Jeff Chen is a writer and professional crossword constructor living in Seattle. He currently operates the XWord Info website, where he writes commentary on every daily NYT crossword.
I had a couple of interesting options with the oxygen atoms spaced out, MINUS to OMINOUS, SANDS to SO AND SO, NEVER to ONE OVER. The chemistry nerd in me now looks back at those options, shaking his condescending head, wondering how anyone could possibly break up the oxygen diatoms.
But the engineering geek in me points out that wouldn't it be more accurate to display the single oxygen atoms bubbling up randomly through the themers, reflecting the oxygenation process during steelmaking?
NO, you fool engineer! Think about oxygenation in the therapeutic sense. Do we deliver singular oxygen atoms to patients in need?
My kids will undoubtedly be in therapy twenty years from now.
DAN: The extended quote for 21/23-Across:
"... It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
--Abraham Lincoln (Gettysburg Address)
Here's hoping this puzzle finds you well as we get ready to celebrate the 100th birthday of the LINCOLN MEMORIAL (5/30/22). I'm humbled and thrilled to be a part of today's publication. The story of how Lincoln rose to power and ultimately became both the "SAVIOR OF THE UNION" and the "GREAT EMANCIPATOR" is awe-inspiring. In considering his life, I think the thing I admire most about HONEST ABE is his firm resolve to love his enemies and work alongside his political opponents. If only the snippet "WITH MALICE TOWARD NONE WITH CHARITY FOR ALL" was symmetric...
To read more about Lincoln, check out Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals." It is a must-read.
Big thanks to Jeff for slogging through this one with me. The tradeoffs were tough, but the 150+ email exchanges were worth it.
JOHN: To prepare for this puzzle coming out, I created a Spotify playlist featuring the best of STING, DRAKE, ADELE, and LORDE. It's called 'Stindradelorde' (catchy right?) and to be honest, it's not half bad. When things are getting a bit mournful (I'm looking at you, Lorde), you can rely on Drake or Sting to pop up and lighten the mood slightly before you're blown away by Adele's extraordinary vocals. It's certainly never boring, and I hope the crossword wasn't either.
Best regards from an Englishman in [The] New York [Times]. Have a great week.
DAN: Coming across TAKEOUTTHETRASH in a wordlist got me looking at some pretty "dirty" words… "SPARE FUSE" , "NEWS JUNKIE", "FLITTERED" ... Having never published before I reached out to Jeff to get his take and in general to learn more about the construction process. When our candidates for a fourth themer (CHAFFINCH/SKISLOPES) failed to please, we relaxed the constraints slightly and allowed the "dirty words" to break apart, eventually narrowing on the theme set you see here. Jeff's a fantastic coach and we've now co-authored a few puzzles together.
Fill: I actually wrote the basic outline of this puzzle on my laptop while waiting near several OVERLOOKS on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. My wife at the time was fulfilling her "mammoth" goal of going rim-to-rim-to-rim (47+ miles in 18 hours!). She's amazing. Happy birthday Morgan!
About me: My wife and I have three kids and have settled in Minnesota where I work as a R&D robotics engineer for 3M. In general, I enjoy all things math/software-related and find crossword construction to be a thrilling application domain in which to toy with ideas and algorithms. Outside of crosswords I enjoy dabbling on the piano, playing basketball at my church weekly, and chasing my kids around the house as "the monster."
— Proceeds from this puzzle will be donated to Ukrainian refugees —
Lisa: I pictured a grid with a big E and Z, similar to That's a Big IF, filled with EZ Pass, Eazy-E, Yeezy, and lots of Z's like Snoozefest, with New Orleans as the revealer. Jeff suggested we bring our theme city to life, and he designed the grid. As many have noted, Jeff is great to work with. If you haven't done his December 2021 NYT Mega Puzzle, it's amazing.
I clued NORA as Nora McInerny, host of Terrible, Thanks for Asking, my favorite podcast (2 million downloads a month, not all by me).
My photo shows the giant ‘90s crossword that I brought in from my garage when the pandemic started. I've survived the onslaught of Tsetses and Tsars, and I'm almost done… I hope the pandemic is, too.
LEWIS: Not only is Jeff an overseer of this site and reviewer of every single NYT puzzle, but he also writes novels that get published and has two young kids — enough to keep anyone more than jammed for time. Yet somehow, he fit in exchanging 130 emails with me over the final two months of 2019 — a very rewarding back-and-forth — as we brainstormed, constructed, and polished this puzzle.
We started with a completely different theme based on repeating letter strings like today's puzzle but using a different gimmick. We spent weeks on it, then ran what we had by some people we trust and were met with a resounding "Meh!", bringing us to a back-to-square-one nadir. Then revelation hit: musical repeat signs! It gave us far better theme answers than the original theme, and we were on our way.
Additional theme answers we considered for today's puzzle are C[ARDBO]XES, PR[IMET]V, MATCHE[SWIT]H, and I[STHI]NGON.
CHASE: Anna Kendrick, if you're reading this, I just want you to know that I tried to clue 4-Down for you. Let the record show.
Jeff is great to work with, even if he's a basketball fan. I'll be moving to Seattle for work the day after this comes out, so we'll happen to be neighbors and I'll have plenty of time to make him a Patriots fan, even though they all stink like regurgitated herring and have the moral compass of a naughty puffin.
MARY LOU: It is always exciting to have another puzzle in the NYT. And it is a pleasure to co-construct with Jeff again. My thanks to the NYT puzzle editorial staff. I hope your solving experience was an enjoyable one.
CHRISTINA: This puzzle came very far from my initial idea! I wanted to make a domino themed puzzle for my domino-obsessed son, with pieces that toppled over in the grid. I asked Jeff to work on the idea with me because he is so good at tricky concepts like this. We threw around all sorts of ideas. Sometimes an idea would seem great in writing, but when we'd try implementing it on a grid, it would be total chaos. We tried other moving parts ideas, like magnets and puzzle pieces, and eventually settled on this.
Initially we had the puzzle in the middle with puzzle related phrases around it, but once we settled on the idea of silly phrases describing putting a puzzle together, it made more sense to put them from top to bottom. I like the idea of someone yelling, "Come on man, get it together!" at someone solving a jigsaw puzzle.
One entry that didn't end up working due to mirror symmetry was "SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED" which is a shame!
Our original grid didn't have the puzzle piece outlines shown in the bottom, but it's probably a good addition from the editors. We thought it was funny to imagine people getting out tiny scissors and trying to put the puzzle pieces together.
JEFF: Christina is being kind to me — some of my early concepts were worse than "total chaos." Think John Nash in "A Beautiful Mind." The pieces ... didn't all fit.
CELESTE: I'm indebted to Jeff for making my dream come true. He took the kernel of an idea that I sent him, expanded and tweaked it to create the "Take Two" theme and clues. I enjoyed every moment that he took to teach me along the way.
AMY: Looking back at 2020, the crossword is one of the few highlights. Seeing Hamilton in a theatre in February and volunteering at the US Olympic Marathon Trials (& doing the Atlanta Marathon the next day) are about it. I learned a ton and truly appreciate puzzles even more, now that I've been part of the creation process.
"Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made." As a lawyer and amateur cook, I can attest that puzzles are NOT like laws and sausages.
OWEN: It's crazy to me that last Friday marks one year since I cold emailed Jeff to see if he would be interested in co-constructing. As a long-time solver, I had tried my hand at making puzzles only a couple of times before, mostly for fun. Collaborating with an experienced constructor was a great way to learn, and I'm so grateful to Jeff for helping me think through my many theme ideas. He and I worked on a couple of puzzles together, eventually getting this one accepted last summer. As a first-year engineering student in the middle of finals week, I'm thrilled and honored to be making my debut today.
This theme came to me while I was living in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and it went through several iterations before becoming the set you see today. We initially considered DO THE LIMBO as a revealer, but going with LIMBO allowed us to open up the grid a bit more. It was fun to go down to 72 words and include so many long bonuses like 9D, 24D, and 31D. I'm happy to see that some of my clues made the final cut, especially the ones for 22D and 39A. I'm also very grateful to the editorial staff for their many edits and improvements.
Thanks so much to Jeff for his insight and expertise, and to everyone who encouraged me with this endeavor. Hope you enjoy!
JOHN: Jeff has spoken plainly of his boredom with homophones, but several months ago, when he offered to use his coding chops for collaboration, I reached out with an idea I had been working on unsuccessfully for a couple of years. I was trying to do a word ladder with homophones, with a set of two-word phrases linked, and with the last word linking back to the beginning. I got close a couple times, but never could make it work. BOW KNOT, NOT GREAT, GRATE ... nope. PLANE FARE, FAIR BALL, BAWL OUT ... nope. WOOD FINISH, FINNISH ... uh, nope. I have pages of these.
We spent a few days honing and improving a ready-made list of homophones, and then Jeff wrote a program to produce all the two-word phrases consisting of these homophones, and after some more shuffling and honing, we got ... nothing we could use.
It looks like my idea is doomed unless someone else out there would like to pick it up and run with it.
But, while scanning the various lists, we did happen to notice a rare phenomenon, when a two-word phrase could be flip-flopped and homophon-ized to produce another valid two-word phrase. As I recall, we spotted only these three pairs, and we got lucky with symmetry. Though it was not what we set out to accomplish, we felt like it was still a nifty set and submitted it.
FRANCESCA: I'm so happy to finally have a puzzle published in the NYT.
I've been solving and constructing puzzles since I was a teenager, and when I retired, I decided to focus on getting them published. I was intimidated when I first reached out for help in this endeavor, but I was pleasantly surprised by the generosity and affability of the puzzle community, and the gracious (and helpful) rejections from the editors and staff of the publications. I'm not sure why I thought they'd be snooty — maybe because they are celebrities in my eyes.
Apart from Jeff, I've also been mentored by Vic Fleming and David Steinberg. They both patiently walked me through the dos and don'ts of crossword construction a few years ago. As a result, I published puzzles in the Orange County Register, the LA Times, and Mega crosswords, among others.
I came up with the basis for this theme well over a year ago and went in search of a collaborator. I was directed to Jeff Chen. He tightened up the theme and guided me patiently via 100's (I swear) of emails to this final crossword.
Thank you, Jeff, and thank you to the crossword community.
DEREK: This puzzle idea was a hybrid of Jeff and myself. He reached out to me about co-constructing, and I bounced this idea off of combining black and white in the same square. The revealer in the middle was Jeff's idea, and it works great, as well as fitting OTHELLO in the grid to boot. I have a fair idea of what makes a good puzzle after blogging on crosswordfiend.com for a few years, but Jeff's input was invaluable, as well as his immense talent in filling the grid. It was a back-and-forth project, but the fill was mostly Jeff's genius.
I was born in Chicago, grew up in Cassopolis, MI, and now live in Mishawaka, IN. My earliest great crossword puzzle memory was solving an Ornery crossword in Games Magazine in the early 80s with my cousin Ardis from Chicago. I have a compilation book of Ornery's, and I can pinpoint that exact puzzle to this day! It was a glorious holiday weekend of open dictionaries and encyclopedia searching (this was before the internet!), and the feeling of satisfaction way back then when I was only 11 or 12 got me hooked on puzzles for life. I have been piling up Dell puzzle magazines and printing out crosswords from the internet ever since.
LEE: My grandfather, Robert F. Griggs, discovered the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and was the first person to get to the site of the June 6, 1912, "Katmai eruption" (actually the eruption of Novarupta). I tried constructing a puzzle with the intent of having it ready for June 6, 2012. From that exercise, I learned much greater respect for the crossword constructors.
About a year ago, I saw one of Jeff Chen's puzzles with right-left symmetry like I had been trying to use. I sent Jeff my half-puzzle and asked if he had any interest. He said, the reason for a Katmai/Novarupta themed puzzle passed with missing its 100th anniversary, but he and I worked on this more general one.
I have made a number of trips Katmai National Monument and Park (now that it is a National Park and Preserve, not just a Monument). I also attended most of the Alaska Volcano Observatory meetings during the years I was on staff at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and took a UAF class, "The International Volcanological Field Trip," that was given in Katmai.
I had been looking for a compelling reason to pre-print something into a crossword grid. Solvers opening up their papers, irate that someone had written on their grid already? I like tweaking the straight and narrow.
Straight and narrow ... hey, wait a minute!
I also enjoy puzzles that play with letter shapes. I wondered if there were long entries formed only out of letters that have a leftmost straight line (B, D, E, F, etc.)? Turns out there were — and not many long ones, making for a tight(ish) theme set.
Now, if I could just figure out a way to convince Will Shortz to take a chance on something like this. It's not rocket science, but any sort of special visuals in the print and/or online version can be a lot of work to get to display correctly on all computers, iPads, phones, etc.
Thankfully, Will liked the concept. "Let me get this straight …" he said.
LEWIS: I love working with Jeff because he's a good listener, leaves no stone unturned in his quest for a polished grid, and is crackerjack smart. And while we agree on the most important puzzle-making priorities, we often come at things from different angles, which makes for a lively and productive back-and-forth.
Take our brainstorming. The following took place over several weeks. We were discussing a theme involving AND/OR, and one of us said, "How about giving this theme a game show angle?", which led to a quiz-show-sounding "Name two terms related to…", from which the word "name" triggered the phrase "name drop," which suggested taking horizontal words that have names embedded and having the names drop down from them in the grid, which led to "Nah, turning-type puzzles are too common," which sparked, "Not if we can come up with a new variation," which brought us to today's theme.
Neither of us could recall seeing a puzzle where the solver had to go one way, then the other, through a string of letters. When we found phrases that allowed this to happen, we thought they were cool and thought many solvers would think so as well.
Hopefully, the journey from AND/OR to "What goes up, must come down" was fruitful, and you enjoyed this!
JEFF: Lewis comes up with interesting concepts. He's a fun guy to bat ideas around with, and he's incredibly receptive to tangential exploration. We've worked on a few projects together now, and we've never ended exactly where we started — sometimes doing something completely different.
It's such a pleasure to work with him. Mainly just ups!
Tracy: Many thanks to Jeff for collaborating with me on my very first themeless puzzle and for helping me reach my goal of hitting for the cycle!
My vision was to have a grid with 12 multi-word phrases of 9 to 10- letter lengths, swaths of white space, and an uncluttered pattern of black squares. CRAZY BUSY came out of my mouth in a telephone conversation just prior to filling, so I used this fun 9-letter entry as my starting point.
Having no experience with filling a themeless, I took off like gangbusters in the NW and SW with no real constraints to stop me. "So far, so good," I thought, as I enthusiastically ventured into the other sections. "Don't underestimate the center," Jeff cautioned by email, as I started to encounter constraints. He suggested we start filling the larger NE section first, then the smaller SE section, and finish by merging the different sections through the center with 15- and 33-Down as our crossword linchpins. We collaborated back and forth in earnest, section after section, email after email, looking for the best phrases and fill and avoiding the gluey bits.
Jeff wrote the majority of the clues, especially the ones with wordplay, whereas I pretty much stuck to the words that had straight-out-of-Wikipedia cluing. Will and the editing team did a fabulous job, but I was happy to see that one of my favorite clues that Jeff wrote made the cut: NAPA [Where many stop and smell the rosés].
