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Puzzles for March, 2018
with Jeff Chen comments

View these same grids with comments from:
Constructor (27)Jeff Chen (31)Jim Horne (2)Hide comments
Thu 3/1/2018

Tim combines two theme types today — a WORD rebus + parsing WORD as "W or D" for a Schrödinger (jokes can be delivered WRYLY or DRYLY, dogs have PAWS or PADS at the ends of their legs, and WINING and DINING are forms of entertainment). It's a neat mesh of two tried-and-true theme types, producing something different.

The best Schrodingers are those where both options seem equally valid — solvers would put either in, 50/50. That's exactly the case for WRYLY / DRYLY.

PAWS and PADS not as much — I immediately put in PAWS. I had to think a bit after finishing before PADS made sense.

And WINING / DINING … that one felt slightly different to me, as it's rare to use DINING to describe "entertaining" without combining it with WINING. So WINING (which is much more used by itself), felt strongly like the only "correct" answer.

I've heard of WORD SQUAREs before, but wasn't exactly sure what they were. Came back to me quickly after reading the Wikipedia article, though, and it made for a perfect descriptor of the concept.

Ah, PES. The anatomic foot. Next to QAT, one of those words Scrabble players must learn in order to play competitively. Why the two ooky glooky offenders? As much as I love TRIASSIC and GRIDIRON, two delightful grid bonuses, they were the cause. If you use black squares to break up TRIASSIC at the first S and GRIDIRON at the D, it makes the north and south sections so much easier to fill well.

TRIASSIC / GRIDIRON worth the price of PES / QAT? Not to me, especially since Tim already fulfilled my quota of great fill with TORCH RELAY and CUP OF COCOA. PES in particular is one of those Maleskan words that give crosswords a bad name. YOU HAVE TO KNOW RIDICULOUS STUFF TO DO CROSSWORDS! I'd mark it as a puzzle-killer, if I had my druthers.

(I can just see Scrabble-lovers up in arms saying QAT IS AN IMPORTANT WORD!!!)

Overall though, I liked the innovation, mixifying two standard theme types to produce something new. That's the kind of thing I love in a NYT Thursday puzzle.

Fri 3/2/2018

Another celeb puzzle! And a ton of Rachel Maddow-related entries in this themeless. I wasn't sure what a COUGH BUTTON was, but it made sense — a button pressed when you need to cough, so your listeners aren't subjected to the noise. So that's what that thing is called!

Also TV HOSTS, FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) REQUEST, FRONT RUNNER (as clued, to politics), SLOTTING (clued to TV programming). You'd think that it's easy to seed a themeless with four long entries — one in each of the four corners — but it turns out that two, maybe three, is about the max. More than that usually causes too much stress on the grid.

RMS wasn't a great way to kick off the puzzle, and APO nearby made me worry. Getting two gluey bits right away = no bueno! Thankfully, the grid was pretty clean the rest of the way.

(I see you, FARO.)

What WAS a great way to kick of the puzzle was the clue for ROCK FANS. [Those who've seen both Europe and Asia, say] had me badly stuck on "travelers" or "jet-setters." Brilliant misdirection, using the rock groups named Europe and Asia!

A couple of other great clues, too:

  • "Take it from me, every vote counts." So apt, for AL GORE!
  • WICK smartly repurposing the phrase "keeper of the flame."
  • FORTUNA is a fun entry in itself, but I loved learning that she was the Roman goddess of luck.

Overall, I didn't think this was a POW!-worthy puzzle as themelesses go — too much wastage with long entries like IPCRESS FILE, TIDIED UP, NETTER, along with the aforementioned crossword glue — but I enjoyed the Maddow-ness.

Sat 3/3/2018

POSTERIZE! I've done that a few times in my day, my defender's face all crinkled up in agony. (Okay fine, on an 8-foot hoop.)

Oh … it means [Display, as an image, using only a small number of different tones] too?

Huh. Fully agreed with Damon. I suppose it's a niche term that will get lost on non-bball fans, but still, I think it's an awesome piece of slang to learn. Hopefully, it will expand to other spheres of life. That annoying driver, not moving when the light turns green because he's staring at his cell phone, and the cops nab him for breaking Washington's distracted driving law?


Okay, maybe not.

Choosing to ignore that cluing decision, I loved how the puzzle kicked off. Combining POSTERIZE with ESCAPE POD and WHATS MORE made for a great triple.

TATTOOIST running through it, though … it's a "tattoo artist," isn't it? I have a tat, but I'm not sure I'd ever say I went to a TATTOOIST to get it.

Aside from TATTOOIST, I liked Damon's usage of his long slots. EXCUSE YOU is colorful. ARMY BRAT clued as a kid with a "moving" life story, IT'S A WRAP, the awesome brand name CHEEZ WHIZ, ARISTOTLE, etc. = more than enough to keep up my interest.

I don't mind an esoteric name/thing here and there, especially in a Saturday puzzle. Ron SANTO ... I'm expected to know non-Hall-of-Fame baseball players? Thankfully, Damon made all the crossings fair and easy, so SANTO didn't hinder my correct solve. But staring at SANTO, wondering if that could truly be right, wasn't a good feeling.

ADDED NOTE: apparently many of my readers are baseball fans! Ron SANTO was elected to the HOF in 2012 so that one is on me. Not the first or last time I'll be wrong! Thanks all for letting me know.

And the NE corner … huh. I learned what an ARHAT was through crosswords, but I do think it's fair game. Just because it's from a culture not yours doesn't mean it's bad!

TARAS Bulba I also learned from crosswords. That consonant-vowel alternation is so useful to constructors.

STETS, too. I'm not sure my editor at HarperCollins would know what STETS means. (His line editor definitely does, though.)

Each of ARHAT / TARAS / STETS is pretty minor to me. Altogether though, and I might have asked for a redo of that corner.

It's too bad — a sore spot on an otherwise pretty darn good puzzle.


How to describe this theme? There's a letter-adding progression of IN, SIN, SING, STING, STRING, STARING, STARTING, STARTLING … with each word shifted down one phrase for kooky results? Instead of "sing in the shower," we get STING IN THE SHOWER.

It's pretty impressive that every word in this letter-add sequence can be part of a real phrase. Not an easy task — I once tried to build a BEARD growth puzzle with Ian Livengood, but it was so tough to find good phrases. A BEAR, you might say.


The theme didn't do much for me — the notion dragged on too far. The constructor in me was much more interested in the findings than the solver, who got tired of it.

Very nice gridwork! I didn't notice much crossword glue at all, so it was a huge surprise to see the word count at a low low 132. So few constructors can pull this off. If I were the grid police, Byron would be one of the few people I'd issue a license for sub-140 wording.

