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65 puzzles by Erik Agard
with Jeff Chen comments

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Erik Agard

64 Daily crosswords by Erik Agard

POW Fri 9/11/2020
PALMFRONDSSMOG
SQUAREFEETOAHU
SUCKEDFACESIFT
TAKESATEAMDOS
SCANIMAGERY
BBCAUDITRUNG
FLAWTOTBRINE
FASHIONABLYLATE
CHOPSLAOEMIR
KOLATYSONETA
AMNESIAEDIT
RAHSTRAWCOBRA
EGADESCAPEROOM
NINOMANGOLASSI
ACDCSLEEPYHEAD

★ Jim Horne summed up today's wonderful solve perfectly: "They had me at PALM FRONDS." I was so stuck in this corner, unable to figure out if it was fans of Jesus, zealots, fans of Pilates? Nope, manual PALM FROND fans from the Biblical days; so brilliant!

A close second was something "sacrificed at the altar." That's sure laden with imagery of ancient sacrifices to the gods. Talk about Biblical! I laughed upon uncovering the wordplay here, some women "sacrificing" their MAIDEN NAME upon getting married.

Caitlin is a rising star, having recently joined the New Yorker's crack squad of themeless constructors, and Erik perhaps the best clue writer on the planet, so my expectations were already high. Yet, they still wowed me. We get a fun SLEEPYHEAD, the evocative SUCKED FACE, BLACK MAGIC with a wicked [Bad spells clue] that hid the plural. There was about an average number of long slots for a themeless, but they used every single one of them so well.

I wonder how newer themeless solvers feel about clues like [Get out of here!] for ESCAPE ROOM. I hitched when first encountering these directive clues years ago, but now I appreciate them more and more.

The one issue I had was the difficulty level of the lower-left corner, which felt ten times harder than the rest of the puzzle. It's a dirty trick to clue RAH as a crowd roar when every solver will auto-fill in OLE. (Have you ever heard a crowd roar RAH?). Along with barely knowing a thing about "Coco" and being unable to identify AC/DC as the singers of "Rock or Bust," even though I'm a fan of the group, my solve nearly ground to a halt.

Even with that corner, though, the entire solving experience was exactly what I want out of a Friday themeless: a load of great long entries, a ton of witty clues, and an elegantly constructed puzzle. Ticks all the boxes.

Fri 7/31/2020
PROMBFFSMALTA
AEROELASTIGIRL
NCAALAYERCAKES
DONTCAREARIES
ANGRYELION
CELIEBULBPGA
HISANDHISLALAW
ALONGALTABASE
LEDGERESIDENTS
FDAWADSCIDER
POLYHENTOS
ALERTREDGIANT
AMENTOTHATTROU
DINAHSHORELIMB
ODDLYUSDALAYS

So much to enjoy in this themeless! I dropped in HIS AND … HER? — sure, that sounded right … ish — and was delightfully surprised that I was wrong. Mostly, I enjoyed having my assumption checked, but I can use a dose of grammatical slap in the forehead every once in a while.

CRINGEWORTHY is anything but; such a great word. It's not an NYT debut, but it's still sparkly.

ELASTIGIRL! She's not my favorite of the Incredibles—how can you resist Jack-Jack? — but she is indeed incredible, attempting to keep the family together through Mr. Incredible's misguided attempts to regain his glory days.

MICROBLADING … ? I'm sure this will elate some solvers, as it appears to be a popular aesthetic technique. For us monobrow-and-proud-of-it types, at least MICROBLADING is two lexical chunks that are identifiable.

Much clever cluing, although some of it went over my head:

  • [Groin pulls?] = LUSTS, this eluded me until Jim Horne explained the brilliance here, in his polite Canadian manner. Think "The Call of the Wild." Still don't get it? The groin region … a yen for said nether parts? I've said too much.
  • STUBS are trashed by movie reviewers? Ticket stubs are thrown away by almost all movie goers, not just reviewers, yes? I get the intent, but it didn't quite work.
  • Similarly, HALF is [Like 50 U.S. senators]? Accurate, although it's such a tortured way to express HALF.
  • [In one ear?] is HEARD … because EAR is inside the word HEARD? Or because the first HALF of "in one ear and out the other" would mean that someone retained the thought?

All in all, a satisfying solve, albeit one that made me feel like the kid in the back of the room, wondering what language the teacher is speaking. (There's a reason why I got kicked out of Chinese school as a youth.) If more clues had been spot-on sizzlers like [Meteor showers?] — that's show-er, as in one who shows — for PLANETARIA, it could have gotten the POW!.

POW Mon 7/13/2020
CHERAREASTOTS
RUTHMANGOBURP
ALTOUDDERSTAR
PLUMBLOSSOMTIE
BEENREBATE
AUGUSTTWISTS
FROSTNORTHWIND
AGOHIDEYGEE
REDDRAGONLOHAN
FROTHSPANTRY
BOOYAHNANA
ERRMAHJONGTILE
ENYAWEAVEEDIT
FOODARIELALMA
STUDYELLSREES

★ A friend of mine once told me stories about his grandmother, an avid MAH JONG player. The world's best poker players and magicians ain't got nothing on her. She'd pick up an individual MAH JONG tile, never turning it over, and with one rub of her thumb on the underside, would know exactly what it was, without looking. Then, with as many as ten tiles left on the table, she'd foretell the winner, already knowing how the game would play out, rattling off exactly what everyone had in their hands.

That's how you earn a nickname like the RED DRAGON!

Erik continues to amaze, coming up with an approach I'd never considered. I'm envious that he nabbed a MAH JONG theme before me, but more so that he found three tiles that could be used in their entirety. I'd considered phrases ending in DOTS, WINDS, BAMBOO, but non-players would barely make the connection that any of those are MAH JONG "suits."

It's so perfect that PLUM BLOSSOM, NORTH WIND, RED DRAGON also evoke East Asian imagery, allowing non-players to easily make the connection to MAH JONG.

Tight theme, too. The only other tile I could think of that might have worked was BAMBOO SHOOT, but that would have confused the issue, since bamboo is not just a bonus tile but one of the suits.

Along with beautiful Monday gridwork — a couple of great bonuses in RHOMBUS, HATHAWAY, SORORITY — and clean short fill that's accessible for even the newbiest of newbs, Erik made my job today a delight. He even summed it up for me, with GOOD FOR YOU, OUTTA SIGHT, and ON A TEAR. Fantastic start to the week!

POW Mon 6/1/2020
STOWABBAAJAR
LAVAFLOATVERA
APEXRUMBAOMEN
WERENUMBERONE
SCISLIPLIE
ASSITTAMENS
NTHSHESALLTHAT
DROPACUTEVIDA
YOURETHETOPLAT
ENTERAPELYE
TGIITCHAAA
THEYREGRRREAT
WHOAPALEDMAXI
HAULEVILSOSLO
ONTOSEXTRYES

★ This one brings me back to my days of high school French, attempting to memorize conjugations. I fail to remember. You fail to remember. Um … someone fails to … uh …

"Je ne sais pas" is one of the few phrases I do remember. Needless to say, my AP French exam didn't go well.

Neat to see so many "(pronoun) = (awesome)" phrases. I did wonder why I AM THE GREATEST didn't make the cut, but I imagine it wasn't the greatest for crossword symmetry. THEY'RE ... GRRREAT! is pretty great, anyway.

People will debate whether JEMELE HILL is a Monday-friendly entry. This sports fan didn't know her, so I appreciated that Erik was careful to make every crossing answer gettable. As long as an entry doesn't stand in the way of my victorious solve, I like a bit of learning. I AM THE GREATEST!

(Records of my AP French results say otherwise.)

Some beginning solvers have a ton of trouble figuring out where spaces should go, though, which makes JEMELE HILL even tougher — is it JEM ELEHILL? J.E. MELEHILL? Or a last name, JEMELEHILL?

Some solvers gripe that they detest when my puzzles shove learning at them, when they just wanted ten minutes of pure entertainment. Even if it's only a single entry, it seems to sour their experience, making them feel dumb.

Should crosswords be pure entertainment or a vessel for expanding solvers' horizons? There is no right answer, more a difference in philosophy.

I enjoyed this concept. I would have loved a progression of I, YOU, HE/SHE, WE, THEY (or a subset of those), but that's a minor ding, easily overlooked given the cool discovery of four superlative phrases that followed the same format.

Sat 5/23/2020
ACCRAKALESALAD
SALONAMERICANO
TROUTROGERTHAT
ITSNOTARACE
EDNALTDAPR
ASSMILLOBOE
DUHMADEITWEIRD
DIADELOSMUERTOS
STVALENTINESUE
TUESTETETSA
OPSORGUSSR
CHECKPLEASE
HEADTOTOEAGNES
UPLOADINGPUGET
MATHLETESSEEME

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS! Great feature entry. There's so much lore, artwork, and festivities around the Day of the Dead. When I was young, I was fascinated by my (Buddhist) dad leaving food offerings at the altar for our ancestors, lighting incense candles, rolling odd-shaped dice that would let us know when the ancestors had finished appreciating the delicacies. As compelling as that was, the traditions around DIA DE LOS MUERTOS are a hundredfold greater.

I've enjoyed Wyna's themelesses, previous ones featuring fantastic entries like DARN TOOTIN, WHO WORE IT BETTER, and CRAZY RICH ASIANS. This one was right in line, with sizzlers like ROGER THAT, CHECK PLEASE, CLOSE SHAVES. A lot to love!

There were some that were A BIT STRANGE, though, as with previous puzzles. I score roughly -11.5 on the hipster scale, so A BIT STRANGE definitely MADE IT WEIRD. Are these things the kids say these days?

I also was on the fence about ITS NOT A RACE. [Reprimand to the overly speedy]? This is something police officers say? Or coaches who are playing mind games with their star athletes? Although, I have heard my daughter say something like "we're not racing" to Jake--just before she takes off, taunting him at the finish line, and making him cry.

Good times.

It's hard to tell who's responsible for the spate of awesome clues, Wyna, Erik, or the NYT editing team, so collective credit for:

  • [Auto correction] had me fixated on Microsoft's annoying autocorrections that I can't figure how to turn off. Boy, do I sound old. Nope, just an ordinary TUNE-UP.
  • [Red states, once] not only misdirects toward our country's political divisions, but I bet I wasn't the only one who put a terminal S into place. I enjoyed getting bamboozled.
  • We've seen a lot of MATHLETE(S) lately, but I'll welcome more instances if the clues are as great as [Figureheads?], as in people with heads for figures.

I bet this puzzle resonated better with the younger crowd—or people from Austin, who take pride in keeping things weird. Still, more than enough to make for an above-average Saturday solve.

Sat 5/9/2020
TESTAMENTSNAGS
INTERALIAHOLLER
TREETRUNKOBLATE
LANDDJEDLAMPS
EGOTREATISEPIC
ESTEESHAHDIEU
ONITELEGANCE
IMPOSSIBLEBURGER
COALESCEDART
ERRSUTESNUHUH
PETBEARHUGSNEZ
OTTERCARLRILE
PHILIPMINIBUSES
SAMIAMINAMOMENT
NEARSDEEPSIXES

Yet another Agard-assisted debut! Erik is chasing me in the co-constructions count. Thank goodness that he got a prestigious and time-consuming job as the editor of the USA Today crossword while I sit in my tiny office, doing … things. Important things!

Keeping one's toenails clean is an essential part of personal hygiene.

Some delightful debut entries, the IMPOSSIBLE BURGER tasting surprisingly like meat. I wouldn't call it "impossible" quite yet, but "improbable"? Sure. Also improbable is the fact that I'd pay the extra five bucks at my local burger joint to sub it in.

I loved BEERAMID, too. I figured out that -AMID ending and realized it had to some sort of pyramid. Not many portmanteaus delight me, but this one did.

I wasn't as hot on GLAMPING. It's not as eye-roll-inducing as other portmanteaus like SCREENAGER, but my eyeballs did twitch upward. The combo is … glamor + camping? It's not a word I'd use, not without embarrassment, that is.

It's rare that I love a short debut entry — all too often, new constructors brag about how many debuts they incorporated. I politely point out that introducing a bunch of terrible partials and esoterica is to be avoided. (Read: I yell at them for being stupid. Politely, of course.) NUH-UH gets anything but a nuh-uh from me.

As with most Agard joints, I was too unhip to appreciate a few things. TAKE THE L stymied me when BEQ used it a few months ago, so I (sort of) remembered it today. SET PIECE as an [Action film staple]? I've always thought of this as a stage backdrop. Its first definition is a "self-contained passage of a film, arranged for elaborate effect." Huh!

But also with most AJs, such great clues. Imperfect as a TENSE, SHRINE repurposing "martyr complex" (think of "complex" as in "apartment complex"), "something old, something new" turned on its head for TESTAMENT, even STENOS elevated by playing on "dictator" as "one who dictates a memo." A ton of entertainment throughout.

ADDED NOTE: Erik mentioned that many of the fantastic clues were Miriam's. Well done, Miriam!

I'm hoping Erik still has time to help out newb constructors as his editorship eats up more and more of his focus. Great to see so many new faces added to the NYT mix in such entertaining debuts.

POW Thu 4/23/2020
ETTAWANDSHY
BEANABOUTCUE
BAKINGBREADOMG
LEMONYCUERVO
SESAMEINTHREED
LOITERMOIODES
ANGERPILES
BINCATEREDCGI
MYBADGILES
ASIAOLEDEMOTE
COMPAREDOOPSIE
TILSITAMULET
IRARELOCATIONS
NETDELHIENOS
GEEEDENSEWN

★ Phrases that morph into equally valid new phrases are my jam, so Yacob and Erik had me at BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD. What a beautiful discovery!

I have a feeling some solvers won't figure out what's going on, so here's a before and after:

  • BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD
  • IN THE RED to IN THREE-D (think: IN 3-D)
  • CREATED to CATERED
  • COMPADRE to COMPARED

None of the rest is as strong as BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD — it's so neat when there are multiple words involved. IN THREE-D did hit that mark, but spelling THREE out is a crossword-specific … "oddity" would be a generous description.

As I would expect from these two (Yacob giving us a smash hit on this last themeless), such a tasty grid! Constructors often fail when they try to go big — 72 words is in themeless territory — but there was no going home today. Even if you didn't enjoy the theme as much as I did, I'd give each of these entries a check (Will Shortz assigns checks and minuses in his grid-assessing process):

  • TEA LEONI
  • TAKE SIGN (baseball-specific lingo, but such a neat term)
  • NO MERCY
  • HUMVEE
  • YE GODS (some see it as weird, but it's grown on me over the years)
  • CLOSE ONE
  • GET IT NOW?

Between TACTILE, ANIMATE, and IMPEDED, I'd toss in another checkmark, taking the total up to 8. That's astounding for a puzzle built around five theme entries.

I'd have loved another stunner like BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD, but the four (RE)LOCATIONS worked well enough. It made me want to go search for more. I didn't have time to write the code, but I spent five minutes figuring out how I would do it — I love it when someone gives my brain a challenge. Along with gridwork that greatly enhanced my solving experience, these guys earn another POW! apiece.

Sat 4/11/2020
DESPACITOHIHAT
ACCOLADESAGAME
WHOLERESTLIVEN
GOTOWASTEOVENS
PITTORGEAT
RIDOFALOEHOP
INANESWOONETA
DORYSTAGSBAHT
INNBERRYSARAH
NETALEEMITTS
POODLEORAL
BIOMETIGERBALM
RETAGMORATORIA
ACINGATEDINNER
DENISPASSEDOUT

I thought "Gangnam Style" was a once-in-a-lifetime blockbuster, but DESPACITO has nearly twice as many views. After listening to it, I can understand why. It's so catchy! (Of the 6+ billion YouTube views, one billion are mine. Thanks a lot, Eric and Wyna!)

By design, Saturday puzzles are the most difficult of the NYT crossweek. How hard is too hard, though? I usually finish the Saturday in about 15 minutes, but today, I finally finished the right half at the 20 minute mark. I hate giving up, so I pushed through, finishing in roughly 40 minutes. That puts it several standard deviations out, in the far tail of my normal distribution.

Appropriately, DESPACITO translates to "slowly."

Why was it so tough? Part of that is on me, as DESPACITO didn't fall until I had most of the squares, and although I've heard of Chamillionaire (fantastic name!), RIDIN rode off into the sunset only after bucking this cowboy off and dragging him by a foot caught in a stirrup.

(Researching RIDIN led me down a rabbit hole to Old Town Road—what other great songs have I missed?)

Another reason was the incredibly tough cluing. Who makes the destination of their vacation an INN? Aren't most INNs akin to motels? ATE DINNER as [Tucked in at night?] … what does that mean? Google shows that "tuck in" can mean "eat." Huh.

I'll get a lot of questions about HALOGEN, too. Chemistry was one of my favorite subjects all the way through college, and I could barely make sense of [I, for one]. No doubt it's a clever attempt at wordplay, but asking even seasoned solvers to make the connection that 1.) I stands for iodine in the periodic table, and 2.) that iodine is one of the HALOGEN elements — that's beyond tough.

