Come on down, crossword solvers! THE PRICE IS literally RIGHT, synonyms for "price" at the end of three long phrases. WHOLE BEAN COFFEE, CARE TO ELABORATE, GUERILLA WARFARE ... there's something elegant about 15-letter grid spanners because they leave no residues or stowage in the rest of the row.
Hopefully, those puns don't make you want to charge at me.
"Disguised synonyms" puzzles are usually done using whole words, like with DEPTH CHARGE or TARGET HEART RATE. "Hidden words" typically get tucked in the middles of themers. It's fun to get something different from THE USUAL FARE today.
Four grid-spanning themers can be challenging to grid around, especially in the west and east regions, where you have a triplet of down entries that will need to thread through the ends of two themers. Garrett did a solid job, the east not only smooth but with an X woven in to boot. I don't know my royals well, but SUSSEX rang a bell.
The west was nearly as solid. I don't mind III since it's a common suffix. (A close friend of mine is Fred, Jr., and his son is Fred, III. His other son is also named Fred, and he doesn't care to elaborate.)
The rest of the grid isn't usually too difficult once you figure out something that works for the west and east sections, but I appreciated the extra touches, Garrett working in the colorful EVEN KEEL and LOW POINT. I'm sure some solvers will balk at LOLCAT, either because they're too old to know what this is, or the kids these days will roll their eyes at the LOLCAT being ten years past its prime. Doze cats still making me lolz, though.
So many hidden words and disguised synonyms take a toll, so I appreciated something a little different.
★ Over the past two years, I've been helping a friend iterate on REPEAT AFTER ME in umpteen different implementations, yet today's still caught me off guard in such a pleasing way. I love being surprised by an early-week theme.
At first glance, REPEAT AFTER ME explaining "doubled letter following ME" was hardly impressive. As Jim Horne points out in his Finder link below, thousands of entries have this pattern. A theme that feels like anyone could do it usually means the wow factor will be low.
But wait! Jay and Daniel introduced a clever constraint: tightening the theme by breaking the doubled letters across words of a phrase. While an extra layer can feel arbitrary, today's lent a sense of elegance. JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE is such a great find, and how many more of these could there possibly be?
So, of course, I checked. Only turning up NUTMEG GRATER, RAMEN NOODLES, and SUMMER READING made the theme feel even more magical.
Not as magical as RAMEN NOODLES and STEAMED DUMPLINGS in the same grid, but I'll excuse that infelicity at Din Tai Fung later tonight.
Their gridwork impressed me, too. Oddly enough, five full grid spanners would have been easier to work with than dealing with the lone 13. Note that this middle 13 forces at least two corners to be tough to fill — in this case, the NW and SE. To escape the NW with just a LEM is hardly a MUSKy result.
I appreciated this theme with every additional perusal. Such a neat idea to tighten the theme, and all four theme phrases are so snazzy.
We are sure to be flooded with questions from solvers about how to "correctly" input the answers, much like with a recent poker puzzle. Thankfully, there's only one baffling square today, which will be marked correct using either S or SHADE. Not D, though!
Why won't D be marked as a correct answer, even though it is the correct answer to IN A SCRABBLE GAME / WHAT TILE IS WORTH / TWO POINTS?
That missing D gets a D minus. (So does that joke.)
I haven't played Scrabble since the Great Scrabble Debacle of 2009, in which my aggravatingly defensive play caused Jill to make me eat my words. Scrabble tiles are not at all tasty, if you're curious.
Thankfully, Dan's bonus material kept up my interest, the mirror layout making a ton of fantastic long Downs possible toward the top of the grid. LOST PETS, A CAPPELLA, ZEBRAFISH, MEGATRON (one of the best nicknames in all of sports) = four zingers out of four.
Not to mention, Dan even worked a few goodies into the constrained bottom of the grid. When you have TWO POINTS and A B C (D) E fixed in place, there's not much freedom left. I hardly SAY NO to BREWPUB, and KISMET is such an evocative single-word entry.
I recently read Oliver Roeder's Seven Games, and one chapter focuses on his quest to become one of the top Scrabble players in the country … by memorizing such words as AGLU, CORF, HOWK, and QOPH. Needless to say, this isn't my (Scrabble) bag. I did appreciate the attempt to do something boundary-pushing with a SHADEd square, though.
Many moons ago, I tried to create a crossword around POP UP ADS — the word "pop-up" screams for wordplay. After exploring a dozen different executions, I still didn't come up with one that I thought would delight solvers. I wish I had landed on Ella's concept!
Some solvers will fill in every box and still not get the theme, so we've highlighted the thematic squares. It's so evocative, a SHOP popping up and then disappearing into the background, mirroring the life cycle of real-life pop-up shops.
