My only regret with this puzzle is that there was no room in it for SEAN ASTIN — "Salad popular in ‘80s movies?"
Haven't had a themeless for a while, used to do a lot of them.
This one was seeded with WITCH HUNT and BLAME GAME, two entries that have unfortunately become part of our political discourse. Some Russians were in the mix — NICHOLAS I and STALINIST to add to the Russian investigation mix.
I was happy to include CATS EYES and DOG SPAS, another pair of cousins. SEXCAPADE is a rare entry, as is ENEWS... I bet we get some comment on another E word. BUD SELIG and PETER ROGET are a couple of nice full name answers, as well.
I wish I could have gotten rid of HGT, my least favorite entry.
SAM: Talk about goals: Once upon a time, I was an avid solver, obsessed with Byron's work. His grids were always loaded with interesting answers; how was he able to fill such wide-open areas so smoothly ... and with such a unique touch? After meeting him at the ACPT a few years ago, we realized how similar our approaches to themeless puzzles were, and last spring, I got the green light I'd been looking over Facebook chat: "We should collab sometime on a themeless — would be fun to see what we could come up with."
After briefly fainting, I set out to make the craziest, most wide-open grid I could, just so I could compare with Byron's normal wavelength. Beginning with PIBB XTRA crossing LGBT ___, I designed the grid skeleton you see now, filling in the NW corner all the way down to AREA CODE MAP / SON OF ADAM (sorry about EYE-HAND!). I passed it off to Byron, and with several grid constraints already in play, was worried that he'd have trouble with what remained. Well, not only did he prove that something was possible ... he made a freaking MINI-THEME out of the SE stack. Unbelievable!
The swath of white space leading into the NE corner was by far the hardest to fill, but it ended up being the most fun. We bounced around various possible fills — Byron had SAW GERRERA work at one point! — but nothing was quite satisfying enough. Finally, the non-database-discoverable GO ASK ANYONE came to mind, and that proved to be the breakthrough.
We're thrilled with the final result and hope it kicked off well with Byron's brilliant HALL PASS clue. Huge thanks to Byron for working with me on an unforgettable puzzle-making experience. Whew! It may be a bit before I wade back into 64-word waters ... we'll see.
Byron: When Sam sent me that corner, I almost sent it back saying this was too good to share, but I'm not that noble. It already had plenty of good stuff in the fill. The main thing, I thought, was to round the corner heading SE in a reasonable way that maintained the openness into the smaller corners. My general goal when constructing, especially themelesses, is to find one bottleneck in the grid that is hard to eliminate and find a way to eliminate it. In this case that meant maintaining the AREA CODE MAP / SON OF ADAM combo and running something long through them. My self-indulgence was trying to do that with KAZAKHS and DANZA, the former for the crazy consonant mashup and the latter as a hat tip since my wife has very fond memories of working with him in her former career in film production.
It was so much fun working with Sam. Hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed making it.
There's always a next time, POTTYHUMOR and BELLYLAUGH. That said, hope this one helped all of you PUTONAHAPPYFACE.
The initial spark for most of my puzzles is rather obscure, but I can say definitively that this one was born on 11/7/16. I had an NYT puzzle that day with some IC phrases (INNER CHILD, IVORY COAST, etc.) and an "I SEE" revealer. One of the online reviewers commented:
"We remain in the well-worn, hoary, ultra-basic theme-type universe, with loads of dull short fill to boot."
That was actually one of my better reviews at that site, but Loren Muse Smith took offense and fired off the first post of that day, which was very supportive of my puzzle. She then went on to list other potential phonetic theme revealers like excellency and escapee (theme recently done by CC Burnikel elsewhere) and DEVIOUS. I was grateful to Loren for her support, and even more grateful for new theme ideas! I tried to get her to co-construct this one but she begged off — however, she and I have a Valentine's Day puzzle coming up next week in the 42-Down.
Will and Joel said "nicely done, and the fill really sparkled" — I remember wishing I could do something about the crossing of DENOVO and ORONYMS, which Will said pushed this puzzle from a Monday to a Tuesday.
