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Puzzles for January, 2021
with Constructor comments

Fri 1/1/2021
HIJACKSASSNQUE
IFORONESPAYUND
PSYCHOACTIVEEPI
HOTSAUCEFEET
MBAOTTERERRS
POLEDANCEDARESO
GOLDRUSHUPTOYOU
GED20PERCENT
FOREVER21REI
EVELINEAPPSTORE
REVELSOLASTYEAR
GROSDEBUGRNA
URLSOATMEALS
SITAPLUSAVERAGE
ODESEESNOTICES
NEDHYDETWOSTEP

Happy new year! I've wanted to sneak some numbers or symbols into a themeless grid for a while, since around when "WE ARE THE 99%" was in the news. I noticed New Years 2021 was a Friday and thought this would be a fun way to start the year. Full disclosure, I wanted some extra publicity for my book Math Without Numbers, which comes out on Jan 5. (Preorder now!)

Thanks very much to Will and Joel for suggesting "01 ALUMS" for the fourth theme answer. My original submission was "01 CHEVY" ... I spent hours on the shockingly comprehensive IMCDb.org trying to find a specific enough clue. Crosswords take you to some bizarre corners of the internet.

I clued this one without referencing the XWordInfo clue database — I love a puzzle where the constructor's own voice/dialect comes through. A lot of the weirder clues were changed in the editing pipeline. I'll post a side-by-side comparison on Twitter for anyone who wants to see details & get a feel for the editorial process.

Wishing all the best to crossworld in 2021.

Sat 1/2/2021
BLACKCODSASH
ROLLERBAGTHREAD
ASTERISKSHUSTLE
KEAIMEANTITOFF
ERRISRORIONS
TUNSMOSTOFIT
PHARMAAINTLIZA
EEQUALSMCSQUARED
GLUERAIDUNLESS
GLASSEYELEIA
AZTECSTANSTR
ECUMOOJUICEWEE
ROMPEROLDHAVANA
GOBALDBITESIZED
LATEPORTCITY

Happy New Year everyone! If ever there was a time to celebrate putting a year behind us, it is certainly now.

I expect 36-Across might receive a bit of a divided reaction. I know some folks don't love having symbols written out — to me, the strange letter combinations and multiples Q's made it a great entry to try to make a puzzle around. I'm especially glad to see my clues for 42-Across and 12-Down survived.

POW Sun 1/3/2021 BUSTING MOVES
EBBTSKRADARSSNOGS
GORDITAPOPIDOLHIDEY
ETAILERSUPREMELEADER
SHIRTWAISTEPEESSKI
TENTTOTESTOPUPADA
SRSSLEDSOILAARON
KHAKIBOYPROBLEMS
MOUNTAINGOATLOLAT
UNSEEDEEDAMUSESEIS
FAULTROBECIGSAPE
ATALLCRUMBCAKEDOTES
SILSALONCANCASCA
APSOBEADSRIMSASIAM
GOBADPORTAUPRINCE
SHORTANSWERIPADS
LAVERIDEATENSBIB
EVEOPTINOSCARGIGI
EERRANGESAILSALONG
VOLLEYBALLNETINCOLOR
ENIACONEMOREKONMARI
SEETORETORTEWEBEG

There's a tendency in talking about programming to make a coding task sound more complex than it really is, but that makes coding itself feel alienating. That's why I want to be transparent about this theme, which came together with some computer assistance. Here's what I did:

From the start, I knew finding dance names separated by a specific letter would require specialized searching. For this, I used my i-Device to transport me into the search space physically. Bertram, my technological guide and trusted mentor, installed the i-Device's chip into my brain, flipping a switch as the processor's circuits and my neurons became one. I was dropped into a manifestation of my wordlist, where letters swirled around me, dissolving into ones and zeroes as I touched them. After hours of climbing through matrices and binary trees that grew for digi-miles, I'd gathered all the theme I needed.

Satisfied, I hit the button on my wrist to take me back to the analog world. Nothing happened. I tried again—still nothing. Then I heard a throaty chuckle behind me. "Looking for these?" An avatar of Bertram materialized, holding the priceless gems that powered my i-Device. He betrayed me. I shouted his name as he left (to sell the gems on the underground markets, no doubt). Hopeless, I sank into the ground, letting the ones and zeroes envelop me. I woke up a day later, in my bed, with the crossword fully gridded on my laptop.

Hope that helps!

(P.S. Ok, I used regex)

Mon 1/4/2021
LASTSTEXASSPA
ALEUTALERTAUK
DIANAPRINCEFBI
DELAYEDASPHALT
ENEEYEARIA
REVAMPDCCOMICS
SEEMETUPAC
LYNDACARTER
SARASAVOID
GALGADOTCLAUSE
AQUAEBBTOT
LUMBAGOLETMEBE
LIPWONDERWOMAN
OLELULUSOVERT
PADSTYESSENSE

Wow — this is definitely a blast from the past. It was constructed right after the "Justice League" movie premiered in November of 2017. When it was accepted the following April, the plan was to publish it around the time of the Wonder Woman sequel. Then there were six announced release dates, but it finally came out. (When I saw the movie on Christmas, I was very pleased with the mid-credits cameo.)

About the construction: I remember using the usual "Utah" block that accompanies a central 11 but was never pleased with the grid. So I tried a block that extends into Idaho, which opened up the center of the grid a little more, and I was able to get nineteen 6, 7, & 8 letter words in the fill. They're not all winners, but I hope there are enough good ones to make for a pleasant solve.

I appreciate Will and his staff for adjusting some clues for a Monday puzzle and adding the 49A and 32D clues to add to the superhero theme. I am also grateful (and in awe) that Will and his editorial staff remembered to publish my Wonder Woman puzzle after so much time had passed with numerous cancellations of the release.

