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Puzzles for February, 2018
with Jeff Chen comments

Thu 2/1/2018

Love me a good parsing puzzle. Roman of Hollywood isn't a "Roman," but an R. O. man = RYAN O'NEAL. Great consistency, Damon finding "person" terms readily hideable within regular words: ROman, LEgal, MAlady, REgent. Tight set, too — I'd be remiss in saying that the only other possibility I could find (besides SAlad) was REmiss.


INITIALLY initially didn't click with me. Yes, the first two initials are at the start of the first word, thus doubly "initial." Thinking about it for a while, it does feel like there's cleverness that should have produced a stronger a-ha moment for me. Not sure why it's still feeling like a stretch — perhaps it's a bit too punny for my taste?

Good gridwork. The obvious glue is stuff that gets listed on editors' spec sheets, i.e. abbrs. (RETD), tough foreign words (A TOI), entries that might feel esoteric (NENE). The one that interests me most today is A LOAD. It feels bad to me, but how is it different than A LOT or A TON, which both feel fine? Perhaps it's because I usually hear A LOT or A TON by themselves, but A LOAD always comes with "of"? Hmm.

AGE TEN was another that made me pause. It is a milestone age, turning double digits. But I don't like the idea of paving the way for AGE FIVE (when most kids start school) or AGE TWO ("terrible" time for tots) or other arbitrariness.

APERY is another odd-sounding word — if you have to convince yourself that yeah, it's probably fine because it's in the dictionary, it's probably not. But the fantastic clue rescued it for me. Love the clever repurposing of the word "Impressionism."

All in all, a neat idea. I think I would have given it the POW! if 1) the INITIALLY revealer had hit me more strongly (subjective call), or if 2) the people had all been drawn from the same walk of life, tightening up the theme set even further. Lots of people whose initials are MA, for example.

Would have been POY! (year) status if everyone had been the first to do something in their field … thus triply INITIAL!

Fri 2/2/2018

Snazzy 1-A, WITCH HUNT. Kind of a mini-theme with BLAME GAME! I wish both of these had gotten more clever clues — BLAME GAME especially could have gotten some "finger-pointing" misdirection — but some entries are strong enough in their own right to stand out.

SEXCAPADE looks like another potential seed entry. Feels a bit dated, though.

Get it, dated? As in "went out with"?


Anyhoo, maybe SEXCAPADE stands the test of time? But it doesn't feel fresh to me these days.

I tried to figure out what Randy might have prioritized in the NE corner. Certainly not POSSESSES, a neutral entry that's a constructor's crutch what with all those Es and Ss. ANTI LABOR? Maybe? Hopefully not STALINIST. Yikes. Not sure why this is any better than NAZI PARTY or something, given how many people lost their lives to STALINIST policies.

This is a perfect example of a grid that would have benefitted from a higher word count. At 68, it's right around the threshold at which most constructors (not named Patrick Berry) struggle. I'll leave it to the reader to count up the gluey bits (abbrs, esoteric names, partials, arbitrary number-letters, etc.). It's way over my threshold of what makes for an elegant puzzle.

One that might surprise you is ENEWS ... It's perfectly fine! Some solvers roll their eyes at various E- addition entries, like ECASH, ETAIL, etc. But I think if it's in general use, it's A-okay. And E! News is a pretty popular show.

For traditional themelesses (ones that feature four triple-stacked entries, one in each corner), I much prefer a 70 or 72-word layout, which makes a grid so much easier to fill with color and cleanliness. I'm pretty sure black squares at the S of GUAVAS and first S of SEESAW would have helped a ton, for example.

Sat 2/3/2018

Sam and Byron challenge themselves with an ultra-low word-count themeless! I've done enough of Byron's puzzles that I have a sense for what to expect: I tend to love a lot of his new, avant-garde entries, but I also squint at some of them. As soon as I saw how wide-open this grid was, I had a feeling I'd get some of both.

In particular, it's so hard to turn a corner like in the NW, with six long entries interlocking. The first triple is really good, especially considering the level of difficulty — HALL PASS / OLIGARCH / PIBB XTRA is a colorful bunch, even without the fun toilet humor in the HALL PASS clue. Great work, Sam!

ALICE FAYE … huh. She does appear to be a person. LIBERATES … not bad.

But then, LGBT RIGHTS! Elevated LIBERATES right next to it for me. I struggled with the entry at first, since "gay rights" is what I usually hear around Seattle, but LGBT RIGHTS is in high usage over at the ACLU's website. Nice debut.

It wasn't until I got to HAND EYE that I truly hitched. No, wait … EYE HAND? HAND EYE is so-so since it isn't usually seen without "coordination," making it feel partialish. And EYE HAND ...

(squinting at Sam)

COOKED KALE … I try to eat healthy. I eat a ton of kale. (Much to my wife's chagrin, after the fact. Ahem.) Don't think I've ever come across the term COOKED KALE on menus though.

SON OF ADAM, now there was a winner! I wasn't familiar with it, but it rolled off my tongue.

GAPPY … huh.

PAY A FEE … that is "a thing," but is it crossworthy?

TURN RIPE? Double huh. "Ripened," yeah?

I appreciated how much care Sam and Byron took in avoiding the short gluey stuff that's the usual downfall of themeless puzzles — OTB, EES. I would have happily taken a bit more of it though if that had allowed them to remove some of the squinty stuff mentioned above.

That said, I enjoyed the 64-word solving challenge, and there was more than enough KETEL ONE / HUNG OVER / STAGGERED (ha!), AREA CODE MAP, SPICE RACK kind of stuff to spice things up.


I enjoy puzzles that play with shapes. I'd seen "V sitting over I = Y" puzzles before, but I like David's additional layer, CRACKING WISE hinting that not only do the Ys get broken into V over I (see the grid below for details), but it only happens within themers … that are humor-related! Love it when a puzzle goes above and beyond.

Delightful themers. I love me some YO MAMA JOKEs, so that one stood out. But all of them were strong phrases, all related to comedy. Good selections, if a bit repetitive-feeling toward the end.

