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

showing 25 out of 93 POW selections from 6/9/2014 to 12/6/2014

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

★POW Sat 12/6/2014
★ This puzzle exemplifies the reason I love giving out my Puzzle of the Week. I enjoy crosswords and puzzles in general, but I do so many of them that I run the risk of getting complacent, of losing my appreciation for all the hard work that goes into making even a single puzzle. So it pleases me to no end to be able to gush about what I think is a stellar creation.

I'm biased in that I like Josh in the first place. We've only met a few times at the ACPT, but he's fun to hang out with and exudes that sort of younger person's vibe, excited about the cool life developments still unfolding in front of him. Sometimes I get cranky about constructors trying to go "too hip," but that's not at all the case with today's fresh-feeling puzzle. Bunk, from "The Wire" LINKED IN is quickly becoming an essential business tool, ZOOLANDER was hilarious (and is popular enough that "Zoolander 2" is in the works!), and PO-PO is fun slang for the po-lice (I imagine PO-PO being said in the voice of Bunk from "The Wire""). Three pieces of strong, fresh fill is right at my sweet spot, not giving me the feeling of too much "stuff I'm too uncool to know" crammed into one place.

And the grid engineering is fantastic. Josh starts with four sets of triple-stacks, one in each corner, but he does so much more. Not only does he extend two great answers toward the center in KIM JONG IL (although I sure wish he had been clued to the state's outrageous claims of his golfing prowess) and ZOOLANDER. But check out what he does in the north and south — sets of three 7s extending off his stacks! And not just neutral entries, but NEOCONS with its clever clue, the snappy EGG WASH, and the historical and glad-I-learned-something-today SALT TAX.

So much interconnect shouldn't realistically be feasible, but Josh somehow pulls it off. Check out the raw number of slots for long answers: 14 of 8+ letters, 8 of 7 letters. And he takes great advantage of these slots, converting almost all of them into assets, with very few left as what I would call neutral (LOOKED AT, INDIRECT, BLESSES, SCIENCE). He was extremely picky about his use of these longish slots, and that was much appreciated.

I'm not a big fan of the "only seen like this in crosswords" entries like B TEN (B-10) and H AND M (H & M), but I can understand that some people like them for how bizarre they look inside a grid. Two in one puzzle is a bit much for me, but I do appreciate that they were at least from different walks of life.

Along with the great clues for EYE OF NEWT (a different sort of microbrew ingredient), ALARM (back to the hooch with a "buzz" misdirection), JERSEY (SF Giants, represent!), and RABBI (a party at many a wedding), this puzzle sang to me. Such a tremendous pleasure to be able to write about it.

★POW Sat 11/29/2014
★ What a cool grid today! Normally I associate Liz with Sunday puzzles featuring cool visual effects, but today she shows off her well-rounded constructing chops. Not only does she delve into themelesses, an area she hasn't focused as much of her time on, but she goes all the way into the Saturday deep end with an incredibly hard task: the ultra-low word count themeless grid.

I usually assess themelesses with a ridiculously dorky MBA-speak ASSETS and LIABILITIES scorecard, incrementing ASSETS for each colorful entry and upping the LIABILITIES count for each glue bit. (If there's a "puzzle-killer" — an absolutely heinous entry — the entire grid gets tossed right out of consideration.) One aspect I usually don't account for is a "wow factor." It's pretty rare for me to be impressed just by the look of an empty grid — for example, quad-stacks used to get this bonus from me when they first appeared, but now they don't. I would add perhaps three or four extra points to the ASSETS column today because of the wide-open grid with a pattern I don't remember seeing, and I would also raise my LIABILITIES limit to maybe eight. Sometimes it's worth slogging through more glue than usual in order to see something new and different.

Redwood trees

The danger in ultra-low word count grids is that they're so hard to fill that the constructor sometimes finds it good enough to just fill the darn thing, period. That used to be good enough — take a look at some of the record-setting grids and the swaths of glue they contain — but not anymore. Liz gives us some beauties, including three interlocking grid-spanners, plus a spate of really nice 7s and 8s: OBAMANIA, EVEN ODDS, ADMITS IT, HOGWASH are all great on their own right. Strong, amusing wordplay makes REDWOOD, CORSAGE, DEICERS, even ORDAIN and HORSE stand out as well.

It does have its flaws, as I would expect. There's the weirdly spelled AMEBA (which I've been guilty of using in the past), and a lot of the four-letter words are unsightly. Hit the "Analyze" button below and you'll see that the alphabetical list starts with ABER AROO DORN (although I like me some Worf) and ENTO — not a great sign. And although it's neat that there are no three-letter words in the grid, I would have much preferred a strong grid-spanner to replace THREE LETTER WORD, which feels a tad gimmicky to me, especially given that this sort of thing has been done before.

Overall, I loved the initial impact of the grid — a rare occurrence for a themeless for me — and the solving experience was really entertaining. I was able to overlook all the glue in order to savor the strong entries and playful cluing.

★ Another rock-solid piece of work from Patrick today. I told myself I was going to up my standards for certain constructors, as I like the idea of spreading POW!s around. And honestly, I wasn't wowed by the puzzle at first glance — it's just a homophone type of puzzle, yeah?

No! After speeding through the ultra-smooth solve, I began to realize how neat it was. Homophone pair puzzles have been done over and over again, so I think it's important to do something different, or add another layer. Perhaps jam three homonyms together? Or in this case, take a final syllable and find an unexpected homophone for it. ROTC PAPARAZZI was brilliant — the sheer craziness of RAZZI and ROTC sounding the same is really cool. (Note: regular reader Evan Kalish asked about the ROTC rhyme, so I'll clarify that ROTC is indeed commonly pronounced "rot-see.") Same goes for PEWTER and PUTER, LUNAR and LOONER, and COLLIE and CHOLY.


I asked Patrick how he did it — these themers aren't really something you can find through brute force database searching. He said he came up with the idea while eating a pomegranate, and found theme candidates the old fashioned way: paper, a rhyming dictionary, and a whole lot of brainstorming. Very cool.

