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Puzzles for December, 2017
with Jeff Chen comments

View these same grids with comments from:
Constructor (25)Jeff Chen (31)Jim Horne (6)Hide comments
Fri 12/1/2017
AMPCAMETOTWAS
LOOMEDOVEREASE
ORIONSBELTANTE
HANNALIBNOM
ALTOCLEFZABARS
SEEAXEDFABIO
CONTROLFREAK
GENDERROLES
ZILLIONAIRES
ITALOTRACPAD
PERONIINAWHILE
IRESMSIONIC
TADAPEACEMAKER
UTAHERRORPRONE
PETALEMMASSSE

I'm a huge fan of this "stair stack" arrangement, featuring three long headline entries in the middle. Stair stacks live and die on three regions. Listed from most important to least, it's critical to get zinginess from and cleanliness around:

1.) the middle stair stack

2.) the long entries in the NW / SE

3.) the medium to longish entries in the SW / NE

Oddly enough, the difficulty level doesn't correspond to this at all! Life is funny like that.

1.) The middle stair stack is of moderate difficulty, sort of the baby bear of the grid. Seems like it should be the hardest, but this is usually where constructors start, the blank slate giving maximum flexibility.

I thought Lily shined here. CONTROL FREAK is dynamite, GENDER ROLES is nice, with its clue making fun of classic sitcoms ("Three's Company," anyone?). And ZILLIONAIRES is awesome, throwing me off when I put in BILLIONAIRES.

2.) The long entries in the NW / SE, those are the papa bear, too easy to make sing. Even after fixing the middle into place, there's usually enough flexibility remaining that these sections aren't so bad. Lily even sections them off a bit with a black square in between ADS and LANDO, to make them even easier.

Here, I thought there was room for improvement. Although ORIONS BELT, PEACEMAKER, and ERROR PRONE are all fantastic, when you only leave yourself four long slots like this, it's imperative that all four sing. When you factor in the Maleskan SERE plus SSE (and SMS) in the SE, it's not a great corner overall. I would have liked another attempt there, maybe even with the black square between LEMMAS / SSE removed.

3.) The medium to longish entries in the SW / NE, those are the mama bear, too tough to fill with much color usually. It's so hard to convert 7-letter slots into great material. My expectations are never high for these regions, so I was pleasantly surprised by ZIP IT UP! (although, is "zip it!" more common?), WANNABES, even BAFFLE.

But overall, solid work and Lily shined in that critical central featured region. With more practice and ITERATEion, I see future POW!s for her.

Sat 12/2/2017
DOUBLEDOGDARE
ENNIOMORRICONE
BARNYARDANIMALS
AVEDIRECTDEBIT
TINTLIRESOLTI
ESTABTECHSEER
RIESENDUOS
STDENISPLUMJOB
EBAYAREOLA
DAINSLOTEGADS
OLMECBURRANTE
DIPSOMANIACMIL
ONETHINGATATIME
ELLENDEGENERES
SENIOREDITORS

Few constructors would dare to tackle a grid like this. A quad-stack … with another triple-stack running through it? Shudder-inducing! With something so impossibly difficult, my solving expectations run low, wondering how much crossword glue or outright esoterica I'll have to wade through. And the long answers often end up boring.

What a delightful surprise to uncover the snazzy DOUBLE DOG DARE at 1-A! And BARNYARD ANIMALS nearby? Yes!

And down south, DIPSOMANIAC! over ONE THING AT A TIME! over ELLEN DEGENERES! over … SENIOR EDITORS. (*sad trombone*)

Well, three out of four is still fantastic.

ELLEN DEGENERES and SENIOR EDITORS are both so crossword-friendly, what with all common letters and such regular consonant/vowel alternation. But ELLEN is so much more fun, especially what with that hilarious quote in the clue.

I liked that down south region a ton. JOAN MIRO is a great answer running through the quad-stack, as is OLD TIMER. It's hard to imagine how so many sizzling long entries could be jam-packed and interlocked. I thought there would HAVE to be a price to pay, but those two ultra-crossword-friendly entries worked some magic. To have virtually no crossword glue or esoterica (DAIN = hmm) is amazing.

There's a lesson in that. I can just sense constructors racing off to their seed lists, scouring them for similarly crossword-friendly entries …

(Okay, there was a price to pay. But I'm choosing to overlook the TIME / TIMER crossing because everything else was so awesome. It's a TIER 1 DOUBLE PURPLE ALERT INELEGANCY though.)

The top didn't turn out as well in my eyes, what with DEBATERS, ON A VISIT, UNRENTED not very exciting. And LOYD crossing the O of ENNIO? I worry that solvers will miss that square and feel horribly unsatisfied, and I wouldn't fault them. DIRECT DEBIT is a yawner even for this finance wonk. GRACE CUP … wha? Along with ESTAB and BENE, the north didn't do it for me.

But wow, that south half was a memorable standout in the low-word-count genre. If the top had even come close to it, the POW! choice would have been a no-brainer for me.

Sun 12/3/2017 SHELL GAME
SAUTESCYCLEFTSASL
ELNORTEOSHEALEIMOO
ACCUSALSALOESOAKLAWN
WOOTTONICSWEEPHAZED
APUPINTMEASURETITO
ROTHSETHANYREPINON
PHISHDADDOING
SNOOPKRESGEDRAINS
PEZARCTICEXPLORERSIP
CRACKTEAMPAINEINCA
GAGREELRESORTTIPSTER
AGRIONICECHAMOMILE
MOEATTACKWITHAPAWTYS
ENBLOCGHOSTSYEMEN
COKESSPAARUBA
GERMLPNGEOMEANBUST
OMOOLINCOLNLOGSSHH
LOANSTWOAMUKASEATIE
ARTDECOSWIFTNEWSCREW
MAILOUTORRESOONISH
EPALOTSLAYSKLEPTO

The old SHELL GAME! I spent years trying to come up with a Sunday puzzle around the fascinating sleight of hand. My best attempt was to have three "shells" made out of black squares, with Schrodinger-like white squares underneath, either containing PEA or (nothing). It felt too wonky though, so I eventually abandoned it to the grid graveyard.

There are some fun aspects to David's interpretation. I like the shells made out of ALMOND, WALNUT, CASHEW. I've always thought of the game with WALNUT shells only, but it would have been dull to get six repetitive WALNUTs. Plus, this method demonstrates that the shells have been mixed up from top set to bottom. Neat!

I understand that FRY is actually (PEA)RY if the PEA is under the WALNUT shell, and SWIFT is SWI(PE A)T, clued by those awkward-sounding central themers. But shouldn't that square be empty if the PEA isn't there? Why an F? E at least would have been more apt. Empty, not Full!

Given that the theme was a bit thin, David did well to give a ton of bonuses to snazzify the grid. Loved the rat-a-tat spray of ALCOPOP, AMAZING ISNT IT, IM RICH!, CRACK TEAM, LINCOLN LOGS, GAG REEL, etc. Spread out everywhere, these bonuses helped keep my interest from start to finish.

Yes, there's more crossword glue than you'd typically see in a Steinberg, what with AGRI ATIE CRI EUR FTS IRR etc. But it's not more than an average Sunday puzzle. Considering how difficult it is to work around so many SHELL shapes, I think it's a constructing win.

Overall, it didn't give me anywhere near the hipster thrill I get from watching grifts a la "The Hustler" or "Ocean's 11." But a valiant attempt.

Mon 12/4/2017
PITASTUNERTEN
ECOLIALAMOUNO
SAYITAINTSONUT
CHERCASFLAME
INDEPTHCEASE
PAYITFORWARD
NASALRAMSLAY
ESTMAYITBEATE
IPADVETAIDED
LAYITONTHICK
RAVENACHEFOR
SALEMBABEISA
AGEPLAYITBYEAR
SURTOLETRANGE
HSTSWISSRYDER

Tidy start to the week, a consistent "*AY IT *" pattern featuring some snazzy theme phrases. SAY IT AINT SO is fantastic, as are PLAY IT BY EAR and LAY IT ON THICK. PAY IT FORWARD wasn't a great movie, but what a neat concept.

The only one I was plus/minus on was MAY IT BE. I did enjoy the LotR movies, but that song didn't ring a bell.

Get it? Ring a bell? In Lord of the RINGs?

*crickets chirping*

It's not a mind-blowing theme, but I appreciated that it was a step up from simple rhymes. I tried to think of other good phrases with that pattern, but I couldn't. That's one mark of what I call "tightness" — neat that these five seem to form a complete set.