JACK: Before I say anything, I want to take this chance to wish my sister Margaret a happy sixteenth birthday!!!
With that out of the way, I am very happy to have my first Sunday puzzle published in the NYT! (Of course, this is far from Jeff's first.) Being that this was my first stab at a 21x grid it was tricky getting the fill for this one. With the long themer spanning the middle, we had to make a few compromises especially in the upper half of the grid, but I am still happy with how it turned out. We got some nice stuff in there and I'm particularly proud of debuting the 3 letter entry (!) IRL.
The theme started off broad, but Jeff and I were able to narrow it down to some fun golf themers. At that point we discovered that a similarly themed Sunday puzzle ran in the times in 2012. It was Jeff's idea then to focus on mistakes a golfer — the poor duffer in the clues — might make. This addition made the theme a lot tighter and made me smile at the thought of each theme entry a little bit more.
Finally, a big shout out to my dad, an avid golfer, who I had in the back of my mine as this puzzle got made. I know this doesn't make up for the Masters getting postposed, but maybe this is the next best thing! Hope everyone is happy, healthy, enjoys the puzzle!
JEFF: After a few months playing a little golf, my brother and I decided to get clubs. At the sporting goods store, a no-nonsense salesperson offered to help, asking me to take a couple of practice swings. After what I thought were decent cuts, she pointed me to the cheapest starter clubs available. "The way you swing, you might as well use two by fours," she said.
Twenty years later, her sage words helped shape this puzzle. And somehow, my golf swing has gotten even worse.
JOHN-CLARK: I'm delighted to be making my Times debut today alongside the fantastic Jeff Chen, with whom I've collaborated on several puzzles in other publications.
The idea for this one came out of brainstorming Jeff and I were doing around interesting letter movements—once we settled on HEAD TO TOE, the main challenge was finding pairs that were 1) long enough to be interesting, 2) widely familiar, 3) natural, and 4) pleasantly surprising. Jeff wrote some code to do an exhaustive search, but our choices were limited because most candidates didn't meet all those criteria. The first condition ruled out HEART/EARTH as too short. The second scotched GERVIN/ERVING, since many solvers won't know retired basketball stars. GELATIN is fun, but ELATING is an unusual form that feels a bit like crosswordese. And DEVOLVE/EVOLVED are too similar to each other. When we settled on the themers that made it into the puzzle, we liked that no pair shared any meaningful morphological elements (e.g. VOLV), hopefully increasing that sense of "aha!" on noticing each connection.
A few words of introduction to the NYT solvership ... I'm an Ojai, California native, and currently a Ph.D. student at Cambridge in the UK, studying how governments can do a better job anticipating the impacts of artificial intelligence. I also work as an author and journalist at the intersection of technology, politics, and security. Among more lighthearted pursuits, I've been known to perform stage magic and stand-up comedy, and will take even the flimsiest excuse to sing Tom Lehrer's The Elements. I'm quite new to solving (let along constructing) crosswords — although my dad has been a lifelong fan, and as a kid I enjoyed helping out when he'd announce "Ayyubid sultan, S---D-N" around the breakfast table. But credit to dear family friend and avid cruciverbalist Ivan Roth for giving me the inspiration to finally give it a real try. And big thanks to Will, Sam, Joel, and Andy for their improvements to our puzzle, and being a pleasure to work with!
NEIL: I've spitballed some puzzle themes with Jeff before, but this is the only one that has managed to get off the ground. (Har har). Thanks again, Jeff!
At first, I thought this might need to be a 16x15 puzzle. My original themers included "FIREWORKS DISPLAY," "AIR BALLOON FIESTA," and the revealer, "WITH FLYING COLORS." Thankfully Jeff talked me down. We considered other themers (e.g., SOAP BUBBLES, AURORA BOREALIS, and LANTERN FESTIVALS) before ultimately agreeing on the themers here. They all have a different type of imagery about them. And being gay, I was super happy we managed to squeeze in RAINBOW FLAG and GLITTER BOMB — and both as debut entries, no less!
We went through many grids before landing on this one, including "mirror symmetry" grids. We started with some using 37 black squares, but I kept pushing for a more open grid. I think the result ended up pretty ideal, given our constraints. And even though there are technically two "cheater" squares, they're both essentially necessitated by the central pair of revealers.
"IT'S A BIG IF" still sounds a bit funny to my ear (I think "THAT'S A BIG IF" is more spot-on), but Jeff seeded that into our fill, and I didn't have strong objections. We also had a last-minute moment of panic where we noticed the word "FREE" showed up in our grid twice, but thankfully one of our earlier drafts had a corner we could substitute back in!
JEFF: I liked so much about Neil's basic concept. AIR BALLOON FIESTA, though ... it didn't hit my ear right, so off to Google to went. To my surprise, that phrase (in quotes) got a ton of hits.
Maybe my own ignorance was at fault? Or my weird phobia of hot air balloons pecked slowly open by peacocks? In any case, we almost talked ourselves into letting it slide — it is evocative, no doubt — but a few trusted friends gave me quite the side-eye when I proposed it. Off to search for new themers!
JEFF: Once in a while, some oddity of the English language will strike me, and I'll have to stop whatever I'm doing to write it down. Genealogy to geology by "taking a knee" (the "knee" syllable removed)? Pretty sure I stopped somewhere awkward, like in the middle of an intersection.
There had to be more examples like this, right?
Think harder, dammit!
Luckily, Erik had asked if I wanted to do a themeless with him, and I sent him this concept. Maybe his mind would turn up more.
Sure enough, HONEYBEE to HUBBY came to him quickly. Yes!
And JOURNEYMAN to GERMAN? Who could possibly think of that? Genius!
To round things out, he came up with NIA LONG to ALONG and BROWNIE to BROW, too.
The answer to every problem clearly is to get Erik involved.
CHRISTINA: I'm very excited that this will be the first puzzle of the new decade. May this be a year and decade with many more female constructors!
I had the idea for a Y2K puzzle but had no idea how to get started with finding a theme set. Staring at every word in the dictionary that has a Y didn't seem very promising. When I pitched the idea to Jeff, he immediately ran some code and sent back a list of every word/phrase that became another word when the Y changed to a K. Then we pored over the list and picked the words we thought had the most potential to be funny phrases. STORY to STORK had seemingly endless possibilities. BOY to BOK, not so much.
The initial puzzle we submitted came back as a no, with an invitation to resubmit a new theme set over e-mail. The editing team liked the idea, but only one of our theme entries — KELP REVIEW. We pored over the list again and came up with two whole new theme sets, which they also rejected. But, they suggested "FINDING DORK" which we liked, so then we just had to come up with two more. It was definitely worth all the work, and they finally accepted our theme with the set you see here.
My favorite rejected entries:
JEFF: I realized a long time ago that my sense of humor and Will Shortz's don't mesh well. Kooky themers that make me giggle tend to elicit a "the theme didn't excite me" critique. Humor is subjective, no doubt. So it was a huge surprise that Will and I both liked KELP REVIEW, especially when said in a snarky, "It's too GREEN and SLIIIIIMY."
Not such a surprise that BIRDS OF PRE-K [Feathered friends starting school?] and LIKELY STORK didn't make the cut.
Admit it, Will, the unprotected sex joke made you laugh a little.
And expect to hear from LeBron James and/or Anthony Davis, whose high-flying acrobatics make them OZONE LAKERs.
CHRISTINA: I feel I can't take much credit for this one. It was the fourth collaboration I did with Jeff, and the first Sunday grid we've done. The theme idea was Jeff's, during a really long brainstorming session over email (easily over a hundred emails). Because of all the constraints and the mirror symmetry, the grid skeleton was a real challenge to make with fewer than 143 words (3 more than the typical max). I took many stabs at it, but Jeff came up with this one.
This was one of my first times filling a Sunday grid, and it was a beast! I couldn't believe how hard it is to fill a grid like this without any duplicates. Just when we thought we had a version we liked, we'd catch another one. Verbs like "run "and "eat" pop up in so many phrases, and with different tenses, they can be hard to catch.
Jeff and I have different methods of filling a grid, and I learned a lot from his style. He is highly methodical, and holds off on decision making until looking at every possible way to fill each section. I feel very lucky to have gotten the chance to work with him.
JEFF: Christina is being modest. An idea that comes out of a deep brainstorming session belongs to both people, 50/50. I often tell budding constructors that volume is an important factor in coming up with a good crossword theme, maybe one out of 20 concepts being a decent starting point.
Note that I said "starting point," not "idea." I find that the best constructors are the ones willing to work through difficulties and put in the time to let that seed of an idea grow into something crossworthy, and Christina is a perfect example.
MATTHEW: I'm afraid to look at how many iterations we went through on this puzzle. I think the germ of the idea (ha) was mine, but the cool pots element — which took it from 'Hmm, maybe there's something there' to 'We have to find a way!' — was Jeff's.
We came up with a decent version and sent it in... and got a rejection from Will & Co. that said (as I recall) that they liked the idea, but pretty much nothing about our execution, including the revealer and most of the theme entries. Argh! Good thing neither Jeff nor I lack persistence.
It's a pleasure to see this one make the light of day at last, and I hope solvers enjoy the fruits (er... leaves?) of our efforts.
JEFF: Hopefully this puzzle grows on you ...
(Maybe that should have been "groans on you")
I'm a sophomore at Rutgers studying computer science. I have been interested in puzzles for a long time, but an email from my parents years back about a New York Times puzzle subscription introduced me to crosswords. I quickly became interested in constructing them but eventually realized that I needed someone more experienced to motivate me and guide me along. Thanks to Jeff, who expanded on my basic theme idea and demonstrated to me his process for filling a grid.
As for this puzzle, while it may be trick-y, I hope it's a treat.
TRICK OR TREAT made last year's Halloween even more of a treat when it occurred to me that an ending Y could form two distinct, unrelated words.
Given that I sat down on the sidewalk for two hours while I tried to think of other examples, it took a tricky treaty with my kids to get them home at a reasonable hour that night.
Pro tip: if you're working on a crossword at your local coffee shop, mumbling like a madman AIRWAY OFF DAY ILL SAY ILL PAY ILL STAY AU LAIT, BAH THERE HAS TO BE SOMETHING LONGER! will draw stares.
A shame that my wife, Jill ANY DAY, didn't write this one.
JASON: My original idea for this puzzle was to list all twelve moonwalkers and some additional items to preserve symmetry. I figured with all those entries, the puzzle would be hard to fill, so I asked Jeff for his help. He came up with some ideas to jazz up the theme and did much of the filling of the grid. We both wrote clues.
MICHAEL: Funny to be submitting a comment to Jeff Chen about this, but I had an idea for a puzzle and needed help with the grid, and everyone told me I should ask ... Jeff Chen! That was good advice. Jeff was able to design a fillable grid and we did it all through email in a few days.
Our only disagreement was over whether the words under the hidden HAND should have a surface sense of their own. I thought they should, although that greatly limited the number of choices. Jeff thought it was fine to have nonsense words in those entries, I conceded the point, and Will liked the puzzle. Okay, Jeff — you were right!
JEFF: It can be tough for any two constructors to see eye to eye on any given project. When Michael approached me with this concept, my immediate thought was that it would be interesting to see IWORK or YMEN in one's puzzle; mystifying, flipping into hopefully a solid a-ha moment.
Turns out Michael had a very different idea, wanting only regular-seeming words that simply didn't seem to work with their clues (think: LED clued as HANDLED). He felt strongly that this would produce a better a-ha moment, whereas I worried that solvers would gloss over them, potentially finishing without understanding the concept. That would be impossible with something kooky like ICAPS taunting you.
How to resolve the logjam? My secret weapon is Jim, who gives great second opinions. And if I don't like his input, I simply ignore it and tell people he said something different.
Seriously though, I hope we came to the right decision. It's always so difficult to predict what will produce the best a-ha moment possible.
JEFF: Tracy declined to write up any notes, since telling the story of how this idea came to her mind might give away a Sunday idea we're working on. Hopefully, you'll see that one in the Sunday magazine someday!
If we can ever figure out how to make it work.
Jeff and I connected after I sent him a crossword I'd written about our other mutual passion: bridge. When we decided to try co-constructing, I sent him this theme. It's one I'd been kicking around since a friend and I came up with the 23-Across clue/answer pair while solving a different puzzle, but I'd never found a set of theme answers I liked for a 15x15. Jeff was the one who suggested making a Sunday puzzle, which I'd never even attempted to create before, but Jeff was great about helping me out when I got stuck, and I learned a lot.
Thanks so much to Jeff for working with me on this puzzle and pushing me to make the grid the best it could be. Ironically, even though we live in the same Seattle neighborhood, we've yet to meet in person — I was studying abroad in Hungary during the entirety of this puzzle's construction!
My initial concept with "OUT OF ORDER SIGNS" as the central reveal was for common signage text entries consisting of two words, but with the words reversed to make a totally different meaning. I.e. WAY WRONG (Clued: Totally not right) for the out-of-order WRONG WAY sign; or WANTED HELP (Clued: Needed assistance) for the out-of-order HELP WANTED sign. It was really limiting trying to find strong entries that would work both ways.
At some point a asked Jeff if he would look at a couple of puzzles I was playing around with and give me an opinion on whether I was wasting my time or not. He liked the OUT OF ORDER SIGNS concept but right away saw the potential in an anagrammed theme for the out-of-order connection.
Once Jeff "signed on" ;-) , a lot of fun anagramming options sprang up! I was surprised at how many anagrams can be made from words like "speed limit"! We also had a discussion about whether the entries should be the out-of-order signage text or the anagrammed clues. My recollection is that we thought it would be less confusing for solvers if the entries were clean, even though the central revealer seemed to be addressing the entries, and not the clues!
Not being a super savvy anagrammer, I though we should include an optional clue addition that would help solvers place where the out-of-order clue signage would be found. I.e. For SPEED LIMIT we submitted the clue "TEPID SLIME along an interstate". Will opted for the more difficult version without the locator clueing. He also revised our anagrams to be less humorously offbeat. Hmm…
This puzzle has a lot of Jeff Chen's constructing expertise rolled up in it from grid layout to entries. I was happy to be on the Chen team once again!
JEB: I tend to like crossword puzzles that use the diagonal adjacencies in the grid as part of the theme and solving process. This puzzle is no exception. Snakes have always been fascinating to me, but I must admit to being maybe a little overly cautious when hiking in poisonous snake country!
This puzzle seemed like it would be relatively easy to design/construct since the snake shapes could be arranged easily in many different configurations. I put the constraint of total symmetry into the initial mix, which made for a lot of time-consuming frustration! I was finally able to get four poisonous snakes, of reasonable length, to work out in the grid symmetrically using SIDEWINDER, COPPERHEAD, BUSHMASTER, and FER-DE-LANCE along with the central revealer WATCH YOUR STEP!