This mechanism works so perfectly for this puzzle. Not quite as perfectly as an ORCA spy-hopping in the middle of WINDSOR CASTLE would, but the whale-watching Seattleite in me is biased.
Excellent gridwork, too. It might seem like the H and O atop the S and P are trivial to grid around, but they force a lot of constraints. It's solid enough to use something like OPTED (BOPP less so), but GROWTH SPURT growing through one of the HS pairs, and OH SNAP / HIGH SPIRITS through the others = EUPHORIA. Brilliant way to add emphasis to your themers.
The thematic density felt a tad low, and I would have given this the POW! if Ella had added in JOHNS HOPKINS. It's the only notable other possibility I could find (DENNIS HOPPER is too similar to GRASSHOPPER), so it would have completed the set perfectly. Much harder to grid around an extra themer, but I bet Ella would have been up to the task.
Solid cluing work, too. Starting from 1-Across, [Cubans are full of it] sounded more like a controversial epithet than a clue. Thankfully, it was referring to the HAM in a Cubano. You know, the Cubano, the dish seen around the world? Oh right, that's a UFO.
Fitting that Ella's last Across entry helped her take a BOW. So close to a POW!
Several of my friends now have Swiss Army keychains engraved with the name Dr. Snip. Talk about genius-level marketing.
Byron's low-word count grids often contain entries that garner attention. I had no problems with VASECTOMY, though — that is, after following the exact process of elimination he described. Neat to see a valuable medical procedure given its due.
I wasn't as sure about BIDENOMICS — is it as in-the-language as Reaganomics, for example? — but it turns out the media uses it. Although people will point to rampant inflation and poor growth during the Biden years, economic policies can take years to give results, so it's too early to tell what BIDENOMICS will bring about.
Doesn't keep me from grumbling about prices at the pump, though.
Curious that DOTARD was not far away from BIDENOMICS — political statement, perhaps? Also curious that I knew that DOT ARD is the new web domain for Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
(Spoken like a true dotard.)
OSCAR BIDS was another that I scratched my head over. OSCAR NODS and OSCAR BAIT, sure. I should have known that studios throw millions of marketing dollars in pushing certain movies for recognition. So much for "may the best movie win."
UP IS DOWN is the one debut entry I wish we'd already had on our XWord Info list. It's so evocative! The full UP IS DOWN AND DOWN IS UP would be even more amazing.
Crossword radar pinging …
PINBALLERS was already in our word list, because Kevin Der had used it a decade ago in an audacious construction requiring an entry with PIN and BALL rebuses next to each other. It was absolutely worth it for that theme. This former pinball wizard is doubtful about how strong it is in today's puzzle, but newspapers do use terms like NFLERS and NBAERS, so there's a case that it's reasonable.
Byron's Saturday themelesses tend to be some of the hardest crosswords around (in addition to Kevin's!), so I was exhausted but JUMPing FOR JOY when I filled in that last square.
Interesting assortment of letterplay examples. I appreciated that Tina presented pairs, one entry helping me solve the other. As I solved, they felt scattered all over the grid but placed neatly. We've highlighted them below to help them shine.
Letter count themes have been done many times over the years, but I couldn't find any of these specific ones used before. FIVE-O highlights the five Os in VOODOO DOLL, TWO AM points to the two AMs in SAM ADAMS, etc.
This type of theme tends to be too straightforward, so I loved the needle-scratch of ZERO-G. Thousands of entries have zero Gs, so using a random example would have been Super-G boring. OINOINON is anything but that! I'm not a huge baseball guy, but when I finally pieced together the common call, GOING, GOING, GONE, I led the crowd in a wave. Geez, the Gs have left the building! Such a neat zag after so many predictable zigs.
I didn't love that the themers were a mix of initialisms (AT AN ANGLE = TRIPLE A) and letter counts (HUSH HUSH = FOUR H). UNIQUE USER is a strange crossover, too — shouldn't the second U in UNIQUE count? (Thanks to reader John Shillington for pointing this out!)
Some of them felt too easy to achieve, too — for example, there are hundreds of TWO AM phrases that would work just as well as SAM ADAMS. Even FIVE O isn't difficult.
I'm sure my haters will say OH BOO HOO, that YOU'RE OUT OF YOUR GOURD. However, I'm much more impressed when themers feel a touch magical; like not everyone with access to a database search tool could turn them up.
All in all, a nice smorgasbord of letter play, and I'll certainly remember that ZERO-G zinger at the end.
My seven-year-old daughter (also named Tess!) is obsessed with MAKEUP. The other day, she did herself up and asked, "How do I look?" Given my principle of never lying to my kids, it was difficult to make up something that wasn't "like a rainbow threw up a rodeo clown." CLEAN UP on aisle Tess! I managed to say something that didn't make either of us BLUSH, but I did disappear into the SHADOWs before she could ask me more.