In my book, the best Sunday puzzles are the ones that scream I'M TOO BIG TO BE CONTAINED BY A 15x15 GRID! This one did not. It's true that EVERYBODYS A COMEDIAN is too long for a 15x15. But while the theme tickled me through the first half of the puzzle, the joke started to get old.

(That central themer apparently is true!)

What might have helped: longer crossing answers (containing the VIs) — shorties like AVIAS and EVITE don't do much for me. Would have been awesome to have even more humor-related phrases crossing the themers at those squares! Now that would have been awesome, and given it a good reason to need a big grid.

A Sunday 140-word grid is almost always harder to fill with clean and colorful material, compared to a 15x15 weekday. It's even harder when you add the constraint of "no other Ys in the puzzle except those in the themers." Stuff like PERINATAL and ARGOSIES didn't do a lot for me — I bet there could have been more of the great ROSE PETAL and POLONIUS long fill in a 15x15 … as well as less AARONS / TARAS, STER / ISE, ACARD / AHERO, etc.

Clever idea overall though, and the title's extra lavier — er, layer — helped me enjoy the puzzle

Mon 2/5/2018

I was mystified at first — why wouldn't you use the proper ordering of the moon's phases: from NEW to CRESCENT to HALF to FULL? And why on earth (or on the moon) would you separate out HALF from the series? Alan's decisions seemed bizarre.

How embarrassing to realize that I've had the sequence wrong all these years! It's actually NEW to CRESCENT to QUARTER to GIBBOUS to FULL.

Wait, you say, what about HALF? It's the kookiest thing. HALF is equal to QUARTER when it comes to the moon's phases.

Wha … ?

Well, QUARTER refers to the fact that it's a quarter of the way through the full lunar month cycle. So even though it looks like a HALF moon, it's a QUARTER moon. And both are correct.

Whoever named these is seriously messed up.

So you see Alan's dilemma? It's great that he strove to incorporate the sequence — I've seen plenty of "word that can precede MOON" puzzles, i.e. phrases with HARVEST, BLUE, BLOOD, etc., but that puzzle type is passé at this point.

However, there is no good phrase using the word GIBBOUS. Makes sense why he decided to skip it.

And how can you place QUARTER and HALF at the same grid entry? You can't! So I understand that decision to shove HALF off on its own. Reasonable choice to place it symmetrically with MOON.

All in all, too many compromises for my taste. Felt inelegant. I probably would have dropped the theme idea, after realizing what a mess these terms present.

But at least the grid is pretty good for a Monday, with just some ARNE, LIS, ORO. Not perfect, but passable for an early-week puzzle.

Tue 2/6/2018

D* V* phrases, tied together with a revealer of DEVIOUS … as in "D V us"? Or "DV's"?

I tried to make sense of it for ten minutes before giving up and asking Bruce. He thought of it as "D V - ous," as in "-ous" = a descriptor, like "-ish" or something.

Huh. It doesn't work for me, but I can understand his thinking.

Bruce did such a great job with his mid-length fill. Having a 9-letter entry in the middle of your puzzle will usually mean a bunch of 7-letter entries in the corners, and those can be so tough to make stand out. But check out DAD BODS / IN ERROR / NO CAN DO, I'll BITE / SAY WHEN, I HOPE SO / LA TIMES, ADOPT ME! Good stuff in every corner.

Earlier in his constructing career, Bruce tended to use too much crossword glue, and there's a hint of that today in TELE, OTOE, OTT, ESS. (I think OTOE is a tribe educated folks ought to know, but I admit that I've only ever seen the word in crosswords.) Today, I didn't mind as much, because these all helped him make the mid-length fill so snazzy. I think it was a worthwhile trade-off.

Oh, NYT constructors! Please please please, can we stay away from ADORBS tween talk? I know it's in the language (no matter how badly this old guy resists), but sigh. Totes srsly!

(Sadly, these are real things people say.)

While I liked many of the themers, DARTH VADER in particular (talk about a DEEP VOICE!), this initialism theme type feels like it's losing steam. These days, an initialism puzzle needs something to elevate it — rare letters like Z or Q, or perhaps a stellar, witty revealer that produces an incredible a-ha moment.

Wed 2/7/2018

Beautifully eye-catching pattern! There have been very few puzzles that have sectioned off the grid into two (or more) separate pieces, and the best ones have a deliberate and clever reason for doing so. I liked the idea behind this one, THE TIES THAT BIND explaining that there are four types of "tie" that serve to sort of connect the two subsections. MAKE CONNECTIONS isn't that snazzy of an entry — most people say "network" — but it does the job to reinforce THE TIES THAT BIND.

Oof, the fill. Oof, I repeat. Let's study one corner and figure out what happened.

The SW stood out for me, with STORERS an awkward word taking up valuable real estate, along with RATA (hard to clue in any other way besides [Pro ___]), a prefix in DYS, ORI partial, and not just ESSO but a second gas brand, AMOCO — this one (mostly) bygone.

FAR CRY felt partialish, but I can give that a pass. ACCT NO is something I see on documents, so okay by me although not great.

As a constructor, you have to be brave to put YECH in your own puzzle.

Why so much, so concentrated? The CO of CORD does fix some things into place. The bigger issue is that the 6x4 space is already tough to fill on its own — I try to find ways of avoiding big spaces like this — and when you run a long themer through it AND fix two other letters into place, you're asking for trouble.

I don't see a good way to fix it, though. There are already so many 3-letter words in the puzzle, making the solve feel choppy, that the usual solutions — moving the black squares under ORI to the left or adding black cheater squares — would make that problem even worse.

I did like some fill — HUMOR ME and LEOTARD in particular.

It's an innovative concept, but I'm not sure it's possible to execute it elegantly enough to live up to NYT standards. I did appreciate reading Stu's thoughts, and how hard they worked in a valiant attempt to get there.

Thu 2/8/2018

The HOLLYWOOD / SHUFFLE! (sneaking over to Wikipedia as I pretend to know what that is … my first guess was embarrassingly related to the Icky Shuffle.) I'm a huge Keenen Ivory Wayans fan. I'll have to check out the flick.