To get such nice entries in EBENEZER SCROOGE and PROBLEM SECTIONS (I'm a math dork, so sue me), each running through three themers is great stuff. And TEA TIMES, LION TAMING, THE PIANIST, CAT DOOR — that's the way to make the most out of your long slots!

And that clue for TEA TIMES! [Pauses for service] made me think about a tennis server taking a moment to gather his/her strategy before firing. TEA service is much different. (Although it's fun to imagine a TEA SERVICE service at Wimbledon, with one hand on a racket and the other holding a teacup, with pinky extended.)

Unusual for me to get through an average Sunday puzzle, without slogging through at least 10 dabs of crossword glue, of the ALIS, ENDE, SEP variety. To give me a smooth solve in a colorful, 132-word grid? Fantastic craftsmanship.

Unfortunately, a great grid doesn't cover up a theme that doesn't hold one's attention. Probably would have been better if downsized into a four-themer weekday grid.

Mon 3/5/2018

Phrases in the form of (adjective + article of clothing = slang term for a person). I've seen related themes, using STUFFED SHIRT and SMARTY PANTS. But most of them have been much looser, including stuff like MOVIE SHORTS, YELLOW JACKET, BLACK HAT, etc. So I like the added level of tightness today.

BLUESTOCKING was a new term to me. Fascinating to read up on the history of the Blue Stockings Society, a women's pro-education movement.

I had a hard time figuring out if CITY SLICKER was out of place, as the only one where the article of clothing changed meaning. But SMARTY PANTS … appears not to be related to the PANTS one wears? Not sure.

As usual, Lynn gives us a solid Monday grid. A couple of nice bonuses in PORKY PIG, CAPUCHINS, CHRONICLE. Nothing amazing, but all in all, enough bonuses to keep up my interest.

Most important for a Monday is that it's accessible to a newer solver, and this one *mostly* fits the bill. Short fill is usually where constructors fall off the wagon, but with just a bit of NEER — minor, since NEER-do-well is a common enough phrase — it's super smooth. Yay!

(There's an argument to be made that ROCS / AUK might be tricky, but I think these words ought to at least look familiar to educated solvers.)

If it hadn't been for BLUESTOCKING … the last thing you want to do as a constructor is to turn off newer solvers, and I wonder if newbs might scratch their heads even after a correct solve, wondering if they need to know stuff like this to be successful at crosswords.

I wondered if BLACK HAT would have been a better inclusion, but stupid crossword symmetry wouldn't have allowed for that. I couldn't think of any others to match either BLACK HAT or STUFFED SHIRT. Drat! I suppose I hesitatingly would have ended up making the same decision Lynn did.

Someone make up another term already to appease the crossword gods! How about ... MUSTACHIOED SHORTS (describing a lover of enigmatology, of course)?

Tue 3/6/2018

Debut! Nice and consistent theme, phrases in the form of (animal + movement). I loved CHICKEN RUN, by the maker of "Wallace and Gromit," and BEAR CRAWL and TURKEY TROT are such fun terms.

FROG MARCH … a bit off-putting, but colorful nonetheless.

GOOSE STEP. Not sure a term so closely associated with the Nazis is something I want in my daily diversion. I might have chosen to leave it out, personally.

Another reason to leave it out — look how nicely BEAR CRAWL could slip into GOOSE STEP's spot — is that working with a middle 9-letter themer makes the construction SO much harder. With just four themers, you have so much flexibility. Pretty easy to produce a colorful and smooth grid.

Five themers, including a middle 9, is almost always going to require a couple of trade-offs. It creates all sorts of problems in the four corners.

Start with ABBES to kick off the puzzle. Probably worth the nice ALFALFA, BARRIOS, BROKERS. It's super important to have a solid 1-Across since there's only one first impression you can make on your solver, but I think that NW corner is pretty good.

In the SE, was ALLSTAR worth the price of WBA, LOGE, ELLO, SRA? To me, probably not. But I'd listen to arguments otherwise.

Toss in some OSMIC, DES, ERGS, ETES … I'd have liked a smoother result, given that it's an early-week theme. Eliminating a themer would have allowed for that, but more cheater squares could likely have helped too. I like Bruce's usage of black squares before BALD and after ERGS — that most certainly made the NE and SW corners smoother. Another pair of added black squares in the opposite corners could have been useful, too.

A good debut, especially in terms of themer consistency. A couple of hiccups in execution.

Wed 3/7/2018

Kooky-looking grid! I like seeing something different, and those huge chunks of black squares in the NW / SE corners certainly qualified.

PARALLEL PARKING … two car brands lined up in parallel? But why are some of them doing it in the middle of the puzzle? Watch out, MINI and OPEL, you're blocking traffic! You too, SMART and HONDA!

Wait, what? SMART is a brand of car?

No, seriously, what is it?

Really? It's an actual brand?

In all lower-caps, as in "smart"? Huh.

I've certainly seen "smart cars" around Seattle … I just thought it was a general term, like "smart phone"? Don't smart cars do all sorts of fancy stuff for you, like picking up your clothing automatically and buying your groceries from Amazon? No?


Okay, so now I know that "smart" is a brand. Still, I'd have much preferred a more well-known brand, like ACURA, DODGE or TESLA. CONCRETE SLAB, perhaps?

With so much theme material, there are bound to be compromises in the fill. It ended up much better than I feared, not much more than some ESS, TRAC, OTOE, spread around. The only real sticking point I had was MOLLS — hard to believe that's an actual term. So, pretty darn good execution, given the layout. OH MY LORD I was relieved to get less crossword glue as I expected!

Overall though, the concept would have felt apter if PARALLEL PARKING had been in the middle of the puzzle, with just two pairs of cars in the NW / SE, looking like they're actually parallel parking on the edges of the puzzle.

Would have been nice to get a more well-known brand than OPEL, as well.

Thu 3/8/2018

I like it when I have to think about a theme! "Line dancers" become LYIN' DANCERS through the insertion of an "in" sound. Or a long I? Something in between? Hard to explain, but whatever it is, it's consistent. Line -> LYIN', moon -> MOOIN', plain -> PLAYIN', bean -> BEIN'.

Well, I debated that last one. All the others are clued as verbs, and it's a fine thing to drop the g off an -ING for folksy effect. But BEING was clued as a human BEING, noun ... since when do we folksify nouns?

I also debated whether this was Thursday material or not. On the one hand, it's a sound change (addition? replacement?) theme, standard fare for mid-week puzzles. But given how much difficulty I had explaining it — and I still don't think I have it quite right — perhaps it's okay for a Thursday. Sure made me think.

I'd still greatly prefer trickier concepts for Thursdays, stuff that blows the mind by doing something unique. It's an important facet of how the NYT crossword distinguishes itself — not just offering fun, easy puzzles, or tough themelesses, but advancing avant-garde, envelope-pushing material.

It's those uber-clever Thursdays that first drew me into the NYT crossword. Same for many of my friends.