Although my first submittal to Will received positive attention for overall theme and design configuration, it was turned down because the supporting fill was too weak and the "bushmaster" and "fer-de-lance" entries were not well enough known to solvers. I eventually got a resubmittal version to work replacing those 2 snakes with KING COBRA and PUFF ADDER. (I was pretty much down to the end of poisonous snake possibilities without having the word "snake" appear in the themer!) When this resubmittal was rejected due to (again) relatively poor supporting fill quality, I knew I was going to need help in getting an acceptance. That's when I contacted my cross-town puzzle guru, Jeff Chen.
Jeff accepted the challenge right away and was instrumental in getting this puzzle in the acceptance column! His adjustments to the grid made a huge difference in opening up improved fill possibilities. Jeff also strategically asked Will whether having the snake shapes be symmetrical in the grid was necessary, and Will said "no". He and Joel hadn't even noticed that they were totally symmetrical! This got me off on a different tack which ultimately allowed the puzzle to be configured with all snakes either beginning or ending in the WATCH YOUR STEP! reveal. It also made the snakes look more snaky in their asymmetry, and less like a design pattern. Jeff's input and collaboration helped bail me out once again! ;-)
MARY LOU: This CONtrail puzzle with the visual element in the black boxes of the grid, five rebus squares and 66 squares devoted to theme answers seemed like a good idea initially. However, it became one of the more labor-intensive 15x grids I've constructed.
Looking back through my email correspondence with Jeff, Will, and Sam, I found six chains with numerous back and forths. Trying to fill the grid cleanly with all these constraints was a challenge. So, I really hope you enjoyed the solve!
Thanks to Jeff for accepting the challenge of working on this puzzle and to Will and Sam on their acceptance and patience in finessing it into its final form.
This puzzle was originally submitted in March 2017. I heard back from Joel in June that Will liked the puzzle theme but felt it needed a rebus square in the lower right corner (the original had five rebus squares too, but none were in the lower right corner of the grid) and less crosswordese. I asked Jeff for his assistance as my time to devote to puzzles then was limited. I had managed to come up with more IOU words but not a solution to the requests made. Fortunately, Jeff was willing to co-construct and together we came up with a grid in which the 5 IOU rebus squares were spread out more evenly around the puzzle. The resubmission was quickly accepted in July.
It was, as always, a pleasure to work with Jeff (IOU), and a thrill to get that Yes! from Will and crew. I hope you enjoyed solving the puzzle.
It is such a pleasure working with Jeff. I am so happy that he wanted to help me bring this puzzle to life as it means a lot to me to support this month's important cause — hopefully in an interesting and entertaining way. I thank Jeff. And I dedicate this puzzle to my mom, Margaret Allen Hawkins, who was not only a great woman but also a brave breast cancer survivor.
SCOT: My inlaws were Jewish immigrants, and my wife and I bar mitzvahed three sons, so coming up with Yiddish expressions was not a problem. My only concern was that I include only entries that were sort of mainstream. In my first submission, Will accepted the theme entries but was not satisfied with the fill. That was when I brought on Jeff Chen to partner with me, and his fill, as usual, had plenty of sparkle.
The timeline was, I think, pretty typical for the NYT; I submitted the puzzle on Sep 11, 2017; it was accepted on Dec 11, 2017, and it is published today, Sep 19—about a year from start to finish.
Sometimes you look at a phrase and a fully-formed crossword idea jumps out at you.
This wasn't one of those times.
Roughly eleventy-six iterations later ...
Jill (my wife) changed jobs about two years ago, going from public hospitals to a healthcare start-up. Having lived through start-up life in a previous career, I enjoyed seeing the experience through her eyes, watching her shake her head at the oddness of business-speak. It's sad (but thankfully also funny) that people actually use the terms "action item," "take it offline," "create synergies," and SECRET SAUCE (the secret "ingredient" that sets a business apart.)
I don't know why the last one makes me laugh so much — the image of suits pouring ketchup over balance sheets? — but I couldn't resist building a themeless around it.
SANDE: Today's puzzle came to pass after lengthy back-and-forths between Jeff and me about the appeal (or lack thereof) of themes where you drop the same letter from real phrases to create funny theme words (letter-drops). When we started on the letter "E," we felt a lack of challenge and newness. So rather than drop "E," the 2nd vowel of the alphabet, we chose to exclude the 3rd vowel of the alphabet. That was perfect because we found a revealer that was spelled from only "legal" letters — EYELESS. And to up the ante, we opted to exclude the same vowel not only from the theme words—but from the whole puzzle!
Well, here's what happens when you do that: you search through the enormous heap of words from your word.lst and delete all words that have the verboten letter, so only "legal" words make up your word.lst. Guess what? Much to my shock, the word catalog shrunk more than 50 percent! There were no longer 232,051 words to choose (from Jeff's magnum word.lst). There were only 110,452. (Gulp!!) After the puzzle was complete, we reasoned, "What the hell! Why not exclude the verboten vowel from the clues as well?" Took me aback; what a challenge that turned out to be too.
Can't say enough about Jeff. How lucky for me to have found such a collaborator.
I admit it, I like CHICK(EN TER)IYAKI. I know, my Taiwanese grandmother would smack me if she knew. No one say anything!
I also have a huge man-crush on Jean-Luc Picard, and I grew up on Star Trek and the USS (ENTER)PRISE.
Therefore, this puzzle concept?
I had to make it so.
(Apologies to the good captain.)
SANDE: It's a real thrill to publish my first NYT puzzle. I've been solving these things for over 60 years, first cutting my teeth on the NY Post, then graduating to the Times, in the days when an ANOA would paddle his PROA to a STOA in GOA. The puzzles have changed so much since then. Used to be that if you could find a word hidden away in an old edition of the OED, Britannica or Gray's Anatomy, it was "legal." No brand names, no hip expressions were allowed.
I submitted two puzzles in 1972 when Will Weng was the editor. The daily had a bad word in it, BULTACO (a Spanish motorcycle). I knew the word wasn't legal, but I was hoping that Mr. Weng wouldn't notice it: fat chance!
Decades later, after retiring as a faculty member at Florida State, I brought an idea for a Sunday puzzle to Nancy Salomon, through cruciverb.com. She passed me along to Jeff, and we're now collaborating on our third puzzle. My advice to solvers considering trying their lot at construction: if you love waiting for Fridays and Saturdays, you'll find that constructing your own is like having the hardest Saturday you've ever faced, open and challenging you — all day long. There's nothing like it. But I do recommend working with an experienced constructor: you have a lot more to learn than you think.
This puzzle was a pleasure to work on because the Scrabble theme opened up so many possibilities. The theme is multi-layered. First, there are four racks of mixed-up "tiles," which when solved announce the flow of the game: PLAYERS ARRANGE JUMBLED LETTERS. Second, there's bag of mixed "tiles" (anagrams) in the center section. Finally, the two reveal clues tell you that it's a SCRABBLE game and that there's a MIXED BAG in the middle. So much going on!
Doug Peterson beat me to debuting NUCLEAR FOOTBALL a few years ago, so I took it off my list of potential seed entries. He's so great with his snazzy seeds; it's no surprise that he gets fantastic entries like T-SHIRT CANNON into crosswords way before me.
About a year ago, Mary Lou Guizzo asked for help with a Valentine's Day heart-shaped puzzle. (Stay with me, I promise that this all comes together.) I liked her idea, but I didn't like that she had used asymmetry to help with the fill in the center of the heart. After trying out a few dozen arrangements, one stuck in my head — a goal-post set of black squares. Maybe something very cool there … what if we could find phrases that related to both football and to love?
Alas, that didn't work out. We did have a lot of fun brainstorming what BLOCKED PUNT, TOUCHDOWN, and THIRD AND LONG might mean for Valentine's Day. Heh.
Shortly after, it occurred to me that I had never seen this goal-post pattern used in a themeless. I was curious to see if it might open up some possibilities, a new layout that might allow for more long answers, minimal 3-letter answers, more mid-length, whatever — just as long as it was something new.
After trying a few dozen arrangements, I hit upon something close to this current version. It had room for a single 15-letter seed entry, so I scanned my lists and my memory banks to see what FOOTBALL-related ones I could use. NUCLEAR FOOTBALL kept popping back up, so I finally gave in and decided to build around it.
Long and twisty crossword journey. As they usually are.
My original submission included RUM BABA / RUMBA and MEMENTOS / MENTOS. But Will thought it was confusing, having so much doubling. Apparently he doesn't know just how bad my vision is!
A big shout-out to my local Starbucks and their delicious VENTI LATTEs. And to their menu written in teeny-tiny text that all blurs together for me.
It's kind of ironic that I made this puzzle, given that my idea of cooking MARINARA is:
It makes so much sense! You don't have to wash a bowl. You don't use any oven/microwave power. And then you can just lick the spoon and put it back into the drawer. Easy cleanup!
I hope my wife isn't reading this.
JEFF: Very cool to get a chance to work with Josh! My wife had just listened to a podcast about meditation in which he was featured, so that sparked conversation. Somehow, meditation got linked to premeditation — or PRE-meditation — and off we went. OM!
I like one of his quotes: "'How I Met Your Mother' might be my great popular success, I mean, it might be. I hope it's not. I suspect I'll have some other things that will be seen and noticed, [but] I'm just going to keep making things that light me up."
Love that attitude. I'm looking forward to hearing a lot more about Josh's projects in the future.
Co-created! I was the Garfunkel to Jeff Chen's Simon. A real thrill. Been doing the TImes crossword since college. https://t.co/vJmQu1oTfD— Josh Radnor (@JoshRadnor) January 31, 2018
PRIS: This is my second puzzle in the NYT — both collaborations with Jeff. My first one was a bucket list goal which took almost ten years to achieve. I honestly thought I was done after that, but I found I missed the daily mental wrangling with themes and words, so I started sending Jeff themer ideas. There were some very polite "I'm not sures ..." but sometimes I got a "very funny — are there others like this?" In spite of our best efforts, there often weren't more "like this" but the search resulted in new possibilities.
I have found that what appeals to me as a constructor is humor. I want to laugh when I'm making a puzzle and hope solvers do also. It's what keeps me engaged. I so enjoy working with Jeff and learning from him, and the pleasure that comes from sharing creative energy is a wonderful added benefit.
MARY LOU: I originally contacted Jeff in November of last year about a reindeer themed Christmas puzzle with a dot to dot picture. We kicked many ideas back and forth. I mentioned the original eight reindeer as theme possibilities and Jeff suggested RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER which breaks into 13/13. He went off in one direction with the eight reindeer and I came up with the attached grid. We submitted both ideas to Will and heard back favorably from Joel on both grids but the picture grid having the edge. We were given the go-ahead to proceed with the fill and cluing.
Jeff did the grid reconstruction. It was quite a challenge, given the 26 fixed points of the picture (Joel mentioned that it felt incomplete without the Z) as well as the theme entries, to work clean fill around. About two months and numerous emails later we got word that the puzzle was in the queue.
I'm very excited to have another Christmas puzzle as well as a Sunday grid in the NYT. Many thanks to Jeff, Will, Joel and Sam for assistance in bringing this puzzle to press. I hope you enjoyed your solving experience.
By far and away, the biggest complaint I get from solvers is that I put too many rap references into my puzzles (I'm nowhere near some other constructors, I swear!). I have a ton of interests ranging from quantum physics to contract bridge to children's literature to the Great British Bake-off, and I happen to also love me some old-school rap.
NAS and DRE are ones all solvers need to know due to their very crossword-friendly names, but I have a feeling I'll get some hate mail over POSSE CUT. Before you hit send, do me a favor and listen to "The Grand Finale," featuring crossword biggie DR DRE (warning, NSFW!), and ones that really ought to be in more, MC REN and EAZY E. A POSSE CUT can be even better than a rap battle, a free-for-all melee with rappers dropping their most inspired verses in the game of one-upsmanship. It's an explosion of talented artists spurring each other on to push the envelope, all over a beat you can't help but bob your head to.
Now, if I could just get Stephen Hawking, Zia Mahmood, Sherman Alexie, and Mary Berry to lay down a POSSE CUT …
You can thank Eddie, my grand-nephew, for this puzzle. As a precocious 5-year-old, he would ask Uncle Jerry for periodic "challenges." These were often math and science related, but were sometimes pure word puzzles (his favorite type? — crossword puzzles, bless his heart). One of the challenges I gave him used the gimmick behind this puzzle's theme, but in narrative form. He solved it in no time flat and then challenged me to incorporate it into a crossword. I promised him I'd try.
My first attempt was conditionally accepted by Will, if I could freshen up some of the fill. After my several failed attempts at that, Will suggested that I get some help from a collaborator. Jeff had helped me with my very first puzzle the year prior and graciously declined any co-authorship credit back then. I saw this as an opportunity to both reconnect with Jeff and proudly share a byline. His remedial work on this was, unsurprisingly, masterful, and we received prompt acceptance. Thank you, once again, Jeff!
This is my last crossword, at least for quite a while. After an unexpected run of beginner's luck, during which four of my first eight submissions were accepted (three by the NYT), I promptly went 0-for-my-next-9. I suspect I may have shot my load. More importantly though, after having lots of fun with this for a good 18 months, I felt it was time to focus on another of my post-retirement bucket list items: writing a book. I've been hard at work drafting, and hope to publish next year, a "competition documentary" memoir about senior softball. Who knows, it may even include a baseball-themed crossword or two that were casualties of that 0-for-9 streak — I'll get them in print one way or another!
In any event, I hope you enjoy solving this one.
My mother-in-law's name is Patsy, and I'm a big fan of Patsy Cline — "Walkin' After Midnight" is one of my favorites. Not hard to see where I got the idea for the puzzle.
What is hard to see is PATSY CLINE in the grid. She could have gone where PIGEON COOP is, but my mother-in-law in a crossword where PATSY is associated with CHUMP, SUCKER, and MARK ... hmm.
Mary Lou Guizzo: My seed entry for this themeless was the RIJKSMUSEUM, a place I hope to see in person someday. It was inspired by my visit to a special exhibit at the Dayton Art Institute, Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art: Treasures from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
My first themeless grid with this seed entry was submitted in July of 2016. I received a rejection in August noting that Will really liked some of the grid fill including this seed entry, but there was too much crosswordese.
I asked Jeff for his assistance in reworking the grid. He pointed out I had too many three-letter entries. He noted it was best not to go above 12 for a themeless grid. After numerous back and forths using a grid of Jeff's design, we submitted a revised grid a few weeks later. We received an email in November accepting the revised grid.
Jeff worked the NYT debut words MAMA BIRD, BEER BRAT and GO BLONDE into the grid and my contribution in addition to RIJKSMUSEUM was OBAMA ERA. I was surprised to see the clue we had for TOMY, "Big name in toys headquartered in Japan," was replaced by the partial TO MY. I did like the edited change of clues for EARS and DJS to "Reception figures" as well as the clue change for HARRY from a name to "Badger."
I hope you've enjoyed your Saturday solving experience.
Michelle Kenney: When I was a freshman in college, I told my advisor that I wanted to write crossword puzzles for money someday, only to have him show me the door and tell me to come back when I grew up. After I turned 54 last year, I woke up one morning with a now-or-never feeling that had me reaching for a dictionary and my old thesaurus.
