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Alex Eaton-Salners author page

58 puzzles by Alex Eaton-Salners
with Jeff Chen comments

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Alex Eaton-Salners

Alex Eaton-Salners is an in-house attorney for Western Digital, a technology company headquartered in San Jose, Calif.

45 Daily crosswords by Alex Eaton-Salners

POW Tue 6/21/2022
GOBIFBILABGPS
ENOSOLDELILAT
NOWWEREEVENUSE
LENWAITFETA
AHEADAMSTERDAM
GARRSKAEAU
ASHRHINOZIPIT
STATUESDAYTONA
PETRISWOLEKFC
ANAERAGEEK
SNOWGLOBETARRY
EARLLISAOUR
WIGSPLITSECOND
EVAGRETELHOUR
RENTOREROEMTS

★ I'll never split hairs when a puzzle outduels me in a fair manner. Appropriate that I finished SECOND today; the clever wordplay making me more than happy to lose at "Name That Theme."

Most editors don't take "split word" puzzles if the target word is repeated. Once you uncover the second instance, you can confidently write in the rest of them, and the puzzle is over. No fun! It's even getting difficult to garner an acceptance for a "split words" where the words are different. If the solver can see what's coming too early, it spoils the fun.

The harder Matt Gaffney Weekly Crossword Contest puzzles are often my favorite solves of the month, and one from a few years back was no exception. I wrung my squares in so many different ways for two solid days before finally landing on the connection between BLUE, ARIZONA, YEMEN, OCTOBER, CLINTON, X: they're all antepenultimates in a well-known(ish) series.

That level of off-the-charts difficulty wouldn't fly for an NYT Tuesday, so I appreciated Alex's easier approach, which still captured some of the fun. Incorporating the SECONDs in SPLIT fashion made for a great additional layer, making the concept stand out even further.

I hesitated on TUESDAY, wondering if most calendars go from Sunday to Saturday, or if Monday to Sunday was more "standard." Given that there's a lot of debate on this, a different series might have made for a better choice. Not sure I'd have figured out that TAURUS was second in the Zodiac, but if I have a third child (thank goodness for the world, I won't), I'd name him/her BRU ARYA Chen to throw Alex a bone.

A great aspect of "split words" themes is that they give you so much flexibility to incorporate great bonuses, and Alex took full advantage. The pattern ???AD is so flexible that it's a constructor's responsibility to weave great material around it. BOWLER HAT and I SWEAR? Hell yeah, I swear! Weaving BLEW A KISS and WEBSITE / ODOR EATER through pairs of themers is even better.

Such a fun solve. I knew this was POW!-worthy not even a SPLIT SECOND after the revealer.

Sun 10/31/2021 CHOICE WORDS
PATRASCALSPENSEP
ECOEMMYLOUWAGEAPE
THEWHEALBUMHITORMISS
FETASRODEPORTDIDIT
ODORSTNTREMEETABLE
OFTASISAYPETRIMOOR
DOORDIELIVERANDNIONS
READSMUNIPSST
METRESLOLTHRILL
IMPOSEONBEHEADODEA
MOUNTRUSHMMOREORLESS
POPEEASELSSURELETS
STASISNSANOSIDE
SHAHTHONADDTO
MARCHIGORDERSINOROUT
AVERARTIEHEPCATUTE
DAZETONNESSHESACHS
ERODENESTEAABCSHOT
WINORLOSEWHIRLWDTOUR
ACEAIMSUSROUTEFSU
YESSPYPOSSESSFEN

Literally, CHOICE WORDS squeezed into a single square. We've written them below in teeny-tiny letters — hopefully, paper solvers used extremely sharp pencils today!

Great selection of common X OR Y phrases. Even better, fantastic idea to include those phrases within the grid — in the same row as the matching entry!

I'll admit, I was annoyed at having to squish HIT/MISS into the first special square, but uncovering HIT OR MISS next to it made it much more HIT than MISS. It's a feat of construction to get matching pairs of length, but it's so much more than a constructor's flourish. Without this added layer, the puzzle wouldn't have been nearly as much fun to solve.

The layout challenges did come with a few trade-offs. Because many of the themers are short, having to stick to the 140-word maximum meant that Alex had to make his fill slots longer than usual. For example, check out the big swaths of real estate between MARCHING ORDERS and WIN OR LOSE, chock full of 6-8 letter entries. That's a themeless-esque filling challenge.

Given this constraint, Alex did well, even a bit better than a typical Sunday puzzle. DES, FSU, IDEE, SEP, etc., are common enough. AST (Atlantic Standard Time) and the racially charged AH SO are harder to swallow. METRES and TONNES are passable by themselves, but using too much of one type of crossword glue reinforces the feeling of inelegance.

The juxtaposition of the X OR Y phrase next to its matching themer made this a strong concept, enjoyable to solve. It's a shame that there are so many letters to write into such a tiny box, though — I'm curious to see if there's an online solution that would make this aspect of it less frustrating.

Wed 9/29/2021
AMUSESTABASS
RESIGNPAPASHH
ENERGYOPUSMAR
SRITERIHEAVE
OWNCOVERTMRED
REALALEOCEANS
GAMERNUDGER
REVOLUTIONARY
ELOPESSLOOP
LESLEAUSEDCDS
AXLEFEASTSKEY
THEREALEEDHL
HUEMAGIPHIALS
EMTISLESECRET
REYTHENREDDY

Cool finds with RESIGN flipping to REIGN, and HEAVE to HAVE. I hadn't run across those before, and the first one is impressively specific (to kings and queens). A dropped letter in the middle of these words makes these discoveries much more novel and interesting.

FEASTS is fun, too, although I've seen enough Kangaroo Word puzzles that I've run across the FEASTS / FASTS pairing several times, including in one of Alex's other puzzles this year.

The others weren't as impressive. Most crossword constructors have churned through the opposites COVERT / OVERT and THERE / HERE, even REVOLUTION / EVOLUTION. The disappearance of the first letter makes them easy to notice and file away.

Fun that the circled letters spelled out a word. I'm not sure that SECRET is perfectly apt, though. Why would SECRET letters flip their entries' meanings? I might have had a stronger a-ha moment if the circles had spelled out REVERSE or SWITCH or FLIP.

POW Mon 8/9/2021
ORSNOHOWCORAL
HEHETUDEOPERA
OVERCOMESUTTER
HELICESTECINK
IFSOHIGHSEAS
ELLEIRONAGE
ELICNETLASES
LEFTOFFRIGHTON
SEEMELOTSSUE
ABREEZEPYRE
LOWLANDSDISC
ACETOMELANTRA
SELMAUNDERGOES
SALONNOISERAT
ONSETDRESSEMO

★ Fascinating set of finds: two-word base phrases where if you substitute in their individual word opposites, you get another valid two-word phrase — one that isn't the opposite of the base phrase!

I reworded that explanation ten times already; I'm sure there's a more efficient way of explaining it. Best is to give an example. LEFT OFF vs. RIGHT ON — left/right and off/on are opposites. However, not only are these two phrases not opposites, but one's an add-a-preposition workhorse while the other's a fun exclamation. Couldn't be more different!

(Alex's other examples he couldn't include: COLD FEET / HOT HEADS, CATWALK / DOG RUN, STANDOUT / SIT IN. So hard to discover since it's not trivial to search for these programmatically — and such fun finds!)

Solid gridwork, too. Six shortish themers give a constructor the opportunity to add in a ton of colorful bonuses, and Alex confronted the problem head-on: SHELF LIFE, ETSY STORE, IRON AGE, SOUR CREAM, REVEILLES, and some fun mid-lengthers in EGALITE, HELICES, INFERNO.

I added COUCH GAGS to the XWI Word List years ago, back when I was a huge fan of "The Simpsons." The fact that they came up with something new for every episode, even after hundreds of episodes, was incredible. I don't love the entry as much anymore because it's been years since I've watched, but even if you're a Simpsons-hater, at least it's two words that you can recognize, making it possible to successfully finish the Monday puzzle.

I'd have liked the themers to be the longest Across entries in the puzzle since IRON AGE overshadowed LEFT OFF as a much more vivid phrase. Achieving that by shifting a few black squares around, and this could have been a perfect grid. (Although not for a Monday since some of the vocab like EGALITE is tough ….)

It's rare that I get the opportunity to laud a theme that feels this fresh, that adds a new modality into the crossword pantheon. It's common that Alex's name is on the byline when that happens. Extremely well done!

Thu 3/25/2021
PECSYALUGSPOT
ACAIATOPONICE
WONDERFULNOLTE
DCONISUREAM
ARYANEFFECTIVE
ROBEKEITELNED
FEASTINGPEP
GRAINYCOARSE
REDPRURIENT
TILDEFEATSTIR
ANIMOSITYTOADY
TALENTSTANG
ABATECOURTEOUS
MICROALPORASP
ITSONLESTSLAY

The English language is chock full of interesting oddities. I came across "kangaroo words" a while back; fascinating. Then Will Nediger one-upped that concept in an MGWCC guest puzzle; blew me away with his sheer genius! What's next?

There are well-documented variants of kangaroo words; several lists have been compiled. Most of the words aren't that interesting because they're short, easy to discover, or the antonyms aren't exact. I like the ones Alex picked, solid examples. ANIMOSITY to AMITY is my favorite because the letters in AMITY are spread throughout, much harder to discover than FEASTING to FASTING.

Intricate gridwork, rarely easy to execute on six themers. One might think that spacing them out, every other row, is optimal, but it can be extremely tricky. Stacking pairs can be easier, but there's something more visually pleasing about this every-other-row presentation.

Alex did amazing work in the middle of the puzzle, where problems usually arise. Not a drop of glue in sight. Having the flexibility to swap ANIMOSITY, COURTEOUS, EFFECTIVE, and WONDERFUL — as well as FEASTING and PRURIENT — gave him great latitude to try out different arrangements.

I wondered if EFFECTIVE would have been more effective where ANIMOSITY sits since the double-F can be easier to grid around when isolated. Here, it seems to have forced UPLIFT and thus YALU. It's not the worst offender, but the category of "constructor-friendly foreign rivers" gets a lot of eye-rolling from solvers.

As a musician, I loved the OCTAVE clue. It took me a few re-readings to understand what it was getting at, but singing "Some … where, over the rainbow" gave me a great a-ha, noting that both "some" and "where" are the same notes, one OCTAVE apart.

Great clue for GRAINY, too, referring to pics of the Yeti. Those touches go a long way toward making a solve playful and entertaining.

Thu 2/11/2021
OTTOGINSILLS
CRANACORNNOLA
COMEDIEDIEFFECT
APPARATSVIEWS
MEARAOBIES
TWELFELFTEPS
ONTHELEFTSLOE
MOERIMCDCMOM
ARABMAHARISHI
NAMANMANAMES
BOASTDINAR
GAYLYIRRITATE
COFFOOTFOOTABLE
AREAROOMSROAD
NEWTEGOSTOSS

Oh, I get it! COMEDIE DIE EFFECT is when Bill Burr goes onstage.

So much for comedic effect.

I liked the play on "hidden plural expressed as two consecutive singulars." I feel like I've seen this several times before, but after ten minutes of searching, I couldn't pull one out of my cheek cheek. (I did find one that used a repeated instance, and a similar notion that blew me away; Paolo so creative!)

I found it curiously hard to enter the themers. Even though I knew TWELFELFTEPS had to be "twelve steps," it's so difficult to visualize the hidden ELVES without it written somewhere. NAMANMANAMES was even worse, what with yet more repetition in "name names." The result is so dastardly nonsensical, like something out of the Muppets.

As always, solid gridwork from Alex. Neat to get a MAHARISHI, APPARATS, some BABY FAT, you BETCHA. These aren't entries you see every day, and I appreciate that.

I didn't have that much fun overall since it was hard to imagine where the hidden plural should fit, but I admire the creativity. Great clue for ACORN, too — "in a nutshell," indeed. Now that's comedic effect!