I can't believe we pulled this one off. Another example of a good idea turned into an even better puzzle with the help of Will and the crew. The original submittal had one and two letter words. But, I was hopeful that the overarching idea would be important enough to allow them (after all, they've appeared in NY Times grids before). I even made sure there were no unchecked squares by providing clues for each of these outliers. Here are the clues for the one-letter words, something you don't see every day:
16A, Me, myself and ___ :: I
58A, Special ___ :: K
12D, Fork in the road :: Y
61D, The scarlet letter:: A
It turns out that even a single one or two letter word was a puzzle killer, and I had four of each. Still, Joel volunteered that it was a ‘cute idea' so I stumbled around looking for a better grid. Four tries later, I arrived at another version. Per Joel, it was "more promising … However, it would need a symmetrical counterpart that's thematic for Will to say yes on this one." A symmetrical counterpart; how do you come up with a thematic 15-letter phrase? Is there a search engine I haven't heard about? I was pretty sure this one was toast. Fortunately, I was able to MAKE CONNECTIONS and clean up the fill. The reward was a nice note from Will:
"The theme is unusual, and the fill now is relatively clean. So ... the answer is yes."
This is one of my go to grids when making themelesses. Peter Gordon was the first (I believe) to do a pattern like this with the 12s and the stacked 7s. Basically it allows for some solid anchoring phrases and enough room to breathe to have clean fill in the remaining corners.
Go big or go home, right? For my first published triple-stack, I added an extra column to accommodate my long-time idol (and Twitter follower!) at 29-Across. I think he's worth it. Lin, I think your way with words would translate well to puzzle construction—let me know if you're interested!
I'm a bit sad to see the neutered clues on ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE—originally [Literary trope that's getting revived?]—and MLB DRAFT—[Occasion to cover one's bases, familiarly?]. I write a lot of themelesses for fun but often leave them sitting in my drafts folder without cluing them, so I guess I'm still getting used to Will's style on late-week puzzles. I avoid partial phrases in my puzzles unless there's really no other option, so I was disappointed that 11-Across's clue change caused it to be reparsed from the Latin AMO to the two-word A MO. Other than these quibbles, I'm quite pleased with the final version of this puzzle, which underwent several drafts over the last few years. Redoing themelesses until you finally get that golden fill is such a satisfying exercise, so I'm glad I persisted on this one.
Lastly, I'm over the moon that this puzzle is coincidentally being published the same day as the Boston launch event for Down and Across, the debut novel of one of my best friends, Arvin Ahmadi. Arvin began writing the book when we were college roommates, and I'm honored to have served as a bit of a puzzle consultant on it (and reader of several drafts). It's a great coming-of-age story with complex, diverse characters that will assuredly appeal to puzzle fans of all ages.
This was such a fun puzzle to make; I hope it was as much fun to solve! Since everything is a word, Dr.Fill rips through it with no mistakes in a few seconds.
Will was very kind to my clues this time, using the vast majority of them and, as always, I found some of his changes interesting. I had gone with the slightly edgier [Bridgegate locale] for 19-D and with [Death of a telethon host?] for 35-A. Not sure what people will think of those. Will also removed my slightly political [Company that recalled 18 million products after outsourcing production to China in 2002] for 40-A. I had clued 9-D as [Start of something big] and was sorry to see that changed.
I never know where to clue fill as an abbreviation. So, for example, my clue for 100-D involved a couple of actresses. 110-D was [Am partner], and 106-A was [Baby/pigeon commonality]. I'd love to hear what people think of these changes, and I'll hopefully learn something!
Mostly, though, I had a great time finding the ever-so-painful puns and then subjecting everyone where I work to them. Hopefully, all of you groaned as much as they did. I guess I'd be remiss not to include some of the words that wound up on the cutting room floor. Here are the clues; the answers are below in a random order.
Well, it's been a while, but it's good to be back. This is my fifth puzzle — my last one ran a little over four years ago, my first one ran in 2010. At this rate, I'll have joined the exclusive "Ten Club" in 2026.
A lot has happened since my last publication — I became a father, I made my way on air as a news anchor and sports announcer, and I met Will Shortz.
Being that I have more on my plate nowadays, I don't submit as often as I once did, but if a good idea crosses my mind, I will try to put it to paper.
This idea just sort of popped into my head one day. I thought it was worth trying it out, but admittedly, I had trouble figuring out theme answers for VISA and DISCOVER. Maybe ELVIS ANDRUS for VISA? Maybe if this were a crossword in Baseball Digest.