Some nice anagram finds. MEG RYAN into GERMANY I had seen before, But TAYE DIGGS into STEADY GIG is great. ["It's-a me, Mario!"] seemed a bit ickily stereotypical, until I realized it's an actual quote from Nintendo's Mario. Whew!

The first one I uncovered was ANSEL ELGORT, which gets confusing when you don't know who that is. (Or who Ernest Gallo is, sadly.) But I think educated solvers should at least be able to recognize the name(s), as El Gort had a lead role in "The Fault in Our Stars."

Er, Elgort.

You have to admit; El Gort sounds pretty cool.

As always, Erik does well in executing his grid. Considering my pop culture idiocy, I especially appreciated some BOTSWANA, SILENT O, SIDE EYE (related to the stink eye?), which all helped keep up my interest.

The HANKS clue … [Hair pieces?]. Question mark indeed! Maybe it had to do with the musical "Hair"? Or a catty remark about the rumors that Tom Hanks is covering up top? No … it seems that one definition of HANKS is "coils of hair."


There have been many anagramming themes over the years, and the best ones pull all the themers together in a great way. I liked how Erik used HOLLYWOOD / SHUFFLE to restrict to just big(gish?)-name actors, certainly tightening things up. It took me a while to realize that all the anagrams were also all real names or phrases, not just kooky ones (MATT DAMON = madman tot, for example), but that also helped make the execution stand out.

Madman tot, tee hee!

Fri 2/9/2018

Fun to get that pile-up of rare letters in the middle of the puzzle, Q J J Z Z nearby. Loved it!

I like BOOK PROPOSAL a lot, being a writer and all, and EMPHASIS MINE was strong too.

It's so tough to feature 12-letter entries in themelesses. Look at how those three black squares at the end of EMPHASIS MINE and the start of BOOK PROPOSAL fix so much into place. Themelesses often benefit from shifting black squares around like crazy, testing, testing, testing. Not easy to do when you already start with some fixed black squares.

I didn't know what a SQUAT JUMP was, but it seemed self-explanatory (starting from a squat … and then jumping?). Neat how it interlocked with the 12s above, and also PORTRAIT GALLERY. Strong backbone to the puzzle.

But also a fairly inflexible one. BEQ did well to work in LAZY BONES and TROMBONE (still waiting for someone to use the awesome SAD TROMBONE), but that further rigidified things. Not a surprise to end up needing some LST (yikes), ONEL in the SW, along with the more-neutral-than-positive SCENE II and TO HELEN.

In general, it's so tough to make 7-letter entries stand out. I did like LE MONDE, and I INSIST was a nice one too. But COLLATE, LEASE TO, ROOT FOR, ESTEEMS … just taking up valuable real estate.

ROOT FOR actually did get elevated by its clue — I was so confused, wondering what the back rows of a stadium were called. Nope, "back" as in support! That's the way to make a dull entry stand out.

A neat skeleton structuring this 72-word grid. But as a 72-worder — the max number of allowable words in a themeless — I wanted a little more juice. Those corners full of 7s are so tough to make sing.

POW Sat 2/10/2018

★ Loved it! I'm always nervous when I see a triple-stack — way too much crossword glue usually needed, destroying elegance — but this one was a delight. I mean, ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE! I admit that "28 Days Later" scared the bejeezus out of me, and let's not even mention "World War Z," but ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE is a feature entry I would have loved to debut.

Plus LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA, the guy behind "Hamilton"? IN ALL PROBABILITY, this might be one of my favorite triple-stacks of all time. Especially considering Finn pulled it off with just an INO and the DTS.

Okay, I admit I didn't know Miranda until people made fun of me for that at the ACPT a few years ago. But now I know him! Prolific writer, even hosting SNL. Amazing guy.

And Finn kept the rest of the grid wide open, running the awesome MLB DRAFT, GOLDEN PEN (didn't know it, but what a great award name!), LIBATIONS, THESSALY through the stack. Such flowing grid design, never bottlenecking.

Heck, even the NW and SE corners have some sizzle, especially that SE with SWIFFER, SOLO CUP, and D LIST. The NW didn't have much sparkle, but the clue for ORGAN was awesome — [Player in a baseball stadium] is so innocently misdirectional.

The one sticking point I had was LATE APRIL. We recently had MID MARCH, and I didn't like the arbitrary feel of that either. But if LATE APRIL (or APRIL SECOND or END OF APRIL or THIRD WEEK OF APRIL) was required to make the flowing grid keep flowing, I think it's an okay price to pay.

This is one of my favorite themelesses in recent memory. Elegant to solve, visually stunning, and a technical marvel from a construction standpoint. I give it a Miranda-worthy Standing O.

Sun 2/11/2018PARONOMASIA

What cool finds! ORCHESTRATES sounds like "orca straits" = a neat a-ha moment. I love it when you're left with a "how in heck did the author find those?" feeling. I missed some of them as I solved, so I highlighted them below. I don't want anyone to miss WHEATIES as "wee tees"!

The overall solving experience wasn't nearly as fun as the themers, though. EDH in the starting corner didn't bode well. I glunked through about a dozen of these gluey bits, making my solve feel inelegant. A couple of nice bonuses in HOT MIC and ORATORIO didn't alleviate that.

Why so much gloop? Take another look at the grid highlights below. While it's an amazing feat to get so much themage interlocked, there's isn't a subspace that doesn't have two or more themers running through it. No Bueno!

After highlighting the themers, my opinion of the puzzle changed — I would have expected more crossword glue than Matt needed. It's an amazing job, given the fact that a standard 140-word Sunday puzzle is hard enough to make …

But it's still too much fluff. And it was so easy to miss those themers, that even I — an inconceivably anal constructor — didn't see or appreciate the interlock until I did my highlighting. Heck, I missed highlighting a themer and then had to go back through a third time! So I don't think it's a good layout for the NYT's mass audience. Doesn't do the themers justice.

