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Puzzles for April, 2016
with Jeff Chen comments

POW Fri 4/1/2016

★ An excellent construction from Peter, one of the best in the business. How fitting that he was chosen to tackle the penultimate NYT puzzle. I'm still in shock at the announcement buried within the grid. I suppose all good things must come to an end at some point.

CLOISONNE work — pretty!

Peter's puzzles tend to be a tad heavy on proper nouns for my taste, especially ones that some might consider esoteric. But this one is all good — Issa RAE was unfamiliar to me, but the crossings are all fair, and including "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl" in the clue made me want to check that out.

Peter tackles a tough 72-word grid even though he has four 15-letter themers. That theme density is tough enough in a 78-word grid! He uses his black squares very wisely, breaking up the grid such that no one subsection requires him to fill a gigantic white space. There's not one area that shines brilliantly for me, but spreading out the goodies — BROCADE, CLOISONNE, RIOT ACT, OCEANARIA — left me with a great impression.

Along with virtually no gluey bits — maybe just a USS, and that is pretty much fine — it's very well executed. A fitting penultimate puzzle. Tomorrow's is utterly jaw-dropping — Peter forgot to mention that it has one final extraordinary layer: it only uses four letters in the entire grid: R, U, S, and E.

(Before you email me with angry protests, check out the first letters of each sentence in Peter's commentary.)

Sat 4/2/2016

I love seeing Doug and Brad on a single byline. They're two of my favorite people in crosswordland, and the sheer diversity of answers they exhibit as a team is stunning. I really like puzzles that have something for everyone, and it's pretty tough to beat them in that aspect. From the classic ETHAN FROME to the recent HOGWARTS, from the kooky GEWGAW to the bizarre-looking BUSHSR (think: Bush #41!), there's such a huge range of entries. Sometimes I feel like a single puzzle is focused too much on baseball or pop culture or stuff from the 1950s or whatever. Not the case for a Wilberson.

Please not Slytherin, please not Slytherin

And as usual, they bring a bevy of clever clues. [Gondola settings] made me think about speed or position of chairs, but it meant the background setting of SKI RESORTS. [What you might have for bad eyesight] had to be SPEX or CONTACTS or even a LOUPE? No, it's your GENEs. And my favorite, [Little sweater] so innocently makes you think about a piece of clothing, but it's a PORE.

Brad and Doug always bring a ton of great fill to their themelesses. I count about 15 assets — GUITAR SOLO and HOGWARTS my favorite — that's outstanding work. There are a few entries like ALTERATION which I don't count as assets (ADDED NOTE: Doug knows me too well), as they're more everyday words than colorful ones, but Doug/Brad started with enough long slots that if they didn't convert one or two into something great, the asset count is still a big number.

All of that, with virtually no gluey bits! What can you even point out? Some might argue UPCS (Universal Product Code, in merchandising lingo) is a liability? But I think as long as an acronym is very well-known and in popular usage, it's fine. Maybe not everyone knows what they are by name, but who wouldn't recognize the thick/thin black bars on virtually every product sold?

I personally measure themelesses by [assets minus liabilities], and a fine themeless scores at least 10. Here, with a score of 15 = another Wilberson winner. If it hadn't been for Peter Gordon's hilarious April Fool's Day puzzle yesterday, this would would easily been the POW.


Fun concept, theme answers literally going IN ONE EAR … and OUT THE OTHER. Six EAR rebus squares act as portals, i.e. WHER(E AR) … jumps from one EAR to another EAR, finishing with … (E AR)E MY KEYS. The title is perfect, as the theme answers are literally JUMPING TO (their) CONCLUSIONS.

Coming through!

It might have been nice to hide the concept for longer, as I was able to fill in IN ONE EAR / OUT THE OTHER very early in my solve. Placing those two themers very far away from the middle of the puzzle does make construction easier — very little interaction with all those EARs — but it does give away the game. Perhaps spreading out all the EARS so IN ONE EAR / OUT THE OTHER could have gone more in the middle of the puzzle?

Natan gives us some sizzling bonus entries, INBOX ZERO my favorite. I once achieved INBOX ZERO ... and stupidly posted about it on Facebook. (My inbox was then flooded by people congratulating me. Sigh.) And CRY ME A RIVER, HANG TIGHT, TIRE SWING, ORANGEMEN … it's so awesome to get a taste of themeless-like goodness in a Sunday puzzle. I often lose steam while solving Sunday-size puzzles — so many boxes to fill in — so getting a ton of bonus fill like this is very much appreciated.