What's most impressive though, is Patrick's ability to create a Sunday-size puzzle which falls more into the Monday-ish level of difficulty that's accessible to newer solvers. Will generally pegs Sunday puzzles to be pretty difficult (roughly as hard as a Thursday), but I've noticed that there's a fairly wide range over the course of a year. That's a brilliant move, as the Sunday NYT xw has so much more exposure than other days of the week that it's good to put a gradient of difficulty within Sundays. Makes it more accessible to a wider range of solvers; a good strategy to continually increase readership.

But coming up with a super-smooth, relatively easy Sunday puzzle is incredibly difficult. If creating a super-smooth Monday puzzle is like getting a man into space, doing a similar task with a 21x, 140-word grid is starting a colony of lunar ballooners. The much more difficult specs mean that you have to use longer words on average (can't lean as heavily on 3, 4, 5-letter words), and knitting together a grid with roughly twice as much area without duplicating the usual ATE / EAT, ONE, IRE suspects that are so easy to miss … that's a monster of a task.

As usual, Patrick sticks the landing, even giving us a bevy of ALI BABA, EVIL EYE, RIB CAGE, SANDLOT (what great use of seven-letter entries!), while keeping the glue to an … ERNO? That's about it, for an entire Sunday puzzle? (Actually, ERNO Rubik is a bit of a hero of mine.) Patrick is one of the best when it comes to navigating the trade-offs between sparkly fill vs. clean smoothness.

So this puzzle might not look like eye-popping, but it's pretty close to the epitome of a perfect easy-level Sunday puzzle inviting in newer solvers. Really well done.

★POW Sat 11/15/2014
★ Loved this puzzle. Perhaps I'm simply on Peter's wavelength (although he's younger, a much better Ultimate player than this recently retired handler, and makes much more colorful themelesses — harrumph), but this grid sang to me.

Let's start with the raw quantity of assets. I count (roughly) 18, an amazingly high number. Typically I enjoy a themeless if it has ten assets as the very least, and the NYT averages 12(ish). I'm in awe of how smoothly Peter worked AFFLUENZA through that pair of MOONWALKS / PIZZA PIES. Beautiful but very difficult way to up one's asset count. Same goes for HONEY BEAR running through TAX CHEAT / WORKHORSE / HOLE IN ONE.

With such a high asset count, I'd expect some liabilities on the ledger making this possible. Sure, there's XKES, and … ETD? LTR? Let's put the liability count at two, since those last two are so minor. An (assets – liabilities) count of 16? Takes sky-high expertise to make this happen. I'm satisfied when that (assets - liabilities) number is over ten, so 16 is just silly.

And Scrabbly letters: the JQXZ count is four, pretty high. Dare I say, Peter has already broken my CROSSWORD UNHOLY TRINITY (CUT) principle? Damn you, Wentz!

I don't like to give unbalanced reviews — there's almost always some good and some not so good in any puzzle — but I feel like I'd have to stretch to ridiculous nits to say more about the puzzle's drawbacks. Maybe say something about how THE FED (great answer) isn't really a market leader (or shouldn't be, more accurately) so should have a question mark? I could have used a few more clever clues, perhaps something about PIZZA PIES being a "toss-up," or an interesting bit of trivia for a HOLE IN ONE?

Eh, forget it. With the sizzling grid and clues like ASNER referencing Lou Grant, KNEE PATCH extending the life of pants, not the length, and TAPS echoing Eine kleine Nachtmusik, I near 100% loved this puzzle.

★POW Thu 11/6/2014
★ I really enjoyed this one. Sometimes puzzles trying to do too much fall flat, but this hybrid of part tricky Thursday and part themeless-style fill worked well for me. There's not a huge amount of theme — PARTING of the RED / SEA, plus PHARAOH, ISRAELI, MOSES, and EGYPT — but the visual PARTING of the unclued entries RED and SEA was a neat added bonus.

Although there's not a huge theme density at 37 theme squares, the fact that there are essentially five seed answers (four short ones plus RED / PARTING / SEA across the middle) ups the level of difficulty. Matt does well to spread his themers around, placing the four loose ones into different quadrants of the grid, which allows for high flexibility in fill. Take for example, the SE corner. With just EGYPT fixed into place, Matt has great freedom to place colorful entries like SAO PAULO, TIRE IRON, and PEEPER, working that corner through dozens of possibilities.

And the clues are strong, with themeless-level cleverness. YETI gives us a really interesting bit of trivia. [Snake's place, in part] mystified me, until I realized the "snake" was actually a capitalized "Snake," i.e. the Snake River. Great use of placement, hiding that capital letter at the very beginning of the clue. BERG also gave me a great a-ha moment when I realized 4/14/12 was talking about 4/14/1912, not 4/4/2012. Excellent piece of deception.

Just like any puzzle, it's not perfect, with its smattering of OSTE, IDAS, ALEE, A MAN. But notice how these four bits of crossword glue are spread out? That deft touch made those four bits less apparent for me during my solve. And I did find PESACH a bit of an ODD ONE, but it was buried in the recesses of my memory banks somewhere. A Jewish buddy of mine confirmed that it's totally legit.

Overall, a highly entertaining solve for me. I like puzzles that break molds and conventions, and I found the mixture of the trickiness of a Thursday and the chock-full goodness of a themeless to be spot on.

★POW Tue 10/28/2014
★ I love being surprised by an early-week puzzle — what a neat a-ha moment when I ran across the NBA revealer. Even though I'm a long-time NBA fan (draft day used to be my favorite sporting event of the year, due to the gravity of the decisions the GMs have to make), I've never thought about the fact that there are only four teams with a singular name. How cool is that?

For all you aspiring crossword constructors out there, this is a textbook example of specificity. Many people ask me what makes a good crossword, and this idea of "specificity" is a tough one to grasp. Will explains it well with his use of the word "completeness." A reasonable theme here could contain entries ending in KINGS, HORNETS, NETS, BULLS, etc., but the constructor then has 30 to select from. To have four and only four names that could have been used feels a bit magical — that specificity is mighty elegant. Not everyone agrees with me (Jim and I have differing viewpoints, in fact), but high specificity is something I personally highly value.

I like the unusual layout, too. Acme does use 24 three-letter words, which did feel noticeable during my solve, but I love how it enabled so much long fill: ANSEL ADAMS, GLITTERATI, CATALYST. Adds so much to the quality of solve.