Similarly, STREET MAPS tried to play on "miniature blocks," misdirecting to LEGOs. A map as a "holder" felt like an Elastigirl-level stretch, though.

I did enjoy a lot of feature entries, DARN TOOTIN and AMEN TO THAT so fun to say. I wish the puzzle hadn't gone to 11, though, as that took away some of the solving entertainment. I wonder how many experienced Saturday solvers will throw in the towel.

"padding-top:56.23%"
Sat 3/28/2020
HOPACABEDUCDC
THATONECENTAUR
SOLOACTHAIRSPA
EITHERORAEON
PROSOLEOVINE
COLACOMMENTS
STILETTOHEELS
ITSRAININGMEN
HAUDENOSAUNEE
SUITCASEGSIX
OPCITCRAGINT
ALDABETATEST
PAINMEDBOOHISS
ETESIANANDOVER
DETAKATEEPEES

I'd love to see 37-Across on "Wheel of Fortune." After the free letters of RSTLN E:

_ _ _ _ E N _ S _ _ N E E

(contestant mumbling, Tennessee? Fricassee? On bent knee?)

Pat: I'm feeling generous. Let's add in all the vowels.

_ A U _ E N O S A U N E E

(contestant swearing bloody murder)

Pat: Let's toss in the last two letters.

H A U D E N O S A U N E E

Contestant: Can I buy a WTF, Pat?

(Pat shaking his head, tsking)

I've had the privilege of working with Erik on a few things, and I was amazed when he pulled out INIKTIKUT. And of course, I just spelled it wrong. INUKTITUT. Back then, I thought it was awesome! And it's something everyone ought to learn! Reconsidering, I wonder if it alienated some solvers. Not everyone loves forced learning.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, ITS RAINING MEN! So catchy, I can't help but get out of my seat and dance. That's the kind of feature entry that truly sings. Pun fully intended!

For every STILETTO HEELS, there was an ERUCT ATOI, for every TRAVEL MUG, an ETESIAN GSIX (never spelled out in real life). Overall, the very definition of a puzzle that couldn't run on any day but Saturday, the hardest day of the NYT crossweek.

Wed 3/11/2020
PECANHEATCOBRA
ARUBAALTOIDEAS
LETUPTELETEENS
MAIEYECANDYFLU
EDENASTRAYSCAM
REPOPORGIETAPE
RICANOELARKS
EARPALOE
STUDMUFFIN
BLAHMEANERGAGS
OARANGELORAT
UTEPSTEALSHIYA
GINUPINTOMIAMI
INTROSTEWINNER
EXILETANSSTARS

Talk about EYE CANDY! I love mirror symmetry, which so often lends itself to smiley faces made up of black squares. When your crossword is smiling, the whole world smiles with you!

Such a tight theme — four phrases meaning "hot person" involving some food item. I spent five minutes trying to think of another, not coming up with much. "Scooby snack"? "Twinkie"? I was pretty sure kids these days say that last one but reconsidered. Why would anyone delight in being called a spongy puff made of preservatives?

Mirror symmetry isn't just pretty, it can be a constructor's lifesaver. Four and only four possible themers, of lengths 8 8 8 … and 10? Blargh! Thankfully, mirror symmetry works perfectly for a set like this (with a wider grid, to accommodate the 10).

The only knock I had was that the lower half of the puzzle wasn't theme-involved at all. Will Shortz has given me feedback in the past, that the entire grid ought to be themed, not just half of it. Erik could have done that by lowering STUDMUFFIN a few rows (maybe EYE CANDY too).

Interesting rationale why he didn't, though — it allowed him two big corners in the bottom, to fill as he would a themeless puzzle. There are few people better than Erik when it comes to cutting-edge fill, and BOUGIE (shortening of bourgeoisie), LATINX, GAYMER exemplify that. I appreciated that the clue explained LATINX (covering LATINO and LATINA) in a non-preachy way (that didn't assume you should know the term already), referring to its addition to Merriam-Webster.

Along with some great clues — DENTIST as someone with many openings to fill was my favorite — I enjoyed the solve.

Overall, such a tight, interesting theme, and technically strong gridwork. If the theme had covered the entire grid AND Erik had still managed to introduce so much bonus goodness, this would have been in POW! territory. I respect Erik's layout choice, though.

Fri 2/21/2020
BOTTLESSIDEBET
EVASIVEPREGAME
EURASIAROLODEX
FLORALPRINTMRT
EATSGLENSDOGE
DRSCRAFTTRUED
PAINECHATS
RUNNERSHIGH
HOPESEWERS
SILASSNEADLAD
ITLLSADATMAGI
THELUNARCRATER
PODCASTJOSHING
AMRADIOADVANCE
TESTEESREPLAYS

Wonderfully smooth 66-worder! I'm usually quickly aware of a themeless having a low word count; all sorts of compromises popping up to bog me down. I didn't even think to check afterward, since it solved like a squeaky-clean 70-worder. Impressive work for a new constructor. (Not a surprise for an Agard joint, though!)

I'm often wary of themelesses that don't have many long slots since it's hard to squeeze juice out of mid-lengthers and shorter. I understand why Erik and Anne loaded up on the 7-letter entries though — think about how much harder the construction would be if they had shifted the black squares in rows 1-3 to the right. Instead of a 4x7 space in the upper left, you'd have a 4x8, which is maybe an order of magnitude tougher to fill.

Even though there are only ten long slots (of 8+ letters), they're used so well. RUNNERS HIGH is a great phrase, and referencing "rush" in two ways makes it even better. Similarly, SWEAR JAR's clue elevated it, amusingly using comic book-style punctuation.

Even REFERENDA is interesting, what with the non-S pluralization. So much pizzazz out of these ten long entries.

Some of the mid-lengthers were colorful, too, EURASIA, PODCAST, ROLODEX, SIDE BET, in particular. However, entries like ADVANCE, BOTTLES, EMERGES, TESTEES aren't going to win any prizes.

I found this puzzle more of a Saturday experience, mainly due to the cluing. There were so many that totally didn't go over my head (okay, maybe they did). Here are a few:

  • "Mare" is the Latin word for "sea," used to describe LUNAR CRATER.
  • Helpful word in solving cryptograms is THE? But aren't cryptograms those puzzles with the funny pictures that stand for words … never mind, I'm an idiot. They're the tricksy enigmas where one letter substitutes for another, and the frequent instances of THE in the English language often serves as a toehold to get started.
  • PRE-GAME warm-up shots are NBA shoot-arounds … and … taking liquor shots before parties? Snapping pictures? Not sure.
  • TRUED refers to "trueing" something, i.e. fixing something that's skewed.

I did get one of them right away! [Mount Sinai people] refers to Mount Sinai Hospital, not the actual mountain. Yes! I like it when a puzzle allows me to feels smarter than it.

Overall, a pleasantly smooth and piquant solve — albeit making me feel sheepishly stupid one too many times.

Fri 2/7/2020
SANDPSUPERAPS
UHURATREXAURA
NAKEDLUNCHSTUB
SEAMANIPHONE
MASTERBREWER
JEWELSQUIERO
AVEDASUITSRAE
PERKATANASKIA
ERESLOBSREEDS
AWHIRLDEFRAY
IBLAMEMYSELF
CALVINPLEATS
ELSEAPPALACHIA
USERTOESSEALS
PATSEXAMEDITS

I was so fooled by [Pittsburgh is its most populous city]. Given that this is supposed to be a hard puzzle, it couldn't be PENNSYLVANIA. Ah! There must be some trick to it, especially given that PENNSYLVANIA is too long. PENNSYL(VAN)IA with a VAN rebus fits perfectly! Now, where's the revealer, MINI VAN?

Drat.

Themeless puzzles often live and die on the quality and quantity of their long answers (8+ letters). It's so tough to make 6- and 7-letter entries stand out and feel fresh since crosswords use many more mid-length entries than longer ones. Seeing only ten long slots in today's grid worried me since themelesses usually have 12 to 16. Thankfully, Mary Lou and Erik used most of the slots well, MASTER BREWER and PRESS RELEASE excellent. PR = press release and public relations, what a neat connection!

PADMA LAKSHMI could be tough for many. I sort of recognized her name but put in PADME. Darn my Star Wars fanboyhood! Good thing MEISTER BREWER wasn't a possible crossing.

Wait. EI REBUS!

Maybe not.

I do wonder about UHURA crossing PADMA, though. Even as a die-hard Trekker, I often confuse UHURA with the Swahili word for peace, UHURU. If someone put in PUDMA LAKSHMI, I'd be sympathetic.

It is possible to excel in the mid-length space — take CALVIN for example. He's only been in the NYT (Shortz era) a few times, and he evokes such nostalgic memories.

You do run the risk of "freshness" in those mid-lengthers being taken as "annoying," though. QUIERO is a debut, but it might feel foreign (see what I did there?). A word I love, KATANAS, could cause alienation as well.

Let me explain two clues some might not get:

  • Defaults = EDITS? Think about removing fat as "defat." I know, groan!
  • ASS is one of those young people things, as in "big-ass" or "stupid-ass." Sometimes these fresh slang clues make me feel like a dumb-ass, but I can see how millennials would appreciate this sort of thing.

Not my favorite themeless from either of these excellent constructors, but solid enough work.

Sun 1/26/2020FOOD ENGINEERING
MRPIBBSPURCARBATM
EARNERHIREACORNSIA
SKINNYJEANSTIMEFLIES
SEMINAANTENDALANIS
ANAITODAISSINE
BARGRAPHSRIPCURRENTS
AMYABUOBITSCHOREO
YODELERNAPESCOTS
ELSEAGEDMINEGRR
OBIEINTERRANDARIA
WHATASTEALLIZCAMBAGE
ANTEACESBONETARMS
DOETVADALOGSLIM
MOONSLENTTOOLATE
TWOBITFLASHHADRUE
CORNERBOOTHEYEPOPPER
HEADEUROAVERIO
ALPACASHOPLONECLIP
COPYPASTEUPANDVANISH
HOERACERFERNALICIA
APRAIDEFAMENICEST

Here are the foods that can be formed:

  • JEANS BEANS
  • FLIES FRIES
  • GRAPHS GRAPES
  • CURRENTS CURRANTS
  • STEAL STEAK
  • CAMBAGE CABBAGE
  • BOOTH BROTH
  • POPPER PEPPER
  • PASTE PASTA
  • VANISH DANISH

Final answer: BREAK BREAD.

I sadly took way too long to figure out this list, and even more sadly, had a couple of errors. Robots eat STEEL! I love me some Pirate's BOOTY. PESTO is as much a thing as PASTA — never mind that it changes two letters, not one I KNEW THAT YOU DON'T HAVE TO TELL ME WISE GUY!

It's so hard creating a grid around a lot of short themers. People tend to think, what's the big deal, aren't ten short themers equivalent to 5 super-long ones? Not even close! The ten shorties force black square placements right off the bat, taking away flexibility. Those pesky black squares can cause all sorts of problems down the road.

I did enjoy the bonuses — GRAMMAR POLICE / PRIMARY DEBATE / PIANO SONATAS make up a brilliant trio (RING THE ALARM not as strong as "sound the alarm") — but there was an average amount of crossword glue. Perfectly passable for anyone else, and things like ABEE ALOG EER ROM are easy enough to figure out. Not as strong as a usual Agard joint, though, speaking to how hard it is to construct around so many short themers.

Fun to see a shout-out to the WNBA, Erik a huge fan. I didn't know LIZ CAMBAGE, but hers is such a useful name for this theme.

Sunday puzzles involving a single hidden meta-answer can be memorable if said meta-answer interrobangs the concept. BREAK BREAD was more of a period or a footnote for me.

ADDED NOTE: Joel Fagliano pointed out that there's an additional meta-layer to this solve, the fact that BREAK can be changed into BREAD by the same one-letter substitution methodology. That's fun!

Thu 1/16/2020
FETASPRIGSCHAI
AARPTOETAPRODS
UTEPANGORAORAL
NIALONGBROWNIE
ATTENDELDERS
JOURNEYMAN
MEGAPEEWEEOTIS
EXECSSTOWPIANO
LANKATSKSASKUP
MESSYGREEK
ETAHONEYBEEATL
BALTDIRELYOKIE
OBOEUNITASANTE
OLGADECIDEFEUD
KEYSERASERSETS

Tough grid to figure out, with awkward themer lengths. Interesting finds, but of length 10, 8, 9, 9, 7, 7? Bleh! Good thing I happen to enjoy mirror symmetry ...

I did the skeleton work, and Erik and I went back and forth, shifting things around, testing, filling it piece by piece. That we have different tastes should come as no surprise — I loved CLOWN NOSES at 11-D but he wasn't a fan, and when I proposed the IRON DUKE (awesome nickname for Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington) I felt his side-eye straight through my dial-up modem.

We were having some issues with the SE, and then Erik magically solved it by incorporating INUKTITUT. My first reaction started with a "what" and ended with "the F is that?" But when I looked it up, I decided I loved it. All educated solvers should learn that word. (Including me.)

Great pleasure working with Erik on this one. And by "working," I mean "sitting back and enjoying being in the presence of jeeus."

Er. Ge-NI-us.

POW Thu 12/19/2019
CVERREHABEMI
SWATHICEPLANET
AGREECOMPANCAR
DIGRAPHTHORNY
IRANALIASNOM
ELSASYNCBEAUT
LETTILECGI
SPABECHDELHSN
VALALOESAT
UTLEYSWTSRAMS
OSXKAYOSARGO
NOTIMEPOPCORN
STATELINEOHMAN
FIRSTLOOKPEATY
WESZYNGAEASE

★ I love seeing interesting word findings, and IN THE WAY / IN THEORY is a perfect example. There's something so curious about how different those two phrases are, even though they share so many letters. The parsing shift (changing the spacing) makes it even more distinctive. It's the type of discovery that sets off so many crossword constructors' spidey-sense.

I wonder if this finding came first, or the idea of using two-letter state abbreviations to alter phrases across STATE LINEs came first.

COWGIRL / NEW GIRL, COMPANY CAR / COMPACT CAR, ANYONE / ACT ONE — such a parade of delights! This is the second time in two weeks where I've thought that a weekday puzzle could have been expanded into a Sunday. So much for what I previously said about it being a rare occurrence!

Great gridwork too; not a surprise considering Andy and Erik are two of the best in the biz. (Congrats to Erik for his new job as the editor of the USA Today crossword!) So much goodness in ICE PLANET, FIRST LOOK, ETERNAL, PASTEL, TRACHEA, PATOOTIE. Everywhere you look, there's something else that makes the solving experience even better.

I was of two minds (appropriate for this puzzle!) on MEAN MUGS, though. It's probably another thing that millennials make up so that they can have their own language that excludes us, the hopelessly unhip. At least MEAN and MUGS are words I recognize.

I did also wonder about the BECHDEL / COSA crossing. The BECHDEL test is common knowledge in gender studies, but it's not something I'd expect all educated NYT solvers to know how to spell. Crossing it with a mafia term might be a recipe for leaving certain solvers with negative connotations with the name BECHDEL, and that would be unfortunate.

Those are minor nits, though. It's so rare for me to solve a crossword that's novel enough that I can't immediately recall something at least a little like it. Such a joy when that happens, and even better when the craftsmanship is this good. Easy POW! pick.

Sat 12/7/2019
TENJAMAICANRUM
RYEIMETSOMEONE
EEKGOTTABOUNCE
STOWSHEIRSNAT
CECEPANDACIGS
HEADBANDSCREE
ITSGONEOGLE
CHEESELOWFAT
DOSTCOMMISH
GSIXWRAPPARTY
CRANLIARSTEAR
HENPANICSEATO
ITCHECKSOUTWII
BETARELEASEAND
ALARMSYSTEMYES

The producers of "American Ninja Warrior" have a tough job. Ideally, you want fewer and fewer competitors to make it through each stage, a gradual winnowing until you're left with the final one or two people standing.

Early on, you should knock out some people who don't have great balance. In the middle rounds, you have to ratchet things up, maybe tossing in a salmon ladder.

And you ought to end with an incredibly difficult series of challenges that only the best-trained uber-athletes can complete — a wicked wingnuts to a crazy cliffhanger to a flying bar. If all goes well, a small handful of competitors will make it almost all the way through, and maybe one will even hit the buzzer.

Now that, my friends, makes for dramatic TV.

One thing you want to avoid at all costs: an obstacle that knocks everyone out. No fun to have something impossible! Today's puzzle wasn't quite that, but it was wicked wingnuts that you had to do while on a flying bar, landing on crazy cliffhanger-sized ledges.

I did like several of the feature entries — great stack in IT CHECKS OUT / BETA RELEASE / ALARM SYSTEM. Along with I MET SOMEONE, WRAP PARTY, COMMISH, TRES CHIC is an appropriate description!

So much of it nearly went over my head(bands), though. If you don't know what a "do loop" is (a programming construct designed to iterate until a certain condition is met), the cleverness of a "(hair)do loop" is lost. Similarly with BETA RELEASE and concept of "patches" applied to buggy code.

"Barrier to entry" is common MBA lingo (element that hinders competitors from entering your marketplace). Even if it is something that solvers should at least be familiar with, it's too literal a description for ALARM SYSTEM. Something like [It might ring a bell] would be a better wordplay angle.

