A few years ago, Paolo Pasco approached me with a SKIPPING SCHOOL concept with a different interpretation. He proposed ELECTRIC EEL and STAY ALERT, where crossing down answers would skip over the RICE and YALE letters as if they were invisible. I thought it had some merit, but it felt too similar to other crosswords I'd seen before. We let it drop.
Today, I enjoyed Yacob and Chad's extra layer, that not only does STAY ALERT have YALE in it but when you subtract out YALE, it becomes a real word. Interesting discovery.
The other finds weren't as juicy:
GAS PRICES to GASPS is almost as good, but it's easier to see what's going on since RICE doesn't span across the two words.
COMMITMENT to COMMENT: a single-word answer to another single-worder isn't as fun as something that plays with a spacing change, like STAY ALERT to START.
SUN CHIPS. Jim Horne asked me, "What are SUN CHIPS?" Apparently, in the vast Canadian hinterlands, they only sell Snow Chips and Moose Chips.
Amazing gridwork, which I've come to expect from Yacob, and is also great to see from a debut constructor! They squeezed every last drop out of those SW and NE corners. One might worry that regions like this are too big to be filled with color and cleanliness, but with only one theme answer constraining them, going big is doable. MONA LISA / SALSA BAR / REPTILE, ACCREDIT / NEUTRINO? That's the way to do it!
Jim asked about NIHAO — that could be odd for people unfamiliar with the Chinese transliteration. What a neat clue, though, a common word in the world's most common language.
I might be burned out on "skipped letters" concepts that echo crosswords from the past, but that won't apply to solvers who aren't as obsessive. In the future, I'd like crosswords in this maturing theme category to push the boundaries more.
★ Phrases that morph into equally valid new phrases are my jam, so Yacob and Erik had me at BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD. What a beautiful discovery!
I have a feeling some solvers won't figure out what's going on, so here's a before and after:
None of the rest is as strong as BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD — it's so neat when there are multiple words involved. IN THREE-D did hit that mark, but spelling THREE out is a crossword-specific … "oddity" would be a generous description.
As I would expect from these two (Yacob giving us a smash hit on this last themeless), such a tasty grid! Constructors often fail when they try to go big — 72 words is in themeless territory — but there was no going home today. Even if you didn't enjoy the theme as much as I did, I'd give each of these entries a check (Will Shortz assigns checks and minuses in his grid-assessing process):
Between TACTILE, ANIMATE, and IMPEDED, I'd toss in another checkmark, taking the total up to 8. That's astounding for a puzzle built around five theme entries.
I'd have loved another stunner like BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD, but the four (RE)LOCATIONS worked well enough. It made me want to go search for more. I didn't have time to write the code, but I spent five minutes figuring out how I would do it — I love it when someone gives my brain a challenge. Along with gridwork that greatly enhanced my solving experience, these guys earn another POW! apiece.
★ Every Wednesday, I have the pleasure of exchanging thoughts with Jim Horne about a full week worth of puzzles, and it's rare that we agree on which is the standout (if any). I prefer when we laud different puzzles, because Jim often presents a viewpoint I hadn't considered.
Groan, thanks a lot, Yacob, we both thought your puzzle was stellar. Now what are Jim and I supposed to argue about?
Yacob got in touch with me a few months before he submitted this one, asking for feedback. My first impression was that he showed a tremendous amount of talent and that his draft already had a decent shot at acceptance. It had a different SW, and a slightly different SE, though, and I thought it needed improvement.
Often, constructors don't listen to me and just submit. I'm not offended — I'm often wrong, after all — but why ask me if you're not going to at least consider critique? Yacob did everything right. He absorbed my comments, went away for a few weeks, and vastly improved the SW corner. I rarely tell constructors that they have a high chance of acceptance with Will, but this was one instance I was nearly sure Will would say yes.