Needless to say, AMNESIAC and EGRESS were right on point today.
This concept sounded familiar, so I searched *MAKEUP* in our Finder (the asterisks mean "anything of any length"). Plenty of MAKEUP GAME and MAKEUP EXAM puns, along with an imaginative interpretation of KISS AND MAKE UP, but the last puzzle of this exact nature was back in 2012 — more than long enough that another go-around is perfectly fine.
Tidy intersection of MAKEUP and LINER NOTES — that's a great way to deal with a six-letter revealer. Putting MAKEUP as the last Across entry would delay the punchline until the end, but a six-letter final Across can cause gridding problems.
And crossing thematic entries like this allows for efficient use of space, assuming the letters around the intersection don't cause problems. The K can be a tough nut, but Kathy did a nice job in that region, AKA a fine entry, and not a drop of crossword glue in that corner.
There's a bit of OPIE (outdated) XTRA (adspeak) in other locales, but bonuses such as STALE AIR and ICED TEA more than make up for them.
Not a theme that will shake one's foundation, but the most crucial aspect to a Monday puzzle is newb-friendliness, which this one achieves.
We've seen a ton of grid art over the years, and some of it works much better than others. One of the problems tends to be that even if you can get black squares to look unquestionably like your desired image, the other black squares that help make the grid fillable detract from the impact. Take a delightful tennis racquet, for example — there's little doubt what those central squares form. However, all the other black squares in the puzzle dilute the overall impact.
Today's visual is so simple, so pared-down, yet so effective. Besides the usual "fingers" of black squares along the grid's perimeter, all we see are 1) a football goal post and 2) a single dot flying through it. That black square is up … and it's good! What makes it so good — great, even — is that the black square "rock" is smashing GOLIATH squarely in the middle of his forehead.
DAVID at the bottom. A slingshot in the middle. A rock-bashing GOLIATH. Such stunningly basic imagery. This picture is worth more than 71 words.
71 words in a themed puzzle usually spells trouble, especially when targeting early-week solvers. This mirror layout is tough to work with — you get the excellent bonuses of EGO MASSAGES and SHANTYTOWNS, but those have to work next to the long VALLEY OF ELAH and BOOK OF SAMUEL, creating a considerable challenge. Not a friendly early-week solve overall, especially considering the crossing of two geography trivia names, ELAH and URAL.
Although the puzzle would have seemed thin if it had only been DAVID and GOLIATH, along with SLINGSHOT added in somewhere, that would have been a direct hit to this solver's forehead. Then again, I probably would have complained so much about only 21 thematic squares that you'd want to wind up that slingshot even more than you do right now.
Ultimately, it's audacious grid art, and the imagery is on par with that work of the old masters.
★ It's not uncommon for "Name That Theme" to stump me on a Wednesday. MINERAL WATER … MEDIUM RARE … FEELING ILL.
Stomach flu from undercooked beef from cows that drank contaminated water?
WELL, ACTUALLY reminded me of the bizarre six-well Monday two weeks ago, when the Universal and LAT both ran WELL, WELL, WELL themes. I worried that the NYT would run another — things happen in threes, after all.
WELL, ACTUALLY, today's NYT was hardly well-worn! I had to read through the clues and the themers several times before figuring it out. Well, well, well worth it, though! Do you want MINERAL WATER? No, I'd like WELL (water), ACTUALLY. Shall we cook your steak MEDIUM RARE? Please make that WELL (done), ACTUALLY. Uh oh, are you FEELING ILL? No, I'm doing WELL, ACTUALLY.
Talk about well done! That's incredibly imaginative, an order of magnitude more so than those Universal or LAT puzzles.
Not many bonuses in the fill, but a few mid-lengthers like WINGMAN, EARLOBE, SHERPAS, REGALIA helped out. This grid layout can be tricky — moving MEDIUM RARE and FEELING ILL one row toward the center can help space things out better, allowing for more breathing room to incorporate longer bonuses.
A creative and memorable POW!
Genius-level find in WITHOUT SIN. I could almost give the puzzle a POW! on that single themer alone. It's so rare that I'm astonished by a discovery — to have a common phrase composed of an English word plus its Spanish translation? Sin comparación!
(If you ever travel to a Spanish-speaking area, the phrases "sin gas" and "con gas" for fizzy and still water are useful.)
The others didn't impact me nearly as strongly because I haven't had the fortune to travel to any Czech, German, or Dutch-speaking countries or befriend a native speaker. For the sake of completion, I did look up the translations of GUEST, THE, and FIRE, and they indeed are HOST, DIE, and BRAND in those languages, respectively.
