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29 puzzles by John Guzzetta
with Jeff Chen comments

John Guzzetta
Tue 6/2/2020

Time to PART COMPANY! I've appreciated KROGER's drive-up-and-go grocery services during the pandemic, so it was fun to see that company split across BUCK ROGERS. Neat discovery of INTEL inside SAINT ELMO, too. I was positive the theme was going to be COMPANY INSIDERS, given INTEL's old "Intel Inside" slogan. Sadly, "Alcoa in your drawer" doesn't have the same ring to it.

I paused when I hit PART COMPANY. My first impression: it more strongly hints at another tried-and-true theme type, where the company is at the start and end of a phrase — like EBAY at the ends of EBBED AWAY. It's weird to see EBAY not separated whatsoever with a PART COMPANY revealer.

A few months ago, Will Shortz said he's getting pickier about "hidden words" themes, because he has too many on file. I've started to see where he's coming from.

There is still room for more, though. To stand out, constructors will need to include some combination of:

  • Long hidden words. Shorter ones are too easy.
  • Fantastic revealer, giving the theme a delightful reason for existence.
  • Some extra layer. I can't define that, but if your "hidden words" theme feels cookie cutter, it'll be a tough road.

I enjoyed much of John's gridwork, entries like LUBE JOB, BEWILDER, TEE SHOT, BABY FAT, LUCKY ME, SADLY NO. A flood of riches!

They did come with high prices though, VADIS ESE ONA OTO TMEN unfriendly for newer solvers; inelegant. I'd have asked John to dial it back, accepting fewer bonuses in exchange for a smoother overall product.

I'm curious to see what constructors will do in this theme space in the future — there's still potential for interesting twists. "Insider trading" did make my theme radar ping …

Fri 4/24/2020

When people ask me what makes for a great themeless entry, I'm going to point to CATTLE RUSTLERS. It has the four qualities that make it a gold medalist:

  1. It's a snazzy phrase in its own right.
  2. You don't need to clue it with excruciating dictionary detail since it's a common enough term.
  3. It can take a wickedly clever clue.
  4. Said wickedly clever clue doesn't need a telltale question mark, making it so innocently brilliant.

I almost gave John the POW! for this entry / clue pair alone. Little respect for brand names? Not generic products, but literally names that are branded. Genius!

I always learn something from John's themelesses, mostly in a good way. I didn't know the term BRISTLECONE PINE, but these are two recognizable words, so it didn't interfere with my clean solve. Same with SHAG BARK. I wish these were more shagalicious entries, but what can you do.

ARCHAISM felt archaic, but it stems from "archaic" so I still could figure it out.

Nice bit of BORNEO trivia. I had no idea it was governed by … (Alexa, open Wikipedia!) … ah, got it. (Speaking in a condescending Alex Trebek voice) Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, of course.

I picked up the term "demesne" from crosswords, but I still don't know what it means. I had a vague feeling that I'd heard it from one of John's crosswords. A-ha! Thanks to our clue finder, I see that John indeed used this clue in a previous themeless. Two strikes ...

I enjoyed much of GRAB A BITE TO EAT, OPENS A TAB, the historical term BRITISH RAJ, THAT'S WEIRD. One too many demesnes that were weird for me, though.

Tue 2/18/2020

John and I love our national parks!

I cringe whenever spotting circles arranged in diagonal lines. They play havoc on a constructor's flexibility, rigidifying a grid right from the get-go. Take REDWOOD, for example. Every one of the squares flanking that entry (both above AND below it) has to work with REDWOOD now — AND its usual across and down crossing answers! "Triple-checking" is the bane of many a constructor's existence.

There was some YTD ORA TCU SSA UNS as I went, but it was much less than I expected. More importantly, it was all minor, stuff that most solvers can ignore, or should at least be able to figure out from the crosses. Given the high constraints, that's solid gridwork.

Why do the PARALLEL PARKs go diagonally? At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, parallel parking is usually ... parallel (to the curb). Except the way I do it, in which case the parks would be partially hanging off the grid. Yeah, it's not pretty.

Maybe John chose national parks that feature slanting trees and other diagonal visual wonders? It has been a long time since I've been to Redwood national park. Ah! I remember looking up, taking in the grandeur of it all, and ... THE TREES LOOKING ALL ANGLED BECAUSE OF PERSPECTIVE!

Sure, why not.

The first time I went to REDWOOD national park, my jaw dropped at the sights. I didn't have the same reaction today, but just like most any national park is pleasurable, so is most any well-constructed crossword.

Fri 1/31/2020

If you haven't tasted The Rooster, you haven't lived.

That sounds dirtier than it is.

Those of us hooked on SRIRACHA sauce call it The Rooster because there are plenty of knock-offs, but there's only one original SRIRACHA with the Rooster logo. No, it doesn't have any rooster in it!

Or does it? Maybe that's why it tastes like chicken?


I also loved MIND … BLOWN! It sure could be tough to understand, though, if you've never used or seen the phrase and thus don't know to insert the implied ellipsis and exclamation. A clue with parallel structure could have helped, along the lines of ["That was ... UH-MAZING!"].

Two clues I should probably explain:

  • Temptation to steal is a WILD PITCH? Think about baseball, where a pitcher's wild throw opens an opportunity to take off running. What confused me was that I thought a baserunner advancing due to a wild pitch was recorded as an error, not a steal. (Turns out that an anal overthinker analyzing a clue to death takes away all of its cleverness. And a wild pitch doesn't result in a stolen base or an error. Man, is baseball weird.)
  • SWAMIS are know-it-alls? Aren't the wisest people those who know only that they don't know everything? (What was I saying about analyzing a clever clue to death?)

A lot to enjoy, notably marquee entries like AND … SCENE! (again with the implied ellipsis and exclamation point), BOLD MOVE, COWGIRLS, and GRYFFINDOR (I'd be an undistinguished Hufflepuff), but I like 70-word themelesses to be squeaky clean, avoiding the little dings of IMY, CMS, RDS, LPN, etc. as well as the perilous crosses of MCAN / COE and ALKALI / ALDO.