The theme of Wonder Woman 1984 is truth. Let's hope that is the theme of 2021. In the meantime, I am spending my time safely hiking to some of the many hundreds of waterfalls around Asheville, NC.

Tue 1/5/2021
POMNUBSGASPS
AMAONTOCOLLIE
PATSDOWNRESALE
ANCHOSUESOVER
HIGHCPADRES
DAWNSONIKEA
ASISRBIENDAT
FITJACKSUPICE
TASTEEARBEAR
ETTAWADESIN
CHASERSLATE
CHUCKSITDALAI
BIGHITWARDSOFF
GNOMESOLAYIRS
BASEDSEGOLOO

AMY: I'm so tickled to be making my NYT puzzle debut!

I'm a retired Broadway casting director currently living in Brewster, NY. My mom and I always solved the Sunday puzzle together. I started doing the weekly during a two-week jury duty stint (it took me the entirety of the two weeks to finish a Monday puzzle, but since I was a jury duty prisoner, I surely had the time). I only got interested in construction a few years ago through the JASA class. I attribute the origin of my love for words and wordplay to a childhood of watching Rocky and Bullwinkle, Fractured Fairy Tales, and Mr. Peabody and Sherman cartoons.

Thanks, Christina, for your patience with this novice.

CHRISTINA: Amy and I connected through the Facebook collaboration directory. She had commented on the group that she was full of ideas but didn't really enjoy grid work. I love working on grid design and fill, but at the time, a year ago, I was really struggling with fresh ideas (I blame pregnancy brain). I also liked the idea of working with an unpublished constructor and sharing what I'd learned from my mentors when I started the year before. I reached out to see if she'd be up for a collaboration, and she emailed me a whole bunch of fun ideas. We ended up making three puzzles together, including one in The Inkubator earlier this year.

The theme set Amy sent originally included other longer phrases like BOBS FOR APPLES as "Mr. Dylan loves Granny Smiths," which I think is pretty funny, but we decided to make it more consistent with these two-word phrases. It was a fun challenge to make this grid with many short theme entries rather than fewer long entries.

Wed 1/6/2021
STOPPRIMSTARS
THRURONATORAH
AUCTIONEDROGUE
RDASPIREIFOLD
ESSENETAMPA
YORKTIERTWO
SWEETNEONSROI
OATSOLABORN
USASOCKSDRINK
RATPACKTARE
INDIASIDNEY
TRIEDTRUTVOVA
RIATAODOREATER
UNTILFOMOBERN
EDENSFROSEDYS

My original seed for this puzzle was PRIDE and PREJUDICE, but unfortunately, I couldn't build a grid around that pair. I tried to prioritize phrases that could be clued differently from their across and down entries. The clue for PRIM and PROPER can also be applied to PRIM or PROPER, whereas the others need to be solved as pairs, which I think is more fun. I also had hoped to include a phrase with a repeated word like OVER and OVER, NECK and NECK, or HALF and HALF, but again, the constraints of the uniclue puzzle limited my options.

I hope you enjoyed figuring out the theme and solving the puzzle!

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

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!

Fri 1/8/2021
DOTHEDEWALMAY
UNHEARDOFTEASE
BIENVENUEMANIA
LOIREALTAFISH
INSISTDELLPEA
NYTANNSATEEN
DENOTEHADID
THISGUYGETSIT
CHARSNOOGIE
REPEALUSACAV
ASPYODANICOLE
WHYSBOGSNOOKS
DINARWRISTSLAP
AROMADETERMINE
DEWEYESCOOTER

It's always an honor to get to share a themeless crossword with you. A freestyle grid is a blank canvas for a fireworks display, and my goal is to pack as many novel/interesting entries into it as possible without compromising fill quality. My favorite crossword entries tend to be common, evocative, yet cruciverbally overlooked casual/spoken phrases, and this puzzle accommodated several I'd been itching to unveil.

I was pleased to reference several accomplished women in this puzzle, including Edna Lewis and Zaha Hadid, the first woman to win architecture's Pritzker Prize. (I love architecture.) I hope the crossing between LAHTI and HADID was manageable if you weren't familiar with either name.

Thanks to the editors for several of the fun clues, including 16-Across and 11- and 34-Down. And who doesn't love a Baby Yoda reference? Hope you enjoyed the puzzle!

Sat 1/9/2021
JAZZWALTZAMONG
ONEORMORERADIO
JUNOESQUEGRECO
OBISCUDDOTTED
BITTRAGICSOSO
ASHEATEOUTJAM
RAYSUPABOVE
JAMALDOYEN
OFASORTCZAR
ETSTEEPEEEMIT
SETHLEARNSONO
CROAKYMAMARBI
HYDRALEMONPEEL
MOODYBLINDDATE
OUNCEJACKSQUAT

It's probably not too surprising that I started this puzzle in the upper left, with JAZZ WALTZ. I was pleased to discover that JUNOESQUE fit nicely two rows down, and I thought the longer crossing entries for that stack were especially nice. I'm also particularly fond of the upper right, with something of a "positive vibes" mini-theme, what with JOY, NICE, and GOOD all in the stack of 8's, and UP ABOVE running through them all. Since I can write whatever I want here, let's say I did that on purpose.

The bottom left was the last to go in, and I remember trying countless options. I saved several versions, but still couldn't settle on a final fill for that corner. Maybe a year or so later, I remembered that I hadn't finished this one and looked through my saved files, and found among them the grid as you see it here.

My first thought upon seeing the lower left was something like "If I came up with this, why on earth did I think I hadn't found anything good enough yet?" I think I somehow convinced myself that having both AFTER YOU and IOU was an unforgivable dupe (?), or that something was wrong with CROAKY just because it had never been used in the NYT before, or something else equally ridiculous (No one has ever said "After you!" to a mastodon?). The moral of the story: Sometimes when you feel stuck or indecisive, it helps to take a step back, give it some time, and then take another look with fresh eyes.

