Over the past several years, I've admired and enjoyed themeless puzzles with wide-open middle sections — particularly from Ryan McCarty (he has numerous eye-popping grids!) — and I wanted to take a shot at writing one myself. In addition, getting a themeless puzzle accepted these days — with so many constructors writing such wonderful puzzles — has been challenging, so I figured I would try something I had not done before. (My rejection pile is well-populated with 70-word themeless puzzles…)
Making the grid took much longer than usual, but I lucked out by having flexibility in the NW and SE corners by having the letter patterns ????SCIENCE and ALPINE????? to work with. As a longtime teacher of AP Statistics, I was happy that one of those slots became DATA SCIENCE. Also, for a long time, the entry WHO IS THAT was WHO IS THIS. Happily, the former led to much cleaner and more interesting fill. I hope this provides a fun Saturday challenge for solvers!
As you read this, I am likely making last-minute preparations for the Boswords 2022 Summer Tournament, which is this Sunday, July 24. It's both an In-Person and Online event, and there is still time to sign up at www.boswords.org.
JOHN: I am excited to share a byline with Brad and it was great fun collaborating with him. We had two 15-letter entries (17-Across and 34-Across) we were looking to build a puzzle around, and Brad suggested many different grid layouts. When he presented the one we ultimately used, my eyes lit up as I loved the two double stacks and the flow of the grid. I never would have come up with it myself — the power of collaboration!
Writing clues with Brad was a treat and I learned so much going back and forth with him. My favorite entry is 34-Across, and Brad came up with an evocative clue for it. I also learned much from the editorial team's tweaks which strengthened the puzzle immensely — particular thanks for the clue for TOES … I would not have dreamt that one up in a million years!
We wrote this in April 2020, and since then Brad has become the editor of all the puzzles for Boswords, a series of crossword events organized by myself and Andrew Kingsley. We are currently preparing for our next event, an all-online, one-day tournament on Sunday, July 25. Registration opens on July 1 and you can find more information about this tournament (including our roster of constructors) at www.boswords.org.
BRAD: John has always been a quick-witted and congenial seatmate in the judging room at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. I jumped at the chance when he suggested we collaborate. Little did I know that he was mulling over a much bigger idea in the form of an expanded Boswords. I'm so proud of what John and Andrew have built, and proud that they've trusted me with an important role.
17-A and 34-A were both seeds of John's, and I was happy to get both into one grid when I pulled out an old-school pattern I'd used several times before. I hope John is right that my clue for 34-A is "evocative" — what I do remember is racking my brain for most of a day for just the right circumstance. I couldn't believe it when we got our preview of the NYT edit and I saw that the clue had stayed. But don't minimize how expertly John filled in around the 15s — once he was done I knew we stood a good chance of being accepted, and I loved his angle on parsing the letters at 32-Across. I wouldn't have thought of that, and many will be pleased to see it.
After solving a themeless puzzle, I usually look at the grid as a whole and try to figure out how the constructor started building it. What entries went into the grid first? For this puzzle, the first two entries in the grid were the intersecting entries SLOW CLAP and TERRY CREWS, the latter inspired by the Brooklyn Nine-Nine marathon my daughter and I were on last summer. From there, the constructing moved to the NW, then over to the NE, and then finished in the SW. Thanks to the editing team for the creative pruning, rewriting, and tweaking of clues that greatly improved the final product.
Andrew Kingsley and I are currently deep into preparations for the fourth edition of Boswords, Boston's Crossword Puzzle Tournament. As you might expect, this year's event will be ONLINE only and will be held on the afternoon of Sunday, July 26. Registration is now open at www.boswords.org, where you can find more details about the tournament. We hope you can join us!
ANDREW: This puzzle is a personal favorite (not just because it has my name at 24-Across). This was my first foray into Thursday puzzles, so I figured I'd mess with some crossword rule, and the two-letter rule seemed like a fun challenge. I quickly turned to John for help with the idea, and together we got the M-E-O-W letters to work without too much glue and awkward cluing. John gets all the credit for the apropos CROSS THE BORDER and I NEED SOME SPACE bonuses.
JOHN: I'm glad I got to work with Andrew on this one, our fourth Times collaboration. It was an inspired idea that was great fun to help shape into its final form. Andrew and I will also be collaborating on the fourth edition of Boswords, the crossword tournament we co-direct in Boston that is open to solvers of all levels. This year's version will be on Sunday, July 26 and you can find more information about Boswords here.