Truth is, the suggestion box under the Google search bar is what really helped me with these two. I began typing "ELVIS A" to see what would come up and did the same for "DISCO VER." The results I found seemed like legit answers, and Will apparently agreed.
A couple of cool things I realized recently with this puzzle: by total coincidence, the TEX in VORTEX crosses into RITTER, which is neat. Also by total coincidence, PAPI is at 34-Down, and Big Papi's number was 34 (my favorite jersey number).
Oh, and I'm sure there will be nitpickers out there who will find fault in my lack of MASTERCARD, but that just wasn't gonna happen. As the commercial says, that's for everything else.
I remember deciding to try to find some kind of boxed thing to do a puzzle on. No new ideas were popping up on the XWord Info list, so I just went to Google and typed in "boxed" and then tried one letter after another till I got to "r" and boxed roses showed up. It didn't Google very well, but there were lots of pretty pictures of boxed roses, so it seemed commercially significant.
I was pretty lucky to be able to stack the two words, and super lucky when HAVE A HEART popped up randomly on the fill. STEAL A KISS was a great sidekick, but ARIKARA was a bitter pill to swallow. It was nice that their tribe had just "starred" in "The Revenant," but it's still pretty rough sledding for a Tuesday.
This puzzle was originally submitted in December 2016 as a 17x diagramless submission. Will surprised me writing:
"Oddly enough, I think this would work better for the regular paper than as a diagramless. As a diagramless the grid is too chunky — too difficult, I think. As a 69-word regular crossword, this could work as a daily.
However, to run as a daily, the puzzle would have to meet themeless standards, and this grid has a lot of unappealing vocabulary. ...
This doesn't look like an easy grid to fill. But if somehow you can improve the vocabulary, I'd be happy to take another look."
After many go-rounds on a very slow, old laptop I managed to come up with a more cleanly filled grid that Will was pleased with except for the upper right corner. A big thank you to Frank Longo who smoothed out the top of the grid and to Will for his patience.
I hope you enjoyed the puzzle. From my heart to yours.
I was listening to a podcast on which the name CLARICE STARLING was mentioned. My ears pricked up. That's a name that ends in a bird, and it's 15 letters. I wondered how many other celebrities had bird last names. Before I got too far, I thought I should check to see if the theme had been done before. It had, many times.
In CrosSynergy on 1/1/01, Frank Longo had TONY HAWK, TOM KITE, PAMELA SUE MARTIN, CHRISTOPHER WREN, JOHN JAY, and RITA DOVE.
In the Los Angeles Times on 10/23/02, Denise M. Neuendorf had SHERYL CROW, TOM KITE, JONATHAN SWIFT, JOHN JAY, and PETER FINCH.
In the New York Times on 3/15/05, Gail Grabowski had HART CRANE, SHERYL CROW, EDDY RAVEN, JOHN JAY, and PETER FINCH.
In the New York Times on 8/23/06, Kevan Choset had CLARICE STARLING, PETER FINCH, SHERYL CROW, CHRISTOPHER WREN, and the explainer entry LARRY BIRD.
And in the New York Times on 5/10/16, David Kwong had EARL WEAVER, JOHN JAY, TONY HAWK, HART CRANE, TOM SWIFT, PETER FINCH, and the explainer entry BIRDMAN.
I needed something to make it different. I thought that maybe I could limit myself to fictional characters. In addition to the ones I used, I had Ichabod Crane, Frasier Crane, Atticus Finch and Jem Finch, Hudson Hawk, Bella Swan, Christopher Robin, and the "cuckoo" Pigeon sisters from "The Odd Couple": Gwendolyn and Cecily Pigeon. I noticed a lot of these were movie characters and then noticed that many were nominated for Oscars. So I went through all lists of Oscar-nominated roles to see if that would work, and I had success. I got lucky with how they were able to cross each other.
This is the second of two themelesses accepted in 2014 that I "revitalized" a few months ago (the first was published December 29). Not as much zip in this one as I'd strive to include nowadays, but I like the overall smoothness. It's like a YOGURT SMOOTHIE, with just a couple of raspberries that didn't defrost mixed in (I'm looking at you, AGENA and ONE NO!).