Tue 11/5/2019

Four fruits playing JUICY ROLEs today. What? JUICY PARTs? That does make more sense for this theme concept, but it doesn't hit my ear as strongly as JUICY ROLE. Checking the Googs … huh! Apparently JUICY PART is highly favored over JUICY ROLE. Shows what I know.

I appreciated that John found so many long fruits hidden within themers. ROMAN GODDESS is fantastic, both as a base phrase and as a delightfully fruitful find. LEMON across ANKLE MONITOR is wonderful, too. Those 5+ letter finds can seem so impossibly possible.

Usually, I'm not a fan of hidden words contained within other single words, but TOMATO in AUTOMATON is top-notch; what a cool discovery. TOMATO has no shared etymology with AUTOMATON, so that makes it even better.

Even with five themers, you should almost always be able to work in a couple of long bonuses. TANDEM BIKE and BEAUTY TIPS both hit the mark, totally worth the price of a minor ENDO. I always have a tough time with ENTO vs ENDO, but John made the crossing unambiguous.

Great themers, strong craftsmanship … so why didn't this strike me as POW! material? Perhaps I'm suffering from "hidden words" fatigue. Will mentioned a few months ago that he has too many hidden word themes on file, so it takes something incredible to pass his bar now.

The revealer didn't quite hit, either. JUICY PART more indicates that one word of the phrase is a fruit in disguise, like LEMON LAW or DATE NIGHT. It does work, but not as beautifully as if FRUITY MIDDLE had been a real phrase. Too bad that's not a thing. Come on, candy makers, make a FRUITY MIDDLE Starburst or something already!

Solid puzzle overall.

POW Fri 10/25/2019

I've had the pleasure of working on a couple of crosswords with John Guzzetta — we seem to be on similar wavelengths. His comment above made me laugh — about ten years ago, I pulled a prank on a friend, playing Darth Vader's Imperial March (on cello) as she walked down the aisle. During the rehearsal, not the actual ceremony!

I solve so many themelesses that they all tend to run together in a mish-mash of interesting phrases. One rarely stands out, so I appreciate it when I can hang on to something, anything that makes it feel distinctive.

Jill and I have French friends who like to poke fun of their Frenchness — it's delightful to hear Romain say he doesn't care about something "because I'm French" in an exaggerated accent. So many phrases today reminded me of that shrugging attitude: WHO CAN SAY, IT DEPENDS, WHAT GIVES.

I also enjoyed knowing "1-up" for EXTRA LIFE right off the bat, bringing me back to the old days when I'd hang out at the local arcade, a bunch of kids crowded around a "Donkey Kong" machine, our quarters lined up along the top.

Great cluing, too, making short, usually neutral entries stand out. [Some nerve?] elevated OPTIC. The wordplay for RUNE's clue was genius — it may be set in stone, literally!

A couple of minor dings here and there — MAZY and UNHIT are oddballs, and AREOLA is one of those entries we snooty constructors roll our eyes at since it gets used way too much because of its friendly vowels — but overall, a delightful solving experience.

Tue 9/24/2019

Three GREEK CROSSes = pairs of themers intersecting at their hidden Greek letters. The LAT published a bigger version of this concept just two weeks ago, unfortunately. I liked how that one crossed the same letter with itself, forming GREEK CROSSes with equal length arms.

But then I wondered, maybe John's done something brilliant by picking out Greek letters THAT SPELL OUT SOMETHING! That would more than enough make up for his unequal CROSS lengths.





ARIZona? Maybe there are Greek artifacts in Tempe? This is actually happening!



Huh. Would you buy Judas IZcARIOT?


The grid contains several rough spots, enough that I stopped keeping track after ANSE ALYN ARTE RIAL SECY. Five strikes and you're out for an early-week puzzle! (That number could easily be three or less, for some solvers.) Not nearly smooth enough to be accessible to newer solvers.

What happened? The biggest problem is the size of the real estate around each pair of crossing letters. Take FINAL PHASE and AIR HOLES, for example. It's usually wise to put a black square close to that intersection, probably at the first P of PPM. If you don't, you're effectively trying to build a themeless-esque grid — but with several constraints already locked into place.

There's no easy fix, unfortunately, since if you put a black square at the first P of PPM, you'd form a two-letter word. That means you'd need to move that black square to the left of LEMON ZEST. The shocks ripple through the puzzle, and require a full redo. Unfortunate, but that's what was necessary.

I did like that John managed to work in so much snazzy long fill. LEMON ZEST and REST EASY are welcome surprises in the middle of the puzzle. LEAD APRONS, RAMS HORN, and PIT AGAINST would have also added to the quality of my solving experience, except for the problems they caused in short fill.

Fri 8/9/2019

A standard 70-word themeless has to be near-flawless for me to perk up. Nearly all 12 entries in the four triple-stacks have to sizzle, and the short fill must be clean as a whistle. Even if these criteria are met, the puzzle usually has to do something above and beyond.

The longest entries, TWITTERATI and DEATH STARE, certainly qualified as above and beyond. Not easy to squeeze these into the middle of the puzzle. Note how cleverly John did this — both answers steer well clear of the four triple-stacks in the corners, making for more flexibility.

I did enjoy TWITTERATI more than DEATH STARE. I'm sure it's my personal preferences in this day and age, as the latter reminded me of a certain unpleasant Orangeman. Huh, so did TWITTERATI. #Sad.

A couple of clues stymied me. What's a "demesne"? Looked it up, and the dictionary said ESTATE. It's an accurate clue, but it's both boring and a turn-off.

Speaking of turn-off: the ULTRAHD clue. 4K? Apparently that's the term the wonks use for Ultra HD. (Something about 4000 horizontal pixels.) NONES is "the religiously unaffiliated" — basically, the dictionary definition. To EMBAR is to hinder, also from the dictionary.

I bet if you looked up FARO, you'd get something that starts with "gambling game that …"

These aren't bad. Neither are they good, though, and a (mostly) standard 70-word puzzle needs much more to help it stand out.

Thankfully there was enough OVEN MITT (awesome playful clue, riffing on "handy" = "hand-y"), HOW RUDE!, LOGICIAN, SCANDIUM, CANOODLE, to keep me entertained.