Those parallel downs in the NE and SW do require some crossword glue to hold everything together: IMA, AND I, UTA, DEM, YDS, but that's really not too bad, and it felt like a good trade-off in order to get those long parallel downs. It would have been perfect if DISCOUNTED and SEMITROPIC had been snazzier entries, to the level of ANSEL ADAMS and GLITTERATI, but that parallel down structure usually doesn't allow for such goodness. I personally don't use it too much anymore since it's so difficult to come up with great long downs with perfectly smooth surrounding fill.

Some tough crossings — AZT/ZOWIE (I imagine some will finish with AYT and YOWIE) along with SHTETL/EERO (SHTATL/AERO anyone?), which might have nudged this puzzle out of the Monday spot we usually see Acme's puzzles in. All in all though, such a fun theme with tight specificity and resulting elegance; a pleasure for this NBA fan. Now if we could only resurrect the good old Run TMC days

★POW Mon 10/13/2014
★ Delightful offering from Greg today, a listing of seven common games, all with seven letters, thus GAME SEVEN. Fun interpretation of a timely phrase. I always loved Reggie Jackson's "Mr. October" moniker. I only get called "Mr. Denny," as in "Dr. and Mr. Denny." Harrumph.

What most impressed me was how smooth Greg managed to get this puzzle. I think Mondays ought to be accessible to newcomers — not necessarily easy, though. That's a big difference. I didn't see any little bits that an outsider would scratch their head at, and that's such an huge accomplishment in a Monday puzzle. Extremely tough to achieve, as so often a constructor must rely on a little glue to hold the grid together.


Some people are going to cry foul at OKAPIS, and I agree that it's a tough entry to figure out. But as much as I think the Monday puzzle should be accessible, I don't want it to be palp, either. Each of the crossings is fair, and it reminds me of a story about a guy I met in El Salvador. He was from South Africa and had recently traveled to America for the first time. When I asked him what the highlight of trip was, he said "seeing those funny animals, with the cute little noses, and the fuzzy tails… you know..." (He couldn't pull the name out after five minutes of trying, and it took me forever to figure out to what he was referring.) I'm sure OKAPIS are as well-known to him as SQUIRRELS are to us. I like Monday crosswords that expand one's world view, as long as they do so in a fair way.

I wondered why the six themers around the perimeter weren't all the way on the edge. Seems to me that would be a more elegant way to execute this idea. I can see that the V of REVERSI is much easier to use in the ????V? pattern than the horribly constrained ?????V pattern though. I almost always prefer themers in elegant spots, but if it's a choice between elegant spots or clean fill, I'll almost always opt for the latter.

Interesting idea, well executed. So hard to make those 7x3 chunks smooth, but Greg did it six times around the perimeter with nary a hiccup.

★POW Mon 10/6/2014
★ This puzzle delighted me. Many of you know my idiot-level knowledge of pop music, so I confess I was a bit skeptical when I uncovered LYIN' EYES. Luckily, I knew SINGIN' IN THE RAIN from playing trombone in the pit orchestra of my high school production, and who doesn't know PUTTIN' ON THE RITZ? What pulled it all together for me though, was thinking about MISSING parsed as MISSIN' G. Such a fun moment.

Additionally, Robyn goes the extra mile and reduces her word count to 74. The NE and SW corners add so much meat to the puzzle, with those juicy parallel 9's. Normally I prefer multiple-word colorful phrases, but HERCULEAN pops, and organic CHEMISTRY was one of my favorite subjects in school. Tack on a smile-inducing clue for the latter and I APPLAUDED. (Way to trigger subliminal feelings of appreciation, Robyn!). Great use of cheater squares in the two corners to help smooth out those corners, really just an MCI as a ding.

The one section I was plus/minus on was the north, with Cheri OTERI and ESSEN. I'm perfectly fine with OTERI as an answer; I just wish she were more NYT-worthy. Her friendly alternation of vowel-consonant makes her much more crossword-friendly than her co-SNL-alum Kristen WIIG, who I think has earned it much more so than OTERI.

And ESSEN is definitely a place, but I wish it were historically or culturally more important for all the xw-exposure it gets. Those E's and S's make it crossword gold, but I remember the first time I uncovered it, wondering what other esoteric geography I'd have to know. I'm of the opinion that once a term crosses the threshold of NYT-worthiness, I don't much care how often it gets used (I'm perfectly fine with ONO any time I see it). Before then, I prefer it to be used sparingly. It's unfortunate that the ??E?I pattern at 6-D is so constraining — I might have moved a block around to avoid that pattern.

That's pretty nit-picky stuff though. Overall, this is the type of puzzle I like to show newbies; pointing out 1.) the specific, tight, clever theme and 2.) how doable it is. Really well done.

★POW Thu 10/2/2014
★ So many layers on this clever puzzle. I have a feeling many people will be at the point I was at, irritated at the "inaccuracy" of seeing E equal mc, not mc2, so I'm going to break it down even more than in David's comments. I must have thought about this for a full day, wondering how the NYT could possibly allow such scientific and mathematical error. Heresy! Why not at least make the other side of the rebus MCC to represent the C squared? It finally dawned on me that mc2 is read as "mc squared" — the letters MC are "squared" into a single rebus cell. It adds another level to the already cunning idea of E equaling MC in a two-way rebus. EINSTEIN-level genius with wordplay.

Very neat how David incorporated the special squares within some of the theme answers. Yet another nice touch. What would have made it Puzzle of the Year quality for me was some rationale built in to explain why there were six special squares. Not absolutely necessary, but man oh man that would have been the icing on the icing already on the cake. If the number six were somehow integral to the theory of general relativity...

I love it when a puzzle makes me think more about what could be done. How cool would it be to have some sort of physical representation of the bizarre effects that occur when one approaches the speed of light? Hmm...

One small nit I'll pick is that I found it slightly odd that half the special squares worked one way, and half were flipped. On one hand it made it more challenging to uncover them, but it felt to me like having them all work identically would have been more elegant. Personal preference.

A final note, on vocabulary. As much as I like current slang or fun terms, entries like PLUTARCH never go out of style, in my eyes. A timeless entry, appropriate for the educated tone of the New York Times, and especially appropriate for a puzzle with this EINSTEIN-ian theme. I doubt I'll ever gripe about seeing PLUTARCH, whereas I can't say the same thing about the latest "celebrity" who may be fun for small niches of people to see, but who may not have long-term staying power.

