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11 puzzles by Sid Sivakumar
with Jeff Chen comments

TotalDebutLatestCollabs
116/22/20201/14/20225
SunMonTueWedThuFriSat
1100315
RebusCircleScrabblePOW
111.665
Sid Sivakumar
Fri 1/14/2022
BANDMATECST
MOUSEOVERCHAR
TEATASTINGRIMA
OTTOKHANRULED
GUESTSINEXILE
OPRAHOASISDOW
VERBIAGEOVA
WIRELESSCHARGER
ADEOMELETTE
RADRISESEARLS
CRAVATSADDOIL
RELAXOPERUPTO
AYESEVILEMPIRE
FORTTELLNOONE
TUTCREATING

Fantastic clue for the headline entry, WIRELESS CHARGER. [Modern source of juice] ... given that Matthew and Sid are two headliners of crosswording's new wave, I figured it must be some superfood I'm too uncool to know about — a secret menu item that you need to ask for while flashing the Generation Alpha decoder signet ring. Juicy clue, indeed.

EVIL EMPIRE, what a image-laden phrase! This huge "Star Wars" dork hitched, since it was called the Galactic Empire, not the EVIL EMPIRE. Some even argue it wasn't totally evil, but who are we to argue with Wikipedia?

And who could forget Reagan's ominous EVIL EMPIRE speech?

Oh, right. Generation Alpha.

Spotted in the same region as EVIL EMPIRE: WARCRAFT, I DARE YOU, RED ALERT, TELL NO ONE. Difficult to RELAX with such a menacing build-up.

I was much more enamored with the clever cluing that made boring entries like GUESTS sing. I, unfortunately, know many, many people who can be friendly while patronizing. Thanks, but please don't patronize my store!

I tripped on the SAME LOVE / RIMA (tough foreign VERBIAGE) crossing, so I looked up the Macklemore song. (Our local cookie shop features a Mackles'more — the owner is friends with him!) Glad I did, because apparently, this song was groundbreaking for LGBT+ rights issues. I wish the clue had even hinted at this. I fear that some solvers will gloss over the entry as just another song.

I appreciate how both Matthew and Sid have pushed the envelope of inclusiveness, trying to do so in a way that encourages instead of being teachy. I could have used more of their voices today, as the puzzle felt like an average Friday. Still, I'm glad that SAME LOVE is now in my knowledge base.

Sun 11/7/2021THIS AND THAT
ATOMICREACTORSAPPS
CANADIANROCKIESNARC
THELITTLEMERMAIDTRIO
BIPEDACELASCATANN
ITISSOCIALMAKEHASTE
GINMCRIBSHOLODECKS
MARINODONTASTI
CODINGVILEPLUS
NUTMEGCANDYCOUNTERS
DASHEDTAPASBARSHAUL
RISENBASEFESTAETNA
AVERFISHSCALEDIGSIT
MEDICINECHESTHEROIC
NUNSROOTCOMBAT
ELBAOOPSRANOUT
TRAILMAPSVALETSMAG
DRAWSLOTSNOWISERAGU
WESMAIMGOTMEBARRE
EMUSPRIVATEENTRANCES
LOREELIMINATIONDIET
TREXKEYNOTEADDRESS

Themeless Sunday, with a fresh Sid-southeastern feel to it — how often do you see the words "bhikkhunis " and "bhindi masala" in a crossword? Some great entries, too, like CANDY COUNTERS, HOLODECKS, ELIMINATION DIET / KEYNOTE ADDRESSES. Themelesses are usually limited to 15-letter entries, so the 16+ length is ripe for fresh additions. I dislike THE LITTLE MERMAID because it's made my daughter want to lose four waist sizes (and grow a tail) so she can attract a prince — but it is nice not to get the shortened title.

Speaking of PRINTS, what a fantastic clue! They get left in the (literal) dust. Many of the Sunday themelesses have relied on sloggy 6-letter answers, so clues like this immensely elevate the solve.

Similarly, "Employees who work a lot" made me think of my first job when I was regularly working 80-hour weeks for The Man. Great shift to a smile when I realized it meant a (parking) lot.