I really liked Natan's attention to detail when it came to avoiding gluey bits, too. COR is minor, BCS is a bit odd when clued to the Johnny Hart comic strip (plus, the Bowl Championship Series is now defunct), and ABOIL is one of those funny start-with-an-A words. To keep it to such a small amount of gristle is really good on a Sunday 140-word puzzle.

Two clues I didn't understand: [Brace] for TWO, and [Sally] for RAID? Apparently a "sally" is a "sudden charge out of a besieged place" and a "brace" is a "pair of something." Learn something new every day.

It would have been SO nice to have some sort of image of an ear, but I'm not sure how one would do that. Perhaps chunks of black squares around the sides of the puzzle? I'd be curious to see what Natan's attempts looked like. But still, an entertaining solve.

Mon 4/4/2016

BACKCOUNTRY interpreted as "country listed in reverse, within phrases." Some beautiful finds, KENYA backward in WAYNE KNIGHT (Newman!) my favorite. Impressive that David used no short country names, making his task that much more challenging — the four letter countries give more flexibility, like PERU (MINIATURE POODLE, PRESSURE POINT), IRAN (RAN A RISK, DIANA RIGG) or even CUBA (MEGABUCKS). Good call by Will/Joel on that.


How many themers do you need in a puzzle? When a revealer like BACKCOUNTRY is used, generally at least three more themers are needed — otherwise the puzzle feels thin. It's not necessary to go up to six total themers like today, but it can be awfully nice, especially when each of the themers sings.

Six themers do put a lot of strain on a grid. David uses an every-other-row arrangement, trying to space them out, but this means he's bound to get a bunch of regions that have little flexibility. It's no surprise that the gluey bits like O WAR, NSEC, OR BE come in those highly constrained areas. David does well to spread out ISE, HIED, ONA (odd that David chose ONA in such a flexible section) too, but in aggregate, it does feel like a lot.

I wonder if compressing some of the themers would have helped? Moving CLEAR SIGN down a row does put it right on top of HEAT LAMP, but the overlapping pairs of letters — GH and NE — would be friendly combinations. Same goes on the opposite side with the LP and LL overlaps if you squeeze NINEBALL atop PLAYBILLS. It's counterintuitive to not put some space between themers, but when theme density is this high, it can often help.

It was nice to get a bit of bonus fill, even with such high theme density. PATTERSON is a phenom, becoming a force in children's lit (his "Middle School" series is surprisingly good). ANTILABOR, BE FAIR, ONASSIS, I SWEAR are all good uses of longish slots, too.

I would have preferred a smoother solving experience, but there sure were a lot of nice theme finds. ADDED NOTE: No wonder the top left corner is so flexible but contains ONA and TET — I can't wait to find out what the hidden message is! I'll post it once it's public.

Tue 4/5/2016

Neat find, PAIR OF JOKERS describing how each of the themers is made up of two comedians, i.e. CRYSTAL BALL = Billy CRYSTAL and Lucille BALL. I was impressed that Dan was able to find such nice phrases without dipping into the little-known comedians. I had to think for a second about SHORT (Martin) and WINTERS (Jonathan), but they came back quickly.

Ah, THAT Winters!

Is PAIR OF JOKERS a real phrase, used in real life? I intuitively know it refers to the two jokers that usually come in a standard deck of cards, but it doesn't quite flow off the tip of my tongue. It's too bad — if I hadn't hitched at the revealer, I might have given this one the POW! just based on how cool Dan's finds were. SHORT WINTERS feels more neutral than an asset to me, but the rest of them are such strong phrases, made up perfectly of two well-known comics.

Really enjoyed the long fill today, Dan utilizing an unusual arrangement in placing FENG SHUI / WENT WILD horizontally. I wonder if JOKERS so close to WILD was a shout-out to the old "Joker's Wild" game show? If so, I approve!

I'm usually not one to care for duplicated short words, especially things like TO, ON, IN — they're so minor that I barely notice them. LETS NOT crossing LET GO, though … that was pretty tough to overlook. It's too bad — even with five themers and a bunch of nice long fill, Dan manages to the keep the gluey bits to just some minor RIN, LIC, LAA stuff. If it hadn't been for the LET/LET dupe and EFS, which feels more icky to me (when is that ever written out like that?), it would have been such a beautifully smooth solve.

