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Evan Birnholz author page

8 puzzles by Evan Birnholz
with Jeff Chen comments

Evan Birnholz
Fri 10/23/2015

JUICY puzzle from one of the young guns. We see his Devil Cross vibe in some great entries like COW TIPPING, STEP BACK, FANTASY FOOTBALL, and finally … the NYT xw debut of F-BOMB! I'm glad to see Will finally give it the nod.

Talk about SWEET SPOTS!

At 72-words, this puzzle is at the very limit of what's allowable for a themeless. I'm often wary of 72-worders, because all the black squares make it difficult to incorporate as much long material as I like to see. Roughly 12 long slots (8+ letters) is my bare minimum when I construct a themeless, and I much prefer something along the lines of 16-18. It's tough to convert every single long slot into something great, so I like a little wiggle room if I need an entry that's more neutral than colorful.

Evan only has 12 slots for long material today, so I bit my fingernails as I solved — not converting even one or two long slots into something good is a huge loss, percentage-wise. I should know better, as Evan has serious themeless chops. Okay, TRANSOMS is just neutral to me, and GROUPONS have become passé given all the daily deal sites now, but HAAGEN DAZS. MEET HEAD ON. DOORKNOB with a nice clue. Talk about SWEET SPOTS! Toss in SUZY Q crossing BARQS and that's pretty good.

With a good but not outstanding number of assets though, I want to see extremely few liabilities in the puzzle. A LAW is unsavable as a partial. SMEE is borderline (except to Peter Pan fans!), and LA RAMS … this one seems so outdated to me, but the clue about Merlin Olsen does a reasonable job of attempting to rescue.

I actually like PELS a lot, as it's modern and gettable with the crosses (the NBA's Pelicans). PRYCE crossing NICO would usually be a no-no, but the clue for PRYCE [… whose name sounds like it's worth something] helps a ton. Thumbs up for solver-oriented cluing today, which helps to rescue some of the liabilities.

Sat 8/29/2015

Cool layout, one that disperses feature entries throughout. As much as I like the usual triple-stacks-in-each-of-the-four-corners, it tends to concentrate all the goodness into small sections. Today, it was such a treat to get OXFORD COMMA, LAY IT ON ME, TV SPECIAL, WALLENDA, etc. popping up everywhere throughout the grid. It also made it feel like there were even more great entries than there really were. Strong effect.


I like how careful Evan is about avoiding the usual gluey suspects. A quick glance at his three- and four-letter entries shows all fine entries.

Most any themeless grid has some compromises, of course. Here, just two mid-length entries made me go "hmm." ADONAI was a toughie. But God has so many names in so many cultures/religions that it felt reasonable. Ideal? Perhaps not. But fair.

And granted, I'm a mechanical, not a civil engineer, but Y LEVEL was baffling. Googling jogged my memory and I recognized it as a (somewhat outdated) tool, but I still will have a hard time with it in the future. Thank goodness Evan crossed that Y with something easily gettable!

On that note, I struggled mightily in the lower right. It's a nice piece of work, what with EXOTICA and the Israeli diet KNESSET (diet here means "legislative body"). Having CAMERON, KNESSET, and COE crossing was not ideal for me, though. I should know how to spell Gordon Brown and David Cameron (British PMs), but David CAMERAN looked equally fine. I can imagine people entering KNESSOT or KNESSIT as well. All in all, I'd prefer not having tough-ish proper names crossing each other.

Finally, what a great entry in SCARE QUOTES! Of course I know what this means, because I'm hip on this sort of stuff! (Not really.) Even after reading up on it, I'm not sure. I think it's similar to "air quotes"? Anyone? Bueller? "Bueller"?

Man, am I unhip.

I wonder if DEPORTED's clue is going to cause controversy. I like clever / playful clues, and more of them would have been welcome in this puzzle — SEX APPEAL has so much potential, for example. But being playful with such a charged topic doesn't seem quite appropriate to me.

Fri 12/12/2014

Jimmy Page playing "Stairway to Heaven" Nice work from one of the young guns today, KEEP(in') IT REAL. It took me a long time to get toeholds into the puzzle, but it all came together after several passes through. I liked the classic vibe of the puzzle, replete with strong entries like PLOT TWISTS and SIDEKICKS that won't fade over time. Even the either-you-know-it-or-you-don't stuff was strong — great to see ELISHA OTIS, the elevator magnate, as a full name in the grid. And shame on you if you don't know LED ZEPPELIN, given that even this pop music Luddite can pluck out "Stairway to Heaven" on the guitar. (It sounds terrible; sincerest of apologies to Jimmy Page. Please don't come over and smash my guitar.)

Nice, wide-open layout. It features just 8 entries of 8+ letters, but all those entries are strong; a 100% conversion rate. Great job of not leaving anything on the table, with the entries already mentioned along with the Scrabbly JACK SPRAT and the festive OKTOBERFEST. A lot of assets anchoring the puzzle.