I would have liked a greater quantity of clever cluing, though. Jim Horne and I chatted about the Sunday themeless series — he's more pro while I'm more con — and he reminded me of the delights within Patrick Berry's inaugural Sunday themeless. In particular, FOREST GREEN was a meh entry, but innocently misdirecting with "Shade in the woods" made it shine. As much as I like the novelty of VAPE SHOPS, it's hard to clue something like this cleverly, given that not everyone will recognize what vape shops are.

We also chatted about the word SCRIED, which I love because it reminds me of "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" and the "Bartimaeus" trilogy. So many solvers have complained to me about SCRY over the years, but it gave Jim and me a reason to chat about some of our favorite recent reads.

I haven't changed my mind about the past three years of occasional themeless Sundays, too many of them feeling like giving up on attracting fresh themes. If they are here to stay, I'd at least like to see further innovation. There's so much possibility in using 21-letter grid-spanners, triple-stacks, intersecting 16+ letter answers, grid art, long stair sticks, etc.

Sat 9/11/2021
BURGLARCHAD
RUNARACETRALA
ITSMAGICCOEDIT
STABBEDGAUTAMA
KEVLARSOPRANOS
DEESELIENINE
DOESLUNCHNYT
NAHIMGOOD
REATAXDODGES
ACMEDIONHANS
THUNBERGSEDATE
PESTERSSTANCES
ALERTSSLOVAKIA
COMESFILEMENU
KNEEOPENERS

I love this pattern, such visual — and solving — flow. One might describe it as having a center and four corners, but there's so much interconnection that everything blends so smoothly.

And that center! NAH IM GOOD is a catchy casual phrase to anchor everything. The knock on this grid pattern is typically that it's so hard to fill — 62 words is no joke — that you have to compromise either color or cleanliness. NAH IM GOOD kicks things off perfectly.

TAX DODGES is a colorful entry, too.

Amazingly clean grid, Sid adhering to his strict principle of giving the solver a smooth experience.

However, there wasn't as much snazziness as I want out of a themeless. Maybe it was the A/AN phrases, HAD AN IN, RUN A RACE, GRAB A SEAT, feeling repetitive? SNACKER / SHADERS / OPENERS, too. there were also a lot of entries containing mostly "Wheel of Fortune" free letters: STEINS, ENTRÉE, PESTERS, COEDIT, CRETAN.

Part of the issue is that the upper right and lower left corners feature few long (8+ letters) slots. Not that you can't do anything with mid-lengthers — RAT PACK, GAUTAMA, ALIMONY are all interesting — but there's so much potential in a longer slot. HOG HEAVEN is such a vivid phrase, for example.

I enjoyed picking up DEAD NAME. Hadn't heard of it, but it's two words that when put together, perfectly describe what may be corrected on a trans person's birth certificate.

Yikes, that STABBED clue. I love repurposing phrases in clever ways, but "stuck a fork in it" gives some startling visuals.

Solid example of this genre. I've experienced several of them over the years, and this one is as clean as any.

POW Sat 5/22/2021
ASFORREPOALSO
SEIKOAXONREED
ILLGOMAKEAMOVE
ALLOTICEPLANET
MOBSTRAINERS
LIEGEPRAISE
EVILEMPIRE
GENERATIONALPHA
HEISTFILMS
APOLARIMAMS
IMONAROLLLAT
BOOBOISIEIPODS
ENPASSANTSENOR
ARESHUGOTRINI
MADEIRONSUCKS

★ I love the aesthetics of the unusual black square "canes" — reminds me of a CANDY CANES puzzle Mary Lou and I did years back. And from a constructor's point of view, it also allows for juicy quasi-sectioning of the grid. Once you get a rough idea of what the middle might look like, you can start to work on each of the four corners independently. That's so valuable, allowing you to segment the grid into smaller, much more manageable chunks.

There were so many fantastic long entries jam-packed in, starting with FILL ME IN, hearkening to the great Ryan and Brian podcast. Check it out when you can; they're fun to listen to.

I just finished "Money Heist" and am going through serious withdrawal, so I loved uncovering HEIST FILMS. EVIL EMPIRE nearby could have made the puzzle's tone too dark, but cluing it to the sci-fi trope made it sing.