Wed 12/16/2020
TOPSSKOSHPOSH
RHEATEPEEABLE
AIRCRAFTCARRIER
COSAMIPEEWEE
HAIRSPRAYSNAPS
ERSESCALENYY
ATTACHTWIRL
SCREENSAVER
HAITIREVOLT
AKCCROCSASEA
MERCKNEATFREAK
INAREAIIIADE
GOVERNMENTBONDS
ABETTOOTHINOT
SINESENSELEGO

Third day in a row we've had a debut! It's always fun to see a family collaboration.

As a finance guy, I can talk for hours about GOVERNMENT BONDS. As a crossword person, don't get me started on T NOTES and T BILLS, or I'll never stop! How do GOVERNMENT BONDS relate to this theme, though ...

A-ha! I like it when a revealer doesn't totally make sense on its own, but its clue finishes the job. Each of the phrase components is "joined" by a government agency, i.e., AIRCRAFT and CARRIER are "bonded" by FTC (Federal Trade Commission). That's a clever way to elevate what might normally be dismissed as an ordinary "hidden words" theme.

Also clever: Ed and Alex's use of low-word count gridsmanship. Many constructors shoot for this tough territory, thinking that if they push their envelopes and strive for a 72-word themed puzzle, they'll deliver solvers an extra-colorful experience without too many compromises. The results rarely reflect that, but today, Ed and Alex achieved liftoff.

Take the NW corner, for instance. Typical layouts would break 1- and/or 2-Down in half, making the region much easier to fill. Solid results, with TRACHEA and PERSISTS as bonuses not seen in crosswords nearly as much as the usual 3-5 letter stuff.

I also liked how Ed and Alex kept the middle fairly open. Many constructors would put a black square at the E of SCALE, restricting the middle, making their job a snap. Given Alex's impressive gridding skills, it's not a surprise that the difficult center is so smooth. Nothing snazzy, but everything so rock-solid: RESERVE, REVOLT, CRACKER, SAINTS.

Will Shortz is taking fewer "hidden word" themes these days, but today's puzzle demonstrates that there's absolutely still room for ones that elevate through a clever extra element.

POW Sun 11/22/2020 IT ALL ADDS UP
MENURAGUCAPOICICLE
UNITATOPOARSNOONAN
SONEOPOOLTHELASONERD
EKERANDOMSMILEETA
IDBETGATSANACIN
ELSHADAKIDSUNTRAP
BADEAIMRISESREHIRE
ALBASTEFANITHERULES
HEARTHSTROTTEDTRENT
TERSERERATOPTSTSA
DAYSOTWOLIVES
CAMMOTOOVENPEOPLE
LOGANREPUTEDATECROW
ILIKEIKEREROUTECEDE
SOLEMNMODELNITUSES
PRESETSOUTOFITGPS
WAHWAHHOOTBUYER
OAFEARLSKRAKENVAC
FRFOURTRAINBREAKZERO
USAUSAOLGAEDENANEW
MORROWWANTSSNSCTRL

★ Last week, I mentioned that I'd love to see Will Shortz hire a Sunday squad tasked with invigorating the flagging NYT Sunday crossword. Alex Eaton-Salners is one of the first people I'd tap. He has such a wide range of creative ideas, and today's worked so well.

I didn't have the greatest first impression since the concept fell quickly from the title and the first instance. S(TEN)O POOL isn't the most exciting answer, either. However, stepping back, I admired the creative way Alex played on sums.

Ah — then I noticed that the crossing numbers look like plus signs! What a great extra element. Granted, you can't have two words cross without having them look at least a little like a plus sign, but that's okay. Alex still gets credit.

The themers kept getting stronger and stronger, DAYS O(F OUR) LIVES and I(T WO)N'T HURT fantastic. SKIN O(F OUR) TEETH and MAKES W(EIGHT)? My momentum built like a runaway FREIGHT TRAIN.

I enjoyed the theme concept well enough but felt it might be too simple. Then, the coup de grace. I knew BREAK(S EVEN) had to include SEVEN. Based on the number of circles, it had to be FOUR plus THREE. Drop the mic; I'm done!

Wait. GPT isn't "something helpful in a dash." Is it? Maybe it is. Kids these days have all kinds of tech devices. No … it has to be GPS, as in a unit helpful in a dashboard. But then—

SEVEN plus ZERO. Dang, that's a clever trick! It made me wish Alex had tossed in a NEGATIVE ONE plus ONE to make ZERO, but good luck finding a phrase containing NEGATIVE ONE.

All this, while obeying crossword symmetry? Gridding around five crossing themers, AND weaving in GOOD GAME, I LIKE IKE, IN THE RAW, MT ARARAT, THE RULES? Yeah, there were a couple of entries some could classify as weird — BAHT, ALEE, BLEARS — but that's way better than an average Sunday. Considering how much tougher this theme is to pull off than usual ones, this is exemplary gridwork.

#SundaySquad. Will, please make Alex an offer!

Sun 9/27/2020 PLAYING WITH FOOD
AJARPCPISPOSEDRAPE
GODOFWARTHENHLRENAL
OHIDUNNOBANKOFGUYANA
UNDIDTHAWPRIAMKIP
TOANDDIEINLAENGRAINS
IRSLAGGEDWASRONNIE
SERGESTAXHULA
SPINEYEBASEBALLCARD
ORGIESBATHEVEINRE
FOOTPATROLSALEANNAL
ATTPYRITEGOLIMPATE
REYESINSBANANASPLIT
ASOFLASMEMESERENE
STUFFEDOLIVELITEEGS
ERASAMYREDOES
SPACEROPICIALISIDO
LISTENUPCHOPPEDSALAD
ARKZEPPOOLAYAMORE
MASHEDPOTATOEASYWINS
OTTERESTHERARTSALES
NEONSREOILSREPYODA

PLAYING WITH FOOD, this is a puzzle for my kids! Tess likes to powder her nose with marshmallows, while Jake smears things everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. It's better if you don't ask for details.

Four plays on PLAYING WITH FOOD today, like letters demonstrating a literal BANANA SPLIT = BAN / ANA bookending a phrase. Although I'd seen all of them before in various incarnations, STUFFED OLIVE was neat. There's something about the circle looking like an olive that pleased me. I wish all of them had such a delightful visual effect.

I bet the overall punch of the puzzle would have been stronger if Alex hadn't used pairs of themers; instead, using the referenced food inside the clue, i.e. BANK OF GUYANA = [Financial institution investing in banana splits?] I know, it doesn't quite make sense, but I bet there's some fun way to tie them together.

Cutting the themers from pairs to singles would free up valuable real estate to introduce a greater variety of foodplay. Maybe a SPARE RIB (extra R I B inside an entry), SLICED HAM (letters H A M slashed out), UPSIDE DOWN CAKE (entry containing E K A C), etc.? Having seven wildly different literal takes on food would have been more fun.

It would also have freed up room for more interesting fill. I did like DRUM ROLL, EASY WINS, GOD OF WAR, but I wanted so much more. Plus, the collection of oddballs like FUDDLE, RINSO, ENGRAINS detracted from the solving experience.

I appreciate that Alex chose a narrow field for his wordplay examples — it's much better to limit it to food, rather than have any kind of SPLIT, any kind of STUFFED ___, etc. I'd have loved a richer, meatier solving experience, though.

Fri 8/21/2020
CARRSAINTBASH
ASIAERDOSAUTO
BASILSCATHEDRAL
ONENOTEPILLAGE
TANGOEDCREASES
OPTTNN
REDDYJOBADDTO
EXESSEARSSEAN
DHSGOTREALAQI
SADPULSATEDUO
QUEPASAKITCHEN
USMAAGREELORD
ATONEGOVMARIO
RENALEVEASSAM
EDAMSDENTHESE

I loved Alex's PANDA grid art, and today's imagery is strong as well. I wasn't familiar with SAINT / BASILS CATHEDRAL, or what shape I should be expecting, but compare the grid below with the pic to the right. A great facsimile; not an easy task when you're working with big pixels.

It's a fantastic construction, too. It's tough to stay at 72 words (qualifying for a themeless), while working with 5 + 15 + 9 + 9 = 38 theme squares. Plus, a grid visual! Alex still managed to treat us to DESDEMONA, TAQUERIAS, QUE PASA, BREAK EVEN, GOT REAL.

Plus, JETLAGGED has such a great clue. I hated it at first, feeling like the only point to use high-falutin' medical jargon is to make laypeople feel dumb. But wait! Once I read the word desynchronosis … de-synch-ronosis … of course, it has to be JET LAGGED!

KITCHEN isn't an exciting entry in itself, but oh, that delicious clue: [Island locale]. So innocent! I was fooled, and my family eats around our KITCHEN island every meal.

So why didn't I enjoy it as much as I should have? Because on Friday, I want a themeless. I like a smart, subtle mini-theme, but today's had to be overt. When you have to Wikipedia-style clue so many entries to make solvers understand they're thematic — SAINT, BASILS CATHEDRAL, RED SQUARE, ONION DOME — you're giving up so much clever cluing potential.

Beautiful artwork. If it had been run on a Wednesday, with a less ambitious grid, and maybe one more themer — it's supposed to look like a BONFIRE rising to the sky, for example — it would have gotten POW! consideration.

Mon 7/20/2020
NASHASIAHAHAS
AMIEVANSENACT
RIGHTONTHEMONEY
WANUNDRESSDHL
HBOMBUSCEVIE
ALFAGOTDRAGS
LEFTINTHELURCH
OATTEN
FRONTOFTHELINE
JEEPSLEIICON
ARFSIOUELECT
BROIWASHADCAR
BACKTOTHEFUTURE
ERUPTHORAABBA
DISHYSTARBEST

Great example of consistency, all four phrases in the form of (direction) + (two-letter preposition) + THE + (word). Nice touch that Alex didn't repeat a two-letter preposition, ON IN OF TO all having their places.

Places … it would have been a great touch to orient all the themers vertically, with FRONT and LEFT on the left half, RIGHT and BACK on the right. This would have given this puzzle so much more raison d'être. Consistency is a fantastic thing, but not if it's only for its own sake. It felt so odd to get RIGHT on the left-hand—

What? I'm the one that's odd, not the puzzle? Hmm. Yes, the odds of that are right on the money.

I loved the way the puzzle started, that line from Ogden NASH hilarious. Rhyming rhinoceros with "prepoceros" … I'd listen to way more rap if lyrics were as clever as this.

Not as hot on AMIABLE crossing AMIE, entries sharing etymology. There's no hard and fast rule against this, but it doesn't seem that different from using, say, H BOMB and A BOMB or SAND and SANDY in the same puzzle.

I love bonuses like NARWHAL, FERRARI, IN TRUTH, FLU SHOT, HAND VAC, ICE CUBE, ACE HIGH, although I'd sacrifice a couple to eliminate the newb-unfriendly entries ETTE and LEHI. These aren't terrible, but seeing [Esoteric Biblical region …] can give a newb a reason to put down the puzzle.

A shame that the directions weren't placed in their respective directions. That could have made for a TOP OF THE LINE theme. Overall, though, a fine Monday offering with an impressive number of colorful bonuses.

Tue 6/16/2020
TESLAGPSRONCO
ORKINOREONION
BRINGITONSEINE
YSLRANHIGHCS
IGUANODONAHI
GOFORFURLMUSE
ALTOIDNADER
DESSERTBEDHEAD
ELEGYMIYAGI
APPSDEEDCDROM
BAHFALSESTEP
SMILEYOFTIMP
EELEDGRAYAREAS
ILLGOINNROCKS
LAYONNOGTWEET

Day 2 of the CUJO (Cracking Up Jim Horne with Overthinking) show!

Jeff: So …

Jim: Oh, this is going to be good. (rubs hands together)

Jeff: Did you find it odd that the (square) INCH is the same size as the (square) MILE?

Jim: Bwa ha ha!

Jeff: What? Is it because you grew up in Canada? Would this have been more accurate using that bizarre metric thingy?

Jim: (choking on his peals of laughter)

Overthinking aside, I enjoyed the stepwise progression, INCH to FOOT to YARD to MILE — each of the measures exactly four letters, perfect for crossword squaring. I thumb my nose at metric system snobs. See how beautiful our totally not wonky units are?