Along with SEATO (?), the never-spelled-out-except-in-crosswords GSIX, and the baffling opposite of alt = NEU? (old and new in German), my solving muscles won't be the same for days.

That said, this is the exact type of training that one needs to become a stage 4 solver. A few years ago, I would routinely fail on Thursday salmon ladders, and now I'm finishing punishing Saturday crazy cliffhangers. Mount Midoriyama, I'm coming for you!

Wed 11/20/2019
ACTTDSZESTS
CHANCEITINGOTS
COMOESTAGOTEAM
TOPOLLUZTGI
BLACKPANTHER
EWWSPRINGBREAK
AAHSSONCALC
UTAHEPCOTMITT
ETALIMASNOB
ORCHESTRATEERA
PLASTICCRATE
DENCULHEGEL
OVINESEMPANADA
CEDETOSPINYEEL
LOGANHEEANA

Anyone else fill in O/RATE at ORCHESTRATE, and then get confused by the ?/RATE right below it? Erik wouldn't reuse a TALK word, would he? Neat effect, sneakily sneaking PRATE in to give me a delightful pause.

I wondered why the TALK synonyms were broken to the ends of theme entries. Usually, that type of theme is indicated with an "OUTER ___" or "___ ENDS" revealer. This is one way to work in such neat long words as BLATHER, but I would have liked more rationale baked into the puzzle.

I'd also have liked fewer themers baked in. It is neat that they all cross the central TALKING IN CIRCLES. It isn't so neat how such a crazy amount of inflexibility forced the unAgardian tally of SGT LUZ TGI UPN IMA CUL HEE NEG TCU. None of it is terrible, but it's too much. So much of it was forced by those stacked pairs of themers.

I do appreciate how Erik tried to jazz up what would otherwise be a simple, early-week theme, but it created a dissonance. The interesting but tough fill didn't mesh with the straightforward concept.

Sat 11/2/2019
AMILLILAKEBEDS
TINEARIWILLNOT
BANANACOMEATME
IMONQUIKCHEEP
RICESSTENTRDS
THERESTNORM
HENMEEKFIEND
ACTORDIRECTOR
TERREDEAFTEA
EDNAFRACTAL
ASHNACRENAOMI
DHABICERNRODS
LABELERSCOMBAT
INLEAGUEIDEATE
BEATPOETSENDER

A one-two punch of Paolo and Erik? If you listen closely, you can hear all us old-timers shivering, wondering what entries we won't be cool enough to know. Thankfully, 1-Across wasn't back-breaking! It took every single cross, but I finally cracked AM I LLI, where in Roman numerals, L + L + I = 50 + 50 + 1 = 101, cool-kid slang for lots of money.

Ha ha ha, I kid! Of course, it's AM I ILL, where ILL gets reversed, like backward baseball caps. Only those in the know will understand when I tell them I'm LLI. Boo-yah!

I was wondering when SEMORDNILAP was going to make its debut. Will Shortz once told a friend of mine that it was too tough a word to use as a revealer in an early-week puzzle. A Saturday — without a telltale clue — seems like the perfect place. Still confused to its etymology? Pretend you're a cool kid … or should I say LLI?

Curious choice to clue KIM to the nuclear-arsenal-possessing madman. Doubly curious to tell him to COME AT ME, bro. Not cool, guys! Seattle is not nearly far enough from North Korea for my taste.

Some fun clues, like ELECTRIC FAN being a "Cooler full of juice?" and DOMED using "Round up?" Both required telltale question marks, though, which took away from some of the entertainment. For my milli, Erik is one of the best cluers out there, so I was a little disappointed to not get a potential award-winner today. Just goes to show how high my bar is for him.

Overall, a great Saturday workout. It's such a relief to finish, after the initial scare of a potentially generationally inaccessible 1-Across.

Sun 10/13/2019LINES OF WORK
BRADSMENORAHLOWPH
RARERIMANAGESALARY
SOFTBALLPLAYERURANIA
UNFITIOTAOOPSGMC
NCISMARYERMINESARI
GOATHERDSNOOZEPERON
UMSITSPECIALIST
ONAUTOACCRADUSTMEH
PALPSPULSARSPARKA
TAPSTADANICKWOMAN
SCHEDULINGCOORDINATOR
PALEROGRETOUTRHEA
BLANCSAMSUNGSTANK
HIEDELINURSERESIDE
ORTHODONTISTCAM
URBANSCOTIAMAGICIAN
SILTSEATACRACEONME
EGOPURRDORATUTUS
CACHEDEPIDEMIOLOGIST
ATKINSOTTOMANAGAME
TESTSFASTONEBORED

Strong idea to combine two areas that most people wouldn't connect: professions and famous movie lines. Delightful way to start the puzzle, a SOFTBALL PLAYER saying "There's no place like home" (plate). It's usually best to put your strongest themer in the upper left, to entice solvers to continue on. Worked like a charm on this solver.

I also appreciated that Erik picked SOFTBALL instead of BASEBALL. I wouldn't have given a second thought to the latter, yet what a nice hat tip to the women out there who get so much less recognition than their male counterparts.

The other themers were hit and miss, with two issues: either the movie quote didn't seem uberfamous, or the connection to the profession was tenuous.

I'm curious; if we polled 100 solvers, how many would accurately identify the movies that originated "Get to the chopper!" and "Is this your king?!" ("Predator" and "Black Panther. I went 0 for 2, even though I've seen both.)

And "I wish I knew how to quit you" for an IT SPECIALIST? My problem is usually that my computer quits on me, not that it won't quit. "Get to the chopper" is dicey in its relation to ORTHODONTIST, too, since teeth are described as "choppers" in the plural.

In theory, a low word count makes a puzzle more challenging, giving fewer small toeholds for solvers, and creating a bigger, more colorful payoff that you feel like you've earned, in spades. In reality, this almost never happens, constructors needing splorches of crossword Elmer's everywhere, along with horrible trade-offs.

But today, it worked exactly as it's supposed to. Erik is so strong a constructor that I'd happily issue him a license to sub-140. With such bonuses as ENTRANCE MUSIC, HOUSE CAT, PRIMROSE / HYACINTH, MENORAH, OTTOMAN, and only minor dabs of short glue, it exhibits everything a sub-140 word puzzle should do. I worked hard to earn my victory today, and that felt great.

(But attention, 99% of other constructors: don't get ideas. Stick to 140. For God's sake, stick to 140, I beg of you!)

Overall, an above-average Sunday NYT. If two or three more themers had hit with a stronger punch, it'd have gotten POW! consideration.

POW Tue 10/1/2019
ROAMAHABDEBIT
ANTIFOIESCENE
WELLDRILLTRYST
FIASCOSIPUHUH
IOSCPAZOOIRE
STEWUNDERCOVER
HASHFDRTIERS
OFFSEASON
AZUREAUKKITT
WETLAUNDRYSTAY
ANTTSOAHASUP
IDESDJSOBLATE
TARPSOPPOSITES
EYEUPKOOKMINE
DADDYETDSBEST

★ I am officially cool enough to love this puzzle! See, all you young ‘uns, I never stopped being hip. Let's dab and dap and crunk and—

Hey, where are you going? I thought we might go twerk together?

Great theme, OPPOSITES at the ends of solid base phrases. These findings would have been enough to impress me, but I love a punchline. So many OPPOSITES repelling, amirite? Yeah boy!

What? Why are you rolling your eyes at me?

Erik injected so many debut terms into his fill, which gave the puzzle a fresh feeling. It could easily be too fresh for some, entries like AFRO PUFF, ZENDAYA, BEYHIVE lending recency that not many NYT puzzles exhibit. I liked AFRO PUFF best, since even if you don't know the term, you've likely seen an AFRO PUFF before, and it's such a descriptive term.

It's true that if you don't know ZENDAYA, you're a little screwed; a bizarre set of letters that might look so wrong in your finished puzzle. Ah well.

BEYHIVE is somewhere in between. Beyonce is a must-know, and one could argue that an NYT solver ought to be able to figure out the wordplay.

I knew all three of these! Not everyone can Bey as cool as me.

Overall, even if this smooth and well-crafted puzzle doesn't produce that strong of a victory moment for some solvers — people staring at their finished grid, wondering if it could possibly be right — all the crossings are fair enough. Maybe it is too bleeding-edge, but I like that the NYT occasionally errs on that side. It's a great way to attract younger solvers into the fold.

Sat 9/21/2019
TRACKDOWNDEAL
REPAIRSHOPIAGO
IMPRESSIVESTEW
BOEUFOPALTOMB
ERASERLARVAL
CALORIFICLIETO
ASSCAMERACREW
SOCIALIST
MAJORINGINSAG
AGAPETEAKETTLE
LEBRONSUREDO
WNBAELBARIPER
ADINCOARSENING
RENOKUNTAKINTE
ERGSTHEMASSES

joon and Erik, two of my favorite people in the crossworld! A reader accused me the other day of favoritism; that I gave better treatment to puzzles written by people I like.

Well, duh. You don't like it, get your own blog.

joon and I first met at an ACPT when people kept calling me joon or Kevin. The three of us bonded over that — there's a silver lining to racism!

And Erik. I've had the privilege of trading tons of thoughts with him about everything from construction techniques to clever cluing to diversity within our sphere. We even have a co-written Thursday puzzle that's been waiting for over a year to be published.

(Hint hint, nudge nudge, Will.)

IMPRESSIVE work in today's puzzle. (Note to constructors: putting not-so-subliminal messages into your grids works.) The 66-word grid features some juicy entries — TEA KETTLE, REPAIR SHOP, KUNTA KINTE, THE MASSES, CAMERA CREW, to name a few — which doesn't happen all the time for low-word-count grids.

It does have some drawbacks, notably the walls of black squares that cut the grid into five parts. Bring down those walls, sirs!

4x7 corners rarely come out both clean and colorful, but check out the SW. MALWARE, LEBRON over WNBA, the SOPRANOS, all JABBING at the supposed limitations of 4x7 corners!

ALAS (see, not-so-subliminal messages work), the NE doesn't compare, what with DISTRICT, EAT OVER, AGEMATE more neutral than positive. It's a clean corner, but hardly colorful. I'd like to see what joon and Erik could do if they moved the black square after OPAL one column to the right. That would not only make it easier to squeeze more juice out of the remaining three long downs in the NE, but would open up grid flow.

I often dislike being forced to learn things from my crossword, but AGENDER didn't feel teachy, since it's easily inferable from the A prefix modifying GENDER. There's so much I don't know about so much, so this is a welcome way of introducing me to the concept. (Read: don't mess with my victorious finish.)

Might have been a POW! contender, what with all the juicy clues — LEBRON more than a little forward, and the Sun a bloc member of the WNBA, just to start — if they'd only been a little less audacious, shifting to a 68-word grid.

POW Mon 8/26/2019
CASTSBIBSLAUDE
ONEUPALOEESSEX
BAABAABLACKSHEEP
RIMRUETABMMA
ASSERTNICEST
BOOBOOBEAR
IKNOWLILONICKI
OREOSENDONBONA
TICKTAKETOSMOG
ASKSURLIEOXO
BYEBYEBIRDIE
DROOLERICINSTA
RANGEYOLKTATUM
ATEINEDGEENACT
TESSADEERDESKS

★ The best crossword themes are ones that you'd never think of yourself. Check out today's three layers:

  1. Triple-B initialisms
  2. First two words are repeated, with a "B-vowel-vowel" pattern
  3. Third words are animals

None of the aspects are that interesting by themselves but put together, they make a dynamite triplet of colorful phrases exhibiting both tightness and consistency.

Beautiful gridwork, everything I want out of an early-week puzzle. There's nothing that would turn off newbs, and so much bonus material to show them that crosswords can be enjoyable. NECKBONES. BLEARY-EYED. BOOTLICKER. LESBIAN.

COMO ESTAS? I'm doing way better than fine, thank you very much!

And literally, beautiful gridwork. The mirror symmetry produces an aesthetically pleasing visual. BOO BOO BEAR looks like he's wearing a hat — so charming!

Hard to find fault with anything. It's not ideal to use both BONA and LAUDE in one grid since they can't be clued in any way (for newbs) except for [___ fide(s)] and [Summa cum ___]. That's an incredibly minor issue though, something I usually wouldn't bother to mention.

This is a perfect example of how three solid themers can carry a puzzle. Erik did everything right today.

POW Sat 8/10/2019
STEADICAMMAIA
POWERMOVETURNT
LIESAHEADATEIT
ALLOWEDIMITATE
YELPERECOCAN
REDSUPSOLD
OPPSTIPSAUDIS
WHATDOYOUEXPECT
NORUSHRAPESSO
ENABLETWOS
RESLASITSLIT
SLIPUPSUNREADY
HITONHALTERTOP
INIGOERNESTINE
PECSDEARSANTA

★ The mysterious clue for DEAR SANTA would have earned this puzzle the POW! alone. That huge SE corner, so hard to break into, made it even more baffling, given that I had precious few crossing letters to help me out. What a wow-moment when I realized that "anti-coal" was misdirecting away from children's desire to stay on the "nice" list and get toys instead.

I'll be holding this one up as the paragon, the perfect themeless entry/clue pair. Great entry + sizzlingly clever clue = Jeff has to go find the socks that Anna and Erik knocked off.

But wait, there's more! Big NW / SE corners like these are notorious for not being fillable with color and creaminess. LIES AHEAD doesn't do much, yes, but STEADICAM over POWER MOVE is delightful. IM HERE TO HELP running through both is fantastic. And if EWELL is your weak link, that's a huge win. (He was a biggish star in his day, so crossworthy.)

AND a central grid-spanner running through the triple-stacks in the SW / NE? What did I expect? I tell you what, not something as great as WHAT DO YOU EXPECT!

This is such a difficult construction. Any 68-worder is hard. Throw in:

  1. two gigantic corners,
  2. long answers running through said big corners, and
  3. a grid-spanner,

and there's no way a puzzle should be this silky and sparkly. HALTER TOP, MOUSE POINTER, PARASITIC, OWNERSHIP, it's all so good. Some might even say ITS LIT.

(Some who are hipper than me. See: TURNT is a thing?)

Some might ask why I put OWNERSHIP on that list of sizzlers. It's just a ho-hum word, right? Yes, but give it a riddly clue like [It can pass when you pass] and heck yeah, it's an asset.

A couple of blips in IDONT OPPS RES TAI don't even matter when your overall product is this entertaining and smooth. It's such a pleasure when I know immediately, without a doubt, that a puzzle is POW!-worthy.

Thu 7/25/2019
STRAWBASSCSI
ORISITABLEREN
MOBILEYEARAPP
ADSALESTVMOVIE
MINAJOCEAN
ADAASTUDENT
REALMAMISOBIE
ECHOONPOPPARK
SOSOPIERGIJOE
PETCRATEAND
INDEXSMART
TORRENTARMOIRE
SKITOWNPATROL
OILERIESNEAKS
KALRITZESQUE

I've reworded my explanation of today's theme seven times now. You know what they say: the eighth time's a charm!

Basketball JUMPERS riffed upon so that a synonym for JUMP break-jumps over an intermediate word. The two entries flanking the intermediate word go together, JUMPing over the middle. Finally, the broken synonym gets placed before the center word.

Maybe it's "the ninth time's a charm"?

Fixing up answers for our database is an issue Jim and I constantly struggle with. We have a general rule that the answers ought to match their clues. So we can't just leave MOBILE with a [iPhone download] clue, right? Do we fix it up to MOBILE APP matching that clue? (Yes.)

And how about [2020, but not 2019 or 2021]? We don't want confused folks wondering four years from now why WILL MADE SUCH AN EGREGIOUS ERROR OF COURSE 2021 IS A YEAR HE'S A MORON! So we ended up changing the entry to the full LEAP YEAR for our database.

Finally, we removed APP completely from this puzzle, since we wouldn't want it to show up in our database with a mysterious clue of [-].

The downside is that when people try dig up an old puzzle, they might remember that this puzzle has the word APP in it. Of course our Finder will turn up this puzzle if you enter APP, right?!

Cue the sad trombone.

I like what Erik and Andy did with their grid. If the trick wasn't interesting or flat-out confusing, ignore it and just enjoy the wealth of themeless-ESQUE material. PET CRATE, AD SALES, DIORAMA, GERMANE, TV MOVIE = a TORRENT of goodness from these ASTUDENTs.

Thursday is often my favorite day of the crossweek, looking forward to what tricksies them crazy constructors might pull. Today's schtick was something I've never quite seen before, but it didn't have as sharp of an a-ha moment as I'd have liked. More of a "how the heck am I going to explain this to confused emailers" one. Thankfully, the fill was colorful and clean, making the solve entertaining.

