares; no way to display those comic strip panels. Might have been better to just do away with the .puz file completely. Get into the 21st century already, crossword software!

Great idea to work cartoon panels into a crossword grid, something I can't remember seeing before. BTW, there's another puzzle this week that I also loved, so there'll be two POWs! this week.

POW Tue 10/6/2015

★ Today's puzzle gives us a SINKING / FEELING — four of them, actually. Fun to have four different feelings "sinking," i.e. positioned vertically. I really liked the themers, too, CARLOS SLIM my favorite. Pretty incredible that his net worth is estimated to be around 6% of Mexico's total GDP. And although he hasn't embraced philanthropic goals nearly as fully as Gates or Buffett, I do appreciate his efforts in that arena. Neat to see the wealthy giving back.

Hey, CARLOS SLIM is a fellow engineer!

As with most all of CC's puzzles, I really appreciate her long fill. Usually in puzzles with vertically oriented themers, you can't use much long across fill, for fear of confusing what's theme and what isn't. Today, the circles make it obvious what is theme, so CC takes full advantage, going hog wild with WENT TOO FAR, DANE COOK, STEAL A KISS, LET ME SEE = all very nice material. Even a little BUXOM and FEDEX add color.

For most constructors, this theme conceit would be good enough. But given how skilled CC is, I would have liked to see an extra element tying the four feelings together. How cool would it have been to have all of them from a famous quote? Or even if they were all synonyms of "sinking feeling," like LOSS, SORROW, etc. that would have been perfect. As it was, I found the inclusion of HOPE to be a bit strange. Shouldn't that one be rising?

I also would have liked SINKING FEELING to come toward the end of the puzzle. It was a bit disappointing to encounter it within the first minute of my solve, giving away the game. Perhaps a mirror symmetry arrangement would have been useful, allowing SINKING / FEELING to placed toward the bottom of the puzzle? Some themers would have had to intersect SINKING FEELING, but I bet that would have been possible.

Overall though, a nice early-week theme, and a very well-executed puzzle with added bonuses in sparkly and clean fill. I had to look up TSU — Texas Southern University — but that and RANI are awfully minor.

POW Wed 9/30/2015

★ I like this type of theme, going one step past "word that can follow." Here, we have BREAKABLES revealing that one can break a FEVER, break a RECORD, break a SWEAT, etc. Fun to think of all the disparate things that can be broken, in such different ways.


Cool layout, too. Freddie not only puts in six themers, but gives us a lot of great fill. Usually when people go up to such high theme density, it's at the cost of colorful fill. Not today! KEYNESIAN is my favorite, as macroeconomics fascinates me. Central banks and monetary policy have such a huge influence over the lives of millions, yet some economists advocate doing EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what others insist upon. It's bizarre how little macroeconomists definitively know.

GAZILLION is really nice too. Fun and expressive word. But wait, there's more! FIRE DANCE gets wedged in too — so much strong material made for a cool bonus.

One issue for me is that "break a leg" is a colorful saying, but it's the only saying in the bunch. Made it feel like an outlier. I suppose one can break a leg, literally, but that doesn't fit with the idea of the puzzle for me.

Nice and smooth, especially given all the theme material and long fill. It's too bad that ITE and OID stick out in row nine, but they're minor. RARES seems less minor to me — it's hard to imagine any collector looking for RARES. But what else are you going to do with that R?R?S pattern going through three themers? Collateral damage from the high theme density.

EMBAR is also a funny one. It does appear to be a legit word, but the "To bar or shut in" definition makes it seem awfully bizarre. Collateral damage from the OWLET MOTH long fill.

All in all though, I really appreciated the combination of high theme density and a lot of colorful long fill.

POW Tue 9/22/2015

★ Loved this idea; three people who elicit "aahs," playfully nicknamed the WIZARD OF AAHS. One-word themers can often come out dull, but OTOLARI, er OTOLAYR, dang it! OTOLARYNGOLOGIST is a neat word. MASSAGE THERAPIST is a colorful answer as well. What a perfect pairing of 16-letter answers, both people strongly associated with AAHS.