But some great finds that made me want to go back and appreciate each one. I think it could have been a standout puzzle if the themers had been pared back and then presented in such a way to make them easily noticeable — perhaps all in the across direction, or even shading the theme squares.

It's tough when your themers are normal words/phrases, and BORDEAUX is the same length as ORATORIO, DINETTES, IS HE DEAD, ALL ROUND. Way too easy to confuse what's theme and what's not.

POW Mon 2/12/2018

★ Now, these are the kinds of "hidden word" finds I like! It seems a little miraculous that something as long as DISCOVER could span two words of a normal phrase. AMEX is shorter and thus easier to work with, but that X ratchets up the difficulty. And even VISA's VI or VIS is no joke. Three great discoveries made for a great theme, CARDHOLDER a perfect revealer. Delightful!

Made me wonder what other possible themers were out there. VIS A VIS is the obvious one, but that doesn't hold a candle to the awesome ELVIS AND ME. There's NOVI SAD, the Serbian city, but that seems hardly crossworthy — not novice friendly, in any case.

And such a wealth of rare letters in the fill, (mostly) worked in so smoothly! Two Js, three Xs, two Zs, that's way more than a usual puzzle contains. ITEN was a price to pay for the two Zs in OZZY, but I was okay with that trade-off.

The only hesitation I had before giving this the POW! … two crossings that I worried might trip up newer solvers:

  • INI / SAW II. Not a great way to start the puzzle, especially cluing INI as a person with a hit from over 20 years ago. But what else could that be? VNI would be an unlikely name, and SAW VI … please, somebody make the franchise stop!
  • OJAY / CADY. I think educated solvers ought to at least have heard of Elizabeth CADY Stanton, but I could understand if someone couldn't remember the spelling. OJAI / CADI? Not nearly as correct-looking to my eye, but there is a city named OJAI, so I'd be sympathetic to that error, chalking it up to Mike's fault, not the solver's.

So the J in AJAX is the one rare letter that I didn't think was worth it, leading to a tough crossing that might trip up newer solvers.

But overall, I loved the theme DISCOVERies (I did wonder about MASTERCARD to get the full set, but what are you gonna do?) and 95% of the grid execution.

Tue 2/13/2018

BOXED / ROSES, represented as R O S E in a 2x2 set of squares. That felt thin by itself, so I'm glad Bruce tossed in a quasi-kinda-sorta-mini-theme. HAVE A HEART and STEAL A KISS hinting at Valentine's Day candy. They weren't consistent since one could be a literal "have a (candy) heart!" statement, while the other was wordplayish. Still, flowers and candy are traditional, so it all kinda sorta meshes.


Nice to get some bonuses for us VDay questioners. BATCHED IT! Love that one. I've also seen it as BACHED IT, but that looks more like you listened to a bunch of baroque music. (My kind of batching it! Sadly.)

ALMA MATER, I BELIEVE SO, FLAX SEED, GO SIDEWAYS rounds out some excellent bonuses in the fill. Great choices for those long slots.

Nice gridsmanship through the R O S E boxes and that central BOXED / ROSES. The letters are common and easy to work with, but usually, constructors would hit at least a hiccup or two. Only thing that bugged me was STEERER, but I suppose the person with the rudder in a bobsled is the STEERER?

At least it's gettable.

The SIT PAT clue … huh. I appreciate attempts at new and fresh ways of cluing shorter entries. Invoking PAT Sajak seemed … odd. A bit too kooky for my taste.

Not a bad VDay tribute. It didn't all quite tie together for me — a DOZEN / ROSES (with ROSE hidden 12 times) would have felt more apt (is it just me, or do BOXED / ROSES seem old-fashioned?), and the HEART / KISS mini-theme hit my ear off-key — but a good attempt, at least with good gridwork.

Wed 2/14/2018

ML got in touch with me last year, asking if I'd help redo this grid, but the concept didn't resonate. Maybe I just don't appreciate VDay? Or the themers felt too overt, not playful? Or I couldn't get past the asymmetry?

I counterproposed a mini-theme that would run as a (mirror symmetry) themeless the Friday before VDay, with something like BOXING GLOVES / GARLIC CLOVES / THE ARTS. But Will felt that was too subtle.

What about a heart-shaped grid with LOVE TRUMPS HATE down the middle? Too political. Good point!

So, it just wasn't for me, and I passed. But I can see how VDay fanatics could dig what's going on, HEARTSTRINGS / CUPIDS ARROWS / SAINT VALENTINE forming a loose VDay theme. I would have preferred something tighter for a themed puzzle though; a stronger connection between the three themers. Not just "stuff related to VDay."

Mostly solid gridwork though, snappy entries in GO ON A SPREE, STATE SENATORS, ROTISSERIE, NEVERLAND, even BOATYARD, SO AND SOS and MARION ROSS (hands up for a childhood crush on Mrs. C?).

I don't mind a bit of EEO and TAS — I used to see EEO all the time when I was hiring for our startup way back when, and I had plenty of TAS even further back.

TIRO and TWPS are much, much more egregious to me, though. Not just TYRO, but a variant of it? Yikes! And TWPS is … twerps? TW Power Services of Australia? It's "townships"?


And DINGE. Dingy, sure. But DINGE sticks out like some dinge on the puzzle.

I think the compromises to get the themeless-like feel to the puzzle were okay overall, but oof, did those three bits jar me out of my solve.

I still have a lot of trouble getting past the lack of symmetry inside the puzzle. The annoyingly OCD constructor inside me wants some reason for it, like Joe Krozel's clever BROKEN HEART concept. But I can appreciate the novelty of the puzzle, as well as the heartfelt sentiment from ML.

Thu 2/15/2018

Like Peter mentioned, a theme done many times. Definitely important to add something extra. It is fortuitous that all five of these roles were Oscar-nominated … but that wasn't enough for me to distinguish it from all the rest of the instances Peter cited. It's unrelated to the theme, so even though it does create extra tightness in the theme set, it didn't feel relevant.

If only OSCARS ARE FOR THE BIRDS were a phrase in usage ...