Or — less poetically but more accurately — forget all about the puzzle and then wonder later why you never submitted it.

Until next time, happy solving!

Sun 1/10/2021 OH, FOURPEAT'S SAKE!
PRESSUREORALBSPIFF
AIRLANESAMELIAARNIE
NOMANISANISLANDLACED
STAMPHUEDOREOADORE
DEMOBAHAMAMAMAMIX
HASADATEIDSELISE
AMONRACREDANTTEN
WELCOMEHOMEHONMCHALE
KNEEVOWSARIELIXIR
SOHOPRIMETIMETV
SSRTOKEGODEVANSEE
WHEREWEREWEALGA
ARTUROILEICEDRASH
TERRIFKINGKAMEHAMEHA
SKITSAREFIONERUN
BIDETTKOTHUDDING
ALUMINUMINGOTOREG
DOTESAONEDIBSRURAL
ARIASROMATOMATOSAUCE
PRONETRADERREVERSES
TENTSSENSEBLANDEST

This puzzle idea came to me in a very meta way — from solving an NYT puzzle! Specifically, Friday, July 3rd, 2020, by Hal Moore, which featured ROMA TOMATO at 18-Across. As I filled in that entry, I was struck by how off it felt because of that string of letters (OMAT) repeating in the middle, even as it was split between two words of (presumably) distinct origins.

My favorite puzzles highlight and exploit quirks of the English language, and this felt like just such a quirk, so I went hunting for more variations on it. I have no idea, now, how I found as many as I did (they are, as you'd imagine, rare, so far as I can tell!), let alone four matching pairs, but I remember finding the RegEx features of XWord Info to be very helpful. I'd love to hear if anyone can think of others!

On the constructing side of things, I think the main issues came in the NE/SW, specifically 33- and 61-Down. As soon as I had answers that worked in those tricky spots, I think the rest of the fill clicked pretty quickly. With this puzzle, I embraced a mantra of "cheater squares as needed" from the outset in a way I had really never done before — consider me a convert because they definitely helped clean up the fill here, especially in the N/S central areas.

The other thing this puzzle has taught me — to score proper nouns a little lower in my word list than I might otherwise. It is not lost on me how many of them there are in here! They creep in, one by one until you step back and realize you're inundated with them! Lesson learned there.

The thing I'm most proud of with this puzzle is the title — it came to me immediately and still makes me laugh!

Mon 1/11/2021
MCRIBDRIPSCAM
ELISAIAGOCASA
SAFERWRAPPARTY
ANTENNAETUNDRA
OYLMATION
CUBANCIGARS
UNTIEEMTDOGS
STEMIOTASAMAL
SONSSEAAMNIO
CLUBHOPPING
MIAOAFARE
INTERNFLAXSEED
SUBREDDITACUTE
TSAREYREMORAL
SETSREEDSTOLI

I started constructing a little over a year ago and have published puzzles in USA Today, Universal, and American Values Crossword Club, but I'm excited to have my first puzzle in the NY Times! I've been addicted to solving crosswords since my days in law school where I'd tear out the NYT puzzle each day from the newspaper and solve them during particularly dull classes.

This original submission had references to both SUBREDDIT and HEROWORSHIP, but we had a debate about whether those sandwiches were the same thing. We settled on CUBANCIGAR as a "hero" "sub"stitute. (Apologies for the dad joke, I couldn't help myself.)

I'd like to take a moment to say thank you to Erik Agard and others who are generous with their time at the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory on Facebook. I'm very appreciative of the many people who are going out of their way to increase diversity and representation in mainstream crosswords, and to help newcomers get a foothold in the constructing game! I hope you'll be seeing more of my puzzles soon.

Tue 1/12/2021
MILDEWYMDSECCE
ISSARAEOOPPARD
KIDNEYSTONEARID
EATANTCOLONY
SHAMSARFWALK
BIPARTISANBILL
CALMSTDNEE
THISTOOSHALLPASS
OATHUERIME
PROQUARTERBACK
PLUSTRYOKNOW
PEDESTALSERA
EDYSBRIEFMOMENT
SOOTAYNITSALOT
ONUSRAGTVHOSTS

I wrote this puzzle in 2018, but I think the revealer answer is more timely now. THIS TOO SHALL PASS, friends.

If you're interested in learning how to make crossword puzzles, you can contact me via my personal puzzle site or via Twitter. That goes double for non-male/BIPOC/queer aspiring constructors; there aren't enough of you in crossworld.

Wed 1/13/2021
JUSTTODDCACTI
ETTAEMIRUSHER
SAYCHEESETHICK
THEKINGSSPEECH
TIASEAS
AERATEDENSPAC
STEPHMEDIARDA
THEPELICANBRIEF
REFWINKSUNCLE
ORSEGOSSTAKES
TIERACT
THEGREENHORNET
YEESHDRAINPIPE
EXALTIBISGLEE
ATLASNESTSEEM

Very surprised and excited to be back in the Times so soon! This puzzle was my first NYTXW acceptance, which came in March 2020. I love basketball and movies, so it was really fun for me to hit on a theme that combined the two. I'm happy to see the finished product out in the world!

When narrowing down a consistent set of themers, I decided to rule out any nonplural team name (Magic, Thunder, etc.) so that the clues could all be smoothly worded with a singular-player-focused play on words. I also enjoyed the added constraint of the "The ___ ___" pattern, which ruled out some options I had seen before, like "Raging Bull." If I were making this puzzle today, I'd definitely have wanted to feature at least one W.N.B.A. team in the mix as well, though I'm still pleased with how this early constructing effort turned out.

Many, many thanks go to Sid Sivakumar, who helped me lay out the lower word count grid with the two schnazzy 13s running through all three themers, and to the editing team for their thoughtful clue changes throughout (16-Across, 42-Across and 46-Down are my favorite additions of theirs). Hope you enjoyed!