I had to laugh at my sheer stupidity, putting in UMM for a sound chewing on a pencil and thinking that GENERATION ALPUA was some gen-alpua term that made fun of people like me. HMM, indeed. I didn't know that they moved from Gen-Z to Generation ALPHA, but I have to admit that it's just a hair more logical than my thinking.

Speaking of making fun, BOOBOISIE's clue felt ... bad. The term amused me to no end years ago, a flagrantly offensive portmanteau of boob and bourgeoise, but I worried that it could feel like it was thumbing its nose at solvers, so I made sure to clue it to the source (Mencken). The clue today felt ... insulting? Condescending? It's okay if I call myself a boob, but not if you do. So what if it's true?!

DONK gave me a smile, as my son often donks his sister on the head. I shouldn't laugh, but if you can't laugh, you cry. Hopefully, the DONK / TRINI cross didn't bam-boob-zle anyone.

Although I had a few reservations, there was so much to love; so many vivid long entries are carefully woven together, a feat of construction. Even when you lock down a possible middle like EVIL EMPIRE / GENERATION ALPHA / HEIST FILMS, one or more quadrants don't cooperate. Amazing that Sid and Matthew were able to wrangle them all so smoothly.

Sat 3/6/2021
DAHLBROWCARBS
ALIENRACEADORN
TAGTEAMEDRODEO
ASHRIPAROBING
HIDDENTALENTS
GLOMSDISBAR
OARSCABLECAR
ASSURESRITAORA
THECOLTSDRIP
HUMANSMENDS
POTATOBATTERY
EMOJISPEATJAB
TAKENOPERASOLO
THEREDELETEKEY
YANKSDAYSTESS

I like the innovation in this 68-word grid, spreading out long answers much more than usual patterns. As I solved, I wondered if there might be fewer than average long entries, but no — 14 is just about right. More typical themelesses concentrate all their color in the four corners, so I enjoyed getting dashes of TAG TEAMED, HIDDEN TALENTS, ADOBE READER, CORNY JOKE, OPERA SOLO, POTATO BATTERY, IM SUCH A JERK (great colloquial phrase!), HIGH HORSE spread throughout.

I wondered if non-Trekkers would know BRENT Spiner, who played Lt. Data on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" — great cross-reference for us android fans, perhaps not so pleasant for non-dorks. I asked Jim Horne (who doesn't watch as much sci-fi as me) if he knew Spiner, and he paused before saying something to the effect of "yes, but only because he was in a play I directed." After 15 years of hanging out with Jim, I'm continually amazed.

I also wondered if the crossing of CAROL ALT and RITA ORA (my wife alerted me that this is someone I ought to know since ORA is very useful for constructors) was fair. I like that they come from different walks of life and time, though, increasing the chances that someone will have heard of at least one of them.

I'm usually the one doing the kvetching, but this time, Jim flagged two entries: THE COLTS and CORNY JOKE. Along with several other constructors I know, Jim's not a fan of "THE ___" phrases, as the THE feels superfluous. And CORNY JOKE felt corny to him. He asked me my opinion, and I sheepishly admitted that they were both high on my list of the puzzle's assets! So much of themeless assessment is so subjective.

As always, excellent craftsmanship from Sid. A 68-word themeless presents such a tough task of offering both smoothness and sizzle, and Sid hit on both counts. Next to no dabs of glue while offering a little something for everyone.

POW Thu 1/7/2021
URNTABORPJS
VEEHUMVEETRIM
WIXXXXWISTAONE
ANTEDONXXXXE
VITRIOLDAISY
ENOBNEGSAWED
EEYORELAVA
DEAXXXXAFUNERAL
ORZOIBISES
WAITSSLEWION
LOOSEESSENCE
FELXXXXSACTS
ALIISTRIKETHAT
CMONWRITEREVE
TONASSAYSEA

★ I solved on computer, confidently typing in FELT HATS, then quickly realizing I had to put Xs in for some reason. Easy enough change. Hitting STRIKE THAT, everything made sense, and I enjoyed the concept. Colorful and colloquial revealer; a perfect explanation for what was going on. Probably not a standout Thursday, though.