I did enjoy the bonuses Peter added. TRIAMINIC, MASERATIS, BOND PAPER, even LABRADOR with its beautiful "chocolate-coated" clue. Even ARM CURL, TOM KITE, EXURBIA = fun for me to uncover.

Speaking of that "chocolate-coated" LABRADOR, awesome tie-in with the ENAMEL clue. Different kind of "canine" (tooth) coating!

A third fantastic clue in BAMBI, the symbol of gentle innocence. The movie is surprisingly heartbreaking (Try explaining what happens to BAMBI's MOM to your three-year old, though.)

My wife stopped doing Peter's Fireball puzzles, because they tend to contain so many esoteric proper names, sometimes making her feel like the grids were unsolvable. I wouldn't go that far — I still enjoy them, although I do encounter some grids I just can't finish.

I think educated solvers ought to know MASERATIS, but TRIAMINIC might be a toughie. ABIDJAN, too. And ELOI … huh. I felt like all crossings were ultimately solvable, but it did give the puzzle an esoteric feel.

Along with ERN, ALENE, ONE A, AGIN, it wasn't my favorite of Peter's grid executions.

(People say RIDIC now? Is that a thing? Sigh. That's just ridic.)

As a constructor, I can understand the allure of the interlock — so fortuitous when that happens! — but I think a much smoother grid might have been possible with a more traditional 10 / 11 / 15 / 11 / 10 (all-across) layout.

Fri 2/16/2018

Given David's history of debuting entries like ADULT MOVIES, GENTLEMEN'S CLUB, PLAYBOY MANSION, and TOPLESS DANCERS, I was nervous after uncovering PENTHOUSE … thankfully it was PENTHOUSE SUITE! Whew. That's a great feature entry.

I wasn't as hot on YOGURT SMOOTHIE — I drink a lot of fruit smoothies, protein shakes, etc., but YOGURT SMOOTHIE didn't immediately ring a bell. Still, it was obvious enough …

… what else goes into a YOGURT SMOOTHIE, though? Isn't it just yogurt? Why don't they just call it "yogurt"?

Tough to build a themeless around 14s, but David did a nice job of it. Classic approach, putting them in rows 4 and 12, still allowing him to build triple-stacks in the NW and SE corners, by placing a black square between TROI and ABUT. Both corners turned out pretty nice.

BOX CAMERA / SPEEDBALL / PENTHOUSE SUITE is a great triplet. I was all set to go gung-ho on the praise for it … then I realized what a SPEEDBALL is. Yikes!

And then I hit the AMBOY / ROY crossing. I had to debate ROD, ROG, ROS, ROC, ROB, ROY. Ultimately, the "king" etymology made ROY win out, but I think a more straightforward clue for ROY would have been better.

SE corner had a solid stack, too, with INAMORATA such a fancy-pants (in a good way!) term for "lover." PIXELATED was a fun term too … but oof, I don't want my crosswords to make me imagine pics that men seem to frequently text … let's leave it at that.

EADS / INAMORATA did seem iffy, but I *think* educated solvers ought to be able to work out that A ending letter, based on what they know of Romance languages.

Get it, romance?


Okay, I'm sympathetic if you got that square wrong.

Overall, good use of his long slots, NEAT AS A PIN / TATE MODERN my favorite entries of the grid, what with their timeless feel. Not keen on the AGENA … rocket? … but those EADS AMBOY TROI dabs of crossword glue did enable a lot of good entries.

Sat 2/17/2018

Peter produces such remarkably smooth, clean themeless grids. Even more impressive, given that he's been generally working with lowish word counts. This 68-worder ought to have more than just EMS and GRES holding it together, but somehow, Peter weaved everything together such that you can't see any of the seams. Impressive craftsmanship.

I like when a puzzle has at least one feature entry that has a shot at being memorable. For me, something like SAY THE MAGIC WORD, BABY GOT BACK, or ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE makes a puzzle stand out in my head. This grid didn't have one of those for me.

But I can see the argument for the other side, that the latter two entries aren't as broadly appealing as the first, that themeless entries ought to stick with timeless entries that most everyone can figure out, like QUIET TIME or SHOPAHOLIC.

Different strokes.

I did enjoy most of the long entries, MBA DEGREE crossing NBA GAMES particularly pleasing. But there were others that felt a bit dated like I AM AMERICA (over 10 years old now, whoa!), and ERICA JONG, whose "Fear of Flying" was published almost 50 years ago.

Now, Peter and Will did elevate a lot of the entries via great clues. A FOAL gets up and running in a couple of hours = brilliant! Innocently repurposing "up and running" in a literal way is genius.

I didn't understand the MBA DEGREE clue at first — why would you need an MBA to get boarded? Ah! It's not a doctor's boards. It's a Board of Directors. This one wasn't as strong for me, given that there are many board members who aren't MBAs, so it felt like the clue needed a giveaway question mark. But it was a good attempt.

I wonder how many people will write to Will, pointing out his "error," that DOCTORS DON'T NEED AN MBA!

(If you write to me with that, I'll politely put it in my spam folder.)

A beautifully smooth piece of work, if not so snazzy as to stick in my head.

Sun 2/18/2018SEE 68-ACROSS

I find it incredibly frustrating when I can't figure out a theme until late in the game, so the payoff has to be worth it. Definitely the case today! Elizabeth is a NAME DROPPER, hanging names off the bottoms of phrases … and doing so in a way that forms a kooky phrase!

EARLY AM(ERICA)N is a perfect example. EARLY AMEN is amusing, creating an image of a person wishing and praying for church to end. And what a neat find, ERICA in there, with AM(ERICA)N forming AMEN. Very cool.

I love it when a puzzle leaves me with a "how'd the author come up with all of those?" feeling. I imagine it was simply a matter of putting in the time, searching for words that work in this special way, and figuring out what phrases fit with those words. Still, it seems a bit magical that Elizabeth found so many good ones.

I mean, SLUMBER PAY as a fee for testing mattresses is funny. And SLUMBER P(ART)Y as a base phrase is great!