This is a very tough ask. But I think the NYT team is up for the challenge. If I were Will, I'd up the fee for Thursday puzzles. Maybe even hire a set of regulars specifically for this task. Lock them in a room until they've delivered 100 great concepts! A million cruciverbalists, on a million keyboards ...

Big fan of Jim's grid execution. Delightful stuff in CUPCAKES with EARL GREY, APPLE PIE. Puts me in LA LA LAND! I would have preferred the grid not to choke down at two points in the middle — it would have been great to get rid of the two black squares after ACES — but that would have resulted in some tough compromises. The less than optimal grid flow was worth the price of all those goodies, plus a smooth solving experience.

Fri 3/9/2018

I wasn't familiar with the term NIGHTMARE FUEL, but that's a good phrase to learn. Sounds like something straight out of "Monsters, Inc."! Maybe I'm not familiar with the term because researching what it meant crEEEEPED ME OUT SPIDERS AND BEDBUGS AND ICK!

All shuddering aside, the phrase-that-shall-remain-unspoken crossing ONE DAY AT A TIME made for a solid spine to the puzzle. Love KABLOOEY too, although I confidently plunked in KABLOOIE. Either makes for a happy Jeff — such a funny word.

Themelesses built off of interlocking central spines can be tough, because each of the usual stacks of long entries now has to work with those spines. I thought Neville and Doug did a nice job with the NW, getting RAT PACK, EURASIAN, and ABU DHABI intersecting with KABLOOEY / NIGHTMARE FUEL. Solid result.

A bit of wastage in the other long slots though, in ORDER OUT and DETECTS (not super interesting), ADO ANNIE (from … "Oklahoma!"?), and even MONTANA. As much as I love #16 — tons of great memories watching the Niners as a kid — just a last name isn't nearly as great as working in the full JOE MONTANA. It's pretty common to have some LUKEWARM long entries in themelesses built off intersecting spines.

I appreciated that the short fill did its job, mostly staying out of the way (ARE WE, I see you). And even chipping in, with a great clue for EDSEL — "The thrill starts with the grille" is an awesome way to add color to a puzzle.

And finally, the mid-length stuff helped raise the puzzle's impact for me, NBA JAM a favorite of my youth. Along with GROMIT (cheese!), EXOTICA, a TRUISM, and some PROZAC, the mid-length fill was in many ways the star of the show.

A lot to enjoy out of this one. If more of the longer slots had sizzled, this would have been in POW! contention.

POW Sat 3/10/2018

★ I'm a sucker for innovative patterns in themelesses. I still greatly enjoy standard themeless layouts, as long as the fill is sparkly, but there's something so thrilling about seeing something new. Big swaths of white, swirling from SW to NE! More swirliness in the other corners! All done with pretty good grid flow, and a ton of long entries? Color me intrigued. Nervous, too — it's so difficult to fill a grid like this well — but intrigued.

Such a pleasure to get a snazzy triplet in the middle, FIXED ASSETS / HIGH AND AWAY / BARBARA EDEN. Okay, at least one of these could bore most anyone — finance haters, baseball haters, old sitcom haters. But I like the variety.

Personally, I like finance and baseball (at least the fun slang), but I did do some head-scratching at BARBARA EDEN. When I looked her up on Wikipedia … man oh man, that theme song! Though I never watched the show, I love that jingle.

Then, GEAR TRAINS and ICE CAPADES worked through the middle stack! As a gearhead, I love GEAR TRAINS. And [Arrangements of teeth?] obfuscating it made it even better.

And there was more — nice stacks in each of the four corners! Loved loved loved PIERCED EAR / ONE MAN ARMY / ISLAND HOPS. Such juicy answers!

Well, let's reduce that to two loves. Agreed with Ryan, BEERYS is one of the worst pluralized names I've seen in memory. Ick! I'd have preferred the black square at the S as Ryan described, but who knows what it would have done in the NW.

I personally would have never let BEERYS through. But if it enables such a great triplet of long entries, why wouldn't you? Woudja look at that, after all these years, I'm still adapting my thinking.

(Okay, I still probably would have fought like heck to get rid of BEERYS.)

Overall, great usage of his long slots, and I love the innovation and solid execution using a challenging grid pattern. Very impressive work from a relatively new constructor.

Sun 3/11/2018IF FOUND, CALL ...

LOST DOGs, their owners listed as theme answers, and the DOGs hidden. Well, "hidden," since the clues for the owners points out exactly where to find them.


Loved the DOROTHY GALE / TOTO pairing, and a solid finding of TOTO within GO TO TOWN. Both the owner and dog easily recognizable. (I didn't know DOROTHY's last name was GALE, but it's so appropriate!)

I was a big "Garfield" fan as a kid — OKAY FINE I STILL AM! — so ODIE and JON ARBUCKLE came easily. I can see how ODIE would be esoteric for some solvers.

(BTW, if you haven't read "Garfield Minus Garfield," it's a surprisingly deep commentary on JON ARBUCKLE's life.)

Speaking of esoteric, NANA? THE DARLINGS? Apparently they're the family from ... "The Andy Griffith Show"? I pride myself on old-time sitcom knowledge (I know, sad), but NANA wasn't something I knew (even sadder).

Wait! Wikipedia, why dost thou lead me astray! Apparently the children in "Peter Pan" were also "The Darlings."

They had a dog?

ASTA was familiar since it's one of those common bits of crossword glue. As a theme answer, though … it might do more for an older generation of solvers, fans of NICK AND NORA and "The Thin Man."

XS AND YS? Have I ever heard XS AND YS in any math class … maybe? Something like YEARS AND YEARS might have been better.

With so much theme material, not a surprise to need some crossword glue to hold the puzzle together. I didn't mind most of it, the minor MIS, PEI, ORD stuff.

But not so good to have SSR and UKR — with UKR clued using USSR! Yikes.

I hate hate hate finishing with an error — BANNS (?) crossing NEAR YOU ... I couldn't force myself to believe that BANNS was a thing, so BANDS it was. DEAR YOU could be a song title, right?

I do crosswords for that elation of eventually beating the puzzle. So disappointing to fail like this.

Overall, a fun idea. But I wish there had been more familiar dogs — maybe open it up to cats too, to help with that? — and smoother execution.

Mon 3/12/2018

What, no PURPLE PEOPLE EATER in this ONE-EYEd puzzle? Oh ye malevolent crossword grids and your 15-letter constraints!

Both the JACK OF SPADES and the JACK of hearts are ONE-EYEd. True fact! Maybe that's why spades and hearts are considered "majors" in contract bridge, while diamonds and clubs are "minors"? I always did wonder why ...

I love me some Greek mythology, but POLYPHEMUS sure didn't come back easily. CYCLOPS, sure. A specific cyclops … that's a tough ask for us mere mortals.