I've been critical of some of Alan's low word-count Sunday puzzles, which have tended to require a deluge of crossword glue. But today's solving experience was a perfect example of the role I think short fill — words of five letters or less — ought to play. Your job is not to be noticed, short fill! Beautiful execution in that regard, with just some minor EMS, HST, ISA kind of stuff.

Alan could have opened up the grid a bit, possibly by removing a black square between YEN and BALI or even the one between NEIL and SASH. Bravo for not doing so! Made for an easy-breezy, smooth as silk solving experience. It is boring from a constructor's standpoint — going up to 78 words, the max allowable, presents little challenge — but the solving experience must take priority.

Great clues in ROOFER, someone who's work is on the house. And AYES being [Naval agreements?]? Love it!

Strong overall execution, with snappy theme phrases, good long fill, and minimal crossword glue. If the theme had been more exciting, this could have been POW! material.

Tue 12/5/2017
ABCSSAUNACHIP
PLOTURGESHARE
POPEYETHESAILOR
SCARABACCENT
OREORITA
MARINEBIOLOGIST
IPODSORBROMEO
CIALEASTNET
SADDAYALGORE
CIGNAABORT
ALLENGINSBERG
AWOLANOYEOW
HASHATTIPSATE
AREOHHENRYDYE
BEDWHARTONYAK

It's so much fun when the Celeb Constructor series puts out a theme related to that celeb! Today, Harry Smith, a journalist, gives us a kooky news team, anchored by an [Anchor man?] — POPEYE THE SAILOR. (Think about that tattoo he sports.)

It took me half a minute to grok how a MARINE BIOLOGIST was a [Sound technician?]. I'll give you a little time to think about it … *

ALLEN GINSBERG is pretty good [Beat reporter?] — he's of the Beat Generation. As to being a reporter, though … hmm. But one definition of "report" is "to give a spoken or written account of something that one has observed." Contrary to my first impression, that describes GINSBERG surprisingly well.

And the best for last, the [Executive producer?]. WHARTON is one of the most famous b-schools, i.e., a place that produces execs! Great way to cap it off.

C.C. is such a PRO. Look how expertly she uses mirror symmetry to her advantage today. It's such a great option when your themers are unpairable but all odd-numbered in length. She spaces the four themers to the max, giving room to breathe, and uses her black squares to separate them wisely.

The only tiny section that needed some crossword glue was the south, not a surprise considering it has to work with two themers. A bit of SYN and ANO … but look at what bonuses she and Harry were able to work in. HAT TIPS and OH HENRY are delightful. A hat tip to both of you for fitting those in with such minor prices to pay!

A lot of construction is iterating little sections over and over until the balance is right. This grid came out so smooth, while even incorporating some bonuses in ROAD CLOSED, IM NOT READY. Not a ton of extras, but with HAT TIPS and OH HENRY, it was enough to keep me happy.

So smooth and engaging a solve. If all the themers had been as spot-on and funny as WHARTON, it would have been the POW! for me.

(*Think about Puget Sound. As in, the place I live. D'oh!)

Wed 12/6/2017
EMMAFIRMMAID
MANNOCCAMACME
MPEGRAMBODAME
ELMSUMPDIADEM
TEETIMEHUMMED
RMSMOLEMIA
SAMOSMAMETIAM
ELEMMANESMETE
AMTMENDSMOSES
MAREDOMSUM
MOHAIRLIMEADE
MANILADIMNMEX
ATOMNAOMITAMA
NEMOSIMBAUNUM
OREMMOONMARS

Stunt puzzle, every entry containing the letter M. We've seen plenty of these before, some with better raisons d'être than others. M AND M was meant to hint at the idea? I got confused. There's just one M in most entries, right? Why is M AND M apt?

Aha, every clue starts with the letter M too. Perhaps that's our second M? It's a mark of smoothness in the cluing that I didn't notice this right away — often, it's too easy to tell when clues are stunted up because many of them sound stilted. There was only one that gave me pause: I remember thinking that MODULES and [Mathematical sets] didn't quite match. Why not just clue it as [Sets]? Ah, right. The telltale M!

As with most stunt puzzles of this nature, there's a good amount of crossword glue — stuff that editors tell you to avoid, like abbreviations, partials, deep esoterica, etc. — to wade through. I stopped counting after I hit 10. For reference, I stop thinking a grid is elegantly crafted after I hit about 3.

That doesn't mean it's a bad puzzle or a bad grid. It's just the price you pay as a constructor for being able to achieve the feat. So much of construction is about trade-offs, what you're willing to put solvers through in order to pull off your idea.

I did like some of the long entries, ALMA MATER, METRONOME, ANGSTROM, and MOMENTUM in particular. But overall, it wasn't quite enough for me to feel like all the trade-offs were worth it.

I did enjoy the moment of clarity when I realized why M AND M was a good(ish) themer though, and there was a lot of solid work in cluing, making all the M-starts sound innocently natural.

Thu 12/7/2017
TANGENTHAMLAP
AMTUNERIVOODE
JOHNJAYGOOFSUP
SOPCHINASEA
MATHISREDBULL
APRONTARALE
INITBIZKSTATE
DEPBUSYBEEDER
SALAAMIONGEAR
ELKFDAWORSE
LATEFEERINSED
TEXASTEAIND
OVERALLUPTOYOU
GILLEOPEELERS
ASSEEKINRANGE

Neat finds, multi-word phrases where the last word sounds like a letter, and the first word starts with that letter. JOHN JAY, BUSY BEE, etc. I liked CHINA SEA and UP TO YOU best since those were tricksy. At first, I wondered, shouldn't it be something like SULU SEA? D'oh! Silly Jeff.

Interesting approach, using the notepad to make a (very small) contest out of this. (GOLLY GEE is what Will and Dan were getting at.) It didn't really work for me since there wasn't any prize involved, only sort of a "hey, challenge yourself and see if you come up with the right answer!"

(That doesn't work with my three-year-old, BTW.)

I'd much rather have gone full meta-contest. Send in your answer! Win a prize if you get it right! It works very well for Matt Gaffney's weekly contest (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!), for the WSJ Friday meta-contest, for Will's weekly NPR Puzzler, for so many things. Why not the NYT crossword?

I've chatted with Will and Joel about their decision to not go down this road, and I respect their thinking — it can be very frustrating for solvers if you can't get the answer right away. Solver dissatisfaction! Angry emails! I get that. The solver is priority #1.

But it feels like the NYT is missing out on something great. Something stickily addictive. ARE YOU LISTENING, NYT BIZ DEV PEOPLE? STICKY = MO MONEY!

And if they decided to not go down the contest route, I'd rather have seen GOLLY GEE incorporated somewhere in the grid, with the theme left up to the solver to grok. Much more standard NYT-ish. This notepad approach is sort of miry, trying to make up its mind what it is.

I did enjoy thinking of what other phrases might fit. Came up with PRINCESS AND THE PEA (okay, no initial THE is a cheat), CAN I SEE? You wonder why those weren't included. Hey, YOU WONDER WHY!

Pretty good execution on the grid. I enjoyed the bonuses of KSTATE (hugely recognizable moniker in college bball), LOSS LEADERS, TRIPLE AXELS.

Not a fan of the ADUEL, NEAPS / ENJOIN kind of stuff. The last two are tough — are they worth it to get AM TUNER, GUNSHOT, TANGENT in that toughish to fill corner? For me, not so much, but I can see how others might say yes.

Overall, I enjoyed the theme idea. Wish the halfway nature of the "contest" had been thought through better.

Fri 12/8/2017
SCATJEANSHORTS
POPOESCAPEROOM
FACTDERNIERCRI
STRATIEARLKEL
ELOWANETINE
RADIOGAGACHET
IMINLOVEDAE
BATCAVEBITESAT
OTTQUAALUDE
MAMEPUZZLEBOX
COLEBAEZAMT
ANGCORPKNEWIT
BARRELRACENEKO
IMEANTOSAYTEEN
NINJASTARSSTAY

Loved that little QUAALUDE / PUZZLE BOX section! Something so awesome about all those rare letters worked in so smoothly.

And PUZZLE BOX and ESCAPE ROOM in the same grid? Squee! A puzzler's dream.

Paolo did well with his long slots, converting so many of them into snazzy material. I hitched slightly on NINJA STARS — "throwing stars," yeah? — but AP CREDIT. BARREL RACE! JEAN SHORTS! DERNIER CRI, even some great mid-length stuff in QUE PASA, BAT CAVE! Paolo sure knows how to pack in a ton of entertainment.

I'm a Queen fan, but I wasn't sure what RADIO GAGA was, nor did I recognize it. Fun title, though.