Still, it was pretty good execution overall, with some great theme finds.

Wed 4/6/2016

Tim employs the "definitional" theme type, i.e. where clues become answers and vice versa. I'm not a huge fan of this genre, as I generally don't care for entries that feel made up inside my grids, and that's a typical feature of these puzzles. But it is nice that Tim takes "What is it?" and interprets it in very different ways. "It" is indeed a STEPHEN KING BOOK and a PERSONAL PRONOUN, and "What is it?" is equivalent to DO YOU NEED / SOMETHING. Nice diversity of choices.

SQUEE! Sorry about that; they're just so cute.

I wasn't overwhelmed by the theme, but as he always does, Tim utilizes his bonus fill to spice up the quality of the solve. There's a multitude of great answers, from SEINFELD to PARTY HAT to TOE RING to MEERKAT to OYSTER CRAB to I LOVE PARIS (don't listen to it unless you want an earworm). Throw in some IN SEASON and DESSERTS and you get the added rush of solving something themeless-like.

In that same vein, the tricky clues also heightened the solve. [Piece of low-end jewelry?] for TOE RING is genius (toes being on the low end of one's body). And [One who may finish on a high note] is my favorite. It looks so innocent, repurposing the "go out on a high note" phrase without needing a giveaway question mark. And knowing Tim's a SEINFELD fan, I imagine George Costanza's "going out on a high note" trope might have at least subconsciously come into play.

From a grid execution perspective, really well done — only ARE SO and STOAS were a bit gluey. That's an impressive feat when you work in so much bonus fill.

Thu 4/7/2016

I've never actually seen "Scarface," but SAY HELLO TO MY / LITTLE FRIEND is so ubiquitous, the source for many internet memes. Great idea to use it as a reason to rebus-ize PAL, making each of those squares literally a "little friend." Rebuses have become somewhat overdone, so having an added layer like this is much appreciated.

Even though I'm a bit rebused out, it's still fun to find those special squares, a bit of an Easter egg hunt. I like when they're hidden in colorful long phrases like FACE PALM, and I especially like when they run across a phrase like RAP ALBUM, disguising them even further. Not quite as fun to get them in shorties like NEPAL and SEPAL. I am glad that John chose all solid words though — he could have easily resorted to such oddities as PALA or PALP or COPAL or TYPAL or something.

Incorporating six rebus squares in a grid that already contains SAY HELLO MY / LITTLE FRIEND isn't easy. I do like the open feel of each of the four corners, giving those areas a themeless feel. Tough though — when you fix a crossing pair of answers into place, those big regions get much, much harder to fill smoothly and colorfully than usual. While I do love OH SNAP, BEER TENT, PLAYBOY, and OVEREASY spread through the four corners, each comes with a bit of ANENT, ABAS, LO-RES (dictionary has it as "low-res"), ALAE. ANENT feels particularly egregious without some hint of its old-school usage.

Two things some solvers might not get:

  • [Brady bunch, in headlines) — note that "bunch" isn't capitalized! Makes a huge difference, as the clue is referring to Tom Brady's PATS. (Boo!)
  • I love the clue for INTEL, but I don't know if people will understand how clever [Bond yield] is unless they know the term "bond yield" from finance. I immediately thought about bond payouts, maturities, etc. before realizing it was talking about James Bond.

So, some nice bonus fill and a great rebus rationale, with some roughs spots in execution.

Fri 4/8/2016

Hey, PB's first foray into the "4x black square stairsteps" pattern since 2008! As Damon Gulzynski so accurately described, these stairsteps are like training wheels for themeless constructors — they make grids exponentially easier to fill, especially when it's a grid with wide-open spaces.

Who knew, DUNCAN HINES was a real person!

PB uses them moderately and wisely, achieving a stunning middle region. Check out that triplet of DUNCAN HINES / TALKING HEAD / GOES ON A DIET with SPANISH MAIN / FAITH NO MORE / TURN SIGNALS running through it — all in a giant swath of white space!

I typically "score" a themeless by starting with a count of assets, subtracting a count of liabilities, and adding in a vague number of points for "coolness factor." If the final score is above 10, I generally find the puzzle to be very strong.

I've never been able to quantify that last aspect very well, but today's puzzle helped me think about it. I was wowed by the puzzle as a whole, but when I went back to count the assets minus liabilities, I ended up with a score of roughly 10. PB puzzles are usually much higher than that — usually around 13 or even higher. So my "coolness factor" addition for this puzzle must be at least 3 points.