★POW Fri 9/26/2014
★ I'm really digging Patrick's recent experimentation with the "stairstep" triple-13's (in the middle of the grid). This arrangement has so much potential to fill a themeless grid with even more snazzy long entries than usual. Patrick gives us strong work in grid development — 66-word themelesses are so incredibly difficult to get clean — and as with most all of Patrick's puzzles, the clues really sing with clever word play.

Some beautiful long entries today. One of Patrick's strengths is choosing ones that are both 1.) in the language and 2.) amenable to a sneaky clue. Many constructors select "feature entries" that are the name of their favorite indie band or some piece of lingo/esoterica not very well known. Those can be great, but their clues usually have to be definitional (as if coming out of Webster's) for them to be fair. I so much prefer entries that adhere to both criteria. BINGO NIGHT, for example, is a fantastic answer in itself, and the clue about one's number being called makes it even better.

Given the high bar Patrick's set for himself, I was a little surprised to see the partial C'EST and the obscure card game SKAT, and in adjacent across answers. With just two liabilities, that's less than typically seen in themelesses. For any other constructor I'd shrug them off, barely noticing them. I like how C'EST enables the snappy triple of ROBOTIC / COAL MINE / BACK TALKS, and there doesn't seem to be any way to easily mend that little bit.

I took apart the south section to see how tough that would be to modify. Turns out it's awfully difficult. With DRAGGED OUT, LOUIE LOUIE, and GEOLOGIST (great clue, BTW!) in place, the only fix for SKAT I could find was to place a black square at the S to make KAT (and IDLE, singular). But that causes problems in the north section, turning it from a flawless fill to something not so hot. GET TO becomes something like ATTO; not great. Knowing how much care Patrick puts into his work, I can only imagine him gnashing his teeth, going to all sorts of lengths to figure out how to get rid of a single glue entry.

Sometimes Patrick's puzzles can feel a bit light on Scrabbly letters, since he tends to favor entries with more common letters in order to facilitate cleaner fill. Today's there's just a lone J, but it's integrated so well, not a piece of glue needed to get it in, smooth as silk. And a lovely clue for PJS, making me think about infomercials at first.

I wouldn't say it's quintessential Berry given the two small dings on the bottom row, but it still gave me Berryesque pleasure. Always a treat to see his name on the byline.

★POW Thu 9/18/2014
★ Loved this concept. I could totally see the confusion on the poor person's face as CASEY unhelpfully spelled his name. Reading Will's comment made it even funnier. Big thumbs up.

And the execution is incredibly well done. With five themers plus two short reveals, I'd normally expect some compromises in the fill. It would have been nice to get one pair of long themers in, but I appreciate that he's taken advantage of the 6's and 7's, filling them with such good stuff as ANY DAY, MISSUS, and my favorite, EPSILON with its microeconomics clue. One of my old MBA profs (also a crossword fan) frequents the same coffee shop as me, and I'm going to have to admit that I needed the E to drop it in. Sigh, all the stuff I've forgotten.

Another notable feature of this puzzle is the "fresh fill." As a younger constructor (Joel recently graduated from Pomona), I really appreciate his restraint in tossing in stuff I've never heard of. When it's just KIMYE and YOLO (according to a kid I work with, it stands for "Yo oaf, love ouchies!" — something said before punching the receiver in the arm as hard as possible), I enjoy learning these things. Although sometimes they kind of hurt.

Great clues, too. The one for ALLEYS is fantastic.

I always try to point out stuff I loved as well as stuff I thought could use improvement. Hmm. It would have been nice if CASEY and QRCIU were in more elegant locations. Perhaps pushed all the way to the top and bottom? But that's awfully minor. Those two answers are symmetrically placed, and I bet Joel did this so that the Q in IQS wouldn't be something awkward. ??Q is a tough pattern to fill, after all. Perhaps a touch more puzzle flow? Taking out the black square below NYT would have made the puzzle slightly less partitioned (and closer to the usual 78-word maximum). Would have also allowed for one pair of longer fill entries, but it would have also made the puzzle harder to fill cleanly.

So overall, a great idea, nearly impeccable execution, just nits to pick if I look hard. One of my favorite Thursdays in recent memory.

★ So much fun, I didn't want the puzzle to end. Given my short atten — something shiny! — I tend to bog down on Sunday puzzles. Not today. I thought I knew what to expect from the title, but I didn't expect nearly so much entertainment from these clever spoonerisms of celeb names. BEER GOGGLES to GERE BOGGLES is pure gold. Strong base phrase, laugh-inducing kooky result; it doesn't get much better than that.

Sometimes I'm guilty of wanting Sunday puzzles to do too much. I have to remember that I'm not the average NYT solver. So many people leave the NYT Magazine out on the kitchen table, working on the puzzle over hours or even days (by themselves or with friends), and if the theme is too tricky or intricate (a "puzzle more for constructors than solvers"), it's not satisfying if they don't grok it. This puzzle is a fastball straight down the middle for that demographic; a known theme type, not too difficult, with a high degree of solving satisfaction. Even a couple of chuckles.

And check out how well-executed it is. Nine themers is good theme density, and there's a lot of strong fill. I wouldn't expect any less from these two veterans. I like how they break convention a bit. Note how the first themers are in row four? That's unusual, since putting themers in row three is the norm (that helps maximize spacing between theme entries). But they take good advantage of this arrangement in the NE and SW corners. Look at the juicy stuff: WASHRAG, AT PEACE, and the crazy GETSANA = GETS AN A. Now that's using your seven-letter spaces wisely. And a big thumbs-up to SPY-FI. I don't know if that's a term in common use, but I'm going to start using it.

Just like most Sunday NYT puzzles, it had a couple of rough spots. ALY/KIEL tripped me up pretty good, for example. AVY/KIEV sounded just as good, by gum! And as much as I liked OH HAPPY DAY! it caused a high level of fill constraints. Check out the pile-up of UOMO / UNHIP / RPTS / ORA / ANS. Perhaps another piece of long fill would have produced a smoother region. Or a set of cheater squares could have been employed to smooth things out. The rest of the puzzle is relatively smooth, so this concentration of glue stuck out a bit for me.