SUBTWEET fell into the same category. I think I'm just not in that target demographic. Entries like this are tough — I bet some tweeps will go (radio?) ga-ga over this entry, but it didn't do anything for me. Except make me feel old.

Some crossword glue, in OTT, GOVT / CORP, AMT, KEL (come on, someone named KEL become truly crossworthy already!). Not too bad, but considering this is a 72-word puzzle (the max allowed for a themeless), I would have liked that AMT to be closer to two. There are always trade-offs with any grid construction, but I think it's very doable to make 72-word grids snazzy AND ultra-smooth.

A lot to love here. Approaching POW!-level work, but not quite at my personal threshold.

Sat 12/9/2017
ESASASFITTAOS
RONALORCAONCE
INDIRENEEDRATE
CORNBREADPECAN
IGOTITKATARINA
DRIESPINECONES
LADDFINCHES
EMSBEEGEESMAP
KILDAREBADA
LIBELLAWSMONEY
ONAPLATEMAXINE
CARTSESTATETAX
ALTODROWNEDOUT
LIEFARMASUBER
SERFMEESEPARA

I'm mostly in agreement with Stu. 66-word grids are no joke — so tough to get both smooth and sparkly. There's a reason so few constructors regularly dip their toes in these waters. I wouldn't call this one FREAKING AWESOME, but I certainly wouldn't call it IN DIRE NEED either.

It's a tough call — to me, AS FIT, SONE, and LIEF are pretty bad. The last one is especially egregious — if you need to clue something as "old-style," probably best to go back and rework that little section.

Normally I don't look carefully at the "before" grids, but this one was interesting. The corner as published is so, so, so much better than the original. I have a feeling I would have leaned closer toward the IN DIRE NEED side if the original had been kept. AGENAS and ANAG … oof and double oof!

Overall, this 66-worder exhibits a lot of characteristics shared by other 66-worders:

  • Some great stuff (ICE DANCERS, PIED A TERRE, LIBEL LAWS, excellent!)
  • A good number of short fill compromises
  • A bit of wasted space (DROWNED OUT)
  • A couple of entries with questionable crossworthiness (ON A PLATE? PAY EXTRA?)

I'd be interested to see if the puzzle could have been made POW!-worthy by breaking up IN DIRE NEED and DROWNED OUT. Those two entries didn't do much for me anyway, and if this change could have eliminated AS FIT, ARMAS, MEESE ... man, that would have been a big improvement.

Big, wide-open spaces like the NW and SE can make for a tough Saturday challenge. I don't find them as satisfying as slightly smaller regions more densely packed with great material, but it's worthy of a change of pace.

POW Sun 12/10/2017 FULL-BODY CAST
AWALKSHELINNOTIME
TOMEITALIBHOTLINES
OWIESEVOKESETHAKITT
MEGASTARELWAYVITAE
DONCHLESLALOMILE
NAVJOHNLUIZAMO
ZAPMOIRAONENOLO
ETONCOINOPBANGOR
ELSALANCERPORKADOBO
ATBATATTUNESOIR
INDDENZELWASGTONKGB
STOPBONSAIVISIT
TACOSTANDMICHELLEOH
SCHEMEHEALERYADA
KIEVTEETEXTSROT
RYANPHILLPEIAN
USESAVIOROLPLATT
RENALNOTREPASTRIES
BITPARTSETCHEDCULPA
ANTIGONESUTRAOTTER
NEONSIGNTSARDOSES

★ Great theme around actors, BIT PARTS hinting at "rebusized body parts." I never noticed this property about DENZEL WA(SHIN)GTON and DON C(HEAD)LE, even though they're some of my favorite actors. And what an apt title, FULL-BODY CAST!

I've become very picky about rebuses over the years. They used to be so novel; even rebusizing IN or ER was ground-breaking. These days, it takes a lot for me to consider a rebus worth solving:

  1. Great rationale as to why letters are squished into one square.
  2. Colorful theme answers containing those rebus squares — not just in the across direction, but down too!
  3. Variety in the rebus squares (or some other way of avoiding a repetitive feel).

I think Erik and Laura did all three very well. Where many constructors fall down is the second part of criterion #2. For example, it's not so interesting to have SHIN worked into PU(SH IN), but shorter down entries do make the grid much easier to construct. Thankfully, PU(SH IN) was more the exception than the rule today, as the down entries containing the body parts were so snazzy.

I mean, T(HE AD)VOCATE! I H(EAR) YOU! HE(LI P)ORTS! And my favorite, ROOKI(E YE)AR! Check out how much real estate those long down "themers" take up. That presents all sorts of gridding challenges, reducing flexibility a ton.

Now, the puzzle wasn't perfect. Considering the high strain put on the grid by all those long across AND down themers, it wasn't a surprise to get a good amount of crossword glue. Most of it was ignorable, but one thing that stood out for me was the abundance of partials — A WALK, T AIME, I ATE. Better to spread out your crossword glue — having so many of a single type makes them more noticeable.

But overall, such an entertaining theme, well executed with just a few issues here and there. Plus, a ton of bonus fill, including some stuff you don't usually see in the NYT: NARUTO and PORK ADOBO. I like that kind of diversity. It might not play well to mass audiences, but I like it when constructors (and editors!) take chances like this.

Mon 12/11/2017
HOYASWATHBEAD
EDENLIBRAONCE
ROTARYCLUBODDS
ARISECELLBLOCK
ASIAYALE
AMAZEDTALON
MOBILEHOMENONE
INNLAUDINGVIC
SEEDSMARTALECK
SYRIAERASES
FIRSCRIB
PAYFREEZESCOPE
LUAUHEADPHONES
URNSANGERATOP
MAKEBOSSYTONY

HEADPHONES telling us that each theme answer contains a type of phone. Really, trust me kids, there was such a thing as a ROTARY phone, which you had to stick a finger into and rotate the plastic dial around, let it slowly spring back, and repeat this six or nine times. And if you got a single digit wrong, you had to restart. Did I mention the receiver was corded to the base? And that there was a receiver?

No way my kids will believe any of that.

Excellent themer choices, ROTARY CLUB, CELL BLOCK, MOBILE PHONE, SMART ALECK all colorful. The only one I hitched on was PAY FREEZE, which felt slightly off. But I couldn't quite figure out what sounded more natural for a wage freeze. Ah, wage freeze!

Especially important to choose strong themers when the theme type is one that's largely gone by the wayside. ("Words that can precede X" aren't being accepted by many editors these days.) A letdown for me when I got to HEADPHONES, but thankfully, Brian did a good job with the bonuses. BOOLEAN might draw some stink-eyed stares from math haters, but haters gonna hate. ANASAZI was nice, too, as was LAB COAT.

Pretty smooth grid, too. Welcoming for Monday newbies. Impressive that Brian kept the grid to just a bit of ODA / SEE NO, given that he used six themers, no mean feat. It's easy to see why ODA reared its ugly head, given how sandwiched that middle is (in between MOBILE HOME and SMART ALECK). But Brian laid out his themers well — stacking two themers (ROTARY CLUB right above CELL BLOCK) often (counterintuitively) helps makes things easier.

Strong execution helped keep my attention, but a theme type that's passé usually leaves me feeling let down, no matter how good the gridwork.

Tue 12/12/2017
SOXDILLHARPON
CHRISTIEAMELIA
REACTSTONOSALT
ANTEYENSSTY
PRESSAPRODAY
SYDEMBRYORENE
OREADOPIATE
SALVATORMUNDI
GOLDENDOING
ADAMINANETTUB
LANATOVSHINE
ASKWISEUTES
HALTEDNOVELLAS
ARDENTCHARLESI
STARTSIONADYE

Huh! SALVATOR MUNDI, selling for $450.3 million last month, a new record. You know what makes me the most curious? The $0.3 million. Other bidders had no problem gathering $450 M, but that last $0.3 M was the deal breaker? There's gotta be a great story behind that!

Nice that the puzzle came out in a timely fashion. I did a double-take on the clue — is it possible that the painting sold less than a month ago? Pretty cool to memorialize such a record-breaking event so quickly (considering that puzzle queue times between acceptance and printing usually are three months to well over a year!).

Fortuitous, that interlock of LEONARDO DA VINCI and SALVATOR MUNDI. Every once in a while, the crossword gods shine down on you.

Such big interlock does constrain the puzzle mightily though, forcing further interlock if you want to incorporate other long themers. David did great with OLD MASTER crossing through SALVATOR MUNDI — perfectly apt for LEONARDO.