The cross-referencing was necessary, but it sure did increase my grumbling for those first 15 minutes of my solve. There's not much I like less than being forced to jump around, searching for a particular number. This is a crossword, not a number search, goldarnit! But again, the payoff was worth it.

Also worth it was the grid execution. Granted, Elizabeth went to 144 words, four past the usual max, but with so many pairs of intersecting themers, it was likely necessary. I didn't even mind, considering she still gave some bonuses in EXTRA VIRGIN, LOTUS EATERS, SEA LIONS, LIT A FIRE, even the fun PROBITY.

I'd love to see Will change his spec sheet to "max 140 words for a Sunday ... except if the theme complexity warrants 144." There was still a good amount of HIER, CYL, SRTA, etc. kind of stuff, but a tad less than we usually see (in spades) in Sunday puzzles. Not having to slog through a ton of gunk is a fantastic thing.

I considered this for the POW!, given the neat concept and great finds. If only there hadn't been *quite* as much frustration in my first 15 minutes …

Mon 2/19/2018

It's the second time around for Bruce's "+letter then anagram" concept, and I still don't get it. I mean, I get it — toss in a random letter along with a word and anagram to form a valid phrase — but why? It feels related to "randomgramming," a term constructors use, meaning "jumble up the letters because REASONS, that's why." So, same qualms as last time.

How awesome would it have been for the extra letters to spell out US OF A! I think this might be a real possibility. But looking through combinations of 44 different presidents x 26 extra letters is not something I'm willing to do just to answer that question.

Anyhoo, one aspect of Bruce's gridwork I'm digging these days is his usage of seven-letter slots. Often, these get filled with neutral stuff, placeholders that solvers skim over as they go. But ME FIRST / EVIL EYE, LA SCALA / DREAM ON, HAN SOLO — that's a ton of great mid-length bonus material!

It does come at a small price, with a bit of AYS, BALDS (odd verb usage) to make those corners work. Totally worth the cost.

I wish there had at least been more time between Bruce's states + letter randomgramming puzzle and this one. The first time at least felt unique. To get another instance so quickly, with no real change in ideology, wasn't great.

Still, what is great is the phrase POLICE DOG. Love it. And I'll go ahead and choose to believe that GARFIELD (plus you, or U) were both LIFEGUARDs.

Or something like that.

Tue 2/20/2018

HIGH DEFINITION gets clued as if a dictionary entry for HIGH. OVEREXPLAINED as an entry for OVER. And MEANING OF LIFE as an entry for life? Brilliant! A winner of a theme. A true WITT (Wish I had Thought of That).

I did hitch at LEXICOGRAPHERS though, wondering why this was needed. It all made sense without this "revealer," yeah? Felt like LEXICOGRAPHERS took away from the impact of the puzzle, like someone overexplaining a joke, thus not making it funny anymore.

But I chose to ignore that and appreciate the three great finds. What an amusing concept.

I like that Joel pushes the boundaries in his grids, stretching to work a ton of long bonuses into the fill. Today, he goes all the way down to 72 words, no mean feat in a themed puzzle. It allowed entries like BLUDGEON, BARTENDS, PLATINUM, EDNA FERBER, HUFF POST — excellent stuff.

It did come at price, though. That tiny SE corner best demonstrates it. A BOY / ERGS in a Tuesday puzzle isn't great, and it isn't up to Joel's high standard of gridsmanship. I would have preferred placing a black square at the E of FACE, to break up EDNA FERBER and clean up that SE corner (sorry, Ferber fans!). A little too much stretching today.

If only LEXICOGRAPHERS had been replaced with something like JOB DESCRIPTION or DREAM INTERPRETATION, this would have been a no-brainer POW! pick. But even with the hitch, I had on LEXICOGRAPHERS puzzlesplaining to me, I still enjoyed it.

Wed 2/21/2018

PO BOX giving rationale as to why PO are smashed together into rebus squares = solid concept.

I like it when rebus puzzles do a little something extra to get noticed, and this one did that — so many entries contained two POs. POLAR OPPOSITES, SPORTS REPORTER were great, but to get PORPOISE, POMPOUS, HOP ON POP, and even POMPOM was pretty cool.

Especially neat to see the two POs in PORPOISE straddle SPORTS REPORTER. Such a tight job of packing!

Made me wonder — PO is a common enough letter combination, is there any phrase that contains three of them? The only one I could come up with was HIPPOPOTAMUS POOL. I *think* it's a real thing. But I'd have enough hesitation about it that I certainly wouldn't anchor a puzzle with it.

Well executed grid. Stuffing 14 instances of a rebus square is tough, no matter how common the letters are. I like Ori and Zach's decision to use the max allowable word count (78), to deliver a grid that's super clean. I picked out the LALA and SOTO gluey bits as I solved, and LOLO felt a bit esoteric (AMAL too), but that's a nice and low tally for this level of construction difficulty.

It's hard to blow minds with rebuses these days, considering how many have been done over the years, but I appreciated the craftsmanship in packing so many POs in today.

FYI, 14 is nowhere near the record for sheer quantity of rebus squares. But if you did a histogram, I'm fairly sure it'd be on the high side of average.

Thu 2/22/2018

I like theme type mashups — so interesting to cram together two tried-and-true ideas to form something new.

1.) Reversals. Many puzzles over the years have featured backwards entries. BACK, UP, REVERSE, FLIP are usually hints or revealers.

2.) Different definitions of a key word. Take a word that has many disparate meanings, find phrases that define said meanings. (Many moons ago, I wanted to use LOG as my key word, and Jill suggested something scatological as we were brainstorming. I knew then she was a keeper.)

Mash these two up, and you get a three COURSE meal — reversed! AUGUSTA NATIONAL is a golf COURSE, PREALGEBRA is a school COURSE, and APPETIZERS are a meal COURSE. I like the innovation.

Great bonuses in the fill has become C.C.'s trademark. No surprise to get awesome AU NATUREL, PICANTE, DON'T PANIC, GONDOLA.