If you're interested in making puzzles and want help getting started (or you're a crossword veteran who wants help getting connected with mentees), please get in touch! You can find me on Twitter (@1Matthew Stock) or on my blog.

Thu 1/14/2021
AWOLPOLESCHUB
LANEABUSEAONE
ASIAGATORMOWS
SOSUEMEFAERIE
WANTSASABLAST
HIDABSTSOYES
OLIVIAPOTUS
SPINTHEBOTTLE
ABHORINLOVE
AOCOSOACESAT
DROOLTLCSEEPS
HIHATSITSSAFE
EGOSCUBITTARE
RISEAKRONECON
ENTSTEENSREND

ELLA: Aimee and I have been real-life friends for years and, as an avid crossword solver, I always thought she was the coolest person ever because she made puzzles (among many other reasons!).

In quarantine, I finally took her up on her offer to teach me. Within a week of riffing, we'd made our first puzzle together. Since then, we've made 6 (?) more, three of which have run in AVCX.

Puzzling together online has been such a fun way to hang out even though we can't see each other in person. I love collaborating with Aimee because we push each other to keep playing around with grids and ideas until they finally click in a way we both love. We've also got extremely similar taste and crossword quirks.

This puzzle was a total collaboration where I have no idea whose idea any part of it was — we both loved the revealer from the beginning but wanted to figure out the most fun way to spin it, and landed on this one. There is also a version of this puzzle on our computers with totally different themers because neither of us noticed we'd forgotten to include the revealer until we were about to clue. Oops.

When I'm not puzzling, I'm an actress — mostly theater and mostly in NYC and the Bay Area!

AIMEE: Ella and I have been real-life friends for several years now, when she moved to The Bay Area from New York. But between the pandemic and her moving back to New York in early 2020, we haven't seen each other in person in a while. But the funny thing is that, now that she lives across the country from me, she's actually the person I "see" the most these days.

And that's thanks almost entirely to crossword puzzles.

I had never really collaborated much on crosswords before this year, but something about the pandemic has made me crave the collaboration process. Plus, the puzzles Ella and I come up with always seem to be better than what either of us is capable of making on our own. Or at least, I know she makes me a better constructor. I mean, she was the one who realized we hadn't included the reveal in this puzzle's first draft! If it had just been me, I probably would have sent this off without its key ingredient!

Here's to many more, Ella!

POW Fri 1/15/2021
BATBOYSCHMALTZ
IPHONEQUEEREYE
GREWUPUSEDCARS
WIRESDAHLSDOT
ICONPITYHENS
GOBFASTSMORE
STOLETHESHOW
STARTERPISTOL
MAIDSOFHONOR
FABLEROTECOE
POLOFINSOAKS
ORCSNAGSJUMBO
EGODEATHMETEOR
MOVIESETCARROT
STEPDADSSNEAKS
Sat 1/16/2021
CALLTHESHOTS
MUSEUMEXHIBIT
LETITGOALREADY
GARETHBRIOMER
APRSAKIMBOAPE
GUITALELEMASON
SPAFLEERUDE
MERYLTRAMP
SAWVSEEPPBS
AREELSCRAPBOOK
RIBUNPAIRURSI
AGSGILLEASTON
NATIONALANTHEM
ATEASESOLDIER
CORNISHPASTY

Always a thrill to offer a Saturday themeless in The Times, but this puzzle feels particularly special to me!

I'd never before made a grid with triple-stacks across the top and bottom. Since I eschew computer-assisted filling and/or personal word lists while constructing, the feat always seemed impossible, or at least not worth the shorter compromises going Down. So when I noticed how well MUSEUM EXHIBIT and LET IT GO ALREADY could stack together as you see now, with a ___ THE ___ phrase sitting atop, I had to try conquering the challenge once more.

A sincere thanks to the town of BUSHEY for its existence, which saved me from ripping up the whole puzzle at the very end, when I still couldn't get BUT HEY to fit 1,000 headdesks later. Oh, and a non-sarcastic "Thanks, Obama!" — 10-Down might sound a bit arbitrary as far as crossword answers go, but I'm hoping the clue has turned it into a smile-inducing "aha."

I should also note that, for those keeping score, the grid has 64 answers. This ties my lowest answer count to date, alongside my 2018 ACPT Finals puzzle (see: "The Hug"). It might not seem like much, but the feeling is similar to that when you shave even just a second off your best 5K time.

*Grins from ear to ear*: "Yes we can!"

Sun 1/17/2021 DOUBLE-CROSSED
CLOSEBBCBATORABUT
REMITALAARENASCAMO
OVERHEADRSONOMAISPY
WIGEVERTIMOEGADS
ETARADIICARTOETWORK
DYSONVEESSIDTABOO
FESTERSTALLSSOAP
LEFTTOPLEXETCHERS
AIMEEUGENIEASEA
GLORIAREDKURDARCANA
RATEDRTIDEPODMIOTIC
ACEDITETONSTROBEECT
NOAMPEASOUPMAHI
GASMAINMEWLDEBATE
RICOSTAIDPINENUT
ADHOCIRSAONEMESON
BALNARTISTSVOLGAWOE
OPRAHOASADAIRICE
ACAIREFUTEDAYTIMEYS
LUNEEFILESEDUDITTO
LESSTEARSSAPEBSEN

TRACY: Tom and I teamed up last July to try to breathe life into a double-double-crossing idea I had set aside. A RegEx string helped us find theme entries, but how would solvers know to reverse the order of the double-letter pairs on the crossing answers? When Tom proposed a slash through the rebus square, we were off and running.

TOM: In rereading the first few emails we traded, twice I wrote something like, "Nice idea, Tracy, but not sure that's possible to do." Then, of course, by the next email, she had done what I thought she couldn't. Finding six solid theme pairs, and then fitting the gangly, asymmetric crossing pairs into a grid, was challenging.