But RESTORING ("restoration" sounds better, yeah?) felt like an afterthought; something that would more fit the grid interlock than fit "interesting to a solver." Maybe if the clue had told a nutsy story behind the RESTORING of the painting …

Because of that, the puzzle theme felt thin, more akin to a front-page blurb than a meaty story. Would have been great to get another interesting piece of trivia about the painting itself.

Oh right, there was CHRISTIE, which felt like it ought to be CHRISTIES, and CHARLES I, one of the many people who owned the painting at one time. These were too peripheral to the painting to make me remember that they were themers. Again, casualties of the central interlock.

I would have preferred unlinking LEONARDO DA VINCI and SALVATOR MUNDI so that more interesting themers could be used.

Pretty good grid execution, what with some nice bonuses in X RATED / O HENRY (Xs and Os!), and just a bit of DTS, APR, the odd IN A NET. Not easy to do with so much interlock. And I enjoyed learning about that painting — embarrassed not to have heard of it before!

Wed 12/13/2017
GASBOMBMANDMS
AVIATORTAXFREE
FERRITEAGELINE
FRENCHANTILLES
ETNADIESOD
SERUMNRCGOAT
DRIVETHROUGH
LIAAMAORETOY
SIDELIGHTING
DIAZCRYSTOMP
MEGADAKIAS
MAKEANENTRANCE
LENIENTTOEPOKE
ASCENDSEFFUSED
WAYLAYSUITORS

Three good finds, ENCHANT, RIVET, and DELIGHT spanning across phrases. Tough to discover such long words inside colorful themers! FRENCH ANTILLES was particularly DELIGHTful, almost as if the crossword gods had planted that, just waiting for it to be unearthed.

Oddly, SIDE LIGHTING was the least DELIGHTful to me, as the term felt a bit stilted (at least compared to how snappy DRIVE THROUGH is). It does appear to be a real thing in photography, though. MADE LIGHT OF would have hit me more strongly.

I must admit, I didn't totally grok the theme. MAKE AN ENTRANCE (ah, that's why Ben didn't use MADE LIGHT OF!) relates to these "captivate" synonyms … how? Isn't making an entrance more being flashy, showy? Huh.

I would have liked a stronger connection, something that better explained "hidden words meaning captivate." Not sure what that would be, though. Perhaps a fourth themer, without a revealer, leaving the solver to make the connection?

Tough to hide BEGUILE or ENTHRALL within colorful phrases though …

Such strong gridwork for a debut — now THAT I found DELIGHTful! Entries of length 12-14 are so awkward, forcing bad spacing in a 15x15 puzzle. Note how squished together the four themers had to be. But Ben hardly blinked, even working TATER TOT though three themers.

And few constructors would tackle big corners like the NW / SE. A 7x4 chunk of white will almost always require some crossword glue or a bunch of blah entries, especially when one side of it is fixed in place by a themer (FRENCH ANTILLES). There is OTIC in the NW, but to work in GAS BOMB (which I *think* is a real thing?) and BARNARD is good stuff.

Opposite corner turned out well, too. TOE POKE wasn't familiar to me, but it makes sense, and I've certainly seen enough kid soccer games to know what it was. Along with GO KAPUT and zero dabs of crossword glue, it's strong work.

Wish the revealer had a bigger impact; a sharper a-ha moment. The grid execution was strong enough, with three great long-words-hidden-within-themers, that it could have been a POW! contender if it had.

ADDED NOTE: Moron here. Not an ENTRANCE as in a way in, but ENTRANCE as in "captivate." D'oh! I even thought about it for a few hours and still didn't make the connection until I read Ben's note. Glad I did! A bit too clever for me, apparently.

POW Thu 12/14/2017
TANKSHEDSCPAS
ATONTAKEILENA
MANOELECTARTY
ATEWELLOBOISTS
LIONELARMORY
ELFLABMICENAE
STYEROARKSAPS
OAFAGOAOL
BURLTINSHIH
CURLUPATONAL
ORBBATSNOCTA
LYESROBEDMOCK
STEPADLERIMHO
OHSOLATTEMEET
NEWTLYSOLETTA

★ Tim wants us to BURY THE / HATCHET, embedding four AXs below the grid. Neat idea! It's been long enough since we've had a letters-outside-the-grid puzzle that this one made a strong impact for me. Thanks for spacing them out, Will!

One of the best aspects of these types of puzzles is that as a solver, I get phrases I've never (or seldom) seen in crosswords, since they're longer than the usual 15 letters. NONE OF YOUR BEESW(AX) is beautiful. Although SIT BACK AND REL(AX) is 15 letters, it's still fun. I also liked PERSONAL INCOME T(AX) and STELLAR PARALL(AX), although I'm used to seeing the latter as simply PARALLAX.

What made this puzzle a standout for me was Tim's execution. It's hard enough to work with four long themers and even harder to throw in a 7/7 revealer. The theme density means that there'll have to be heavy overlap somewhere and that usually results in crossword glue or wonky-sounding entries. Tim did end up with the odd BURL in the SW corner, but check out how smooth those bottom corners turned out. STELLAR work there.

The south region often suffers in a layout like this, because so many across entries have their start and end fixed into place. But it's so smooth. Such pro work down there.

Toss in a couple extras like TAMALES, ARMORY, OBOISTS, LAB MICE, and I'm an even happier solver.

Interesting theme + high theme density + overall smoothness = POW!

Fri 12/15/2017
ATANANGLEASSERT
TACOSALADDEALER
LETITPASSOEUVRE
ISAACSMGMLION
REVERSIRISEROD
AKAALERTRATS
METABOLICRATE
SEXANDVIOLENCE
ENTREPRENEURS
KARLHIRESRIO
ERADEFYHEAVENS
BANQUETCALLED
ABOUNDMODELSHIP
BLUINGARECAPALM
SETTEELASTNAMES

Triplet of long entries anchoring this one, SEX AND VIOLENCE solid (if a bit gritty), ENTREPRENEURS nice for this entrepreneur, and METABOLIC RATE doing its job. None of them resonated super strongly for me though, even ENTREPRENEURS a bit on the boring side since it's a word I hear every day. METABOLIC RATE also felt like a dictionary term, rather than the more fun "metabolism" that might lend itself to more clever cluing.

Jacob expanded to a 16-wide, which often presents challenges in a themeless — biggest issue is staying under the 72-word maximum. Note how he had to leave himself pretty big corners to work with.

Those NW/SE corners are especially daunting. Typically, constructors would make a region like this smaller, placing a black square somewhere in the ISAACS region. Given how big a swath the NW is, it's no surprise to get some A STAR, weird plural NAPAS, and neutral AT AN ANGLE.

Different set of problems in the opposite corner. MAL and ILE are much more ignorable than ASTAR, but that ARECA PALM / CORA cross might be a killer. I'd say unfair, especially given that the CORA clue, referring to The Last of the Mohicans, makes it feel like COTA, COHA, COGA, etc. could be possible.

Jacob continued to make his life hard in the other two corners. Often, constructors might place a black square at the Q of BANQUET, making it so much easier to turn the corner without trouble. BLUING isn't something I've heard of, but it does appear to be a real thing. REROOT, on the other hand, felt more egregious.

What I enjoyed most about the puzzle was a handful of great clues:

  • A good plot is ARABLE when it's a plot of land, not a book plot!
  • Keeping with the literary misdirection, a RECIPE can sure be stirring.
  • A DEALER can give you a hand, all right — a blackjack hand!

A couple of strong entries like GLACIAL DRIFT and CURED HAM helped keep me entertained, but it didn't have the same Stulbergian literary / high culture feel that I've come to love.

Sat 12/16/2017
OCTUPLETZAPPA
THEVOICEFELLIN
REALTALKORIENT
ANKARAWFOOTAGE
MUSTARDGAS
SHOPSRAPLETS
HENEARNOWISEE
IMEMINECREATED
RATATATSNLAUG
KNOTGITBTYPE
WHEREAREYA
REALMADRIDMOJO
ITTEAMMAGNAVOX
FACTISATEALIVE
ETHELCASHEDIN

Recent college grad and newest member of the NYT crossword team, Sam peppered his grid with all sorts of fun entries. FOOD PORN, ha! It's so odd how often I see people photograph their food when they go out to eat. Just eat the dang food already! Love THE VOICE as well, and we get some FACT IS … kind of colloquialisms that I've come to associate with Sam.

Not all of them resonated with me, though. I'm sure REAL TALK is something the kids say these days. WHERE ARE YA isn't something I'd say, but that could easily be because I old-fashionedly stick to my guns on YOU, not YA. (And WHERE ARE YOU isn't super exciting as an entry to me. More an everyday utilitarian phrase.)