Andrew: This puzzle started with the SE stack, as I had been trying forever to get PIXIECUT into a puzzle (my sister proudly donned this style for a while). When FLEXTIME and DOMINATRIX fell into place, I knew I was cooking. Then I hit PANSEXUAL (more and more I'm trying to incorporate queer-themed language into my themelesses to expose solvers to aspects and identities within the queer community) and was a happy man. While I'm bummed that COME OUT was not clued as I had hoped, I am so happy by the sparkle that John brought to the left side—a true collaborative effort.
John: It was great fun trying to fill the left half of this puzzle, working to build on the lively right half that Andrew presented to me. I'm excited to have our third collaboration appear in the Times. I'm also excited to be working with Andrew on the third edition of Boswords, the summer crossword tournament that we co-direct in Boston (with the help of an amazing group of constructors and volunteers!) The date is set for Sunday July 28 and you can get more info at www.boswords.org. Hope to see you there!
ANDREA: As I'm sure is true of many constructors, I'm thrilled to have a puzzle published in the Times for the first time. It'll be a bit surreal to see a puzzle I already know the answer to! As a biology teacher, I'm particularly excited that my first puzzle has an evolution theme and uses Charles Darwin as a reveal. John was really fun to work with, and his deep experience in these matters paired well with my instinct to push the envelope. I think we've come up with a fun and interesting challenge.
JOHN: Andrea teaches a course on evolution, so we started brainstorming themes related to that and the building up to DARWIN emerged as a fun possibility. There was not a lot of flexibility in theme entries (D, DA, and DARIN did not have many choices) so we were fortunate to be able to get symmetric theme entries. It was great fun making this puzzle with Andrea, going through the various grid layouts and discussing why this theme ultimately did not give us too many options to choose from.
My mom recently started doing the NYT crossword, so I am more aware than ever of the different generations doing the puzzle. TENACIOUS D will, I'm sure, be unknown to her, and to many (we worked hard to make the crosses fair!) but hopefully having a nostalgic BOBBY DARIN at the end will balance things out.
The theme for this puzzle is not obvious as one is solving (especially given that my original submission had circles around the tripled letters) so I wonder if this will feel like a 74-word themeless puzzle with some after-the-solve head-scratching about the theme. I look forward to hearing how solvers experience it.
There are many fun things about getting a puzzle published in the Times, but perhaps my favorite aspect is the long-distance cluing tutorial I get from seeing the final product. Comparing the clues I submitted to what Will, Joel and Sam ultimately come up with is a great lesson in cluing. The subtle and major changes they make always improve things and point to how I could have clued entries more appropriately or pithily (Me: NOOGIE = Headlock accompanier, often, Them: NOOGIE = Unpleasant accompanier of a headlock). I often give a mental fist pump when a fun or novel clue I spent lots of time coming up with makes it through intact — for this puzzle my fist pump went to LEIA.
Finally, thanks to KID FLASH for being a thing. Not much else fits the K??F?A?? pattern, so this grid doesn't happen without him.
ANDREW: Another Kings-Lieb creation! Well, maybe more of a Ki-Lieb creation, since John did the lion's share of the work on this one. After Oxford Dictionaries declared POSTTRUTH as 2016 "Word of the Year," I knew it had to be a 1-Across. Thankfully for this puzzle (and sadly for everything else), facts are still flexible and POSTTRUTH is still relevant. NOPUNINTENDED was my other significant contribution (I sifted through a sea of dad jokes for the right clue, so I hope you groaned at the one I chose), and then John brought the sparkle with the other stacks.
JOHN: Writing a themeless from scratch is a daunting task, so when Andrew brought me a promising, half-filled grid and asked me if I wanted to fill in the rest, I jumped at the chance! This ended up being a "2-for-1" puzzle, as the last across entry in the first draft ended up as the seed for our first published collaboration last August. I was on a Mr. Robot watching binge at the time we wrote this and was psyched to get RAMI MALEK into the grid.
Also, Andrew and I are excited to be hosting the second edition of Boswords, Boston's crossword puzzle tournament on Sunday, July 29. Registration opens on June 15th and you can find more information at boswords.org, including info about last year's tournament. We hope to see some of you there!
ANDREW: John and I both teach at The Roxbury Latin School in West Roxbury, MA. I joined the faculty last year, so it was only a matter of time before we put our heads together to create some crosswords. This one began as a themeless which included the entry SPIN CLASS. John came up with the idea of people who spin things for a living, and we were off from there (although neither of us is a big fan of this exercise regimen). As a duo, we found we work nicely together, especially since we can pop into each other's office during free periods and talk shop. Look out for more Kings-Lieb puzzles soon!