Thanks for indulging the annoying engineer in me. Ahem.

As always, PB excels at his cluing. I like how he selects entries not just for their innate color, but for how conducive they are to taking a clever clue. [Lightens up, say] makes GO ON A DIET absolutely sing. Same with [Side lights?] for TURN SIGNALS. Great stuff.

SHIRR is unusual to see in a PB puzzle, but it does appear to be a real word. The dictionary defines it as "gather by means of drawn or elasticized threads in parallel rows." Huh. But it does make that big SE corner work, and the benefits of FIRE UP, ARCANA, X RATED, DEADBEAT well worth it.

As usual, I could give most every PB the POW! But there's one I liked even more this week.

Sat 4/9/2016

Extra-wide grid to accommodate THE BIG BANG THEORY. Great trivia that Stephen Hawking and Buzz Aldrin guest-starred! (Will Shortz guest-starred on "How I Met Your Mother," but no nod from TBBT yet.) I don't watch TBBT show very often, but I love that a cast full of hard-core nerds is so popular.

What, Will Shortz isn't good enough for you, TBBT?

Some nice entries in TALL ONES, NO HARM DONE, AIR CARRIER, and my favorite, SHELL GAME. Plus, I like how they're spread all across the grid, rather than concentrated like usual in the four corners.

Running so many long answers through each other does make filling difficult, though. Check out how HOUND DOG, EDO PERIOD, and LIVERMORE intersect that NE stack … as well as THE BIG BANG THEORY! That constrains the section so rigidly. I don't mind a bit of NEB at all, but CUT ABOVE without "a" feels pretty partialish and inelegant. CCC clued as the Roman 300 (L = 50, times 6) also feels pretty weak. Tough to make a region with so many intersecting long answers without a flaw or two.

I like GONERS as an answer — totally in my regular usage. DOER is even fine, as in "I'm a doer!" SCARERS … not so much.

I was baffled by [Whitehouse in D.C., e.g.]. It had to be some clever clue, right? Nope, but what a cool piece of info — there's a senator named Sheldon Whitehouse. I imagine it gave him quite a leg up during elections. (Makes you wonder why no candidate has legally changed their first name to "President.")

Also baffling was RIVES. I so badly wanted that to be RENDS, which I never really used before I started doing crosswords. Not sure if I had seen RIVE before, so I looked it up: "to rend." Thanks, dictionary!

It's so tough to work with so many intersecting long answers. Some slots like GLEE CLUB and RAY KROC are so well utilized, but others like BELITTLED and ELONGATE feel like just neutral results to me. Still, an enjoyable solve with a fantastic backbone entry.


★ I love Randy's use of the big 21x21 canvas. Too often, Sunday puzzles feel to me like an overinflated 15x15. The imagery of a GONDOLA sitting on a GRAND CANAL and a RAFT on the COLORADO RIVER is so pretty; a wonderful use of the huge space a Sunday puzzle allows for.

GONDOLA floating on the GRAND CANAL — pretty!

This type of puzzle (with pairs of stacked answers) is so tricky to pull off. In a recent one of similar conceit, Jason and I struggled mightily with the grid skeleton, going through dozens of iterations before finally arriving at something workable. Grid symmetry causes a huge problem — for instance, when you place GONDOLA, that forces you to use a symmetrically-placed seven-letter answer (NO TASTE in today's grid). Each time you force a long slot like that, the grid becomes more constrained. Pretty soon, you run into spots which are overly rigid and even impossible.

Randy does help himself by using a few shorter themers — GRAND CANAL and ARABIAN SEA — which helps reduce overlap between themers. But having to work in the long OIL TANKER and another long symmetrically-placed entry is not easy at all. Randy does so well, incorporating the nice STEEL MILL, along with very few dabs of crossword glue. ATMAN is a tough word to remember for me, but it's legit. ONCLE might be a bit deep into French for some, but it's not hard to figure out. And UNDAM … well, there was bound to be minor crossword glue needed to hold that section together.

I love that there's a lone UBOAT hanging out. It would have been nice to get that one at the very end though, tricking the solver by breaking the established pattern.

Knowing how difficult it is to execute on a puzzle like today's, I was extremely impressed by Randy's work. I wish all Sunday constructors would think as big as Randy did, while taking the care to execute on the concept as well as he did — such strong bonus fill (BALALAIKA!) with only a minimum of gluey bits. Loved it.

