I'm grateful to several pioneering constructors in the 21×21 themeless space: Ada Nicolle, Brooke Husic, Erik Agard, Evan Birnholz, Paolo Pasco, Ricky Cruz, and Will Nediger, among others who've contributed Sunday themelesses to the Times. If you enjoyed this puzzle, I'd highly recommend checking out the masterpieces linked above. My thanks also to the Times editing team for running this puzzle with about 70% of my clues intact (including my favorites at 58A, 92A, and 17D).
For those curious about the construction process, here were some of my design principles for this puzzle:
My sincere thanks to crossword constructors Jenna LaFleur and Lisa Bunker for guiding me on how to approach the entry DEADNAME. Though it's a sensitive answer, I believe it's noteworthy and deserves a place in the Times crossword; Jenna and Lisa agreed. But if I were making this puzzle today, I'd probably pass on it out of deference to trans constructors whose voices would give the entry more value than I could, since I am a cis person without personal experiences of being misgendered or deadnamed. Jenna and Lisa directed me to a clue that hopefully frames the entry in a positive light for trans solvers and makes them feel seen, while reminding all solvers to respect the names and pronouns of others.
Unfortunately, I don't know of many trans constructors actively working today, and although mainstream crosswords have trended toward more diverse representation in some domains, references to trans people, communities, and ideas are yet to be seen in mainstream puzzles with enough regularity to suggest that trans representation is a conscious priority. (If, as national data indicates, at least 0.6% of the U.S. population identifies as transgender, then at least 0.6% of crossword clues with cultural anchoring, or 1 in 167 clues, should feature trans people/concepts. A week's worth of Times puzzles includes, on average, 583 clues.)
Trans constructors like Jenna and Lisa are certainly leading the way in independent venues such as The Indie 500, Crucinova, and Queer Qrosswords; I hope their work inspires other trans, nonbinary, and queer folks to give constructing a try. And for what it's worth, my DMs are open on Twitter @sid_sivakumar as a crossword friend and ally.
SID: This puzzle owes its existence to a grid design technique I associate most strongly with Robyn Weintraub. Robyn often places her double and triple stacks just inward from the edge of the grid, using small "fingers" of black squares to partition the outermost rows and columns into three segments each instead of two. Short entries at the border of a grid are usually easier to wrangle than long ones, so this strategy offers more flexibility to the constructor, and consequently, more interesting fill to the solver. Here, Matthew and I extended the technique by creating domino-shaped "fingers" all around the perimeter and placing triple stacks in each quadrant. We hope the result makes for a pleasant and smooth solving experience.
It was fun to get GENERATION ALPHA into this grid. I enjoy including entries that represent the youngest segment of our solving audience, like Matthew's students. It's also exciting to debut 3-Down, a not-so-subtle homage to the brilliant crossword podcast Fill Me In, hosted by puzzle luminaries Brian Cimmet and Ryan Hecht. (Sorry it took so long, guys! I'd been trying to get you in at 3-Across all this time.)
Lastly: I recently started editing the new crossword feature for The Juggernaut, a digital publication focused on stories relevant to the worldwide South Asian diaspora. Our goal is to publish puzzles with themes, entries, and clues that highlight South Asian culture, emphasizing cultural elements rarely seen in other crossword venues. If you liked seeing MAHARISHI in this Times crossword and want to see more brown representation, the Juggernaut puzzles are for you! And if you're interested in constructing a puzzle for The Juggernaut, please get in touch — we're committed to publishing newer constructors, especially folks with South Asian cultural backgrounds.
MATTHEW: Thrilled to share this funky puzzle with y'all! I haven't worked much with lower-word-count themeless grids (almost all the themeless constructors whose work I admire most live in 70-to-72-Wordville, and I spend a lot of time emulating them), but working on this inventive 64-worder with Sid was a treat. I'd like to think we've each improved our cluing chops since dropping this one in the mail last year, so I'm extra thankful to the Times team for coming through with some great edits, including 23-Across, 48-Across, and 40-Down. Happy solving!
13-letter answers don't get much airtime in 15×15 themeless puzzles because they can result in awkward black square placements, so I was happy to work HIDDEN TALENTS and POTATO BATTERY into this grid. Of course, there was a tradeoff: I only had 12 remaining long slots (of 8+ letters) to work with, and the pressure was on to convert many of them to exciting entries. Nowadays, I aim for 16 to 20 long slots in themeless grids so that more neutral entries like ROUTINES don't feel like they're taking up quite as much space.
The openness of the top-right and bottom-left corners made this grid tougher to fill than a typical 68-worder, but I think it turned out fairly clean. I particularly like that all the 3-letter entries here are common, everyday words. I hope solvers found it to be a smooth and satisfying experience.
After receiving the edited proof for this puzzle, I spent some time thinking about inclusivity and representation in crossword puzzles. The wonderful folks at the Times were gracious to let me voice my thoughts in their daily Wordplay column. If you have a few minutes, and especially if you're interested or involved in constructing crosswords, I'd be very grateful if you read today's post on Wordplay.
MATTHEW/SID: Our pre-written construction notes are below, but our hearts are very heavy today. This is a dark time in American history — we can only hope that our puzzle brings some light.