Additionally, BREADPAN didn't feel as in-the-language as the sizzling FIREBRAND. Turns out it's a commonplace kitchen item — not a surprise that my second-grade-level baking skills failed me yet again.
THE DIE is difficult to justify as a standalone phrase; a verboten six-letter partial ("The die is cast"). I can forgive the infelicity in the name of an innovative concept, though, because there can't be many phrases that could fit into this theme. Creative way to symmetrically incorporate THE / DIE into the grid, too.
It's hard to imagine how even to approach finding these types of phrases — I felt compelled to sit down and think about how David did it (I still have no idea). If the others had struck me even half as strongly as WITHOUT SIN, this would have been a puzzle of the year candidate.
Been a while since we've had a themeless featuring symmetrical black square chunks in each of the four corners. I like the spherizing effect, almost producing an 8-ball visual. Not as 8-ballish as an EIGHT TRACK TAPES mini-theme, though!
(Our Calendar page makes it easy to browse themeless patterns since thumbnails handily pop up when you mouse over them.)
With a layout like this, it's critical to squeeze every last drop of juice out of the precious few long slots. Trent did well, with so much SPACE CAMP, SPIN CLASS, MORNING RITUAL with a winky crossword reference. I'd nearly say YOU NAILED IT!
Why "nearly"? Given the sky-high threshold for Friday themelesses these days, even minor nits stand out. THE DOG ATE IT is a solid answer, but it feels dated, given that so much homework is done electronically these days.
Trent's mid-length material, though = ACED IT. Six and seven-letter slots are challenging to make sing, but FAKE TAN, PARADOX, CARFAX, PHASER, TABOOS are so evocative. I appreciate the care he took in all those selections.
(Will Shortz typically doesn't care about short dupes like YOU NAILED IT / ACED IT, even when they cross.)
Black squares eating away at the four corners makes construction so much simpler. Three blocks per corner ease things by a factor of five, and six blocks per corner is more like an order of magnitude. The constructor in me thus increases evaluation strictness proportionally. But even with that considered, Trent did a great job of eking so much sparkle out of almost every possible slot.
YUTZES, MEATHEADS, EL CHEAPO … OH GEEZ!
It's not often that my favorite entry of a themeless is a seven-letter one since those can be of the dry ARIDITY variety. There's something so fun about the word APTONYM. So much easier to understand than other -onym words. Wordsworth is indeed an apt name for a wordsmith!
This puzzle's cluing stood out with its Wordsworth-worthy wordplay. So many times I was left scratching my head, only to be delighted several minutes later. [Leaves totally drained of energy?], using "leaves" as a noun is clever. DECAF TEA is an excellent entry, and it's made even better by the clue.
Same with AVERAGE GUY. It's above average by itself, but when you use the math definition of "mean" in [Mean dude], we're talking several standard deviations above the mean.
I'd never heard of ZAXBY'S, so it's no surprise it wasn't already on our XWord Info word list. Well worth adding, though, especially with that awesome clue. I wonder how much hazard pay ZAXBY'S has to give its employees to get over the derision of asking "do you want any Zappertizers with that?"
I'd be telling people to zuck it.
The other entry that was new to me: HMM I SEE. I'm all for I SEE. But HMM I SEE … hmm, I see that it's probably fine, but it does feel a bit like a slippery slope to HMM HOLD ON WAIT I SEE NOW YES.
A lot to love in this one, from AP GERMAN to GIMME A SEC to GOT A LIGHT to IM AFRAID SO. Some dings here and there, like EXT and SOMA, but the cluing delights more than made up for them.
Making a crossword theme like this is easy. All you do is write down all 195 world capitals and then see what phrases contain one of the cities, with one of 26 letters inserted into a random position with that city. If you're not willing to search several hundred thousand combinations, that's just plain lazy.
(I am lazy, so our Finder and some Python programming helped streamline the process.)
The K in KA-CHING! was our least flexible option. Jim and I debated mightily — is MARK O'MEARA or CYBERKNIFE a better option? My stepmother has undergone a cyberknife procedure, but I acknowledge that it sounds like a term dreamt up by a science fiction writer who time-traveled from the year of Mark O'Meara's birth.
Jim and I have had many fun collaborations before, but Sunday 140-word puzzles are a major league step up from triple-A 15x15s. It's daunting to fill a grid that's nearly as wide-open as a themeless — while having to work around a full set of seven themers.
I've found that the best approach to guiding along a newer constructor is to create a grid skeleton that chunks the canvas into smaller sections so that each region can be tackled one by one while heavily testing every area until you have 95% confidence that the entire grid can be filled with quality.
So, of course, I sent Jim a 120-word skeleton that was impossible to fill without using ancient Estonian monetary lingo, dropping a casual note that this should be easy for most anyone to fill.