Mon 4/11/2016

Congrats to Ron on his NYT debut! I used to play trombone in various jazz bands, so it was fun to chat.

Those are some POCKETS, all right

Neat to see C.C. work with so many folks — and she was recently honored by being chosen to write a puzzle for the ACPT! Quite an honor. Today, she and Ron give us "things with POCKETS," from CARGO / PANTS to a POOL TABLE to PITA BREAD and … a BOWLING LANE? I like to bowl every once in a while (I purposefully aim for the gutters, and I'm sticking to that story), but I had to look up what a bowling pocket was. It's that gap between adjacent pins, most notably between the one pin and the three pin, where many bowlers aim in order to increase their chances of a strike. Interesting!

I like the aesthetic of mirror layouts, and it's been neat to see C.C. use it quite often. It's a puzzle-saver in this case, because the themers don't fit within a usual pattern of symmetry: lengths of 10 / 10 / 10 and … 11 = constructor screech. It's great that CARGO PANTS splits into CARGO / PANTS 5/5, which makes mirror symmetry a real solution.

I also like how they put CARGO / PANTS in a prime location, helping it to stand out — I think it's so elegant if theme answers stand out on their own, rather than needing to be starred. In today's grid, ENCHILADAS and SOUR GRAPES are beautiful pieces of long fill, but they sure make the starring of the clues necessary. As much as I like those two entries, it might have been better to jigger the grid to shorten them, so the themers pop more.

I especially wanted that since C.C. tends to be so good with her mid-length fill. GO POOF, REAL ALE, SKI BAGS — that's really nice.

It would have been to get more diversity of "things with pockets," but all I could think of was my poor periodontal health, and gum pockets are kind of gross. So, given all the nice bonus fill along with STOA the only really fusty entry, a fun solve.

Tue 4/12/2016

During my solve, I was wondering if Alan was in the process of furnishing a home. After seeing a DRYER and then a FRYER, I turned up a CRYER! Wait, that's not a home appliance (it should be). Turns out Alan needed a lot of *RYE* entries to fill out his literal HAM on RYE puzzle. The letter combinations (HR, AY, ME) are very friendly, but it's still impressive that he was able to work in five instances — two right on the HAM ON RYE revealer!

CRYER in a search for a DRYER and a FRYER

With so many instances, I'd usually expect to see a ton of crossword glue to hold everything together, so Alan does well to limit it to generally minor stuff. The short usual suspects like SSW and EER and OER are so prevalent that I tend to gloss over them. OME … that's harder to ignore (it's sometimes clued as something like [Place where ‘Enry ‘Iggins lives]). FUL is an awkward suffix. And END TO, a partial, is more noticeable to me, since it takes up a longer slot.

I did appreciate how many bonuses Alan gave us — SYNDROME, BAHRAIN, HAYRIDE in particular. It's not easy to do in a puzzle that has so many constraints, and it really enhanced my solve.

Also enhancing my solve was a reference to Festivus! Ah, the FEATS of Strength and the Airing of Grievances.

Typically, I find that these sorts of themes get kind of repetitive, as once you've seen one of the HAM on RYEs, the impact of the next several isn't very strong. But it was fun to wonder what the heck was going on with the FRYER DRYER CRYER stuff. I appreciate the 3x2 blocks not being shaded, which would have made the conceit pretty dull.

Finally, a curious entry, THREE AM. Is that really the predetermined time when we "spring forward"? I was all ready to comment about the arbitrary nature of the entry, but it appears that it's really a significant time after all — that's the time we "spring forward" to. Neat piece of trivia.

Wed 4/13/2016

Some funny results today involving a sound addition, Mountain Dew to MOUNTAIN DUET, Vanity Fair to VANITY FERRET (hilarious!), magazine rack to MAGAZINE RACQUET. I was never sure of the pronunciation of CRUET (crew-eht, not crew-ay). Huh. Now I know.

Ah, Bucky Katt and his hilarious schemes ...

Far and away, my favorite section was the lower left, with GET FUZZY crossing PLOTZ. I recently introduced my 11-year old nephew to the hilarity that is GET FUZZY, with Bucky Katt's poorly thought out evil schemes, and Satchel's innocent dunderheadedness. And PLOTZ is Yiddish slang to faint away in dramatic form, as in "that drama queen just plotzed!" Love, love, love that bonus fill. The L of PLOTZ is going to be tough for people who don't know that or NALA of "The Lion King," unfortunately. I can see an argument that it's not particularly fair.