MATTHEW (he/him): I'm so thrilled to be making my New York Times debut on a collaboration with Sid, who I met through the crossword community on Facebook last year and quickly became a very dear friend. Coincidentally, we both live in St. Louis and got to hang out IRL over puzzles and tasty food before social distancing and quarantining took effect. I'm forever grateful for our friendship, conversations (about puzzles and other stuff) and collaborations, which have made me a kinder, more thoughtful puzzlemaker and person.
A quick bit about me: I teach ninth grade algebra as part of an amazing Americorps program in East St. Louis, IL; I run my own puzzle blog, Happy Little Puzzles, where I post free 11x midis and full-size puzzles every week; and I help out at the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory. If you're interested in making puzzles and want help getting started (and/or you want to collaborate with me)(and/or you're a crossword veteran who wants help getting connected with mentees), please don't hesitate to reach out!
SID (he/him): Excited for Matthew's debut in the Times! Matthew's far from a novice constructor — he's one of the most prolific puzzlemakers of the past year, having written and published something like a hundred puzzles in many venues, including his website and mine. I'm honored to be his collaborator, his fan, and of course, his dear friend.
Matthew and I independently came up with the same idea for this puzzle, so we decided to tackle it together. Usually, themers of lengths 10/8/15/8/10 can be positioned in any number of ways, but the Xs forced us to rethink our gridding strategy. We tested 160 arrangements of theme entries and black squares before finding just two grid skeletons that seemed feasible: the pattern you see today and a nearly identical one with PIXY STIX in place of THX / IBEX. The latter option didn't work out, but the former filled readily after placing the vowel-heavy EEYORE at 33A. Escaping with a few dabs of XIS (shoutout to the editing team for the A+ clue), SRIS, ALII, ERY was miraculous given the constraints. Hopefully the puzzle makes for a satisfying solve!
For our second Times collaboration, we sought a themeless grid with a novel architecture. Sid had the idea of a marquee central stack with each subsequent Across entry flush against the left or right side of the grid in an alternating fashion. It turned out that this constraint required an even number of rows, so we pushed to a 16-tall grid with six central Acrosses. The center forced wide-open corners in the top left and bottom right. We're proud of it!
We've had the great fortune to construct for many venues both together and solo! Notably, we've been known to collaborate on Sid's puzzle blog. Some other recent highlights: Sid has written puzzles for three crossword tournaments this year, including the Championship Puzzle for the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League … and Brooke is excited to be joining the Boswords team for their Spring 2021 Themeless League — find both the Fall 2020 puzzle packet and Spring 2021 info at boswords.org! Today's puzzle rounds out an exciting week for Brooke, which included her 22nd puzzle in the USA Today and her first puzzle with the Inkubator (puzzles by trans women, cis women, and women-aligned constructors). She also has her own puzzle blog (note from Sid: Brooke's experimentations with grid symmetry have changed the indie crossword scene, and ripple effects are starting to be seen in mainstream puzzles, too).
A closing message from Brooke: It was a little less than a year ago that I decided a goal for 2020 would be to construct (let alone submit!) a single crossword puzzle. If you're interested in constructing but are on the fence, I encourage you to go for it! You can get involved with the community through the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory or the Crossword Discord Server.
I distinctly remember the "aha" moment I had solving David Kwong's brilliant blank square puzzle from 2013. Years later, when I started constructing, I vowed to write a blank square puzzle of my own. It was one of the few times when I searched for a revealer entry with a particular gimmick in mind, rather than the other way around. Luckily, RUNS ON EMPTY popped up while mining for potential answers, and I think it provides a solid raison d'être for this Thursday crossword. (I additionally stumbled upon the revealer to this puzzle.)
With few exceptions, blank square crossword puzzles are largely constructor-oriented, so I maxed out at 78 words to keep the experience smooth for solvers. Today, I'm fairly sure I could craft this grid smoothly at 76 or even 74 words. In retrospect, I'm glad I stuck to 78, so that folks can focus on the mystifying clues at 21A, 36A and 50A instead of some dauntingly wide-open section of the grid.
After mailing in the puzzle, I learned of a certain offensive connotation for 62D, and I promptly removed it from my wordlist. Recent discussions have brought up an important question: do offensive words that have alternate, innocuous definitions belong in crossword grids? I firmly stand by the answer "no," but without ever having heard of 62D's derogatory usage, I wasn't able to apply that judgment before submitting this puzzle; and, sadly, the Times editing team wasn't able to make my suggested revision (NAP / VEAL) before the puzzle went to print. This is not the first appearance of 62D in the Times, but I don't see that as any consolation, and I apologize for its presence here.
On a brighter note, I'm excited to debut GURU NANAK in the Times and to see that my clues for 24A, 2D, and 23D made it to print. I'm also enamored by the editing team's clue for 30A, which fools me every time I read it.
Lastly, a tiny metapuzzle: five non-theme entries in this grid have something interesting in common. What is it?
PERUSE, OOZE, WHOS, IOUS, and RUES all rhyme without sharing any final letter combinations.