The crossing nature of the theme answers also constrained our non-theme fill options, though I'm pleased with what we were able to squeeze out of it. That said, I hope you don't encounter MESON crossing OOCYTE ever again!

Mon 1/18/2021
PINUPITCHALVA
ARENAMATANYET
PARISTEXASGINS
ANDCIABRONTE
ATHENSGEORGIA
SELMATERESA
IDEALVINEIKE
DARNPREPSGNAT
EMTWHIRPEALS
ARAFATALLEY
NAPLESFLORIDA
ELAINETARTDS
VICETOLEDOOHIO
EVENWHAMFREON
REDSOOPSFERRY

This puzzle combines two of my loves: puzzling and traveling. This puzzle was born on a RyanAir flight back from Athens, Greece. As an R.E.M. fan, I was aware that the band originated in Athens, Georgia, so I started looking for more "imported cities," if you will. It was a balancing act of finding major European cities matching reasonably well-known American cities that could be clued using a reasonably well-known landmark or attraction.

Have you heard of Venice, Louisiana? Glasgow, Montana? Rome, Georgia? Madrid, New York? Neither had I. Hopefully, at least a couple of the ones I picked are familiar to you, and the rest can be a nice discovery. Personally speaking, I've traveled to more of the European cities on my list (Paris, Athens, Toledo — only got as far south as Rome in Italy) than their American counterparts (only Toledo). I heartily recommend Athens if you have the chance.

One note about the cluing. My original clue for Naples was "Where you won't find Mt. Vesuvius." I can see why the editing team changed it, as Mt. Vesuvius is actually six miles outside of Naples, so while you can see it from Naples, it is not technically in Naples. Probably still too close for comfort if it erupts, I should imagine. So, the editing team went with "Virgil's Tomb," which I didn't know was in Naples, so I've learned something in my own puzzle, which I enjoy doing whether I'm solving or creating.

I hope you learned something too. And as soon as we can all travel internationally again, think about visiting one of these great destinations!

Tue 1/19/2021
PSALMSSIGHSHIA
AERIALOSLOPOGS
LEMONYELLOWETUI
KENTVIEWSNCAA
DELTASOLDON
SEWVATASFOR
SAWSEGOTISMFDA
ICHFRUITCUPEON
ARIAPELIKEWENT
MOTORSACMAI
BEREFTHERDS
SARAARABSEEOC
ATITCOCONUTCRAB
RICOTOLLROURKE
ICERSMUTNOTYET

Sometimes your puzzle gets accepted straight away. Sometimes it takes an unbelievable amount of revisions, which was the case with today's "Cake" puzzle. My original submission got an enthusiastic endorsement from NYTXW's Joel Fagliano on the theme material, but the fill needed a lot of work.

That first submission was a traditional 15x15 grid, with a 9-length theme entry at the center. Central 9s are tough to work with, and it was definitely a challenge here. I went through half a dozen versions of the 15x15 grid design, trying to keep 5 theme entries plus the CAKE revealer. At one point, I even played with the idea of PIECE OF CAKE as a revealer instead of just CAKE. I almost gave up on the grid entirely a few times before finally having the idea to extend it to a 16x15 with a central 8 (thus removing the tough central 9 issue). It was still quite hard to fill well - in fact, I thought it was another dead end until I discovered WIDE CUT to solve a problem in the bottom right corner. In the end, it took working on this off and on for about 3 months to get the grid into publishing shape.

I'm really pleased with the end product here. There's definitely some crosswordese (I'm cringing at ETUI), but I'm happy overall. I especially love how tight the theme is; there aren't too many combinations of cake types that work! The one entry I was bummed to lose was ROCK OPERA, but I got feedback that opera cake isn't well known enough (personally, I think it is!). I'm also happy with the long bonus entries, which I think are quite colorful and match the theme's fun vibe. I hope you enjoyed it!

Wed 1/20/2021
POETSPAMCGI
COLLISIONSART
MINDMELDINGSOS
UTZODORATOM
MEIRMATCHGAME
OTTOORIONS
WORKERLAINEMT
THEUNITEDSTATES
ABCACAICESSNA
REINERSODA
JOINTPAINPOPE
ATVSNICKPUG
CHIWINEPAIRING
KENONEPERCENT
ORGKNOTSKYE

The next semester of JASA's Sunday programs for adults 50 and over, including our crossword class, will start on February 21. Registration will be available here. The class has been running virtually over Zoom since March of 2020, which has allowed us to open the class to students from across the country (and Canada).

As always, we're really proud of the work our students put into this puzzle.

Thu 1/21/2021
HABIBSNAPEDS
AMAROCANIVETS
MODERNISTSICEE
METACEIMALONE
BARTONODEDON
COKIETSPDYES
DIEDSITUATE
CDSYESORNOMFR
CASTLESAREA
ACHYSICBIPED
PROAMSHAILED
DEGREESAUGABE
ANNATURNSIGNAL
STADIMACFAUCI
ICENOPESITKA

Thursday is my favorite New York Times crossword day: I love puzzles that stump me until, at some point, it clicks. This one is my second published "Tricky Thursday," and I hope the theme gives solvers a bit of that "aha!" feeling.

My first attempt at this theme just had the "signals" applying to Down answers, signifying the direction to continue from the circled square — so an "L" meant you'd proceed toward the left side of the grid. But as I started to fill it in, I realized it felt completely wrong, since turning left when driving south sends you east, not west. So, I decided to aim for actual "turning" and to make it work for both Down and Across answers. To find word pairs that could support that, I wrote a computer script to help crunch through millions of possibilities. Thankfully, I found enough decent pairs to make it work.

All those crossing theme entries put a lot of pressure on the fill, but after some back and forth with the editing team and a couple of revisions, I'm pleased with the result, and I hope you enjoy it!