Also elegant: Alex's gridwork. It's notoriously difficult to build around square themers, since they affect four crossing answers and so much of the surrounding region. Aside from the tough NIIHAU and ABSEIL, the grid is amazingly smooth, with dashes of IGUANODON, BEDHEAD, FALSE STEP, HOLD EM, to boot. I like how Alex always says BRING IT ON to challenges.

The theme wasn't an instant light bulb flick, rather a slow illumination of candles: units of measure … going from small to big … in squares … meaning "square" measurements … that's how you measure area … those areas are gray … thus GRAY AREAS. Not as sharp an a-ha as I like, but an interesting set of connections.

In some weeks, I would have given it POW! consideration, because of the superb execution. Yesterday's puzzle was more playfully entertaining, though.

Thu 4/9/2020
UNOLAURAASANA
MAPASSADREMIX
PUTONHOLDTEACH
ITINAPINZOE
RIMESCHNOZZOLA
ELIPLOSTAINED
DISCOERASNL
MADEACHOICE
RIPLIFEHACK
MYFAULTTARTIE
ROADMARKERMACY
TUTBUNLALAW
OLIVEMORSECODE
AIMATPLUOTNAS
DEANSSLEDSEST

In high-echelon puzzling circles, crosswords are disdained, treated as pooh-poohed poo caked onto the gumshoe's shoe. Crosswords? Crosswords? Why don't you do some word searches? How about a spot the differences? I have a few Highlights magazines that might occupy your tiny pea brain for an hour.

Thankfully, I run with a group of humble solvers who love complex puzzles and aren't afraid to admit being completely stumped. We work our asses off, familiarizing ourselves with any code ever devised, memorizing alphanumeric substitutions so we can reel off the fact that Q = 17th letter of the alphabet, letters in ASCII tables are coded from 65 to 90, and communicating easily in tap code.

So it's particularly embarrassing that I couldn't come up with the letter represented by a single MORSE CODE dash. A single dot? Easy! It's E, appropriate for easy. A dash … should be a common letter. S! No, that's dash dash dash, as in the dash dash dash dot dot dot dash dash dash of S O S.

(Astute reader Larry Byrd points out that I got that wrong. It's dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot. D'oh d'oh d'oh!)

R? The first free letter they give you in "Wheel of Fortune"?

L, as in long?

My team just assigned me dog poo duty.

Point is, I don't know how many solvers will make the connection, that the dots and dashes in the theme clues stand for Es and Ts, respectively. Listed out:

  • -able = Table = PUT ON HOLD
  • Big nos. = Big nose = SCHNOZZOLA (do people say this these days?)
  • Op-ed = Opted = MADE A CHOICE
  • Mil. post, say = Mile post = ROAD MARKER

Luckily, Alex's gridwork was so stellar that my solving experience was still pleasant. I completed it as I would a themeless — a strong themeless at that — and enjoyed so much of NAUTILI, OPTIMISM, DISCO ERA, SLEEP LAB, MY FAULT that the theme didn't matter.

Adding DOT (clued as [E, in MORSE CODE]) and DASH (clued as [T, in MORSE CODE]) into the grid would have helped immensely. That would have presented some construction difficulty, but making the theme work is well worth the price of fewer great bonuses.

Thu 3/26/2020
LESSERRORATOR
ALANYOUPEARCE
WNBATEAMISSUES
FIEROROGUEELI
UNREPSROMANGOD
LOSGUMASTARTE
EURAILKISS
INNERPLANET
OHNOCOINED
SOAKAGENYEBBS
MUSICIANADVERT
ODECLUESTAHOE
SINGEDAUTOMAKE
INSIDERIOOVAL
SIEGEDSTYSEWS

Convo from inside the top-secret Gridmasters and Gargoyles Group (D&D : ridiculous dorks :: G&G : geek elite):

Alex: Surprised to see this one running on Thursday. It was slated for Wednesday, but I guess the puzzle proved too difficult for the test solvers in that slot. Maybe the theme would have been better served by a less audacious grid. I suspect there will be grumbling that the theme isn't tricky enough for a Thursday puzzle.

Jim: Hey, you stole my line! This was a fine Wednesday puzzle.

Jeff: Bah, what smart thing am I supposed to say now? Hmm … the only thing that will cure me is Mercury?

Jim: Bring me the paddle.

Alex hit two nails right on their heads. #1, wham! It's a fine theme—especially after you notice that it's not just two random planets for each themer, but always MERCURY plus another one (it totally didn't take me a solar year to figure this out, no sirree!). It's an extremely straightforward one, though, not worthy of the Thursday slot.

#2, bam! A simpler grid would have befitted this simpler theme. I love the drive to do something more, but a 72-word grid with five themers almost always comes with compromise. Amazing avoidance of short glue, but today, it came in the form of oddballs:

  • ASTARTE isn't of the same level as Isis or Osiris, and to have her muddying things up under ROMAN GOD should be avoided.
  • SIEGED … is passable. "The city is under siege!" is terror-inducing. "The invaders have sieged our castle!" is more "WTF kind of mead have you been drinking?" inducing.
  • SOAKAGE. Let us not discuss thee, prithee well nay?

There are huge benefits of going down to 72 words—HOUDINI / OSMOSIS is almost worth it all by itself! The more I study it, the more I try to convince myself that maybe it was the right decision. LAWFUL TRUE GRIT. TOP GUN took my breath away. GO ALL IN, yeah?

Yeah, not with the compromises.

Overall, a fine theme that could have been made much sharper and more fun, if it had been fine-tuned for a Wednesday, where it belonged.

POW Fri 3/13/2020
VERISMO
NOTENOUGH
BOWANDARROW
PLUSFENESAS
LEANPANDAESPN
ESCITSHIE
ACKOREOSIRA
SEAIVERSONNIP
ATNINELONGTO
LADDERDISTAL
ORWORSEMARCONI
NIHTEAROSENIT
GAINECOLIOZMA
ANTISHOESJOAN
SEXSOL

SQUUUUUEEEEE!!!!

The grid art is so delightful that the crossword could have strangled and eaten a PANDA and I still would have given it the POW!. This might be my favorite piece of grid art of all-time. That's saying something, considering how long our list is — check out the collection.

Alex intended to have those two letters circled — like PANDA eyes! — but Will Shortz went back and forth on this, ultimately deciding that it might confuse solvers. I like that decision.

Ooh! Can you imagine if the lone P and A had some other function; some strong reason for being unchecked? That might have made it my favorite puzzle of all time.

Are there famous PANDAs whose names start with P and A? Researching ... drat, no. Stupid panda namers, get your priorities straight.

Yeah, there's some weirdness in MUR, way too many short words that broke up the flow of my solve, and INDENTER is an inducer of eye-rolling. That's all simply noise that hardly registered against the tremendous signal in this amazing graphic.

Wed 2/19/2020
FISHETREPEROT
BANTULAOSGRAPE
RICESLYFTDRIVER
BLUESTEELRACERS
SPARTATNAE
TOTREUPINIT
ATOMKNICKKNACKS
SODASSPATGROAN
KEYSTONEKOPPOLO
HANAEKESKEG
IDSRAPREFI
NEPALISWIPELEFT
SWIPERIGHTKOJAK
EARPSITISERATO
TRESSISPYRARE

My recent Google search history:

"What does LIFTNICK mean in Tinder slang?"

"When young kids say LYFTKNICK what does that mean?"

"LIPHNIK definition"

"Is LK a thing? Or ELL-KAY?"

"Are you sure ELL KAY isn't a thing?"

"Are LYFT drivers notorious for side swiping other cars?"

"Why doesn't today's NYT crossword make sense?"

"Tinder terminology that uncool people don't understand"

"Will Jeff ever figure this out or will his rage continue to accelerate?"

"STOP SENDING ME TINDER ADS GOOGLE"

"HULK SMASH!"

For those of you (us) that need the theme explained (by the person that explained it to me):

  • SWIPE LEFT refers to the leftmost parts of LYFT DRIVER and KNICKKNACKS, and ...
  • LYFT and KNICK are homophones of LIFT and NICK
  • SWIPE RIGHT refers to the rightmost words of BLUE STEEL and KEYSTONE KOP, and ...
  • STEEL and KOP are homophones of STEAL and COP
  • LIFT, NICK, STEAL, and COP are all synonyms for SWIPE

But why is SWIPE LEFT on the right side? And SWIPE RIGHT on the left? Is this some tricksy Tinder thing?

GOOGLE, DAMMIT! I SAID STOP SENDING ME TINDER ADS!

Presentation of hidden synonyms is a tried and true theme type. I like Alex's finds and his attempt to do something a little different — there is a ton of stuff going on. Just like LYFT's old pink mustaches, this crossword is so crazy that maybe it's genius.

Okay, maybe not. There's so much potential for solvers to get left in the dust; so many steps to trip people up and cause frustration. A more straightforward approach, planned for a Monday or Tuesday, would have been so much more satisfying.

Still, I admire Alex's efforts to push the envelope. Not every new concept will work, but maybe they'll inspire other creative thinking.

Tue 2/4/2020
IOTASAMISCOPE
TORCHEARORKIN
SHOEHORNSMAINE
YSLMAOBAILS
LOVETRIANGLES
BANEDNYBTW
OCCAMALFCITI
CHAMPAGNEFLUTES
TINACUTUBERS
ECOBRABIKE
TAPERECORDERS
NEVISBENCIA
PENINSEXORGANS
CRETEPSIANDRE
PYRESYETMUSIC

Wonderful early-week theme. You'd think that a musician with a 25-year history of playing in orchestras, jazz bands, symphonies, string quartets, etc. would pick up on instruments hidden at the ends of theme phrases. Only a dunderhead would say YES, I KNOW THIS THEME; IT'S GEOMETRIC SHAPES!

Bah. CHAMPAGNE FLUTES are cylindrical, and I stand by that fact. Er, "fact."

But TAPE RECORDERS ARE RECTANGULAR BOXES!

Maybe I shouldn't comment on SEX ORGANS.

If only the gridwork had been as strong as the theme. Take that southeast corner, for example. Parallel placement of a themer and a revealer, squished together in one corner, rarely works out. You never want to subject newer solvers to something like INRI. These types of "I have to know THIS if I want to do crosswords?" entries are no good, hearkening back to the days of Maleska taking smug pride in making crosswords esoteric. Sure, the crossings are fair, but it's still not a fun entry for most people to encounter.

As much as I enjoy having a revealer in the "omega position" (the final across answer), I'd much rather give up some elegance to preserve a better solving experience. Shifting MUSIC all the way to the left might have helped, but that, of course, would require a complete grid redo.

It's such a shame that Alex and Queena's intent didn't align with Will Shortz's vision. I prefer Will's approach — the delayed a-ha is fantastic — but shooting it back to the constructors would have resulted in a much more polished grid. That's a big ask, given how many puzzles Will has to churn through, but even if he had to hire another assistant to get this done, it'd be well worth it.

There are benefits to this audacious grid layout, no doubt. I love the word CHICANERY, and to get so much CAN OPENER, PIN SETTER, BREXIT? OK, I'LL BITE! If the theme had been harder, more like Wednesday or Thursday difficulty, I'd have happily given the thumbs-up.

Other solvers without a pesky constructor's voice in their head might have a stronger solving experience. There is something to be said about some Tuesdays pushing boundaries, after all. Such a shame (that I can't get past my insistence on technical excellence), as the theme was POW! quality.

Wed 1/22/2020
SNOBRIPSRACED
ABELORGYELATE
CARIBBEANCORAL
NEONCHINA
ADRIATICUPENN
LEENICOISETIP
BALTICICKWEAR
ILENEGNUTINGE
NEATLAOREINAS
ORSCASPIANARE
SENORSNIPESAT
DIODEEMIT
BLACKSEVENSEAS
LATHEOMENEDNA
TWEEDSORTQUAY

Reaction 1: CRITICAL. What's with all the circled Cs? Having the same letter in all the circles makes it too easy to figure out what to put in the next one.

Reaction 2: CUTTING. What, you couldn't cut out the other Cs that weren't in circles? CCCCC the opportunity to make it more elegant!

Reaction 3: CONFUSED. SEVEN SEAS … I have to connect the Cs to form … a picture of a sea?