I much more prefer timeless entries like RAW FOOTAGE, a beautifully colorful phrase.

I wish I could say MATHLETE is timeless … it should be! (Says this former MATHLETE.)

I did stumble on a couple of entries, IT TEAM feeling not quite right (IT GUY or IT GURU or even IT PRO better), and B TYPE … I've donated blood around 125 times and never heard anyone say that. Lots of TYPE O, A POSITIVE, O NEG, etc., but B TYPE feels off.

Not a huge soccer fan, but REAL MADRID is such a snazzy entry. Love it!

And love that clue for Frank ZAPPA — "Sheik Yerbouti" indeed!

So many snappy, fresh-feeling entries — many of which I even knew! And that FOOD PORN / MUSTARD GAS / RAW FOOTAGE mash-up, what a vivid image that brings up. If only a few more entries had resonated, this could have been POW! material.

Sun 12/17/2017 OH, ONE LAST THING
CHADAMIDALAABCSABS
LEDEREVELERLOUISNYE
EMUSSTIFFASABORDEAUX
FILTHHEYELAPSED
TREPIDRONINBERMS
ALSORANVANITYPHARAOH
NEWYORKMEZZOEARRDA
KAISIREESPRYMEEK
ARMADARADBEEFGABLE
MELBATUTTISLIT
ROLLINGINTHEDEPOT
TERIGAUNTBYRON
SILASGILTFOESTEPPE
OPELTURFGESSOHAT
CTAHALIRESTMYQUESO
KOSHERPICCOLONEUTRON
SPEARREEKSFINITO
SEASONSDEVTEMPT
LOVEISINTHEARROWROLE
LOOKATMEONGUARDENOS
COWMAIDWEEBLESDEWS

Neat sound changes, OH, ONE LAST THING a perfect hint to "add an O sound for kooky results." Love, love, love the array of weird spelling changes, BOARD to BORDEAUX, FAIR to PHARAOH, PICKLE to PICCOLO, etc. Amazing how many different ways you can make that O sound!

I wasn't sure about METS to MEZZO — I always thought MEZZO was "mez-zo" but apparently it's "mets-oh." Learn something new every day!

Great base phrases and resulting humor. STIFF AS A BOARD is colorful, and I can almost imagine a good PR person coming up with STIFF AS A BORDEAUX to market a line of super-heavy wine. And Cupid saying LOVE IS IN THE ARROW? Brilliant! I REST MY CASE (that the themers highly entertained me).

Er, QUESO. Another fantastic spelling change!

The only themer that felt stilted was VANITY PHARAOH. A vain pharaoh, yes, but the grammar here is too tortured for my taste. Something like PHARAOH TRADE might have worked better for me.

Well executed, too, lots of bonuses in OMNIVORE, NEUTRON, PHEROMONE, METHINKS, BIG GULP. Note that most of them are single-worders, which often fall more into a neutral camp because they're so commonplace and utilitarian, but METHINKS most of these are great.

I didn't know MIRANAIR — er, MIRA NAIR, but she's crossworthy. I always thought Spike Lee did "Mississippi Masala." No sir!

A couple of blips in the short fill here and there, some OPEL / CTA and ASTA, a dab of ENE WDS. But note that these little shorties are so easy to ignore. Nothing egregious.

I came so close to giving this one the POW!, as it's a great example of a tried and true theme type done exceedingly well. Many other weeks it would have been my pick — it's super hard for a Sunday puzzle to hold my (short) attention span the entire way through, so it's quite a feat when it happens.

Mon 12/18/2017
EASESALGAEALB
SLOMOREIGNNOR
CLAUDEMONETOVA
AMPAXONOKIES
PAILPRIDEMONTH
ELNINOORBITAL
DEGASHAJISPY
MADEMONEY
RIMELISGAINS
ATATIMEDOWNON
CODEMONKEYNATO
ELDERNAANWOW
FDAINNERDEMONS
AYSCRUELMERCI
NAHHANDYOGDEN

Hidden word puzzle, INNER DEMON pointing to theme phrases with DEMON spanning two words. Some colorful ones, CODE MONKEY my favorite. Some solvers may not know it, but it's thrown around a lot among my coder friends. Plus, it's so evocative! A million monkeys coding away at a million computers could eventually write this blog post …

And PRIDE MONTH, yay! The Pride Parade is a much bigger term here in Seattle, but PRIDE MONTH is no doubt in the news.

I'd seen CLAUDE MONET and MADE MONEY before — maybe even in this same INNER DEMON concept — but they're still goodies. Well, MADE MONEY ain't MADE BANK or RAKED IT IN, but it does the job.

"Hidden word" themes can get repetitive when it's the same exact word found over and over. One way to make it more interesting is to find different synonyms for the word, in this case, DEVIL, IMP, SATAN, etc.

But another way is to choose a string that's tough to find within phrases. I was surprised at how few I could come up with, given how common the letters in DEMON are. So that tightness does elevate the theme a little.

(As a general rule, if you have a huge list to choose from, your theme probably isn't tight enough.)

Strong execution, love how smooth Bruce got this grid. Not easy to do, given that MADE MONEY cut the grid in the half, top to bottom, forcing four big corners. Some RACE FAN / MAD DASH / IM RICH!, LOVE TAP = nice bonuses, too. I wish more of AT A TIME, ANOINTS, SNOWS IN, SOAPING were of the IM RICH! level of sizzle, but it's better to err on the side of smoothness than showiness for a Monday puzzle.

Bruce's attention to detail has improved so much over the years. Such a smooth grid makes for an excellent novice solving experience — it says a lot that I'd happily give this one to any newer solver. If the theme hadn't felt quite as repetitive to me, and if the bonuses had been a little snazzier, it would have been POW! material.

Tue 12/19/2017
SOPSWEETRIG
PIERTOOTHHERA
ALDOERNIEESOS
LICHENCOBAIN
BACKINCODDLE
AMASSDIMUSUAL
APBSAVVIEREWS
CANDYCANE
STARTSRENTAL
ORTOACORNRARE
BIRCHHOEBANTU
BOHOAHAUGGS
HOPENOTLORELAI
PROTECTMUSSELS
SOSYAYSITDEM

CANDY CANEs! My three-year-old just got a CANDY CANE from Santa. Something so sweet about how big her eyes got.

Not as sweet when she crunched it up in two bites and promptly asked if she could eat her brother's.

Andrew made pretty CANDY CANE designs, the top two spot-on. (The bottom two are stubby, aren't they?) I also liked that he chose candies where the last five letters are words on their own, making for legit grid entries.

I would have loved if he could have found some where the last five letters made an unrelated word, but I'm not sure if that's possible. (If only CKERS or KYWAY were a word …) It was fun to see ROCK and HEADS in the top two CANDY CANES, but they're so closely related to (POP) ROCKS and (AIR) HEADS.

I was impressed by Andrew's execution in the NW. It's so tough to work around curving entries, as they "triple-check" certain squares (they have to work with an across, down, and diagonal answer). To work in OIL LAMP, PEDICAB, LICHEN so smoothly, with no crossword glue necessary! Made me think this would be the POW!

And the NE corner was almost as good. Not sure what IRON LAW was, but it seemed self-explanatory. Along with some Kurt COBAIN, along with just an ESOS / EWS = above average execution.

But those two bottom corners. They're much bigger than the top two, and the level of difficulty shows. There's an OCA and an ORTO in the SW, and the LEU in the SE. Those aren't terrible, but OCA and LEU are on the rougher side of crossword glue. Still, as a whole, it's not terrible given how big those corners are, and how they have to integrate the CANDY CANEs.

Oh, but ANSA. Oh, oh, oh. (Reverse of HO HO HO.) Grinchy for novice solvers!

All in all, too much that can potentially turn off newer solvers.

Nice idea, such pretty visuals, but perhaps too much to pull off in an early-week grid. Maybe choosing seven-letter candies in the bottom two corners (with shorter crooks) would have been better, allowing for a smoother end product.

Wed 12/20/2017
TSARMOTIFS
MEETUPAVENUE
TORPEDOSREADER
HASTESTESMILE
ONEEIGHTGIN
MARCSARGELENA
LLCSSIZING
FOURFIVE
TOUCANMETE
CORDPOWERSASS
HRSSEVENTWO
INANEAIDANEED
DAKOTAREDHEADS
EDENICLIAISE
SONANTNINE

Debut! The three plus signs are so aesthetically pleasing ... and functional! Talitha gives us three ways of forming NINE — ONE (plus) EIGHT, FOUR (plus) FIVE, SEVEN (plus) TWO so neatly exhibit crossword symmetry. Sometimes the crossword gods shine down upon you!