JOHN: This puzzle was Puzzle #2 at Boswords, a crossword tournament that Andrew and I co-directed at our school on Sunday August 6. We are grateful to Will for allowing us to use this puzzle at the tournament, which had 149 competitors. It was a blast to both write this puzzle and to organize this tournament with Andrew! More information on the tournament can be found at boswords.org and we look forward to running it again next summer. The rest of the tournament puzzles, plus a few bonus ones, are available for purchase (for an Abe) at the site.
My favorite part of this puzzle is the doubling of the clue numbers, and I'm excited to get something unusual into a Monday puzzle. I hope the high number values gave some solvers a minor jolt on first glance, perhaps like the one I had after coming back to watching Jeopardy! after a many-year hiatus and discovering the increased dollar values on the board.
I originally was just playing with a basic 0, 2, 4, 6, 8 progression and then the "Against All Odds" revealer came out of desperation, as having five theme answers was a pain to work with (the "four" entry having to be in the middle of the grid). It turned out having six theme answers gave me more flexibility. Then carrying the revealer to its logical conclusion led to the clue inflation. (It was unintentional, but fortuitous, that the grid is 16 rows by 14 columns — thank you 14-letter revealer!)
As a middle/high school math teacher, I'm on pretty friendly terms with the odd numbers, so I hope they don't take the puzzle personally…
The phrase "cool your jets" popped into my head one day and I liked its old-timey feel. It's something I imagine my Dad saying (perhaps punctuated with a "buster") and I thought it would be fun to get it into a puzzle. After misses with a couple other themed puzzles including this entry, I hit success with this one. This one's for you, Pop.
Playing with team names is not novel, of course, so I tried to get as tight a theme as possible, getting one entry from each of the four major sports (sorry, MLS, I wasn't ambitious enough to cram in five theme entries) and cluing each entry with the "Coach…" motif. I'm a longtime assistant football coach, having received many requests over the years, so I imagined the context to be a head coach talking to an assistant, though others may read it differently.
Hope folks enjoy this one. Wondering if this puzzle was at all timed to run because of 10-Down…
This puzzle was such fun to write, as so many things went my way. Of course, the quote needed to break nicely into two 12-letter chunks to get things going, but after that other cool things emerged while making this, such as Paul Ryan having the same number of letters as a rebused Sarah Palin, realizing that Brian DePALma directed "Scarface", and getting several rebus entries to intersect with the quote so that the grid could be pretty wide-open.
When this quote struck me as the basis for a theme, I immediately thought that someone must have used it before, as it is an oft-quoted line. I searched around and could not find it ever used before. Then, the day after I learned this puzzle was coming out today, I encountered the write-up of this Wall Street Journal puzzle.
It fascinates me that two published puzzles used this well-known line within a month of each other! On the heels of "Gridgate", I'm confident that Matt Gaffney would rate this a 1 on his "Crossword Suspicion Scale." It did get me wondering what I would have done if I got the rebus idea after seeing Mr. Kahn's puzzle…I think the uses of the quote are different enough that each puzzle can stand independently, but it would have definitely been something I'd have to consider.
Thanks to Will and Joel for the terrific clue editing. I particularly loved their 17- and 31-Across clues (REGATTAS, EIEIO). I'm psyched that my clues for 55-Across and 39-Down (RAFT, INTEL) made it through — so much fun getting ?-mark clues through to publication and seeing how they tweak things in general.
The seeds for this puzzle were the SPAMBOT stack, WALKOFF, and FOOSBALL. With those in the grid, I worked clockwise, trying to get clean and interesting fill along the way. I was originally thinking of WALKOFF as a stand-alone entry (e.g. "Big Papi hit a walkoff last night.") but HOMER serendipitously popped up in the course of filling the puzzle. The southeast corner was pretty bland in my initial draft. I threw an X in the corner to see if that would lead to anything fun, and that ended up being my favorite corner of the puzzle.
Though this grid has no entries longer than 8 letters, I liked the look of it and how the grid flowed with no isolated sections. Brad Wilber had a similar grid in a puzzle a few years back which gave me the confidence that a grid of this design (no long entries) could be accepted as a NYT themeless.
This was my first puzzle accepted by Will, and I spent a LOT of time on the clues. But clearly cluing themeless puzzles, at least for me, also requires experience, and Will improved the puzzle immensely by changing a lot of clues to get them into Saturday-shape. My favorite clues that made the final version were: 15A, 25A, 55A, 67A, and 49D. I also liked seeing the "#1" clue make the final version, echoing Anna Shechtman's puzzle of last week. I hope folks find the puzzle a fun and worthy Saturday challenge!