Fri 2/8/2019

You think Mike likes portmanteaus? FUNEMPLOYED and MATHLETES today, with HACKTIVISM and STAYCATION in his last themeless? Hmm!

I'm partial to MATHLETE, myself, having been one (and wishing I were still good enough to be one). I mostly hear the others in a jokey way though, almost cringeworthy. I much prefer colorful multi-word phrases, such as CLAIM TO FAME, READY ROOM (Jean-Luc Picard fans unite!), FLAT BROKE, LOVE LETTER. Those feel much more timeless.

I remember the first time I SAW (II) WADIS in a crossword. My reaction was far from FOR THE WIN (something the kids say these days — or what they used to say, by now?). I've softened over time. It's kind of an interesting term, albeit specialized. Makes for a good party trick when you want to show off your trivia.

While I prize jazzy, multi-word phrases in themelesses, I also appreciate when a cool single-word entry dazzles, like IMPRIMATUR. I admit I wouldn't get this one right on a vocab test, but it made me feel good that I recognized the fancy-pants word.

All in all, not quite enough color in this one for my taste, along with a couple of (admittedly very) minor CES ESE HMS dings. It's tough — the bar for a standard 70-word themeless is so high these days.

Fri 9/14/2018

Sometimes I feel like I have to HUNT AND PECK when a grid is filled with tough names. I'm personally familiar with NEMEA and Boba FETT, being a big fan of Greek myth and Star Wars lore. But pop music? Shudder! Names like DANGER MOUSE are dangerous to my ability to successfully complete a puzzle, when I barely know what "Gnarls Barkley" is. IT'S A MIRACLE that I finished with no errors, given so many DELIA, DEIRDRE, SHTETL, KOENIG entries in the grid!

I did love some entries, especially THAT'S GENIUS, which people say to me much less frequentsomely than I would not unlike. PASS THE BAR and IMAGINE THAT were also strongly on my WAVELENGTH(s).

Sometimes my constructor background stabs at my ability to enjoy puzzles. I see two elements that shouldn't coexist: 1.) a 70-word puzzle (just two under the maximum for themelesses), and 2.) more crossword glue than I want to see in any themeless. About five of AMAS DECI ESS FETT SEP THU XKES feels like an unpolished finish.

It's a shame. Other people have different (but perhaps equally valid) philosophies on themeless construction, some more liberal on how much crossword glue is okay — or even what qualifies as crossword glue!

Thankfully a couple clues helped elevate my solve. The clue for HAS BEENS was delightful — riffing on the astronomy term "distant stars" was brilliant. Similarly, riffing on the football "offensive line" for BARB = brilliant!

Sat 5/19/2018

Some solid entry/clue pairs today. My two favorite:

  • FLEA MARKET is good in its own right. Using the word "stalls" to misdirect toward "stalling" instead of "sellers' stalls" makes it brilliant.
  • WATER POLO uses the eggbeater kick? Took me a while to figure out how one would kick like an eggbeater, but it provided me a nice a-ha.

SPERM DONOR … yes, a clever clue, in one who makes deposits to a certain bank. I know I shouldn't get a little breakfast testy here, as SPERM DONORs provide a valuable service. Still, I couldn't get myself to add it to the list above due to a persisting discomfort. Why did it make me cringe a little? A little too cutesy on the clue? Still not sure.

As a standard 70-word themeless, the long entries must all shine, and there can't be much of any crossword glue — the bar has been raised very high for this type of themeless. I thought John did an excellent job with his long entries, only NATTERED and TASTE TESTS feeling neutral to me (Will once called STRESS TESTS "cheap" because of all the uber-common letters).

I did end up liking AIR BAZOOKA, but what a kooky term. (I've known it as an "air vortex cannon.")

And as an engineer, I know the word CAMBER. Vaguely. It does seem odder in the plural.

I don't mind a bit of crossword glue in the name of making something incredible happen. But for a 70-worder, RETD, EDER (or is that ODER?), OFA (what is "of a piece"?), OKE, TAE is way too much for today's standards.

Still, an entertaining solve, if with some inelegance in execution.

ADDED NOTE: Apparently this crossword was spotted at the beginning of "John Wick 3"!

Sat 2/24/2018

Beautiful middle stairstack! Delightful to get a mini-theme in BINGE WATCHING and SLIPPERY SLOPE. It's even better when they're located in positions that usually shouldn't allow for mini-theme placement. It's a similar sort of magic to a 15 + 15 letter phrase … stacked atop each other!

We've seen enough "stairstack" middles, that they're becoming easier and easier for me to critique — what's the quality of 1.) middle stairstack, 2.) NW/SE corners, 3.) SW / NE tail?

(On one hand, I like that more and more people are gravitating to this themeless grid type. It allows for a lot of great material, with interesting visual effect. On the other, I worry that it's going to become overused. I like innovation, dagnabit!)

Great work in criterion 1. PAROLE HEARING made for another snazzy entry — three for three winners. And such smoothness in the down answers holding that middle together. Not a fan of RESHIPS, but I do see it in alerts from Amazon.

Solid work in criterion 2. I didn't know we had an estate past the fourth estate (the media), but I can buy the FIFTH ESTATE. Fun to learn the term, anyway, and it didn't hinder my solve. IRA ROLLOVER is pretty dull even for this financial planner ... but RUMORMONGER helped keep up the color in that NW corner.

AVGAS … I'm a mechanical engineer, not an aerospace engineer. I'll grant you that. But AVGAS? I nearly choked because it crossed GIAN, which seemed like it could be GION or GIEN. Thankfully, that GAS part of AVGAS saved me. But even though the crossing ultimately seemed fair, it left me with a sense of inelegance.

Ah, criterion 3. That's where most people fall down. It's so hard to use those two tail sections in the SW / NE, once you've fixed your stairstack into place. Such juicy long slots … and PLODDERS is not the way to use them well. SAD SONG is a little better, and HEADLONG is okay.

If John had worked in a little more juice in these tough-to-fill sections, this could have been POW!-worthy. Pesky criterion 3!