I spent a week in my pajamas, surrounded by a growing heap of crumpled papers, as I struggled to design a puzzle that didn't rely on a two-toed sloth or a bitter vetch for that final, impossible bit of fill. I finally decided that I needed some help getting this project off the ground, and I was lucky enough to meet Jeff Chen, who helped me refine the INTERMISSION theme.
We knew that we wanted to "interrupt" the names of Broadway shows, but finding themers proved to be much more difficult than I anticipated. Almost every time I thought I had one — WICKERBACKED for Wicked, or FACETIME for Fame, for example — something wouldn't work; Jeff's wife insisted (correctly) that the correct word is wicker back, and an Internet search revealed that the title of Fame is really Fame: The Musical.
I didn't count the number of emails we sent to each other, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were over one hundred in the exchange. Writing this puzzle is one of the craziest and most maddening things I have ever done (including the time I took a taxi with a live crocodile) but ultimately, it was very gratifying when it was finally finished.
JEB: The initial inspiration for this puzzle was triggered by my wanting to know the origin of the expression "By hook or by crook." When googled it was interesting to find that it is very old and is said to come from one or two different potential derivations; one relating to firewood restrictions and the other to navigational hazards! I liked that BY HOOK OR BY CROOK could be nicely matched for puzzle symmetry (word length, meaning, and potential graphic relevance) by ONE WAY OR ANOTHER. From there the "hook" and "crook" design graphic, with the FISH and LAMB props, began to take shape.
This puzzle, even though rejected on its first review by Will and Joel., did receive generally positive attention for theme and design. The negative commentary had to do with too much weak fill and a block layout that was overly closed through the center section between the "hook" and "crook". I struggled mightily with the resubmittal and found that in opening the center by shortening the "hook" and "crook" by one square that the fill was still troublesome and the graphic was starting to be compromised. The second submittal was shot down also, even though Will left the door open a crack for another try.
That's when I decided to "call in the cavalry" in the form of my cross-town friend Jeff Chen! :-) I was excited that Jeff wanted to invest time in saving this puzzle as a collaboration, and I know if it weren't for his expertise and input, this puzzle would never have gotten "NYT Ink." Jeff came up with two improved suggested modifications to the "hook" and "crook" layout which helped to loosen up the fill potential. Plus, his more robust word database contributed to the overall fill quality. Following the resubmittal or our new iteration, Will gave it the "thumbs up"!
SETH: Jeff and I have collaborated since 2014, and it's great fun. For this one, we wrote around 150 emails, some of which read like an absurdist script...
Seth: PITINO and RAISA seem fair, but the AKIMBO, SENECA, GRIT, and MATING goodness of Version C gets my vote.... Maybe, for a themer... BEST DAY EVER?
Jeff: Hmm, maybe a reach. I'm not a SpongeBob watcher though.
Our original plan was to make the units of time narrow down to an AHA MOMENT. Couldn't quite make that work.
Hope your solving time isn't a dog's age on this … and thanks, Will and Joel!
JEFF: Ah, Seth, that sneaky devil. He keeps changing the order of our names just before submitting the puzzle to Will! He deserves first authorship on this one.
Seth is a brainstorming monster. I love getting his emails, usually loaded with 10+ ideas to consider. They don't always contain a usable seed idea, but more often than not, something sparks another thought, and it morphs into something fun.
For this one, it took us a while to zero in on the idea of PRIME TIME being "synonym for good" + "time duration," but I thought it would be great … if we could 1.) get all strong phrases, 2.) have crossword symmetry, and 3.) present them in a logical sequence.
Some constructors would still do the puzzle without the third constraint, but I felt like it'd be too inelegant for my taste without that. It meant we had to do a ton of research. Luckily, another of Seth's strengths is his tenacity in research. Soon, he had a gigantic list of possibilities for us to sift through.
RED LETTER DAY made the construction challenging though — not only did it require a 16-wide grid, but it sort of cut the puzzle in half. Took a lot of trial and error, testing and ditching layout after layout. Finally, I felt like the skeleton you see was promising — enough room for some long bonuses, while not looking problematic in any one area — and Seth took over from there.
We always have a lot of fun going back and forth, comparing possibilities for various regions (although I can't remember how SpongeBob was related now). In the SE for example, I badly wanted to work in DOUBLE O (as in double-O 7), but DOODLES made that area much smoother. Ah well, the solver comes first.
I always wanted to try my hand at a triple-stack. They're often filled with gluey crossing answers, not a surprise considering how many triplets of letters must be worked around. It was a (mostly) fun process of attempting this grid over and over — and over and over — and over and over — to generate a stack that had both some sizzle and a high degree of cleanliness.
Ah, there was SPILE. As a "Hunger Games" lover, it didn't occur to me at first that SPILE might be esoteric. I would have paid whatever it cost to send in that SPILE Katniss and Peeta (when they needed to tap a tree to avoid dying of thirst.)
Okay, I admit it. I'm odd.
Triple-stacks often don't have many long crossing answers, or when they do, those crossing answers can be on the dry side. So I worked hard to stick with friendly and flexible letter combinations, like ANE (that became CANDY CANE), EAT (EATS RIGHT), ELD (ELDER WAND).
I can just hear the sci-fi/fantasy haters going off again about that last one, but ELDER WAND is at least made up of two real words, so non-Harry Potter fans (pagans!) ought to at least be able to infer it.
Really though, if you don't know what the ELDER WAND is ... you poor muggle. Now, if I had worked in ANTIOCH PEVERELL (the wandmaker who created the ELDER WAND), that would have been stupefy-level awesome. I mean … unfair and undesirable. Ahem. Yes, that's surely what I meant.
WWIIVET was the seed for this one, a curious string of letters I saw in a D-Day article a year or two ago. Not only is it bizarrely fun to have a *WIIV* series of letters, but I have a feeling that there are plenty of WWIIVETs who are avid crossword solvers. I thought it would be awesome to give a shout-out to the greatest generation.
If you're not already a daily reader of XKCD, you're missing out. And Randall Munroe's book, "What If?" is amazing. If anyone out there is still trying to find me a birthday present ... (cough cough).
While I love puzzles featuring stuff that personally interests me — chemistry, basketball, bridge, books, physics, etc. — it does nag at me that such a narrowly-targeted puzzle will probably go over poorly with people that are much older than me, much younger, more cultured, more academic, etc. So when I build themeless puzzles, I try hard to sprinkle in at least a little for all types of people. Hopefully with ROB A BANK, ANTIGONE, ROOT BEER, FOLK ART, DEADHEAD, and the aforementioned, there's *something* that made you smile.
TRACY: It was so much fun to team up with Jeff again for our second collaborative NYT Sunday puzzle!
I contacted Jeff last November with an idea I had been working on which crossed two colors through a shared rebus box to equal a third "mixed result" color, but I was struggling with how to represent the mixed result color in the grid that would make sense to the solver. I didn't want a lot of cross reference type clues, and a three-way rebus (has that ever been done before?) or a diagonally-running mixed result theme entry would be too confusing, IMO.
Not surprisingly, Jeff was able to think outside the proverbial (rebus) box concept and notice that certain pairs of colors shared a common letter where they could cross and "mix" with each other. For consistency, we picked four pairs of colors that included red, and from there, we came up with a list of colorful theme entries based on the final colors we had chosen. Lastly, we substituted the actual colors in the theme entries with one or the other mixing colors.
Jeff did the heavy duty grid work and placement of the theme entries, and we both shared in filling and cluing. The result, we hope, is a fun and lively Sunday puzzle. Enjoy!
JEFF: Such fun to work with Tracy! We went back and forth maybe 20 times before settling on this implementation. In case you missed it, an example is that RED + BLUE (RED crossing BLUE) = PURPLE, so you should interpret both crossing answers as the mixed color. Not RED PEOPLE EATER or BLUE HEARTS, but PURPLE PEOPLE EATER and PURPLE HEARTS! I've colorized the grid below to clarify.
It was hard to find enough well-known color mixes, and it turned out that almost all of them used RED. Both of us were worried about duplicating words in the puzzle, so I pushed us to use RED as a hidden word, i.e. within HIGHER EDUCATION, to avoid the outright duplications.
Thankfully, Tracy pushed back, pointing out that one way or another, we'd have duplicated answers — both the across and the down mixed color would be the same, i.e. PURPLE duplicated in (PURPLE) PEOPLE EATER / (PURPLE) HEARTS. If we're gonna have some duplication, why not go all out?
It took me a while to get used to that idea, but I liked it more and more every time I thought about it. Sort of a quantum duality. Very glad for Tracy's input there!
Don't get what's going on? Check out 10, 20, 30, 40 in the grid.
Still don't get it? Look at the entries at 10-Down, 20-Across, 30-Down, and 40-Across.
(Don't you hate-love it when someone (HOOD)WINKS you with (TRICK)QUESTIONS?)
I wish I could have rounded these out with two final answers more tricksy than (PUSH)PIN and (PET)ROCK — that was the Holy Grail. Ah well.
This idea came to me back in 2014, when Will asked me to write tricky Puzzle #5 for the ACPT … with only three weeks to go. In a state of sheer panic, I brainstormed day and night for one of those weeks, and this particular concept was only half-baked by then. For the life of me, I couldn't get it to work quite right. Thankfully, Will chose a different idea.
I forgot about it for a year, but it popped back in my head when I heard the phrase TEN FOUR. Wouldn't it be cool to have phrases involving TWO, FOUR, SIX, EIGHT, TEN — and combine TEN and FOUR!
It nearly killed me to put the grid together, what with having to place themers at 2-D, 4-D, 6-D, 8-D, and 10-D — in such a way to never have a 2-A, 4-A, 6-A, 8-A, or 10-A, which would have confused the issue — and I was pretty happy with it, especially since the entire south of the puzzle was wide-open; ripe for great themeless fill. I had a lot of fun adding in colorful material in that first draft.
It's always a mixed blessing to hear that Will likes a concept but wants a revision. In this case, he liked the general idea ... but didn't like that TEN and FOUR were combined as themers … and didn't like that there was no theme in the south of the puzzle.
Shows you what I know!
Matt: The idea for this puzzle came from my wife, Alisa. But I take all the blame for my initial set of theme answers, some of which did not amuse as much as I'd hoped. I know for 'countrymen' I had BONO AND THE EDGE, wryly clued as composers of the masterpiece "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark"... c'mon, that's crossword gold, don't you think, Jeff?
Jeff: (searching for the "crickets" emoji)
Matt: Ok then. Will and Joel suggested that I check whether Jeff would be willing to help out with a revision, and he generously agreed to pitch in.
Jeff: If "pitch in" means "make funny comments," and "funny" means "annoying," then my wife agrees wholeheartedly. I enjoyed going along on this quest, although we somehow still haven't gotten to White Castle yet.
Matt: With Jeff on board, together we got this on its feet. I suspect some solvers will hesitate over 23-Across, but I think it's important for the puzzle to embrace new vocabulary. I appreciate Will and Joel's help sharpening this to its final form, and hopefully, Jeff and I will be back with more down the road.
Jeff: Along with the WHITE CASTLE BURGERS I WAS PROMISED. Jeff is getting upset!
In my first career as a mechanical engineer, we used to tell our clients that they could have two of the following three things:
It's not possible to achieve all three, but that didn't stop certain clients from demanding them all. Some of us engineers were fond of telling them sure, if you have to have all three, why don't we just make your product out of UNOBTAINIUM?
Our business folks weren't too hot about that response. We sure thought it was funny, though.
SETH: Hi there. Hope you enjoyed the solve.
My father introduced me to crosswords. Through puzzles, we found a unique connection — and we both admired Jeff's work. It was great, talking with my dad about gems like Cut Above the Rest from 2013.
When he died in 2014, I wrote Will a thank-you note. I told him that, for my dad and I, "exchanges about puzzles became our own secret language. Even non-puzzle conversations sometimes took on the best qualities of the solving experience — oblique, compelling, full of understated humor and unexpected harmonies."
I was a new reader of XWord Info, and asked Jeff if he'd consider passing the note on to Will. He did — and, with an incredible generosity of spirit, suggested that we collaborate on a puzzle in my father's honor.
Brad Wilber published that one in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Since then, Jeff and I have made about a dozen more. One more's on tap for the Times, two ran in the Wall Street Journal, several in the Orange County Register, one in the American Values Club... and a couple misfires currently kick around the crossword dead-letter office.
Working with Jeff is such a delight. In the Pro-Am circuit of puzzles, he's definitely the Pro, and I'm the Am.
I work as a Computer Teacher for grades 2 - 8. This lets me pass puzzling on to the next generation. For class warmups, kids solve puzzles I make from their vocabulary lists.
Many, many thanks to Will and Joel.
ML: I remember thinking about MADAME PRESIDENT as I worked on my first solo themeless that included MISTER PRESIDENT back in January 2014 (published in April 2015).
I consulted Jeff after two solo attempts in 2014 were rejected. Will and Joel liked all the 15s I had come up with but not the shorter fill holding it together. My first attempt with Jeff was also rejected, but the second accepted in February 2015. We kept the original 15s but Jeff reworked the entire grid structure. He kept the 15s locked but flipped the grid so that the SW corner became the NE. He also changed the position of the black squares.
I was pleased to add another female name, actress KERRY WASHINGTON, to the data base. The new entries to the database would also have included THE NEW YORK TIMES had Peter Gordon not beaten us with its debut earlier this year in a very clever puzzle. I liked Jeff's additions of NO GO AREAS and END IN A TIE. I was pleased to see my clue for NBA ALL STAR GAMES, "Where East meets West?" retained.
Thanks once again to Jeff for co-constructing and Will and Joel for accepting and editing this puzzle. I hope you enjoyed your solving experience.
JEFF: NBA ALL STAR GAMES are some of my favorite spectacles in all of sports. That entire weekend is filled with such athleticism, skill, and talent — it's mind-boggling. I particularly like the Slam Dunk contest. Just when I think everything new under the sun has been done, Spud Webb wins it (he's 5'9"). Then came the Jordan-Dominique battles. And last year, seeing Aaron Gordon leap over a mascot 1.) going up in the sitting position 2.) grabbing the ball with his left hand 3.) passing it underneath his horizontal legs and then 4.) slamming it home … I was so excited, I might have peed a little.
So when ML asked me to help her redo this grid after an initial rejection, how could I refuse? Now, who wants to watch the between the legs tomahawk jam I'm working on? (So what if it's on an 8-foot high rim.)
I also enjoyed helping get the incredibly talented KERRY WASHINGTON in the NYT crossword.
But things didn't go quite as planned with MADAME PRESIDENT.
Hey, my daughter was born in the United States ...
JON: I was stumped trying to find a good revealer answer for this J-HOOK theme. I briefly considered JAY HOOK, the pitcher who gave the New York Mets their first franchise win in 1962, but decided that would be too obscure.
Then I remembered a clever Monday NYT puzzle by William I. Johnston from 9/9/2002: the theme involved the letter L, and all of the black squares were arranged in L shapes. What if I did a similar thing for the letter J, and used the "grid art" as the revealer?
To make that concept work with my theme answers, I had to expand the grid to 16x15. But I found the resulting grid very difficult to fill, so Will and Joel suggested the possibility of my bringing in Jeff Chen as a co-constructor. As it happens, I had been looking for an opportunity to collaborate with Jeff, and I jumped at the chance. Jeff was very receptive and a pleasure to work with, and we had a fun back-and-forth deciding on the remaining fill and then brainstorming on the clues.