Say AAH ...

I want to stress how much I liked this idea before I launch into my next paragraphs. Just the fact that I spent so much time thinking about the following shows how much I wanted this already neat idea to be the perfect crossword.

PYROTECHNIST. I was so convinced it was PYROTECHNICIAN that I thought rebus squares were in play. Maybe that IAN had been rebified? I had to force myself to enter the -NIST ending, my hands refusing to obey even at the very end. I totally get why Victor and Tom did this — at 14 letters, PYROTECHNICIAN doesn't match lengths with WIZARD OF OZ (10), THE WIZARD OF OZ (13), WIZARD OF AAHS (12), or THE WIZARD OF AAHS (15) — but it felt like a big compromise. Google does show 50K hits for PYROTECHNIST, so it's legit.


Additionally, pyrotechnicians do elicit AAHS, but it's more OOHS and AAHS, with an emphasis on the former. This takes PYROTECHNIST further away from the other two themers for me, as the others are so strongly all about AAHS. I might have actually preferred just three total themers: OTOLARYNGOLOGIST, MASSAGE THERAPIST, and WIZARD OF AAHS right in the middle.

I appreciated much of the fill. Getting the long and colorful ILLUMINATI and OPENS DOORS goes a long ways to add zest. Not a fan of the old-school ITERS though. Those west and east sections are tough, what with having to work with two grid-spanning themers. The starts of OTOL... and MASS... combine with OPENS DOORS to make it a tough little section to fill, but I would have liked some massaging there to strip out ITERS.

It's rare that I like an idea so much I obsess about it this much after solving. POW! for me despite the minor shortcomings. Put a big smile on my face.

POW Mon 9/14/2015

★ It's always a pleasure when a puzzle surprises me, doubly so when it happens on a Monday. I couldn't even tell what was a themer and what wasn't until I hit CROWN at the very bottom, pulling it all together — the LOS ANGELES KINGS, BUDWEISER, ROLEX, and HALLMARK CARDS all having a CROWN in their logo. Really fun idea.

The "king" of beers (emphasis on the air quotes)

Neat layout, too. I like mirror symmetry, and CC's design reminds me of a Space Invader or the TiVo logo. Mirror symmetry can be really useful, like in this case where the themers don't pair up in lengths, but they all have an odd number of letters: 15, 9, 5, and 11. That's perfect for mirror symmetry.

One of CC's trademarks is to include some snazzy long fill, no matter how difficult the layout. I have a feeling CC keeps a running list of strong fill, incorporating it at every opportunity. US MARSHALS, an emphatic THAT IS A LIE, ANDROID ONE, and LEO TOLSTOY are all beautiful. And even with the difficult parallel down layout of those four answers, there's barely a gluey bit to be seen, just an ESE. It's such fine work.

Although it's minor, IDE up in the north section is easy to polish out. The bigger issue for me is the south, with REY, ERATO, and ADANO. They're all fair(ish), but that pile-up could be very frustrating for a novice solver. It's a tough section to fill — that M??C slot at 54-Down takes away a lot of flexibility.

One option that would have helped is to place CROWN one row higher, at 61-Across. M?C? gives much more flexibility with MICE, MACE, MICA, MACH, MUCH, etc. But having a revealer not at the very end is inelegant. The option I like better is to place CROWN vertically at 50-Down, intersecting HALLMARK CARDS. It would likely require another set of cheater squares (where the C and N of CROWN are now), but that doesn't bother me personally.

A neat Monday theme which kept me guessing until the end.

POW Fri 9/11/2015

★ THIS IS SPINAL TAP is one of the few movies on my Top Tier list, so I had a big smile with the "Smell the Glove" clue. (The album cover ended up being solid black, due to NSFW reasons. Ahem.) BTW, "Smell the Glove" came between "Shark Sandwich" (described by a critic as "Sh*t Sandwich") and "Break Like the Wind."

A metal umlaut makes everything better

Did I mention how much I love that movie?