The top and bottom of the puzzle feature 7s, often more difficult to squeeze goodness out of. There are some strong ones to be sure — AMPED UP, BASEMEN, HIJINKS, RARE GAS, THE WIRE — overall though, I wanted more to be upped from simply neutral (BELIEFS, COLGATE, SALTINE, etc.) to a colorful asset.

I wonder what would have happened if the black squares at the top and bottom of column 8 of the grid were offset, creating blocks of entries 6 and 8 letters long. Hard to say if the 68-word layout would have accommodated more strong 8-letter entries or not. The 68-word grid can often be tricky — it often allows for a more wide-open flow than a 70-word grid, but it can also make packing in a high quantity of assets more challenging.

Just a couple of gluey bits, the minor ERN, ETE, and AEROS. I imagine some people would argue that the last is just fine as the Houston hockey team. I'd agree if it was an NHL team, but the AEROS are part of the AHL. Check that — were part of the AHL, folding in 2013. Ah, well.

Overall, I enjoyed the workout, coming up with virtually nothing (only ACME with its awesome Wile E. Coyote-ish clue) during my first pass. I love it when something that seems impossible at first unfolds bit by bit, allowing you to piece it slowly together. Very satisfying.

Sat 10/18/2014

A really nice construction job today. I appreciate how well Evan planned out his grid, the entire thing flowing so beautifully. There are so many strong entries and so few weak ones. I'd personally put the count at 14(ish) ASSETS and 4(ish) LIABILITIES, making for a puzzle easily hitting my criteria for a strong themeless.

The puzzle has a younger vibe to it, more current than an average NYT themeless. I like that Evan features KICKSTARTER and AUTOCORRECT, two high-visibility topics among the Facebook and Twitter crowds. I really like both of entries. It's true that KICKSTARTER may eventually lose out to Indiegogo or Fundly other crowdfunding sites, but it seems to be well established enough that I'd guess it falls closer to Facebook than to Friendster. Thumbs up. I imagine that if this puzzle was up on Evan's site, AUTOCORRECT would have gotten a much more hilariously risque clue, perhaps even more so than the hilarious one he mentioned.

The puzzle also has an edgy vibe, one that lives up to Evan's Devil Cross name. I didn't totally connect with the ambiance it generated. It's completely personal preference, but I like my crosswords to be uplifting, to leave me optimistic after I fill in that last square. Liz Gorski's weekly crossword for example, tend to leave me with a buoyant, pleasant feeling. Uncovering CROTCH (not literally, thankfully) made me pause, and while PSYCHOPATH is a colorful, snazzy answer, I find it a little unsettling, especially when there are other elements like DIRTY HARRY, AMIN disguised as a partial, strongman Mobutu SESE Seko, and RAS clued as the Batman villain.

But that's what's great about a daily crossword featuring a huge variety of constructors. If one day doesn't hit your sweet spot, come back tomorrow for something different. And overall, this is a beautiful piece of work, with fantastic grid flow, chock full of colorful answers and strong clues. A product of a constructor who's clearly honed his craft, paying close attention to every last detail.

POW Sat 4/26/2014

★ An absolute beauty from Evan, exactly on my personal wavelength, giving me everything I want out of a Saturday puzzle. This gives me the perfect opportunity to lay out what I personally look for in a Saturday puzzle.

1.) Sparkling entries. CALVIN AND HOBBES, RETROVIRUS, WIFESWAP, SKYBOX SEATS, PROTEST VOTE, BELT SANDER, MELON BALLS, RACE CARD, HOW DARE YOU! Need I say more? No, but I will. It's awfully difficult to get your shorter entries to shine, but OK BUT is fantastic. It's like when Brendan Emmitt Quigley debuted WHAT THE. Genius stuff.

2.) Brilliant clues. Misdirectional clues are my personal favorite, especially ones which don't have the giveaway question mark. [Fashion clothes] led me to think about YSL, IZOD, etc., but it's the simple SEW. [Mann's "Man!"] plays on the "man's man" phrase with amusing results. And I absolutely loved [Elasticity studier's subj.], as it made me feel smart to know a piece of esoteric trivia. Finally, thinking about Dana Carvey doing his impressions of PEROT on SNL made me laugh out loud. This puzzle manages to hit all the sweet spots in cluing.

3.) Quality short fill. Often the hardest criteria to manage, it's near impossible to get away without a handful of ugly entries. Layout often dictates where the tough places will be (I personally spend about as much time working with a puzzle skeleton as I do with filling), and Evan does a great job with spacing. Note how there aren't any big sections of white space that stick out? Sometimes it's pretty easy to predict where the problem spots will be, but not today. Evan's deployed his black squares masterfully, spreading out the difficult spots. Sure, he's got a WTS here, a A WAR there, but those little bits are so dispersed, I hardly noticed them.

Extremely well done. Not just a pleasure to solve, but a pleasure to review.