I also liked entries such as SCHERZO, ASGARD, SNUCK UP ON, but overall, I felt there was too much crossword glue for my taste. The theme density is a little high, given that all four themers are long. But still, I noticed the little bits everywhere, from ETHNO / ENVIRO — two prefixes crossing each other — to a smattering of TAI, HTS, OPP, NEOS, ENNE, etc. Some of it is in the name of working in great fill, like NATCH, but man, the price to pay in that north region is steep.

Will has mentioned that he's trying to phase out SDI, Reagan's "Strategic Defense Initiative." I actually don't mind it that much since the so-called Star Wars defense system was a big topic of discussion when I was a kid, but I see where he's coming from — those acronyms are rough. It looks almost necessary given the layout, stuck in that highly constrained region between SNUCK UP ON and LACE INTO.

LACE INTO … dictionary says it's legit, as "attack, devour, or scold." Still, it's not my favorite use of a precious 8-letter slot.

Some amusing results generated off of solid base phrases, with some rocky points. Still, the image of Satchel Pooch PLOTZing away gave me a huge smile.

POW Thu 4/14/2016

★ Jason builds three WATERSLIDES today, neat river-esque images flowing diagonally. I especially like how he disguised each of the three bodies of water — a river RUN, a STREAM, and a BROOK — within phrases that hide their meanings.

MR YUK is fairly self-explanatory, yeah?

Impressive execution, especially considering how tough it is to fill a grid around diagonal entries. The center section is masterful — with three long diagonal entries, Jason needed to cross one of them through WATERSLIDES, making that region incredibly constrained. What finesse in there, with nary a drop of glue. And working in BERRA, RITE AID, DREIDEL, along with the end of EPHEMERA and the start of ELON MUSK? Incredibly smooth along with quite a bit of color.

There is a slight price to pay, as the black squares nearly separate the puzzle into distinct chunks. But Jason did leave enough interconnect so that the semi-choked grid flow didn't bother me too much.

Speaking of connection, look at that awesome word MRYUK, which connects two chunks. It's rare to debut a five-letter word, since most all of them have been used ad infinitum, and I often cringe when there is a debut, since it's often a partial or really esoteric. But even though MR YUK wasn't familiar to me, it can be pieced together with some thought. Great a-ha when I finally got it.

I commiserated with Jason on our similar HAIR LOSS, but what a great clue: [It usually reveals more than you want].

Overall, the quality of execution earns Jason the POW! A very tough construction, and Jason pulled it off with just a touch of what some people might grumble at as esoteric: ANOMIE, AEOLUS, ENNEAD, OMOO. It would have been nice to get at least some symmetry in the theme answers, but there is something to be said about the beauty of water's randomness cutting through land that's reflected in today's grid.

Fri 4/15/2016

I often have trouble with themelesses heavy on 7-letter entries, as it can be tough to make those mid-length words sing. It's tough to find great ones like GUY CODE — much more common for things like SNORTED or ALIASES to fit into a grid like today's. But I think David did well, spreading the love around with BAR TABS and BAT ROPE (anyone else remember the ridiculous Adam West Batman, "climbing" a wall, where they tilted a camera 90 degrees?), DUBSTEP, CHEW TOY next to HAMBONE.

Imagine this guy, "scaling your building, with Robin behind him, valiantly trying to keep in perfect sync but failing.

This grid pattern doesn't allow for many longer answers, so I really like David's working in of BELIEBER (a Justin Bieber follower). That's strong work, given that these 8-letter entries run straight into big chunks of 7s all stacked atop each other. DERRIERE is pretty good too, although DESISTED and CHANDLER aren't as exciting to me.

Agreed with David, I hitched at SO EVER. Whatsoever, yes. SO EVER … I SAID NO! It does hold that very nice corner together though, and it is palatable given the smoothness everywhere else.

I'm glad to see David acknowledge the clue change on FALSIES. Some risqué humor is perfectly fine. But given the emphasis on it in his previous puzzles, I don't want to see him get pigeonholed as a constructor that uses too much of it.

Do people still say CHILLAX? Hearing that would give me the opposite reaction, methinks.