Sat 7/6/2019
IPASSTAPEPDA
MONAEIMAXBRUN
DIDJAMOTORBIKE
OSHATBSIBEAM
WOOKIEELPSSKI
NNWNARCOLEPTIC
PABLOCASALS
DECLARATORY
DARLENELOVE
DONEANDDONELAS
RTEIDSFIREAXE
OCCURAFCSTIX
POOPEMOJIATILT
IMONGUACMENLO
TSKMIRETEXAN

Jim and I both dropped in PABLO CASALS without a single crossing answer — a rare instance where his knowledge base and mine overlapped. (I played cello for 20 years, Jim is a concert pianist and music arranger.) Good thing PABLO CASALS was a gimme, too, as I'm not sure I would have broken into the middle without him. DECLARATORY, DARLENE LOVE, INA CLAIRE, TIMBERLANDS all sound familiar when I type them now. Not so much when I solved.

I'm likely too old for some of these. Or too young.

Surprising to see POOP EMOJI. I find these disgusting, probably because I'm still in the thick of diapers. (My son's, not my own. Not yet.) With ASSHAT making its debut a few weeks ago, it'll be interesting to see what's the first edgy entry that creates backlash and helps Will draw the new line.

A few months ago, a friend emailed me that LATINX would be a great debut entry. I hadn't heard the term, but I enjoyed learning about it (a gender-neutral term for a person of Latin American descent). I'm not sure I would have finished the SE corner if I hadn't had that experience. AXILLA and SEXTON also fall into the categories of "things I learned from crosswords." That's not a bad thing, but it does make for an insidery feel, a secret handshake among Masons.

Gigantic swaths of white space like today's middle are some of the most daunting challenges in the entire crossworld. Five long answers stair-stacked atop each other, with six more long entries running through them? It's a beautiful result for the level of difficulty — a couple of marquee answers balancing the ones that didn't shine as well. Great craftsmanship there.

Such a tough solving experience; an intense workout that feels great to have completed. There weren't a lot of entries that played to a broad audience; an interesting mix of material that will elate one subset of solvers, and potentially alienate others.

As if I didn't admire Erik enough already. He's easily in my list of top ten favorite puzzlemakers, and the reflection and learning shown in his commentary makes him shine even brighter. I wish all constructors exhibited his constant drive to improve, no matter how good you already are.

Mon 6/17/2019
SCRUBSLAMMOS
PRUNESLOBEAAH
FUNINTHESUNCSI
SETGOODSONAIR
MALTAROUSE
ICICLESPLAT
MADEINTHESHADE
ORESIONCRAW
BACKINTHEBLACK
HIRESLAUGHS
TERESABENE
USERSEPICSOOH
PICEYEINTHESKY
AGORENTSEALED
CNNSAYSERODE

Standout Monday grid. Super accessible to newer solvers — only some minor PENH (can only be clued in one way), SPFS (not usually pluralized), UNI (prefix), WKS (abbr.). And what a treat to get quantity and quality of bonuses: MC ESCHER, KISSERS, BANSHEE, BENGALI, MENORAH. Dang!

Constructors, NOT A CLUE how they did it? Study this layout. Their themers are spread out to the max, and more importantly, their long bonuses are too. Note how BENGALI and MC ESCHER are in adjacent columns, but they're offset so there's not much overlap. Same goes for MC ESCHER and KISSERS. Elegant way to work in so many long bonuses.

Entertaining clues, too, not a surprise from an Agard joint. SPLAT as the sound of ice cream hitting the floor. An ICICLE as a "high point" of winter — literally. BANSHEE is already great fill, and the trivia about it foretelling a death in the family? Creepy, but so interesting.

I also enjoyed the go-big approach to linking the clues for STOLEN / HOT, OOH / AAH, MOS / WKS. There's something about STOLEN right next to HOT that feels especially neat.

I sadly couldn't get past the not-quite-perfect theme. There are tons of X IN THE Y phrases, and a subset where X rhymes with Y (CAT IN THE HAT came immediately to mind). Tightening it up by using the related SUN, SKY, SHADE … BLACK?

Not only was I iffy on whether BACK IN THE BLACK was as juicy as the other themers, but it only fits with the other three if you turn your head and squint hard. And it pays you $50 to look the other way.

BLACKtop, perhaps?

Sure, why not. That'll be $50.

Tough call. I value perfect consistency and tightness, but if that's impossible, a diverse mix feels stronger.

Overall, still an excellent newb-friendly offering.

POW Sun 6/2/2019STONERS' FILM FESTIVAL
ALOFTATTNTVPGWAFTS
SOFIATAROHEROELLIE
PUFFPIECESAXEDBOONE
CITELATERONPOTSHOTS
ASHELMGAWKFRIAR
VERDEUTESALITMIA
HIGHDRAMASMOKEBOMB
ELROYGERMIHAVEEDIE
ELISLANDOMATESTENT
LEDSEISDUPLESCOLDS
JOINTRESOLUTION
CASABAEASESRUNTTCU
LLAMAKNITEMITSROOK
ALIAKENNYDOSEGUIDE
ROLLINGINTHEAISLES
ATMDISSAFROFLEES
ALISTPEAROLDTWA
BAKEDHAMCHICANACRIT
AVIANNOAHDIRECTHITS
MONDODOPEETTANIECE
ANGSTSTEMDYEDTASHA

★ Riffing on Will's note, it looks like Erik's going to be the most published person in the NYT crossword this year. For years, there was a heated battle for that title, between old guarders Manny Nosowsky, Patrick Berry, Liz Gorski, Nancy Salomon, and more. It's amazing to see how long Patrick was in the running year after year — almost two decades!

Then came this Steinberg guy. And that funny-looking Chen dude. It even looked like C.C. Burnikel might take the title at one point.

But then came Agard. En garde!

He's swept in like a force of nature. It looks like the crossworld will be his for as long as he wants it. Astonshing output.

Sunday puzzles as of late haven't been inspiring, so I appreciated Erik's breath of not-so-fresh air today. Here in Seattle, where pot shops are vying with coffee places for retail dominance, pot terms abound. I once made a pot-related crossword myself (unfortunately, for the now-defunct Buzzfeed crossword.)

What I like so much about this one is that there's a limited number of pot-related terms — it's hard enough to come up with enough theme phrases, period. Then you tighten things up by forcing yourself to make all the themers relate to each other? That's a bit of magic there.

Not all the themers were as pot-specific as I would have liked — PUFF, SMOKE, and ROLLING are more general than POT, JOINT, BAKED — but it all works.

I also liked that Erik kept the grid at 140 words, making for an easyish fill to go with his easyish theme. I did struggle with NOSRAT, even after having seen "Salt Fat Acid Heat." An easier clue for UTES would be appreciated, but other than that, the crossings seemed fair.

Along with a couple of strong clues — I like Princess LEIA quotes, and TWA inside of "jetway" is a fun find — and some great bonuses in OFF THE GRID, KEGSTANDS, FLOOR MODEL, even MODESTY, it made for a pleasant solving experience.

I did feel a strong urge to get me some White Castle as I solved, though …

Sat 5/18/2019
AFCAGENTMAT
CLAMDRIERCOLE
CASABLANCAUCLA
ESTREETKISSCAM
SHORTRIBNEPALI
SYRIANOUSESON
ATVENTICING
TIGERPROOFING
HERESHOWPIT
ALITEXANCAPOS
NESTEARELATETO
GCHORDSMARINER
MOSSSOMEPEOPLE
AMESELIASNALA
NSATONNELOT

I appreciate when people work with new themeless grid types. If you press the "Analyze this puzzle" button down below, you'll see that there are zero identical grids — and even zero with similar topology. That's a rare occurrence for themelesses, which usually have black square patterns that are similar to previous themelesses, if not precisely the same.

Why does this matter, Jeff, you ridiculous pedant?

I'm glad you asked! I usually don't care about statistics or measurements in puzzles — it only matters to me when they directly correlate to solver pleasure. In this case, the grid helped me break out of the staid themeless sensation of "feature answers packed into each of the four corners."

Not only did I get TIGERPROOFING across the middle, but it felt like everywhere I turned, there was a CASABLANCA. BETA TESTER. HERE'S HOW. BOER WAR. SEE IF I CARE? I sure do!

I enjoy it when the entire themeless feels relevant, rather than when it's all about the four corners, and the rest of the puzzle serves simply to join those corners together.

TIGERPROOFING comes at a relevant time, just a few weeks after Tiger's career comeback, winning this year's Masters. Amazing that he's persevered through all the surgeries. It feels like eons ago that golf course designers used TIGERPROOFING to try to give other people a shot against the wunderkind.

(As an aside, there's a program called "Dr. Fill" that competes in the ACPT. Some constructors have been accused of DR FILL PROOFING. Probably not a crossworthy entry just yet…)

As with most 66-word puzzles, a bit too many slots filled with neutral material like RELATE TO, TELECOMS, ALL ALONG, TEAMING. Easy to be SORE AT these, or at least call them not that ENTICING.

But there were a lot of strong feature entries sprinkled throughout, VR HEADSET, SOME PEOPLE!, HANGMAN with a fantastic clue about bad choices costing you an arm and a leg. And the clue [Hard core] made for a delightful moment of discovery; a PIT is a literal hard core. Helped keep my attention through this challenging solve.

Tue 4/30/2019
ALOHASERFSMOG
CONESIDEAPAPI
CHEAPTRICKLYES
RANDREESEAINT
ANDSOONDISC
LAYSZECHUAN
GOTATCHEEKTMI
UTEPGROUPLION
ATEQUITSWONKA
CONSULTSFAN
VIALROYGBIV
LOOMIMEANJUDE
IAGOBODYDOUBLE
STUNLOGOUMBER
THEEEDENIPADS

GROUP / SHOTS …

Okay, what's the theme, you ask? I know it. But I'm not going to tell you. Why? BECAUSE REASONS.

Fine, I admit that it took me a (long) while to figure out that it's a "both words can precede X" theme. Usually, revealers for these themes are something like DOUBLE ___ or TWO ___, bluntly pounding you over the head with the idea. I'm not a fan of that approach, especially since this theme genre has been done a lot over the years.

I mostly like Erik's take, forcing solvers to think a little to earn their a-ha. I wonder how many early-week solvers won't bother to spend extra time to grok the idea, though.

Curious layout. I wondered how TEEN VOGUE and MAY I CUT IN fit into the theme — it's unusual for a crossword to have zero themage in big regions of a puzzle. That entire SW and NE, devoid of themers … hmm.

It's snazzy that CHEAP TRICK and HEAD SLAP just happen to interlock — at the same symmetrical location as BODY DOUBLE and LONG JUMP! But I don't think it was worth the confusion. I'd have preferred a more standard "windmill" layout, perhaps moving HEAD SLAP to roughly where MAY I CUT IN resides.

A tough call. The themer interlock does provide a point of distinction from other "both words can precede X" puzzles. Distinction can be good, as long as it doesn't turn into distraction.

Erik is way hipper than me (Exhibit A: my usage of the word "hipper"). FAKE DEEP is … what? Part of the theme somehow, i.e., FAKE SHOT and DEEP SHOT? Those are hockey terms? No, I kid! (Maybe.) FAKE DEEP turns out to be modern lingo for oh who am I kidding; if I try to learn and use it, the kids will laugh at me and then stop using it. Lose-lose situation.

My qualms about grid layout aside, I appreciated Erik's newb-friendly grid, such a smooth product. Even if a solver doesn't get what's going on, at least he/she can enjoy filling in each square to earn a Mr. Happy Pencil success.

Wed 4/17/2019
ROTHMOSSYJAWS
ACREANIMESAVOW
STALECEREALMAKE
CADETSARIATEA
AGENTBURNTTOAST
LOOAEONSORTS
NFLLAMBPEP
FIXBREAKFAST
BRATGIFYUP
APNEAETTUNAP
MEALYAPPLESLATE
IRESLURHEIFER
GUNNSPOILEDMILK
ASAPOINKERISLE
SEERLEEDSTHAD

FIX BREAKFAST = make breakfast … or repair it?

In my household, it's usually both. Jake (age 2) has a thing now where he rips a piece of food apart and then gets upset when it can't be rejoined.

This is my life.

Fun fact: in Canada, FIX BREAKFAST isn't a thing, as much as "make breakfast." Hadn't occurred to me until our resident Canadian Jim said, "Eh?"

There might be an additional layer of cleverness that I'm missing here, but I did appreciate that Alison and Erik found four staple(ish) breakfast foods that have an in-the-language phrase associated with them, all meaning "food that's been marred in some way."

(Do people eat healthy APPLEs for breakfast? Fie on you, says this unabashed BAGEL-eater. What was that doing in the middle of the puzzle, BTW? That makes me feel even more strongly like I am missing something I'm not smart enough to grok.)

Such beautiful gridwork. Five themers, with one of them a central 11, usually is a recipe for crossword glue. Not today. I didn't run into a single dab, and what with OCTAGON, TUNA FISH, PATELLA, AVATAR, and WOKEST (what the kids say these days about being socially aware, as it would seem), the product is both clean and colorful.

Note the careful use of cheater squares, before NFL and after ALSO. I wish more constructors would deploy these types of black squares. Rich Norris over at the LAT calls them "helper" squares — that's so on point. The NW region is at least three times easier to fill (with color and cleanliness) with the assistance of that one extra black square.

Fantastic craftsmanship, but the theme didn't do that much for me. I'm going to keep thinking about it — that BAGEL in the center has to be purposeful.

(No? Just the best available fill? Bah.)

Wed 3/20/2019
TRIPCLOTHAVA
RAVEDONHOTSAR
ICANTSLEEPAWINK
BENTOIBCCAF
ERAKITCHENSIN
VENAAXECAP
FRANCEMTJADE
POURHOTPIAREA
ARMYAKANEWER
CURBOAACTS
MAKESYOUTHPDT
IREDVDALLAY
DISAPPEARINGINK
DRIBEATENBENE
SANGREYSTSOS

Erik, Amanda, and Karl riff on DISAPPEARING INK, theme answers successively missing one more letter of INK. I enjoyed my hitch at KITCHEN SIN — what happened to the K? It couldn't have disappeared, since nothing had happened to WINK up top. Or could it!

MAKES YOUTH was a clever way to achieve the final INK removal. It took me a long time to figure out the base phrase, since it was the only one that required a parsing change. MAKES YOU THINK, doesn't it? But it felt inconsistent. Perhaps something like BARTON F [Clara's result of not studying?] or QUICK AS A W (something to do with Prez Dubya) would have been better.

I also wondered if I COULDN'T SLEEP A WINK was in the language. The past tense I didn't sleep a wink is more common to me (other parent sof young kids, weigh in!). Minor quibble, as it turns out, according to the Goog.

Nice bonuses, AS IF I CARE, RUM RAISIN, THE CHAMP, IN CHAOS. None of them made me stand up and cheer, but they're all solid.

And as with any Agardian joint, delightful clueing:

  • [Grounds for discussion?] is a FORUM, not some legal / business term.
  • [Letters at a filling station?] refers to a DDS (dentist), not a gas station.
  • [Off the table?] means it's already been EATEN.

I appreciated that the themers didn't take question marks, even though three of them could easily have. Starring their clues was a solid choice, so that the puzzle didn't feel flooded by question mark murkiness.

DISAPPEARING INK has been played upon many a time, including a memorable mini-theme from Xan Vangsathorn, a similar conceit by Ed Sessa, and my favorite of the bunch, Tim Polin's where the phrase affected clues instead of answers. Still, there's room for another creative take, and I enjoyed today's.

Wed 3/6/2019
WHIMLIONICANT
PENAOMOONOVAE
MARCHOFPROGRESS
REARSEXDRAT
SITWEBBEXPO
KOHLSLIMNANGER
EDIEDELILABILE
WINTERWONDERLAND
EDGILYXIIIENID
RESTSLIMBBUTNO
SATEASTIPOT
TAILATLOKRA
SPRINGHASSPRUNG
ASADAALAIANDY
RENEWLAMBMEAN

MARCH comes in like a LION, out like a LAMB. Great fodder for crossword interpretation.

Solid phrases, MARCH OF PROGRESS, showing a progression from WINTER WONDERLAND to SPRING HAS SPRUNG. I liked that notion. I did wonder about WINTER WONDERLAND, which is the opposite of being like a lion — more gentle and lamb-esque, yeah? But WINTER WONDERLAND is fun to say, so I let it slide.

Not hot on the word ladder, though. So many word ladders have been done over the years that one has to be sizzlingly incredible to stand out. The motion from LION to LAMB is a good raison d'etre, but if you have to include LIMN, that's a reason to brainstorm other ways of showing LION -> LAMB.

I wondered if my cringing reaction to a featured rung in the ladder was unfounded. I had seen it recently in a Matt Gaffney metapuzzle, where Matt had painted himself into an extremely difficult corner to fill. Matt's one of the best, and he admitted that compromises had to be made.

Joon Pahk, who's way smarter than me — a former physics prof, winner of six-figures on "Jeopardy!" — agreed, tactfully saying "LIMN is an unusual word."

I asked my wife Jill, who went to Harvard, then med school, and is always educating herself in new subjects. She knew what it meant, but said she wouldn't use it in conversation, for fear of 1.) mispronouncing it and 2.) the other person not understanding her.

Out of curiosity, I wondered how long a ladder would be required if you used only "good" words. I came up with LION LOON LOIN LAIN LAWN DAWN DAMN DAMP LAMP LAMB. Yikes, much longer. And admittedly, LAIN isn't great.