Neat layout, built upon two pairs of grid-spanning entries. Sometimes puzzles built around grid-spanners use ones that are pretty average; snazziness sacrificed in the name of getting the darn grid to work. Here, I think Pete does great, four for four. Bravo! And while I really like Pete's WATERMELON SEEDS clue, I love Will/Joel's "spitting distance" one. (Sorry, Pete!)

It's great that Pete doesn't just depend on his grid-spanners to provide snazz, leaving slots for eight more long entries — colorful stuff in CHE GUEVARA / CEDAR FALLS and STUNT PILOT. (STAY AT HOME doesn't sound as good to my ear since it's usually paired with MOM or DAD, making it feel like a partial.) Crossing pairs of long answers is a rough task, so it's no surprise to see some URE and ALEF (a variant of ALIF) and MSS / OCTO around those regions. These are mostly minor, although personally, any entry that requires the "variant" tag is to be avoided at all costs.

Check out the big swaths of white in the north and south — ambitious to leave grid sections so wide-open. These big sections make it hard to work in great entries though, and the assortment of potentially esoteric proper names in the bottom — WALPOLE, GARDINER, COLLINS, MARLO — isn't ideal. I like the north better, with a great clue for KFC's The COLONEL, and MEMOREX, which takes me back to fun TV ads from childhood.

Finally, some solvers will be confused by REL, so I'll explain that the "little" in [Little brother or sister?] cues you that an abbr. is in play — REL for relative. "For short" or "briefly" or "quick" all work similarly. A good crossword convention to know.

A lot of fun stuff today!


★ As many of you already know, the great Merl Reagle passed away a few weeks ago; a huge loss for the crossword community. Only having gotten into crosswords a few years ago, I really appreciated seeing this gem by Merl from way back in 1991. It's astounding to see how good this puzzle is given its point in crossword history, well before computer-assisted design became easily accessible.

You know you've made it big when you get a part on The Simpsons

Merl always stressed the importance of crosswords being first and foremost fun for solvers. This puzzle is a great example of that. The theme is so grin-inducing, I would have given it the POW! all by itself. I love Greek mythology, so seeing MANACLES reimagined as "man-a-clees" (similar to Pericles) is so hilarious. Each one of the ten (!) themers (not including the revealer!) works well for me; each one evoking a similar-sounding name from ancient Greece. TELEPHONE bring Persephone to mind, ANTIBIAS does the same for Phidias, etc.

To pack so much great material into a puzzle done by hand is amazing. And although Merl was known for being fine with six-letter partials and "imaginative" pieces of fill like PREWRAP, EXILER, IDLERS, and OTTS, there's remarkably little of that in play. I would consider it a very good puzzle in today's standards, and an absolute home run in 1991 standards.

It's so strange to think that I'll never see Merl again. He was so supportive, contacting me after I got my first NYT Sunday crossword published, both with kudos and a couple of tips. And at my first ACPT, he chatted with this fanboy for a long time, happy to talk shop with many a kind word for my work.

Merl hasn't published a puzzle in the NYT for a long time, since all his work went into his weekly Sunday puzzle, so I'm really glad to have this opportunity to add him to the list of constructors earning a Puzzle of the Week nod.

POW Mon 8/24/2015

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

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

Skin diver ascending

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

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

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

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

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

POW Wed 8/19/2015

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

How about a little symmetry, eh, Mother Nature?

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Thu 8/13/2015

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

Recognize the letter this hinge is named after?

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Tue 8/4/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Tue 7/28/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Sat 7/25/2015

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

Colony of hemi-spheres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Tue 7/14/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Mon 7/6/2015

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

Man oh man I had a crush on Samantha

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loved this one.

POW Thu 7/2/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

What happens in Vegas ...

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

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

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

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

Finally, two standout clues:

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

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

POW Fri 6/19/2015

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

Orwell says: this puzzle is more equal than others

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

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

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

POW Sat 6/13/2015

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Wait. This is temporary, isn't it?

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

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

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

Loved these clues:

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

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

POW Sat 6/6/2015

★ Wow. Just wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bravo, one of my favorites this year.