We recently had another usage of plus signs made of black squares, but I enjoyed seeing it again.

Additional NINE motifs, a baseball TEAM having nine players on the field, NONA the NINE prefix, SEPT the ninth month, NEIN a homophone of NINE. A bit too haphazard for me, but I appreciate the effort to bulk up the theme.

Oh right, CLOUD nine and nine LIVES! I highlighted the theme answers aside from NINE (below) to make them stand out better.

At 51 black squares, this one is nearly off the chart. (Some editors place a cap of about 38 black squares max, but Will often allows people to go up to 42.) Each extra black square makes the filling task so much easier, to the point where they get called "cheater squares." So, this went overboard for me.

I also felt like it made for way too many short answers, not enough long ones. For a puzzle featuring short themers, I want some juicy long fill to elevate my solve. TORPEDOS, TORNADO, REDHEADS, even FORSAKEN helped, but I wanted more. Note how the extra black squares on the left side of the grid nibbled away at the SW corner, taking away precious 8-letter slots. Yes, TORNADO is a goodie, but there's so much lost potential in that CHIDES slot — so much tougher to make a six-letter slot sizzle compared to an eight-letter one.

In terms of short fill, a bit of ESTE is fine, but OVEST is not the kind of debut word you aim for. The rest of the grid was pretty well executed — it's a shame that SEPT and NONA felt like crossword glue. I wonder what other NINE phrases/entries could have been substituted.

Nice idea and neatly symmetrical ways of adding up to NINE. Some flaws in execution, but I enjoy it when a new constructor debuts with a novel idea.

Thu 12/21/2017
ASSISICAMARO
WHATEVSGALILEI
GENERALHOSPITAL
EATANIMATEEDU
ERATKNOLLPREP
STAGPETE
PALAUSFOHEATH
INURNHISELLIE
GENIIOFTLOFTS
SWANNTISEUROS
RAGSETTA
REYFEUMRTNCO
ICEPOPSIRECKON
PRAIRIEFORRENT
EUREKASFLYINTO

Grid art! Alex gives us TUNING FORK formation of black squares that can also look like a SLINGSHOT. And if you squint, GOAL POSTS (I pity the kicker who has to get it through those narrow uprights). Squint even harder, and you can almost see THE LETTER Y.

Squint harder!

It's tricky. I like the idea a lot, but trying to make the pattern of black squares look exactly like each of those four things is a toughie. It'd look nearly perfectly like a TUNING FORK if you filled in the S of RAGS and E of ETTA, and lengthened the arms. It'd also make the SLINGSHOT look much sturdier.

But then it'd look even less like THE LETTER Y. And if you widened the posts to make it look more like GOAL POSTS, then it wouldn't look at all like a TUNING FORK.

So … best to go with something that *almost* works for everything?

Ah, trade-offs.

Some nice fill to elevate the solving experience, ICE POPS, EUREKAS, I RECKON making those bottom corners snazzy. LUNAR YEAR, too!

AL FRANKEN … oof. Unfortunate timing.

GENERAL HOSPITAL is also nice fill. Or a themer? Maybe that hospital looks TUNING FORK-ish? Nah, it's just a grid-spanning bonus, muddling up what is fill and what is theme. But Alex needed the black square between STAG and PETE to make it possible to fill inside his TUNING FORK, so you can't break up GENERAL HOSPITAL at the H of HMO (fun crossing, by the way!).

Given the simplicity of the theme, it felt out of place for a Thursday. I think if the grid had been smoothed out, eliminating ALPE, ITE, CRI, CONT, FEU, it could have made for a solid Tuesday or Wed puzzle. I understand Alex's effort to make the grid meatier by going to a low word count (73 is hard to achieve!), but it made for a dissonant combination of early-week theme plus late-week fill.

Still, I like me some grid art. And I like that Alex tries out so many different ideas in crosswords.

POW Fri 12/22/2017
GUITARAMPEBAN
ESCAPEROOMLOCO
THELEGIONOFDOOM
FAMESERGEIHUE
IPASSSHOPS
TENTECHSCHOOLS
TALLAHASSEE
GALLIVANTED
AIRLINEFOOD
STRESSEATERFDA
WALDOYPRES
ABCUHOKAYREBS
ROOMTONEGOTIATE
DIDONERFROCKET
SLEWSNAKEEYES

★ Sam had me at THE LEGION OF DOOM. Even if you don't know this one, what an incredibly catchy name! So catchy that the Seahawks nicknamed their Super Bowl defense "The Legion of Boom." That would also make a great feature entry in a themeless!

And it didn't stop there. Love the audacity of such a huge swath of white space in the middle of the puzzle. Stair-stacking five long entries atop each other is such a tough task. Often, an arrangement like this results in a ton of crossword glue and/or subpar long entries, but not today. AIRLINE FOOD is the butt of many jokes. GALLIVANTED is so entertaining to say. TECH SCHOOL felt slightly off at first (I was thinking "vocational school), but indeed, it's an accepted term. And a FISH STORY running through it all? Yes, please!

Now, HAVE A isn't great, and TALLAHASSEE is on the dry side, but what a great save on TALLAHASSEE — made me wonder what other cities have three sets of double letters.

Along with NERF ROCKET and SNAKE EYES, Sam hit my wavelength right on. It's an incredible amount of snazzy material to pack into a low-word-count (64) grid.

I didn't know what the GIRL CODE was. An equivalent to the "guy code"? The clue confused me even more, "sisterhood" making me think it was about nuns? It's tough to use this type of misdirection on an entry that might not be that well-known. (I'm told there was an MTV series called GIRL CODE?)

There was some ARIE, AGFA (no longer in business), DEBTEE kind of stuff I didn't care for, but the overwhelming amount of great material crushed those uglies down (with THE LEGION OF DOOM's death ray). Such a fun solving experience.

Sat 12/23/2017
RINGTABSATRAPS
THOREAUTREESAP
SEXIESTMANALIVE
AZTTUDORALL
MRESGESTTOM
RIMSORTSALIVA
ITALIANAMERICAN
INDUCTEES
CHANCETHERAPPER
RACKEDEVESRXS
INCAWEDCOLT
EGOALTARUFO
STUDIOEXECUTIVE
TENANTSSIMILES
ONTRUSTTASTERS

Seriously, how could anyone make Pierce Brosnan a SEXIEST MAN ALIVE when Daniel Craig doesn't get the nod? Wrong, I say, WRONG!

Great feature entry (and clue!), along with STUDIO EXECUTIVE and the delightful MUSTACHE WAX running through them both.

Oh right, CHANCE THE RAPPER and ITALIAN AMERICAN (and INDUCTEES) were also featured. At least CHANCE and THE and RAPPER are all words for those of us who aren't up on our musicians. I wasn't enamored with ITALIAN AMERICAN either — not that I didn't like it, but it wasn't as colorful as SEXIEST MAN ALIVE.

Pretty sure People Magazine is just waiting until I get into my Sean Connery years to give me my due ...

Themelesses featuring so many long entries — four grid-spanning ones — are so tough to pack with other great material, while keeping the fill smooth. Matt does well to work in MT EVEREST; what a great nickname in "goddess mother of the world"! But what else? BUTTERNUT is okay. TREE SAP gets an interesting clue, who knew that it's a big part of a marmoset's diet?

If the long feature entries are sizzling, they can make a puzzle no matter what. Only two of four being awesome to me, though (plus MUSTACHE WAX), I wanted more from the grid.

And when you fix a skeleton of long entries through the grid, it's tough to avoid a slew of REL ESS ATEST RST DAR to hold everything together. Didn't feel as smooth as I like.

Those are pretty minor, maybe even passable. But there's a clump of esoterica in AINU, STADT, ARNO, SATRAPS … it's unfortunate that they all felt like they were bunched together in the "tough foreign words" category, making them all stand out.

Some great feature entries, but too many prices to pay for all those grid-spanners locked together.

Sun 12/24/2017 MAKING A FAST BUCK
STPCARIBLOPESSEC
HOLEERODEEGRETGILA
RUMARBYSFLOORREVS
SAMBASBLEATEDIMAGES
HELLENEELKIMPEDES
ALDERCOEGAYLE
CRAZYEIGHTYSIXDAMON
OENOTREEHEIREINE
PLINTHSNUGLISEAGLES
LASSOESESIGNJINGLES
AXEOMYASSAYINKIAM
NETLONGUNOMDENRA
DREWSCOTTNOLIESEEN
SAINTPROPOSEECARD
SOFAYOUREPROD
SAVEPARKNTHOTRODS
ALIEMILATHEIFSNOT
NBCOASISPAULAALA
TAUTOUUNICORNLIQUOR
ANNALSRUDOLPHLOTTOS
YARDSEXESCROP

For years and years, Liz Gorski had been doing wonderful Xmas dot-to-dot Sunday puzzles for the NYT. It had been a while, so Mary Lou and I decided to try to carry on the tradition.