Well crafted, got some POW! consideration from me. Not quite there, though.

POW Sun 10/15/2017WISE MOVE

★ WISE MOVEs indeed, two-word phrases where the Y sound is moved from the end of the first word to the end of the second. Some great results, doggy treats to DOG TREATIES my favorite. Such an amusing visual of dogs sitting around discussing settlement terms (maybe while playing poker?). Gravy train to GRAVE TRAINEES also worked well for me, as 1.) the base phrase is great, and 2.) cemetery interns, now that's something I'd write a book about! Great stuff.

Most of the others worked decently well, too. County fair to COUNT FAIRIES gave me a fun visual of census takers doing their darndest to get an accurate count while all the fairies flit about. Smartypants to SMART PANTIES made me laugh, too — not exactly sure what data a pair of SMART PANTIES collects. Probably don't want to know.

The only one that I was plus minus on was GROCER STORIES, which seemed duller than the others. A little too close to the base phrase of "grocery stores." YMMV.

Mostly strong work in the grid. Loved CHEEZ IT, EASY NOW, EVEN STEVEN, MAIN MAN, MEDIA STORM, NOSE JOB, OLD SALT, POWER NAP, SOUR MASH, and more. It's rare to get this much bonus material in a Sunday grid — four-ish bonuses is passable for me, so this is well above and beyond. Even if the theme didn't amuse solvers, all these great bonuses provide entertainment.

Not that many blips in the short fill, too — ETTES, IN AS, SDS, etc. is overlookable. Didn't bug me as I went.

The only sticking point for me: the oddballs in NEEDER and TUYERES. That first one is hard to imagine ever using in real life. The second … this mechanical engineer didn't recognize the term. It is a real thing, but it's not the type of mid-length word I'd strive to debut in the NYT crossword. Thankfully, John and Mike made the crossings fair. And I did like learning what a TUYERE is.

I liked this twist on the standard "sound change" type of theme. Done consistently, with a bunch of nice bonuses, and the grid mostly executed well. A nice example of a Sunday that can cater well to a wide audience.

Thu 9/14/2017

DIASTEMA? That's a … gap in one's teeth? I was confused at the end of my solve, having missed the concept, but I got a nice a-ha when I realized that John split theme answers so that they were "gap-toothed": TOOT / HIS OWN HORN, DO UNTO / OTHERS, SPREAD TOO / THIN. Fun twist on the old "words hidden within theme phrases" theme type.

DIASTEMA is an unusual revealer. I might have chosen to go with GAP TOOTHED so as to be more transparent, but there's something to be said about using DIASTEMA to delay the a-ha moment; to make the solver work for it. It does run the risk of the solver finishing the grid without understanding the theme, and putting the puzzle aside.

I get John's point about matching verb tenses in the themers, but I found the lack of symmetry odd. Along with DIASTEMA being in an unusual location for a revealer — with no symmetrical theme answer — the layout felt a little clunky. Other solvers might not notice any of this, but symmetry is such a core feature of crosswords that breaking it requires an extraordinary or theme-specific reason to do so, in my book.

I wonder if it would have helped to split MOLAR, CANINE, INCISOR, etc. instead of just TOOTH? Or to use TEETH?

Some tough fill. Totally fine to use esoteric words in a Thursday puzzle, like DUMONT, RYDELL, NESSUS (and DIASTEMA!). But too many of them can be a turn-off, especially when they leave room for a solver to finish with an unfair error. I finished with SHIEST / RIDELL instead of SHYEST / RYDELL, and DOMONT / CENSORED instead of DUMONT / CENSURED. Ultimately, I think both errors are more on me than on the puzzle — SHIEST is apparently a variant spelling — but that didn't stop me from coming away frustrated.

Neat concept, fun to see those gaps in the TOOTHs (maybe it should have been TEETH!). Some problems in execution, though.

POW Sat 9/9/2017

★ A ton of strong entries today, most all of them hitting home so well for me. That bottom stack in particular — PEACE SUMMIT, PR NIGHTMARE with its crazy PRN start, and SPIDEY SENSE? Yes, please! And there was so much goodness in those four corners, WORLDS APART to ZONE DEFENSE to HORSE AROUND to VAN DAMME (check out "JCVD" if you haven't seen it — amazing movie!).

And ADOLESCENTS isn't usually an entry I'd point out as an asset, but its clue made it shine. Such an innocent looking [Minority group] clue made me think of voting minorities, not under the age of 18 folks. Perfect wordplay; so clever.

The EMAIL clue, referencing the shenanigans in the 2016 election? Too soon, Will and Joel. Too soon.

I typically hold 72-word themelesses to a very high bar, because they're pretty easy to execute on. For me to pick one as a POW!, it usually has to contain well over 10 great entries, and close to no crossword glue. This one made me rethink my criteria. I counted about 11 assets and 3-4 liabilities. EEE in particular is EEEgregious, a constructor's crutch that I'd never use in one of my puzzles.

But I enjoyed the puzzle so much, that I was able to overlook these issues. Although there were some lost opportunities in the long slots — ARTINESS and GET REST don't do much except take up valuable real estate — the feature entries were so strong. Made me think I need to adjust my evaluation metrics, perhaps giving strong entries one point and super-strong ones two points?

My OCD need to measure and record everything aside, themeless puzzles are all about how the entries hit a solver's personal interests. This one was spot-on for me.

Tue 6/27/2017

Easy-breezy hidden synonym theme, WHIFF, FAN, STRIKE all relating to striking out. I did check-swing on this theme concept at first, given that WHIFF and STRIKE are a single swing and miss, while FAN is a strikeout.

Then I realized that there are three synonyms … and in total, they're more or less three strikes, which equals GO DOWN SWINGING! Clever. (The puzzle, that is, not me, given how long it took me to figure that out. Probably ought to pull me for a reliever.)

John threw some heat in his bonus material, HALFLIFE, UNDERWORLD, ROSE GOLD, and PREALGEBRA good to great. With four themers — even if they're longish — it's almost always possible to work in four long bonus downs in staggered positions. Easy formula: spread out your four themers, spread out your four long downs, test liberally to make sure every section is fillable, and you're done!