I'd say the highlight of the puzzle is the clues. My favorite David Steinberg Original® is [Like privates, often] for PIXELATED. Brings back memories of what was on my mind when I was 17 ;).
This puzzle's creation began with an old-school approach of mine... Namely, cramming a bunch of Scrabbly letters into the opening corner and building out the grid from there. I've grown less infatuated with the rarer letters over the years, shifting my focus more towards smoother fill. That said, it's still fun to scatter a few J's and Z's when the opportunity presents itself. Regardless, hope the end result is an enjoyable solve!
I did an anagrams +1 puzzle on 5/16/17 with state names, so I decided to try one with president's names. There are some sites online that do this kind of thing, but most of them only give you single word anagrams — it took me quite a bit of digging to find multiple word phrase options.
My submitted puzzle had IMPEL at 55-Down and LSTS at 72-Across. I think that latter entry did not sit well with the editors because they were willing to put I.M. PEI in there even on a Monday to get rid of it. I still think every entry in the puzzle is reasonable for a Monday.
I remember getting all done and realizing I had FORD in the grid — ouch — I found out that even when you know he needs to go, it's sometimes not that easy to remove a president!
Last time one of the reviewers (Jeff Chen) dinged me for not finding added letters that spelled something interesting. This time I went all out and came up with add-on letters (U,A,V,P,P) that anagram to "V.A. pup", which is of course closely related to a POLICE DOG. For some reason, Will left that piece of info out of the cluing...
This one came together pretty quickly. Once we came up with the theme, we filled the grid together one night over a year ago.
We wanted to challenge ourselves to include as many PO squares as possible, so hopefully the fill didn't suffer too much! Our original OPOSSUM clue referenced President Benjamin Harrison's pets — he had two, named Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection. We're very happy that Will kept our SATAN and CAPO clues!
If any UChicago first years are reading this, try making a puzzle! If you're in Linn-Mathews House, this puzzle was written in room 630, so go sit there for inspiration. And if you're in Wallace House, ask your RA Ori for help.
Will and the team helped me with the current theme set. I originally had SOUP OR SALAD (later on CAESAR SALAD/CHICKEN SOUP), they gently let me know that those were dishes rather than courses.
As I always look forward to the themeless puzzles each week, it's such a pleasure to be making my themeless debut today! I chose this grid in part for its pleasing symmetry, but also for its versatility. While it's true that there are no entries in the grid longer than 7 letters, the fact that there are 36 of these slots meant that I had a good amount of flexibility in placing my marquee answers. This 72-word grid also allowed me to incorporate some Scrabbly letters into lively entries without too much difficulty, and to maintain a nice grid flow throughout the puzzle while still being able to work on sections one at a time.
I started in the lower-left with CAPTCHA, which I found yielded promising letter combinations when paired with AMIRITE. The discovery that CTHULHU, another entry on my 7-letter seed list, could fit at 61-Across ended up being the key to finishing the corner, despite its delightfully odd combination of letters (not that I ever doubted the power of the Great Old One, mind you).
I did the upper-left next, seeing as ST JOHNS was one of my few choices for 24-Down. I was glad to be able to fit in DAD JOKE and NOXZEMA, as well as DNA LABS, which I think makes for a nice 1-Across, what with the interesting DN- start and Will and Joel's fantastic clue. Among other entries in the upper-right, I thought it would be cool to incorporate BJ NOVAK, in order to highlight both his great performance in The Office and the unusual opening letter sequence of BJN- (see a pattern here yet?) As it was the last to go in, filling the lower-right took the most time, but I'm pleased with how it turned out, especially with the unexpected intersection of CAKE MIX and XS AND OS at the X.
AS I SAID, it's a joy to see this puzzle in the Times— though I've since constructed several other themeless puzzles, this one might still be my favorite. Hope you enjoy solving it as much as I enjoyed creating it!
When I submitted this puzzle in 2016, MACRON was not the President of France. I'm glad to see that improvement in the clues, as well as several others.
This puzzle was one of my early efforts at dropping the word count and working with the stair-step pattern. Since then I've demoted HORS and ET ALII, tried to make sure that at least two long entries punch into isolated sections, and avoided blocks of 3-letter answers. Still, I'm pretty happy with how this turned out, and hope others enjoy!