I enjoy a good clue echo when it makes a connection between two disparate things. Really well done to link SAUCE and HALOS, both as types of "angel hair toppers." It takes lateral thinking to figure out those weird connections. I really appreciate seeing a good one.

Finally, a great pair of clues for a pair of crossing answers in TAUPE / TIMED. I can never remember what color TAUPE is, but knowing that it's from the French for "mole" will help me now. And [Kept a watch on?] is brilliant, getting at a (stop)watch. What a treat, that pair of clues.

Sat 4/16/2016

Triple-stacked 11s are tough — there are so many crossing answers you have to be careful of. Too often, they result in so-so long answers, or pretty iffy crossers. I really like Andrew's bottom right corner, that triple of HOMO ERECTUS / INTAKE VALVE (yay, mechanical engineering!) / MYSTERY MEAT really singing. AMTS is really the only gluey bit in there, and it's minor. (And if you don't know JONY Ive, you ought to. He's the longtime Apple design guy, largely responsible for the look and feel of the iPhone in your pocket.)

INTAKE VALVE, very neat little assembly

The opposite corner is pretty good too, especially BAMBOO SHOOT over I MEAN, REALLY. The latter is even nicer because its implied comma gets stripped away by crossword convention, making it harder to uncover. (I didn't know what a BARREL CHAIR was, so it didn't do a lot for me, but at least it's readily inferable.) Here, we do see some stress in the grid, especially with TYRO, a bit of old-school crossword glue. I think OLIN is perfectly fine, as Ken and Lena OLIN have been reasonably big stars. OLAN is tougher to judge for me — "The Good Earth" has been on many reading lists, but OLAN is no Scout Finch or Hermione, IMO.

I enjoy seeing the diversity within themeless patterns. Typically, constructors using stacked 11s would separate them as much as possible from the rest of the grid, but Andrew goes big, running both EUGENE LEVY and DOLITTLE through the bottom right. Not easy to do at all, as that can fix so much of a corner rigidly in place, causing compromises. Again, it's the upper left that feels a bit of strain with BARIC (not super common, yeah?) but that's pretty minor.

I also liked that Andrew took advantage of some of his smaller slots, MCCAFE, TAX TIP, AD EXECS, PERIWIG adding to the quality of my solve. A NOTCH was the only real sticking point to me, as that feels like it violates a cardinal rule of the NYT crossword — no partials greater than five letters. Still, there's enough snappy material packed in that I imagine Will bit the bullet and let it by.


Congrats to our new ACPT champ! Neat to see one of the top speed solvers diving back into the construction game.

GOOGLE EARTH, a fun tool that I totally don't use to spy on my neighbors

Fun crossword, perhaps some solvers' first completeable Sunday, as Howard mentioned. I like the image Howard gives us, starting with a HOUSE, zooming back to a STREET, a BLOCK, CITY, STATE, NATION, to (GOOGLE) EARTH. Reminds me of the zoom out sequence in Contact, showing us how small we really are. And how nice that GOOGLE EARTH not only ends the sequence with EARTH, but GOOGLE EARTH is a tool that allows you to do that zoom out.

A couple of rough patches, perhaps a little more than we usually see on a Sunday. I tend to gloss over the ETE, HGT kind of stuff, but the plural EBONS and the crossing gluey bits in IDIO / EDUC are tougher to ignore. And AGRIN … because the starting A tends to come in useful for construction, we get a lot of AGLOW, ABOIL, ABED. Not great though.

Still, Howard does well to give us some good bonus fill, from BLOWTORCH to TIME LAPSE to SOAP OPERA to IM A MESS. Even the mid-length BIG GUN and PUTSCH are assets. For a theme that's nothing mind-blowing, I think about six pieces of good bonus fill help create enough snazz for me to be satisfied — Howard's definitely done that here. I really appreciate when a newer constructor takes the care and effort to work in such goodies. I imagine that solving thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of crosswords helps Howard stay in touch with what is "good fill" and what's just neutral filler material.

It's so neat to see consumers of puzzles become producers. Here's hoping we see more from not just Howard, but the other top solvers too! I'm looking at you, David Plotkin and Dan Feyer.

Mon 4/18/2016

Debut! Fun idea, BREAD hinting at the ends of four themers: SEABISCUIT, STUDMUFFIN, BANKROLL, and MEATLOAF. It feels a little loose to me, as a loaf and a roll are units of bread, while biscuits and muffins have added sugar and other ingredients.