Sometimes I've critiqued C.C.'s work with an eye on her craftsmanship, her slight overreliance on crossword glue. I think she's come a long way, and today I didn't notice much at all. A bit of ELEC URI, that's it? Excellent work.

I score each new entry as they get introduced into our Xword Info word list, and I waffled on ADD ME. Is this a thing? Granted, I'm not a huge fan of the Facebook ("the" added for humor, of course, I knew that, I REALLY DID!), but do people say ADD ME? Huh.

ANALOG got such a great clue. I can just imagine the kids though, saying "wot the heck are watch hands?"

More likely, "wot the hell is a watch?"

Overall, I liked the innovation. If "reversing A course" had been a real phrase, I might have given this some POW! love. But as is, the anal grammaratician in me hitched on the awkwardness of REVERSING COURSE as a revealer, without that "A." I know, I'm so darn annoying!

POW Fri 2/23/2018

★ I love BJ NOVAK. He's an absolute genius! From writing for (and acting in) "The Office," to a book of short stories, to the most hilarious (non-picture) picture book ever, this guy is brilliant.

Probably didn't do much for you if you didn't know him, though.

And Lovecraft's "The Call of CTHULHU"! Another masterpiece, this inducing terrors so horrifying that I can't begin to describe it without creeping myself out.

Again though, if you didn't know that, it wouldn't do much for you. Even worse, that bizarre letter sequence — something starting with CTHU, really? — might be aggravating. Annoying, even.

For me, this was a fantastic, A-1 themeless puzzle. Well crafted, with SUCH great use of mid-length slots — LUDDITE, GO GREEN, SWAGGER, MACH ONE, DAD JOKE, DNA LABS, ROSE CUT, XS AND OS, RISOTTO. Themeless constructors, take note!


Don't just be satisfied with having neutral filler in those precious seven-letter slots. Strive to use great material like this.

And CUE CARD is not just a excellent entry in its own right, but what a brilliant clue. At first (and at second and at third) glance, I had no idea what was going on. [Stage holdup?] didn't have anything to do with Old West robbers? No? A stage of a play? But how is a CUE CARD like a robbery?


It's literally held up (for actors' benefit) on stage.

For me, POW! The gridsmanship is beautiful. But I can see how it wouldn't be POW! material for others. For that reason, I hesitated. I'd guess that as NYT themelesses go, it might not be good — heck, it might even be bad, as it could turn off too many chunks of the solving population. Probably not a lot of intersection in the Venn diagram of BJ NOVAK and CTHULHU fans.

But hey, this is my award to give out, and I really enjoyed this puzzle. So there.

Sat 2/24/2018

Beautiful middle stairstack! Delightful to get a mini-theme in BINGE WATCHING and SLIPPERY SLOPE. It's even better when they're located in positions that usually shouldn't allow for mini-theme placement. It's a similar sort of magic to a 15 + 15 letter phrase … stacked atop each other!

We've seen enough "stairstack" middles, that they're becoming easier and easier for me to critique — what's the quality of 1.) middle stairstack, 2.) NW/SE corners, 3.) SW / NE tail?

(On one hand, I like that more and more people are gravitating to this themeless grid type. It allows for a lot of great material, with interesting visual effect. On the other, I worry that it's going to become overused. I like innovation, dagnabit!)

Great work in criterion 1. PAROLE HEARING made for another snazzy entry — three for three winners. And such smoothness in the down answers holding that middle together. Not a fan of RESHIPS, but I do see it in alerts from Amazon.

Solid work in criterion 2. I didn't know we had an estate past the fourth estate (the media), but I can buy the FIFTH ESTATE. Fun to learn the term, anyway, and it didn't hinder my solve. IRA ROLLOVER is pretty dull even for this financial planner ... but RUMORMONGER helped keep up the color in that NW corner.

AVGAS … I'm a mechanical engineer, not an aerospace engineer. I'll grant you that. But AVGAS? I nearly choked because it crossed GIAN, which seemed like it could be GION or GIEN. Thankfully, that GAS part of AVGAS saved me. But even though the crossing ultimately seemed fair, it left me with a sense of inelegance.

Ah, criterion 3. That's where most people fall down. It's so hard to use those two tail sections in the SW / NE, once you've fixed your stairstack into place. Such juicy long slots … and PLODDERS is not the way to use them well. SAD SONG is a little better, and HEADLONG is okay.

If John had worked in a little more juice in these tough-to-fill sections, this could have been POW!-worthy. Pesky criterion 3!

Well crafted, got some POW! consideration from me. Not quite there, though.


NATHAN HALE made up of the letters within ETHAN ALLEN? How cool! And ASTOUNDING made up of the letters within OUTSTANDING? These findings aren't as cool as direct anagrams — much more flexibility when you can use more or fewer instances of the letters however you want — but still, DADBLASTED made up out of the letters within DETESTABLE was pretty awesome.

Not as much a fan of PISTACHIOS / POTATO CHIPS. Okay, they're both snack foods. But that's a pretty gigantic category. Certainly not as tight as "Revolutionary war heroes" or direct synonyms.

GEORGIAN ERA and IRON AGE, too. Perhaps if those two time frames were closer …

CREAM CHEESE made of the letters in SCHMEAR, now that was a great way to end the puzzle. I have a bagel with CREAM CHEESE most every morning, but I've never noticed this finding. Great stuff.

Also great was Will's gridwork. Working in six crossing pairs of long(ish) answers into a Sunday grid should be impossible to do without relying on an excess of crossword glue. Most constructors have to splorch on a (very) noticeable amount of glue in order to just made a standard seven-themer Sunday puzzle work. There were a couple of toughies in ARETES, RECTO, KOMBU, REUNES, but wow. To keep it to just that is amazing.

Will did such a nice job in setting up his grid skeleton and using black squares to keep the themers separated. I highlighted the themers below, so you can better see how careful his spacing was. Such intricate nesting!

My only knock: an overreliance on +preposition phrases. WERE ON, RODE ON, LURES IN, WADE IN, BENT ON … talk about ADD ONS! Generally, these are fine entries, but the glut grated on my sensibilities. If only a few of those slots had been used for things like APTEST, COBALT, TOP TEN, etc.