Now, I did enjoy the bonuses in the fill. CORDON BLEU, LET IT SLIDE, GIANT PANDA are fantastic. Spiced up the solve.

HEAR THINGS felt a tad off though, not as strong as HEARING THINGS. And ooh my, OMOO was the only thing that could be jammed in between LION and MARCH OF PROGRESS? Oof. Or should I say, OXX?

A strong idea, with three fun, colorful themers. But I would have enjoyed a simpler idea more: LION at 1-A, and LAMB as the final across answer.

Sun 2/24/2019EVERYTHING EVENS OUT IN THE END
CHEWBACCACLUBLIDS
DEVIATIONRIFECELIE
SMALLTOWNSALONWHILST
LSUSOLDSEPIAULT
PASSANTYULERPIMOL
IMPMEWLREINDEERRIDE
GEARDOITDARTSONG
SCREWPLUMBGAOLLAIR
THEFARMTEAMAGRIETNA
YESSIRSWINGINGSIGN
SANGTOVOYAGE
ISNOTTOOINTOONIONS
NAANETREPROTESTPOET
KITSDODOSYRIASOLAR
LIESFIFAGASPDATA
FOOTNOTEFONTSERTLEN
URNAVELEADLEEWARD
MMARENEWSTAYCRO
BOLGERWHATARETHEODDS
LOTUSEASELOSESLEEP
ENVYSPUDAWKWAFINA

Notice how every other letter in REINDEER form the word RIDE? Combining them to make a REINDEER RIDE -> WHAT ARE THE ODDS indeed? That's a world-class WITT find — Wish I'd Thought of That!

PROTEST POET was nice too. Amazing to have a natural-sounding phrase work in this way. I did an alternating letter puzzle a long time ago, but these finds are way better.

The others didn't do as much for me, as the phrases felt forced. FOOTNOTE FONT is perhaps a thing, but arbitrary-sounding. SMALL TOWN SALON, too. THE FARM TEAM — if only someone had made a movie with that title, but baseball teams don't call up from THE FARM TEAM. IS NOT TOO INTO wouldn't fly in a normal crossword.

Still, it's a tough enough constraint that coming up with seven of them — fitting symmetrically! — is an astounding feat. Color me impressed, even given that I already have Erik in my short list of top crossword constructors.

Strong gridwork, too, as to be expected with an Agardian effort. I enjoyed ILLUMINATI, AWKWAFINA (what a great stage name!), CHEWBACCA, DEVIATION, NATIONAL TV.

I hitched slightly in the PRETORIA / GAOL (Jeff is getting angry at Microsoft Word for continually auto-correcting this to GOAL) / AGRI / RPI area, but ultimately, NYT solvers ought to know how to spell PRETORIA.

Great idea. Dammit, WITT! If even one or two more themers had felt less forced, it'd have been an easy POW!

POW Tue 2/5/2019
HAMMYSPFLUBE
APBIOCHERAPOP
READYWHENYOUARE
JONIBUNGEE
LIUBLURICA
DANNYAINGEHISS
ATSEASEAMNIT
MITPRECEDESMU
UNISOARSITON
PANSBREATHMINT
CHAIWWIATE
OBTAINALEC
SOUNDSLIKEAPLAN
LOADOGRECREME
ONLYNAEHOIST

Loved this one. I use the phrase SOUNDS LIKE A PLAN all the time, but I've never made the leap to "what three words, when said together, sound like a synonym for PLAN?" ARE + AINGE + MINT = arrangement = Jeff being envious of Erik's versatile and wide-ranging mind.

Bang-up execution, too. All sorts of goodies in FRY BREAD, the IMAC PRO, a summer SHANDY, UP AGAINST IT. Talk about an INSTINCTUAL feel for strong execution!

I did hesitate on MID-JUNE — feels like it opens an unwanted pathway for randos such as EARLY WINTER, EIGHT ELEVENTHS, who knows what else. But a nice save on the clue, referring to the commemoration of the abolition of slavery. (I believe it's referring to Juneteenth?)

I've seen a lot of "last words in theme phrases form a maxim" puzzles. But this one adds such a welcome twist; a clever extra layer that makes it stand out. Excellent work all around earns Erik yet another POW!

Sat 1/19/2019
TAKETHISCROAKS
ONALEASHUVULAE
POTBELLIEDSTOVE
ADIALEARNAH
ZEEDOTMMAEKE
MOWBIELTAR
CASESENSITIVE
MICHELLEOBAMA
PERSONALSPACE
RNCTIPSOBS
ISUSISPTALIP
VWSASIAAIDA
YEAROFTHEMONKEY
TACOMAACIDTEST
ORTEGAHEADEDTO

These guys are so innovative with their grid designs. This one draws from all sorts of themeless styles: usual triple-stacks in the NW / SE, a stair-stacked triplet in the center, stairsteps of black squares, and the difficult "turning the corner" — three long answers intersecting three other long answers — in the SW / NE. Something for everyone!

I couldn't decide whether I liked the black square just below OUT. I'm all for liberal usage of cheater squares — those stairsteps of black squares on the sides of the grid contain three apiece, and I don't mind them at all — but there's something too angular about this one. It makes "turning the corner" much easier, but I wasn't keen on the visual effect.

Strong work in the diagonal from SW to NE. (MICHELLE OBAMA wrote a book called "Becoming", in case you're living in a cave.) And that clue for PERSONAL SPACE! [Mine field] has nothing to do with land mines — think of the possessive sense. It's brilliant, as is so much of these guys' clever cluing. CASE SENSITIVE makes for a great bow on that triplet.

MESOPOTAMIA running through it all? Yes, please!

But that's not all. Considering that POT BELLIED STOVE and YEAR OF THE MONKEY constrain things mightily, I wouldn't expect much from the SW and NE corners. Certainly not the quantity or quality of MENSWEAR CIRCUS ACT, and ALONE TIME KAVA KAVA. Beautiful work.

So many constraints will have a side effect somewhere though, and that was the NW / SE. It surprised me at first, thinking that these regions had relative freedom. But once you fix HALLOWEEN II and POTBELLIED STOVE into place, it's so tough to squeeze more out of the NW. TAKE THIS? ON A LEASH. They work. Not as colorful as CIRCUS ACT, though.

Along with PRIVY TO HEADED TO PAY TO — so many prepositions — I couldn't quite see this as a POW! contender.

Still, I admire the innovation in grid design. And such a beautiful result in the SW to NE diagonal.

Sat 12/15/2018
HAMMCHUPACABRA
ECRUHESITATION
RUMSUNDERSTOOD
TROTTRADETALKS
ZAMBEZIPSI
ESPSITNSPIN
RENTACOPGOOSE
DEMIHINESCLAW
ONICEGARLICKY
HOTELBARENE
GRRCDDRIVE
SUPPRESSEDTRIX
ILLBETHEREEARP
BEERCOOLERAQUA
SEASONPASSMIST

Talk about CHUTZPAH! Few constructors dare to dip into quad-stack territory; those 4x10 regions in the SW / NE are so daunting. Triple-stacks are hard enough to get snazzy and smooth. Adding that fourth entry makes them so much harder. Maybe even an order of magnitude.

There are almost always trade-offs necessary to make these quads work. I think there's a case to be made that certain "neutral" words like UNDERSTOOD and SUPPRESSED can be made great via clever clues, but to me, it's hard to compare them to stuff like BEER COOLER, which is both a sizzling entry in its own right, and also has the potential for a great clue.

I'm hesitant to see PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) or worse yet PBRS in a grid, since if you've never had one, you might feel like it's a total guess. But I liked the crossing of PBRS and BEER COOLER.

ULEE not so much …

Similar trade-off in the NE, with BIOL and ATTA holding everything together. I like the balance that Erik struck, both corners showing two gluey short entries and a neutral long entry or two = a very reasonable price for such greatness in CIGAR SHOP / SEASON PASS, and PIED PIPER / CHUPACABRA.

I also appreciated how Erik didn't stop with the two big corners but continued to weave in a lot more long entries — HOTEL BAR crossing MUST BE NICE crossing RENT A COP, for example.

I used to think the SIT N SPIN was a universal thing — I spent much time on one as a kid — but I've had enough people give me head-scratching reactions that I'm not so sure. I wonder if CD DRIVE will elicit similar responses from the kids these days.

Hey dad, what's that shiny circular thing?

(sigh)

I'm generally not a fan of 4x10 constructions because of the trade-offs they require, but today's is one of the better ones I've seen.

Tue 11/27/2018
VOWEDABCSTUB
CROCUSROLEERE
REMAKEFRIEDEGG
ARENTNOMINEE
CANDIDATESAINT
HEISTSHOELETS
IRSOATYRHO
COMPUTERPROGRAM
ETAOUSTERA
SWATDRIPHOTEL
UHURAEDITORIAL
NONAMESLATIN
GOTTARUNGHOULS
OPISILTSOLEIL
DIESETHTESTY

Erik gives us the RUNs today!

Wait.

That didn't come out right.

(pun intended)

Such a fun revealer in GOTTA RUN. I enjoyed the diverse meanings of Erik's themers, a FRIED EGG being sort of runny if you don't cook it enough, a CANDIDATE running for office, a COMPUTER PROGRAM running, and a newspaper running an EDITORIAL.

What, no MARATHONER?

(Actually, I'm okay with that. My half-marathon days are likely behind me. I'm okay with that.)

It did feel a bit loosey-goosey, as there are so many things that run, in many different ways. A dripping faucet, hot and cold moods, ships running aground, run a tab, run the show, etc.

But sometimes you just gotta run with what you have.

So much good fill, as to be expected in an Agard joint. HOT HOT HOT indeed! Loved DUKE IT OUT, THYROID, NO NAMES, PET RAT (the entry, not the thing), and I proudly filled in RETINUES. Not that I could remember what it meant. But it looked like a word, and that counts for something. So there!

I wasn't familiar with WOMANISM, but it was easy to piece together the word. And I'm glad to have read up on it now. Whoever did the logo design (above right), that is incredible work!

Overall, an interesting take on "things/people that run." I'd have put it up for the POW! if it had felt like a tighter set of themers in some way.

Sat 11/17/2018
ATFIRSTCHEAPIE
TRACEEELLISROSS
TELEVISIONPILOT
AXLESTASTYALA
CEOSERIESERAT
HSNCRUSTWROTE
KAINEDORIES
CRANKSHOWODD
BAABAAMOVER
ABDULWINEDLAT
SOILLEADSTECH
ECOLLAMAPESTO
THEBOOKOFMORMON
WORLDSERIESRING
ONATEARTWEEZES

Standout clue for WORLD SERIES RING. Given that Erik is about an order of magnitude cooler than me (Doug only about a factor of nine cooler, sorry Doug!), I thought the [Band since 1922] had to be referring to some subculture group I'm not privy to. Love that misdirect — band, as in the type of band that you can wear around your finger!

I love mini-themes in themeless puzzles, and I love what Erik and Doug did to connect WORLD SERIES RING and TELEVISION PILOT. They have nothing in common. Or do they? It's so brilliant to direct away from baseball in the WORLD SERIES RING clue ... and toward baseball in the clue for TELEVISION PILOT! I got them all mixed up in my head, what was baseball-related and what was not, and that produced a great synergistic effect for me.

Super glad this ran on a Saturday because I had to stare at the grid after finishing, wondering if it possibly could have been right. CABOCHON is a thing? TRACEEELL could start a real name? Apparently, yes and yes! [CABOCHON = a technical term in gem-er-ology.] I've seen several episodes of "Black-ish" but didn't recognize the name. Looking back on it, I probably should have, as she has a major role in a big TV hit. Now I definitely will!

Also on the Saturday wavelength, what a great misdirect on the ESPY clue. I read "best play" and plunked in TONY. Took some long minutes of head-scratching to realize that it was talking about an athletic play!

One more baseball-related note, a clue I missed out on. [Missed out, e.g.] is an ERROR? I shrugged without fully grokking it — maybe it referred to missing out an opportunity? Super glad that I went back and thought about it some more. It's talking about a baseball error, where an out is missed (flubbed) by a fielder.

A lot to love in this one; I enjoyed THE BOOK OF MORMON crossing LES MIZ as well as all the aforementioned great cluing. It's tough for me to get elation from a themeless when I don't personally know who/what a couple of the long answers are, even after finishing, though. I have a feeling bigger fans of "Black-ish" would have given it their POW!

Sun 10/28/2018MATCH PLAY
TRACTSAPBSDOCTERI
BACHATABOLTONOREAD
SWEETANDSOURNEGERGO
ANTEHEARTANDSOUL
ERRSTILTJPOPARTS
SHEESHLEIABLACULA
PEACHESANDCREAMEATS
NAPTIMETAKEYOGIRHO
BANEDSSUNNIER
TARANDFEATHERSTONER
DALAISURFAGUAELEGY
IMMUNERIGHTANDWRONG
APOLUNESHEDIS
NONSEASAAHSONESTEP
ANDYSTANDUPANDCHEER
CUESTASSHAMOTELLO
OPRYRSVPSPEWMESS
STOPANDSTAREETRE
WIKICOPMIXEDDOUBLES
ARIEUNOONITSCROOGE
BEESPETSGTSKOWTOW

A disclaimer, I've seen (and made) so many anagram crosswords that it's tough for me to get excited about another one. Erik himself had one last year and another earlier this year. There has to be some extra level going above and beyond if it's going to be memorable.

Color me impressed with many of Erik's finds today. I thought the concept was pretty good in the first place: X AND Y phrases, with the letters of X and Y anagrammed into other in-the-language phrases/words. It's not easy to come up with a normal-sounding phrase like "trade punches" — makes you want to STANDUP and CHEER!

Then to cap it off with a solid revealer in MIXED DOUBLES — pretty darn good.

Also pretty darn good: gridwork that holds up even to the high standards I have for Erik. He's one of the top people in the business, and to work in such goodies as DON'T PLAY, BLACULA, SCROOGE, ALMOND COOKIE — it really ought to be ERIK THE MAN, not STAN THE MAN.

Erik the … Mesmeric?

MESMERIK!

*rushing off to trademark that before Erik can*

Sometimes I worry about Erik the Esoteric, though. I remember seeing APOLUNE in a tournament crossword and thinking that something had to be wrong with the answer key. I happened to know what a SHIBA INU is, but man that's gonna look bizarre as SHIBAINU or SHI BAINU or even SHIB AINU. (AINU is crosswordese for a Japanese native.)

Along with the tough-to-spell EERO SAARINEN, BACHATA, CUESTAS, it cumulatively felt like a lot of very tough fill to me. I don't think that's necessarily bad, just prone to leaving some solvers grumbling.

But overall, a strong concept in the heavily-used anagram theme category.

Thu 10/18/2018
THEDABCHANDUD
MERIDAFATELINE
SLIDERLGBTICON
MENLOGABFEST
TENHITAT
GLAMEGOSLEPEW
RIRITOTELVIRA
ABCSCOLONEXIT
DRESSYAUGRICE
SADATEVIEYEAR
BECCALEV
LATERALBLOAT
OCEANIANEDITOR
SANTERIARECODE
SITRORYTRENDY

I always marvel at long "word-within-a-phrase" finds. It seems so improbable that TREBLE backward would be contained within ENGELBERT. Toss in the appropriateness of Humperdinck being a composer, and that's a gold-medal find!

Erik plays on LIFT EVERY VOICE today, interpreting that as "voice ranges running upward within phrases." I love that Erik brings a different perspective to crosswords. I knew the song title but not that it was called "The Black National Anthem." I love having learned that!

Interesting decision to not shade or circle them (we've highlighted them below in case you missed them). I get that Will wants us to have to work a little more than average — it is Thursday, after all. But I'm not sure I would have gone back and searched for the hidden voices if I weren't blogging this. I'd much rather have placed this puzzle on a Tuesday or a Wednesday and made what's going on more apparent. More fun that way.

Although, I can see Will's dilemma. BARONETCY is a crazy-hard word that newer solvers probably won't be able to figure out. (Hand raised.) Same with OCEANIAN and SANTERIA — I ended up going down in defeat, slowly revealing one letter at a time in that corner. Even when I revealed the last square, I couldn't quite believe that OCEANIAN was a real word. (It is!)

I like the theme idea a lot, especially what with that great find in TREBLE within ENGELBERT. I admire Erik's incredible vocabulary, too — in one of our collaborations, we were trading a grid back and forth, and he managed to work in INUKTITUT. I quickly went to a dictionary to look it up before nodding as if I had known what that was all along. It's such a fun word, and it resembles INUIT, the people who speak it.

I would have preferred a much less challenging grid though, to match with the relative simplicity of the theme.

POW Fri 10/12/2018
NESSADAGEPRAT
OCTATUPACFISH
WHATSTHEBIGIDEA
LOTIONGAZEAT
EBERTMCSMESSI
TOMEPEONSRHYS
MOOBAGNOLDOAT
EMTIRAQWARTSO
SETDEDUCTSGAS
EROSDEEREJUBA
ESSEXTSAFANCY
LIGHTBULB
LATINOROBUST
AVENGENAENAE
BADASSSTRODE

★ I love me some beautiful grid art, and this is right up there with the best of the best. Big ol' LIGHT BULB, that's pretty good. But when you add in WHATS THE BIG IDEA, it becomes doubly clever. You know, because a LIGHT BULB represents an idea in the comics pages, and the LIGHT BULB is literally a BIG picture in today's grid?