Curious that even after nearly ten years, he's not TIRING OF me yet.
I nailed "Name That Theme" today! Who doesn't want a CORNER ROOM, with its prestige, privacy, and—
Huh? That's a CORNER OFFICE?
Yes, but my office has been my room for the past two years.
Okay, fine. It must be ... ROOM DIVIDERS. Beautiful, these bent rooms look like individual folds of a room divider.
To the back room, I go.
Lovely revealer, ELBOW ROOM hinting at types of rooms making an L-shaped L-bow. And all the rooms are properly-proportioned Ls! Sue could easily have bent (ha) the rules and done something like RA(GU) / VISIONQ(UEST), but that would have been one squat-looking L. Sue's five Ls look L-egant as L.
Will Shortz has said he's not taking these types of puzzles as much anymore since having to fix so many circles into place forces so many challenging grid constraints. I wouldn't call it SUPERGLUE, but it's not a great trade-off when you need the outdated SSTS around a themer.
AGUE always gives me fevers, although Jim Horne (the learned half of the XWord Info duo) argues ague-tly that it's something he often sees in his bookshelves.
As fun as it was to have a themer run through ELBOW ROOM itself, I would have enjoyed simply the other four Ls without this one since ROMPER room feels like "which of these is not like the others," in that it has a strong association with a TV show.
Overall, Sue used excellent wordplay in her interpretation of ELBOW ROOM, and the resulting capital Ls left me capitally L-ated.
Ah, those marketing folks and their splashy displays, replete with TOTES eye-catching intentional misspellings. May you be damned to a lifetime of taking my kids shopping—followed by ruler-slaps from their elementary school teachers who demand to know who taught them that FROOT is more correct (and tastier) than FRUIT.
I spent an embarrassingly long stretch wondering what was wrong with BOSTON RED SOX. Besides the fact that they're dirty rotten cheaters, of course. The word cox comes to mind. Referring to the cox of the boat who spearheaded the foul play, of course!
I appreciated that Michael drew from various areas: food, baseball, horse racing, video games, music. Melancholy reminder that marketers are everywhere. Incredibly evocative brands / names, too — I'd be happy to see any of them in a themeless.
The MORTAL KOMBAT / ALEK crossing fascinated me. What a genius idea: potentially ambiguous crossings made unambiguous by the theme. Without today's SIC concept, I would have had to guess at ALEC or ALEK. I would have loved five crossings like this.
That nugget sparked my interest more than the loose collection of purposeful misspellings since you could list hundreds of them. I would have loved some form of tightening, like in a 2015 puzzle based around music.
The final Across entry is an optimal place for a revealer, delaying the curtain until the last moment. It's not as crucial in today's case since you're already cross-referencing to it, so it might have been better to move it up one row for cleaner filling of that PEI DREI corner. Or you could move FROOT LOOPS to the last themer position and orient SIC vertically off its S.
Still, I enjoyed the assortment of vivid names, as well as the societal statement about marketing placing its sic-ly fingerprints over all walks of life.
I've hit the elusive INBOX ZERO a total of once this past year, and it was such a feeling of freedom and joy; a veritable HEAVE(N ON E)ARTH … for the none minutes it lasted, anyway.
INBOX ZERO is such a vivid phrase, and it's ripe for rebus play. Maybe the grammar is tortured — if only the phrase were ZERO IN-BOX — but it's more than adequate to justify the conceit.
My favorite themer was HEAVE(N ON E)ARTH. Not only is it uplifting (ha), but breaking your target entry across three words of a phrase is fantastic. A close second was RE(NO NE)VADA, as I have many fond memories of visiting close friends there (if you ever visit, make sure to go to Peg's Glorified Ham 'N Eggs; tell them I sent you!). To have these two cross was pure delight. This is how all rebuses AUGHT to be.
I plunked in BIKINI LINES right away since I went through a lot of internal debate about whether or not I should use it in mine. Ten years ago, I would have jumped at the chance to include something racy like this, but perhaps my age — and my wife's distaste for such private (ahem) entries — is showing. Sadly, it was the only entry that worked for the length I needed.
JACUZ(ZI P)ARTY … as Adam mentioned, I wondered if this is a thing. I stay out of hot tubs, those breeding grounds for all sorts of bacteria (said the grumpy old man), so although HOT TUB PARTY sounded much stronger, the Goog seemed to think that JACUZ(ZI P)ARTY was okay. It's a heck of a lot better than NA(ZI P)ARTY, anyway.
Though I have always wanted to see the UFFI(ZI P)ALACE …
AUGHT is a tough string to work with. Does L(AUGH T)EST pass the smell test of being colorful enough to be worthy of being a themer? L(AUGH T)RACK feels much stronger to this child raised by Mrs. C of "Happy Days." That would necessitate a 16-wide grid, though.