But what shape to make? We threw out a bunch of ideas, and the one that stuck was RUDOLPH prancing through the skies, with his RED nose lit up. Easy-peasy, right?

Um … no. We needed to flesh out the idea with some themers, and ML found a nice split of THE MOST FAMOUS / REINDEER OF ALL. Along with some other assorted RUDOLPH-related answers, it felt like the grid wouldn't be so bad to construct.

Wrong!

So very, very wrong.

Like, miserably wrong.

Grinch-level wrong.

Just testing out different arrangements of where to start the path took forever, as we kept having to adjust the position of every single circled letter. And then sometimes one felt like it might be amenable … except for some stupid little corner. I probably restarted the process 50 times before hitting on the current arrangement.

But it just got harder from there. The biggest problem was that it's really hard to make a 140-word Sunday puzzle, period, and it's much harder to do it when every region of your grid is constrained. Sure, we could shift around letters a little bit here and there, but then they'd get in the way of the themers, or they'd make RUDOLPH look like he was limping, etc.

I should have studied Liz's work more carefully — in most of her dot-to-dots, she did well to spread out her letters through the grid in such a way that they didn't interact with the themers, or she used much fewer than 26 dots.

Live and learn. Given how much frustration and sleeplessness it caused me, I doubt I'll ever make another dot-to-dot. (Unless it just has two dots. Anyone have ideas for a LINE theme?)

Happy holidays!

POW Mon 12/25/2017
PRIMCLOTLATCH
JADEEONSALOHA
SHOTCLOCKYEMEN
RUSSETEXANS
CALORIEFATTEE
OSUSUNBELTOYL
RICHESLACEUP
KAYONUTSASH
VETOERFIASCO
CSAWAXBEANTAG
RUNOTTRUDDERS
IMPISHMOXIE
SMELTHITPARADE
CILIAARIABAIL
OTTERMACSYANK

★ What a nice Christmas present, opening up another Lempelian delight. Like Lynn mentioned, I'd seen this theme a few times before — disguised synonyms for HIT — but I still got an a-ha moment because she did such a great job obfuscating CLOCK, BELT, BEAN (as in a beanball in baseball), PELT, and PASTE. Why had this huge "Peanuts" fan never thought of how apt LUCY VAN PELT's last name is?!

Great themer choices, too, colorful selections in SHOT CLOCK, SUN BELT, HIT PARADE, etc. Almost all of them I'd happily incorporate into a themeless.

Interesting choice to use the "windmill" layout of themers. That often allows for smoother fill because it spaces themers out to the max. Today, it lets Lynn squeeze two shorties — SUN BELT and WAX BEAN — into the center. A more traditional layout of "all themers in the across direction" would likely have resulted in more difficulty in filling, as putting six themers in the traditional way is no joke.

Neat that Lynn still managed to work in some beauties in the fill: CELSIUS, FAUX PAS, even MOXIE. The "windmill" layout's drawback is often a dearth of bonus fill, so good work here.

A bit more crossword glue that I'm used to in a Lempel, though: OTT, CSA (Confederate States of America), RAH, ILIE, RUSSE, VETOER. And a tough section for novices, CILIA / ILIE / SMELT. Given the simplicity of the theme, I would have preferred a stricter adherence to newbie-friendliness.

But overall, another gem of a puzzle from the early-week master, still at the top of my list of favorite Monday bylines. Such a pleasurable solving experience.

Speaking of pleasurable, heartfelt thanks to all our readers and site users out there. Jim and I know that you all have many URLs that attract your attention, so to continually get your eyeballs and feedback is a blessing to us. Happy holidays!

Tue 12/26/2017
AJJACOBSABSCESS
PORTABLEBAYAREA
RESONATEINSPECT
LAMNADAICRY
STILLAFIVELETTER
LAGSANACAST
ECOACTSPOIL
WORDSTARTINGWITH
AISLEUSSRYE
TATAIOSPAPA
LOSANDENDINGINER
ARABEASEOLE
MENACERSCOUTCAR
ERASURESANTIAGO
ROSEREDABSENTEE

I was so curious to uncover the person quoted! I'm usually not that obsessed with getting 1-A, happy to leave it blank if I can't get it right away. But today, I was determined to get it. Curious moment when I filled in the last letter … AJ JACOBS sounded so (kind of) familiar.

I stopped solving at that point to go look him up — ah, he wrote "The Year of Living Biblically," which I enjoyed. A quest to live according to the Bible's rules, for a full year? Hilarious!

A fun quote about him being STILL A FIVE LETTER / WORD STARTING WITH / LOS AND ENDING WITH ER. (Were you also confused that JACOBS has six letters? No? Uh, me neither.) Witty quip.

Quote puzzles are tough to make shine, as the entire punch of the puzzle is packed into that one line. This one was okay for me, but it did feel odd that Peter depended on a notepad to make the full quote work. It felt choppy, having to start at the notepad and then jump to the rest of the puzzle. And as neat as it was to break into 16 / 16 /16, the breaks don't come at natural break points (odd to put a break between LETTER and WORD, for example).

I appreciate Peter's attempt to give us more in the bonus fill, leaving his four corners wide open. Some BAY AREA / CAPITAL W, DATABASE, SCOUT CAR helped elevate my solve.

So much of it was more neutral though, like ATOLLS, ERECTS, ASANAS, ODESSA, INSPECT, etc. And MENACER and ABSCESS aren't very pleasant. I would have preferred a more conservative, traditional grid layout, breaking up the top into three across words per row instead of two, and focusing harder on working in more long downs for bonuses.

Novel approach, appropriate to AJ JACOBS. The quote and execution thereof didn't quite work for me, but I liked seeing something different.

Wed 12/27/2017
RBIWHOALADIES
ARMAUDIAVENGE
GAGORDERBODEGA
TNOTEWIENER
ADOTATALLTEL
GODOFLOVESHIVA
FINENOBAIL
MISPLAYCOROLLA
OPERASAONE
JANETAGNESGREY
ODDSWEETAIDE
CACHESBRAGS
CHATTYADDERLEY
GASTROGAYETRE
INHALFOMENOSS

(Sawing) LADIES / IN HALF today, (lady) GAGA, (lady) GODIVA, (lady) JANE GREY, (lady) CHATTERLEY. So appropriate for a professional magician; David has worked on movies such as "Now You See Me."

Excellent choices for LADIES to saw in half, GAGA, GODIVA, and CHATTERLEY so recognizable. JANE GREY didn't come right to the forefront my mind, but she was hiding back there somewhere. I did wish that she had been another one-namer for consistency's sake. But I couldn't find any other even-lettered ones besides (lady) DI, and that's not super interesting to saw in half.

I didn't notice at first, but Jim pointed out that the LADIES go in a length series, 4 to 6 to 8 to 10. Cool!

I hitched on the revealer's execution, LADIES / IN HALF feeling stilted. Perhaps SAW A LADY IN HALF would have been better? But that's an unfortunate 14 letters in length, not crossword-friendly. SAWS would make it a 15, but that would feel stilted, too. Huh. Stupid crossword gods!

How cool would it have been if SAW A LADY IN HALF ran vertically down the middle ... as if it were literally sawing the LADIES / IN HALF!

Pretty good execution: 1.) some color in the themers GAG ORDER / GOD OF LOVE, 2.) a couple of fill bonuses in SEND CASH, INERTIAL mass, AIRWAVE, and 3.) not much crossword glue, just ADOT, ILE, DEDE … drat, David ended with OSS / TRE. OSS (office of … strategic services?) is one of those uglies that screams "constructor's crutch," and may cause some head-scratching among solvers. Ah well, you can't win ‘em all.

Fun concept. If the revealer had been presented more smoothly, this would have been a POW! candidate.

P.S. You put in CORE for [Ending with hard or soft] too, didn't you? What, no? Me neither.