Finally, one of the nicest a-ha moments in a while. I could not for the life of me what [Polo grounds?] was talking about. I knew some trickery was happening because of the giveaway question mark, but it would not come until I had almost all the crossing answers. Great big headslap when I realized it was all about the (Marco) "Polo grounds." Beautiful stuff.

★POW Fri 9/5/2014
★ Joe continues to impress me with his experimentation in constructing. If you haven't noticed, he's recently given me commentary on his older puzzles, which I've found fascinating. Joe falls on one end of the spectrum, using all the software at his disposal to execute on his very creative puzzles, and I've picked up some neat tips by reading through and learning more about his approach.

I hear grumbling every now and then about constructors relying too heavily on software, but why wouldn't you use all the tools at your disposal? Sure, you need to exercise care as you lay out and fill a puzzle to make sure it's clean and snappily filled, but computers make that so much easier. Trying out dozens or even hundreds of grid arrangements is invaluable. And if software enables new developments and directions, I'm all for it.

My experience today started out mixed. I like triple- and quad-stacks, as they're a visually stunning sight. But we've had so many of them that I apply normal criteria to them these days: snazziness plus cleanliness. So when I ran into a smattering of ETH, ITT, the old-timey ALDO / POLA next to each other, HOTL / ANGE, I was a little disappointed, truth be told.

But when I finally hit that WAITING entry, I paused, thinking that there was no way someone could spell out a word in Morse code through the black squares. Impossible! I grinned as I checked the Morse code chart and saw DOT DASH DASH in row four corresponded to W. Joe pulled off something new, different, and cool yet again.

Granted, some people will point out that this is more a puzzle for constructors than solvers. And I wish that the word WAITING had instead been MORSE CODE or even something meta like DOT DASH, but that does seem impossible. I imagine that very few words would fit into a crossword grid like WAITING did. A CHALLENGE TO YOU ALL: is there anything even remotely thematic to Morse code that one could form out of a symmetric grid?

I love seeing these puzzles that push the boundaries. If you have a chance, go back and read Joe's other Constructor's Notes. Even if you don't like some of the puzzles, I would find it difficult not to admire his pushing of the envelope.

★ Really nice Sunday puzzle, featuring BEST PICTURE WINNERs sounded out through strung together words. I enjoyed sussing out the titles, WARDEN HAIRY PEEPHOLE my favorite. It's too bad the themers weren't clued wackily, as that one could have been hilarious. Since it took me a long time to suss out CHALLAH BOWED HEAVE = ALL ABOUT EVE, here's the list:
  • WAR DENARII PEEP-PULL (about the black market trade, fighting over Easter treats. Or maybe ORDINARY PEOPLE)

Note the wide variety, chosen over a multitude of film eras. Joel picks a couple early ones, a recent winner, and a few scattered in between. Nice that there's something for everyone.

And as I'd expect out of a Joel puzzle, it's expertly crafted. Very little glue, which is so tough to do in a Sunday puzzle, and even harder to do in a 136 word Sunday puzzle. Not many people dip into that range, and very few come out with a puzzle as clean as this. Just a bit of EMAG, OSS, ELEM, ESE kind of stuff is well worth the price of strong fill as DRUG LAWS, WATER RAT, MEL TORME, APPIAN WAY, SEASHELLS, etc.

The sheer volume of good long fill is incredible. Hit the "Analyze" button below the grid to see just how many non-theme long answers he's incorporated. As a point of reference, many Sunday puzzles are successful if they incorporate just two pieces of good long fill. I'm still not quite sure how he made it look so easy, but a big part of it is that Joel was very careful to spread out his white space so not one section was vast and thus hard to fill.

Speaking of ESE, it took me forever to understand the clue even after I finished the puzzle. [Tip of the tongue?] refers to ESE getting added to words to form a dialect, i.e. BROOKLYN becomes BROOKLYNESE. Took me a while, but I like the playful repurposing of a common phrase to add spice to an otherwise blah entry.

★POW Sat 8/23/2014
★ Loved this. Just loved it. Not at all what I expect out of a Saturday puzzle, but I love that too (that's saying a lot, coming from a man who greatly values his routines). I went through the clues once and wrote in exactly zero answers. Momentary freak-out. I almost punted, but I'm so glad I didn't. Enough of the clues sounded odd that something seemed up. There had to be a trick. A Thursday-ish trick on a Saturday! Each clue is indeed missing the letter N (sometimes more than once), producing some great confusion and fun. Big thumbs up.

As Will noted, my favorites were the ones which seemed perfectly normal. [Dramatic cry from people who get subbed] for example made me think about LEAVE ME IN or PLAY ME or something, but it's actually [Dramatic cry from people who get sNubbed]. That's fantastic misdirection. Same goes for the like of [Be-___] which really is [BeN-___].

I did like some of the wacky clues too, like the one for LEIA. But some of them were weaker than others, and a few of those lesser ones gave away the trick for me a little too easily. If each one of the clues had been perfectly normal sounding, I might have added this one to my short list for all-time favorites. Additionally, I wonder if running it on a Saturday was a good thing? I loved the change-up, but I think Will's right about some people grousing about missing out on their Saturday workout.

[Cagey parts, e.g.] to [CagNey parts, e.g.]. [Covert, maybe] to [CoNvert, maybe]. [Covered with slug mud] to [Covered with sluNg mud]. And [Refusal from a boy lass] to [Refusal from a bonny lass]. Dang, I had so much fun solving this well-constructed gem.

★POW Mon 8/11/2014
★ Beautiful puzzle today, almost exactly what I hope for on a Monday. The theme is pretty straightforward — a "H?LL" vowel progression — but it's executed in an elegant way. As David noted, I appreciated the consistency of having each of the themers be a single word. Additionally, so many of them are snappy, words that I wouldn't hesitate to use as fill. HALLELUJAH and HULLABALOO in particular are fun.

Sometimes I wonder what might be considered offensive to certain populations. I had a slight hitch when I saw HILLBILLY — I use the term myself, but it'll be interesting to see if Will gets complaints from people in rural areas. It's been used in other papers before, but this will be the first instance in the NYT. I've had similar thoughts about COMMIE as well. Interesting to think about the seemingly harmless words that carry potentially derogatory meanings.