Or was it? I continue to have the privilege of weekly conversations with Jim Horne, my XWI partner, and listening to his experience elevated this puzzle in my eyes. He's a great solver, so eschews pencil (I imagine a $5,000 fountain pen requiring hourly oiling and silk cloth massaging). I hadn't thought about the solving experience from an old-school perspective. Like me, he confidently penned in FELT HATS — and then he had to literally strike THAT, using Xs to X out those four letters. Awesome!

Jim asked if I had noticed the different ways THAT was broken across phrases. He thinks he knows me so well that I would be one of the five people in the world to know and care. Ha! I did notice, so there!

Wait.

I mean, I did notice, but in a way he didn't expect. Some constructors would insist on breaking up THAT in different ways, claiming that it's elegant to do so. I wouldn't totally not be not one of those negative-positive asserters, no sir! In today's case, it led to DEATH AT A FUNERAL, which is so much less interesting than many of the other THAT phrases out there. I say, constructor's elegance be damned!

That one nit aside, I highly enjoyed my solve. Neat concept, cool to see a ridiculous number of Xs integrated more smoothly than I expected, and hearing about the pen and paper experience drove it over the top. Well done!

Sat 12/12/2020
IBMSHUSHPECS
MEATPACKEROTOH
SQUALLLINEMALI
UNBALANCELON
SEALYEFILING
TAKESAIMLIBEL
ATEDNAPROFILE
THATWASCLOSE
HOMERUNTROTS
UNDERSTOODLAP
NEEDSSTOPTIME
SUBJECTEAVED
ETARUSTEATEN
ARCSOPERACAPES
TALEPLEASERISE
SLEWEMMYSTSA

There's a great "something for everyone" vibe to this puzzle, drawing from such diverse topics as literature (MUCKRAKING — dang it, that's MEATPACKER) to meteorology (SQUALL LINE) to geography (MAUNA KEA) to finance (BEQUEATH). And that's just the opening corner! It'd be interesting to see what entries came from which contributor, but there's a wide breadth of knowledge represented in any case.

I've never seen a center quite like today's R-L-R-L alternation. That's a neat layout, allowing for four excellent long entries while trying to minimize their overlap. Smart! DNA PROFILE / THAT WAS CLOSE / HOME RUN TROTS, great stuff! I don't know that most solvers will notice or care, but it spurred me on to check out their individual sites.

I rarely have to put down a Saturday puzzle these days, thanks to all the practice my compulsive solving neurosis gives me. I got stuck in the SE corner, though, a frustrating ordeal. Even though I've studied Python (programming), I couldn't pull out TUPLE (which goes to show you how hard I've been studying).

As a former jazz musician, maybe I should have known STOP TIME. Needless to say, I was that trombone player who hid in the corner and played as quietly as a flute.

Even when I did uncover PLEASE RISE, it didn't feel as strong as ALL RISE. TAMENESS is at best a tame answer, and PEACES is probably related to "peace out"? I either felt old or stupid. Maybe both.

I can hear the kids these days peaceing me right now.

This isn't my favorite type of Saturday, with a lot of the difficulty stemming from unfamiliar entries like SQUALL LINE and ET ALIBI, but I appreciated the inventive layout featuring fantastic marquee entries.

POW Thu 10/22/2020
STRAPACDCWOW
ERODESLIEUOOH
LABORUNIONSUZO
LYETABLES
DUVETSCAD
BOASDRUNKDIAL
WANTEDJETE
HYPEATONEOVEN
IOUSTAJTAKEIT
GURUNANAKDERN
SNIPES
PEPPERLAXJUG
OXORUNSONEMPTY
OPSVEILSCREAM
FOEESPYSIGHS

★ How often do constructors hope that their work leaves solvers with an empty feeling? I enjoy the occasional "leave some squares blank" puzzle. Two from 2013 stand out, one playing on "Wheel of Fortune," and David Kwong's ingenious puzzle Sid mentioned above. Another from 2015 also won a POW!, but this trope goes back a long ways.