In case anyone is wondering, the fact that we both have "J" names is just a happy coincidence.
JEFF: I had been admiring the clever ideas in Jon's previous puzzles, so it was a pleasure to hear from him, asking if I could help with a puzzle grid after several back and forths with Will. Even better, I really liked his idea of Js representing hooks — another of Jon's neat concepts that stick to "one letter per square." It's so hard to innovate while adhering to that convention, but Jon's done it so many times.
Really fun to work with a member of the J club! (I work with Jim Horne and am married to Jill Denny.)
MARY LOU: I approached Jeff about another Halloween puzzle using ALL HALLOWS EVE as a seed entry. He came up with the crossing LORD VOLDEMORT and we were off. Jeff whipped out a few grid layout possibilities. We kicked ideas back and forth and proceeded on filling the grid once we agreed on the best design. If my memory serves me right, he came up with the entries LIFE HACK, EREADER and I WONT DO IT and I came up with LE FIGARO.
We did offer the possibility of linking the clue on the two seed entries, as ALL HALLOWS EVE was the night when LORD VOLDEMORT went on his murderous spree, killing Harry Potter's parents, Lily and James. I also liked the clue "Howl at the Moon, e.g." for PIANO BAR as I thought it in keeping with the holiday spirit, but these did not make the cut. I was pleased to see the connection between OYSTER and BAY retained. I have fond memories of trips to Long Island and visiting the former home of the Teddy Roosevelt family, Sagamore Hill, near the hamlet of OYSTER BAY.
As always, a pleasure and learning experience to work with Jeff. My appreciation to Will and Joel for accepting and editing this puzzle. I hope you enjoy your solving experince and the Halloween/ALL HALLOWS EVE holiday on October 31! Happy Howl-o-ween!
JEFF: After ML wrote me that ALL HALLOWS EVE would make for a fun Halloween mini-theme, we brainstormed on what might a good crossing answer. Scanning through my personal list, I couldn't help but stop at LORD VOLDEMORT, as I'm a huge Harry Potter fan. (The rumors that I run through parking lots at night with a broom between my legs, practicing my aim with quaffles, are completely false.)
And when ML found an article (this was back in 2015) entitled "Voldemort is polling better than many Republican presidential candidates," we knew we had to do it. Considering The Terminator, Darth Vader, and The Shark from Jaws was polling ahead every Republican candidate at the time, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named really should have thrown his hat into the ring.
We couldn't quite get the syntax perfect, but brainstorming our original clue for ARMPIT was awfully fun: [Worst city in a particular state, metaphorically]. (I tried to make a joke about Knockturn Alley being the ARMPIT of magical London, but no one laughed.)
ELLEN: Ohhh this puzzle was a bear! It started off last July with the phrase JUMP THE GUN. I wondered if we could somehow make an entry "jump" over another entry. We tried several variations from shaded squares to stair-steps to vertical entries. Nothing seemed to work. In order to fit everything in cleanly, we needed a much larger grid. I think we even tried to toss the whole idea in the trash a time or two along the way. Jeff ultimately came up with this iteration. It's a variation on puzzles with stacked theme entries, but I like the clever way these entries relate to each other.
In the end, it took us almost 100 emails and 40 versions of the grid before we had something to submit. I appreciate Jeff's approach to puzzle creation. Good ideas take time. Have a great Sunday!
JEFF: Tough grid to create. I swore off themes with stacked entries after my last one. What with each pair taking away so much flexibility, they're just irritatingly difficult to build a smooth, interesting grid around.
(Apparently I have a short memory. Or I'm not very smart. Probably both.)
As a solver, vivid bonus fill can help keep my attention through an entire Sunday puzzle. I do like some of the longer stuff we incorporated: DAD-BLASTED OPERACOATS, O CANADA, David/Amy SEDARIS, even TWOFER and GABFEST, but I aim to have at least ten really nice bonus entries strewn about a Sunday grid, so this didn't quite hit the mark. It's so tough to do when you have so much more theme material to incorporate than usual.
Answers like CATBOATS, SUSTAINS, STOREOWNER are fine, but they don't excite me much. There were (many) other options we looked at for every part of the grid, but this final product felt overall like the best trade-off between sparkly long fill and relatively smooth short stuff.
Will mentioned earlier this year that he was running low on easy, smooth Monday puzzles, so I thought I'd write one. LIKE synonyms camouflaged in phrases felt like a simple enough idea ... and wouldn't LIKE MINDED make a great revealer!
Monday puzzles sometimes bore me, though, so I wanted to do something more interesting with this one. What if I added more elements — instead of four themers, how about five? Good, but the set I found meant that three synonyms would be at ends of phrases and two at beginnings. That felt inelegant.
Hey, how about using mirror symmetry to put all the key words in the middle of the puzzle? That fortuitously worked out, and then while I was building the grid, I thought it would be fun to make it a wide-open grid, with themeless-like corners. Some testing showed I could do it without resorting to much crossword glue, so I figured it could make for a more an interesting solve.
Sometimes I ought to listen to my own advice, though. As a constructor, I really enjoyed putting this grid together, what with entries like OR NURSE (nurse specializing in operating room work), DOORMEN, HOT DATE, FORGERS, IM COOL, GAL PAL, etc. And STIPPLE is such an interesting word.
But I presented Will a dilemma — with a Monday-like theme and a themeless-like grid, what day of the week should it run on? If a Monday, would a novice solver know what STIPPLE means (much less understand a clever clue for it)? And would someone who doesn't do that many crosswords appreciate the bizarre looking ORNURSE string of letters, or get completely confused?
So there you have it, my easy-breezy Monday puzzle … running on a Wednesday.
It really is a wonder that anyone ever listens to me.
KATHY: As a longtime reporter, I've had many bylines over the years — but this is one of the most exciting! It's only my second published puzzle; the first was a solo effort printed in Games Magazine a couple of years ago. That one was smaller and simpler: 15x15 and only wordplay, no visuals. So I knew I needed help with my idea for "Wonder-ful!" and my first thought was Jeff Chen. His grids are always so creative!
We had communicated a bit through Twitter over the years when I was blogging at crosswordkathy.com (currently on hiatus), but I didn't meet him in person until I went to the ACPT for the first time last April. A couple of weeks later, I emailed him with this theme proposal and he was intrigued. We debated which parks to include and how they could be visualized, including an ambitious shape for GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS and an entry where the RIO GRANDE slithered through a crooked BIG BEND. Unfortunately, not all of our ideas could fit, but I'm pretty happy with the ones that did.
And I'm really grateful to Jeff for his willingness to work with a rookie! I learned a lot.
JEFF: I admit it. I'm on Twitter (@JeffChenWrites — follow me!) but I still don't totally get it. I occasionally tweet about my current writing project or stray nose hairs or other subjects of equal importance, and followers will reply, or poke me, or Pokemon Go me or something. It's oddly complicated and altogether baffling, really. But I appreciate the chance to meet cool people through it once in a while, like Kathy.
Crossword Kathy https://crosswordkathy.net/ is on hiatus right now, but for a while, Kathy would post insightful commentary from an experienced solver's perspective. Best of all, I liked when she called me "the best thing since sliced platinum-plated superfood bread" and that I was "undoubtedly the sole human being who could best Dos Equis's The Most Interesting Man Alive."
(There may have been some paraphrasing.)
So it was a delight when Kathy introduced herself at the ACPT, and asked if I could help her with creating a crossword. I'm always happy to help out a friendly newbie, and to my surprise, her very first idea — for a NATIONAL PARK SERVICE puzzle — I thought was a gem. (People usually flame out and give up after we go back and forth over 10+ ideas.)
It took some fleshing out and research to make sure there would be enough theme material. From a long list we shortlisted about 6-8 really well-known parks we could represent pictorially. Kathy's suggestion for HALF DOME over YOSEMITE was what clinched the set. We're both West Coasters at heart, so if you haven't heard of HALF DOME, consider it your obligation to go see it. And not just in an Ansel Adams painting. You don't have to bivouac halfway up the sheer face, but seeing it from both the ground and from top is something else.
After that, it was a simple matter of 90+ versions, and the grid was done! Easy peasy. In the Twitter sort of sense.
I'd had TEMPE/RAMEN/TALLY kicking around my brain for a while but hadn't come across any other similarly patterned wordplay. Jeff and I both live in Seattle and every so often meet up for coffee and to talk crossword shop. I mentioned it to him one day and he suggested we use the power of programming to generate some other potential examples. We each took a crack at finding 15-letter words that could be split into 5/5/5 or 4/5/6 or 4/4/7 etc. After sifting through a bunch of junk, we settled on these three.
Here are a few alternates that didn't quite make the cut:
The first version we submitted included the revealer THE SPLITS clued as [Show of flexibility ... and what 16−, 25−, and 40−Across each do]. It was deemed to be not such a great addition to the main theme so we decided to rework the puzzle. With only three theme entries, we tried to construct a wide-open grid with as much fresh fill as possible. Hope you all enjoy the result!
And, as many others have said, it's a great pleasure to work with Jeff!
JILL: I'm excited to see this puzzle make it to the page after a few years in the queue. Jeff and I painted ourselves into a corner by choosing a theme that could only reasonably run on a single day out of the year, and only in the Monday-Thursdayspan. Thursday, July 4, 2013 was the most recent eligible date until today. Hello, old friend!
This theme popped up while we traveling, as our themes usually do. I'll be reading a book or daydreaming, and Jeff will turn to me and say, "You know, we haven't come up with any good crossword ideas in a while," and then I'll propose approximately two dozen terrible ideas that Jeff very politely pretends to consider, usually phrased as, "Hmm, interesting. Let's put it on the list." In keeping with the Infinite Monkey Theorem, I eventually land on a theme that makes Jeff's eyes light up. This particular idea came a little sooner than most, thank goodness. Turning an ordinal number into a fraction seemed like the kind of nerdy yet accessible theme that makes for a straight-over-the-plate weekday grid.
Although I'm pleased with how the grid turned out, I think we both wish that we could have found another option for the 'L' themer. L-DOPA isn't the freshest. Regardless, it was a fun collaboration. Stay tuned for our next joint project, due in less than a month. Hint: it's not a crossword.
JEFF: As usual, the collaborations between my wife and me are one part inspiration, one part genius. She's responsible for both parts, so I ... well, I smell reasonably inoffensive. Most of the time.
PRISCILLA: To finally get a puzzle into the New York Times! I had been trying for years, always for a Sunday because they offered so many more theme possibilities. Some of the time Will wrote encouraging comments on his rejection emails. That kept me going — though I was resigned to be a wannabe constructor which was a reasonable accolade unto itself. For the most part I just played with themes that entertained me without too much consideration of acceptance. But I also really didn't have a handle on Will's preferences.
As a baseball fan somehow the image of Tigers Can't Handle Cubs came to me and amused me no end. I have found that all it takes is one entry I love –- then it rolls from there.
When I got Joel's "We are interested…" email, I was ecstatic. Will loved the theme but "the fill needed a lot of work" and various not OK words were circled. So I thought that meant change those words. Which I did — and sent it back. Rinse and repeat. Finally Will and Joel realized I didn't have a clue and suggested I work with Jeff. Little did I realize the entire grid was bad — until Jeff sent me a proper grid skeleton. Fast forward, with Jeff's help and guidance I passed Crossword 101: Grid construction, 8-letter words (that can be very creative like "Oh boo hoo"), not crossing obscure words and using more current expressions.
One thing he said that really stuck with me was "Don't let the puzzle beat the solver. You want to solver to beat the puzzle." I was trying to be a little too esoteric rather than using some basic words and cluing them creatively. Though cluing is Crossword 201. Thus Jeff changed or suggested alternates for a fair number (almost all) of my clues (but left a few of mine to be gracious. I'm curious to see if Will changed those…).
I really look forward to collaborating with you again, Jeff. And thanks for your guidance on some other ideas. I certainly would never have made it without you. Imagine — being a NYT puzzle constructor! Bucket List complete!
About 15 years ago, a buddy of mine bought a house. As an industrial designer, he had grand visions of rebuilding the fixer-upper into an avant-garde mansion appropriate for his aesthetic sensibilities.
Walls got sledgehammered, windows smashed, and he wielded a SAWZALL at anything that looked at him funny. When we asked him if one column (which he had already sawed halfway through) was load-bearing, he stopped and asked:
"What does load-bearing mean?"
Thankfully, Shawn is still alive.
It's always fun to work with Jeff. The seed for the puzzle was contranyms, which are words that have two or more opposite meanings. For example, BUCKLE can mean both "fasten" and "come undone". That's hardly where we ended up with our theme, but that's what brainstorming is about.
I love some of Will's new clues. "Mass distribution?" for WAFER or "Current events?" for TIDES. That's good stuff!
Ellen and I have been collaborating for a few years now. We've brainstormed dozens — probably hundreds — of ideas by now, but we've been so selective about what we pursue, only producing six puzzles to date. But Will has taken four of them; a much higher success rate than mine alone.
Says something about Ellen!
I had forgotten how far "off-track" we went from our original discussion about contranyms. That's such a cool part about our process — we almost always land at a much more interesting place, miles away from where we started.
I've always been impressed by Alex. I first encountered his work when I got tired of formatting my NYT crossword submissions by hand. It was such a relief to find his "puz2pdf" app, making my crossword life a lot easier. Another of his programs helps search for themers fitting the "both words can follow X" theme type.
The latter program made me curious — could he somehow write code to find answers where "all THREE words can follow X"? I'm a little tired of the "both words can follow X" trope, but I thought it would be really neat if we could up the ante.
Turns out it was a trivial task for him. We tried a few different key words, and when we hit upon "time," the list was long enough that it felt like we could mine it for good answers. Alex was rightfully skeptical when I mentioned how much I liked LONG LOST FATHER as an entry, but a little soap opera research (it's such a common trope) made us both happy with it. The grid work did take us a LONG (time). Apparently FATHER (time) is taking his toll on me. Now, to make up for LOST (time) ...
A lot of fun to work with Alex on this! Now, who's going to be the first to find an "all FOUR words follow X" theme …
You know you're an engineer when:
1.) You assume everyone knows the abbreviation SQRT. It's on every scientific calculator, by Newton's Apple! (I can just hear all the youngsters asking what a calculator is. And what the heck "by Newton's Apple!" means.)
2.) You work a square root symbol into your original grid, assuming that everyone will follow the "blatantly obvious" S Q R T sequence formed by the vertices. Blatant. BLAAAAA-TANT! (Or, maybe not.)
3.) You think DID THE MATH is absolutely perfect to tie the puzzle concept together. The theme answers are under the square root symbol, thus the puzzle DID THE MATH! Unless ... wait … the presence of the SQRT symbol means that the theme answers should be SQUARED in order to produce an accurate final result, i.e. THE FAB SIXTEEN then becomes the THE FAB FOUR after the puzzle DID THE MATH. Wait. Maybe it should be the other way around. Which is more logical? There is no logic! (brain lock shutdown initiated)
We engineers are a funny bunch.