SAMMY DAVIS JR has two eyes, doesn't he? Sure, one is glass. Although, he did refer to himself in this awesome quote: "Talk about handicap. I'm a one-eyed Negro Jew." So he seems fine to include.

BAZOOKA JOE is ONE-EYEd? He has an eye patch, but don't lots of kids wear eye patches for lazy eye or whatever?

You know what would have been awesome? To have just one (letter) I in the puzzle! Maybe dead center, like the eye of the cyclops. Creepy good!

I would have also liked a smoother product for a Monday. Using POLYPHEMUS is tough enough on newer solvers. Crossing it with SEEGER — SEAGER might look fine to some — is asking a lot. And you should be able to figure out HEMAL from HEME, but in my 125+ blood donations, I've never heard someone say or write HEMAL.

I don't mind a little toughness in a Monday puzzle. You don't want to make it TOO easy, with zero challenge. But things like HADJI crossing ESAI crossing VERSO, and RANI … that's a recipe for turning off newer solvers. No bueno!

It's a fine concept, people with ONE EYE (ish). And bonuses like SUPERMAN and I CAN HELP (nice pairing!) helped keep my attention. But the execution needed several more rounds of smoothifying — no reason not to have a better final product, given the average-ish theme density.

Tue 3/13/2018

Debut! And what a neat concept in KEY WEST = KEYboard keys to the west (left side) of theme answers … and they're all KEYs that reside on the WEST side of the KEYboard! SHIFT, CONTROL, ESCAPE –

(sound of record scratching)


Darn it! It was going to be such an elegant theme. Why not use ALT COUNTRY or (shudder) ALT RIGHT?

Oh. ALT and TAB are already in the grid?


I can see the allure of "bonus answers," drawing in constructors with their siren song. I didn't personally notice them as a solver though. And I wonder if they detracted from the theme.

Or detracted from the fill. Hard to say for sure without testing, but fixing ALT and TAB into place seems like it'd create problems — problems like the TARO / JURE crossing. Both words could be rough on newer solvers, and crossing them accentuates the issue.

I was impressed with the smooth gridwork, especially from a debut constructor. Granted, it is an 80-word puzzle, two over the usual limit. That's a reason why there wasn't much strong bonus fill besides JAKARTA and AZALEAS. But if Carl had just used his REFUELS and ETHANOL slots a little better, I wouldn't have even noticed the dearth of bonuses, and thus wouldn't have gone searching for a reason why.

If I were Will, I'd allow all newer constructors the freedom to go above 78 words — just as long as they work in enough snazzy bonuses.

I wanted so badly to give this the POW!, as the theme seemed so clever on multiple levels. Bah, ENTER, a pox on you!

Okay, ENTER SANDMAN is a pretty awesome song …

Wed 3/14/2018

I so badly wanted the mixed-up ingredients to go vertically, each one intersecting MARINARA SAUCE (which would run horizontally across the center of the puzzle). How cool would that have been, like each ingredient being dropped in! But it was not to be — I had a limited pool of options for each ingredient (ONION, TOMATO, GARLIC, HERBS, in case you didn't figure them out), and I couldn't get the symmetry to work out.

Gol durn crossword symmetry!

I even tried different "recipes" to get such a fortuitous interlock — PESTO SAUCE with BASIL, PINE NUTS, etc. was the closest to maybe possibly sorta kinda iffily working — but nothing would fully cooperate. Dratted PEN I STUN. Er, PINE NUTS.

To those who have never played ZORK, you have not lived. Okay, maybe you have, but still, ZORK was such an integral part of my childhood, a sort of augmented Choose Your Own Adventure that got me obsessed with computers and programming.

BTW, apologies to those who scratched their heads at the PROSODIC / ZORK crossing. I figured whether you're a techie or a fuzzy (engr/sci vs. humanities), you'd likely know one of them. (PROSODIC is related to "prose," so you should be able to suss it out, yeah?)

I always try to work in a bunch of bonus entries, pushing and pushing, hopefully stopping before having to hold the puzzle together with a bunch of ugly crossword glue. And although my efforts to draw from different areas so that there's something for everyone — MAKES BANK, MON CHERI, INKBLOTS, ARGONAUT cover a lot of ground — I couldn't resist putting in MC HAMMER, even though I had already worked in AEROSMITH.

What can I say, I love me some Hammer pants.

Thu 3/15/2018

So unfortunate that THE IDES of March falls on a Thursday this year. I enjoyed Joe's theme — phrases starting with I'D — but wow, did it seem misplaced for a Thursday. I appreciated that it was a low word count, themeless level, but I want so much more out of a Thursday puzzle. Mixing a Tuesday theme and a Saturday grid seems like it ought to produce a Thursday puzzle — simple averages, yeah? — but it doesn't work that way.

Stupid math!

I like Joe's choices for themers, I'D BETTER GO, I'D RATHER NOT, I'D BE HONORED, and … well, I liked three of them. I'D TAKE THAT? Feels arbitrary, like I'D EAT A TON or I'D SMELL NICE. With so many choices available, why not I'D LOVE TO, I'D KILL FOR THAT, I'D DO ANYTHING, I'D BE HAPPY TO, I'D UNDERSTAND, etc.?

Jim and I recently had a conversation about symmetry, where he argued the case that editors ought to allow asymmetry if it makes for a more interesting puzzle. I don't totally agree, but here's a case where I think it could have made sense. Would have opened up more options, without having to use a length match for I'D BETTER GO.

As a themeless, it works pretty decently. ACAI BERRY / TAX DODGER / BAR SCENE is a lovely triple. SURE BETS / BEAR PIT is great. GAY PAREE / ELAINE MAY / … ROLLS DICE? "Rolls THE dice," sure. Without "the" that phrase feels iffy.

Overall, nice craftsmanship, Joe taking great care to limit his crossword glue to CTR TSO kind of minor offenders. (Okay, BREN ain't good, but I gave it a pass as it made that great triple-stack possible.)

But the themeless-esque solving experience got watered down by the easy theme.

There's a reason so many people hate math.

POW Fri 3/16/2018

★ Robyn is quickly becoming one of my new favorite themeless constructors. I've loved her voice in the past, what with glorious seed entries such as MADE YOU LOOK, MIRACLE MAX, TRACTOR BEAM, RON WEASLEY. Sometimes you feel like you're right on the constructor's wavelength, and Robyn knows how to tickle my fancy.

Sure was the case today with LIVING DEAD, KING ARTHUR clued to "Monty Python," and that delightful WINEMAKER clue, [Port authority?]. Beautiful stuff!

Better yet, Robyn's been honing her work, continually perfecting her craft. I'd found some of her prior themelesses lacking in grid flow (choke points cutting off sections of the grid from each other), or using too much crossword glue. Not the case today! There's an ESTE and AMAN, but I'd happily take those for all the goodies she worked in.