Have I explained it to death yet?

Bruce ain't kidding about the difficulty of filling that middle section. I would have been sorely tempted to put a black square at the Q of IRAQ WAR. That would have made the puzzle 73 words — over the max of 72 for themelesses. That might have passed muster, but more problematically, it would have removed some precious long slots. Stunt themelesses sometimes suffer when held to normal themeless standards, because they don't have enough color to please solvers, so every long slot is golden.

Check out how critical that center section was. With IRAQ WAR crossing CONQUEST for a bit of sneaky political commentary, the kooky MEGADETH rock band name giving me happy memories of "This is Spinal Tap," and the delicious SNOW CRAB? All of that, with no prices to pay?

Good thing Erik was at the filling helm, not me!

There was already enough RIDE SHOTGUN, THAT IS TO SAY, NOW LET ME SEE, STATE MOTTOS to make it a pretty decent themeless. Adding in those appetizers in the middle of the grid made it great.

I did almost fail in the west section, not knowing the term ECHO BOOMERS. And there were some wickedly hard clues. But the clue for MOO was tough in a good way — great click when I realized that it was a cow saying that someone was "milking it a bit too much." Groan-worthy! In a good way.

Excellent craftsmanship in a tough construction, with just a little minor OCTA TSO ATTN. For me, this weel's POW! pick was AS EASY AS ABC.

Wed 9/5/2018
JUTSDANETITANS
ASHESTANOCELOT
CHEERLEADTENETS
OEDOMANTAUT
BRONCOSDOLPHINS
EGODEMONSIVAN
DAFOEORAKNEEL
TEAMBUILDING
SPEWSENTANION
ODIEGETOUTNTH
PATRIOTSBENGALS
TWOSRULEPGA
BATHOSLUNISOLAR
URBANEATTNRAMI
GIANTSSHUEONES

TEAM BUILDING today, explaining how six NFL franchises were formed. Apparently the rapper TI was a founding member of the TITANS. And who knew NCOS helped build the BRONCOS?

(Also, who knew that there was a rapper named TI?)

Such an appropriate fact, that RIOTS are an integral part of the PATRIOTS. My book agent is a die-hard PATRIOTS fan, which makes things difficult when I have to point out that they're the moral equivalent of a cat dingleberry implanted inside a dog turd.

Great effort to work in such a ton of long downs — NO FEWER THAN six! This is an incredibly tough ask; it's so difficult to get every one of them to sing. I love, love, loved THE DOG ATE IT and TENTH INNING — such great entries!

Not so hot on DSL MODEM. It is a real term, no doubt — something essential for DSL service. I don't know that I've ever called my (DSL) modem anything but just a modem, though.

And I'VE GOT A PLAN? Huh. I stared at that for a while during my solve, and I'm still staring at it. That one gets some side-eye from me. Feels arbitrary as a sentence / statement. Unless it's someone's famous catch line?

A couple of prices to pay for the audacious grid layout, but I don't mind ORA ENT ORO that much. And good old ODIE, who's only borderline crossworthy (sorry, bud!) gets saved with that delightful clue. Funny to think of ODIE as Garfield's frenemy.

A couple of oddballs in BATHOS and UBUNTU. I think they're fair game for a mid-week puzzle, seeing as all the crossings are fair, but man are they tough. UBUNTU, in particular, is hard to suss out unless you have some programming background. Or you're Bantu (it means "humanity toward others").

Fun concept, and I love that the authors trashed the hated PATRIOTS. PAT + RIOTS = detestable. And that's a fact. Ipso facto. Q.E.D.

That's the way I'm taking it, at least. Stupid winning Patriots, why must you win so much grumble grumble.

POW Tue 8/14/2018
PBJRUMBAABIDE
ERAURBANNINES
RODBLASTINGCAP
USEBYSEEMHID
ODESPAIN
SCREWINEXTENT
THREEWAYTIERAE
IRASGMAMARC
PEZPEOPLEWATCH
SKYPEDHEARSES
HOPINREO
SOSTOADANGEL
BORSCHTBELTRAY
EASEDCLASHARF
DRESSHERDSBLT

★ Loved this. I'm a huge Three Stooges fan, as well as a Greek mythology buff, so THREE-WAY TIE works equally well for me with Andy's or Will's clue.

The kooky articles of clothing arranged in top-down order = a perfect touch. I noticed this immediately, and it gave the puzzle a feel of elegance.

I wouldn't expect anything else from these two masters, Moe and Curly. Er, Andy and Erik.

I also appreciated the first-last BLT / PBJ. Curiously satisfying to end on an echo of the start.

Anyone else fill in [Ogre with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame] with a starting T and an ending RUMP? Given the recent debate about whether or not to remove Trump's star, I was mightily amused.

I amuse easily.

Even more fun, Perry MASON only every losing one case. Who knew? Nobody's perfect!

Well, almost nobody. Perfect example of an early-week puzzle. So much entertainment, so much to admire in this one.

ADDED NOTE: Astute reader Nancy Shack pointed out that I meant to say "ever" instead of "every" two paragraphs ago. Oh, the irony!

Sun 8/5/2018GHOSTED
CASAWENTFLORATRIODE
ACEREACHRIPUPSEALUP
PARTYTRAYAMISSANGLEE
NIECELAMAZEHEARTRATE
NEATELIJAHISEE
IRANGATETEUTONSDEALS
TASTETESTRITUALSPOI
ADLERATOMCARMENMCRAE
LIARIRONORESOARING
YOMGRANITAUSBPULSE
LOSTINTHESHUFFLE
YEASTAGONOTTRUEBAH
ATTAINSSENEGALBADU
CHATTYCATHYETONABNER
HERSAMHILLLOCALCALL
TRIEDLIEFLATDEPLANES
MAGINIACINPARA
GAMERRAGEBOXOUTYARDS
APARNAORALSBRASSBARS
GORGESTVSETEGGOIMIN
SPEEDSHESSELESTCAPS

Congrats to Alison on the debut! Working with one of the best in the business, reigning ACPT champ Erik. Can't go wrong there.

LOST IN THE SHUFFLE … how to explain this? Theme answers are made of two words, and if you remove one letter from the first word and them anagram the remaining ones, you get the second word.

Thus, that key letter is GHOSTED?

Hmm. One definition of GHOSTED is "ended a personal relationship with (someone) by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication." So, that key letter says buh-bye when it comes to forming the second word?

It is nice that the key letters form the word PHANTOMS, echoing the GHOSTED idea. It didn't produce a sharp a-ha moment for me, but I appreciate the attempt to work in an additional layer of cleverness.

Solid gridwork, as I'd expect from an Agardian production. Just a bit of super-minor OLLA APSE kind of stuff — now that's great craftsmanship, especially for a Sunday puzzle! Way, way, way less crossword glue than average makes for a feeling of elegance.

Erik's much younger and hipper than me (funnier and smarter, too), so it wasn't a surprise to encounter several things I didn't know. SERENA SLAM is where you hold all four Grand Slam titles at once? I wonder why the press didn't make up a neat name like that for the people who did it before her (Billie Jean King, etc.).

BBC ARABIC was new to me too, but I also liked learning that. Except it seemed to me like BBC ARABIA would have been such a better title. (Probably a good thing that I stayed out of marketing.)

APARNA, too. I don't know that she's become crossworthy enough to be a theme answer — cool that CHER is hidden inside NANCHERLA! — but as fill, absolutely fine.

The a-ha moment wasn't strong enough for my taste — I'm still wondering exactly why those letters fit the term GHOSTED and PHANTOMS — but there were some strong themers like CARMEN MCRAE, as well as enough SAM HILL, LIME JUICE, RUSH HOUR, THE NERVE bonus fill to keep me going.

Mon 7/16/2018
OPALSWAGPERMA
PACETALEIMOUT
ELLAOXENLOOMS
COUNTRYCODEFBI
IIIMRITAG
COUNTERFEITCOIN
CNNSIRPOOP
SOFASGAPNOBEL
AMENMICAGO
COMPLETECONTROL
OUIFYIROE
ATLCOMECORRECT
RAITAETONEVER
STARRRACESILO
EERIESLOTALLY

Sometimes I wonder if I'm too critical about the quality of crossword fill, especially in early-week puzzles. Feels like I've carped on a lot of Mondays and Tuesdays recently, for not enough attention to detail.

But then I do a Monday puzzle like today's, and my belief in high crossword standards is upheld. With only rare exceptions, all early-week crosswords should be as solid as this one. Beautiful long fill like PILE IT ON, ROOFTOP BAR, and SELF-CARE, with very few gluey bits?

This is what all constructors should demand out of their work.

Okay, PERMA ain't great as a prefix, and RAITA is going to be tough for some newbs. But I'm okay with people having to learn one thing from a crossword, as long as the crosses are fair. And if you haven't had RAITA before, you're missing out on the cucumbery goodness!

The theme = COCO indicating phrases where both words start with CO. I'm glad Erik included the revealer, because it's easy to think that this is just a C___ C___ phrase puzzle, much less interesting than a tougher CO___ CO___.

I wasn't familiar with COME CORRECT, but it's a proven fact that Erik is more hip than me. (The fact that I used the word "hip" probably has the young folks rolling their eyes.) SWAG Surfin' is something I learned from one of Erik's crosswords — see, you can teach an old dummy new tricks!

Occasionally, Jim will send me a "is Jeff grumpy?" note, which is extremely useful in terms of checking my OCD tendencies, and he's sent me a couple of those recently. I'm so glad that Erik gave us an example of how an early-week puzzle ought to be constructed!

Sun 6/17/2018TRICKY TRIOS
STALLSUTESCAPBRASS
OOHOOHNOSHADOROUTE
SNAPCRACKLEANDPOLDIE
ASSKILORCAUNCLIPS
TENORTIEDLIAISE
PASSKUKLAFRANANDE
HUMPTYOOFCREEALA
IRAIDTAGSCLIOSWNYC
SALDIANECLASPVENOM
HELSINKIBRINIMALONE
WYNKENBLYNKENANDD
AMONGSTLUPELIMESODA
MERCSOVERTZOOMSMIC
AWLSSTEWSHENNASICU
LSDHEHEFATRADNER
PETERPAULANDYRIDA
MOOLAHHURLARGUE
WAITITIANIYALLLAO
AFLACLASTONESTANDING
SIEGELIESAGANASCAR
HADESSLRAHOYDELETE

LAST ONE STANDING = final person in a trio oriented vertically. We've highlighted the people below in case you missed them.

One thing I thought Amanda, Karl, and Erik did particularly well: the LAST ONEs STANDING are buried within such juicy answers. It would have been very easy to place POP into POPE or APOP or something, so POPULAR OPINION is a real treat. NOD within ANNO DOMINI is great too, as is MARY within MAMMARY GLAND.

[Nursing facility?] for MAMMARY GLAND made me giggle. Uncomfortably. Not sure why.

Some lovely fill to spice things up, SHRINKY DINKS, SMALL WORLD, BROCADE. Excellent! Not much glue to hold it together, some TOK, ESL, ANIN, ANAT. Also excellent! Not a surprise to get a well-crafted grid, given Erik's high standards.

Well, except for WAITITI / POTAGE — wow, that's a tough crossing. Maybe we should all know either Taika WAITITI or a thick POTAGE? Not sure that's a reasonable expectation.

The theme did feel a bit thinly un-potage-like, given only four trios, especially since one didn't resonate with me. (I'm sure FRAN, KUKLA AND OLLIE will mean more to others.) Would have been great to get one more, although that would likely have meant reducing the snazzy long stuff like POPULAR DEMAND down to POPE-style shorties. I would have been okay with that.

Will isn't taking many "turning" type puzzles these days, because they've become overdone, but I like one now and again if the rationale is solid. I like today's interpretation of LAST ONE STANDING pretty well.

Thu 5/24/2018
DISHMARCOSTROT
ACTIARTHURHERE
WHINNYMEETSERIN
SARGESEELWOOD
OBIESJERRYCELLO
NOTSHOTSHELEN
DUDDECLEAK
PASTYHOODING
REVSNRADAD
STAKEITEMSRIG
PAYGROUPONHARSH
ACERUNHCALICO
DOSESPOONERISMS
AMIETENDEDBOAT
YARNSNEEZEINNS

SPOONERISMS, all based on things edible by SPOON. There are thousands of spoonerizable phrases, so this is a great way of tightening the set. Mini-wheats becomes WHINNY MEETS, and cherry Jell-O, hasty pudding, Grey Poupon also get the ol' switcheroo.

Some funny results, with WHINNY MEETS my favorite. Hilarious to think about a bunch of horses getting together for a bit of a hay klatch. The others didn't elicit as much of a smile from me, but they worked well enough.

I always wondered what hasty pudding was. The Anglophile in me wants to try it! Wait. It's "wheat flour cooked in milk or water until it reaches the consistency of a thick batter or an oatmeal porridge"? Oh, you Brits and your disgusting foods.

Funny to see SRSLY in the NYT. I cocked my head when I first encountered it a few years ago. Kids these days.

Mighty fine gridwork, STIR IT UP, DARK GREEN, even SPA DAY lovely additions. I wasn't sure who THE WEEKND was, but I had at least heard of this name. Now, if someone could tell me what happened to that missing E …

I didn't understand the clue for RIG. I think "doctor" is the "to rig an unfair game" meaning, and "engineer" is more the "jerry-rig" definition? I like the misdirect, but it was a bit too clever for this engineer.

Oh, that revealer. Oh, oh, oh. I have to give it its own line because it's so long:

[What 18-, 25-, 37- and 52-Across all are (whose circled letters name something used with the base phrases)]

Wha?

The "whose" in there threw me off. Isn't that implying that 18-Across, etc. have circled letters? I think that's a dangling participle or something. Not that I know what a dangling participle is, but something is dingle-dangling in there.

An enjoyable, well-made romp, with such an apt extra layer to tighten the theme. If the clue for SPOONERISMS hadn't been so long, confusing, and dongle-dungling and some of the themers had been funnier, this would have gotten POW! consideration.

POW Sun 5/13/2018LOVE AT FIRST SITE
NBAJAMPSASSWAMBAT
SATIRERUNTIAGOSOLE
FRENCHCONNECTIONEATS
WRAPSONREPEATOPERAS
ELIOCTAORSOHYDRA
ELONBOOYAHDREAM
PENGUINSEANBEANERA
ADESTUDFINDERHOMEEC
BESTIERUBBERMATCH
AWEDBERYLNASTIES
PETPASTATRISHRNS
FASTCARMASONBOGS
ACTIONITEMSFLIPON
CHEESEOPENFLAMESMET
EERTRINIDADMONDAVI
NANASPACTENAKIN
AZUREMIMEHENSTEL
MINERSTOOTSIESPAIGE
APINORGANICCHEMISTRY
SPOTROUTCALEONESIE
SONTOYSKNEEBATONS

It's incredibly rare that I enjoy a Sunday puzzle so much that I don't want it to end. A great majority of the time, I get bored halfway through and finish just for the sake of finishing. I was tickled by how funny RUBBER MATCH, ORGANIC CHEMISTRY, and OPEN FLAMES were as names for dating sites. Awesome theme, and so many great finds!

Along with a solid grid — lovely bonuses like NBAJAM, COCONUT as a person's head, EVIL GRIN, Picard's MAKE IT SO, etc., and just a bit of ignorable ASI, NEB, IN LA — an easy POW! pick. Very strong gridwork.

My favorite Sunday of the year so far, from two of my favorite people in the crossworld.

Mon 4/9/2018
URLAMAAPPLET
LEAHCATTHRIVE
TAKEACUTHAILED
ALECGUINNESS
KORONEMORE
ANDYGARCIASHEA
DIRECULIMS
AGESYEARSFOOT
PIXRAWEAVE
TRESAVAGARDNER
SILENTIGEE
SILVERSCREEN
ITHACAREUSABLE
CHIMESOARLASS
EXPERTSPFYET

Admit it, you had to look up ICMYI too. (In Case You Missed It.) I can only pretend to keep up with the new ACPT champ in pretty much every way. The Agardian Era is a wondrous new age for the crossworld!

I liked the extra level Erik applied to this "initialisms" theme. It's one thing to find a bunch of celebs whose initials are the same. It's another to tighten the pack by sticking to a subset — only movie stars. And a completely different thing to apply a perfect revealer, SILVER SCREEN hinting at silver's symbol on the periodic table, Ag. Very cool.

I think the sets of black squares look a little like a clapboard. Intended or not, it's a neat visual.

Erik's crosswords always have a fresh feel to them, going beyond the tried and true fill to introduce something new:

  • ULTA? With a market cap of over $12B, it seems like fair game.
  • NIGIRI? This sushi lover knew that one off the top, and I do think it's crossworthy.
  • SWAGSURF? ICYMI, I'm not nearly cool enough to understand this one. I could barely understand it even after much Googling and watching videos. It does seem to be more popular as "swag surfin'."