Back before computers, the military had to employ mathematicians to calculate projectile trajectories by hand, adjusting for such obvious factors as gravity, wind, friction, etc. But one factor that initially eluded some of the best minds was how the Earth's spin affected a long-range trajectory. Must have been baffling for these uber-educated professors to miss by a mile, scrambling to figure out why the heck they had been so far off course. It's stories like this that make the CORIOLIS FORCE so fascinating to me.
Aw, who am I kidding? I just like flushing things down the toilet.
ML: Jeff and I were on a roll with holiday puzzles. Fresh off the Christmas grid I suggested Happy New Year 2016, Friday. He replied: "Yikes, 1.5 years out! Maybe something sooner? =]" I sent him the Wikipedia calendar link for 2015/2016 stating "Try six months out ;-)"
JEFF: Stupid math, why must you be so hard?
ML: Not wasting any time, he sent me a grid skeleton with the names and NEW YEARS EVE filled in. I began the tedious process of filling as cleanly as possible (not an easy task!). We went back and forth discussing the best fill (the west side was easier than the east). Jeff saw the opportunity to fit APE and MAN in the SW corner. This brings back memories of THE DESCENT OF MAN puzzle which we were working on three years ago at this time. That was my first NYT acceptance. Amazing to reflect on how much has happened since!
Felice anno nuovo!
I had no idea if we could find three famous people with AULD / LANG / SYNE hidden in "their hearts," but it seemed well worth a try. (We aimed this puzzle for Dec. 31 — a Thursday — so we wanted to clue the themers more opaquely, i.e. [Physicist with a song in his heart?]) So what a joy to discover these three folks from within such disparate areas: physics, economics, and football.
Dirac was apparently a quirky fellow, not totally in a good way. But such contributions to the field of quantum mechanics! And anyone who Albert Einstein spoke of with "This balancing on the dizzying path between genius and madness is awful" qualifies as interesting in my book.
The Chairperson of the Fed is one of the most influential people in the world. Alan Greenspan I'll always remember because of tidbits my macroeconomics prof in business school recounted: apparently Greenspan had a vascular condition for which he needed to take extended hot baths. The image of this guy in glasses soaking for hours at a time, mulling over how best to guide the largest economy in the world, will always stick in my head. Not to mention, his marriage to journalist Andrea Mitchell … with the ceremony done by the Notorious RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsberg)!
I don't know that much about Greasy Neale's football career since he played long before my time, but I always wanted a good nickname like Greasy. Back when I co-captained an Ultimate Frisbee team, we had a running joke about new member initiation, which involved catching a greased pig. Or more accurately, a greased co-captain. Ahem.
When Jeff and I started kicking around ideas for a Christmas puzzle, we were shooting for a Friday, Dec. 25 date — themeless with a mini-theme. One of the first steps I took was to research previous holiday puzzles. You really should try this lovely one by Paula Gamache if you've not worked it already. Her puzzle inspired me to give a visual aspect to the puzzle, using the black squares to make candy cane shapes.
I ran the idea by Jeff and he quickly whipped out a grid skeleton. I noticed that both ST NICHOLAS and CANDY CANES could be worked into his grid and he noticed that X, M, A and S would fit into the candy canes' crooks. We went back and forth on the fill — took some time to get a clean grid! I do believe Jeff came up with the six entries unique to the NYT database — IT'S A KEEPER, KGB SPIES, MISEDUCATE, NO LOOK PASS, OPERA CAPE and TELENOVELA. I enjoyed fitting LA SCALA in with that OPERA CAPE!
We had several options for cluing CANDY CANES including the fact that Spangler makes 2.7 million a day! Jeff came up with "Small time crooks?" which I thought was clever. It is always a pleasure to work with him. And always a pleasure to get that "Yes!" email from Will and Joel — thanks for accepting and editing!
I hope you enjoyed this Christmas puzzle and that you and your family have a wonderful holiday.
SAM: I like collaborating with Jeff because he thinks through every detail of a puzzle throughout the construction. It's as if his mantra is "How can we make this better?"
JEFF: What can I say? I like to make butter.
SAM: I first wrote to him with the idea for this puzzle. In my original pitch I proposed that the theme entries start by running Down and then turn into Across entries on the word(s) that could also go with "right on." I wanted his help in building the grid because of his skills in grid engineering. He wisely proposed that the answers should start as Across entries and then pivot into Down entries on the "right on" words.
JEFF: Speaking of engineering, that stupid engineer inside my head just couldn't let go of the idea that vertical answers going down and turning to the east would be TURNING LEFT, NOT RIGHT. See, you have to look at it from the point of view of the little guy traveling down the answer. Frame of reference, people! He would start by going downward, then making a left-hand turn--
(insert sound of that stupid engineer being throttled)
SAM: After a few emails about how the theme entries should work and what they should be, Jeff did his magic and produced a terrific grid. My entire contribution to the fill consisted of saying, "Yep, that looks good." So I took the lead on the clues. If you ever need to kill six or seven hours, by the way, write clues for a Sunday-sized puzzle.
JEFF: In case anyone is curious, for this magic, I chose a 9 ¾" wand made of yew, with a dragon heartstring core.
Or rather … the wand chose me.
SAM: Will and Joel liked the idea, but they asked for a few tweaks to the grid. Shortly thereafter, Jeff had some alternate versions from which to pick. Et voila.
JEFF: Easy as churning butter!
MARY LOU: I happened on this Publilius Syrus adage while researching online. I find it very apropos today not only for what we say but especially for what we write online. I saw that it broke nicely into an 8/13/13/8 split and had the potential for a word ladder leading from FOOL to SAGE.
My original submission in December 2013 had a seven step word ladder. I heard from Anna Shechtman in April 2014 that Will liked the theme "which combines a quote and word ladder in a novel way. With that much theme material, though, it may not be possible to get completely clean fill." My additional attempts met with a reluctant no from Will, who added that if I could rework the grid with cleaner fill I could resubmit only my one favorite version. I contacted grid guru, Jeff Chen, at this point. Within a day's time he saw the possibility of adding an extra rung to the word ladder and came up with two versions he sent me, noting that the asymmetry of the original submission bugged him.
We both liked the same version. Jeff was a little hesitant to use the entry GRU but I convinced him that GRU along with ZAMBONI were the way to go. We received an acceptance from Will in May 2014. He noted that "GRU was new to me, but I think I'll go with it. It's more interesting than the best alternative I could see, GOA."
My thanks to Will, Anna and Joel for accepting and editing this puzzle. I hope you enjoyed solving it.
DAN: I am thrilled to be debuting in The New York Times today, and I am grateful to Joel and Will who encouraged me, and to Jeff, who helped take the original concept to a higher level.
I always liked words that contained each vowel once (including Y), and I thought it would be fun to use such a list in a theme — words like PRECARIOUSLY and COEQUALITY. After a bit of research, I found such words range from the technical and thus unusable (ACTINOMYCETOUS) to the more common but not especially exciting (TENACIOUSLY). And there are quite a few adverbs (FACETIOUSLY — all six … in alphabetical order!).
As a new constructor, I tried not to overextend myself, and I chose three 15s that fit the theme and were not obviously connected: COUNTERCYCLICAL, UNCOPYRIGHTABLE, and (in various versions) INSTANTANEOUSLY (hey, that uses the A twice!), VOYEURISTICALLY (ditto the I), and finally, GRANDILOQUENTLY.
The fill, however, was weak, and the circled theme letters were scattered haphazardly around the grid (like the results of five fowl competing in chicken poop bingo). Will/Joel were interested, but after I made several attempts, they suggested I should work with a more experienced constructor. Enter Jeff.
Jeff said he liked the concept but proposed that we "think bigger," and suggested we use — instead of the "trivial" all-vowel-inclusive words I had proposed — more colorful phrases that followed the theme rule but punched up the puzzle. He also arranged the circled theme letters in a way that showed some uniformity and intent.
Jason Mueller: Hi, solvers, I'm proud to make my New York Times debut! About myself: I'm a University of Missouri alum (BS Physics and Mathematics; MA Economics) and former captain of the Mizzou quiz bowl team. I started constructing about three years ago and have previously had a Sunday puzzle in the LA Times.
I got the idea to make a puzzle with people who wear hats with the hats appearing on top of the people around the time of this year's Oscar ceremony. I knew it was a good idea but a difficult one to pull off (what with the hats stacked directly on the main theme entries), so I asked Jeff to help and he came through, helping with choosing the theme entries, doing much of the heavy work with the fill, and polishing my draft of the clues.
We originally tried to fit a pillbox on Jackie Kennedy in the middle of the grid, but when that wouldn't fill cleanly, went for a kepi on Charles de Gaulle. Our original submission had LNG in the fill, so we came up with a revised version (but had to go to 142 words to make the fill clean). I noticed that Will and Joel changed MAA and SAT to MAO and SOT, which is a fine change.
I like exploring rough waters. Low word count themelesses are really tricky, so most of my ventures in this area haven't been very successful (that's code for "they stunk up the joint"). In fact, I had thrown in the towel a few years ago, vowing never to waste my time on low word count grids, most of which necessitate heavy crossword glue and not a lot of colorful entries. What sort of solving experience is that?
And then Tim Croce used a grid pattern I had never seen before, one I thought was visually stunning. Not only wide-open and ultra-low word count, but it was something that looked like it should be hanging on a wall (kind of like a KNIFE BAR!). I liked it so much, I decided to get back on the horse and see what I might be able to do with a similar layout.
I'm a big fan of feature entries, and Tim's grid only allowed for nine-letter entries, nothing longer. So I shifted some blocks around, tested out what might produce flexible patterns, and settled upon a layout featuring two 13-letter words. THOUGHT POLICE was on my mind after having re-read "1984," so I tested that out in both of the slots. When it became apparent that HAN SOLO, one of my favorite characters of all time, might work crossing THOUGHT POLICE, I decided to dive in.
Some hundreds, maybe thousands of iterations later, I had worked out two of the quadrants pretty well. But the area in the middle wouldn't cooperate, not allowing me to knit the pieces together. Ugly situation, potentially untenable. Quit-worthy. I came up with a few options, but nothing would hold the quadrants together at 20D, a key entry. After dozens of hours sunk into this venture, it felt like the puzzle had beaten me.
But, I'm stubborn. I ran through several sources to search for everything under the sun that might possibly work in that slot. When PEN CAPS popped out, I reminisced about using pen caps as projectiles in rubber band slingshots (my parents were politely asked to remove me from Chinese school), I decided to see where that led. Thankfully, things fell from there.
Meaning, I only had another half to do.
The entire grueling experience reminded me of my original clue for PEN CAPS: [Hard things to chew on in class].
Jeff is so patient with me and my crazy ideas.
This puzzle was inspired by our previous "Fire in the Hole" puzzle. As I was looking back through my notes, I noticed that it was about one year ago when we first started discussing this idea. It took us over 30 revisions and a couple of months to reach a point of satisfaction with the fill.
I enjoy researching puzzle ideas, facts, clues and definitions. I've even been known to skim though a thesaurus. (To which my husband comments, "I wonder how it ends. Har! Har!") While I was researching the actual definition of a black hole, I realized it was way beyond my grasp. I think I'll just stick to the simplified version I know from Star Trek.
Thanks again to Jeff for his help and his sense of humor!
The concept for this one tumbled out of a brainstorming session with an up-and-coming constructor; it sprung out as an offshoot from another idea we had been discussing. He declined my offer to co-construct, but I'd never have come up with this one if it hadn't been for him spurring me on. So, I thought I'd at the very least I'd acknowledge him:
Be on the lookout for Lars V. (55-Down)!
Five guesses as to why this huge Monty Python fan put ANTIOCH into the grid. (Three, sir!)
Okay, so the Holy Hand Grenade of ANTIOCH, from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," might be a bit too esoteric (sadly). I tend to give Will an alternate clue for these types of answers, and he wisely decided to skip straight to it.
I had a few other theme options I considered, but the deep basketball term BOOMSHAKAL(AKA) for a rim-rattling monster dunk felt a bit too out there (also sadly). Keeping a puzzle accessible to a majority of solvers always has to be one of my main goals, so I sometimes have to tell that devil on my shoulder to keep his trap shut. His usual response:
THE HELL I W(ILL)!
Okay, sometimes I listen to him. He's kind of fun.
After a year-long hiatus from constructing crossword puzzles, I decided I was ready to try again. I had an idea, but I was not confident enough to proceed on my own. I introduced myself to Jeff in July 2013 and asked him to help. Thankfully, he was up to the challenge.
I remember riding a roller coaster at Silver Dollar City a long (long) time ago. At one point in the ride, everyone yells "Fire in the hole!" before taking a plunge. That *has* to be where the idea came from. Otherwise, I don't know where my brain got it.
One of Jeff's best suggestions was to have the "holes" segregated from the rest of the black squares in the grid. I think it makes for a better representation. Jeff did a lot of the heavy lifting on this one, and I couldn't find any reason to change what he created.
The clues received their usual editor's touch, and my favorite (new) clue is for 19-Across: [Response that has a nice ring to it?] IDO! It's so hard to come up with new ways to clue entries that appear so frequently.
Thanks again, Jeff, for the collaboration. And thanks, Will, for publishing our puzzle.
I enjoy working with Jeff Chen immensely. It is always fun to brainstorm ideas, and I appreciate Jeff's willingness to help other constructors. Sometimes it's hard to know what "tricks" will fly with an editor. Having a seasoned constructor help navigate the crossword world is a huge benefit. Two heads and all that. Plus, it's more exciting to share success with someone else.
The starting point for this puzzle was Patrick Berry's puzzle from March 9, 2008. Mr. Berry's puzzle was a little too complicated for my brain, but the idea of having answers branch in two directions led us to the "decision tree." Jeff ultimately built the grid skeleton for this puzzle. Thank goodness. It was quite a challenge, but in a good way. We only have seven theme entries, but they sure take up a lot of space. I kept trying to shove in one more with GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH, but it just wasn't reasonable to do so. From idea conception to submission, this puzzle took around three months.
If you haven't read Stockton's THE LADY OR THE TIGER, you can find the entire text online. It's a quick read, and a great short story.
I have (too) many hobbies, but creating crossword puzzles is the only one that makes me any money. Let's see ... $ computer software + website and newspaper subscriptions + (books used in research * n) = well, maybe not a huge profit, but I think I'll keep at it anyway.
My sister's birthday is tomorrow, so Happy Birthday, Paula!
Jill: One of my most glaring puzzle-solving weaknesses is total ignorance of anything related to baseball. After Jeff tired of my repeated grousing about baseball clues, we started brainstorming about how to incorporate non-baseball sports into a grid. How we landed on golf, I no longer recall, as I am even more stymied by golf than by baseball. The over/under PAR idea seemed like a tidy theme that nodded to the game without requiring any knowledge of golfers or other trivia. As for the themers, I love free-associating with words, so it's fun to come up with phrases in a puzzle like this — feels like a game of Taboo.
We are honored to have the first puzzle of 2015, and we hope you like it!