Thu 12/28/2017
BEAMESPAMDRY
LTCOLTAGUPROE
ONEPMACADEMICS
WADPOSTERTON
ESAUSNAKES
SWITDEBUTABALL
TENSEIMAMTWA
ETDVANTAGEHOC
ANIELIESHOOK
DASINFERNOANDS
SPARTAEONS
RAUUPTHEANTE
TURNABOUTACORN
ANALEMMEROVED
BOYGOADSWAYS

Debut, from a fellow Washingtonian! Gary wants us to UP THE ANTE, the letters A N T E popping up out of phrases. We've highlighted them below to make them pop, and corrected the answers in our database. (Although I kind of wish there really was something called a WAD POSTER!).

Great selection of themers, WANTED POSTER, DEBUTANTE BALL, and DANTES INFERNO sizzling. There are quite a few possibilities, like AS FAR AS I CAN TELL, CANTERBURY TALES, ELEPHANT EARS, THE GREEN LANTERN, etc. But I like the ones Gary picked.

Would have been nice to get one more themer, as three ANTEs felt a bit slim. Wouldn't have been easy though, as WANTED POSTER had to be pushed down into row 4 (usually it'd be in row 3) because it needed to fit in ETNA popping up.

Given how many phrases there are with A N T E — so much construction flexibility! — I wonder if somehow Gary could have made UP THE ANTE run vertically, with across themers intersecting it? Probably too tough, but a guy can wish.

Interesting choice to add some bonus fill in the across direction, ACADEMICS and TURNABOUT. They're decent entries, but they muddled up theme vs. fill for me — it's so common for themers to be in row 3 / 13 that I wondered for an embarrassingly long time how ACADEMICS could have UPped THE ANTE. Jeff, you silly Billy. Might have been better to break up ACADEMICS at the M, which would also have allowed for a little cleanup on aisle Short Fill.

Overall, not a novel idea — a lot of puzzles have made letter move like this, either up or down — but fun anyway. And pretty good execution for a debut! A bit of NIE, ONE PM (arbitrary), BEAME (outdated), HOC (hard to clue with any variety), etc. but that's not bad, considering how much extra real estate the three ANTEs took.

Fri 12/29/2017
BETATESTSCOPED
OXYCONTINSHAVE
PARTYGIRLIONIA
ECOSEMIONHOLD
ETNALUNACYRGS
POETSLGBTBARE
BALICAKEMIX
CICERONOTANY
ARISINGDENT
SENTGOREGISTS
HANREPEATSLAP
FLAVORDRACELO
LIBELJOYBUZZER
OZONELAMBROAST
WENDSOKEYDOKEY

JOY BUZZER! The kid in me loves that one. They're always so underwhelming in real life, but I sure was enthralled by the pics in the backs of my comic books in the olden days.

Speaking of olden days, DEARY (that's not "dearie"?) ME crossing OKEY DOKEY? Funny to get an older person's vibe from this corner out of the collegian.

PARTY GIRL fell into an older-feeling camp too, but in a different way. Made me uncomfortable, especially what with what's going on these days with celebs harassing women. Maybe that's just me.

And DEAD SEXY … is that a thing? Must be a term from a generation before me … or after me? Man, I'm old! Or young. I guess it's all relative.

Is I REALIZE a lexical chunk without THAT or something similar at the end?

Some beautiful clues. [Letters before Q] made me groan at first, as that often gets at a random string of letters like MNOP. No, it's LGBT, often seen as LGBTQ!

I also loved how [Containing a spoiler, maybe] misdirected toward movie spoilers. Nope, it meant a car's rear spoiler. Very SPORTY! Some nice long entries in CASH FLOW (said this MBA), and I loved BETA TESTS and OXYCONTIN. Something funny about that pairing. And great to keep the crossword glue to a minimal RGS (right guards).

But overall, a couple of aspects of the puzzle weren't on my wavelength. How a themeless hits any particular solver is so personal.

Sat 12/30/2017
DASHIKISWETBAR
ALPACINOOMEARA
MNEMONICRUNDMC
AIDINGIDSDARE
SCUDJDATESPEW
KOPFAILSPSA
HOMEDFEALTY
CANIGETAWITNESS
ZLOTYSRERAN
OTTSWEETHAD
LAVAQUIPSROVE
GRABURNTHEWEB
OBLATEIWOULDNT
SOITISSANTIAGO
ZYDECOMCESCHER

Some grids scream to be run on a Saturday, especially ones that feature a ton of entries that solvers might label as "you need to know trivia to do crosswords." HOWDAH, ZLOTYS, ALNICO, and CZOLGOSZ = Saturday!

While that preconceived notion gives crosswords a bad name, I like a puzzle in this vein once in a while, as long as it feels fair. I'd seen McKinley's assassin, Leon CZOLGOSZ in a previous crossword — CZOLGOSZ crossing GNARS sure made me gnar when I got that square wrong! — but I thought Damon did a nice job keeping all the crossings gettable. Some might argue that ZLOTYS is a tough unit of currency, but I think educated solvers ought to at least have heard the word.

And darn it, that clue for ZLOTYS was so awesome! The Polish currency clued with a devious [Pole vault …] = fantastic!

Some great feature entries, CAN I GET A WITNESS and SOCIAL DARWINISM terms that most everyone can recognize and appreciate. Colorful, snazzy, and not requiring niche knowledge. If SOCIAL DARWINISM had gotten a cheekier clue — the misdirect toward a laissez-faire national policy didn't totally work for me — they would have been perfect feature entries.

KING JAMES refers to LeBron's awesome nickname. I would have liked the clue to hint that it was a nickname, though — maybe something like [His Airness : Chicago :: ___ : Cleveland]? I'm sure sports-haters / people still suffering from SAT-anxiety would have hated that ...

With just a couple of INI, DTS, ETAT, I thought Damon did technically well with his grid. Sure, maybe you could argue that the CZOLGOSZ / ZLOTYS crossing was rough, but there's also an argument that one ought to know important historical figures like CSOLGOSZ.

Bah, CZOLGOSZ!

Along with some great MC ESCHER and RUN DMC drawing from different walks of life, I enjoyed the diversity that Damon brought to his grid. I prefer clever wordplay to "trivia," but the latter wasn't so heavy as to turn me off of this one.

Sun 12/31/2017 RING OUT THE OLD, RING IN THE NEW
OWNCCCRAGTAGFISTS
WHOSWHOFERRARIINUIT
LASTTANGINPARISBAMBA
SMEESNERTSPATSTWIT
BATTENSPSIACURAS
CELLRECITALTHEBABE
LIETOTESLASITEMSAP
ONEHOPIGUESSGETME
TEDPOLGROUNDSFELLTO
SUDANESEBLAMEON
ALFMISSYSOLERROY
GOLIATHOBSESSED
ATODDSINEEDAHUGOFAN
TUPACGOSTAGESPANA
ESPASANSLAKEDAHINT
YIPPIESURANIUMOREO
OLDBOYLOPPENNANT
BAIOSADATELMERERLE
EPSONSEVENDAYSINMAYO
YUCKYHAIRPINOPTEDIN
SPOSEENCORENEHENS

Happy new year! John RINGs OUT THE OLD (deletes Os from the themers in the top half) and RINGs IN THE NEW (adds Os to the ones in the bottom half). Nice concept, apt for tonight's celebration.

It's tough to come up with amazing themers when it's a simple add-a-letter or delete-a-letter. I thought LAST TANG(O) IN PARIS was the best — great visual of a Frenchman in a beret sipping Tang in a café. In the bottom half, URANIUM ORE(O) made part of me chuckle and part of me disgusted. Chucklegusted?

Otherwise, stuff like POL GROUNDS (from "Polo Grounds") wasn't interesting enough of a transformation for my taste.

(CELL RECITAL plays off a cello recital. I played in many a cello recital as a kid, but it felt a bit arbitrary of a term.)

I didn't realize that CAM GEAR was a themer until I realized that the symmetrical MAD CAP(O) couldn't have been real! It's tough to make these shorties stand out, which is why constructors usually don't use them.

A couple of nice bonuses in the fill, GOLIATH my favorite. GO STAG, THE BABE, YIPPIES were all fun, too.

Not as fun was the slew of prepositional adders, BLAME ON, SEAL UP, OPTED IN, FELL TO, etc. These are fine, if not snazzy, but so many of them make me notice how much potential was left on the table. Those juicy mid-length slots … usually, I'd first point out ALION / AHINT, SMEE / SNERT, CCC / CWT etc. as more egregious, but today all those prepositions stuck out for me.

Nice concept for New Year's Eve, the deleted/added Os calling to be used within a big Sunday-size grid.

It's been a fun ride in 2017, thanks again for reading! One of my goals in life is to be a positive influence — at least, not to be a negative one — so I hope we've made your 2017 a little brighter. If not, let us know how we might be able to do so in 2018.