The grid is near flawless. I worried at first that there wouldn't be as much zing as I usually like to see, because there aren't many long spaces for fill. But David and Bernice take good advantage of the 7's, spreading CATCH ON, I MADE IT, OLD CHAP, and TEE SHOT into the four corners. I love that they didn't try to shoehorn too much into any one corner, because that's often why glue-y fill becomes necessary. This grid is so incredibly smooth. Perhaps the only entry that people might point to is... ELL? But even though I don't hear ELL in everyday usage, it's a real word, so I don't think that's a fair criticism.

It tickles me to see David and Bernice's photos together. So neat to see the different generations work together.

★POW Tue 8/5/2014
★ Wonderful puzzle today. How Lynn found five normal phrases to fit this theme is beyond me. JACKS UP, for example, is such a great base phrase (as in a store jacking up prices), plus it can be read as "Jack's up!" Beautiful idea with five solid themers.

It's also a perfect example of adding pizzazz into a puzzle without having to resort to a lot of long fill. Sure, there's the nice SORE LOSER and BOTTLE FED and BUGABOOS, but what really impresses me is Lynn's careful eye for the shorter stuff. ODD JOB. BREW PUB. JAKARTA. ALADDIN. Putting together a crossword is hard enough that sometimes it feels like a small miracle just to get a grid filled using regular words you can gloss over like… well, like GLOSS. I love it when a constructor grabs hold of each step of the filling process, carefully sorting through many options before landing on opulent words… like… like MAGI.

I like to eyeball a grid even before I start solving, and it's almost always a good sign to see white space apportioned out like this. There's nothing too big (making for a challenging fill) or too small (sectioned off areas can make for a choppy solving experience). Just right. At 78 words it hits the maximum allowed number of answers, but that matters not one bit to me. Using 76 or even 74 words can often allow for some really nice long fill, but Lynn shows that you can give a quality solving experience in 78 words too. It just takes more care, which she clearly put in here.

Finally, look how smooth the short fill is. So little to even point out. OLEO is an outdated product, but you do still see the word on some dairy aisle boxes. And NEHI may be a brand gone by the wayside, but I have fond memories of Radar O'Reilly drinking Grape Nehis on M*A*S*H. Outstanding work; bravo.

★POW Fri 8/1/2014
★ I love days like this. Sometimes I have to dig a little to uncover the assets of a crossword — almost every puzzle has something to admire in it — but sometimes there's goodness everywhere I look. It's a true joy to write about a puzzle when I enjoyed it as much as today's.

I'll go back to my personal system of analytics to take measure of this puzzle. First, the ASSETS:


An astonishing 18. More typically, I usually count about 12 in an average NYT themeless. Now, let's evaluate the LIABILITIES:

  • OISE
  • WSW
  • ENS

Judgment of what's an ASSET and what's a LIABILITY is completely subjective of course (some might argue that RESTATE isn't great, but I hear about companies restating earnings all the time).

So how does the puzzle hold up? We have fewer than five LIABILITIES, and ASSETS minus LIABILITIES = 14 (much higher than my threshold of 10), so this puzzle easily crosses my thresholds. Not surprising, considering how much fun I had solving this bad boy.

Not to say that it's perfect — very few puzzles are. For me, the biggest issue was the slash in the middle of the puzzle tending to create a two mini-puzzle solving experience. It wasn't a serious problem, but it did hinder the puzzle's solving flow for me. I've used a similar effect before, because it makes puzzle construction easier. One of the biggest challenges in themeless creation is working with interlocking areas, where one change ripples through the puzzle. If you can section off your puzzle into separate pieces, it makes construction much easier.

Well done; such a pleasurable solving experience for me today.

★POW Thu 7/24/2014
★ It took me a long time to figure out what was going on here, but what a neat moment when it clicked. I didn't know the song PAINT IT BLACK, but that didn't take away too much from my solving experience. Once I got over that hump of figuring out the first IT themer, it all fell into place. Great concept.

I couldn't visualize how David put this together! So I reconstructed his puzzle skeleton, which helped me understand much better. It's actually a 72-word grid with crossing themers, a really tough puzzle to pull off. To get this to work, and on a debut puzzle no less... super impressive.

I might have liked the revealer to be placed in the horizontal direction, which is easy to do by "flipping" the puzzle about a line from the NW to the SE (any crossword can be flipped like this and still have all the answers read correctly). For me, it would have been so nice to have the puzzle flipped like this, so that the revealer had been in the usual location. I'm so used to having most revealers running horizontally, located somewhere around the bottom of the puzzle. I'm such a creature of habit.

When I construct, I always look for the most constrained and/or biggest chunk of space I need to fill. Notice how the north and south, with their 6x3 chunks and the themers bordering them, stick out? That's where I'd typically start filling, as they'd be among the hardest parts to fill, if not the hardest. The rest of the puzzle is quite smooth, darn impressive given the 72-word nature of it and the crossing themers, so it was a bit unfortunate that ECARTE reared its ugly head right off the bat, and in the south we get SDI (which Will has mentioned that he's on the verge of not allowing anymore), OSH, TAVI, and the crossing I got wrong, PETER TOSH / SOLANO. I expect to not get a lot of pop music references, but I'm from California and hadn't heard of SOLANO. I don't think I'll be the only solver to have issues there.

All in all, an impressive debut. Great idea and pretty darn good execution.

★POW Mon 7/14/2014
★ A fun theme, a great reason for a "word hidden within phrases" type puzzle. This theme type gets done often, so to have a fun addition like these "eerie encounters" was really enjoyable. I would have LOVED to see the UFOs "land," but I personally found that nearly impossible to pull off (as I'll explain in the final paragraph).

A nice construction today, one with few glue entries. I really appreciate that on Mondays, where I feel it's so important to be friendly to a novice NYT crossword-solving audience. It's nice to get in good long fill like SCALENE, PAGE LAYOUT, FOGHORN, but even nicer to only have a few bits of A DIME, IS IN. Welcoming to a newer solver. It's clear that MaryEllen took care in filling her grid, and the extra effort is much appreciated.

I used to think MITRE and OCULI "aren't Monday words," but my philosophy has shifted over time. Being the crossword for an educated NYT audience, I believe it's acceptable to have semi-esoteric words if the crossings are all fair. And some would argue that the MITRE (the Pope's hat, for example) is something the NYT audience ought to know.