Today's RUN ON EMPTY theme worked well, the consistency of RUN atop (three squares to be left blank) so neat and tidy. I particularly enjoyed LABOR UNIONS above what was before the Big Bang: an empty space. Perfect!

Will Shortz is usually pickier about "hidden words" themes; that the hidden word must span across two words of a phrase — DRUNK DIAL wouldn't be acceptable. Despite DRUNK DIAL's evocative nature, I'd have preferred something like BOBS YOUR UNCLE, MR UNIVERSE, OVER UNDER, etc.

Will has also told me that he shies away from puzzles with squares intentionally left blank, saying that solvers expect to put in something, so it's unsatisfying to leave a square untouched. It's like listening to an unresolved penultimate chord in a piece of music. You feel on edge, unsatisfied, until that last note hits home, and then all is right in the world.

Thankfully, there were so many bonuses in the stellar gridwork to overcome those reservations. Sid's craftsmanship is so strong. See how he leans heavily on down entries for bonus fill, and spaces them apart? AD EXECS to BAD JOKES to WOULD I EVER is a perfect example of great spacing.

I also enjoyed Sid's featuring of GURU NANAK. I hate being forced to learn things when all I'm looking for is entertainment, but GURU is a word, and NANAK looks like Pakistani names I've seen. Although I didn't know this person, that didn't affect my ability to finish the crossword, and I ought to know who founded a religion with 25+ million devout followers.

A huge number of clever wordplay clues. GYM as a place where you might see "squatters" — that's people doing squats. [Gear for the bench] had me thinking about baseball, not a judicial bench and ROBE. Delightful!

Some Thursday crosswords focus on being hard for hardness sake, but I like this type much better. A reasonable trick, a colorful grid, and a slew of headslap-inducing wordplay clues to make the solve crunchier? That's my jam.

POW Thu 9/3/2020
AJARCLAMPSPAT
COCOPANELHATH
EKACNAPOTAONTO
SEIKODDAYTHIS
ESPELUSPACE
NBATEAMPEON
ALLPOEMGODS
NOTGNIHSAWALLAW
CIAOSCAREVE
MYOBMAITRED
DAERBANAPSI
ALTOMOCKLEVEE
TIEDBOUNCEBACK
ETREANTICALOE
SOSOMEETSREND

★ Ha! I caught you all off guard by picking two POW!s in one week. What can I say, I had so much fun solving today's puzzle that I had to do it. I've seen plenty of BACKward puzzles, "repeated string" puzzles, and palindromes, so I should have been predisposed to be tired of today's concept. But it was different enough, with such an apt revealer, that my solve was a delight.

I was interested enough by the concept to write some quick code to see what other themers would have worked. Not many more!

  • BOO-BOO BEAR (RAEBOOB sure looks lewd though)
  • BURN RUBBER
  • FOR-PROFIT BUSINESS
  • MY BABY MUST BE A MAGICIAN
  • SELFLESS ACTS
  • SIDE DISHES
  • TASKS AT HAND

It's neat to see a constraint that gives a limited set — that "tightness" lends elegance.

I wondered if the circles could have spelled out something. Would that have been cool … or confusing? The circles in the puzzle didn't feel like a great way to indicate starting points, so perhaps making sure that every start point was under a black square, so you could innocently list the theme clues at their actual start points without adding extra numbers into the grid— ELUSPACE at 26-Across, not 25-Across, for example — would have made this concept even better.

Fantastic gridwork, too, as I've quickly come to expect from Sid. Not a single gloopy short entry, and a whole lot of MAITRE D', ALTIMETERS, GAY RODEO (apparently this is a thing, neat!), SHOT POOL, PANHANDLER. Many constructors would have broken up ALTIMETERS at the M for the sake of gridding ease, and I'm glad that Sid went the extra mile. More bonuses without compromises? Heck, yeah!

Neat to get GODS clued as Rama and Krishna, instead of the usual Greek or Roman god references. That's the kind of subtle influencing that's more effective than the in-your-face approach.

So well done. Interesting concept, top-notch execution, fresh cluing. Sometimes we're blessed with two great puzzles in a week; who am I to deny one of them?