Some favorites in the puzzle:

  • Clue that hit the editing room floor: "Golf tournaments for which one might qualify by being a celebrated guitarist" for PRO-AMS
  • Beverage: AMARO
  • Place: the Temple of Dendur at the MET
  • Clue the editing team wrote: "People calling the shots at the zoo?" for VETS

Finally, cheers to my lovely wife and our wonderful extended family, and here's to a happy and healthy 2021 for everyone. Happy solving!

POW Fri 1/22/2021
LOLCATSHASHTAG
IPADPROERNURSE
PERSEUSAGONIST
RNASLUMDOGVAL
IBMSYEASTRENO
NAIADMSUMOTTS
GRENADEPLAYSET
DYEERA
PEPBANDBALLHOG
HASONIREAWOKE
ORYXNSYNCETSY
TLCHOMEGYMDHS
OOHLALAALOHAOE
OBESITYLOCATOR
PEDDLESINKJETS

Themeless puzzles are typically judged on how "fresh" the fill is, how much the entries excite the solver. I wrote this puzzle with the goal of trying to maximize the amount of fresh fill. That may sound like an obvious goal, but most themeless puzzles actually don't try to do that. Often, constructors start with a few "seeds", entries that they really love, and then go from there. Basically, it's a question of quality vs. quantity, and most constructors put the emphasis on the former. But for this puzzle, I wanted to go for the other extreme.

I knew of an excellent Times puzzle by David Steinberg that seemed like a good place to start, as he managed to pack in an amazing amount of fresh fill. I decided to try to see what I could do with the same grid pattern. It's one of the easiest patterns of black squares you can imagine, primarily because of the lack of long words. That's a mixed blessing because the long answers are usually where most of the sparkle in a themeless can be found. You really have to make the most of the short fill. Even then, some solvers might still be disappointed with the lack of marquee entries.

Before I began constructing, there were some changes that needed to be made to my word list and my construction program. First, I looked through entries in my word list that had been marked as fresh and noted the ones that I liked especially. Because of the grid pattern, I only had to worry about entries that were 7 letters or fewer, which made the task much more manageable. Then I told my program to try to maximize the number of those entries. Finally, due to the super-symmetry of the grid pattern, dupes were an even bigger problem than usual, so I wrote some code which mostly eliminated them.

After all the hours I put in to get to that stage, the actual construction was a breeze. One coincidence I found amusing was that I had two Apple products in the grid (iPad Pro and Mac) plus a company (Mott's) known for its apple products. You might notice that Mac is no longer in the puzzle, as the original crossing MCU/MAC was changed to MSU/MAS. I've watched a lot of Marvel movies, so MCU was actually on my list of fresh fill. It just goes to show that tastes differ.

There remains one aspect of crossword constructing that really can't be automated: cluing. It's an area I've always struggled with, and this puzzle was no exception. In fact, when it was accepted, the Times team requested that I reclue it. I think my second set of clues was an improvement, but as always the final version is considerably better than anything I could come up with, thanks to the editorial team.

Sat 1/23/2021
MOODRINGSSLITS
INDUETIMEMABEL
STANDSPATADELE
TOYREACTROLLE
WALTHITLIST
TOPOFFBENICE
APORTBROKEEVEN
RETDHAIRYVETO
OLDSMOKEYBISON
EFILERPUTONS
ARCADESKOLA
LURIDARROWDAB
ODELLLAURANYRO
FEMMEESPERANTO
TREESSHARKWEEK

BRAD: I started out simply intending to put 22D and 27D at opposite ends of the grid. When you discover your seeds can be adjacent entries instead, things are looking up. Then Doug placed lively first and last Acrosses — 1A is my favorite clue of his this time. Did you know William Shatner made a horror film with dialogue entirely in 54A (Incubus, 1965)? I mean, are you sitting on that set thinking, "Geez, I was in 'Judgment at Nuremberg'?" No, I can't claim to have seen 'Incubus'; it's just one of the many bits of trivia lint you pick up in a crossword life.

DOUG: Brad mentioned 1-Across, and yes, I had a MOOD RING when I was a kid. It was purchased from an ad in a comic book, of course. I also had a pair of x-ray specs (rip-off!) and a jar full of Sea-Monkeys (awesome!). Anyway, my mood ring never seemed to change color, so I borrowed my mom's lighter one day and tried heating it up. (Don't worry. This was the ‘70s. Kids were allowed to play with lighters.) The ring changed color all right! The whole thing turned black and got that burnt plastic smell. So I never got to try my other experiment of putting it in the freezer.

Sun 1/24/2021 SUGAR, SUGAR
TOSHIBARACYBMWORG
ARCANUMISHECRAMBAM
NERDSRINGPOPFADDIETS
KLEEUBERSOILNYT
USESBABYRUTHSNICKERS
PENTONISUEBUMRAP
WHISKASRESTRASPY
CRUNCHNOWANDLATER
ERINSPINYETIKFC
LATKESUSGAEELYAOK
AYEWHOPPERSSPREENYU
NOREASEDISCRAFTER
NSALAPSLEAFOAST
MILKYWAYSTARBURST
SALADASECSCAREDY
ALOTOFATSARAYSAC
LIFESAVERSPAYDAYWELL
BTUJAYSEPEEARLO
HAIRLINEMARSSMARTIES
ABEUTESAKINPROTEGE
MARGASOSLOGETSSET

LUCY: I am beyond thrilled to be making my New York Times debut alongside the wonderful Ross Trudeau!

I started constructing about a year and a half ago when I made a puzzle for my wedding. I reached out to Ross this summer for feedback on some of my puzzles, and we quickly became good friends and collaborators.

Ross and I were working on another sweets-related puzzle when I started thinking about different ways of putting candy names together. MARS SMARTIES came to me first, but JOLLY RANCHER WHOPPERS made me think we might be in Sunday theme territory. I pitched the idea to Ross and here we are!