Reaction 4: CUTE. It's a decent 7. A bit wonky, but there are a lot of stylized 7s.

Reaction 5: CURMUDGEON. Wait. Why the hell not put the 7 in the middle of the grid? Come on! Shoving it into the northwest corner is just plain lazy ...

Reaction 6: CATCHING ON. ... those seven Cs. THEY'RE ALL PART OF …

Reaction 7: CAPTIVATING. … ENTRIES THAT ARE SEAS! I didn't even notice, since every one of those seas had a misdirecting clue. Such a CLEVER execution!

I hope a lot of solvers get to Reaction 7, and the clever conclusion clicks more cannily than it did for me. It's a brilliant set of layers upon layers, all coming together so beautifully — amazing work to arrange everything so precisely to form the 7.

I was leaning toward giving it the POW!, but I worry about how many chumps like me won't get past Reaction 3.

Thu 1/9/2020
PCHELPCOSELL
BROODERONEREEL
HEROINEPICANTE
ALORAIIMS
JUNORIPLEREES
IDESUGBOAANGO
SETTEESTRENTON
ANDOMS
MISREADRUPIAHS
INOROUROU
ASCORAPSEIMID
STOUOPTHARESS
MARLOWEDURANTE
ALROKERIRONIES
LONELYENDEAR

Long ago, the "Four T Puzzle" hooked me on physical puzzles that require clever manipulation. It's so satisfying when after a long period of intense study and logical reasoning, you finally crack an elegant stumper. (It's less satisfying when you crack the darn thing with a hammer, but there's still something to be said for that.) If you don't know about Chris Ramsay's YouTube channel, it should be the next URL you check out. Heck, stop reading and go there right now; he's way more interesting than me!

The "Four T Puzzle" is my go-to when someone exhibits a seed of interest in logic, craftsmanship, and/or puzzles. It broke my mind when I first experienced it, blowing up my entire sense of dignity. I had never seen something so elegantly breaking the rules I had assumed, showing that sometimes solving a problem takes a dramatic shift in mindset.

Alex gave himself a major challenge with this construction, fitting in his four black Ts while requiring EVERY SINGLE ANSWER that abutted one (or two!) of them to use said T. I've seen plenty of puzzles like this — I made one a few years ago — but this goes above and beyond. As a constructor, I love experiencing a puzzle where I can't quite figure out how I'd make it. I'll be studying this for days; so many interesting two-T entries like TUGBOAT, TRAP SET, TRUE DAT, just TO START. I doubt I could TOP THAT.

I'm studying it all again, and I'm even more impressed than before. Twelve entries that needed to work with two of the black Ts? And 24 more that have to work with one T? That's such a ridiculous level of difficulty, like attempting a 720 triple tail whip on a dirt bike — without shoes! Or feet! I'd be impressed even if Alex had wiped out. Far from it. Given the severe constraints, it's a fine result.

I wanted to give it the POW! because it's so crazy, so incredibly audacious. So why didn't I?

  1. My solving experience was tainted by the oddballs SOROCCO, TOULON, HOISTER, ONE REEL, SUDSES, PRERIGS. Some (all?) are worth knowing, but as a whole, it left a bad taste.
  2. One of the NYT's production people, one of the best solvers in the world, didn't get what was going on. If she couldn't grok the concept, how many others would be left sending angry emails (not to me, no not to me, please!)

Overall, wonderful execution on a concept that made my constructor's eyes pop out of my head, Looney Tunes-style. Hilarious observations by Alex, too. I couldn't get the solver in me to set aside all his hitches, unfortunately.

Tue 12/24/2019
DEFRAYHEEHAW
MOLIERESIXPACK
COLDCUTAREOLAR
GRADBINDERCLIP
LEASETHE
STIEGALSABCS
WINDOWTRIMLEAN
IBMNEAMETRNA
MIENBUMPERCROP
SAMEBTWUHYES
OWSATSEA
BARBERSHOPISLA
ORIOLESQUARTET
STARMANUNWEAVE
HYMNALEKEDBY

A roller-coaster ride today, full of ups and downs:

UP: COLD CUT, BINDER CLIP, WINDOW TRIM … how could these possibly be related? Ooh, I'm going to get a strong a-ha!

DOWN: BARBERSHOP. Synonyms for haircut. Huh. It works, but it's not exciting.

UP: That's unfair. Alex did a great job of concealing the synonyms' meanings. The CLIP in BINDER CLIP has nothing to do with cutting. Same with TRIM in WINDOW TRIM. I did admit defeat at "Name That Theme," after all.

UP!: BARBERSHOP … QUARTET! Ah, a quartet of "cut" synonyms … WAIT! Each one has EXACTLY FOUR LETTERS! Okay, that's much stronger than I thought, approaching POW! consideration for taking a tried-and-true theme to new places … hey … wait.

DOWN: Math is hard.

Many solvers would miss the heavenly elegance of four BARBERSHOP words, every one with precisely four letters. (Some will probably miss the QUARTET part today, even.) I would have loved if the theme had gone that extra mile, though. Maybe BRAINWASH, to start the haircut? That would have gone away from straight-up synonyms, but I enjoy it when a crossword tells a story — kicking things off with a WASH, going to a HONEYCOMB, to a CLIP, to a TRIM?

It's hard for us bald guys to tell a good BARBERSHOP story.

I appreciated all the bonuses, HALLE BERRY and IN MEMORIAM excellent, and SIX PACK, MOLIERE, NEWBORN, too. Not so much the compromises, EGON EPHOCAL SMEE — a trio newbs shouldn't have to wade through. Along with the crosses Alex mentioned, HEEHAW crossing WKRP might turn off younger solvers, who could justifiably guess a wide range of letters for HEEHA? / ?KRP or a few other things, too.

It's hard to avoid this kind of crossword glue when working with six themers. I'm curious if crossing BARBERSHOP with QUARTET might have helped (having no symmetrical themer to QUARTET). You'd have to rejigger every other themer, but it might have been worth it.

I like when constructors try to add an extra layer into a standard theme type. There were too many hitches today, but I'd much rather have this than simply four circled synonyms.

Thu 12/12/2019
GELLERGARNET
MARIANAOILEDUP
ALABONFIREURL
CAESSENESTI
ETAILMIGSTALE
SERFLAGOSHIED
ATOMICNUMBERS
DRUNKTAUNT
BEGGEDFORMORE
ARCODAUNTSALS
SOOTYBRAHENIE
SNIWILLSOXE
ESCPANSIESLIT
SOONESTMAESTRO
NODSTOBLAMES

Quiz! How many of these chemical symbols can Jeff translate? The clock starts … NOW!

Li: lithium

Ne: Nebraska? Neon, ha ha, just joking.

Ca: Ca … lifornium. No wait, calcium!

Ti: titanium

Sn: tin (you narrowly avoided a pedantic lecture about the root word "stannum" and my so-crazy-they're-genius theories on Stannis Baratheon)

Xe: xenon, this is far too easy!

Nd: … wait … hmm … North Darkotium? Nerdvedium? Bah!

Sm: ... Hulk SMASH(IUM)!

This former science wonk, who hit an easy 5 on his AP chem test and received a couple of chemistry scholarships, scored only 6 out of 8. (Neodymium and samarium.) That bodes poorly for even the advanced Thursday solver. God have mercy on John Q. Solver.

Fun treat to get so many long pieces of fill. RAN SMACK DAB INTO, GOING OUT ON A LIMB, BEGGED FOR MORE are all excellent. It's rare ever to get a themed grid where we get so many grid-spanning bonuses. It wasn't necessary — ATOMIC NUMBERS could have gone in the middle row — but I appreciated having more to enjoy inside my puzzle.

Creative idea, and I appreciate bizarre, mold-breaking grids. From a construction point of view, though, the idea is a little too easy to execute on, since once you go past the teens (in terms of atomic numbers), nearly every chemical symbol contains two letters.

I would have enjoyed it more (I BEGGED FOR MORE, yes I did) if Alex had shown us a Rutherford-Bohr model! (Said no one but this science dork.) At the very least, I would have liked a rectangular grid, approximating the periodic table.

Thu 11/14/2019
GNATBLAIRSPAS
POLOBOWTOIAGO
AMIREQUESTGRAF
PTSDISNTIT
SIDEAEAUSKIING
COEDUNPCINN
UNBORNSLAMGAP
FITETECAMPWHO
FCCCOCOAYEAYE
EPACRITLYES
OUIINDEEDMISSY
IMLATEUSER
LAINFRENCHOPEN
UMNOAETNATIRE
PIGSTYSONHEAT

Alex has such innovative ideas. I'd have never thought of interpreting FRENCH OPEN as "translate first words of phrases into French." I struggled mightily with the first themer, figuring there was some crazy transmogrification of FRIEND — maybe END, with FRI cut off as the Thursday trick? Days of the week ... end!

Um, no.

I enjoyed the a-ha; a concept I'd never before seen. I also appreciated the consistency, Alex using only three-letter French words often seen in crosswords; a bit of an insider's nod.

The notion got repetitive quickly, though. By the time I reached OUI INDEED, the puzzle felt like it was Marmotte Day.

Speaking of rodent-like creatures, an AYE AYE is … cute? Creepy? The etymology is reported to be from a French cry of astonishment. Appropriate for this puzzle!

During my solve, I had the vague notion that the grid wasn't nearly as strong as Alex's usual products. Upon second glance, though, most of that was due to the annoyances of seeing some usual crossword gloop featured, AMI and ETE in particular. Now, I wasn't a fan of LOUDEN, but aside from some ECCE AMAT, my first impression was too strongly negative. I hope other solvers will allow Alex similar leeway.

Experiencing this novel theme triggered some other notions in my own brainstorming, and that's rare indeed.

Sat 9/28/2019
THESHIELD
SEASHANTIES
CHARLOTTESWEB
GLARESPICES
MEWSUSESSTREW
AAAHPINTATERI
INREIMFINETBS
LUMENPURTYWAS
PATISSERIEERR
STOOGESTARO
LADSYNODLAPEL
EVESREPOLL
WALLACESTEVENS
DIVORCEPAPERS
LEGISLATORS

I love "The Great British Bake-Off," where SWISS ROLLs have been the subject of many challenges. The basic recipe is simple, but seeing the imagination and creativity bakers inject (sometimes literally) into their creations can be mind-blowing. There's so much artistry involved, trying to figure out how to pull of a wild design, while living within the main criterion: above all, it must taste delicious.

When judging SWISS ROLLs, Paul Hollywood has no hesitations when pointing out the imperfections. Consistency of layer thickness is one of the most common issues. Not today! Such a regular layer of jelly inside, no thin or thick spots, the entire roll three or four letters wide.

Only three letters wide didn't provide for much flavor, though. One of the rules of thumb for a themeless is to minimize your short fill, since it's generally not that interesting and can chop up a solving experience. I was sure my stop-and-go solve would point to a large number of shorties, and indeed — 16 3-letter words and 13 4-letter ones. Not ideal.

I also wanted more spice. SECRET WEAPONS and BEER BARRELS, yes! WALLACE STEVENS and LEGISLATORS, though — that part of the sponge didn't rise as much as it should have, falling flat. A grid like this has such a limited number of long and medium slots that it's critical to use every one to its fullest potential. STIRRED, CLEAN UP, SIMPSON, and the long entries along the bottom … unfortunately not as en fuego as EN FUEGO.

A serviceable themeless with a pretty visual and not many outright technical flaws (aah, perhaps AAAH). Style over substance, though; not nearly enough overall to garner a Jeff handshake.

Thu 9/5/2019
COWLWITCHLACE
AREAHAILEIMOK
BEERINNESNINE
LADDERGASTANKS
EDSELHEREIGO
RIMESTEAM
JESSGRITASCOT
OATEMOTIONIPA
TROLLNONOSDSU
PLAIDCHIC
EPAULETCHORE
SANDSPURLUMBER
LUCEONICEEARN
IRASNACHOAMAS
PARKTRAINRANT

Jim and I worried that solvers would miss all the symmetric, but short, theme material, so we've highlighted it below.