It's not that easy of course, but it's a tried and true formula.

I also liked the changeup, John using a couple of long bonuses in the across direction. AD SLOGAN and LARGESSE are great entries. Most constructors don't do this type of thing because it can put a ton of strain on a grid, resulting in suboptimal short fill.

On that note, check out the east section. Constructors might typically put a black square at the O of CARDIO, helping to give that east region much more flexibility — with ADSLOGAN and PREALGEBRA fixed into place, there's not much wiggle room. AMICI is an odd word for an early-week puzzle, but as long as the crossings are fair, allowing most solvers a clean finish, I can give it a pass.

But AMICI crossing ESAI crossing FEIN … hmm, no bueno. I got those right because I do a ton of crosswords, but this isn't a good way to encourage newer solvers. I would have asked for a redo in that section alone and asked to smooth out WORF / WBA as well — even this Trekkie thinks it's not fair to expect people to know WORF.

Nice, novel concept, but I would have liked the grid tuned more toward early-week smoothness.

Fri 6/2/2017

Mike was over at my place for a beer a few weeks back, and he shared with me an enviable fact: he and John are around 75% in terms of themeless acceptances. Considering Will once told me there's only one person who's sustained an acceptance rate over 40-50%, that's fantastic.

(The person is Patrick Berry of course, at around 90%.)

So what's their secret? Sending money directly to me, in stacks of large, unmarked bills. You can do it too!

Well, that, and working only with 70- or 72-word grids, focusing all their effort toward getting the four corners packed with juicy, clean fill. Middle of the puzzle be damned!

Of course, this is easier said than done. Creating a single triple-stacked corner with great entries and smooth fill is hard enough. Finishing a grid with four of them is a tough task.

I loved the lower right, AS EASY AS PIE for me since I'm a huge IDRIS ELBA and basketball fan. What a great clue for MIAMI HEAT too — I usually don't think about what logos actually are. Cool flaming (basket)ball.

Mike said VOLUNTOLD was one of their seeds. That one didn't do much for me, as 1.) I hadn't heard of it, and 2.) found it hard to believe people would say something so silly-sounding. It could easily be a TRYHARD situation, where I pooh-poohed that entry at first, and now I've heard all sorts of people (much younger than me) say it. Hmm.

INSATIATE in that same corner … I tried to plunk in "insatiable" and was confused why it didn't fit. Hmm again. INSATIATE is in the dictionary, though I doubt I'll ever use it.

ALEPH NULL was another curious one. I love math, having read a ton of Martin Gardner's work in rec math. But ALPEH NULL was tough to piece together, and it took a while to figure out what it meant (stupid complicated Wikipedia article!). I wonder how this entry will strike non-math fans.

In that same corner, John got worried that they had gotten scooped on MALL SANTA when they were working on the grid. It is true that themelesses tend to shine on the strength of a handful of fresh feature entries. But I think that given enough time between publications, great entries can still retain their sparkle, like this one.

I did get stuck in the NW, unwilling to believe that CYCAD was a thing. I kept wondering why LTD was specific to Lucasfilm (it's not). This uberdork immediately put in THX. Sigh.

Overall, great work keeping the grid smooth and silky. If only a couple of feature entries had resonated a little better for me ...

Fri 3/24/2017

Mike mentioned to me that he and John had gotten three (or more now?) themelesses accepted, with a focused strategy: 1.) go up to 70 or 72 words, 2.) use a fairly standard themeless layout, 3.) focus hard on those four corners, packing in as many great entries as possible, and 4.) allow some gluey bits, just as long as it doesn't get to be noticeable. It's a strategy that's paid off well for them.

This one was almost exactly what I was expecting, given Mike's description. Love that ASTERISKS / CLIP ON TIE / RELAY RACE trio (ASTERISKS got elevated with a great clue referring to "qualifications" — modifiers, not resume points!). A bit of USS and ISSA (hard to ask solvers to know every congressperson) holding everything together, but oh so worth it.

I wasn't as hot on the opposite corner since CRINOLINE didn't mean much to me. I felt like it represented untapped potential for that precious slot — although I'd bet lovers of Jane Eyre and 19th-century Britain would disagree.

Give what Mike told me, HEY BATTER BATTER was a nice surprise. Great feature entry right across the plate.

It can be tough to work in a grid-spanning central entry into a themeless, since its start and end reduces flexibility, constraining the triple-stacks it intersects. So I can understand why they decided to put that black square between STY and ICERS, to facilitate better filling. It'd be great to get another set of triple-stacks in those two corners, but it's much better to get just two great answers like LEVIATHAN and EYESTRAIN rather than try to strain your grid.

I was on the verge of feeling like AIS (partial), ICERS (is that a real profession?), and the aforementioned were too much, but they kept the glue spread out pretty well.

And with bonuses such as FBOMB and the amusing TWERK TWERP pairing, I quite enjoyed this 72-worder.

Sometimes themeless constructors (including myself) stretch too much, aiming for much more technically difficult 68- or 66-worders, but we'd do well to think about what these guys' approach brings to the solving experience. Looking forward to their next collaborations!

Fri 1/27/2017

Classic themeless grid layout, a triple-stack of long answers in each corner. I like how John pushed it, though. Very nice to get four additional long slots worked in — 16 long slots give you so much potential for a huge quantity of great entries.

The SE corner resonated with me, Jill and me an INTERRACIAL couple in a STARTER HOME. I asked Jim Horne the other day what he thought made for a great themeless, and his thoughtful reply was: needs a little something strong for everyone. I'm sure INTERRACIAL won't do much for other solvers, and it might even offend. Good thing there are other parts of the puzzle!

I liked that John worked in a good range of entries, from NAVEL GAZES for the introspective, to a TITLE FIGHT for boxing fans, from the OPEN BORDERS of much of the European Union to the ECOSYSTEMS a hiker might pass through as he/she ROUGHS IT.

That last answer brought a smile to my face, knowing that John and Mike Hawkins are hiking buddies. I feel privileged to have made contact with so many constructors, and seeing little flashes of their personality in a puzzle makes me appreciate it that much more.

