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

showing 25 out of 57 POW selections from 10/5/2013 to 3/23/2014

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


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

Except if Will is paying, of course.

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

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

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

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

Can't say enough good stuff about this puzzle!

puzzle by Ian Livengood

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

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

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

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

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

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

puzzle by Ed Sessa

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

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

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

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

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

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

puzzle by Bruce Haight and Peter A. Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

puzzle by Ruth B. Margolin

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

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

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

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

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

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

puzzle by Patrick Berry

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

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

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

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

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

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

puzzle by Peter A. Collins

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

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

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

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

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

puzzle by Doug Peterson and Brad Wilber

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

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

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

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

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

puzzle by James Tuttle

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

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

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

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

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

puzzle by Daniel A. Finan

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

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

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

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

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

puzzle by Lynn Lempel

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

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

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

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

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

puzzle by Patrick Berry

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

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

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

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

Very well done!

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

puzzle by Tracy Gray

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

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

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

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

puzzle by Tim Croce

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

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

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

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

puzzle by Ian Livengood

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

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

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

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

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

puzzle by David Steinberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

puzzle by Patrick Berry

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

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

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

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

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

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

*I'm also the good-looking one.

puzzle by Kevin G. Der

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

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

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

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

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

puzzle by Peter A. Collins

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

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

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

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

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

puzzle by Jean O'Conor

★POW Wed 11/6/2013
DRUGSMUSSABBA
NIGHTOHNOCOLT
ABHORSAIDITNOT
SITSUPMONTE
CANTFOOLBERETS
ORATESALLTOT
MISOARMADA
BETWEENYOUANDME
NANTESYEAR
HATGISCAMARO
OSWALDTALKINTO
WHALEMOVEIN
DONTSCARETURBO
ARGOSPARATARI
HESSASHYSEGAL
★ What a fantastic theme today! Years ago, I had toyed with BETWEEN YOU AND ME as a revealer for a puzzle, but mostly around phrases starting with U and ending with ME (USERNAME, UNWHOLESOME, etc.). It had never occurred to me to develop a theme the way Jacob did, and I bow to him for the spark of genius. YOU TALKIN TO ME; I love it. Very well done.

And generally such a clean puzzle! Jacob is fairly new to the construction game, which made this puzzle even more impressive. It's really hard to make a smooth puzzle, especially when you're working with five themers. And I loved hearing about his desire to push the envelope, stepping outside his comfort zone to include two long downs. Hopefully he'll continue this trend, next aiming for two or three sets of long downs. Possibly even a 74-word puzzle with a quantity of quality long fill.

I was absolutely loving the puzzle, having quickly cottoned to the clever theme and the awesome revealer, really appreciating the cleanliness of the fill...and then I hit BLAU. "When a four-letter word hasn't been used in the NYT xw crossword since 1998, there's usually a good reason," I thought. Luckily, Jim asked me why my reaction was so negative. I thought about it for a long time and decided that BLAU really isn't so different from AZUL, or even ETE/ENERO/NIE. Should those entries be more acceptable, simply because they're used all the time in xws? If that's the only reason, then my reaction shouldn't be such a knee-jerk one. Seems to me that I overreacted.

Out of curiosity, let's take a look at that region and see why BLAU occurred. The challenge starts with needing a four-letter word ending in U; only about 30 decent options available. Then, the adjacent I????A pattern (19d) is also pretty limited, IBERIA, ICE TEA, IMPALA, ITALIA being some other choices. Finally, the open area of parallel 6s in the NE is hard to fill in itself. Everything taken together, all those constraints cascade into that BLAU region, giving limited options. I absolutely love the fill in that NE corner, with BLOTTO, BONNET, and three-card MONTE, but BLAU still feels like a high price to pay.

Anyway, enough picking of nits. When it comes down to it, the crossings of BLAU are all fair, so it is what it is. The rest of the puzzle is so finely tuned, so well-designed, so clean. I appreciate the obvious care and time Jacob put into it. Overall, a finely executed puzzle with a clever trick and well-chosen themers.

puzzle by Jacob McDermott

★POW Thu 10/31/2013
WOLFMANNAMFLOW
INUTEROARIGATO
MONSTERRETSNOM
PREMIUMNATDEB
IMPMISER
SKATEVIANOTSO
LOCHJARJSBACH
OATATRIACAY
GLOSSYORBEINE
SARAHARKPUTTS
DIALSSAG
ACCABUINSECTS
PHANTOMMOTNAHP
EASESINSWEEPEA
DRACULA
★ I haven't been this impressed by a puzzle in quite a while. Such a fun solve; the trick of DRACULA not having a reflection completely mystifying until the very end. I love it when someone breaks the rules of crosswords. David did a masterful job of lulling us to sleep by having us fill in the three mirrored entries and then hits us with the killer finale.