Interesting concept, playing on "more than" and "less than." EMOTION is more than a MOTION, but less than a DEMOTION, for example. The concept reminded me of a genius puzzle by David Steinberg that won an award in 2015. Puzzles so rarely blow my mind, but seeing what David pulled off there required a hundred Q-Tips to wipe away the gray matter oozing out my ears.

It made me wonder how many words fit that double beheading possibility. Five minutes of coding showed there are hundreds of them, including many long ones — longer than EMOTION even. My favorite from that list was CHARMLESS HARMLESS ARMLESS. It would have been great to use at least one pair of long ones since all the shorties got lost in Alex's grid.

Obsessive as I am, I wondered how many triple beheading words there are. Surprisingly, also hundreds! My favorite: GESTATE ESTATE STATE TATE, although ISLANDERS SLANDERS LANDERS ANDERS was fun too, as was NASCENT ASCENT SCENT CENT.

We all know I can't leave well enough alone, so onto quad and quint beheadings! Dozens of quads, but just one notable quint: BRAIDING RAIDING AIDING ID'ING DING ING (the Dutch bank).

Overall, Alex's idea was solid, although it was unsatisfying to never see the missing letter, e.g., the D in front of DEMOTION. I wondered if they'd spell something out — now that would have been neat! S T was a good start, but then it all went to hell with S T P B, etc. Given how many double beheading options there are to choose from, having a secret answer would have been doable and would have elevated the puzzle concept.

Sun 8/11/2019 BIRD PLAY
POSTCHARSTSAAKA
EULERTAIWANHILARYSK
SCENEORGANAAMESIOWA
THEPLOTTHICKENSEATAT
PIANOTHEYSALON
OPENTOSPEDESSO
FARSIVERDISCOFFBIO
TACNEALEPOPULARKIDS
EVANGELIZEROBSIEGEL
NORALEGMAOTAIANDSO
PSSTGERMSPORN
VESPASHORTEOHMETDS
EXCITEELIOFFONALARK
SPREADEAGLERUNITKOI
TOYNEWTOSPOSEEMEND
NESTCAGEDAISES
PLEBSHEALSALSA
PROBEHEADLESSCHICKEN
COCOAMIXGATEAUVANDY
SWANDIVEATTENDELENA
SLYRECREEDSLEAD

Total birdbrain of an idea! In a good way.

Word play -> bird play -> riffing on bird-related figures of speech. Great find in THE PLOT THICKENS = HEADLESS CHICKEN. Easy to understand and clever.

SPREAD EAGLE worked well, too, as the letters E A G L E were so nicely spaced throughout EVANGELIZE. Pretty, that.

HILARYSK? Tougher to grok, since you have to figure out that the SWAN "dives" within the phrase, making HILARY(SWAN)K. Still works, though.

OFF on a LARK wasn't as interesting, since "X on Y" themes are somewhat overdone by now.

Master class in gridwork today, Alex such a consummate pro. He did everything right. Sticking at 140 words. Liberally using extra black "cheater" squares to smooth things out. Maintaining unyielding adherence to smoothness. With just ETDS as glue, this is a better product than most NYT weekdays, much less NYT Sundays, which on average, have enough gloop that solvers have to put on their waders.

Even better, so much bonus material. With such exacting detail paid to the short fill, you'd expect little to no sparkle. Nope! POPULAR KIDS, SLEEPER CAR, TAKES A KNEE, COCOA MIX, GOLGOTHA, RANCH DIP. So much sizzle and so little cruddy short fill shouldn't be possible.

There's no secret to it — I'm sure Alex set his minimum word score to a high level and never said good enough was good enough, backtracking every time he hit a problem spot. Every constructor can and should produce Sunday 140-word grids like this; it's a matter of practice and the willingness to spend dozens of hours finding a final solution with virtually no trade-offs.

The overall concept is tight in that it's all bird-related figures of speech, but the visuals are nothing new. While it wasn't nearly as interesting as I like for POW! consideration, the gridwork was easily in POW! territory. A much better Sunday than we've seen in a while.

Thu 7/11/2019
OFFSSWABBCCS
DRAWAISLEBOHO
DEZIMOTSUCCRAP
SEEMEHERODNTH
CABSTNEDUTS
WHATIFSOLACE
WHUPKOITHORN
HEMDEGNEVAPBA
ONAIRCSILION
INTOTOPOLEAX
GNITSIXELOT
ARTSETATOSAKA
DOITRETEPTNIAS
OMENSAUTEOMNI
TESTMPEGTEES

We've seen dozens of backwards puzzles, enough for us to compile a list. I can't remember another one where the entry is backward, and the clue is too, so I appreciate Alex's attempt to go above and beyond.

(Shout out to Mike Shenk of the WSJ, who while editing one of my backward puzzles, came up with the idea to flip the print clues such that they looked as they'd appear in a mirror. That was brilliant.)

I'm a big fan of Alex's gridwork. With five themers — three of them shortish — you have a fantastic opportunity to add in sparkling bonuses, while keeping the short fill smooth. Alex did just that, with smart positioning of his long downs. Note how WHEN IN ROME / SWIM CAP / OX TEAM / BLURTS / LETS NOT / CHATTERBAG alternate down up down up down up, for best spacing.

(Not sure why I entered CHATTERBAG instead of the correct answer. It ought to be a thing, I tells ya.)

A lot of constructors try a "parallel downs" structure, like WHEN IN ROME / HUMANITIES. It's not hard to do when you don't have many constraints in the area — there's just GNITSIXE nailed into place. It's more a matter of willingness to put in the time to find a stellar solution. Too many constructors give up around attempt number 20, unwilling to iterate into the hundreds to come up with a winning set as strong as today's.

Huge props for craftsmanship. I'm glad Alex tried to make this concept stand out from the muck of backwardsville, but it wasn't quite enough.

Tue 6/25/2019
ACTSCUBANDEJA
NYETASIANEVEL
NASLFENCELETS
ENTERDDEPINTO
POINTILLISM
ANIFOOLATONT
SOLDTOCHERIE
TROIRAISELEND
RATESINEPOSED
ODSNFLSTARORY
LOOMATOB
GEORGESSEURAT
PRINTNUIDAFOE
JENGATEDOVARY
SWEETSTEFORTE

Any guesses as to how many times people will email me, asking what's the point of this one?

I admire so much about Jim. Take his gusto; his love for the arts. It's a joy to read how happy this puzzle made him. Makes me wish I felt that way about more things.

I was preparing to go into great detail about how the solving experience was not enjoyable, given that the random dots didn't form a picture, as is the payoff of POINTILLISM. Jim's comments made me hesitate. After some deliberation, I'll say that the puzzle is nothing if not memorable.

Art appreciation is subjective. Sometimes you either love a work or you hate it. Some might even say that the best pieces are the ones that get noticed; that generate this love/hate duality.

POW Wed 5/22/2019
GRAMMOJOWAKE
AURAAVECCABIT
UBERKETTOVENS
LEATHERWALLET
HISANAIS
BROADWAYTICKETS
OARADSKIRIN
OPTFROICYADA
BAHAIORATAR
STOPDROPANDROLL
PEACHTIE
ALLWHEELDRIVE
KAUAIELMOUNIX
INDUSRIISNINA
MAIDSATESTEM

★ AES has some of the best theme ideas in the crossworld today. (A shame that he shares initials with Adlai "Madly for Adlai" E. Stevenson.) How could it be possible to come up with strong, in-the-language phrases for:

  • One for the money
  • Two for the show
  • Three to get ready
  • Four to go

I wouldn't have even tried — feels impossible.

LEATHER WALLET cleverly fits [One for the money], a bit of wordplay we might see within a great themeless puzzle.

BROADWAY TICKETS are certainly [Two for the show].

ALL WHEEL DRIVE is another deft interpretation, for [Four to go]. Brilliant!

If it hadn't been for STOP DROP AND ROLL not feeling apt for [Three to get ready], this would have been an automatic POW! pick. Even POY! territory.

I liked this idea so much that I spent a lot of time thinking about what else might have fit. (I wasn't a fan of any of Alex's original suggestions.) The best I could come up with was there's an old saying about the Three S's needed to get ready for a big event. But as spot-on as it was, it wouldn't have passed the NYT censor. (S___, shower, shave. First one rhymes with "hit.")

Ultimately, I couldn't think of anything that worked better than STOP DROP AND ROLL. So I gave it a pass in service of a great overall idea.

Strong gridwork, too. MAKES WAR, FIDELIS, JETWAYS, OPHELIA, WAVE SKI, all reason to APPLAUD. CAN'T LOSE!

Well, there's COLICKY. I don't know that much about Alex since he likes to keep a low profile (we still haven't convinced him to put up a pic.) I can guess that he has no kids though — for us parents of little kids, COLICKY is too soon, Alex. Too soon.

Good use of cheater squares. It's tough to work so many down entries through LEATHER WALLET and BROADWAY TICKETS. So I'm sure the black square above COLICKY was key in allowing Alex to make that NE corner smooth.

Even though STOP DROP AND ROLL didn't work for me, I managed to overlook it. Great idea and excellent craftsmanship earns Alex another POW!

Thu 4/18/2019
CABBAGEGASBAG
OVOIDALOFNOTE
PANDEMICSTABLE
INTONEASPER
ETONBUTTERFLY
SINCOSELLOED
PAYERSTENOS
UBERSSPARIGHT
GATEAUICEIN
GNCSALAAMDJS
CHRYSALISFRAT
HATHAECLAIR
ARGYLEREDEAGLE
ROOMIEPINKOES
SEAEELINTENDS

Liz Gorski used to do so many beautiful "connect the dots" visual puzzles that Jim wrote a JavaScript function to automatically connect the circles in alphabetical order and animate the fades: it's called "GorskiDraw." Take a moment and enjoy the pretty picture below.

(Liz has stopped submitting to the NYT, instead focusing on her successful subscription service. Please consider subscribing! It's great to see her entrepreneurship pay off. Makes me consider going that route, too.)

As a solver, I don't usually appreciate fortuitous themer interconnect — at least, I usually appreciate it less than the constructor. But today, I had a moment of admiration when I realized how nicely BUTTERFLY and CHRYSALIS interlocked with CATERPILLAR.

Jim pointed out afterward though that the ordering was odd. Why BUTTERYFLY -> CATERPILLAR -> CHRYSALIS? What are we, Benjamin Button-terfly?

It's a great observation. Hitting BUTTERFLY so early in my solve gave away the game, too.

This could have been fixed by "flipping" the grid on the NW to SE diagonal, so that CATERPILLAR ran horizontally across the middle, with CHRYSALIS in the NE corner (vertically), and BUTTERFLY in the SW corner (also vertically). That would have been perfect.

Connect the dots puzzles are so tough to construct. I had a tough time working with one that didn't have to be symmetrical, and that nearly broke me.

I imagine Alex tweaked his positions over and over, with one side working out but the other not cooperating. Unfortunately, a lop-sided BUTTERFLY … well, it just wouldn't fly, would it? Alex also had the luxury of starting / ending the pattern anywhere — and going either clockwise or counterclockwise — but still, it's no joke.

Overall, the grid is decent. A bit of toughness in entries like AVANTI, BONTON, PINKOES (not PINKOS?), but that's expected in corners as big as the NW / SE. I might have considered putting a black square at the E of ÉCLAIR to facilitate filling, but that would have cut that corner off but good. So I think he made good decisions all around.

It's not Gorski. But it is Gorski-esque.

POW Tue 4/9/2019
BATMAPSSCAM
ATADARALTOILE
RIMEGILASPOTS
EDISONOPRAH
DELIVERSERIF
RATERASSET
DEKESPOOLTRAP
AVEUSCARE
SEGASTEEDSLOP
RECAPNAIVE
LAGERNAMETAG
DECALLAMINA
SETINDUALSNAP
SPRATABLEOGRE
STUNREEDETS

Whoa! I've seen tons of puzzles with backward entries. Puzzles with dual clues. Puzzles with all the across answers having something in common. Puzzles with words reading one thing one way and another thing another way.

But I've never seen anything quite like this. Elements of all of the above stitched together brilliantly.