My love affair with robotics came on suddenly, like a transistor activating. I hadn't had much exposure to electronics during undergrad, so I was apprehensive when a friend of mine goaded me into taking a higher-level electromechanics class in grad school. It felt nearly impossible at first, but once I figured out how simple a transistor really was (it's basically a tiny electrical switch), the leaps toward building robots came one after another:
And from there, I became obsessed with robot combat. If "Pacific Rim" had been released back then, I would have marched directly to the local military branch office and demanded to be a Jaeger pilot. (Are you listening to my genius recruiting idea, armed forces?)
Our project first quarter was to build an autonomous robot to play "American Gladiators" — it first had to detect whether it was on offense or defense based on where it was placed in the arena. On offense, your objective was to pick up a foam cube and deposit it into a goal. On defense, you had to protect the goal. There could only be one winner — mano a mano, roboto a roboto. Once the whistle blew, the metal gloves came off. (My team ended in a three-way tie for first, thanks to some last-minute sensor tune-ups and a bit of luck.)
Oh right, there's a puzzle today. After laying everything out, I couldn't get around the fact that the SE corner required long fill and was highly constrained. At first, all I could work in was ROBOTLIKE, which I later realized sounded silly compared to ROBOTIC. Luckily, ROBOT SUMO 1.) fit in perfectly, making for a nice clean fill, and 2.) was okayed by Will, after I went on and on about what an incredible sport it was, not to mention how great it is in promoting technical education through amazing fun. Thanks to Will for putting up with my crazy interests!
(I thought long and hard about putting RORSCHACH in that ROBOT SUMO slot, but I was worried that people might have trouble with OPERON, which is a basic(ish) concept in biology / genetics but it's certainly not a layman's term. I didn't like the possibility of people ending up with OPERAN / RARSCHACH or OPERUN / RURSCHACH. Not very satisfying when that sort of thing happens.)
Now, back to work on my "Pacific Rim 2" script-in-progress. I'm pretty sure the robot sumo will win in the end, but you should never count out one of the original Titans. Taking all bets ...
I am constantly on the lookout for interesting and/or new/fresh words to incorporate into puzzles. COGNOSCENTI(E) fit the bill. It and BOOGALOO (which turned into BOOB TUBE) were our seed entries.
I discovered this Alex Boisvert grid at xwordinfo.com and liked the mini-theme. I'd tried my hand at filling a themeless grid but was just not sure about the result. I ran my completed grid by Jeff, who was kind enough to give me his analysis. As a result, we decided to work on a new grid together.
I'd mentioned to Jeff that Alex's originally published version of this grid had a mini-theme which I had not incorporated into mine. That led to the inclusion of a macabre mystery mini-theme we thought appropriate for the holiday. In our submission we clued COGNOSCENTE as either "Fortunato vis-à-vis Amontillado" or "Connoisseur/Aficionado", realizing that first clue might be a bit of a stretch if you were not familiar with the Edgar Allan Poe short story "The Cask of Amontillado".
I'd like to congratulate Jill Denny and Jeff on the birth of their bundle of joy, Tess, who has Jeff climbing the walls these days (even more than he usually does!).
I'd also like to thank Hayley Gold for an autographed copy of her "Raining Man" comic commemorating my first puzzle accepted by the New York Times.
As always, many thanks to Will Shortz for accepting and editing this puzzle. I'm becoming more COGNizant of just how daunting/challenging a task editing puzzles might be at times! I hope you had an enjoyable solving experience and have a Happy Halloween!
MARY LOU: I enjoyed working with and learning from Jeff. He was very kind and patient mentoring me during the long evolution of this puzzle. He designed a grid that highlighted the five theme answers, and we tried to 1.) minimize the unsavory short fill and 2.) make sure no long fill would detract from or be confused with the themers. Thanks to Will Shortz for accepting and editing the puzzle.
I hope you enjoyed solving the puzzle. It was my first acceptance by the NYT, so I was quite elated to receive that "Yes!" email.
I am very excited to have my first collaborative puzzle with Jeff Chen published in the NYT today! Jeff and I teamed up in early April 2014 to brainstorm new possibilities on a compass-themed puzzle of mine that had previously been rejected by Will.
From my original puzzle, Jeff liked the idea of a center compass rose as well as additional compasses placed elsewhere in the grid. We both agreed that embedding/including the words North, East, South, and West in phrases was probably not different enough for a Sunday puzzle and then Jeff came up with the NS/WE rebus which I loved. He got the ball rolling with his first grid which included a center compass rose made up of black squares and the four cardinal points of N, E, S, and W. We were both hoping, however, that Will would approve a picture (artwork) of a compass rose to be preprinted in the center to replace the black boxes if the puzzle was accepted. Over about a week's time, we kept tweaking the grid until we found an aesthetically pleasing grid that could also be filled successfully.
The fill process went surprisingly quick after Jeff suggested that the grid could basically be sectioned into four parts by picking good 10's crossing the rebus' first and then filling in the words going through the unchecked N, E, S, W letters. If you are an avid reader of Jeff's blog, you will know that he strives for the absolute best fill possible, right down to the last 3-letter words. In the sections I filled, any of my less-than-stellar "glue" words such as FACTA, ISERE, and LOEIL were respectfully changed to stronger and much better fill. Jeff also came up with, in my opinion, the perfect title for the puzzle although "COMING UP ROSES" was a close second. But, the piece de resistance is the beautiful compass rose that was created by Jeff to place in the center of the NYT print version with Will's approval.
Lastly, I would like to thank Jeff for helping to take this concept from rejection to "Crossword- Yes!" status. As many other constructors have said, Jeff is amiable, knowledgeable, patient, creative, thoughtful, and prompt in corresponding. I would highly recommend him to anyone considering a collaborator.
Hope you all enjoy our puzzle!
Two years ago, I was researching the Panama Canal for a book I was writing. My crossword spidey-sense flared when I noticed the canal ran nearly diagonally (from NW to SE), connecting the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. And those three entries magically intersect in a symmetrical manner! It's almost as if the builders named the canal so that their Easter Egg would eventually be discovered, and a crossword would be made of it. When I found that the 100th anniversary of the canal's opening fell on an upcoming Friday, I couldn't resist building it into a mini-themed puzzle.
Will liked it, proposing to run it on the day before the anniversary (I think so it wouldn't be all over the news already?). I agreed, but earlier this year, I had hesitations, worrying that the low theme density would turn off Thursday solvers.
So I redid the puzzle from scratch (grid shown to the left), brainstorming a few oblique theme entries. MADE THE CUT felt like a fun one, and after a long search, DIAGONALLY (clued to reference J.K. Rowling's DIAGON ALLEY) seemed pretty good too. It took me a few dozen tries over a few weekends to suss out a workable grid. But in the end, I didn't like it as well as the original. Luckily, Will assented to run the puzzle on the day of the 100th anniversary as I had originally intended, with PANAMA CANAL as a mini-themed bonus entry.
I would have preferred PANAMA CANAL as a pure Easter Egg, uncircled and tough to find. (My original clues for CARIBBEAN SEA and PACIFIC OCEAN were [Start/end of a famous passage hidden in today's grid], misdirecting people with the word "passage.") But I've studied crosswords for a couple of years now, and I've realized that a big portion of Will's solvers — perhaps a majority — wouldn't have found it, putting it aside with a feeling of annoyance. Too bad that PANAMA CANAL had to be so blatantly obvious, but I understand the rationale. It's not easy to satisfy a huge range of skill levels and desires within Will's millions of solvers.
This crossword was born on Camano Island during a rainy weekend getaway back in 2010. Jeff and I often brainstorm crossword ideas while travelling, and this particular theme came to us at the breakfast table. Pancakes and crosswords, what could be better? I tend to admire constructions that have a visual element to the theme, like Jeremy Newton's brilliant "Ode to Joy" puzzle or so many of Liz Gorski's creations.
The original vision was that the squares containing SPACE at the bottom of the puzzle would be merged into a single rectangle resembling the spacebar on a keyboard, but there are understandably limitations on how much the grid can be altered in print. As for the construction process, collaborating with Jeff is always a delight. That's why I married him.
Wait. It wasn't my dashing good looks?
This puzzle was accepted for publication on June 30, 2013, before my Sunday collaboration with Jeff published last February was accepted. Thus, this is really my maiden effort at puzzle creation. The idea for the puzzle began with a triple homophone and clue that just popped into my head while coming awake from an afternoon nap, but that did not survive: LET THE BEE BE BEA, clued to refer to a Golden Girl (Bea Arthur) waving at a stinging buzzer, was the thought provoker, and I developed a list of similar triple homonyms and sent it to Jeff with the request that he co-create if the idea appealed to him.
As a total novice, I had no idea how to go forward with grid creation, fill, cluing or any other aspect of puzzle creation. There were, on my list, some ideas Jeff liked but no internal grammatical or stylistic consistency. Some had just 3 words, some 4, some 5, some in the present, some in the past, etc. If you are a fan of Jeff Chen puzzles, you know that such sloppiness of internal thematic consistency does not pass muster. He came up with the tabloid headline clue structure and the fill structure where every themer is only 3 words, and all follow the identical grammatical pattern. I had taken the first shot at cluing the non-themers and tried for Thursday level difficulty and misdirection. Jeff saw it more as a Monday or Tuesday puzzle and together we simplified the clues. None of this seemed to matter as Will accepted it as a Wednesday and rewrote what seems to me to be a very considerable number of the clues. Maybe that's the norm; I do not know. If you already know the answers, as I did, it might be hard to see a change upward in level of difficulty of the clues.
MARY LOU: Gary Cee's May 29, 2013 puzzle (HAT in HAND, JUST in CASE, etc.) sparked some ideas and I emailed Jeff. He had mentored me for several months by this point and we'd had one other puzzle accepted by the NYT (which has yet to run!). Jeff had been thinking of a similar type puzzle with 'through/thru' phrases. I researched phrases, we batted ideas back and forth on which to use and what the revealer should be. Jeff did the grid design and we worked on the fill and cluing together.
I thought it quite appropriate that astronomer, TYCHO Brahe, ended up in the same corner with PAID through THE NOSE. He lost part of his nose in a duel and wore an artificial one for the rest of his life.
If you have some crossword theme ideas and need a mentor, I cannot say enough good things about Jeff — he is very talented, patient, encouraging, prompt in corresponding, a fount of good advice, open to other points of view and a genius at grid design. Nancy Salomon also mentored me through several early puzzles and I appreciate her generosity and advice as well. Crossfire software has definitely been an asset as has the xwordinfo.com site developed by Jim Horne and maintained by Jeff and Jim.
I am a Specialist in Blood Banking (SBB). My hobbies include photography, reading, bicycling, hiking, and swimming. I like a Marcel Proust quote which I thought applicable to photography and puzzling, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Both hobbies have given me fresh and different perspectives. As Will Shortz has noted, solving and constructing puzzles are two different skills. Constructing has given me a real appreciation for those who create(d) puzzles, especially prior to the days of software and databases, not to mention those who make their living in the crossword world.
The most remarkable thing about this puzzle is that Jeff and I were freshman roommates at Stanford in 1989-90. At the time, neither of us were really puzzle people. But eventually, completely independently, we became accomplished constructors — especially Jeff, who's a constant presence in New York Times puzzles and runs XwordInfo. I construct the weekly Jewish-clued Jerusalem Post crossword puzzle, which is syndicated in more than a dozen North American Jewish newspapers. This link shows several examples.
Being a crossword solver isn't so unusual. Being a crossword maker is, and being a crossword maker with lots of published work really is. It's just weird that we each stumbled across this highly specialized avocation separately.
I'm the one who first wondered if the four English ways of pronouncing the phoneme "CH" might be a good theme, and Jeff tied it all together with his brilliant 15-letter revealer at 58-Across.
My favorite clues (at least among the ones I wrote that Will kept!) are 23-Across ("Sin Alternative?" for COT), 40-Across ("It's big and brassy" for TUBA), and 11-Down ("'60s do also called a 'natural'" for AFRO). I know it drives some constructors nuts, but I thoroughly enjoy finding new ways of cluing little words that appear in puzzles all the time.
I've said over and over how I'm never going to tackle another puzzle with perimeter themers. They take so long to execute and are so difficult to fill smoothly / with sparkle. You'd think I'd learn one day.
I had toyed with this idea for well over a year before I finally settled on the basic concept, and coming up with enough distinct drinks was a challenge in itself. Even when I came up with enough to fill the perimeter, it felt inelegant. Who cares if it's just a random listing of drinks? So it wasn't until I was able to group the drinks into four linked categories that I felt like this was maybe worth the effort. It wasn't until I figured out how to intersect CIDER and VODKA into DRINKS ALL AROUND that I thought it was finally worth pursuing.
Then came year two. Trying to fill a puzzle like this from the center out almost guarantees you'll have too many ugly entries in the corners, but I tried it anyway. And indeed, I was able to come up with some snazzy entries around the center, but as I approached the four corners (and the sides to a lesser extent) I jammed myself into a world of hurt, overconstraint forcing a partial or a weird abbreviation or simply a collection of too much Ug. I came up with some fills that I would have green-lighted earlier in my construction career, but these days I am terribly, terribly unhappy if a puzzle doesn't feel top-notch rated-A clean.
Switching to working from the corners in helped a great deal, of course. Still though, it took me over 40 iterations to finally come up with something I felt was worthy of the NYT. FYI, not every puzzle can be filled super-cleanly (without a single "bad" entry), and I think that's okay. I would much rather allow for ambitious constructions that require a NOW I and an AS AN to hold them together. Not everyone will agree with me of course, but I'm firmly in the camp that creativity gets stifled if it's tamped down by overconstraint.
I do agree that a majority of puzzles can be filled 95%+ cleanly though, and if they can, they should. After so many versions of this puzzle, I tend to believe that this one can't be filled without a few bits of ugly here and there, but I'm certainly willing to listen to anyone who could give me a pointer.
I attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament for the first time in 2011. Roz Chast was the awards presenter that year. Before handing out the awards, she read a short essay. The essay humorously highlighted many of the entries that frequently appear in crosswords, commonly referred to as crosswordese. A year or so later, I returned to this essay and the idea of taking a set of common crossword entries and turning them into a puzzle. My idea was to make the crosswordese words the clues, and what would typically be the clues for these words, the answers.
I compiled a list of crosswordese words, but soon realized there needed to be more to this theme than just selecting a subset of these words and then developing theme answers that were of the appropriate length. So I revisited the list, and noticed a lot of these words began with the letter E. It then occurred to me that if all the words began with "E", a revealer for the puzzle could be CROSSWORDESE, which not only was a pun but also an apt description of the theme answer clues.
I passed the idea by Jeff, and he really liked it. One improvement he suggested immediately was to change one of the original theme clues — EEE (wide shoe spec) — to EMIR, as EEE was the only theme clue of the set that was not four letters long. Over time, there were further adjustments made in order to get theme answers to match up by length, which ultimately resulted in one of the original clues, the ever-popular EWER, being replaced by the equally crowd-pleasing ETUI.
In terms of filling the rest of the puzzle, we felt it was important to keep the crosswordese to a minimum. In general this is a good approach to take, but even more so when you're already drawing attention to crosswordese in the puzzle's theme. I think for the most part we were successful in this, the occasional ONO, ANAT, and OBOE notwithstanding.