The archetypal Thursday Times puzzle, in my mind, is one that advisedly breaks the rules of crosswords in service of a clever theme. My favorite puzzles exist in a subset of that description: crosswords whose grids themselves are delinquent. As a solver, when my expectations of a crossword are subverted from the moment I look at the grid, I feel charged with discovering the trickery baked inside that unconventional shell. And, as a constructor, grid-bending Thursday ideas come more readily to me than themes based on wordplay or trivia.
Unfortunately, the technical constraints of publishing in various print and digital media spell trouble for many puzzles of this type. Today's puzzle was initially submitted with a nonstandard grid numbering scheme, which best indicates how the theme entries are intended to be read: starting at the grid number, continuing to the right, and then "bouncing back" to the left. Fortunately, the Times editing team found a reasonable solution in circling the first letter of each theme answer. I think it works, and I'm grateful that this puzzle was able to run in the Times at all, but ultimately it's a compromise. I hope it makes for a fun solve nonetheless!
On the bright side, WALLA WALLA WASHINGTON (20) was a neat find for this 15×15 grid, and I'm pretty stoked to debut GAY RODEO in the national crossword puzzle of record. I'm also happy that my clues for NOSE and METAL made the cut, and I like the editing team's echoing in the clues for ALL and NO ONE.
I'll end with a plug for Crossnerds, a cruciverbal podcast by broadcaster (and now, crossword constructor) extraordinaire Rebecca Neipris. I make a guest appearance on today's episode, and there are other familiar voices you'll hear if you poke through the archives.
We built this puzzle around MODEL MINORITY, a demographic myth we feel is important to highlight. We know, however, that this is a term that could elicit discomfort among some solvers, particularly those who look to puzzles to distract themselves from the world. As solvers ourselves, we notice our own tendency to conflate discomfort over an entry in a crossword puzzle with discomfort over the real-world phenomenon that the entry references.
By highlighting the MODEL MINORITY myth as a marquee entry in our puzzle, we hope both to introduce the concept to folks who aren't aware of it, and to make those who have experienced the social pressures associated with a perceived MODEL MINORITY — like Sid himself — feel seen. It's not the easiest topic to address in a crossword puzzle, especially given the practical limitations of crossword publishing (e.g., clue brevity). But it's prudent to shed light on racial bias at this critical time of societal reckoning—and crosswords are, undoubtedly, a reflection of our society.
This grid includes several other entries that we wanted to clue sensitively, and we're grateful to the editing team for their care and thoughtfulness. We're also glad that many of our original clues made it to print—some of our personal favorites are 58-Across, 3-Down, and 11-Down. Of course, the editing team came through with their own awesome takes; we especially love their angles for 22-Down and 52-Down.
In addition to our shared love of puzzles, the two of us share an alma mater and love for St. Louis: Sid is an MD/PhD student at Washington University in St. Louis, where Brooke went to college. We're also both academics in the sciences: Brooke is a postdoc in mathematics in Berlin, Germany, and Sid's PhD is in biomedical engineering. Finally, while this may be the Husic–Sivakumar team's debut in the Times, we've collaborated extensively in other venues, including the extremely-worth-your-time Grids for Good charity crossword pack (available for just a $10 donation to the COVID/racial justice fund of your choice!), and Sid's indie puzzle site, Sid's Grids. We're also both excited to be contributing individual puzzles to this year's Lollapuzzoola crossword tournament, which will be held virtually one week from today!
Hey, Crossworld! I'm an MD/PhD student based in St. Louis, MO, and I've been constructing crossword puzzles for some time now. Last year, I started an indie crossword site, Sid's Grids, where I post puzzles for free — please give it a look! I construct with love for the art of crosswords and for puzzle people.
The motivation for this Times puzzle's theme arose not only from recognizing that ESCAPEE phonetically describes a string of letters but also from the ability to write a nonstandard revealer clue that hints at those letters "hiding" in the theme entries. Early-week revealers rarely do this sort of double duty, so I thought this was a cool find. I initially aimed for Tuesday-level fill and clues, given the easy theme. Will thought the puzzle was clean enough for a Monday, which I take as a compliment! I'm proud to follow the early-week constructing philosophy of Joel Fagliano with this 74-word grid.
When feasible, I like to try stacking themers. There are some drawbacks: the themers arrive in pairs rather than separately, altering the theme's pacing, and stacking letters can result in unsightly crossing fill. But when it works, the advantages are apparent: it's usually possible to include juicy long Acrosses since several rows in the grid are unconstrained by theme letters, and working in Down bonuses is often easier as well since each pair of stacked themers can be treated as one long entry. After some trial and error, I found this grid pattern that enabled stellar Down fill at 3D, 18D, 22D, and 31D. With those bonuses locked in place, I filled the rest of the grid, deploying "cheater" squares as needed to keep everything clean.
I'm grateful to the editing team for tightening up the clues and finding a brilliant angle for PRAYER BOOK. Among the clues that made the cut, my favorites are the ones for OXEN, DESK PHONES, and ANKLET — I represent South Asian culture in my puzzles when possible. I'm also glad that the clues for STARR / FEB recognize Black lives and culture.
Hope you enjoy the puzzle!