Such a clever idea to give the solver two clues for each across entry, leaving it up to them to figure out which applies in the forward direction, and which in the reverse. I've seen most of these "emordnilap" words before (emordnilap = palindrome backward), but the notion of clueing both the regular word and its emordnilap is a great out-of-the-box idea.

My solve was much slower than for a regular Tuesday, and my enjoyment flagged through the middle, as the trick got a bit old. But after finishing, I had to sit back and admire the concept and construction. So, so, so difficult to get every single across answer to work this way.

There were plenty of gluey spots, not just ANART EPT SSS REPUT DIALLED, but backward stuff like RETAR. The overall impact was so strong that I was easily able to brush those aside. Heavy crossword glue in the service of a great theme is fine by me.

It's so rare that a puzzle stands out as something entirely new. This is one of them.

Wed 2/6/2019
SUNFIREMOTHER
ORIURALADWARE
LIBRETTODEALIN
BEGAPARTLED
HELLOTELESCOPE
OREEASTROAR
LARGESTECRU
ASSORTOPERAS
TEENENGLISH
CITYARSENCO
INEEDANAPNIGHT
USAIVANAOCT
DIPDYEKNOCKOUT
ADORERLOCHSPA
DETERSELSESIX

Uniclue! There have been enough of these, that the NYT production team seemed a bit blasé about it when I got pre-release notes. What a pleasant surprise to get a twist, a raison d'etre that I doubt I'd have ever thought of. Every single square that starts both an across and a down answer shares a clue — but the across entry is in ENGLISH, and the down is in ESPANOL.

I've tried my hand at Uniclue constructions, and they're a bear. Not only do you have paired themers everywhere, but some of them have to intersect. And on top of all that, because most of the themers are short, you're going to need some long fill to stay within the max word count of 78.

I have a feeling some solvers will complain about the crossword glue, and I acknowledge that the slurry of ALTE IRT ASCH OCS etc. isn't fantastic. Nor is ADORER or NIBBLERS. HALLOO, HELLO?

But the direct experience of working with this theme type (and failing miserably, I might add) makes me appreciate Queena and Alex's execution. It's not realistic to expect a Uniclue puzzle to be perfectly clean, and for me, the payoff was worth the prices I had to pay during my solve.

Not to mention, they even managed to work in a couple of strong bonuses. I NEED A NAP + TELESCOPE + RING TOSS isn't a total KNOCK OUT, but that's pretty darn good long fill for the limited long slots available.

Hilarious clue on TEAPOT, too. Left holding the bag, indeed. *rimshot*

When working with an established tricksy theme type, it's important to do something a little different. I count this one a success.

POW Mon 10/22/2018
HOMEEBBSCUBES
UNITTRONASANA
MERCURIALMERCI
ORAGAGSVENIAL
RONALDTOOESSO
MUDPIESPLATTER
ESAUCITGOADS
MARTIAL
IMPPRISMYELP
WORSHIPAPPAREL
ONITETSLAKOTA
JOVIALPOORSSN
IMALLSATURNINE
METESECIGBOOT
ARESOTESHANTS

★ I liked this theme so much that I'm breaking my Mondays-must-be-newb-friendly rule to give it the POW!

Adjectives, based on the PLANETS — presented in cosmic order (distance from the sun)! Talk about cosmic karma, the word symmetries working out so beautifully. You could hardly ask for more.

VENIAL was a tough word for this agnostic. I double-checked each crossing to make sure that V E N I A L spelled something legitimate. Triple-checked, even! But it's common in the Catholic Church, a "VENIAL sin" a lesser kind of sin.

Maybe like putting both CITGO and ESSO into a single crossword.

Zing!

The placement of PLANETS forced four big corners, and I like what Alex did with all that white space. HUMOR ME, ONEROUS, MIRANDA, MUD PIES, all for just the price of ORA? Not onerous at all; I'll gladly humor Alex!

Usually, I'm all for I'M ALL, as a slangy preface. It felt a little less elegant with ARE SO near it, though. Still, worth it to get the juicy IWO JIMA, PRIVATE, even MONOMER. I'll WORSHIP that!

*ducks the lightning bolts incoming for that less-than-VENIAL sin*

I wouldn't have paused for a moment in giving this one the POW!, if it had run on a Wed or even a Tuesday. But in the end, my constructor's brain was mighty tickled by how neat and orderly the theme played out.

Wed 10/10/2018
JOTAGERPLASTIC
ONOBRAERIHANNA
DODOBIRDINSPOTS
INOUYEOHOKTOT
EELSSOSOREVIEWS
HITHERVIDEO
BASSIADEINSTIR
ANTLALALANDUMA
EDSELSYSLOKRAS
REHABSARONG
SOHELPMEGODOTIS
ANALADEESPANA
NAILGUNALPHABET
DILEMMAROTOLEE
PRESSESSXSWERS

Jim and I play the "what will annoy Jeff game" most weeks. It's super fun — Jim simply tries to predict which puzzles will make me gnash my teeth. He thought today's would be one of those because the knowledge required is pretty specific.

Wrong! Score one for The U S of Murica, score negative eight for Canadiana!

I imagine there will be some who don't get what's going on. You do need some background to figure it out:

- Notes of the major scale can be sung DO RE MI FA SO LA TI DO.

- The ALPHABET song (same tune as "Twinkle, Twinkle") on a C major scale starts with C C G G A A G.

- You can thus translate that to DO DO SO SO LA LA SO.

The theme is demystified! Apologies to those who are rolling their eyes, saying, "Thanks, Captain Obvious!"

Well, it wasn't at all obvious to me what was going on, anyway. I liked that aspect of it — felt like a couple of interesting ideas merged creatively together. Not a jump-out-of-my-seat-a-ha-that's-brilliant-moment! But my curiosity was piqued enough to want to figure out what was going on.

I liked a lot of the gridwork, strong efforts to work in long bonuses like TURNTABLE, TODO LISTS, LINKED IN, ASHPLUME. That's ON ONE HAND.

On the other, some oddballs in OKRAS ADEPTS (such strange plurals), SANDP (that's the S&P 500, of course, never written out as AND except in crosswords), and the trio of IN STIR, IN SPOTS, IN TOW. I usually don't mind duplication of short words INside grids, but that gave the solve a repetitive feel.

Overall, it's not the incredibly memorable musical puzzle to which I hold every other, but it's a novel, interesting take. I'd be curious to see what percentage of solvers actually understood what was going on, or went back to figure it out.

Thu 9/13/2018
QUIZAMAZECCS
ETREKEFIRHUT
DEKEDCARPIGABO
SOYNOSURSI
ASKJOESLLCS
THEFOUNTAIOFYOH
MIMEABORTS
VOYAGEGETUPS
HARMONSUNS
FROTHIGATTHEMOH
LENOISLEPSY
AHEMTETYET
RAIBOWTROSHELL
ESCLITERIBOX
SHHEXUDEOBOX

I liked the visual of INBOX stacked atop the OUTBOX, too. But HEES and especially LXX gave me major pause. I wonder if shifting those guys all the way to the left would have helped.

Jim brings up a good point about restricting themers to only those with OUT embedded within a word. And given those constraints, RAINBOW TROUT is no doubt a colorful (ha ha) choice.

There are still a good number of options, however — enough to make me want better than CARPING ABOUT and FROTHING AT THE MOUTH. I think the former is decent, but nothing to write home about. And for the latter, I so badly wanted FOAMING AT THE MOUTH. Both are dictionary supported, but FOAMING resonates much more strongly for me.

Given the need for some HEES LXX and OST URSI (yikes!), I would have preferred to remove ZEES from the grid. As much as I like the Q and Z in QUIZ, needing ETRE and DEKED (tough for non-hockey players) added to the grid's feeling of not being as smooth as I like. I was glad to hear that Alex changed his mind about this over time!

The Venn diagram of what Jim knows and what I know has surprisingly little overlap. (His circle is about eleventy-thousand barleycorns bigger than mine, though.) I love Trader Joe's KEFIR — it lets me think that I'm doing healthy for myself (I squint so I never notice the massive amount of added sugar). We've had this dissonance so many times now that I've come to appreciate the subjectivity of it all.

One person's weird is another's deliciousness. Just as long as the crossings are fair, why not learn something from your crossword?

I did have some qualms about execution, but overall, I enjoyed uncovering the rebus squares, and the stacked INBOX/OUTBOX made for a nice visual.

Tue 8/7/2018
COBRABEAMHUP
ATLASMORIAASH
SHOPSTEWARDRHO
HOVELIRIPEN
IOWATERRITORY
UMAMIAIDS
RETAKEURNUSA
BEERINGREDIENTS
STSGILSWAMUP
EKESOVENS
ANIMALTRAINER
KAPUTARCIRA
IDOHAPPYEASTER
RIDINDIABUENO
ARSEGADENDED

Welcome to day 2 of LAUGH AT MYSELF (LAM-poon) week! Some A+ finds today — I would never have imagined that WATER or YEAST could be hidden across phrases. It's like the crossword gods came down centuries ago to guide the hand of Thomas Jefferson, gently nudging him to write the IOWA TERRITORY into existence.

It's amazing, the four main ingredients to beer fitting across phrases like this. Very cool.

What would the old Jeff say about the revealer, BEER INGREDIENTS? That it's a bit dry, a dictionary definition. He'd be wistful, wishing for something that produced a sharper a-ha moment.

But there is no phrase like that! So why even bring it up? BEER INGREDIENTS explains things perfectly. It works, and that's what's important.

I do want to point out the troublesome nature of the OTHO / HOV crossing, as I've heard that HOV (common here in Seattle) is not at all common in other parts of the country. OTHO is not AUGUSTUS, or NERO, or CALIGULA in terms of his notoriety. But this week's Jeff chooses to give Alex the benefit of the doubt, which all world leaders — all of them — ought to be fair game, whether or not the crossings makes the person gettable.

BLOVIATES is such an awesome word. I used to hear so much bloviation from an old boss back when I was in start-up world. She was a disaster! Not sure why she's tried to connect with me on LinkedIn … three times now!

(Even this week's positive-thinking Jeff would refuse those invitations!)

The grid exhibits well-above-average craftsmanship, working with five long themers. Just an URBS / STS shows a lot of care taken in construction.

Such neat discoveries, says this beer drinker. I might have even POW!ed the puzzle, if the revealer had just been BEER. (BEER INGREDIENTS does the same job, but takes up a ton more real estate, leaving less room for bonus fill.)

Tue 7/10/2018
NCAAITEMSOTS
OAFSNOVASEPIA
GRASSSEEDTREVI
STRAITESPANOL
IDIOMLAPD
WELLLOOKYTHERE
SEXELLIEIBEX
PICASSOPHSCALE
IGORNATALTIC
THREEEGGOMELET
IANSENSUE
STARTLEATTAIN
ARTURFULLHOUSE
SIEGEFRIAURNS
SODSSLEDTATS

A FULL HOUSE in poker is three cards of one value + two cards of a different one. Amusing extension of this concept to crosswords today. Something so aesthetically pleasing about having the three FULL HOUSEs right atop each other, too.

Anyone else put in WELL LOOKIE HERE? I was all set to rave about it; what a brilliant and colorful themer! Such a shame. WELL, LOOKY THERE ... maybe it's neither here nor there, but IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE HERE, NOT THERE, goldarnit!

Alex tackles some of the most challenging themes and gridwork, providing some delightfully tricksy solves. I think he has some work to do, though, in his early-week gridwork. I get the allure of creating a themed, 72-word puzzle — it's such a fun challenge. But it's also so incredibly difficult to execute on while still presenting a newb-friendly grid.

Expecting newer solvers to get IBEX / SERAPHIC correct seems tenuous at best. Toss in some NATAL EFFS FRIA, and I think you've given too many solvers too many reasons to go do something else.

Put a black square at the D of OPEN DEBATE, and you can smooth things out a ton, and still have room for something great at 9-D.

Another option: HAM SALAD didn't do much for me, so placing a black square at the first A of ATTAIN could smooth out the south region to a whole new level.

Many other ways to improve this grid — most of them involving punting on the 72-word gridding challenge.

Novel enough concept that I would have put it into POW! consideration for creativity alone. But the solving experience for newer solvers has to be given first and foremost priority.