Sometimes people ask me which is more important, the idea or the execution. Well, I had a similar idea a while back, but I had envisioned it with the ENTIRE grid being mirror symmetrical, with only VAMPIRE not showing up. When I tried to put it together, I became something of a Dr. Frankenstein, breaking all sorts of rules broken (in unholy ways). Both David's idea and his execution were better than mine, so what can I do but give a standing ovation to the master?

The people in this coffee shop are staring at me now.

A side note about David: he's actually a magician! And not only a great magician, but one who works his magic with crosswords and Scrabble. He recently worked on "Now You See Me" and has developed a signature trick involving crosswords. The guy's skills are mind-boggling. I actually said "no @#$!& way!" after seeing his work.

It's a shame that the paper solve is so different than electronic solves today. Often times we rebellious constructors find ways to break the classical xw conventions, causing all sort of issues for the paper solve and/or the electronic. The paper version is usually so much more flexible because the newspaper doesn't complain if one writes outside the grid, intentionally doesn't fill in a square, or even draws a picture in one or more squares. But Across Lite and other platforms often get cranky and complain.

As we go forward, more and more people will be solving on computers and tablets, so I hope the NYT and other outlets find ways to evolve. Hopefully soon, I'll be doing a review of software and hardware packages that might be able to tackle the ever-expanding imaginations of constructors.

Couldn't be happier about the puzzle today. Bravo!

puzzle by David Kwong

★POW Fri 10/25/2013
MADEMINCEMEATOF
ECONOMICWARFARE
LOSANGELESTIMES
SPECIALINTEREST
STEMSISS
ODEFFFTREE
STURMBEEFSAXL
MORSECODESIGNAL
OJSNILESLAKME
GOALMAXTVS
UGAPIERO
COMMERCIALRADIO
FREETRANSLATION
CHANSONSDEGESTE
SETSONAPEDESTAL
★ A couple of months ago, a non-crossword friend of mine pulled me aside and said I had to see something. He took out a newspaper he had saved and held up a NYT crossword, a themeless with two triple-stacks and very few black squares. "This is the coolest thing ever," he said. That's a pretty powerful statement from someone who doesn't even like crosswords.

I realize some people are going to hate today's crossword, but I say, haters gonna hate. I'm not a fan of construction feats for the sake of record-breaking, but I was so wowed by the visual of today's puzzle, with those wide-open spaces, that I had to give it the POW. Well done, MAS!

The usual knock on triple-stacks is two-fold (and these apply even more strongly for quad-stacks). First, because of their construction difficulty, they tend to use phrases which aren't very snappy, use too many common letters (RSTLN E), or incorporate ONES (A LOT ON ONES PLATE being the most notorious). MAS shines here, using eight really nice entries. At first I was put off by CHANSONS DE GESTE, but after looking it up, I decided I enjoyed learning about a term that's gridworthy; a deficiency in my knowledge base. It's just amazing that MAS managed to find two separate sets of four good entries for his stacks.

The second knock is that the crossing down entries tend to be tortured, giving the solver an equally tortured solving experience filled with a gamut of partials, abbreviations, esoteric names, roll-your-own words, etc. On this front MAS doesn't do quite as well. In general, there are a reasonable number of ugly entries, but there are so many of one type, partials, that it was noticeable during my solve. It's unfortunate that ME AT had to be clued as a partial to avoid the dupe with MADE MINCEMEAT OF, as that would have helped the issue. Should we give constructors a break, allowing for extra ugly fill when a feat is as cool as clean quad stacks? I think a little leeway is reasonable to expect, but the high number of partials did detract from my personal solve today.