The stuff like HECK YES and THX was much more to this now-feeling-like-I'm-over-the-hill-solver's liking.

Neat theme concept, and I wanted so much to give Erik another POW! If 1.) the clapboard in the center had been truly clapboard-ish (the horizontal bars longer and more space between them), and 2.) the fill hadn't felt so foreign, it would have been an easy pick.

Fri 3/23/2018
MALTAEPSFTLB
ATEOFMOORROOM
STARRPOLICEBOX
KISSONTHECHEEK
CHIPPYHAZES
OURSCENEXIV
DJINNOARSRANI
IANKIBBUTZCOD
ENIDNILEAETNA
SETADATEHMM
TIRESFIBBER
MAKEUPTUTORIAL
GOLDMINERNADJA
UCLATILLICEIN
SKYYNESSERVE

Learn something new every day! JANET MOCK was unfamiliar to me, but Erik did such a nice job making all the crossings friendly and easy, such that I could learn about MOCK and still conquer my crossword. Some solvers might grouse that ENID is an esoteric name, but realistically, what else could that square be? I bet if 100 people were asked to fill in the blank for a woman's name, JA_ET, 100 would put in an N.

I feel privileged to be friends with a good number of constructors. You'd be surprised at how often knowing the author comes in handy during my solves! Erik is one of my favorite folks in the crossworld, and I remember from a while back that he's into AFROPUNK. Saved my bacon when it came to that NW corner. I was so badly stuck, not able to see the odd CHIPPY and not knowing Edwin STARR.

My daughter (age 3) is fascinated with her mom's MAKEUP. Am I going to have to figure out what a MAKEUP TUTORIAL is?

(Sigh, yes.)

Guess it's a good thing I learned that term today.

A couple of other toughies in PNIN and NADJA. I don't mind learning a thing or two from a crossword, as long as that doesn't hinder me in achieving my complete and correct solve. And some solvers seem to dislike having too many proper names in a puzzle, but that doesn't bother me, as long as they're well-known. It's when a constructor delves too far into PNIN / NADJA territory that starts to make me feel like the puzzle is more a trivia contest than a crossword. Just on the verge today.

Loved GOLD MINER and its brilliant clue, repurposing the term "flash in the pan." A perfect example of GOLD medal wordplay.

ZAMBONIS also had a great clue, although if you didn't know that the "crease" is a term in ice hockey, the cleverness would be lost on you.

Overall, no DARK DAY whatsoever, Erik constructing a fine, fair puzzle. It's tough to get a feeling of excitement when encountering so many foreign-seeming entries, though.

Thu 2/8/2018
WELSHRAMADAN
ELITISTARAPAHO
SILENTOMEGRYAN
TAYEDIGGSMOSS
PIXARBAN
SAULEDUSARA
ANSELELGORTNOT
AGESAGOTMOBILE
BLUMARISATOMEI
SOPHDEFTEXT
EOSSCAMS
WAIFHOLLYWOOD
SHUFFLEAMRADIO
SIDEEYEWARNING
STIRREDHANKS

The HOLLYWOOD / SHUFFLE! (sneaking over to Wikipedia as I pretend to know what that is … my first guess was embarrassingly related to the Icky Shuffle.) I'm a huge Keenen Ivory Wayans fan. I'll have to check out the flick.

Some nice anagram finds. MEG RYAN into GERMANY I had seen before, But TAYE DIGGS into STEADY GIG is great. ["It's-a me, Mario!"] seemed a bit ickily stereotypical, until I realized it's an actual quote from Nintendo's Mario. Whew!

The first one I uncovered was ANSEL ELGORT, which gets confusing when you don't know who that is. (Or who Ernest Gallo is, sadly.) But I think educated solvers should at least be able to recognize the name(s), as El Gort had a lead role in "The Fault in Our Stars."

Er, Elgort.

You have to admit; El Gort sounds pretty cool.

As always, Erik does well in executing his grid. Considering my pop culture idiocy, I especially appreciated some BOTSWANA, SILENT O, SIDE EYE (related to the stink eye?), which all helped keep up my interest.

The HANKS clue … [Hair pieces?]. Question mark indeed! Maybe it had to do with the musical "Hair"? Or a catty remark about the rumors that Tom Hanks is covering up top? No … it seems that one definition of HANKS is "coils of hair."

Huh.

There have been many anagramming themes over the years, and the best ones pull all the themers together in a great way. I liked how Erik used HOLLYWOOD / SHUFFLE to restrict to just big(gish?)-name actors, certainly tightening things up. It took me a while to realize that all the anagrams were also all real names or phrases, not just kooky ones (MATT DAMON = madman tot, for example), but that also helped make the execution stand out.

Madman tot, tee hee!

Fri 1/12/2018
THATSATALLORDER
EACHONETEACHONE
ARAISININTHESUN
MAKEAFRESHSTART
MELOMSTSE
REUPPED
SPAREDNOEXPENSE
CAMELIDECLAIRS
INCLASSDIURNAL
OXOTSP
IMACNACREISAO
RABATMLIDEALT
VICTORIASSECRET
INDEPENDENCEAVE
NEEDSTOSLASHER

What an unusual quad-stack arrangement! Can't remember seeing anything quite like this, featuring both mirror symmetry as well as three additional 15-letter grid-spanners. Talk about audacious! I love that Erik continually pushes his boundaries. Kicking things off with THAT'S A TALL ORDER is right!

Quad-stacks are notorious for 1.) needing a ton of crossword glue to hold them together, 2.) containing grid-spanning entries that are a bit dull, 3.) requiring an excessive amount of common letters (E, R, S, T, etc.).

I thought Erik did pretty well with criterion number 2. THAT'S A TALL ORDER is great. MAKE A FRESH START, too. A RAISIN IN THE SUN has been used in a many a triple- or quad-stack, so it loses some points from me, but there's no doubt that it's crossworthy.

I wasn't familiar with EACH ONE TEACH ONE, but what a neat phrase to learn. Took me a while to grok its meaning, but it's a great way to emphasize the importance of passing on one's learnings, making for an exponential passing on of knowledge.

Criterion number 1 … well, quad stacks are tough. There are so many uber-constrained crossings to work through. Can't say I enjoyed A CAKE, A TIEMPO, LATH, ENURE (inure more commonly, yeah?), TSE, the tough HARAM / MEL crossing, all at the top of the puzzle. About par for the course for a quad-stack.

Quad-stacks usually have so many compromises that I was super glad to wash away some of them with all the other feature material in SPARED NO EXPENSE, VICTORIA'S SECRET, even INDEPENDENCE AVE. ECLAIRS and EAR PIECES also helped make me feel like I got my money's worth out of this puzzle.

The bottom of the puzzle was much more to my taste than the quad-stack, in terms of trade-offs — two strong grid-spanners, with just a bit of RET, DECA, ISAO.

Overall, I like seeing new patterns, new construction challenges in themelesses. The quad-stack didn't quite stand out for me given the liabilities needed to hold it together, but I did like the grid-spanning entries more than in usual quad-stacks. And the bottom of the puzzle worked well for me.

POW Sun 12/10/2017FULL-BODY CAST
AWALKSHELINNOTIME
TOMEITALIBHOTLINES
OWIESEVOKESETHAKITT
MEGASTARELWAYVITAE
DONCHLESLALOMILE
NAVJOHNLUIZAMO
ZAPMOIRAONENOLO
ETONCOINOPBANGOR
ELSALANCERPORKADOBO
ATBATATTUNESOIR
INDDENZELWASGTONKGB
STOPBONSAIVISIT
TACOSTANDMICHELLEOH
SCHEMEHEALERYADA
KIEVTEETEXTSROT
RYANPHILLPEIAN
USESAVIOROLPLATT
RENALNOTREPASTRIES
BITPARTSETCHEDCULPA
ANTIGONESUTRAOTTER
NEONSIGNTSARDOSES

★ Great theme around actors, BIT PARTS hinting at "rebusized body parts." I never noticed this property about DENZEL WA(SHIN)GTON and DON C(HEAD)LE, even though they're some of my favorite actors. And what an apt title, FULL-BODY CAST!

I've become very picky about rebuses over the years. They used to be so novel; even rebusizing IN or ER was ground-breaking. These days, it takes a lot for me to consider a rebus worth solving:

  1. Great rationale as to why letters are squished into one square.
  2. Colorful theme answers containing those rebus squares — not just in the across direction, but down too!
  3. Variety in the rebus squares (or some other way of avoiding a repetitive feel).

I think Erik and Laura did all three very well. Where many constructors fall down is the second part of criterion #2. For example, it's not so interesting to have SHIN worked into PU(SH IN), but shorter down entries do make the grid much easier to construct. Thankfully, PU(SH IN) was more the exception than the rule today, as the down entries containing the body parts were so snazzy.

I mean, T(HE AD)VOCATE! I H(EAR) YOU! HE(LI P)ORTS! And my favorite, ROOKI(E YE)AR! Check out how much real estate those long down "themers" take up. That presents all sorts of gridding challenges, reducing flexibility a ton.

Now, the puzzle wasn't perfect. Considering the high strain put on the grid by all those long across AND down themers, it wasn't a surprise to get a good amount of crossword glue. Most of it was ignorable, but one thing that stood out for me was the abundance of partials — A WALK, T AIME, I ATE. Better to spread out your crossword glue — having so many of a single type makes them more noticeable.

But overall, such an entertaining theme, well executed with just a few issues here and there. Plus, a ton of bonus fill, including some stuff you don't usually see in the NYT: NARUTO and PORK ADOBO. I like that kind of diversity. It might not play well to mass audiences, but I like it when constructors (and editors!) take chances like this.

Wed 11/29/2017
ACROSSFASTOREO
SLEEPYALMAREAP
SUPREMECOURTCASE
TBSABATESRAMEN
SKORHAY
MILALALATOTALS
ANIMECONTOURKIT
INBOXHOJOTAIKO
MIRACLEMOPSURER
STASESSUSSMANY
RUBPAPA
SCOOPINSIDETAU
TEMPTATIONISLAND
ICEEVENDSTEREO
RENDASEAMOTOWN

Aww … I love getting insight into a friend's life. Reading Erik's note gave me the warm fuzzies.

This music idiot actually knew some of these groups! The TEMPTATIONs! Diana Ross and the SUPREMEs!

The ... MIRACLEs? The CONTOURs? Some research shows that these are indeed pop groups of old. And popular as well. My music knowledge is so sad ...

SUPREME COURT CASE worked best for me since I knew the SUPREMEs, and what a colorful phrase. Perfect choice to kick off the puzzle.

MIRACLE MOP was also awesome-sounding — I want one RIGHT NOW even though I don't know what it is — but not knowing that group put a damper on it for me.

TEMPTATION ISLAND was the opposite. I love the TEMPTATIONs! Not so much, TEMPTATION ISLAND. It was some reality TV show?

And CONTOUR KIT ... it appears to be a thing. It's silly that one criterion I use is "does it have a Wikipedia article?" But I loves me some Wikipedia. Especially when people make things up. (Ask Doug Peterson about the Laughing Boy.) Don't judge me!

Solid execution, not a surprise from one of the best in the biz. It's not an envelope-pushing grid, but check out the work in the SE corner, the one place that would usually need crossword glue. ISLAND over MOTOWN is a rough business. Plenty of people would have fallen into the trap of moving the black squares above TAU to where TAU is, thinking it'd make their lives easier. Not so! Having that little three-letter space increases flexibility quite a bit.

And to work a music term, STEREO, right in there? Excellent!

Nothing huge in grid bonuses — I liked (but not loved) TRYOUTS, EXCERPT, TOPSPIN, EARACHE — but nothing huge in liabilities (ASST, ATO, LALA). I would have liked for Erik to challenge himself a bit more, perhaps working in a pair of long down in the SW / NE corners. Not sure how to do that though …

Not being much of a pop music guy, the theme didn't catch my attention. But what a delight to see the personal tie for Erik.

Sun 10/8/2017POWER BALLADS
TSAIMPELASSETGPS
ALLACIRCATEARATOOH
BILLYOCEANARCADEFIRE
STEFANPREGGERSTONED
GRRPADDUNERUG
GREENDAYSPEEDSARP
RODSEICASSCOLDPLAY
ISLECROONSTONEMATE
TAYLORSWIFTIWONTCEL
THYINROADFORREAL
PROWMETALLICAYESM
SEENOTEONEONEDOI
ETCWOLFSTHESPINNERS
ARATNORSEASTONSTOP
LILWAYNENEOSNAYYMA
COLSETTLEMCHAMMER
UMAZERORUEDEO
ATLASCEMENTEDTITLES
FRANKZAPPASUPERGROUP
ROTAIROUTASIDEOGRE
ODETOPSYREESEYOW

SUPER GROUP played upon today, various bands/singers amusingly interpreted as a particular superhero's favorite. I'm a huge fan of the Flash, so I got a laugh out of imagining Barry Allen squeeing at a TAYLOR SWIFT concert. Of course, the Hulk would love GREEN DAY, and Thor would be a fanboy of MC HAMMER.

I'm a huge superhero nerd, so all the characters came to me quickly. (In a Flash, you might say … *rimshot*) I appreciated that Erik and Alex executed the concept in a way that even if you don't know superheroes well, the puzzle still might amuse you. They could have easily relied on fringe characters like Hawkman or Plastic Man or Zatanna, for instance.

The nerd inside of me cries for Zatanna's exclusion, but what are you gonna do.

And even if you're a person who likes neither superheroes (infidel!) nor music, the grid was still interesting and clean enough to allow for a pleasant solving experience, treating it as a giant themeless puzzle. COIN TOSS, ETYMOLOGY, GOING PLACES, SACRED COW, SAN FRAN, PREGGERS, MUD PIE, and my favorite, SON OF A …! Something so entertaining about phrases implying a swear word, like "Why you little …" and "What the …".

All of that without much crossword glue: minor ARAT, CARO, CEST, DEO, DOI, NEO, SEI, etc. Notice how careful Erik and Alex were to keep their glue limited to very short words of mostly three letters? That's a great way to minimize their potential for feeling inelegant. Almost every Sunday 140-word puzzle will need some crossword glue, but sticking to very short (3-4 letters) stuff is a good way to make it seem less consequential.

Loved Erik's voice coming through in ALLEGEDLY: [legally covering our butts here]. He's so great with his memorable cluing. (ADDED NOTE: I would have bet $1000 that it was Erik's clue ... good thing I don't bet very often! It was Will's.)

The only things I wasn't wild about were the 2x2 chunks of black squares in the SW and NE. It's a subjective assessment, but they look so heavy and unnecessary to me.

Fun connections between two disparate sets of interests, and excellent gridwork. Strong offering, especially considering it's Alex's debut.

POW Mon 9/11/2017
PSISOSPADLSD
OMGPOMADEAPE
MALAYPENINSULA
PROFSLEDARID
TORTILLAFLAT
OWESEA
PALEODAWES
EGADHICKMAXX
AUKDASHESLPS
RAEILLINILOW
PERFECTGPA
FLUKESHAWL
LEADMOOTMAIL
ARCOPAPAPLEA
LAIRTHATELON
ALDAYULERAND

★ Great start to the week, a solid offering from two of my favorite people in the crossworld. I've seen a couple of LA LA LAND puzzles over the years — especially after the Oscars brouhaha — so (probably like Erik) I was a tad underwhelmed to get "phrases containing LA and LA." What a nice a-ha moment when I realized that it wasn't just any old phrases, but actual LANDs containing LA and LA. Beautiful!

Mirror symmetry can be a godsend. I don't imagine there are many place names containing LA and LA. As a constructor, it can be supremely frustrating to find great theme answers, only to realize that they don't pair up. Lengths of 14, 12, 10, 10, bleh! Except that mirror symmetry handles some kooky theme set lengths perfectly. Good trick to have in one's arsenal.

Mirror symmetry typically requires more black squares than regular symmetry, and today's grid is no exception. It's usually necessary to deploy some black squares in the middle of the puzzle, and they tend to chunk up, like the "hat" sitting atop HICK. Some editors put a limit on black squares at 36 or 38, but I don't mind when a puzzle gets up to 40 or even 42, as long as it's still visually pleasing. This grid looked fine to me.

Tough to make one's voice heard in an early-week puzzle that calls for simple clues, but I love what these guys have done. OOPSIE! SLED clue referencing "Calvin and Hobbes." PERFECT GPA! Even a fun quote with LOW. (It's from Michelle Obama, taking the high road when others go LOW.)

I wasn't sure about AFROED, but it does have dictionary support. More importantly, Erik has been awesomely AFROED in the past, so I defer to him. Otherwise, not a single hitch in the short fill — such meticulous work in filling out their grid, not an OOPSIE in sight. Your effort and care are much appreciated, sirs.

A joy to solve; exactly how interesting, smooth, and snazzy a Monday puzzle should be.