Mon 5/28/2018
TRAMPSCHARTS
ARAMAICAILERON
PUTONAHAPPYFACE
HERSNOTITSULU
IDAPOOLTOYMOT
DACHALAOABASE
STEALDSLWISER
DATADANG
BREAKINTOASMILE
REAMSCAMSONES
ACRESERERUFFS
OCALAPETIT
FULLOFGOODCHEER
EPIGROWLATLYE
ESPSOANDSODEB

So pleasant to start the week with a smiley face. Alex did a great job with his grid art, that grin coming right through, along with easily recognizable eyebrows. The black bars on the sides of the puzzle even look like rosy cheeks!

No?

Use your imagination, people!

I don't mind the thinnish theme, as all three were grid-spanners, all three were apt, and there was excellent grid art. The theme left me FULL OF GOOD CHEER.

What did not was the fill. Even on Mondays, I think it's fine to give solvers something to learn. If you don't know PALAK paneer, you don't know what you're missing, people!

But you can't cross that with DACHA, leaving a high chance that solvers will get that square wrong. I wouldn't blame them for complaining.

Similarly, see the AILERON / ALY crossing. Oof.

RECTO … this writer learned the term from crosswords. Not as tasty as PALAK, but hey, learning is good for you, right? At least the crossings felt fairer.

There's rarely a crossword that doesn't force constructors to make trade-offs. I understand why Alex decided to leave wide-open swaths of space all over the puzzle, as it made for beautiful grid art. However, the straightforward Monday theme wasn't served well by the fill that was so unfriendly to newer solvers. I would have much rather taken some compromises in the grid art, to produce a Monday-worthy fill.

Thu 4/26/2018
OVERBOGEYTMI
NEATAPOLOPEAR
ANSESEARSALGA
GTEMENLOULAN
ENDLESSLYSEVEN
ROBERTINARITA
RYNNIMBIVOW
ESTONIANS
ECOWINKSNAP
LEHMANEQUALLY
FIFTYSTRUGGLES
LUISCRAIGHAH
KIDDTRIBEMESA
INGADEALTPREP
AGESELESGERE

I think Alex has one of the best minds in the business for interesting, twisty crosswords. The clue wording confused the heck out of me (it still does), so let's ignore it. Simple example: a BOGEY is one OVER (par) and OVER is at slot number one, i.e., ONE-Across.

ENDLESSLY isn't SEVEN, but (24)SEVEN — the number at 24-Across comes into play.

A NAP is (40) WINKS, and EQUALLY is (50) FIFTY. Good stuff!

I particularly appreciated how Alex placed the definitional entry right next to the gimmick entry, minimizing the need for cross-referencing. I don't mind so much when I just have to jump to the next (or previous) entry.

It would have been much easier for Alex if he could have placed BOGEY wherever he wanted in the grid — much more flexibility to find the best spot for ease of filling — but then you'd force the solver to jump all tarnation.

These heavy constraints did mean that there had to be some heavy compromises. Four pairs of words — some long — and each pair placed sequentially? Yikes! The only place I minded was the NW, with ONAGER / ANSE / GTE. It's so tough — that big corner, constrained by OVER and ENDLESSLY — was bound to have problems. But I don't think those crossings are fair, and that's perhaps the biggest no-no in the biz. Why not add some cheater squares to smoothify?

Oh, of course you can't — each themer had to be at a specific number. That makes grid design even tougher, as you can't just place extra black squares here and there to facilitate filling. Kind of mind-boggling that Alex made it all happen.

Okay, I'll try harder to ignore RYN LENE GO ALL, etc.

Still, those ONAGER / ANSE / GTE crossings ... I might have preferred to take out the definitional entries and add in a few more, like 7-ELEVEN, 10-FOUR, etc.

I like puzzles where the clue number is tricksily part of the clue. The first time I encountered it BLEW MY MIND! It's not as novel now, but I enjoyed the additional layer Alex put on the concept.

POW Thu 1/25/2018
ORESITBYTEC
HITKOREARIVAL
SCUBATANKOLINE
NODEANTSADLOT
ALERTCONCRETES
PASTIMEORSWIG
ONOPHIWINO
ISLANDHOPPING
KNOTOEDTEL
EDUMCSTSELIOT
VERBALISEPIPPA
INNATEUFOAHEM
NIOBEBALTIMORE
SATEDAVOIDNAS
LESMENSAEST

★ Love this theme! Alex interprets ISLAND HOPPING as "skip the island embedded in the phrase/word, resulting in a new word." S(CUBA) TANK to STANK was particularly nice, as was BAL(TIMOR)E to BALE. Beautiful finds.

CON(CRETE)S to CONS wasn't as awesome, as it was odd to get CONCRETES in the plural. VER(BALI)SE to VERSE too — if only we were in Britain! Or VERZE had been a real word. It really should be.

Great execution on the grid. Working with five themers, the middle one sort of cutting the grid in half, is rarely easy. Beautiful results in the big NE corner, EVIL TWIN particularly nice (I'm an identical twin, and clearly the evil one).

The SW corner did contain the awkward pluralised (not -ized, to keep with the Britishising today) KEVINS, but how great are IN DENIAL and SOUR NOTE? Well worth the price of KEVINS.

And two standout clues were the cherries on top:

  • The common phrase, [Back to school], repurposed to describe the typical school email ending, EDU.
  • [Things with entrances and exits] aren't buildings, but (play) SCRIPTS.

Speaking of that, SCRIPTS, TS ELIOT, OH SNAP, MONOCLE, TEFLON — fantastic use of the mid-length slots.

Fun, tricksy theme, excellent execution. I paused slightly before giving this the POW! due to the two themers that made me hitch, but overall, this is very close to my Thursday puzzle ideal.

Thu 12/21/2017
ASSISICAMARO
WHATEVSGALILEI
GENERALHOSPITAL
EATANIMATEEDU
ERATKNOLLPREP
STAGPETE
PALAUSFOHEATH
INURNHISELLIE
GENIIOFTLOFTS
SWANNTISEUROS
RAGSETTA
REYFEUMRTNCO
ICEPOPSIRECKON
PRAIRIEFORRENT
EUREKASFLYINTO

Grid art! Alex gives us TUNING FORK formation of black squares that can also look like a SLINGSHOT. And if you squint, GOAL POSTS (I pity the kicker who has to get it through those narrow uprights). Squint even harder, and you can almost see THE LETTER Y.

Squint harder!

It's tricky. I like the idea a lot, but trying to make the pattern of black squares look exactly like each of those four things is a toughie. It'd look nearly perfectly like a TUNING FORK if you filled in the S of RAGS and E of ETTA, and lengthened the arms. It'd also make the SLINGSHOT look much sturdier.

But then it'd look even less like THE LETTER Y. And if you widened the posts to make it look more like GOAL POSTS, then it wouldn't look at all like a TUNING FORK.

So … best to go with something that *almost* works for everything?

Ah, trade-offs.

Some nice fill to elevate the solving experience, ICE POPS, EUREKAS, I RECKON making those bottom corners snazzy. LUNAR YEAR, too!

AL FRANKEN … oof. Unfortunate timing.

GENERAL HOSPITAL is also nice fill. Or a themer? Maybe that hospital looks TUNING FORK-ish? Nah, it's just a grid-spanning bonus, muddling up what is fill and what is theme. But Alex needed the black square between STAG and PETE to make it possible to fill inside his TUNING FORK, so you can't break up GENERAL HOSPITAL at the H of HMO (fun crossing, by the way!).

Given the simplicity of the theme, it felt out of place for a Thursday. I think if the grid had been smoothed out, eliminating ALPE, ITE, CRI, CONT, FEU, it could have made for a solid Tuesday or Wed puzzle. I understand Alex's effort to make the grid meatier by going to a low word count (73 is hard to achieve!), but it made for a dissonant combination of early-week theme plus late-week fill.

Still, I like me some grid art. And I like that Alex tries out so many different ideas in crosswords.

Tue 10/31/2017
MARTINAWLPARS
APIECELIEUTAH
PROTESTANTGATE
LITETAMEPERSE
ELSREFORMATION
PEATIAMS
HIJABAEROATS
ALLSAINTSCHURCH
TKOSDOEANIME
RBISSCAD
INDULGENCESFAR
BOOSTDOOROLGA
SIGHWITTENBERG
ESMEAVEAHISEE
NEARYESLUTHER

Great catch, the 500th anniversary of MARTIN / LUTHER's posting of the "Ninety-Five Theses." Such a transformational point in history deserves commemoration. We get a listing of the PROTESTANT REFORMATION, ALL SAINTS CHURCH, where the theses were nailed onto the DOOR, and the banning of INDULGENCES.

That last one always amused me, INDULGENCES sort of a way to buy your place in heaven. I always imagine priests rubbing their hands together in a cigar smoke-filled back room, cackling about how much money they would make.

*ducking the oncoming lightning strike*

Clean grid, an achievement considering the high theme density. The NW and SE corners are especially difficult — when you have two theme answers running through an open space like this, the filling result is usually no bueno. Super tough to find a word that can fit in between MARTIN and PROTESTANT while making every one of the down crossings smooth. But Alex did it! Not a gluey bit up there.

The SE did suffer a little, what with NHU, but if that's your only gluey bit, it's a win. Some might even argue that Madame NHU of Vietnam should be fair game, as she was an important figure in politics.

A couple of great bonuses, too, in PASS RUSHER, PUGET SOUND, WINERIES, NOSE DIVE. Alex spread these out nicely to give himself a lot of filling flexibility while steering clear of the already crowded NW / SE. Beautifully done.

Tribute puzzles often fall flat, sort of like reading a Wikipedia page. (Which I didn't have to do to know what the PROTESTANT REFORMATION was, honest! Okay fine, I did. Okay fine, I didn't read it, and I'm pretending I know what it is. Are you happy now?) I would have loved something more playful, perhaps riffing on INDULGENCES?

Off to find my cigars …

Thu 10/12/2017
CAREIDEASEND
ATADSOWNACMES
MOBILIZEDCOMIC
PETITERITUALS
HAMDEPOT
CABREARAROMA
ATLASRYESAIMS
SEALPARTSTRAP
HURLALOTPHONE
PEONYTUBESAD
TONESINK
GLIMMERESCAPE
LANESDEXTERITY
AMONGOVERANTE
DARTCASENEAR

Loved this idea, cluing all the across answers using a homophone of a real clue. My favorite was MOBILIZED … how could that mean [Mustard]? Ah, it meant [Mustered]! Clever.

[Instants] for CASE also gave me a nice a-ha moment. I hadn't cottoned to the trick, so I entered in a terminal S because of the plural clue. Got me! It's [Instance], singular. Perfect.

So, so, so tough to pull this off so that every single across answer is cluable in this manner. That means no partials, no proper names, no trivia, etc. Have to stick to all regular words and limit yourself to ones that might somehow be cluable to a single word that had a homophone. I can only imagine how many times Alex had to reboot. If just a single across entry didn't work ... yikes!

Although Alex did an amazing job of making most of them solid, enough jarred me that overall, I felt like I couldn't give this the POW! The biggest offenders were the ones that broke crossword conventions, like [Flour] for PEONY. Yes, a PEONY is a type of flower, but the clue would always be [Type of flower] or something to that effect. I struggled so much because that convention is in the very marrow of crosswords, and breaking it without explanation doesn't seem fair. Same with HAM = [Meet] = [Meat], RYES = [Lickers] = [Liquors].

Also odd to get [Re] as a clue. What is "Re" in real life? I can't imagine a normal clue looking like that — maybe [Re, e.g.] for "musical note." [Dun] also would be a weird clue in a normal crossword, as would [Missal].

And LANES doesn't quite equal [Rhodes] ("roads"). Too much of stretch for my taste.

Perhaps it would have been better if the one-word constraint had been lifted, replaced by "a homophone anywhere in the clue"? If even half of those awkward clues had been fixed to seem normal, I would have given this the POW! I admire Alex's big thinking.