Solid rebus, with
nothing some great things to hide. I appreciated getting some PAN PIZZA and CHROMECAST bonuses, too.
★ When I was a junior in high school, I made the California state orchestra as a cellist. Not by pure musical talent, mind you, but by a dogged persistence at perfecting each microsection of my tryout piece and subsequent technical flim-flammery to join said snippets up.
Needless to say, my live tryout upon arrival placed me in the back half of the cellos, where I preceded to be that guy who miscounted a long rest section and squeaked a note — a quarter-tone low, at that — when it was supposed to be dead quiet. One of the bassists leaned over and hissed, SMOOTH MOVE, EXLAX.
Thankfully, the rest of my movements that weekend weren't as flatulent.
Also, thankfully, I can look back on it now and laugh at today's fantastic marquee entry.
I get nervous when a themeless features two 15s and not many other long entries. Sure, it's possible to squeeze juice out of 7-letter slots, but it's hard, since those mid-lengths are tilted toward boring, one-word entries like …
Dang, Patrick did such an amazing job of utilizing these slots that it's tough to pick out even one that's more neutral than an asset! Even something humdrum like ATHEIST got elevated with a zingy punster's clue. [One in a state of disbelief], as in not believing in God = genius.
And there were so many of these delicious bites of wordplay joy! I lost count after half a dozen, choosing to forget about quantification and instead soak up the fun. My favorite was TIP JARS being "open to change." They're literally open to change, as in nickels and dimes. Spectacular!
I did stumble on LET SERVE, occupying one of the precious 8-letter slots. I had NET SERVE, which felt reasonable, but LET SERVE is indeed a technical tennis term. It's not something I'd strive to include in a themeless, though, since I usually hear announcers simply say "let."
Such top-notch use of all those mid-length slots, both in grid entries and their clues. It would have been the POW! even without the hilarious headliner. Smooth move indeed, Patrick!
From a construction standpoint, it's a jaw-dropping achievement. A regular 140-word 21x21 is difficult enough since you have to fill themeless-esque expanses of white space. A 130-word themeless is maybe a factor of two harder — although it's more real estate to fill, you don't have to deal with any pesky themers.
Dropping down from there has an exponential effect. Difficulty level might double again cutting to 126 words. Then double again to 124. Pushing to 120 words is like a moonshot.
Clever use of cheater squares, Brooke and Will nibbling away at the grid's four corners. That makes filling those regions much more possible. Not a bad visual effect, either.
The middle of the puzzle … I wouldn't even attempt something like this, a feat even more difficult than Ryan McCarty's trademark themelesses featuring gigantic middles. The fact that they filled this, period, is astonishing. To do it with some awesome entries like FACE TATTOOS, GAY PRIDE PARADE, and HULA DANCERS is even more impressive.
All that said, the solver in me enjoyed some of the other Sunday themelesses more. There was so much neutral material taking up valuable long slots, like PREPARATIVE, CONCURRENCE, NOT OCCUPIED, DEDICATE. I'd rather break up some of these, clawing back the ability to jazz up other long entries like DETENTIONS, ERRONEOUS, TOTALED UP, REFUSALS. I enjoyed Will's recent Universal Sunday themeless more than this one.
A couple of fantastic clues, like a HAT TREE giving a bowler (hat) a "hook," and GAY PRIDE PARADE was made even better with the wordplay in walk out.
Experimentation is rarely the wrong thing to do. I hope the NYT will continue running occasional themeless Sundays.
C.C. and her husband Boomer have unEARTHed a fun theme, synonyms or nicknames for UNDERGROUND transit systems. What a shame that EARTH wasn't at 4-Across, so the four themers would have literally been beneath it!
Begging for recognition of my genius isn't beneath me.
But that clue for EARTH truly is genius; our planet a literal "habitat for humanity."
We've had many a synonyms for hoagie sandwiches theme — this one felt unique. A search for *SUBWAY* did turn up a puzzle from 2007, but I appreciated that Boomer and C.C. incorporated the only possible addition to elevate theirs. It wouldn't have occurred to me to use the London TUBE along with SUBWAY, METRO, and UNDERGROUND. Scanning through Wikipedia's list of metro systems didn't help either.
How many Monday solvers will miss the theme completely, because there's no overt revealer that explains everything at a second-grade level? Something like SUBTERRANEAN would have done that, but it's not at all playful.
Perhaps using EARTH, with a clue like [The starts of W-, X-, Y-, and Z-Across move below this]?
DOWN BELOW? Nah.
LOWER LEVEL? Bah.
Maybe no revealer is best, after all.
Solid debut puzzle for Boomer. Here's hoping for more from the crossword couple — it's so neat to see two people working together on something they love.