The inspiration for this theme was noticing that CREAM CHEESE and SCHMEAR share the same set of letters, and can both be clued as [Bagel topping]. So I had the idea of a bunch of pairs of entries that share both clues and letter banks, and I brainstormed for a while and came up with around a dozen pairs. (ETHAN ALLEN and NATHAN HALE was a fortuitous find — they were both mentioned within a few seconds of each other on an episode of Outlander.) The only problem is that I needed many, many more pairs to be able to make a theme that fits symmetrically, and coming up with enough by myself would have taken years, so I enlisted a friend to write some code for me — shoutout to Samir Khan for making this crossword possible. Samir generated thousands of pairs from my word list, and I combed through them to find ones that might work.
Will liked my first submission, but there was one pair that didn't fit with the rest - SILENT K and TELEKINESIS, which I had clued along the lines of [Something a Jedi Knight has]. That clue involved trickery, unlike the rest, so he had me replace it. Easier said than done to find a pair that would fit in that exact spot, but eventually, I found a replacement. Anyway, I've gone on for a lot longer than I usually do, but that's because a ton of time went into this theme!
I'll just leave readers with a few pairs which didn't quite work for the theme, but which I enjoyed coming across anyway:
MARK: I sent Andrea a congratulatory e-mail on her celeb-paired Monday puzzle with NdGT (03/20/17) and floated the idea of a collaborative Monday puzzle based on the old adage "still waters run deep" — four words that felt like strong candidates when used individually. Andrea liked the idea, and I liked the possibility that, with her help, I might finally score a Monday puzzle in the NYT. We batted around phrases beginning and ending with each of those four words for a day or so until Andrea lit upon the possible combo of:
WATERSDOWN 10 (which was the only WATERS... we could think of)
RUNONEMPTY 10 or RUNINPLACE 10
Since the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was now in a couple of days and my dear wife, Lee Ann, and I had decided to try and attend as helpers/judges every year possible — I stuck a pin in the project from my end. Then, while helping to organize registration packets on Thursday for the tourney we found that Andrea was entered to compete! That spurred me on — so I sketched out a couple of workable grids on slips from a complementary Stamford Marriott notepad and presented them to Andrea at the registration table the next day. Some more enjoyable back-and-forth followed, Andrea clued it all up, and I changed only the clue for SAW to make it a revealer before mailing our opus off to Will.
ANDREA: Mark was so easy to work with and such a delight that we did a second one immediately after Will accepted this one.
This puzzle originally had DREAMWORKS as a revealer, which the editorial team vetoed because it made cluing tricky. I would have preferred a version that unified the "dream"-ers in a tighter way, but at least there's APPLE PIE. And a TUNA ROLL. And some TAMARIND.
Yep. I'm a math teacher. I hope the sight of the six trig functions didn't trigger PTSD (Post Trigonometric Stress Disorder) in any solvers out there. Math seems to be the most visceral subject in the high school curriculum — even long after high school. When I meet adults for the first time and they find out what I do for a living, I usually get a response like "Oh, I really [past tense verb] math!". Your two Mad Lib choices for the past tense verb are "loved" or "hated". I'd say the ratio of those two verbs is about 10 to 1. I'll let you guess which way.
I like that the revealer is LEFT RIGHT, as the trig functions kind of march down the grid in a left-right manner. I even considered constructing the grid so that the trig functions were pushed up against the sides of the grid, but CSC wouldn't play along. I also considered taking out LEFT RIGHT altogether, as it made the fill in the center a little strained. That triple column of RETOW/VIRNA/ENIAC probably has a favorable/unfavorable rating of 200 to 1. Again, I'll let you guess which way.
After this puzzle was accepted, I found out that AXL ROSE anagrams into a rather salacious phrase. Am I the last person on the planet to learn this? I like that he's balanced out by YOYO MA in the opposite quadrant, as sort of a musical counterpoint. Also, YO-YO MA anagrams into "Yo, mayo", but that's not nearly as exciting.
My favorite clue that made the cut is [Where S is …] for MORSE CODE. I hope some folks interpreted the dot-dot-dot as an ellipsis and stopped to scratch their heads for a moment. I also like [Took out the junk?] for SAILED, but I have to admit I used essentially the same clue in an Orange County Register puzzle about a year ago.