Thu 9/7/2017
ARBITERASTERS
BEBRAVEBOOYAH
CALORICCLAUDIA
COLCOURTING
CRTSDRIESTESS
HOIHOOTHOT
ILLSEEYOUINUP
LETTERALIVEONE
LOSELUCASARTS
MCAMEDOMIT
MONOLDPROOSLO
OVERBIDSRVS
SAMOANSSEEKING
STEWIETINAFEY
YEARNSYTTRIUM

Ah, that feeling of having given up on an idea years ago, deeming it impossible … only to see another constructor make it happen. Impressive construction today, Alex putting all the across answers in alphabetical, or ABC, order.

I had been working with a grid containing exactly 26 across answers, one for each letter of the alphabet, but no matter how long I flailed away, it just wasn't happening. I like Alex's approach, which is much less constrained than the one I had been taking, making it actually doable.

I wasn't hot on ABC as a revealer, because 1.) ABC order is not as strong as ALPHABETICAL order and 2.) it came at the beginning of the grid, giving away the game early. In mine, I was planning on using THE ALPHABET SONG, which would come at a better location for a revealer. But like my overall approach, that also proved impossible to execute on.

Impressive that Alex finished the grid with not nearly as much crossword glue as I would have expected from this set of constraints. Yes, there did feel a lot when I solved — ESS, CRTS, HOI, HEE, COL, BBL, and more — but think about how difficult it is to fix so many letters into place, all throughout the grid. It's true that some letters could be shifted, i.e. from C to D or from R to S, while still maintaining alphabetical order. But a single move like that will affect the rest of the puzzle, forcing a cascade of changes.

And to work in some great bonuses! EVILDOER, I ADORE IT, LUCASARTS, BOOYAH! Well done there.

As a constructor, I was wowed — Alex's note about 76 words being easier than 78 words was particularly interesting to me. As a solver though, the effect was less impactful, especially for a Thursday puzzle, where I expect to work harder for a bigger a-ha moment.

Wed 4/5/2017
SPITCABSPOMP
SHINEROPAHSPUR
MAÑANAPEÑANIETO
IVANFLEXORSNOW
DETECTORSPAREME
GRATATNGORBS
ESSBASIEBASSOS
PIÑACOLADA
NONONOULTRASEP
OKEDSODPEPSI
SIESTASGASTRAPS
ENDICEWINEINAT
JALAPEÑOSELNIÑO
OWESLOOTPINSON
BASKARTSDAHL

Five special characters in the grid, reflecting the N with a tilde used in SPANISH. We've seen this concept before, but I like many of the touches Alex added. I liked having SPANISH as a revealer — without this, I don't know that I would have picked up on the theme — and I loved ESPANOL right next to it. It's hard to stack specific answers together, and it's even harder to do that when they're running through a themer (EL NINO). Very cool.

I appreciated the bonuses, COPERNICUS and GEOLOGISTS making for a science-y mini-theme. Given how so many people seem to dismiss science these days, I love the effort to pair up these long entries.

As a basketball fan, I love getting Dikembe MUTOMBO in the grid. As a Sonic fan, I hate Dikembe MUTOMBO. (His #8 seeded Nuggets upsetting my #1 Sonics was over 20 years ago. But my friends and I still can't joke about it.)

WOOT! made me smile — it's a slangy expression of exhilaration that my friends and I use. LT DAN did too, as I have fond memories of "Forrest Gump." But, I heard from a constructor friend that Will pointed out LT DAN in one of his puzzles as an undesirable dab of crossword glue. I quickly changed its assigned score on my list! It's so subjective, but Will is the final arbiter.

Good gridwork, especially given five pairs of theme answers, plus SPANISH as a revealer. With so much inflexibility within the grid, to get by with just some TNG (I'm a huge fan of "Star Trek: the Next Generation, but TNG is tough to figure out), IN A NET (sounds like a partial), SEP. Well, I didn't care for the combination of ERINNA (ancient poet) and IN AT in the lower right corner, but it was totally worth it to get that cool mash-up of SPANISH right next to ESPANOL / EL NINO.

Since I've seen this concept done a few times before, it would have been great to get something extra today. Not sure what that is, though.

Overall, the puzzle's solid execution still made for a fun solve.

POW Thu 2/2/2017
STEPMOANERIC
TAXIUNJAMVEGA
ADENCOATIACLU
BACKTOFRONTOOL
ESUFNAEROK
GNIYASDEOMED
EENERFORWARDHO
RIGLEWISEON
INREVERSESDAOT
ERITNEETALFO
MEDNATSPIV
ECILEFTTORIGHT
TOESROWANNOIR
ULNASPIKYCAKE
PITTSTEMIDES

★ Fantastic debut. Check that — fantastic puzzle, period. I quickly realized something backwardy was going on halfway through, and I enjoy a good backwards puzzle. But I got a little annoyed that random words were reversed. YOU HAVE TO BE CONSISTENT, YOU STUPID CONSTRUCTORS, MYSELF INCLUDED!

Boy, did that slight(-to-gigantic) irritation flip to delight in a big way when the a-ha hit. Alex runs an orderly ship, the first several across entries going left to right as usual. But as soon as you hit BACK TO FRONT, you need to start entering the acrosses ... in BACK TO FRONT order! And then when you get to FORWARD HO, you go ... FORWARD again. Things switch again, appropriately at IN REVERSE, and then flip one last time at LEFT TO RIGHT.

This in itself was a fresh and amusing take on a backwards-type puzzle. But the friendly-sounding cluing made it stand out even further. I didn't get what [watch out now!] and [you can relax ...] meant during my solve, but afterward, it all came across so fun and amusing, like a square dance caller yelling out instructions or something. Colorful, really playful, right on my wavelength.

And the gridwork! Usually backwards puzzles have enough glitches in the matrix that my entertainment level diminishes. It's especially tough to construct something like this, where only certain entries are flipped. I was utterly amazed at how well Alex did with his fill. (I've used the dual-grid trick he described once before with a backwards puzzle — I originally learned it from Patrick Merrell some time ago. It's quite handy!)

There were a couple of toughies in TAMA, COATI, and GERI, but they are all legit(ish). And a minor ERN, that's it? Whoa. Such care to give us a smooth solve is very, very much appreciated.

There weren't a huge number of long bonuses, but RECORD DEAL and DAVINCI were both great, and EPONYM helped out too. (PINKEYE, though … eew.)

Loved this puzzle. It's so rare for me to see something as innovatively fun as this, while still working within all the general rule of one-letter-per-square. Can't wait to see what Alex has planned next.

13 Variety puzzles by Alex Eaton-Salners

Sun 11/27/2022
PROGRAMSACTSAS
LENAOLINPROUST
APERTUREPETSPA
NOSSMEAREDHIT
TRIGSKINWIRE
STEELEENDABEL
TATERSMIATA
PIANISTEXITROW
INNERRESETS
ETTAHADSTORES
CHERODINNOVA
REDTREFOILBOY
URANUSINSANELY
SATIRECONSERVE
TWEAKSESTHETES
Sun 10/16/2022
ART
TORO
LOOMACARON
OLLIEKIDNAP
CLAUDEMONETTRAYS
OASISTWITMACRON
OPTSPOETRAPILL
OXFORDFEYASK
IRONBREAST
VOLVEALUTA
SNOCATASEA
TOURDEFRANCE
BOTSREINDEER
HIDEANNABELLA
ATLANTISELSE
MEETSAT
SADE
Sun 8/7/2022
DEADENDSABSORB
INDETAILDRAPER
EARCANDYLAREDO
OBOEANGICANSO
FLINGTRIBEACK
FETTERIDSORAL
TIANACAMRY
SCHLUBSHOARSEN
TROOPCROON
RUTSHOEFSTOPS
ADDNOTPCTENET
DEALERAAHALTA
DOTOATSNAPTOIT
LIESTOTOLERATE
ELSTONSNOCONES
Sun 2/6/2022
EARNERS
CARBONATE
GOUPINSMOKE
PUNHOOVERS
GAYSUPERSEDING
PURPAPERNEAP
OAKITSGOTIMEAMI
DRSOPTONYXKEG
IDAURALPLOPASP
URNSEGAHOPETHE
MADDPEWAVERTON
SIRENTESTAWS
LEBOWSKIPCS
CREATIVESPARK
ANDAWAYWEGO
DELINEATE
DESISTS
Sun 11/14/2021
UCLACATSEAU
SHOOKAGRACARB
BUCKETLOADISLE
MISERDEMETER
PASSETRESS
APPPALHOAR
SNOOPNAPESEDU
INSTANTMESSAGES
NOTLEASTANGLE
MOATORSCSI
SMARTSNIPS
HASBEENAEONS
ANTEPAPERCLIPS
DIEDPISATATAR
EARSLITVENI
Sun 9/19/2021
LAPSTARETHORA
OLEWALESHOPIN
WORDINESSARENT
ENSIGNTIETACKS
SEEPEASELS
DIRSLOBBED
MAYOTOTEAREA
SATINERRSCALD
LYONCREEEKES
RINGERARCH
LIEDTOODOR
TEATABLEAGEONE
AMBITEMPRESSES
BIBLENOTINELI
STATSASANASSN
Sun 6/27/2021
FLU
SEWERSIRAN
CLEVELANDTHEREDS
USSENATORBUCKEYE
METRODESKONOMBA
TIEHASNTCAUL
ARDORTITLESONGS
PEONGONZONFL
TARSMUGGOSOUTH
EDITWARRAJAMRI
SOSOONTONSABIT
TUDOREWESGLUTS
STATEFLAGAROSE
SYSTEMSODIN
OZONEHOLE
TWIRL
WOE
Sun 10/18/2020
TRICKSHOT
BEATLEMANIA
ACCELEROMETER
NBCLARKSREM
AASTIEPAN
BTUMGSECO
OARAAHLAV
USDAORNOTELBA
THESTORKPOSTMARK
ASTHMAWAHINE
TREATLIKEDIRT
CREAMALES
OLASPYADA
LISPSROGET
DEBUTANTEBALL
NAPOLEONIII
HALLOWEEN
Sun 7/12/2020
DBACKMAMBA
ARAMAICAALARGE
THELORDOFTHERINGS
REAMSSOAMISTAGE
IAMSMUMATON
MDSBOBCATSEND
ROSECUT
RIPTHROB
ADSSINCE
MPGNIKES
ABETSENTRE
DRATITGIBES
DOCTOREDSPOKES
SIGHTLIERSNOPES
ISMELLARATGUILE
CHASESCENESTALE
DOX
Sun 4/19/2020
ZAPPBATCHECAB
OSLOCCRUALODA
OPERCHIRRSPOD
THATISPEDESTAL
OATENASAGKENO
PLENTIFULTURNS
ITDHTTPFALSIE
ARISBUIL
ALSTONFILLBIC
STEEPBILLWALSH
HEARDARLAGORA
ARMAMENTAGEGAP
NIAATHROBNGEL
TOPDEMERIDELI
IRSERIESTARIN
Sun 9/8/2019
JARSSADORRANC
IDAHOPINEEDAL
HOMEPLANETAUTO
ARIALRECORDLOW
DEFROSTALEE
EDEMASPRISS
NOTDPECFASTEN
TREBONEDRYAME
WARCRYTREPLEA
OHIOAAYESHA
NCANSHECRAB
ELEVENTHSWHOME
ATRIWHITETIGER
CROCARLINSELL
HASTROLESINSE
Sun 6/16/2019
PBS
PIANOALP
FUNHOMESOL
JOLTBAKLAVA
HURLNEATEN
PERKPTADOEST
ZANYHEATHSAHL
PUNSFIZZLEDMAID
ALEAIMLIPCFO
CUSHYJOBPIECAKEN
ANIMALHOUSE
CLOTDEISCTV
OAKSTELTHEO
LYFTAWLHEAT
ELIASAIDPLEASE
CONNTYPESETTER
OWEDESSAYTESTS
Sun 12/2/2018
AWL
GREAT
BAMBINO
BABYCTRL
GUNSOS
GOODCHARLOTTE
BURYRADIITAZO
CREDCASSAVABIND
VISIGOTHSEQUINED
SETTIMEDULLEST
AVERAGEJANE
SEATIPPAS
BATGIRL
POORRICHARD
OSAKAEENIE
OSRICNIECE
HADNTENDED