Sat 8/8/2020
TAMPACHICFAN
OCEANTRUMANERA
MEGYNGEMSTONES
BRATBEADDIDNT
MODELMINORITY
ELAINENOG
DOLLARSIGNSPAR
ISLEROPESHALO
TESTUFOREPORTS
TNTNEWTOY
POTDISPENSARY
UNHIPEVIEOHMS
STOMPEDINGOOUT
HORSERACEEMPTY
YENDELTESSEX

I loved 95% of this puzzle and was all set to make it my POW! Amazing gridwork, with so many colorful HUMDINGERs. Congrats to both relatively new constructors, such top-notch craftsmanship!

Then, I finished at MODEL MINORITY.

Sid and I had a thoughtful exchange as I struggled to come to terms with how depressed this entry made me. I hate being reminded of something that has plagued me my entire life. I turn to crosswords to escape the realities of the world, and these days, I need escapes more than ever. In Stella Zawistowski's words, "The whole point of a crossword, or any puzzle, is to surprise and delight people."

It sucked to have delight taken away today.

Additionally, the MODEL MINORITY stereotype can't be summarized in a pithy crossword clue — any short sentence is likely to do it serious injustice, or worse. I wonder how African-American solvers will react, since one could argue that Asian-Americans aren't the ones hurt most by this "myth."

Sid believes that it's imperative to force these discussions. I don't agree. Rarely do Americans like being forced to learn, especially when it's about politics, race, or religion. I fear that Sid's philosophy — to which I devoutly subscribed when I was younger — will achieve more harmful backlash than good.

So how do you influence people? I don't have a great answer, but as more gray enters my beard, I've come to believe that more subtle, less in-your-face approaches are better for achieving long-term results. If you feel the need to use crosswords to teach, instead of blaringly headlining MODEL MINORITY, why not tuck MODEL into the fill, clued as [___ minority (damaging racial stereotype)]? That might have more quietly but more effectively sparked people to go read up on it, maybe even with an open mind.

I'm hopeful that if more big thinkers like Sid focus their efforts on devising creatively subtle approaches that reach people in a way that they're open to listening, the world will slowly morph into a less angrily divided place.

POW Mon 6/22/2020
NADAHOOPAHEM
OXENADMITLAVA
DESKPHONESFLED
DELIRISKPRONE
REELERE
CATTREATDADBOD
RBICAMEOYOURE
ABSESCAPEEFDR
SOLIDSTARRFEB
STEREOSLOBBERY
EAUSOAR
ASKPRICESORZO
KANEJAMESKPOLK
IKEAARIELINGA
NEWTETSYNEAT

★ I love it when a constructor does so much so right. I love it even more when said constructor does that while making their debut. Makes me go yodel from my rooftop that someone gets it!

(My neighbors hate when I do that.)

I looked into this theme a few months back, initially getting excited when I found JAMES K POLK, RISK PREMIUM, ASK PRICE, and best of all, FACEMASK PENALTY. I ended up junking it, muttering curses at Crucivera, the goddess of crosswords, for her cruciverbal cruelty. Lengths of 10, 11, 8, 15, 8 (ESCAPEES) — not even mirror symmetry could save that. I scraped up DESK PHONES and MUSK PERFUME to create symmetry, but that felt desperate.

How wrong I was. I did still think DESK PHONES was boring today, but it was easy to shrug off with so much else to love.

Newer constructors should study this grid; three points in particular:

  1. Long downs. For a theme that isn't ultra-dense, you can almost always weave in four long downs, making all of them fantastic.
  2. No gluey entries. So many constructors get tempted, lowering their standards so they can work in that one flashy long entry. Don't do it! If you have a strong word list, there will usually be tons of options for your long bonuses that still allow you to cleanly fill the rest of the puzzle.
  3. Helper squares. Sid used six of them (the black square after HOOP, for example), which is on the high side, but who cares? (Note: some editors do.) They facilitate better fill, making for a better solving experience. Six of them do look a bit unsightly, but that's minor when considering what an elegant product they enabled.

Extremely well done, Sid. We'll be keeping our eyes open for more of your products.