So many of John's long entries worked well, although I didn't care for LIEGEMAN or PIMIENTO. (Mostly because PIMIENTOs are disgusting.) Not surprising to see that these particular long slots were the ones to sing the least for me, given that they 1.) run through a triple-stack each, and 2.) intersect each other. The more constraints, the harder to make your long entries sing.

A pretty clean grid, with one notable exception: DOGY. This is personal preference of course, but any time the dread "variant" tag is required = no bueno. I tend to gloss over a handful of minor RES, MOC, ETH, ELL crossword glue. Hard for me not to dwell on a DOGY; nice to see John equally thumbs-down now that he knows it is a variant.

Loved the clue for Mary SHELLEY, who wrote "Frankenstein." Created a monster, indeed!

Some strong entries, and mostly minor glue to hold everything all together.

Mon 10/24/2016

Wait. Someone actually listened to me?

I liked this one a lot. Simple theme — NEWS, TRAFFIC, WEATHER, SPORTS the typical parts of a MORNING SHOW — yet I didn't know what was going on until close to the end. On Mondays, I often play a little game, trying to guess as quickly as possibly what the theme is, and I enjoy when I don't immediately figure it out (as long as I actually do figure it out at some point!).

Beautiful northeast corner. Absolutely loved the AL GORE RHYTHM (oh right, ALGORITHM) / TOP SECRET pairing, along with just a TRI / EMTS as very, very minor prices to pay. That "parallel down" structure is so hard to do, so pulling off two great long entries with virtually no crossword glue is dynamite.

Some other bonuses in JET LAG, IN A SECOND, even a SMOKER standing outside a building. Very nice to get these extras, when John already had a toughish task incorporating five longish theme answers.

You have no idea how relieved I was when read John's note about a 74-word layout including RETUSE. I already struggled with ENVOI and HESS crossing BIER (clued as the funeral stand, not the German word for beer).

Why is ENVOI problematic for me in a Monday puzzle? I think of my experience when starting crosswords, and also draw from friends' initial impressions of crosswords. Most anything is fair game when the crosses are easily gettable (the beauty of crosswords!) but shortish entries that smell of "weird word you might never see outside of crosswords in your entire life" tend to leave a bad impression.

Now, I like learning a thing or two. I didn't know what a GOAT RODEO was outside of crosswords, but what a cool term! ENVOI is something I can plunk in now without any letters because I do a lot of crosswords, but it gives me more of a sense of something that crossword constructors rely on, rather than giving solvers much pleasure.

But overall, nice start to the week.

POW Fri 7/29/2016

★ Really fun solve ... and so familiar! John sent me two versions of this puzzle, asking for my feedback. One was a "clean" version — this one — and the other was "less clean." They differed mainly in that bottom right corner, with LAST RESORT / URBAN DECAY in the "less clean" one where ANGLOPHONE / INTERSECTS is now. I felt like the puzzle would be just tremendous if he could work in LAST RESORT / URBAN DECAY … but without the uglies like TEN CC, EELER, GOER, STYE that it required to hold that corner together. Ultimately, it proved impossible, though. Ah well.

We also discussed INRI. That to me is a pretty big offender (stands for "Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Iudaeorvm"), one I'd go to any length to get rid of, since to a good chunk of solvers it could seem like four random letters stuck together. I liked INRE much better, since I use that all the time in memos. But that required FOGS to become FOGG (with SICKOS becoming GECKOS), and John really disliked FOGG. Curious how subjective this business is! To me, Phileas FOGG is the beloved protagonist of "Around the World in 80 Days," a book that made a tremendous impact on me. But to people who haven't read the book, FOGG will be … just four random letters stuck together!

Other than INRI, it's such a well-made puzzle. Themelesses featuring 15-letter answers often have compromises, i.e. not very many feature answers, a lot of crossword glue, some stilted sounding fill. But to get not only TEACHABLE MOMENT and BIOLOGICAL CLOCK, but CHEST HAIR, GRAY MATTER, the ONE PERCENT, THE BEE GEES, etc. plus some really strong mid-length INKBLOT, CHURCHY, SPY KIDS, BAUBLES, is awesome. Very good use of all his slots.

QAID might cause some head-scratching. Merriam Webster does list it as a variant spelling of CAID, but it's so hard to pin down the "correct" spelling of those words like HIJAB and NIQAB. So I give it a pass.

All in all, I still would have loved for that bottom right corner to be snazzed up — ANGLOPHONE and INTERSECTS don't feel like standout answers to me — but as a whole, I really enjoyed the solve.

POW Wed 3/9/2016

★ I liked so much about this puzzle. The theme is nothing to write home about — phrases ending in sweet spreads, i.e. PRESERVES, JELLY, JAM, and MARMALADE — but John hid them pretty well using different(ish) meanings. SLOW JAM was my favorite, and MOON JELLY was fun too.

Don't recall LADY MARMALADE? Think of the "Moulin Rouge" soundtrack!

I enjoy seeing constructors push themselves, and John's employment of a mirror-symmetry, 69-word grid is appreciated. All those long slots allowed John to work in EYETEETH, PILASTERS, BERYLLIUM (I was kicking myself for not being able to remember element number 4!), and the curious VOLTE-FACE. I had never heard of VOLTE-FACE, but it's such an interesting word. Plus, that trap of plunking in ABOUT FACE was fun to extract myself from.

Now, I don't particularly like the sets of three black squares in the SW / SE corners; inelegant visuals. Those could have been eliminated by moving SLOW JAM and LADY MARMALADE up a row, which would have also elegantly put exactly two rows of space between each pair of themers. But I can understand why John did it — having as much space between themers as possible usually makes for more flexibility in filling.

And there were a few bits of crossword glue — APAT, IRATER (more irate, yeah?), EPT — but John's original cluing of EPT to the pregnancy test, makes it much better for me (I wonder if Will felt it wasn't a big enough brand?). EPT, as in the opposite of INEPT … yeesh. I imagine some will find that fun, though.