Real estate agents are such an easy target. Thankfully, I've had a couple of great ones in my life, especially the pair that sold my house ten years ago. I had been working 24/7 at my startup and neglected any semblance of upkeep. Peeling paint? Check! Broken tiles? Check! Weird dead animal smell? Check please!
This duo came in and amazingly disguised their disgust, saying things like "It's a bit of a fixer-upper" and "What a deal for someone with dulled senses." Instead of slapping a coat of paint on the cobwebs (which I unsuccessfully tried to do), they coordinated a four-week remodel and worked up a frenzied bidding war.
I enjoyed today's puzzle, getting a grinace (grin / grimace) from the stereotypical realtor-speak. The STUDIO APARTMENT clue reminded me of a friend in business school who hooked up a wireless modem … for his 500 square foot studio. Not the best business mind, but Lennox has many other fantastic qualities.
I appreciated all the bonuses, so important to keep solvers' interest if they don't connect to the theme. Usually I don't like the trade-offs that adjacent Downs bring — most editors will ding CIV KTS — but with an otherwise spotless grid, enabling SCOOP NECK and SHAKE ON IT is absolutely worthwhile.
ASSAM, MORIA, and AVONLEA are fine entries in themselves, at least to some people — this LotR junkie shall let them pass! Crossing them is iffy, though it's more fair to do on an intermediate Wednesday as opposed to a Monday that needs to be accessible to newer solvers.
I would have liked more humor in the theme, as with a garage sale puzzle from a while back. A lot to love in the rest of the grid and clues, though, especially like a PETRI DISH being a place for "cultural studies." I bet that clue goes viral!
If VERMONTANA is half as eye-popping as a VERMONSTER sundae, I'd gladly search for Green Mountain Treasure!
I treasured learning why VERMONT is called the Green Mountain State. Turns out that VERMONT comes from vert + mont, the French words for green + mountain. Hey, wait a minute! MONTANA derives from the Spanish word … for mountains! Neat extra layer to make the already cool MONT overlap even more memorable.
TRISTATE AREA aptly describes three states. I wondered, though, if it gets adequately at overlapping letters. Revealers like CROSSING STATE LINES or BORDER DISPUTES would have felt much more on point.
I love it when a puzzle kicks off with amusing wordplay. Deleting two minor letters from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to make NOAH a "rider of the lost ark" gave me such a smile.
Some of the themers weren't as impressive as others, especially when they involved only a single letter of overlap (IOWALABAMA and MONTANALASKA). I enjoyed a previous puzzle more since it presented the singular best in CATegory. (In the category of cat ROOMBAS, it's clearly Frodo's chariot.) Enough amusement elsewhere in the grid to keep up my interest, though.
★ SHAZAM ALADDIN BAZOOKA might earn my vote for the snazziest 3x7 corner of all time. It can be challenging to milk 7-letter slots to their full potential, and to include GAME DAY — with not a single piece of short supporting fill sticking out — is amazing. This corner is cause for a GALA in itself.
David Steinberg went through a phase of exploring quintets of stairstacked 9s, and it was fascinating to hear his technical analysis. Andrew's version is much more segmented than any of David's, but that's precisely what allowed so many of his long slots to shine. I like the trade-off. As long as the grid doesn't get too choked off — the upper left and lower right corners are borderline but acceptable — I'd almost always prefer color to technical wizardry. Being able to fill out each of the five subsections (the four corners and the middle) nearly independently from each other is a tremendous advantage.
And Andrew sure took full advantage! FACTORIES is more neutral than an asset, but every other long slot vibes with jazz. And when you JAZZ (DANCE) up FACTORIES with an innocent "where jobs may be on the (factory) line," that flips the boring entry into the plus column.
I struggled mightily with the lower left corner, baffled by the question mark in [Venue for computer chips?]. Well worth pushing through my frustration, as that clue earns a WSOP bracelet.
Along with a handful of other clever clues, like the everyday ERODES shored up with [Breaks the (river) bank?], I had such an incredible solving experience. SHAZAM, indeed!
I've heard so much about Animal Crossing and have been tempted to download it, but the last thing I need is yet another mobile app to get hooked on. I am curious if it involves CAROMING SNAILS or RAM-CASING LIONS, though.
(Anagrams brought to you courtesy of the Internet Anagram Server.)
"Animal Hybrids" and CROSS BREEDS are both hints to the theme: animal triplets in each clue are scrambled to form the grid entry. Some newer solvers — especially those not already suffering anagram fatigue — can probably use all the hints they can get!
Although straight-up anagrams aren't my thing anymore, I still appreciated this solve, as a themelesses. Ori and Will wisely infused the themer clues with heavy wordplay. Even if you don't want to bother checking that [carp, pig, snake] anagram to PARKING SPACE, you can enjoy the amusing [A little of a (parking) lot?] clue.