At first, I wasn't as impressed as I wanted to be, given that these were something less than direct anagrams. But I liked how the concept opened up room for direct synonyms and tight pairs like NATHAN HALE and ETHAN ALLEN — something that direct anagrams won't usually allow. Along with the strong gridwork, this would have been a POW! pick, if some of the pairs hadn't felt too loosey-goosey.

Mon 2/26/2018

I've definitely heard the phrase STILL WATERS RUN DEEP before ... but I embarrassingly had to look up what it exactly meant. Apparently "a quiet or placid manner may conceal a more passionate nature." Huh!

To me, a "maxim hidden at the starts of theme phrases" puzzle is best when there's a revealer that describes the maxim in a snazzy way. SAW is too generic for my taste. Problem is, I can't think of a colorful phrase that describes STILL WATERS RUN DEEP.

Heck, I can't even think of a non-snazzy way of describing it, besides just saying STILL WATERS RUN DEEP! Perhaps MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE?

(Doubly embarrassed that I just quoted the "Transformers" theme song.)

Anyhoo, good choices for theme answers. Funny to imagine older people say I'm STILL KICKING! And DEEP THOUGHTS was one of my favorite segments back when I watched SNL.

WATERS DOWN and RUN ERRANDS didn't pop as much — about as exciting as RUNning errands. But they work fine. There's not much you can do with WATERS as a starting word.

I'm curious if switching the maxim to final words would have been better? That would have put ETHEL WATERS into play. AND ... if you ran the themers vertically, you could bury the maxim at the bottoms of the theme phrases … making them RUN DEEP!

Okay, maybe I still don't totally get what the maxim means.

Good gridwork for a Monday. ORLON is a toughie, but I think it's worth the price of SMOLDERS next to an AIR KISS.

I wasn't as much a fan of STOOD IN intersecting ALL IN — feels inelegant to have the crossing dupe — and I didn't care for ESSES … I wonder if black squares at the end of AMASS and the start of ESSES could have cleaned things up.

All in all, a cleanly-executed maxim theme, the saying well-hidden at the start of the themers until the revealer told me what was going on. I just wish the revealer had more pop … perhaps not the best maxim to build a puzzle around.

Tue 2/27/2018

Looks like … artists with famous works with the word "dream" in them? I tried to figure out what else connected everything ... but there isn't anything else. Huh. I did like that Ross chose a wide assortment of fields — poetry, writing, painting, and singing. But the theme seems awfully loose.

Really nice gridwork, with a ton of bonuses to keep up my interest. RED ALERTS, TUNA ROLL, APPLE PIE / PARADIGM, TAMARIND / FLEW SOLO, ARISTOTLE … such a wealth of great entries!

ARISTOTLE did make me pause, wondering what "dream" work he produced. (None.) Perhaps it would have been better to replace that entry with a non-person.

ROTFL = rolling on the floor laughing, BTW. I like that one a lot, but I can see how some solvers might be confused by the strange string of letters. I think solvers ought to at least be familiar with it by now, though.

The only hesitation I had was the MSDOS / MOS crossing. It came easily to me, since MSDOS was groundbreaking in operating systems, and I like MOS Def. But I've definitely heard enough complaints about MOS that I'd want all the crossings to be easy.

Overlooking that hiccup, I think Ross did a fantastic job executing on a 72-word grid. Very tough to do well, especially when your themers are awkward lengths — 12 and 14 letters (along with 13) are so frustratingly inflexible, causing all sorts of problem in grid design.

During my solve, I wanted something to better tie the themers together with a great a-ha moment. Didn't seem like there could be one … but as I was writing up this post, the company DREAMWORKS came to mind! That would have elevated this to POW! consideration!

Then I read Ross's note. D'oh!

I get that you couldn't clue the works by their full names, since you'd duplicate "dream" in the clues and in DREAMWORKS. But maybe the clues could have omitted the word "dream," replacing it with a blank? DREAMWORKS = [Movie company ... and a hint to the word missing in each of the four blanks]?

Huh. Inelegant, to say the least. I see Will's point.

But overall, I'd have gone with the inelegance, as without DREAMWORKS, the theme is too loose. Much too easy to pick some word and find four famous works of art with it in the title.

Wed 2/28/2018

Appropriate theme for a math teacher, the six TRIG functions hidden within phrases — in order! Not that there's an absolute right order in which to present the six, but SIN COS TAN, COT (cotangent) SEC (secant) CSC (cosecant) is how math books go over them.

(CSC is the inverse of SIN, SEC inverse of COS, COT inverse of TAN, in case you're interested. I know you're probably not, but I am. So there.)

On one hand, there's something impressive about packing in the seven themers. In order! I particularly like HIT A NERVE hiding TAN; great phrase. And there's something awesome about SEC hidden inside MORSE CODE. Feels like the plot of a Dan Brown book.

On the other, so many constraints producing so many compromises in the grid hit a nerve for me. I personally wouldn't allow THAN I (partial) crossing LENAS (plural name). Then you get ANS, LTR, DIAS, the oddly related seeming ECCE ESSO OSS, RETOW … that's not good at all.

And LEFT RIGHT … I get that you need a middle themer hiding TRIG. But LEFT RIGHT was last used in the Maleskan era. Is it a valid phrase? Dunno. At the very least, I had enough hesitations that I would have much preferred something different. JUST RIGHT would have been a lot better to me, but that J would have stressed the grid even more. PATENT RIGHT is better too, but it's more common in the plural.

Maybe even leaving out TRIG would have been better. SIN COS TAN tells the story pretty well without TRIG, anyway.

I did love the clue for TACO STAND. [Shell station?] hinting at the Shell gas stations, misdirecting from TACO shells = brilliant.

And that clue for MORSE CODE! I fell into Pete's trap with both feet. Part of me still wonders what that ellipsis is leading to!

The math-lover in me enjoyed seeing the TRIG functions in proper order. The crossword-lover in me had problems with the execution.