Finally, the cluing made this such an enjoyable Wednesday solve:

  • In business-speak, PIVOTing is code for "having to find a business model once you realize your current one is dog poo."
  • BOISE is a place where you'd need an ID — abbr. for Idaho — to get your mail delivered properly.
  • In the world of middle grade writing, being ORPHANED is the source of many inside jokes. Kind of macabre and an overused trope, but how better to put your main character in a situation where he/she is forced to play the hero role, unable to rely on mom/dad's assistance?

Overall, such a fun Wednesday puzzle, giving me much more of a workout than usual.

POW Wed 2/10/2016

★ I have a feeling this one is going to leave some solvers cold, but I'm a sucker for most anything math-related. John gives us types of numbers at the starts of phrases: NATURAL, WHOLE, RATIONAL, and IMAGINARY. He could have used a NUMBERS revealer, but that would have been pretty dull, falling into the "words that can follow X" theme type that has fallen by the wayside. The clue for INTEGER was so long that it took me a while to figure out what it was saying, but what a neat way to tie together the puzzle. Innovative and interesting.

Pi can be so irrational ...

For those with math-aversions, NATURAL numbers and WHOLE numbers are more or less equated with INTEGERs (numbers without a decimal point). RATIONAL numbers can be WHOLE numbers like 1, 5, 144, but they can also be 15.4 (IRRATIONAL numbers are those that can't be expressed by a fraction, i.e. pi or the mathematical constant e.) Finally, IMAGINARY numbers are those including i (the square root of negative one).

Ah, takes me back to the good old days.

Yes, I'm weird.

Even if the theme didn't float your boat, the execution should. It's tough to work in four grid-spanners (15-letter entries) without a little compromise here or there in short fill. To add in a seven-letter revealer + some very nice long fill in BLUE LAW, SIPHONING, SEA ROVERS (wasn't sure what that was, but I decided I like the term after Googling it), and the crazy plural NAUTILI + virtually no gluey answers = dynamite execution.

Okay, I can see the argument against STOMA, given that it's pretty esoteric unless you're a biologist. But it's a real word used in botany, and all the crossings are very fair, so it didn't bother me. (I like botany, anyway.)

Finally, you have some nice short stuff in MOTIF, HUFF, the JUDEA/JAMS crossing nearly the same as yesterday (EERIE!), WICCA, ROIDS, and a hilarious clue in ASS-backwards … all in all, I found this puzzle to be a real winner.

Thu 10/1/2015

Now here's something I haven't seen before: a word ladder incorporated into rebus squares, WARM changing to COLD one letter at a time. I liked John's layout, the WARM WORM WORD CORD COLD progression flowing (sort of) along the diagonal. Sort of like a titration curve, with its inflexion points.

The "Aberdeen Bestiary"

A lot of nice long fill. SCREEN SHOT and BESTIARIES = excellent use of the longest two slots. BESTIARIES reminds me of my old D&D days. Nerds of the world, ride our gryphons to world domination!

Nice selection of theme entries, too. PASSWORD HINT has a modern feel, and FOR THE RECORD and WARM BODY are great. WORMS EYE VIEW … I glossed over the clue and put in the only thing that seemed possible: BIRDS EYE VIEW. Given how many tricky ways people are rebusizing the crossworld these days, I figured this was some sort of BIRD gets the WORM rebus — maybe a BIRD to WORM word ladder?


Now I appreciate WORMS EYE VIEW as a fun and interesting answer, but boy oh boy it didn't sit well with me when I was struggling to figure out the BIRD to WORM word ladder.

I liked John's care in short fill. For so much strong material packed in today, a bit of TSOS, TAY, I SAW is darn good. TSOS is minor, and I SAW is actually perfectly fine to me, as it can be clued relative to Caesar's famous boast.

AZOTH is an outlier, but it gets a neat clue related to alchemy. I like it.

I might have liked all the four-letter rebuses to be hidden better, as with FOR THE RE(CORD), since those are harder to uncover and thus a little more fun for me. And I bet solving on paper would have been a better experience — in Across Lite, it's hard to see rebus entries, since they show up truncated as "WA." and "WO." I know the technology is old and limited, but it sure makes for a less than satisfying solve sometimes.

Especially when you're trying to figure out how to change a BIRD to a WORM and you can only see the first two letters of each rung.


Thu 7/9/2015

Neat trick, RIGHT ON CUE interpreted as "themers turn at their Q." I love John's extra touch of selecting themers where the entry after the turn is a real word, i.e. QUID in GIANT SQUID. Devious — I had already solved QUID for [Pounds] and could not figure out what an [Army terror?] might be. Brilliant clue, BTW — a giant squid certainly is "arm-y."

Watch out for the giant QUID! Er, SQUID!

(insert delightful groan here)

That clue was especially nice given the proximity of [Army locales] = BASES. I knew some sort of wordplay was going on with [Army terror?], but I was sure it had to be the "terror" part of the clue. D'oh!

Any grid involving turning answers is going to be tough to fill, around those bends. It might seem like the difficulty level is even higher given all those Qs, but they actually come for free. For example, the Q in PEPSQUAD doesn't have to work with any crossing answers, given that it already crosses PEPSQ and QUAD. A nice way to get a whole bunch of Qs worked in with really no price to pay.

Well, except for the usual one of those tough bendy areas. It's no surprise that the entry John pointed out — OES — comes at the toughest section of the grid, where a bendy themer in ANYREQ/QUESTS intersects RIGHT ON CUE. I usually err toward the side of cleanliness in puzzles and would do anything to avoid OES, but I do like John's packing in of five bendy themers. Getting an arrangement where ILLEQ/QUIPPED intersected SUMMERSQ/QUASH is a real feat, so I appreciated the elegance there.

I would have liked some semblance of symmetry, though. Felt inelegant to have themers packed in wherever. And (warning: nerd engineer alert) the main hiccup I had was one that most people will never consider: the themers are actually turning LEFT, not right — from the point of view of an answer traveling south, if it changes direction to head east, that's a left-hand turn.

A great theme, with some execution hiccups. If only I could ignore my engineer's OCD and shut off my stupid brain once in a while.