Wed 3/5/2014

Fantastic revealer today, one that made me Wish I Thought of That (WITT). I HAVE NO CLUE is such a nice in-the-language phrase which 1.) describes a quiet shrug and 2.) gives a perfect reason for leaving the themers unclued. I think this puzzle could have been done simply as all the themers unclued, i.e. "phrases which are equivalent to someone being left speechless," but the revealer is spot on and adds a great level of cleverness.

Evan's part of a new generation of constructors, bringing us into the digital age with freshies like GCHAT. It's rare that constructors can turn a five-letter entry into something cool, but this totally qualifies in my book. I don't personally use The Gchat (like The Google) because I find it hard to concentrate on anything when IMs are popping up. There's also the little reason that it scares me. I don't like my computer talking to me, thank you very much.

I had a little hitch during my solve in that I and ME were repeated in a 2/2/1 pattern, making it feel a bit uneven. Nitpicky, but I was left wondering if there weren't other appropriate phrases that didn't use either, or if it would have been better to leave out one of the I phrases (so it was a 1/2/1 pattern), or if all of the themers used I instead of ME.

HELL IF I KNOW sure is great though, reminding me of the old nugget, "What do you get when you cross a pachyderm and a rhinoceros?"*

Plenty of juicy fill, the JET SET, POKEMON (I may or may not have a stuffed Psyduck), STONE AGE, GET EVEN, even HEY YOU stuff really nice, adding a lot to my solve. It's offset by a modicum of partials and OTO/OTOS and ERI TU and MUS, but overall, the fill enhanced my solving experience. Good trade-off.


Don't worry, I'm not quitting my day job.

Sat 2/22/2014

One great thing about Evan is the raw enthusiasm he brings to the crossword game. Everyone is excited about their debut, but the energy he brought to his NYT debut was above and beyond, totally infectious.

And now he debuts a NYT themeless! A traditional 72-word puzzle with four triple-stacks of 10's (one in each corner), this one features some beautiful entries. My favorite was actually one of the shorter ones, SHOW DOG, especially given its neat clue, "Well-trained boxer, maybe." I think I've been doing crosswords too long, because my first instinct was to fill the last two letters in with ER, thinking it would be PUNCHER or POUNDER or something. Great surprise to find out I had been bamboozled.

The themeless game is so much harder these days, given how many people are submitting to Will (I understand he gets proportionally many more themelesses than other types). In just a few years, the expectations have risen quite a bit, as everyone has upped their games. Having a small handful of ERNS, RESOW, DE ORO, I SHOT, etc. used to be the norm a few years ago, even desirable given the lesser state of the art back then.

But these days, it seems to me like there are more and more sparkly themeless puzzles with virtually no crosswordese. I do really like the raw amount of nice stuff Evan has in the puzzle, but for a 72-worder, I would hope for slightly less of the usual crosswordy suspects. I really appreciate his sentiments in his Constructor's Note — it's great to observe when a constructor humbly acknowledges he's working on his game. Looking forward to see how his career blossoms; I think we'll see greatness.

Finally, as with most Saturdays, the tricky wordplay clues make me smile. My favorite is "High spirits?", repurposing a common phrase to perfectly describe ARCHANGELS. A really good workout today; congrats on a very nice themeless debut, Evan!

Thu 10/3/2013

Fun debut from Evan! The eight special squares must be interpreted TO BE in the across direction and BB in the down; a whimsical interpretation of TO BE OR NOT TO BE. Cleverly done. At first I wondered if I was missing something, because I kept thinking it should be "TO BE" in the across direction and (blank) in the down. But then I decided I was overthinking things and kicked back with a COHIBA to shut up my stupid brain.

Well-constructed grid, especially so given that it's Evan debut. He's chosen really nice theme entries for the most part, with BORN TO BE WILD, SUCKS TO BE YOU, TO BE HONEST, and BRIDE TO BE standing out. The down answers containing BB aren't flashy per se, but almost all of them do a nice job. Esoteric foreign words like ABBE are usually something a constructor strives to avoid in a grid, but in something this ambitious, some trade-offs are usually required.

And the rest of the fill is pretty darn good; lots of sparkly stuff. Evan tosses in my man Geordi LAFORGE, who gets his second appearance in the NYT, making up some ground to the ubiquitous crossword ST:TNG personnel, Deanna TROI (31 appearances) and Lieutenant WORF (six). Hopefully his CHESS SET is a Star Trek Tridimensional one.

Like with most (non-Patrick Berry) puzzle, there are flaws. Aside from the typical ORI, HOSP, FAO, etc., I don't think Darrell ISSA is terribly grid-worthy, and the same goes for XENIA, OH, which mysteriously shows up with relatively high frequency (16 appearances in the NYT Shortz era, despite being a town of about 25,000 people). In general, I really appreciate what Will has done for the NYT xw in terms of fill (browse the pre-Shortzian puzzles to get a sense for what fill used to be like), and I applaud continuing motion toward better quality fill. Here's hoping we don't see ISSA again, until he does something worthy of fame.

More importantly, here's hoping we see more work from Evan in the future! One of the best debuts I've seen in a while.