And the goodies! Starting off with 16 long (8+ letters) slots is a tough ask — most constructors will manage to convert maybe only 10 of those into sizzling entries. Robyn used hers to the (miracle) max, SOUND BITES, FLOORS IT, I SMELL A RAT, etc. No THERE THERE needed, because everywhere I turned, more great stuff.

Perhaps NATTERED was more neutral than an asset? But even that is a pretty fun word. JEREMIAH may be dull for some, but what a great nickname in "The Weeping Prophet"!

And the cluing! WINEMAKER's clue was the highlight for me, but such an innocent [Full of ups and downs] for HILLY. [Make a (GARDEN) bed?]. A TUNER gets you from station to station (not a train). [School card] wasn't a report card, but a card, as in a joker; a CLASS CLOWN. So entertaining!

Loved this one. As much as I like variety in themeless constructors, Robyn is one of the few people whose byline I'd like to see perhaps once a month. Maybe more.

Sat 3/17/2018

I get skeptical when I see a constructor using the exact same pattern over and over. Bo-ring, especially when it comes to themelesses! This one looked so familiar to Roland's other work … but to my surprise, it was a variant — and a super-tough variant, too!

Compare this grid to his other two similar ones. Note the two black squares missing from the center? That's just plain nuts! Working with a central region this big and wide-open — with FOUR grid-spanning entries running through it! — is something few constructors would even think about tackling. I like the audacity, but I was worried to see what necessary compromises there would be.

Color me impressed. A usual compromise is to rely on dull grid-spanners heavy on common letters like E R S T. ALTERNATIVE ROCK? Awesome! Along with CONSTANT CRAVING, PRIOR ENGAGEMENT, CAREER CRIMINALS, that's great stuff.

There had to be some gluey bits or some esoteric words holding everything together, then. There was SHEERED … that's a pretty odd word. It is dictionary supported, but dunno if I'd ever see it … ever. Outside of this crossword, that is.

But other than that, just a bit of VER and STE? Man, that's great work! There wasn't anything snazzy in that center, but to pull this feat off as smoothly as Roland did was impressive.

If only the corners had been of similar quality. ENERO VERE? CAPSTAN is of the SHEERED head-scratchiness level.

Okay, there wasn't as much as I remembered. So overall, it's pretty good. It's too bad though — without a ton of juicy long answers, as I've come to expect out of my themelesses, these outliers can feel harsher. As a solver, I needed more ALTERNATIVE ROCK type answers to help balance everything out.

But as a constructor, I appreciated the execution given the extreme degree of difficulty. Gets a lot of points for technical aspects, if not its snappiness.

Sun 3/18/2018TAKING YOUR Q

I like a sound change theme, done well. Q-sound changes / additions have been done several times before in different venues (sorry Dani!), but just as long as the results are amusing, there's room for another one.

TRENCH QUOTE (from "trench coat") as a quote from a guy in a trench? Funny stuff! ORDER IN THE QUART (from "order in the court") as a request for ice cream delivery? Amusing.

There was only one that didn't kite — er, quite — do it for me: QUERY WASHINGTON. It works fine from a technical standpoint, deriving from Kerry Washington. But neither the resulting phrase nor its clue carries any humor — no entertaining images elicited. A shame to kick off the puzzle with your weakest themer.

No doubt that humor is subjective.

Fun to get all the Qs throughout the puzzle. It helped my solve, as once I was onto the theme, I kept asking myself what down answers were likely to contain Qs. [Trophy alternative] had to be PLAQUE. [Hard-shell clams]? I confidently plunked in QUAHOGS without any crossing letters.

Fun when a theme helps with the rest of the solve! Made me feel kick on the draw.

Er, quick.

Good gridwork overall, especially considering how many Qs Dani had to work around. Some of those Qs came at a price, req'ing SEQS and ESQS. But that's not bad at all.

I hitched at some of the ERY REDYE ETHNO IDEO YEO stuff, but it wasn't much different from other Sunday 140-word puzzles.

ROHAN … even this LotR fanboy had to squint at that one a few times before moving on.

APACE ANNOYER stretched me a bit further. Darn it!

But ultimately, it was a reasonable set of trade-offs given the level of difficulty.

The only real wince I had was RWR crossing SHAWNEES (and ESURANCE to a lesser degree). I pieced it all together — SHAWNEES had to be more right than SHAHNEES or SHAYNEES, and I should have recognized SHAWNEES more immediately — but who is RWR?

Ronald … Reagan? Since when does anyone refer to him as RWR? Or even Ronald W. Reagan? Huh.

Overall, great to get all those Qs, in amusingly kooky phrases. Fun finds.

Mon 3/19/2018

Neat bit of trivia: the Shortz era began with a great tribute to ROY G. BIV, the colors of the rainbow, in order. This theme concept has been revisited many a time — such great crossword fodder.

It is, however, difficult to fit in all seven colors into a 15x15 grid. (The average number of themers is about five these days.) Michael and Acme accomplish it today, and also stick in RAINBOW as a revealer. Impressive to work in eight themers, fairly smoothly.

Excellent use of interlock, INDIGO GIRLS crossing BLUEBIRDS, and YELLOW LIGHT crossing VIOLET RAY. In some cases, constructors use this sort of interlock to show off, more for themselves than for the solver. But here, it's almost necessary, to squeeze everything in. I highlighted the themers below, to demonstrate how tight a fit it is.

Oh, if it hadn't been for VIOLET RAY — all the other themers are so colorful (ha ha). What a curious grid entry. (I usually see SHRINKING VIOLET for this theme type.) It was interesting to learn about this antique piece of medical equipment, but electrotherapy seems so barbaric.

It's tough for a science nerd like me to see all the colors spread out willy-nilly, instead of in proper ROY G. BIV order. I'm not entirely sure it could have been done without more compromises (LIII, ITI, ACS — I ASEA you), but here's one case where I would have been okay with a higher price to pay in order to get proper color order.


My poor kids.

Hear me out. Put RED TAPE in row 3, all the way to the left. ORANGE PEEL all the way to the right, in row 4 or 5. Keep alternating until you reach RAINBOW, down in row 13. Or take out RAINBOW if you need to.

Heck, even if you needed to go asymmetrical, I'd accept that. ANYTHING TO ACHIEVE ORDER! THE WILLY-NILLINESS IS SO DISTRACTING!

I should probably find them a therapist sooner rather than later.

But overall, still an impressive feat to fit eight themers in. If in a disorderly fashion.

Tue 3/20/2018

So many crosswords have been built around the four seasons. A pleasant surprise to see an execution I've never encountered! I had fun trying to guess the theme during my solve, giving up before I allowed myself to read the revealer.

Then I had more fun, trying to guess what the revealer meant.

SPRINKER sort of sounds like "spring"? I can buy that. SOMER- = "summer," sure.