Mon 1/5/2015

Nice start to the week, five colorful phrases ending with a type of bird. I appreciated the consistency, each of the phrases containing exactly two separate words, none of them hyphenated. An elegant touch.

Dr. Tim Whatley, the original regifter. Recognize him?

REGIFT could be one of those eye-rolling add-an-RE-to-the-beginning-of-anything, i.e. REOIL or REPEN or REBURP. This one is not just acceptable, but desirable in my eyes, because it's a lively entry that's entered the lexicon in a big way, perhaps first popularized by Seinfeld. Silly goose Americans.

This is a very difficult grid arrangement, what with a 13-letter themer smack dab in the middle. I often do everything I can to switch out the middle themer for a 7-letter one. That's often impossible, but once in a while you'll luck into something useable, which makes grid-building so much easier.

John deploys a lot of his black squares to separate themers, but there is only so much you can do with a 10/10/13/10/10 arrangement. The middle suffers, what with I REST / A TEE / USE IT all in one region. Too many partials for my taste, period, and way too many in a tiny area. It's so tough in the middle columns of the puzzle — you can either choose to separate LEGAL EAGLE and OLD BUZZARD, or OLD BUZZARD and SPRING CHICKEN, but you can't really do both. I might have leaned more toward the latter, due to the constraints the Z puts on that rocky I REST / A TEE / USE IT region.

I do like the NE and SW, nice and clean even though those parallel downs cause many constraints. John does really well to quasi-separate them from the rest of the puzzle through smart black square placement, and also does it in a way which doesn't make the puzzle flow suffer. Doing all this with a QUATRAIN and a PANDEMIC along with an extra Z worked smoothly in deserves a SHOUT OUT. Kudos!

Mon 12/1/2014

Such a nice way to start off the week, colorful phrases akin to "enthrall me" getting wacky connections to careers. My favorite was ROCK MY WORLD, perfectly tied to a seismologist. (Also very nice would have been a diamond seller, using the slangy meaning of "rock" in an engagement ring.) Love the consistency; each of the four themers having a (verb) MY (noun) structure.

Typically the "pinwheel" arrangement doesn't allow for a lot of great long fill, as it's too easy for the theme to get muddied up. After seeing the grid, I girded myself to get theme and not much more, but boy, was I pleasantly surprised. John gives us a clinic in how to wisely use your moderate-length fill. I thought I was lucky to get CAMP OUT, ALL TOLD, and PAIR UP right off the bat, and the goodness kept coming. ZEPHYRS and LIP SYNC anchor the other corner, and STIR FRY puts the exclamation point on the end with its fantastic clue, playing on the "walk" and "wok" homonyms. Newer constructors — heck, all constructors — ought to study how carefully John picked his moderate-length fill, maximizing the sizzle.

Drawing of a redoubt

I didn't know what REDOUBT was, but I liked learning about it. This is the right way, in my eyes, to introduce a new term to people's vocabulary — 1.) all of the crossings are perfectly fair, none of them even remotely possible to get wrong, and 2.) having it be the only odd duck in the grid. I like learning a thing or two, but like most lazy folks, one is better than two for me on a Monday.

I might have given it the POW! if it hadn't been for a few things. LIGHT MY FIRE clued to an arsonist … that's not really a career, is it? (Don't tell any of the kids I work with if it is.) I like John's pyrotechnician, which could have also been candlemaker. LED designer? Cinematographer? I understand the difficulty of not being able to use "light" in the clue — lighting expert, light designer — but this one inconsistency sticks out in a big way to me.

It would have been nice to see a couple of longer bits of fill, too. (If the square between BUILT and FAB had been taken out, for example.) This theme is so overt that it'd be tough to confuse long fill and themers. That may have not allowed for all the fantastic mid-length fill, but given how well John executed on it at 78 words, I bet he'd do just fine at 76 words too.

Very fun solve, a pleasure to write about.

Thu 7/10/2014

There's some brilliance behind this puzzle. I wouldn't have fully grokked it if I hadn't gotten a heads-up on the multiple levels of theme:

In the solution to the 7/10/14 puzzle, the answers to 5-, 54- and 63-Across, and 4-, 12- and 50-Down, are preceded by the invisible word SILENT. Additionally, each answer word crossing these contains a silent letter at the crossing point.

I've highlighted the theme answers and ghosted out the silent letters that head them. I wish I had been able to comprehend all the layers myself (stupid brain!), but I'm glad to see and admire it in retrospect. All the interconnect, too. John could have satisfied himself with only using short words with silent letters like ISLAND, but he decides to go big and utilize ELLIS ISLAND, so much better an answer than the plain old ISLAND. Not just HONEST, but HONEST WOMAN. I admire the big-time thinking.

The "go big" approach did produce some compromises, as John noted. It's one end of the spectrum. Other constructors might have chosen a less ambitious approach, perhaps only using short words or only packing in five theme pairs (or both). I usually don't mind a few bits of crunchy glue when a concept merits it. The frustration I had in trying to suss out DEMESNE for example though… it's a tough call. I also had a rough time in the DPT / STYLO section — usually I might suggest a set of cheater square s in the NE and SW corners, but of course that would have made the placement of MOVIE impossible. Tough trade-offs.

I usually like to see symmetrical themers, and today was no different. There's something so elegant about having not just the crossword grid be symmetrical, but having all the themers too. It might be too much to ask to have all pairs of themers be symmetrical, but I might have picked this puzzle for the POW if at least the "words that can follow SILENT" were symmetrically placed. There is something to be said about having asymmetry though, since it makes the puzzle even more challenging to solve (no freebie of knowing where another themer is once you've located one).

Finally, I'm a bit mixed as to the theme not revealing itself in a more natural way. It's too bad that a lot of solvers will likely finish the puzzle and not see all its grandeur, and then they'll miss the notepad tomorrow. Such a shame. Of course, having SILENT as a revealer in the puzzle would have made things clear, as its clue could have explained everything, but that's a pretty blunt force instrument. I don't have a great answer, unfortunately.

Overall, a memorable idea that will stick with me as much as another one that I loved (after someone told me what the heck was going on).

Tue 10/9/2012