For those curious about the process of finding anagrams, this theme can be programmatically addressed by first assembling a list of animals to consider, then stepping through each unique trio via nested for loops, then since you've stopped listening to my technobabble, I'll stop.
(It's not trivial, but it's not difficult either.)
I had a few pauses. UMAR looked odd in the grid, but since so many names are transliterations, it makes sense to have a non-OMAR spelling. Then there was ON EASY and GO LEFT … are those solid phrases or disguised partials? As with so many subjective decisions, I'VE NO IDEA.
Ori worked in so many fantastic bonuses; THAT'S (not) A LIE! He wisely spaced them throughout the grid, both in Across and Down directions, but more importantly, he held himself to 8-10 letter bonuses. This length is such a sweet spot, allowing you to achieve many bonuses that can often sing as well or even better than much longer entries. For example, I'd happily deal DEAL ME IN in a themeless crossword.
This isn't a theme for the anagram-weary, but Ori's execution was strong enough that this puzzle entertained me more than some of the NYT Sunday themelesses.
Chase and I bounce a ton of ideas off each other — landing on solid crossword themes is a game of numbers. Few concepts bubble all the way up without getting popped at some point, but this simple PIECE OF MY HEART notion felt like it could be a reasonable early-week puzzle.
When Chase mocked up some grid art (squint, and you can see those hearty-clovery triplets of black squares in the center), it felt like we should do it. (Squint harder, dammit!) With a limited set of possible HEART components to work with, it felt tight, and most of those components lent themselves to being somewhat disguised at the ends of phrases.
Given how smoothly all that went, the grid ought to be easy!
Roughly 145.3 hours and two nearly-broken hearts later …
A 15-letter central revealer would have been so much easier than a split 7 / 7. That one central block takes away so much flexibility, especially considering our four other themers are longish. I'm giving Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns a piece of my mind for not titling it "A Piece of My Heart."
BAD BUNNY is hopping mad for not being included! You might even say he's inclined to get all tilted about it.
(You're surprised I know of Bad Bunny because I'm such a nerd? Ha! I heard about him because he landed a role as … a dorky comic supervillain. Ahem.)
Neat that Emily found a limited set to work with, including most everything that fits the "___ BUNNY" pattern. I'd have given bonus points for the CHOCOLATE BUNNY I stole from my kids at Easter, blaming Santa Claus for the theft.
Hey, if you're going to lie to your kids about imaginary delivery beings, anyway … it's a slippery SLOPE.
Will Shortz has said he's taking fewer of these "triple-checked" puzzles (the E at 6-Across has to work with EATS, ECO, and ENERGIZER), partially because they force too many compromises in the fill. Emily did a solid job around most of her SLOPEd entries, wisely using her black squares to separate regions. The bottom left corner is so smooth, with even a BOASTFUL to boast about.
RUHR / ESSO and OGEE / STEROL are tough pills for newer solvers to solve, though. In these types of puzzles, I'd be fine allowing constructors to go to 80 words, helping to smooth out some of these inelegances.
I would have liked the revealer to come much later instead of giving away the game before it hardly began, but the overall concept was solid. The fact that the set is tight helped boost my appreciation, too.
It took me much longer than FIVE SECONDs to figure out the RULE of today's theme. It didn't help that I stared at IV FLUID and wondered if I'd gotten the revealer wrong. Isn't IV the Roman numeral for FOUR, not FIVE?
Ah! The missing one is inside FLUID. IV + I = V. Genius!
I took ten to X out that idea.
The revealer today reminds me of "A Beautiful Mind." It's either a genius-level, code-breaking idea, or it's a web of colored yarns spewed onto a cork board. I lean toward the former, since it's a clever interpretation: FIVE (Roman numeral V) is in the SECOND position of the entry!
Why do all the themers start with two initials, though?
Only a beautiful mind could figure that out.
I like that Joe tried to tighten up his theme by adding a constraint. Without it, there are thousands of entries whose second letter is V. Working within his self-imposed limitation, Joe did a great job picking out the zingers. The only ones I would have wanted were UV RADIATION, CV JOINT, and PV=nRT.
That last one's equal sign makes it less than ideal for a crossword.
What other constraint might have generated a bigger a-ha? Maybe ... adding some "ONE ___" secondary revealer? Hey, TV DINNER would also fit with ONE FOURTH (since I is the 4th letter)!
Given that I'm spinning multi-colored webs, I like Joe's choices.
I didn't get a strong click from the theme, but I appreciated the zinginess of the revealer and the novelty of the interpretation. It's neat to see a John Nash or Alan Turing at work, coming up with ideas I'd have never considered.