We spent many hours on Zoom reminiscing about childhood candy favorites, brainstorming punny clues, and hammering out a grid that we were happy with, before arriving at the puzzle you see today. We were sad to lose our clues for CRAYON ("How a young writer might wax poetic?") and I DOS ("Words that might ring a belle?"), but were glad to see most of our theme clues left intact.

Ross came up with SUGAR, SUGAR as a title, and we've both had the Archies song stuck in our heads ever since (thanks a lot, Ross). Much love and thanks to my husband for his support and patience throughout this process!

Mon 1/25/2021
IRANDESIADAPT
NEMOIRONROMEO
CHICGARBAGECAN
HAGUETOROS
BATTLEAXELIMB
SCANSTALER
SOSSTABSPIRO
QUARTERBACKSACK
UNDERYOGADYE
ACIDICEGAD
BEEBANKLEBOOT
IGLOOAGNEW
YOUREFIREDSITE
AANDMSEERACRE
PRESSYALETEAK

ACME: Although we rewrote this (several times!) over a year and a half ago, I'm thrilled with the timing of the publication as I've been living for Jan 20th to shout the reveal from my rooftop!

KEVIN: I'm going to address the elephant in the room head-on. This puzzle contains the phrase YOU'RE FIRED, which is a phrase that 45, i.e., the most recent former occupant of the White House, used to say on the television show "The Apprentice." This puzzle is running five days after being "fired," and a new president has been sworn in.

Someone somewhere in the crossword blogosphere will complain that the puzzle is political and that crossword puzzles shouldn't be political because they're supposed to be "fun" and unbiased. They're wrong for two reasons.

First, they're wrong because the timing of the puzzle is coincidental. It was scheduled before the NYT noticed its timely significance.

Second, they're wrong because a crossword puzzle is a work of art, and art absolutely has the right to be political. Books, paintings, and songs can be political. So can crossword puzzles.

The timing of this puzzle delights me, and here's why: 45 was the worst president ever. It's hard even to know where to start with this guy's faults, but in case you slept through the last four years, in case you've forgotten the horrors he wreaked on our country and the world, I have not.

For these reasons and many more, I say to 45 that I'm ecstatic that YOU'RE FIRED. I didn't plan for this puzzle to run on this day, but I'm delighted that it did. If anyone in the crossword blogosphere is upset by this, I DON'T CARE.

Tue 1/26/2021
LEGACTSERUPTS
AMASOAPSUPPORT
PIZZAZZYPRINTER
SLEEPYOKIETAO
EIREKNICKKNACK
DOSSIERSEAEAGLE
CLIOSEPEES
STRESSLESSNESS
STAIDDRAPE
CENTAVOSNARWHAL
RAZZMATAZZOOZE
IGALOWEGYMBAG
MANATEESCRABBLE
PLIGHTSTIEREEN
SLATESYAWNSAD

The complete list of legal-but-impossible-to-play Scrabble words is as follows:

  • CLASSLESSNESSES
  • KNICKKNACK
  • KNICKKNACKS
  • PIZZAZZ
  • PIZZAZZES
  • PIZZAZZY
  • POSSESSEDNESSES
  • RAZZAMATAZZ
  • RAZZAMATAZZES
  • RAZZMATAZZ
  • RAZZMATAZZES
  • SENSELESSNESSES
  • STRESSLESSNESS


Words requiring both blanks include these:

  • RIFFRAFF
  • WHIPPERSNAPPER
  • MAMMOGRAM
  • CONCUPISCENCE
  • CHOCKABLOCK
  • CRACKERJACK (requires both C's, the J, the K, and both blanks)
  • ZIGZAGGING (requires the Z, all three G's, and both blanks)


My favorite, though, has to be CHINCHERINCHEES (white-flowered South African lilies), which requires both C's, both H's, and both blanks. Since it's 15-letters long, there are only 30 places it can go on the board (spanning any row or column), but it can be played only if at least eight of the letters from it are already on the board in the right places.

Wed 1/27/2021
BAJACACTISTAB
AGARSCORNHUME
BENEATHCONTEMPT
EDENSTOYIAMSO
FOPSSPRY
RIOTLUNCHSASH
EONMONSOONCHE
UNDERTHEWEATHER
PSALMICEREEDS
PERPRICE
STRATANOOGIE
OWESFACETFUNK
BELOWTHESURFACE
ERASEALANERUB
REXWDSUEYDRY

The concept of taking idiomatic expressions literally as clues to their location in the grid didn't originate with me, but it's fun, and it hasn't been used in the Times for a while. 17 across was the seed entry; it appears today for the first time in the Will Shortz era (and for the first time in the Times crossword in more than 40 years). And 62 across is making its Times debut.

I played around with variations on this theme (over the moon, beside oneself, next to nothing, right of return, left to rot) and non-grid-spanners (Orion above "below the belt") before deciding three grid-spanners that sit one row down from their inside-the-grid references would give me a tighter, more elegant theme.

Having 62 theme squares, 34 of them stacked, puts constraints on a grid. I hope that having to fill in four abbreviations (one of them four letters) doesn't leave you feeling 39 across, with an 11 down.

I also hope you got a smile out of my clues for 61 across and 41 down. Thanks to Will, Sam Ezersky, and the team for great editing, especially the clues to 25 and 47 across.

Thu 1/28/2021
LANAATATSATES
ALOTNAVYALONE
TOSHDROPIGIVE
THELASTWORDILY
EASEOUTAYE
TLCAAVERAGE
BAKEHOTMESSILY
AGEPEADOE
HAYLOFTILYNEWS
ARSONISTORE
LESEGOTRIP
ALLTHATJAZZILY
EIEIOTEEMEVER
TWANGORCARENE
CARGOMATTONES

What a thrill to be making my New York Times debut today! I'm an elementary school music teacher based in Medford, MA. I've been solving for a couple of decades and began constructing recently. Besides publishing in other venues, I regularly create crosswords and cryptics for my blog, Square Pursuit.