I had been playing with letter for word ideas in various forms and with different letters for a while, but for the longest time I hadn't gotten anything to work. Finally, I decided to focus on the eye/I switch, and in a fit of ambition I wrote a Sunday-sized version of this puzzle that got rejected. That version had "eye" being replaced by "I" and the answers clued with a question mark, interpreting "I" as the letter. (Example: Warning from a tattoo artist? = CAN'T TAKE MY I'S OFF YOU).
About a year later, I decided to give it another go with a daily puzzle that had AN I FOR AN EYE as a revealer. I submitted it thinking it could be a Tuesday or Wednesday puzzle, but Will thought it would work as a Thursday puzzle with straight-forward cluing of the theme answers. This idea has been with me so long that I have no idea how difficult solvers will find the theme — it's not the craziest Thursday theme ever, but I hope it will give solvers a moment or two of pause along the way.
Since the fill in the middle of the puzzle in my original submission was pretty rough, Will gave me a shot to clean things up, and the fill in the final product is much better as a result. Seeing what clues Will changed (and what he kept) is always great fun, and this one was about 60% my clues, which, based on the few other puzzles I have had, I'm counting as a success!
As a high school math teacher, I use the word "counterexample" fairly regularly, but the idea for using the word as the basis for a puzzle theme struck as I was being a student, taking a grad school math class this past summer. Sitting in a lecture, trying to track a proof that was a bit out of my reach, the mention of a "counterexample" set my mind in a different direction, and I started trying to come up with people that count for a living (likely not the kind of thing my students daydream about!)
Realizing that "counterexamples" was 15 letters long made me intensify my efforts, and I lucked out by finding two other 15-letter examples and then two 11-letter examples. Getting two words to cross three theme entries made filling the grid a little easier, and I enjoyed the changes Will made to many of my clues, as I'm still trying to find the sweet spot of easy but interesting clues for a Monday puzzle.
As I was constructing the puzzle, I was inspired by my first, and perhaps the ultimate, "counter example", a certain monocled denizen of Sesame Street. Imagining him in each of the four roles amused me (he'd be easy pickings for a pit boss!) and poking around the Internet, I found this clip from the late 80's, in which I greatly enjoyed seeing the confluence of Count von Count, New York, and the setting for a 17-Across.
"Vowel run" themes seem to come along three or four times a year and when they do I wonder where the inspiration for them comes. This one came about in a roundabout way...
In themeless puzzles, I enjoy the occasional random, oddball trivia clue that either surprises me or makes me think of something I have not thought of for a while. I tried collecting a few of these and making a themeless puzzle with them as seed entries, but that attempt fizzled out. One of those entries, GYMNASTICS, and the trivia clue that went with it held my attention and I wanted to see if I could get it into a themed puzzle somehow. This was back in June 2012 and I had recently done a Monday puzzle by Andrea Carla Michaels and Michael Blake, so the vowel run idea was fresh in my mind.
A G*M progression seemed to have potential and the theme entries came quickly. I also thought that with the GYM- entry last, it could be clued with the trivia clue, since if you notice the vowel run there are not a lot of words starting with GYM, and that it might make a fun Tuesday puzzle because of that random bit of trivia whose answer could be inferred. Once Will accepted the puzzle and said he was using it as a Monday, I figured the trivia clue would get changed to something more traditional, and it did. Overall, I'm happy with how the puzzle came out and that about 60% of my clues made it through (the one for JIM PALMER being my favorite).
And that trivia clue for GYMNASTICS, which only children of the '80s might appreciate: "Sport coached by Mr. T in the '80s animated series 'Mister T'."
This puzzle came about when, for no particular reason, I was considering songs that start with "It's" (It's Not Unusual, It's So Easy, It's Tricky…). When I got to "It's Raining Men", Finn Vigeland's January 2012 Sunday puzzle "Weather Report" sprang to mind, and I thought it might be fun to have various men's names running vertically in the grid. Of course, "men" is a bit of a broad category, so there had to be something unifying the names. The RAIN/REIGN homophone then hit me and things were off and running.
The word "reign" makes me think of kings and queens, so I wanted to use four well-known historical names, rather than modern rulers like Obama and Putin, and these four rulers fit the bill (and fit symmetrically!). I liked the contrast between a gimmicky 80's song (co-written by Late Night's Paul Shaffer, by the way) and these old-time rulers. In terms of construction, getting two entries to cross through three theme answers was helpful to make what I thought was a fairly open, interconnected grid pattern. I also like how RICHARD III looks vertically in the grid. I enjoy doing and trying to make Monday puzzles, so I hope people have fun with this one.