(OTTOM-) = "autumn"? Maybe if you cock your head and wince a bit.

(WIND TUR-) = "winter." (squinting, squinting, wincing)

So, a mixed bag. Still, an interesting concept that made me think.

I mostly liked Andrew's execution — super tough to work with five themers, the middle being an uncooperative 13 letters, the others also making trouble at the awkward lengths of 12 or 13. Check out how the themers ALL force black square placements on the edges of the grid. So unpleasant for constructors, taking away so much flexibility.

Interesting choice to run a 15-letter piece of fill down the center. I like THREE RING BINDER. I did wonder why it was thematic, though. (It isn't.) I'd have preferred placing a black square at the E of BIDE and first I of IBIS, which I think would have allow some cleanup on aisle ONEA STE SIG. But I can respect the decision.

The real sticking point for me was the ORU / TORII crossing. I learned ORU (Oral Roberts University) from crosswords. My wife, who is much, much, MUCH MUUUUUUUCH smarter than me (and better at crosswords, among many things), once asked me what the hell a TORII was. (I was surprised, since I've been to Japan a lot for work and seen many a TORII, but I think her reaction is probably more common than mine.)

An early-week crossword needs to be conquerable, to set up the solver to ultimately beat the puzzle. I think this type of crossing is ripe for feelings of defeat. That's a bad thing.

Overall though, I enjoyed the novelty of the concept as well as the execution — especially given the level of difficulty — albeit with a couple of reservations.

Wed 3/21/2018

Fun animal plays today, reinterpreting phrases involving animals that can commonly double as a verb. DUCKS OUT OF VIEW = birds hiding from a hunter, FLIES IN THE FACE eliciting that awful feeling of having gnats swarm you, etc.

I thought Laura did a fantastic job in grid execution. There are only four themers, but since they're all long (14 letters), this usually causes problems in the west and east regions, where two long themers have to interact. Beautiful work in the east. Smooth results, and even an X in AXELS, along with the nice FERMI and HAMLET. Now that's the way to execute in that type of tricky region!

In the west, FIXIE seemed odd to me — I remember it seeming even odder when I first saw it. But it does seem to be a term in usage.

I imagine Laura tried out different combinations of themers in different locations to figure out what letter placements would best allow for smooth fill. Very nice to have that flexibility, if you can select themers that are all of equal length.

The reason I didn't consider this POW!-worthy was the awkwardness of the themers. SEALED WITH A KISS is a fantastic phrase. SEALS WITH A KISS, not so much. Same with FLIES IN THE FACE, without "of" to finish it off. And ON THE PHONE felt like filler in order to make YAKS fit the theme. I realize YAKS ON THE PHONE might seem more solid to others, but I doubt I'd strive to use it as fill in another crossword.

Impressive solo debut, though. I'm hoping that we'll be seeing a lot more from Laura. Her gridwork was much better than stuff I see from many — perhaps even most — experienced constructors.

Thu 3/22/2018

A beautiful example of what an early/mid-week puzzle should be. (Yes, I know Thursday isn't early/mid-week. Stay tuned.) Plays on social media terms — a VALLEY GIRL has a lot of "likes." ROCKIN' ROBIN has all sorts of "tweets." A MAJORITY OWNER has a ton of "shares." I appreciate that Ross was able to find so many snazzy phrases that I'd happily use in a themeless.

MOTHER DUCK (with all her "followers") was good too, but that one I might give the side-eye in any other puzzle.

FENCE MENDER ... thankfully, it's the only themer that dips into the "definitional" category that plagues this type of theme. Imagine if MAJORITY OWNER had been PERSON OWNING STOCK. Much less fun, yeah?

Some funnage in the fill, too, with King JOFFREY of "Game of Thrones." Thank goodness dude got his due, AMEN AMEN.

Speaking of aMEN, what's an AREA MAN, you ask? Good question. The dictionary defines it as …

Okay, if you have to say "The dictionary defines it as …" it's probably not a fantastic grid entry.

KEPT MAN is kind of a colorful term, but a bit cringy. And the dupe of MAN made AREA MAN feel even worse.

EDM is … "electronic dance music"? It's still a globby piece of crossword glue since it's impossible to figure out if you don't already know it.

I might have considered this for the POW! if it had been run on a Wednesday or Tuesday. It feels like the NYT is falling down with the avant-garde Thursdays that used to help distinguish it; to feature its ability to be clever. Yes, it's tough to come up with something innovative every week. But others, like the American Values Club and Fireball, have been doing it with a higher rate of success than the NYT recently.

I love the NYT crossword. It's one of the things that drew me and my wife together. I don't want to see it slowly lose its cachet. Will, I hope you find a way to solve this problem.

Overall, an easy and mostly lovely — but so, so, so disappointingly non-cutting-edge — romp.

Fri 3/23/2018

Learn something new every day! JANET MOCK was unfamiliar to me, but Erik did such a nice job making all the crossings friendly and easy, such that I could learn about MOCK and still conquer my crossword. Some solvers might grouse that ENID is an esoteric name, but realistically, what else could that square be? I bet if 100 people were asked to fill in the blank for a woman's name, JA_ET, 100 would put in an N.

I feel privileged to be friends with a good number of constructors. You'd be surprised at how often knowing the author comes in handy during my solves! Erik is one of my favorite folks in the crossworld, and I remember from a while back that he's into AFROPUNK. Saved my bacon when it came to that NW corner. I was so badly stuck, not able to see the odd CHIPPY and not knowing Edwin STARR.

My daughter (age 3) is fascinated with her mom's MAKEUP. Am I going to have to figure out what a MAKEUP TUTORIAL is?

(Sigh, yes.)

Guess it's a good thing I learned that term today.

A couple of other toughies in PNIN and NADJA. I don't mind learning a thing or two from a crossword, as long as that doesn't hinder me in achieving my complete and correct solve. And some solvers seem to dislike having too many proper names in a puzzle, but that doesn't bother me, as long as they're well-known. It's when a constructor delves too far into PNIN / NADJA territory that starts to make me feel like the puzzle is more a trivia contest than a crossword. Just on the verge today.

Loved GOLD MINER and its brilliant clue, repurposing the term "flash in the pan." A perfect example of GOLD medal wordplay.

ZAMBONIS also had a great clue, although if you didn't know that the "crease" is a term in ice hockey, the cleverness would be lost on you.

Overall, no DARK DAY whatsoever, Erik constructing a fine, fair puzzle. It's tough to get a feeling of excitement when encountering so many foreign-seeming entries, though.

Sat 3/24/2018

Big ol' white spaces, a Byron Walden special! He and Mark Diehl are two of the few constructors that regularly delve into this territory, using few or no extra black ("cheater") squares. I always look forward to their work — with a healthy dose of fear, wondering if I'll be able to complete the puzzle.