So overall, very impressive work and an enjoyable puzzle. I'm usually dead set against stunt grids for their own sake, but in my e-mail exchange with MAS, I really appreciated hearing how he tossed out a whole bunch of triple and quad-stacks before settling on something he thought solvers would enjoy. Solver first, constructor second, that's what I love to hear.

puzzle by Martin Ashwood-Smith

★POW Wed 10/16/2013
ALCAPPOHMYSYL
MOOSHUFARECOE
FLOORMATHISAUG
MAPEIRECRAG
BACONFATHERS
ICHOKEDIRAISE
NOONASIFAHS
THROWINTHETOWEL
OASHSIADARE
BEGOODANNOYED
HISPANICROOM
UTESACHTMAC
MANHERSHEYBABY
ONSEVACLEONAS
RTEXENAPTBOAT
★ A few years ago, I was working on a construction at my local bagel shop, and a guy said, "Excuse me, but is that Crossword Compiler?". My first reaction was to hide under the table and/or pretend I didn't speak English, but luckily my second reaction was to shake Sam Donaldson's hand. Little by little we started hanging out along with Jim Horne, and now Sam is one of my favorite people in all of crossword-land. Amazing how a chance meeting can turn into something so awesome.

Sam used to blog daily over at Crossword Fiend and managed to write entertaining pieces every day for about two years while reviewing the CrosSynergy puzzles. One of his best features was "Guess the Constructor", where he ranked three guesses, trying to match the puzzle's grid and cluing vibe to one of the CrosSynergy regulars. If I were to play that game with this week's seven puzzles, I think I could have picked out Sam's in a heartbeat. It's a puzzle chock-full of Donaldson personality, and for that I give it the POW.

Fun theme with a catchy revealer, working on a deeper level than usual "add-a-letter(s)" themes by adding HIS and HERS to each of two phrases. I appreciated Sam's effort to incorporate the HIS and HERS at the ends of the first two theme entries and at the beginnings of the last two. Thoughtfulness like that makes for an elegant execution.

More importantly, all aspects of the puzzle scream SAM DONALDSON! and I love it (yes, I'm biased, but what are you going to do). Sam and I have both been known to 1.) titter at juvenile jokes and 2.) enjoy greasy food, so the base phrases HEY BABY and BACON FAT made me reminisce of the good old days when Sam still lived in Seattle. You throw in I CHOKED, I RAISE right next to each other, the "No acting up!" clue for BE GOOD, "Jeez Louise!" for MAN, and "End of a lame pickup line" for OFTEN and you have yourself a Donaldson signature. BTW, it's a good thing Sam and I are both married because we'd be those two pathetic guys at the end of the bar poking each other, saying, "No, YOU go talk to her!" while giggling a la "Dumb and Dumber".

To be sure, this puzzle isn't without its flaws. I debated for a long time whether to disqualify the puzzle for POW contention solely based on the NIDI/HSIA area, but eventually all the great stuff won me over. And I do like the pairs of stacked 10's in the NE and SW corners, but the trade-off of having a lot of three-letter abbreviations (SYL sticking out) and acronyms made me wonder whether it would have been better to break up COHABITANT and YOU ARE HERE for cleaner fill, especially if it could mean improving the NIDI/HSIA region.

But overall, this puzzle gave me a tremendous smile. Full of personality and enjoyment. Can't wait to see Sam at the ACPT in 2014.

puzzle by Samuel A. Donaldson

★POW Mon 10/7/2013
TAMPSWAPRASP
SARAHTODOUTAH
THEREGOESMYBABY
DOWWIKIAIDES
SEENDESSERT
AFTERMIDNIGHT
DOLLSESENEAR
RHOABSINCTRA
EONSAASBATTY
WHEELINTHESKY
NOTEPADASAP
TWEENERGOBRA
SINGINGTHEBLUES
ANNAASEAEARNS
REELBARRYOGA
★ A great debut from Amy. I've said before how difficult it is to make a Monday puzzle, and this one fires on all cylinders. I really appreciate Monday puzzles which I could give to non-crossword friends to get them hooked on the NYT xw, and this is one of them. We have some fun puzzles coming up this week, but this one deserves the POW. Here are the reasons why Amy's works so well for me:

Interesting, consistent, specific theme. There is a huge range of solving abilities in the NYT xw universe, everyone from total novices to the speedsters (Dan, Anne, Tyler, Plot, ZigZag, Shazbot, Commander Chewie) who don't even look at the theme, so finding something that works for everyone is near impossible. Amy gives us a theme that beginners can grasp (songs all ending in a word that's a shade of blue, plus another song as a "revealer") and advanced solvers can appreciate, given the catchiness of the three songs. As for specificity, there may be other well-known songs which also fit the theme, but I couldn't think of any right off the bat.