Sat 9/2/2017
CASTRPGSPORK
RICEBEERLAUREN
IRIDESCEONEDGE
CTRTAKEGARAGE
KAOSTANGENTIAL
EXCOPTHESTONES
TICTACOLEO
SOUTHSUDANESE
BEDSTIMING
ADDRESSESOUTRO
QUEENSUGARSHOD
UNITASAVOWLLD
INCITESEMINOLE
LEERATETAGERES
ADDERSONODES

64-worder, yikes! I've developed a knack for sniffing out low word-count themeless grids — that huge SW alone is a good indicator that the constructor is dipping into those daunting waters. Check it out — you start with a 6x6 chunk of white space, hard enough to fill on its own. But then you extend four of the entries into the rest of the puzzle? Daunting is an understatement.

Erik worked in more snazzy feature entries than I'm used to seeing in a 64-worder. Love GREENHOUSE GASES / SOUTH SUDANESE, THE STONES, PAT BENATAR, CHESS SET, AIR TAXIS, SITH LORD, even IRIDESCE. Usually, we see more of the ADDRESSES, ENROLLEE, ETAGERES kind of filler in low-word count themelesses, so great to get these sparkly entries.

So tough to pull off without applying too much crossword glue. DUNNED was the only glob that stood out to me, an old-style word that felt like a throwback to the Maleska era of esoteric crosswords. But with just an OLEO of CTR, LLD otherwise, it's a good overall result.

(SOTU = State of the Union, SDSU = San Diego State University. I think one of those by itself would be fine, but both of them felt somewhat inelegant.)

Erik is so good at cluing — I look forward to the clues in his puzzles even more than the grids. [Movie lot?], as in a lot of people in a CAST, is a great way to kick things off. I didn't know the Vue car model, but a GARAGE as a [Room with a Vue, perhaps] is a clever play on "Room With a View."

A few were over my head this time around:

  • SON = [This is an issue] … ? "Issue" apparently can mean "offspring." Huh.
  • DEICED … I get that the clue is playing on "cleared for landing," but isn't deicing more often done before getting cleared for takeoff, not landing?
  • CRICKET as [Fair play]. (insert sound of crickets here). Ah, I have heard "That's not cricket," as a Britishism?

I enjoyed the solve, a solid Saturday workout. If I had seen some episodes of QUEEN SUGAR (I admit, I read the O magazine and love it, so I've seen ads for this series) or was more familiar with RICE BEER, it might have hit me a little more strongly.

Sat 7/29/2017
DUCTSCANILIVE
INAWEEASYMONEY
ESSENCEMAGAZINE
TAKESANAPMETAL
AVESMYRRHNILE
RETTONOOOGALT
YDSWEDCUTELY
KIWIKRIS
CRUETSYAMLSD
PHEWOCTNEGATE
RIGANOBIGALIA
ICEINBOULEVARD
MANTOMANDEFENSE
ENCIRCLESTUNIS
DAYSAILSSPENT

I indeed felt SPENT after finishing this puzzle — I'm curious to find out whose clue that was! Some great feature entries, ESSENCE MAGAZINE with its clue about "Dynamite Afros" (Erik has been known to sport a dynamite Afro!), with EASY MONEY stacked onto top. DISCO BALL also shone (pun intended), even more so given its fantastic clue, [One lighting up the dance floor].

I love Erik's website themelesses, as he's one of the best constructors out there in terms of writing devilishly fantastic clues.

LOZENGES was a perfect example of Agardian cluing. By itself, LOZENGES is not something I'd count as a puzzle asset. But [Hackers' helpers] had me thinking about decoding, encryption schema, password crackers. Great a-ha moment when I realized that "hackers" meant "people that hack." Cough cough.

Erik is much younger and hipper than me, so I do struggle with some of his entries and clues. CAN I LIVE was foreign to me, and I haven't heard anyone say NO BIG. Then again, I play bridge and do crosswords, so I tend to hang out with people who still cling to the 20th century.

ASAPROCKY was another mystery. It took every crossing to figure out — thank goodness each one felt fair! For fun, I tried to guess what the guy's (woman's?) name really was before looking it up. Sadly, my best guess was Asa Procky, followed by As a Procky. ASAP ROCKY is a pretty catchy name, but boy is it tough to suss out.

Unusual to see a Maleskan EFTS in an Agard themeless, but it is a dictionary supported word. Otherwise, strong craftsmanship in putting this grid together. Those big SW / NE corners are so tough to feel cleanly and snazzily, especially with grid spanning entries running through them.

I like when a constructor's vibe and personal interests show through in a puzzle. This one didn't resonate with me, but that's not a surprise given how different my interests are from Erik's. I'm curious to hear how younger people reacted to this one.

Thu 7/6/2017
RSVPSIGHBRAD
UPCSOSLOEURO
MARTINLAWRENCE
ARRSDYEDAFTER
BAETEXTBIPODS
FITESPBONA
ASIANEBAYTPS
BIRDSRIMSTONE
NEOPIBBPYLON
PARAOBIEWE
BISTROKORNDAM
UNTAGGAPEMANY
STEPHENHAWKING
TREETALLONCE
SORTATOMREEL

It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out the gist of today's puzzle. I got stuck on BIRDS, wondering how having two BIRDS in the bush was reflected in the puzzle? Then I thought it might be two BIRDS of a feather, somehow flocking together? That *almost* worked. Finally, Googling turned up killing two BIRDS with one STONE!

D'oh.

I still don't exactly see how that saying is reflected within the puzzle — there are two BIRDS inside MARTIN LAWRENCE and STEPHEN HAWKING (neat finds!) and a stone inside SONY XPERIA and BAMBOO PALM — but how does the STONE "kill" the two BIRDS?

I'm probably waaaaaay overthinking this.

Great grid execution, not a surprise from a master. Erik shows off by interlocking his themers, not an easy task, especially considering that there probably aren't many themer choices that hide two BIRDS. The interlock does force some ugly black square chunks in the upper left and lower right — placing MARTIN LAWRENCE in row 3 necessitates this — but I don't mind as much as I usually do, given the visually pleasing themer interlock.

Funny, Erik's comments about how he thought they were pretty. To each his own.

Also of note are those awesome "parallel downs" — RUM RAISIN / SPARE TIRE and POLE DANCE / SNOW ANGEL are such snazzy answers. Even more impressive is that Erik hardly used any crossword glue to hold everything together there. An ARRS and a KOR, yes, but that's far less than most people would dab on to get such goodness.

Toss in ADOPT A PET and BEEF PATTY too! Erik makes it look so easy when in truth, just making the themer interlock work is hard enough without any bonus entries.

And that's not all. Erik is particularly good at clues, so many shining today. My favorite: [Figure whose wings melt in the sun], making me think it had to be ICARUS. Nope, SNOW ANGEL shares that property. Makes an already great entry glow even brighter.

Erik's constructions tend to be fresh and unconventional (while still maintaining snazz and smoothness), and this one is a prime example. Wish the theme had given me a sharper a-ha moment, though.

Thu 5/25/2017
DRAGARNOSPF
EUROSOARSLEIA
FEELPURPLEIRAN
FRENCHIGUANA
REBRANDADOPOR
CLUESTANLEST
AIRSHOWSMDI
ROLLOFICONS
RYEOMAREPPS
PARTARMIDEST
APEFWDEATAWAY
COVERIVERSON
ILLGOFIRSTCAMP
FLOGICIERELLA
YONENDORIBS

Erik Agard! Love this guy; easily in the running for the most creative person in the crossworld. I always look forward to his byline. Check out a spotlight Ben over at Fiend did recently for more about Erik.

Today, he riffs on ILL BE FIRST, meaning "move the I to the beginning of words." I must admit, I was confused at first — shouldn't that mean the I moves all the way to the beginning of the phrase, rather than the beginning of the second word? Perhaps that's too picky.

I also got thrown off by the first two themers both being country-related. Sure, they work different ways — one has a country (FRENCH GUIANA) as a base phrase, the other as a resultant (IRAN) — but since it's relatively easy to find words that form other words when the I is moved to the front, I was convinced there had to be some country-related extra layer. Ah well.

Superb grid execution. Erik shows off by stacking pairs of themers, something rarely done. Most constructors would separate PURPLE IRAN and FRENCH IGUANA, one to the very right and the other to the very left of the grid — but Erik likes to innovate.

I often dislike this sort of innovation when others do it since it usually results in terrible compromises. But Erik's grid is not only smooth, it opens things up for great extras like GOLF RESORT, REBRAND, AIRSHOWS jam-packed into one region. Love it.

Erik's a top-notch clue writer, too. Love [Org. with Card games], that capital C alluding to the Cardinals. If you're not already doing his indie puzzles, you owe it to yourself to check them out.

I enjoyed this puzzle, but I have such high expectations for Erik's work now that I wanted something extra, another layer tying everything together. (I also have high expectations for Thursday puzzles not to be as straightforward as this.) Still, such a well-executed product.

(CHURCH ICHOR was the extra themer.)

POW Sun 1/8/2017THE DOWNSIZING OF NATHANIEL AMES
BCCSISISPACEHTS
BORAOPAHSUNRAOARS
CLOVECIGARETTESENRON
RACERDORAGBEERDARTS
AWKIKEPROSEPOETRY
DAPSIRREEPAINTAHAS
IRONDYERHORNCANOLA
OSTEENVIDEOSNOUTURN
ARESMINKDANKDOJ
SCURRYAWAYSCUMSEIKO
TARTSLOGHEEPSNES
AGLOWMEETMALIEMPIRE
MEHHMOSREINTROI
EDITIONMIXCDSJEEVES
NUJAZZHICSLULUDINE
SPARASONEREVERBCTA
CHARTTOPPEROERERM
TAKEATESTIDBETUSUAL
ARIESTHANKSINADVANCE
GENLHOUSENYROKITS
SAGOTRAGADSETES

★ I was baffled for the longest time — was PROSE POETRY supposed to be PROSE ROSE POETRY or something? Headslap moment when I realized it was P. ROSE POETRY. Brilliant! So many celebs go by their first initial and their last name (or part of it), like D Wade (Dwyane Wade), J Law (Jennifer Lawrence … or Jude Law?), etc. Great idea, cluing all these normal phrases as if they were parsed into celeb-ish names.

And the poetry for P. ROSE! "Charlie Hustle is my name / I am banned from the Hall of Fame" = fantastic. Great entry and even better clue, like something Muhammad Ali might have said in taunt. (I didn't know the MALI EMPIRE, but I really liked learning about this historical powerhouse.)

I did find it odd to get Stephen HARPER's first name right in the clue, but I'm the first to admit that I couldn't have guessed who Stephen Harper was, even given eleventy-billion guesses. So I appreciated the hint.

These young guns are two of the best in the new generation. I love me some Agard puzzles — his indies are some of my favorites out there — and Peter Broda blew my mind with a hero metapuzzle a while back.

Sometimes with the indies, I have a hard time getting into the hot / trendy people they throw in; names that you either know or don't, ones that either elate you or leave you shrugging.

So to get fresh, juicy bonus entries that even this old crotchety fella can appreciate was great. VICE UNIT! BEER DARTS! (I didn't know that one, but it wasn't hard to figure out from the clue.) URL HIJACKING! And HARRY HOUDINI with its appropriately confounding clue about when Houdini was buried (for a stage trick) vs. his death = brilliant.

There were a few tough themers — if you never watched "Friends," CHANDLER BING would be rough. And even rougher if you don't know who C. HANDLER (Chelsea Handler) is.

But overall, loved, loved, loved it. Such fun to do the puzzle, and even more fun to analyze why that was. More please, sirs!

P.S. RETCON = retroactive continuity. Even as a writer, I didn't know that — fun to learn!

Sat 9/20/2014
STREAKSLEADUP
QUIRRELLANGINA
UNDERDOGSTREWN
ANDASPECTRATIO
DELTSLOSESEP
SLEWAPEXPOLL
OPTICSODDY
PROJECTRUNWAY
CLAUSRIFLE
LAITCOMORAVE
AYNSHUNASTIN
MAGICTRICKSHOF
ARENOTCOCACOLA
TEARUPSTUNTMAN
OARERSSPAREST

Erik is THE MAN! How many people would let me play with the pic on their personal constructor's page for my amusement* (Jill Denny's pic was of Sarah Palin for the longest time)? And after he sent me his notes (in lowercase, as is his wont), he sent me a new set with proper capitalization, in case I had to play by The Man's rules. Well let me tell you, The Man isn't gonna tell me what to do about The Man's notes. Wait...

Loved the mini-theme. CTR is normally a blah abbreviation, a bit of crossword glue needed to stick some great answers together. Using a self-reference in the clue is genius. CTR is at the center of four great answers: ASPECT RATIO, MAGIC TRICKS, LG ELECTRONICS, and PROJECT RUNWAY. I've said before that I'd get tired of mini-themes every weekend, but I love getting clever concepts like this which don't necessitate undue crossword glue. More, please!

A note on cheater squares today. You see the six black Tetris-like tetronimoes? Each one contains a cheater square, a black square that could have been eliminated without changing the word count. I don't mind one pair at all, and two pairs is usually fine. Three is often where my eye for aesthetics tweaks a bit. I actually like the four L-tetronimoes, finding them slightly pleasing, but the two S-tetronimoes in the middle stick out for me. As with most all art, this is a subjective call.

Ah, QUIRRELL! I'm sure this entry will generate discussion, as you either know it or you don't. Given that I've read the series roughly 96.5 times, it was a gimme (although I'll debate whether QUIRRELL actually tried to kill Harry or it was Voldemort acting through the poor professor). No doubt it's an esoteric piece of information, but Harry Potter has gained enough of a place in popular culture that I think it's fine. And even if you disagree with me (and get yourself horcruxed), it's simply one answer within the grid — I appreciate Erik's restraint. I personally would love to see SLUGHORN, CRUCIATUS CURSE, ACCIO, and PATRONUS CHARM in a grid, but I realize most solvers wouldn't care for that. Fie on you, muggles.

Finally, I appreciate Erik's careful choice of his long entries. I was a bit worried when I saw only 12 slots for 8+ letter entries, but check them out (hit the "Analyze" button below to see all the answers listed by length). Every one except UNWIELDY is good to strong, and even UNWIELDY isn't too unwieldy. And Erik adds to his pluses by inserting the language-tasty (but taste-disgusting) CLAMATO into one of the few 7-letter slots. Helps to offset some of the OARERS kind of stuff. Well done.

*I took down the pic of Dick Cheney. I thought it was hilarious, given that he and Erik are diametrically opposed, but my sense of humor is not for everyone.

Wed 8/28/2013
BABEEMITSITCH
ICESNASALSOLO
THESULTANOFSWAT
SERENITYWOUNDS
SISPARE
HATSTATUTEHST
OAHUETONGRATE
PRESIDENTHOOVER
EGRETAGEEDRIP
SHEARMADASENS
ALESRUB
HORRIDMAKEUPTO
IHADABETTERYEAR
TITOARGONERIC
SOARTEEMSRUTH

I met Erik at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament two years ago and immediately liked him. What a fun guy! I only wish he hadn't shaved his awesome afro recently. He's being mysterious about his picture, so I'll find a good Dick Cheney pic to use if he doesn't send in one soon, similar to the one of my wife.

I love what Erik has done with this theme. Quote puzzles have largely gone by the wayside due to the fact that the theme entries are essentially unchecked until the solve is almost done. This often gives solvers fits, so the payoff has to be high — a hilarious punchline, a bot mot, a witty turn of phrase — if it's to work. So Erik has broken up the themers and knitted them together at the very end, putting the pieces together nicely.

Erik's cluing is distinctive too. Leave it to a hip 20-something to come up with the clue for 3-down; I love it. I enjoy it when a puzzle's clues exhibits the constructor's vibe. Sam Donaldson, friend, tax professor, and cake-maker, is excellent at this too, as demonstrated in this puzzle.

I have a minor issue with the SE, the inclusion of TAIT. I'm a fan of topology and Martin Gardner's puzzle-related work, but that's a pretty esoteric name even for me. Having two parallel constraints in that corner (end of BETTER YEAR and RUTH) makes construction hard enough, but adding a third parallel constraint, an 8-letter across, forces a very difficult construction. The result is a blip in Erik's otherwise excellent work.

Speaking of work, if only Erik had clued SERENITY related to "SERENITY now, insanity later", a phrase I frequently use while writing at my local coffee shop.

Tue 11/6/2012
SECRETMSPACMAN
ELAINERHUBARBS
GODBLESSAMERICA
APEDEMALS
ETALZITLAPIS
VICTEALIRA
BEHINDTHESCENES
OREDRETHOONS
RIGHTONTHEMONEY
ICEEMERSEX
SALASTAJROTC
DALGAGROI
PRESBYTERIANISM
UNTURNEDBAHAMA
BADPENNYBALLOT

1 Variety puzzle by Erik Agard

Sun 11/18/2018
COVERALLLATTES
ACADEMIAAMOUNT
STRIDINGPIERRE
SANTOGOFERMOT
AVISSEOULROUT
TISBURNTQUITE
TAHITISOCALLED
SENDNOTE
PASSAGESTARMAC
ODIUMCODEROUT
DOTEMALESBUDS
CPUPILAFIONIC
ATARISCARLOTTA
SETUPSEMISSION
TEENSYDEBATERS