With Byron's low-word-count themelesses, I often find myself playing a role akin to the line judge in tennis:

  • CHINA SHOP, cleverly hinted at by "bull market" — IN!
  • NOSE SPRAY. "Nasal spray," more commonly, yeah? It does seem to be a real term though ... ON THE LINE!
  • MOTTLERS — OUT! A roll-your-own -ERS addition. Well, wait. Let's go to replay. Apparently, a MOTTLER is a real type of paintbrush? Seems to only show up on art websites, but it does appear to be legit. Ruling overturned. IN!
  • The LOVE BOAT, IN! I can't believe my parents let me watch this when I was seven.
  • CLEVER DICK … in? I mean, IN! Authoritatively! (running to Wikipedia) Yes, IN! This is a real term. (Apparently.)
  • GOPER — OUT! Took me forever to parse this as GOP'er. Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh. This entry hit someone in the stands in the face, right in the EMPTY EYES.
  • EMPTY EYES … in? Out? Let's look the other way.
  • LESSEPS? MEAN GENE? This line judge likes explorers and LOVES — I mean LOVED, ahem — pro wrestling. Unfamiliar. But definitely IN!
  • YES INDEEDY, that's an ACE! My favorite entry of the puzzle.

Line judge ended the match mostly happy.

I appreciate how much care Byron takes to avoid short crossword glue. With low word-count puzzles though, there are almost always compromises, and some of his longer material suffered. Still, mostly a winner, if after a lot of back and forth.


★ Will has said that he's taking fewer "turning" puzzles these days (puzzles where theme entries take 90 degree turns) because they've become overdone. I appreciate that constant drive to cut out stale theme concepts. I even more appreciate the willingness to accept a few here and there, when they stand out as something a little different. I had to spend some time forming my opinion on this one, but ultimately, I thought it was really good.

What's going on with weird entries like MEGATS at 26-Across? It's actually MEGAT(SUN)AMI, with the entry turning at SUN, thus FOLLOWING THE SUN.

I scratched my head at why the answer wouldn't just keep on going down, though — why turn back to its original direction after running through SUN?

A-ha! Maybe it's like plants that follow the sun when the SUN goes behind a cloud (we have a few of those here in Seattle). Therefore, the answer SHOULD keep going in its original direction after running through the available SUN?

I think that makes sense. No?

And why do the themers on the right-hand side go up? That felt bizarre to me … until I realized that Finn was representing the SUN rising in the east (right side of puzzle) and setting in the west (left side)! Clever, made perfect sense and gave me a neat a-ha moment indeed.

Why three suns on each side? It must have been … the "three-body problem"? (A famous, intractable math/physics problem speaking to the effects of initial conditions.)

Sure, why not.

Slight theme reservations aside, such a pleasurable grid to run through. SO much great bonus fill, I almost appreciated it more as a themeless than a themed puzzle. All the ones Finn mentioned, plus more? (Some may not know the SUNK COST dilemma in economics, but it's fascinating.) Yes, yes, yes!

Even though I had initial reservations about the concept, I enjoyed that "rising in the east, setting in the west" a-ha moment so much. Along with such a delightful grid replete with fantastic fill, this puzzle ended up being a SUNny delight.

Mon 3/26/2018

The five long vowel sounds represented in LANE, LEAN, LINE, LOAN, LUNE. CLAIR DE LUNE might not be an immediately recognizable title to some solvers, but it was played in the background at the end of "Ocean's 11," as the crew gathers one last time before dispersing. Beautiful scene, beautiful piece of music.

TOE THE PARTY LINE made for a perfect middle themer — both colorful and convenient to construct around. There are dozens of other ___ LINE phrases, but choosing one of either 7 or 15 letters makes construction so much easier than working with a 9, 11, or 13. Great selection.

I wouldn't have made the same choice of DAVID LEAN, preferring EXTRA LEAN, especially since this is a straightforward Monday-ish theme. DAVID LEAN isn't as well known as Spielberg, but …

Well, heck, he probably should be! Can you imagine having "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Doctor Zhivago" under your belt? Talk about an artist's wildest dreams coming true.

VICTORY LANE also was slightly odd-seeming to me. Maybe this is much more recognizable a term for people from Indianapolis?

IMPORTANT NOTE: one of the top hits for VICTORY LANE in my search came up on urban dictionary. Don't click on that. Just, don't.

Oh, ELOI. It's a word even this sci-fi buff shakes his head at. I'd personally put that in the "puzzle-killer" category. It's too bad — I don't think it's right to judge a puzzle's craftsmanship by its worst entry, but some little entries seem way worse to me than others. ELOI feels to me like a throwback to the bad old Maleskan days.

It's a real shame since the rest of the grid was pretty darn good. I'm not sure I buy ROCK CAVES — just CAVES, yeah? — but CIVIC DUTY, THE NFL, YERTLE, that's pretty good stuff. And of course, the dork in me loves ELVISH.

Perhaps if "The Time Machine" had been made by Peter Jackson ...

Long way of saying I'd gladly go without CIVIC DUTY if it meant no ELOI. That'd call for a complete grid redo, unfortunately.

I appreciated the consistency (all final words being four letters) and tightness (covering all five long vowels, in order) of this theme. If either the themers or the grid had excited me a little more, this could have been POW! material.

Tue 3/27/2018

During my MBA, we finance types constantly made fun of the marketing wannabes. Those who can't do math make up ridiculous slogans! These days, I appreciate marketing much more, so the idea of state capitals coming up with punny ad slogans made me laugh. I loved Michigan trying to attract writers by offering FREE LANSING (freelancing) opportunities.

Not as sure about blowing into Maine on AUGUSTA WIND (a gust of wind). Is Maine windy? Seemed odd.

And the come-on to Alaska, that it's MORE THAN JUNEAU (more than you know). Wouldn't a more effective slogan involve bears? Glaciers?

This is probably why I didn't (couldn't) go into marketing.

Finally, CONCORD MY FEARS took me forever to figure out. CONCORD = conquered? Really?

This is probably why I've had so few pun themes accepted.

The allure of a low-word-count grid beckons to many constructors; a siren song. It usually shouldn't be heeded, because it almost always requires trade-offs that make the solving experience less pleasurable. This is especially important in an early-week puzzle, aimed at less experienced solvers.

It is kind of cool to have SNO CONE and TUTORED next to each other, both fine mid-length entries. But the cost of NEGRI ("you have to know these kinds of esoteric things to do crosswords?" — and crossing a tough European capital)? Granted, I think all world capitals are fair game for educated solvers. RIGA isn't OSLO or LONDON, though.

Check out MALAYSIA, too. Love it as fill usually, but it sure makes that NE region big and tough to fill. ELYSE is another esoteric name (see: ELAM), and ENTO ain't great. Unfortunately, there's no quick fix, so the grid would have had to be redone with a completely different block pattern (aiming at 76 or 78 words). That's probably what should have happened.