OCULI is tougher — if you don't know Mauna LOA, you might be in trouble. I think this is the one problematic spot of the puzzle. Note how OCULI crosses three themers? Nothing else can fit the O?U?I pattern. So I'd prefer to see the four themers spread out more, which would allow for more black squares separating them, and thus more flexibility in filling. It would likely mean that the long across fill (PAGE LAYOUT and CONFINED TO) would need to be broken up, but I don't mind that, since I found it to be inelegant for those answers to be almost as long as the themers.

Finally, I'm sure friends will ask me if it bothers me that I had a very similar theme in the LAT back in late 2011. (Answers at C.C.'s Crossword Corner site.) The answer is no. Two constructors come up with similar or even identical ideas all the time. The database is great for checking to make sure your theme hasn't been done before in non-NYT outlets, but it usually lags a few months behind, so I bet MaryEllen wouldn't have found my themers in a search when she was constructing hers. Additionally, there is some overlap between NYT and LAT solvers, but they're largely different audiences.

The truth is out there!

★ What a perfect title for this clever idea. Self-evident, indeed! I'm impressed that Tom was able to come up wtih so many snappy phrases that fit the pattern. The Yogi Berra quote in the middle sings, and how could you hate HATERS GONNA HATE? But the real topper is the quote from Gertrude Stein represented in a repeating circular pattern in the center. So many levels of delight today.

In just four published puzzles, I've picked two of Tom's as Puzzles of the Week now. Not bad sir, not bad at all. As Jim and I discussed, Tom's a constructor to watch. I've enjoyed my correspondence with him — seems like he has the right attitude: humble and willing to listen, learn and drive himself to improve. Hoping to see a lot more from him.

Liz Gorski's rebus interpretation of the Stein quote was another fun one. I appreciate Tom's new interpretation, taking things a step further.

Another thing I admired about this puzzle was its scientific tone. It's not going to RESONATE well with everyone, but I personally enjoyed seeing ENTROPY, LIGAND, and TITRATES in there, triggering good memories of college chem and physics classes. I bet it will trigger shudders for others, but you can't satisfy everyone. HATERS GONNA HATE, as they say.

I did wonder if this would have made a better weekday puzzle. A 21x can get a bit tedious to solve if there's not some factor that forces it to use an oversize grid. A visual element often does that for me. Grid art is another reason I find compelling. For me, the best Sunday puzzles are those that absolutely, positively, cannot be done in a normal 15x. All in all, I thought it was really nice to get all those snappy theme answers today, but it did get (pun intended) a little repetitive.

Neat idea, well laid out (great spacing between his themers and the central element), some strong, smooth fill and cluing, and a neat visual element. A winner of a Sunday in my book.

★POW Fri 7/4/2014
★ I pity the poor fools who have puzzles near Patrick Berry. (Cue the sad violins.) Some thoughtful readers have told me that they don't like the fact that I pick a Puzzle of the Week, and I appreciate that feedback. But 1.) I like pointing out fantastic work and 2.) that's what some (many?) daily solvers tend to do anyway. For me, it's a good reminder that there are other people out there with much, much better construction skills than me, and if I want to be one of the greats, I need to keep working at it by studying, practicing, improving.

This PB was no different, giving me such unadulterated pleasure. So instead of qualitatively analyzing the puzzle as per my usual, I'm going to do something different: attempting to QUANTIFY why this work is so good.

People often ask me how they can get a themeless puzzle into the NYT, so I've given this a lot of thought. I've come up with a formula that I'll revise and evolve over time, hopefully keeping it simple enough for the non-mathy types. As a finance guy most recently, I liken the evaluation process to the decision whether or not to acquire a company. You buy something for its ASSETS, ignore the neutral stuff, and discount for its LIABILITIES. You can then put a price on ASSETS minus LIABILITIES, yeah? (Roughly.) For me, I think the odds of an acceptance become high when:

  1. LIABILITIES < 5 and
  2. ASSETS minus LIABILITIES > 10.

What do I mean by ASSETS? Stuff that sings. This is subjective, of course, but here's my assessment of the snappy answers Patrick provides us today, each of which I'll count as one point each:


And the liabilities? Things like partials, abbreviations, esoteric foreign words, pluralized names, etc. Each one will count as one point, except for "puzzle-killers," ug-ug-ugly answers which effectively take a puzzle out of consideration all by itself (RSI, for example, which killed one of my themeless submissions). Here's my assessment of Patrick's liabilities today:

  • (insert sound of crickets)

The final count: ASSETS = 15, LIABILITIES = 0. So, Patrick meets the first criteria with flying colors. And the second criteria? ASSETS minus LIABILITIES = 15. As an analyst, I'd put a STRONG BUY recommendation on this one. (Never mind the fact that there's no price already set, you smart-aleck broker/analyst types.)

Will, if you're reading this, perhaps you could comment? Am I close in my assessment methodology or way off?

It's a thing of beauty, especially considering it's a wide-open 66-worder. (That's another point in the ASSETS column, actually.) And the cluing for IRISH PUB, ESCARGOT, BIPED, POT... For all those constructors looking to get published in the NYT, I'd suggest studying this one in detail. Try deconstructing and reconstructing it to see what you can learn through the process. Many of the great artists copied the masters for years before finally coming into their own, and that process was key to their emergence, right? Well done, Patrick, another beauty from the master.

★POW Wed 6/25/2014
★ So many strong puzzles this week, but this one stood out for me. How do I decide these things? No doubt, it is subjective (Jim and I often differ on which puzzle we like the best for any given week). I really liked the previous two puzzles and also think there are a couple more humdingers coming up this week. So I relied on gut instinct, giving great weight to the feeling of immense pleasure I got as I solved this puzzle.

I had the pleasure of meeting Patrick two American Crossword Tournament Puzzles ago, where he had authored a devious construction that tripped up many solvers. Today's is much more straightforward, three grid-spanning entries containing "LESS" and re-interpreted with funny results. Sense of humor is hit and miss (just ask my poor wife) but these three all made me laugh. Each one of them is a strong base phrase, and I thought each of the re-interpretations was clever.