Today's puzzle is a relatively early effort, though it was preceded by a string of polite rejections from the NYT. I love this kind of literary, surreal humor! While I know that additive wordplay and clue-heavy theming aren't for everybody, especially in Thursday puzzles, it was a pleasure to make, and I'm grateful that Will and the team preserved the goofiness. Though I've become a stronger grid maker since then, I think the mid-length, flowy fill suits the puzzle nicely.

I want to thank Kelly Petitt and Katie Weir for taking me to the ACPT in 2019, where I first started to get ideas about making puzzles. Despite the very warm welcome I received that weekend, I was too shy to ask for constructing help for a long time. After making this puzzle, I mustered up the courage to start my blog and became part of a wonderful crossword community. To those I've met in the past year, I value and appreciate you! To anybody out there who wants to talk about solving or making puzzles, I hope you'll get in touch with me! This is so much more fun to do with friends.

POW Fri 1/29/2021
FEZESPSTAMP
EXESSLEEPERCAR
ATRATERRACOTTA
TROMBONETRUSTY
SACEVADEET
SHARESENTOPT
PANTPUBTRIVIA
PINTAEMUERECT
ACCENTRUGCORK
LYEDEPPMINTY
LENSMOPHEF
SATIREDONEDEAL
PARENTHOODATTY
CRISISMODELOEB
APPLEMRSPRY

I see from my files that you're solving version 6 of this grid. Versions 1-4 have been lost in the ether, but I do have v. 5, and in that iteration, 8 of my 14 long entries are already in place. Also, I originally had so many food and cooking references that I felt compelled to remove some (plenty remain) for fear of this puzzle looking like it had been commissioned by "Bon Appetit" magazine!

The reason I clued EVA with the somewhat obscure meaning of "extra-vehicular activity" was that when I submitted this puzzle in January of 2020, astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir had recently completed the first all-female spacewalk, a story I had been following after the earlier debacle of not having enough spacesuits for women astronauts onboard the space station in 2019 (my original clue featured both their names). Of course, January of 2020 was about 10 million news cycles ago, so I'm surprised I remember any of those details today.

Finally, I'm happy to have introduced some fun entries to the NYT puzzleverse today: EXTRA SPICY, ZERO CHANCE, PUB TRIVIA, PICKY EATER, ACCENT RUG, SECRET RECIPE, and those wild and crazy guys, BERT AND ERNIE.

Happy solving!

Sat 1/30/2021
HOAGIEDROID
ROCKETSCIENCE
YOUHATETOSEEIT
SAYNOGRADDONE
CLADCOATESFEN
ATLSUITECRUST
BASELINEMOUSSE
PANGDAUB
CASINGKITTYCAT
EXACTDUSTSADO
ROOSCONCEKNIT
ALIGRODECEDES
MOREPOWERTOYOU
ITSNOWORNEVER
CLEATPASTED

I recently passed my one-year mark of constructing themelesses, so I thought this might be a good time to jot down a few things I wish I'd known when I first started.

  • Stair-step block patterns that go up are usually easier to fill than stair-step block patterns that go down. (I'm realizing now that Patrick Berry actually explained why this is in his excellent Crossword Constructor's Handbook and that my dumb ass had somehow glossed over it the first time around.)
  • Actually reading Berry's handbook will save you a lot of time and frustration in the long run.
  • "Cheater squares" is a term invented by masochistic constructors who want to make an already difficult task harder for no good reason.
  • "No partial dupes" is another one of those unwritten crosswords rules, which in many ways resemble baseball's unwritten rules. For instance: a small but vocal contingent of crossword purists will get pretty mad at you if they catch you disregarding this "no-dupe" rule. As a rule of thumb, crossword's unwritten rules should be afforded the same respect and reverence as baseball's unwritten rules.
  • Every themeless construction is an exercise in avoiding SEERESSES as your final across answer. But go too far the other way with your J's and Q's, and eventually, your seams will show, and everyone will know you are just afraid of SEERESSES. It's best to deal with the SEERESSES early on while maintaining a healthy but respectful distance.
  • Pangrams should be reserved for immediate family members who have the grace not to write mean things about your puzzles on the internet.
  • Don't pander. Your solvers can tell when you do, making them heavy bored. Stick with words you'd be happy seeing as a solver (without lying to yourself), and the rest will work itself out.
Sun 1/31/2021 PRODUCT MISPLACEMENT
CIVILPESOAJARMATES
OPINEAUTOKIWIGRUNT
MONSTERRAMRALLYMERCI
SEISMSRPITSARATON
SOILADODOTLUG
NATUREABHORSAHOOVER
CARETYEAFOIESPADAY
USEDRIGGOPLOGE
SANMYSOLORUNNETHOVER
PLATOONOLINSORARE
ANKARIGIDPURE
INTERNMETALEMMING
WORKEDFORPLANTERSWAR
ERICSTUSIRKONA
BASALTINCASEQNINNY
THROWINGINTHEBOUNTY
POLLIVAGOSNAG
ARIDGORPLOSNUNCIO
MINISTALEOFTHESCOTCH
POEMSEGOTARIAELATE
ASNERDADAROCKDELAY

I came up with this general theme idea back in the winter of 2018: substitute brand names for words that could also be products in well-known phrases. Original theme answers included: QTIP THE DECKS, IVORY BOX DERBY, NOT ON MY TIMEX … and the only answer to survive numerous revisions: NATURE ABHORS A HOOVER. (Absolutely no offense intended to any brand.)

Many thanks to the NY Times Crossword staff for all their help in improving this puzzle.

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