Fantastic cluing, too. "Pen pals" for CELLMATES. "Barb" making you think about a verbal jab instead of a literal jab from a BLOWDART. I hope you don't [… incur charges overseas] ON SAFARI!
One oddity: the final grid Yacob sent me had a different — and better — southeast corner. As I solved, I noted the weirdness of BATE and LATEN, and confusion set in. I surely would have noted those and recommended he revise, since that region is somewhat flexible. Looking back upon his submission, I noticed that his corner was superior to what was run. Yacob doesn't exactly remember what happened, but he thinks he made a last-minute change before submitting.
Alas! Nothing's perfect. So close, though.
Standout Monday grid. Super accessible to newer solvers — only some minor PENH (can only be clued in one way), SPFS (not usually pluralized), UNI (prefix), WKS (abbr.). And what a treat to get quantity and quality of bonuses: MC ESCHER, KISSERS, BANSHEE, BENGALI, MENORAH. Dang!
Constructors, NOT A CLUE how they did it? Study this layout. Their themers are spread out to the max, and more importantly, their long bonuses are too. Note how BENGALI and MC ESCHER are in adjacent columns, but they're offset so there's not much overlap. Same goes for MC ESCHER and KISSERS. Elegant way to work in so many long bonuses.
Entertaining clues, too, not a surprise from an Agard joint. SPLAT as the sound of ice cream hitting the floor. An ICICLE as a "high point" of winter — literally. BANSHEE is already great fill, and the trivia about it foretelling a death in the family? Creepy, but so interesting.
I also enjoyed the go-big approach to linking the clues for STOLEN / HOT, OOH / AAH, MOS / WKS. There's something about STOLEN right next to HOT that feels especially neat.
I sadly couldn't get past the not-quite-perfect theme. There are tons of X IN THE Y phrases, and a subset where X rhymes with Y (CAT IN THE HAT came immediately to mind). Tightening it up by using the related SUN, SKY, SHADE … BLACK?
Not only was I iffy on whether BACK IN THE BLACK was as juicy as the other themers, but it only fits with the other three if you turn your head and squint hard. And it pays you $50 to look the other way.
Sure, why not. That'll be $50.
Tough call. I value perfect consistency and tightness, but if that's impossible, a diverse mix feels stronger.
Overall, still an excellent newb-friendly offering.
I love me some superheroes. I'm not quite to the level of dorkitude as my twin brother, who can not only name all four people who have been the Flash, but who can also list off all the alternate Flashes in the DC Multiverse. (I'm not-so-secretly in awe of him, although sometimes I wonder if his brain cells could be used for better purposes.)
I wish I had that level of ability when it came to pop culture! I stared and stared at FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE, sure that it must be some play on words or a kooky phrase formed from a solid base phrase. My realization that it's a real band was alas, far from Flash-quick. They had a hit called "Stacy's Mom"? I watched the video and was amused.
I had a similar issue with DUKE OF KENT. That band's hit was …
Wait, that's the person, the Duke of Kent?
You're saying he's Superman?
WELL HE SHOULD BE.
Thankfully STARK NAKED, NOSY PARKER, and BANNER YEAR worked perfectly for me. I especially liked the first, so apt for playboy billionaire Tony STARK. Ten years ago, I would have worried that no one would have recognized these alter egos, but thankfully the "Avengers" movies have brought them more into popular consciousness.
Theme concerns aside, such solid gridwork coming from two newer constructors! Five themers, including a 16-letter one, is rarely easy to build around. I hardly noticed a blip during my solve. Even going back for a second look, the only thing I picked up was a stray OTRO. That's a much better than many established constructors can produce.
Working in IN ANY CASE, HEAT MAP, and especially ALTER EGO? That's dynamite. Notice how carefully they deployed their black squares in the middle of the grid? They separate all the long slots so well.
Neat idea and superb craftsmanship. If all the themers had worked for me — I think it'd be tough to argue for FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE being something educated solvers ought to know — this could have been in POW! territory.