People might complain that there are only three theme answers. This was certainly the norm ten years ago, so it did seem like a throwback at first. But when it comes to "wacky" puzzles (themers designed to generate a laugh) I'd much rather have three strong line-drives than two homers, a base on balls, and a batter hit by pitch. I'm not sure what that last one really means in terms of crossword answers, but I can think of a few "wacky" themers I've winced at in the past.

And look what freedom the fewer than normal number of themers opens up. Patrick, the consummate professional constructor, takes full advantage of it, giving us three pairs of long downs, all great: GREEK MYTH / SLAPSTICK, LEGOLAND / BUS ROUTE, THE DUDE / OBSCENE. And if that wasn't enough, he grabs hold of two six-letter entries to give us MRS WHO and NO SALT. Along with CT SCAN and OH BOY worked into the grid, that's the way to jazz up a puzzle.

Like any puzzle, it's not perfect, at least in this ultra-picky constructor's eyes. Those west and east sections get highly constrained considering the SLAPSTICK / CT SCAN borders on the east, for example. I'm not a big fan of ENGS, as I've preferred to call myself an ENGR. So perhaps I would have preferred SKI instead of ABE and ASEA instead of ADDS, turning ENGS into INGA. But that's a matter of personal taste. In the west, seeing OST bugged me. I like some foreign words if they're relatively common, but OST and ANGE and ESEL (a Germanl donkey) strike me as quite inelegant. There are other options there, why not use them? Of course, this is also subjective — I'm sure there are German scholars who will be writing in.

Finally, as if I didn't already admire the puzzle enough, two clues that sparkled. [Round one] had to be some sort of boxing-related answer? Nope — FATSO! Hopefully that word itself won't offend people, but it's a perfect misdirectional clue for one exhibiting an ovoidal nature. And to start a puzzle with [Breather] which just had to be REST was devious. I loved figuring out that I was totally wrong, LUNG indeed being a type of "breather."

Wednesdays can be hard, straddling the line between being relatively accessible and relatively clever. This puzzle does it really well.

★POW Thu 6/19/2014
★ Man oh man do I love visual grid elements! Such a beautiful question mark made out of black squares; what a cool graphic. This grid doesn't display normal crossword symmetry (or any, for that matter) but I don't give a hoot about that, because the visual is so stunning. Well done!

TWENTY QUESTIONS is a really nice entry for the theme. And I believe there are twenty question, although I got a little tired of counting at around three, so I'll trust that it adds up. As Bill Clinton said, it's just arithmetic. All that counting made me TOO TIRED TO THINK. So I suppose that's kind of thematic?

Generally it played like a themeless, which was a nice change of pace for a Thursday. I typically seek out the crazy, twisty type of puzzle on Thursdays, the ones that break your brain as you struggle to figure out what the heck is going on (and then gasp when you find out the insanity in the creator's head). But I know that's not everyone's preference, and lots of people love themelesses, so this will be especially good for them.

Like with most themeless puzzles, there's a huge amount of solid long stuff. EROTIC ART, SPIT AND POLISH, CONTORTIONIST, and my favorite, CUE STICKS. That last one was made even better with a brilliant clue, referring to the opening break of a pool game. Love, love, love that kind of cluing!

And also as with most themeless puzzles, there are such big open white spaces that there will be some compromises. Inside the question mark was my first guess as to where we'd see a little crunchiness, but Tim actually does amazingly well there. NEAPS isn't pretty, but it's a single glue entry that enables the snazz of GRANDPARENTS, THIN AS A RAIL, CAN IT BE, etc. Really impressed with the care he put into that section.

I was a little surprised to see the blips pop up in the NW and NE corners. There was enough of the APER / ALAR, ISSA, PREX kind of stuff that I almost wish Tim had broken up POWER LINE and MONETIZES to give us a net of two more words with a cleaner overall fill. Tough though — it is a treat for the eyes to see such big open areas on the sides of the puzzle. And I do love the word MONETIZES. It's so "Shark Tank," my favorite show on TV.

Overall, I love the amazing visual spectacle of the grid. Perhaps some untapped potential, although I'm not sure how more thematic material could have been incorporated. A memorable piece of grid art, to be sure.

★POW Mon 6/9/2014
★ This puzzle delighted me. It's pretty rare that we see shenanigans on a Monday, because Will tries to keep early-week puzzles fairly accessible for the NYT solving population. So it's a real treat to get a fun theme like this, easy enough for most solvers to pick up on but clever enough to be memorable. Very well done.

A few months ago, I started to realize that I was letting my constructor's brain take over my daily analysis, going robotically through to figure out what could have been done better. Things changed when there was a puzzle I thought had too many compromises, but which Jim didn't mind because it "delighted him." That made me revisit my criteria on what makes a puzzle "good." Puzzles are a fun thing for me, and elevating that "delight factor" (DF) as my number one criteria has also elevated my puzzling joy. So to see a theme like this, where WIDE RECEIVER is interpreted as [T e l e p h o n e h a n d s e t] = great pleasure for me. All four of these themers really did it for me, and to have STRETCHED OUT as both a themer AND a revealer = brilliant.

That's not to say my constructor's mentality ever turns off (darn you, stupid brain!). I couldn't help but notice that there wasn't as much in terms of long fill as there could have been. It was interesting to read Tom's note to that regard. OLD STYLE and SPLENDID are indeed very good entries, as are MAJESTY and RICHTER, but it would have been splendid indeed if Tom had managed to work in another pair of 8's.

And there's really not much that's glue-y in this grid. Pretty well polished. But as I recently told a co-constructor, I have a hard time with "good enough" fill, always (OCD-like) trying for the absolute best possible. So seeing A TRIP, which could have been ATRIA (and possibly allowed for MY EYE! where HYENA is) made me pause. In general, I expect 78-word puzzles to have almost perfect fill, unless the theme density or other constraints necessitate otherwise.

So a well executed puzzle, with a pinch of unfulfilled potential. Knowing that Tom's a CS guy, I have a feeling he'll be upping his game as his constructor career rises.

Overall, I return to what's really important: DF = high.

ADDED NOTE: I corresponded with Tom about that east section, and it turns out he missed that possible improvement because he did this grid by hand. Wow! My first grid by hand was a complete disaster, including the wild entry SUN SON (it sounded like "a thing" at the time). One big advantage of computer-aided design is finding and improving these little sections is much quicker than doing so by hand.