I like the notion of a bunch of slick marketers brainstorming ad campaigns. I had some problems with the overall execution, though.

Wed 3/28/2018

Who knew there were so many phrases where each word ended in T? Who would have even thought to search for those? I can imagine a constructor coming up with it if there was an actual term like FINALTIES. (T RUMP isn't bad though!) So kudos to Peter for uncovering a nice concept.

Oof, I had issues with the gridwork, though. I did love KNEE BRACES, SCALE MODEL, GOES STAG, even APOGEE. Great stuff, helping to enhance my solve.

But it's so tough to fill a themeless-level grid (72 words) with regular theme density, color, and smoothness. It's an unholy trinity — you can pick two of those, but you can't achieve all three. I thought the puzzle suffered in the smoothness category.

The worst for me as the LILMO / ADELEH crossing. I guessed correctly at this square, but I can see a case for many other letters seeming right.

(Jim thought ADELE H ought to be a gimme, a famous work of one of the most impactful movie directors in history. So perhaps I ought to have known that one? Still undecided.)

Then there was ASON. SESS. IAL. AGUE. FARO crossing KAHANE.

Constructors have to make trade-off calls on every puzzle they build. Going to a low word count didn't work for me in this one; the high prices to pay = not my cup of T.

BTW, all the clues end in T. That didn't do much for me, since lots and lots of words end in T, making the feat not so impressive.

But I did enjoy the themer findings, the concept itself a delighT.

Thu 3/29/2018

I think this may be incredibly clever. But perhaps it takes an incredibly clever person to appreciate it? We get different types of NUTs, growing out of the letters N U T. Thus, the nuts grow from the NUTs? Or maybe it's some sort of fractal metaphor, that you see the same thing no matter at what scale you're looking?

It feels somehow meta. Self-referential.

Kinda? Sorta?

It was an incredibly cool set of findings — a "words hidden within phrases" type theme, kicked up a notch by the inclusion of the N U Ts. It boggles my mind a bit. It's hard enough to find most medium-length words within snazzy phrases, period. Toss in an extra letter (an extra constraint), and it's even tougher. Something very cool about ALMOND stretching to ALMOUND within BURIAL MOUND.

Some might even say it's buried with that phrase! More meta-ness.

With just three themers, David and Claire had a lot of flexibility in grid design, and they took full advantage of it. Some beauts in GIANT SQUID, BAR FIGHT / DO SHOTS, GOLF PRO, to name a few. TO NAME A FEW!

Eerie, the meta-esque touches.

PiZZA FACE is a colorful phrase, no doubt. But I'm not sure I'd strive to incorporate it. It's such a mean-sounding entry. Rich Norris over at the LAT once asked me to get rid of FOUR EYES because he wanted readers to come away uplifted from a puzzle, and that phrase potentially did the opposite. PIZZA FACE feels like a whole new level. Bleh.

Overall, I think there's a very nice crossword concept in here somewhere — things that grow out of NUTS or something. This particular implementation didn't do it for me, leaving me scratching my head even after a lot of thinking about it. But I did like the creative, innovative thought behind it, and the solid gridwork.

Fri 3/30/2018

As long as a themeless exhibits a decent level of gridwork proficiency, I'm pretty happy. What turns a good themeless into a great one for me is the difficult-to-define quality of "voice." In the writing world, agents and editors are all searching for voice, that spark in a manuscript that makes it un-put-down-able. Sometimes it's personal resonance, sometimes it's the author's ability to generate tension, or a character's memorable dialogue.

A long-winded way of saying that I'm a fan of Sam's voice. Such a nice pairing of WELCOME TO MY LIFE and DON'T WAIT UP FOR ME, both catchy, common phrases. NEVER FAILS echoes WELCOME TO MY LIFE, as does PLEASE STOP and DON'T WAIT UP FOR ME. I like when a themeless shows these fortuitous connections.

And the beautiful entry/clue pairings:

  • ENEMY SPY is great on its own. But [Plant from another country] so innocently made me think of flora. It's a beautiful clue that couldn't have been used for just SPY, elevating an already great entry to standout status.
  • A REAR AXLE generates "backspin" — as in, the back axle of the car spinning. A bit groany, but also a bit genius.

The puzzle also spoke to me through TIGER MOM, a term both hilarious and tear-inducing for me and my peers. I'm still waiting for someone to debut ASIAN F (an A minus, according to TIGER MOMs).

Seriously, my mom once looked at my report card that had all As and one A minus, and said "why didn't you do better?"

There were a couple of dabs of crossword glue here and there — PKS (penalty kicks), the AMU Darya River, RIMA — but not enough to make me give Sam the side-eye. A ton of beautiful long entries that personally resonated with me (part of me is a surf bum at heart, wanting eventually to run a SURF SHOP). Close to getting the POW! but it got edged out by another puzzle to come this week.

Sat 3/31/2018

I imagine that some people will LOVE this puzzle and some will HATE it. We've had some puzzles where some entries are reversed. We've even had some where every other row is reversed. I don't think I've ever seen one where every other row AND every other column are reversed. Talk about melting the minds of solvers everywhere!

I liked most of the thematic material. ONE WAY STREETS was a good descriptor of the puzzle. GOING IN ALL DIRECTIONS, too. TOTAL GRIDLOCK, though — don't all crosswords exhibit total gridlock? Interlock and all, yeah? I love it as a phrase, but I don't think it does a good job describing the conceit.

Okay, maybe there was TOTAL GRIDLOCK in my head as I tried nearly in vain to even crack open one corner of the puzzle.

Some awesome fill: HOT ZONE, STATEROOMS, DEMITASSES. And not much gluey fill for the level of construction difficulty, just some minor ROBO IDNO dings. If it hadn't been for the cringey ETUI, I would have given Kevin a gold star for near-impeccable craftsmanship. He has written his own software, so it's easier for him to automate rule-breaking grids like this, but it's still impressive.

I understand Will's decision to run this on a Saturday. I had a few brain eruptions during the solving process, gray matter leaking out my ears. Kevin delights in making puzzles that are harder than the hardest of hardies, so I think he wildly succeeded in today.

It's such a neat and creative rule-breaker that I would have preferred to get it on a Thursday, with the clues GREATLY eased up. It would have made for a delightful a-ha moment, such a tricky delight. And that way, I would have gotten the themeless I've come to expect on Saturdays. Give me my hard themeless challenge!

I worry that some (many? most?) solvers will just give up on this one and not appreciate the great idea and strong execution here. Puzzles are meant to be taken on as a challenge and ultimately solved — not meant to beat the solver senseless and leave him/her to bleed. I probably would have given up if I didn't want to write about every single NYT puzzle. Just too darn hard by a long shot.