Long fill. Often the best source of added snazz is 8+ letter fill. Amy has some nice stuff here, GETTYSBURG and ARE WE ALONE (although I would have preferred to see a clue like "Secretive whisper" to get more specific about its usage). But she also incorporates some shorter good stuff: ST PETER, WOE IS ME, RUB IT IN, and HAR HAR. Nice.

Surrounding fill. This is the category that makes Mondays so difficult to create. A late week puzzle often must use an esoteric or crosswordese entry to hold the grid together. In my own late-week puzzles I've often had to let the likes of an OEO pass because of tough grid constraints. That's usually fine for a late-week solver, but it can badly trip up the novice solver. Amy has filled her grid professionally, with just a couple of the lesser uglies: ENNE, PHYS, ESE, STDS, GSA. GIDE is an outlier for a Monday, but the crosses are all common words and the Nobelist Andre Gide is gridworthy. I also appreciate Amy's use of a set of black "cheater squares" at the very NW and SE. As Patrick Berry has said, he'll always choose to incorporate cheater squares if that means the surrounding fill is of higher quality.

Cluing. It's tough to come up with fun and tricky cluing on a Monday, because that usually makes it too difficult for the novice solver. There's nothing spectacular here, but nothing too tricky for its own good. A slight ding is the sheer length of the clue for SINGING THE BLUES. It would have been nice to concatenate that somehow, maybe "Soulful activity describing the ends of 16-, 27-, 49-across"?

Looking forward to more work from Amy. P.S. There sadly is no ZigZag, Shazbot, or Commander Chewie in universe of NYT xw solvers. But there should be.

ADDED NOTE: Erik Agard shall hereafter be known as ZigZag. BTW, check out his indy crossword site, Glutton for Pun if you have a chance. Good stuff.

puzzle by Amy Johnson

★POW Sat 10/5/2013
ACTFIVEOFFCAST
FAIRBANKSALASKA
FREEASSOCIATION
ALGOREMANXMPG
BEANSPORTMOJO
LAMSBUDSLOVES
ESEBRNOROO
ESPRITDECORPS
AIMRAMPLID
SKORTHASPNOLO
AAHSSAGEJAWED
IBMZERODUPING
DOYOUWANNADANCE
HOMELESSSHELTER
IMYOURSCLAMORS
★ Two Puzzles of the Week, can that be? I tried so hard to adhere to my own rule of highlighting a single standout puzzle of the week, but I struggled, given how many puzzles I thought were fantastic this week (and we still have a Patrick Berry Sunday to look forward to!) Thanks to my Girlfriend/Wife/Barbarian Jill Denny for the idea of settling on two POWs.

Beautiful puzzle today. To continue my climbing analogy from last week's Saturday puzzle, I looked at this puzzle's teenty-tiny holds, slopers, and near-nothing features, and I quaked. Sure, I fell at times as I made my way up, but I fought through each of the tricky spots, taking a few rests to figure out how to move past a certain section, and came away slapping the top anchors with a triumphant yell. It stretched me in such a way that I wanted to take a picture of it (yes, I take pictures of great gym routes) to bottle the feeling of struggling mightily but ultimately managing to accomplish the near impossible.

Byron is a master at the challenging Saturday grid, a skill that few constructors have honed to his level. He's the 3rd most published Saturday author in the Shortz era, behind only the great Rich Norris (now the editor of the LA Times crossword) and the mystical/magical Patrick Berry. And Byron gives us a constructor's clinic with this puzzle. Two double-stacks, both with interesting answers and (mostly) squeaky-clean crossings, accompanying solid short fill through the puzzle's midsection, makes for a masterful construction. It's amazing how clean all the crossings through the double-stacks are; a real rarity. Only ENS and OEO as your (very minor) dings? You gotta be kidding me.

And it's not often I'm SO impressed with a puzzle's cluing, but the "Large monitors" clue was fantastic; same with "Tip used for icing". For the latter, I kept pounding my head, swearing at Byron for likely tossing some sort of ridiculous esoteric baking tool into the puzzle. When I finally hit on SILENCER, a big smile came to my face.

Brilliant. How could I not name this stonker co-Puzzle of the Week?

puzzle by Byron Walden