Thanks for reading. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to work on my next puzzle: lesser-known, four-letter European rivers.
MATTHEW: Inspiration for this puzzle came while engaging in one of my favorite activities: list-making. Actually, the list aspect came later...
I originally tried to make this puzzle solo, but only got so far as the theme answers and a grid that remained mostly unfilled. Some months later, I saw an open invitation from Jeff on one of the crossword blogs to anyone interested in collaborating or just passing an idea by him and getting feedback. So I dusted off my idea, shared it with him, and so began our collaboration.
The first order of business was improving the theme answers. My biggest takeaway from this entire experience is the importance of having a tight, consistent theme, and there was room for improvement in what I had produced. We came up with a modified set of four theme answers (IT DIDN'T WASH, CAME UP DRY, WENT TO PRESS, IN THE FOLD), but still needed a good revealer. We brainstormed some ideas, such as LAUNDRY DAY and LAUNDRY SERVICE, but none of these worked; they were either too obscure or they had been done before. And then Jeff came up with the perfect revealer: LAUNDRY LIST. I really liked this as it tied everything together visually. The theme answers sort of resemble a list. With our improved theme, we proceeded with the grid and the fill, secure in the knowledge we'd knocked it out of the park. Not quite...
The feedback on the original submission was that the first theme answer, IT DIDN'T WASH, wasn't a familiar enough phrase. (In other words, it didn't wash.) Thus, the puzzle was rejected. Jeff suggested I propose an alternative answer that he devised, and as luck would have it, there was renewed interest in the puzzle. After some additional revisions based on Will's request to further tighten theme answer consistency, and an entire reconstruction of the puzzle...success!
Thank you for solving — and reading about — our puzzle!
If the byline for co-constructors was set in type reflecting the respective contributions of each, my name would be in eight point pica type and Jeff's in 20 point, BOLDED and italicized. I am, at age 74, very different from most who construct puzzles accepted by the New York Times. I do not attempt any crosswords or other puzzles except the Sunday NYT and it takes me close to an entire day to get near finishing one. It has been a dream to see my name attached to a Sunday NYT crossword puzzle. (I think it is the same syndrome that causes me to enjoy writing poetry but not reading it.)
I had many theme ideas (none architectural) and no ability whatsoever to take the next step. One Sunday, in checking my many unfilled answers at Rex Parker's blog, I saw a comment from Jeff volunteering to work with newbies. My initial effort ultimately led to the co-construction of a puzzle containing homophones as the theme answers, submitted to, and accepted by Will for a Wednesday publication, but it has not yet been published.
During the course of working with that puzzle, Jeff taught me the most basic of NYT crossword construction requirements, to wit: that theme answers need to be internally very consistent and "tight" (a comment I have heard from Jeff as he has, with considerable grace, declined to co-author virtually every other idea I have submitted to him!), and that the fill must be neat and clean and interesting with as little reliance on "crosswordese" as possible.
My original idea and theme word selections for this puzzle centered on well known expressions first introduced into the English language by Shakespeare. Not "tight enough" opined my new mentor. He suggested we try for such theme content from one play only. He also authored the idea of using Macbeth and working in, as the reveal clue, the reference to the superstition against mentioning the play's name, (which was the subject of a marvelous Canadian TV series called Slings and Arrows, season 2, also shown in the U.S. on Sundance). In our division of labor, we collaborated and contributed equally on the selection of the Macbeth quotes, Jeff did the grid and virtually all of the fill, and I took the lead in, and supplied much of the clues.
This puzzle went through several dozen revisions on two completely different theme concepts. I started with the basic idea of making giant letters out of the letters themselves, i.e. a giant C out of Cs, I out of Is, etc. and noticed that some letters I could clue in a homophonic style (the formation of a giant C would require SEES, SEAS, and SEIZE, T would only require TEES and TEASE, and I would be easy with just EYES). Only the letters C I L T and U fit my criteria though, so what could I do with those? The word CUT came to mind. After some rumination, this led to my first submission, where each theme answer had CUT cut out of it, (CUT) ONES TEETH ON, e.g.
Well, that was terrible; a fourth-rate dirty rotten stinker. In the back of my head I knew it wasn't very good, but I sent it anyway (sorry, Will, I won't send in stinkers any more). Will politely said he didn't care for the theme and pointed out that my symmetry (up-down) was just too visually strange. Looking back on it, I see what he meant. It's important to learn the rules before you break them, and I won't be trying any more up-down symmetry puzzles (unless they're similar in nature to Kevin Der's Titanic puzzle).
Luckily, I'm too stubborn (stupid) to give up. Lying in bed one night, the phrase "a cut above the rest" came to me and I slunk out of bed. Five bleary hours later, I came up with my first skeleton, but it ultimately Titanic-ed. It had all sort of grid issues, a ton of cheater squares, and several areas I wasn't sure I could fill cleanly. So I tore it up and stuck it someplace lewd.
My tenacious idiocy caught up with me a few months later and I took another stab at it. I didn't want any individual Cs adjacent to the big C (and similarly with the big U and T). Filling around those three giant letters was tough enough without that constraint, and with it, I was lucky to get out alive after days and hundreds of possibilities.
Then there was the issue of the other themers. I was dead set against made-up sounding definitions; I wanted in-the-language phrases instead. Luckily CUT has enough different meanings that it only took a week or so to gather a good set ... except I included HAS A SIX PACK, which nagged me as "not like the others". Good thing Will balked at that and even gave a lexical reason why. Lesson learned: if it looks like poo and smells like poo, it likely is poo.
Back to brainstorming themers. I searched various thesauri, online sources, picked friends' brains, and finally came up with SNIDE REMARK. I don't think it's as strong as some of the other themers, but was glad that Will accepted it. A few more hours of rework and recluing and I broke the plane of the goal-line. I was so relieved I spiked my computer.
A final note on symmetry. Typically L-R symmetry is no harder to execute on than normal (rotational) symmetry, but I couldn't spread my themers out like usual. Needing all my vertical themers to be pushed to the bottom, I was forced to incorporate an enormous number of across answers which overlapped two themers. Filling the dang thing nearly broke me. I still cringe at TEN O and don't care for ERNES crossing ESS or CTRS or ASTR. But sometimes you have to accept a little subpar fill in order to make an idea work. Hopefully solvers found the trade-off acceptable.
First I have to say that Jeff Chen is the nicest, most generous person in Crossworld. And I am so enjoying reading his very funny comments on the puzzles. Over a year ago, Jeff had a collaboration with someone. On the day it ran, he went to Rex Parker, gave his email address and invited new constructors to contact him as he likes working with neophytes. Boy, I took him up on that and peppered him constantly with theme ideas that he patiently discussed with me.
Jeff and I remember today's puzzle's inception differently. I had been kicking around the idea of hiding ASP in a grid, first with things like BANANA SPLIT and CAST A SPELL. I'm pretty sure it was Jeff who suggested this way of doing it. He did the heavy lifting — he built the grid and placed the ASPs over the PLANES — I don't think I could have pulled that off! We both worked on the fill, and I did a lot of the clues. If it's a so-so alliterative clue, it's probably mine; alliteration is my go-to trick to perk up a meh clue. I had "Flower feature" for CALYX, "Sendai suds" for SAPPORO, "sowed stuff" for STASH. Jeff definitely clued HANG-GLIDER, my favorite clue in the puzzle. Jeff is also to thank for the YO HO HO in the same grid as MATEY.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Enjoy the puzzle!
This puzzle was a long time in the making, over two years. So many people helped me with feedback and collaboration: Ian Livengood, Doug Peterson, Jim Horne, Kevin Der, and Joon Pahk. Joon in particular hit upon BOULDER COLORADO which was the final piece of the puzzle. I have to say, the puzzle constructor community is awesome, some of the most intelligent, funny, and nice people I've ever had the pleasure being around. Plus, they know how to have a good time (what happens at the ACPT stays at the ACPT).
(mostly a lot of drinking, laughing, and nerd talk)
I originally had a cutesy cluing scheme, i.e. MISSION IMPOSSIBLE = "Puzzle subject's least favorite TV series?" with SISYPHUS hidden, for the solver to find. But I really like what Will has done with it. At first I was worried that people wouldn't quite get the theme without the explicit "puzzle subject" cluing, but now I see it as poor Sisyphus surrounded by these rock-related terms, stuck in the middle of nightmarish limbo. And I love what Will did with the circles around SISYPHUS. Much more elegant than the kind of notepad note/word search approach I was thinking.
Even when I had all the theme answers in place, the grid was a bear. For a while I thought that this construction had defeated me, but after three dozen rearrangements and 35 punts, I finally came upon a pattern of black squares that seemed like it might just work. In order to incorporate the kinds of long fill Will mentioned (thanks for the nice words, Will!) I ended up having to place more cheater squares than I would have liked—three pairs feels like too many to me—but the resulting blockiness seemed like a reasonable compromise.
I tried my best to incorporate snazzy long fill and clean short fill, but not matter how hard I fought, not matter how many dozens of hours I spent trying hundreds of options, I couldn't figure a way around INSTR. I finally convinced myself that if a flaw in woven goods is a tribute to Athena (showing that no one is as perfect as her), a flaw in a crossword is an offering to the crossword deity OOXTEPLERNON, Rex Parker's nemesis (see "Some helpful vocabulary" at the bottom of the page).
Everyone's a comedian.
Crossword construction covers five major areas: early-week, mid-week, out-of-the-box Thursdays, themeless, and Sunday-size. Many constructors can get proficient at a few areas, some can become an expert at one, but very few can become top-notch in all five. It's my goal to achieve all-around greatness, and I realize I have work to do in the themeless arena.
Starting with the good stuff, I liked how much of this puzzle turned out. PIZZA JOINT brings back memories of the time when I wasn't quite as lactose intolerant (my poor wife), and I find that saying I SCREWED UP comes in handy in disarming people during difficult situations. The wide-open middle sections took me a long time to work through, and I was happy that they came off with just an ETE and HTS as blemishes.
Areas for improvement: I dislike the same entries Will calls out. IN HIS is particularly egregious, being both a five-letter partial as well as an odd one. It feels worse than something like AN ACE ("An ace up one's sleeve" or "An ace in the hole") but I couldn't figure out a way around it. IN HOT was a better possibility, but I couldn't avoid duping HOT (in HOT TO TROT). Hours upon hours of trying hundreds of possibilities and I finally had to wave the white flag. I'd love to hear from other constructors to see if there was something different I could have done.
And my cluing is still a work in progress. I've come a long way from when Will used to change 75% of my clues, but I want to be mentioned in the same breath as Mike Shenk (editor of the WSJ puzzle), who Will gives as an example of someone whose cluing he barely has to touch. I continue to work at building my clue-writing ability by studying great puzzles like yesterday's masterful PB. And a lot of practice.
All in all, I'm making progress but realize I have work to do. Butt in chair, Jeff, butt in chair.
This puzzle was written by one of my mother's favorite constructors.
I had EYE OF THE TIGER and BEE IN ONES BONNET for the longest time, and it took me a great deal of digging to come up with two more consistent theme answers. Thankfully I SEIZED UPON SEE YOU IN COURT while digging deep into the xwordinfo database.
But even then, the grid layout was a bear, because the mismatched lengths (11, 13, 15, 13) not only required mirror symmetry but extra black squares, and I ended up having to stack two theme answers due to all the constraints. The west and east sections were remarkably difficult to fill, so I had to think a long time to come up with a good clue to rescue E FLATS as an answer (luckily I've listened to the 1812 Overture well over a thousand times!).
I wasn't sure if the overall construction was actually feasible, so after many iterations, I was simply pleased to escape with all my fingers still intact.
Such a pleasure to with Angela on this puzzle. I had been thinking about vowel progressions, and noticed that RAID READ RIDE RODE RUDE worked pretty well. When RAID THE FRIDGE and RUDE AWAKENING came to mind, it seemed like we ought to give it a shot.
However, the fact that these first and last themers were both 13 letters long created a challenge, since 13's can't go in rows 3 and 13 due to black square constraints. That means all the theme answers had to get squished together. With five theme answers spaced just one row apart apiece, I wasn't sure it was going to be doable without including some ugly fill.
Luckily everything worked out out after a couple of attempts and Angela and I were off to the races! We really liked FLAME WAR and wanted to put in more sparkly long down stuff, so were pleased that NOLAN RYAN and HOLE IN ONE would fit without much compromise. And then FEED BAG and FRET OVER fell into place so nicely we held up our hands and said "I like!" in a Borat voice.
The only area we had to really work at was the center, which was constrained by the three middle theme answers. Having ICI, NDAK, and ATF all in close proximity wasn't ideal, but in the end we figured in the grand scheme of everything that was working in the puzzle, this was a good tradeoff.
Finally, I tried to sneak it in with Angela's name first but she out-sneaked me.
Alex came to me with the idea of a giant M and W made of black squares, and I thought it was clever. However, he had been working with a 15x grid which made for an extremely challenging layout. After playing with it for a while, I felt like it was going to result in too many three-letter words and too much compromise in the fill.
I suggested going to a 21x which would be somewhat more flexible plus it would give us a bigger palette with which to work. It proved to be slightly easier than a 15x but was still extremely challenging. The biggest difficulty was finding a way to place enough M-W theme answers without constraining the grid so much that the surrounding fill would be badly compromised. Luckily, we came upon the crossing pattern of MINUTE WALTZ, MIRACLE WORKER, MONEYS WORTH, and MINIMUM WAGE; a small miracle.
It ended up taking us several months of back and forth iterations before we settled upon the final grid. There were many places we had to work and rework in order to attain a reasonable fill we were both happy with. Quite a challenge!
My favorite subject in high school was chemistry. It's an unusual person who gets goose bumps reading about s and p orbitals, but as my wife knows oh too well, I'm an unusual fellow.
The idea for this one popped into my head during a long run where my mp3 player had run out of batteries and I was desperately casting about for something to occupy my brain. I loved the idea of having slightly tilted lines in the puzzle to represent the 104.5 degree bonding angle within the H-O-H molecule. The lines ended up straight for what I assume is layout purposes, but that's okay. In my head they're slightly bent. =]
Easier said than done, however. My first attempt I ended up using top-down symmetry. Will said he liked the concept but rightfully said the layout looked strange. So I redid the puzzle using regular symmetry and am much happier with this version. I wasn't sure if it was going to be possible given the fact that I really wanted at least nine instances of the H-O-H molecule (to reflect the EVERYWHERE statement) but as with most things, if you work long enough at it, you often break through the finish tape.
A final point of interest is the inclusion of TYCHO BRAHE. To me, he's such a fascinating man (he lost the tip of his nose in a duel and wore a metal prosthetic) that I wanted to include him when I realized he could fit at 29-down. I had a few other options, but nothing else came close in terms of personal interest. It forced some less than stellar fill in the SW region, but in the end, I felt SO I, SCH, and AMAH were reasonable prices to pay. Every constructor has his/her set of internal values and criteria, so I'm sure some would say they'd prefer a cleaner, less snazzy section. But this very variety is one of the best aspects of crosswords!