Then again, I maintain that there is no difference between a brownie and cake (much to the chagrin of my wife), so who am I to talk?

BURT and LONI, bringing back memories

I liked how consistent Janice was, choosing four single-word themers that can be broken into two words. Also nice to have some camouflage, the roll in BANKROLL quite different than the bready type of roll, for example.

Very impressive how clean Janice kept her grid, making it a puzzle I would gladly hand to novices. There are some tough bits like ISAK Dinesen, but "Out of Africa" is an important work, and all the crossings make it possible to get. One might argue that the ZADORA/DALEY and WAPNER/NAST intersections could be tough, but I think they're all famous enough to be fair game.

Also nice was how smoothly Janice worked in the X and Z in the west region. It's fun to see some rare letters in a crossword, and to get an X and Z in proximity without any compromises is appreciated.

Pia ZADORA, along with LONI Anderson, BURT Reynolds, and MYSPACE, did give the puzzle a slightly fusty feel. MYSPACE especially seems pretty outdated by now. It wasn't the first social network, the biggest, etc. so I don't know that it's crossworthy anymore.

Finally, some nice bonus fill in KICKBACK and CAPSLOCK, along with the fun GROK and HOSER. Having such long fill in a "windmill" arrangement of themers does make it necessary to star the four theme clues, so I would have preferred to see an arrangement with all four themers in the across direction, which would have allowed for a lot of long down fill without muddying up what is theme and what is not.

Well done; looking forward to more from Janice.

P.S. Patti Varol (editor of the Crosswords Club and part of the CrosSynergy management team) truly is the best! Huge fan of hers.

Tue 4/19/2016

HEADS UP! David uses words that can precede HEAD, running upward within grid entries. Very nice find in STOP ORDER (pothead, redhead), where two heads are better than one. TWO BAGGER didn't feel as nice, as BOWHEAD … is what? Seems to be a type of whale? For all the ___ HEAD entries in existence, this doesn't feel like a strong one.

The Flash Crash was a bad time to have STOP ORDERs in place (see the sudden drop and recovery in the blue line)

I usually am not too impressed by interlocking theme answers, but I like what David did today, running DEDICATES, RAW DEAL, and MURDER ONE through HEADS UP. To get four intersecting theme answers right in the middle of the puzzle is pretty neat, and the price of I SHOT seems worth it.

It's unfortunate that I SHOT intersects TO BAT though. Inelegant to have two long partials in one region, highlighting each other's existence.

The high theme density is pretty cool. To have 11 "words that can precede head" = an extremely tight packing. On the other hand, most of those hidden words are placed into short themers, i.e. PINhead in NIPS, which makes them less exciting. I might have preferred if there were fewer theme answers which packed in two heads, or where longer words were hidden across a phrase, like HIGH TIDES. (Edith Head, the famous costume designer.)

Speaking of high tides, SANDBANK is a curious word. It is in the dictionary, but I've never heard or seen it used before. MIDDIE was new to me as well, but that seems more inferable, a diminutive of "midshipman."

A neat find in STOP ORDER containing two well-known "heads." If you're not familiar with a STOP ORDER, it's very common in stock trading, although I usually hear it as a "stop-loss order." Stop loss orders got a lot of attention back in 2010 during the "flash crash," when prices of some stocks took a nose dive but rebounded nearly instantly. It was a bad time to have STOP loss ORDERs in force on your positions …

Wed 4/20/2016

Fun concept, Wilson's FOURTEEN POINTS (a statement of principles to be used post WWI) summed up by a GRAND SLAM (4), HAT TRICK (3), FOUL SHOT (1), and a TOUCHDOWN (6, without extra point). I like that Tom chose scoring plays from each of the four major North American sports (sorry, soccer fans!).

Apparently this Moai's "hat" is made of SCORIA

It did feel odd to call a GRAND SLAM worth four "points," though. Same goes for a hockey HAT TRICK. Runs and goals, not points?

And a pox on the God of crossword symmetry, making FREE THROW unusable with the other themers. FOUL SHOT is so much less frequently used in real life, yeah?

I like how Tom always pushes himself, working to incorporate quite a bit of bonus long fill. It's normal to get a little TEA HOUSE and GOOD TO GO action in the long downs, but to work in nice big corners in the upper left and lower right is much appreciated. To get WEREWOLF, ORATORIO, IWO JIMA, and WASH ME, all for the price of DCI is well worth it.

There were a few ODD ONEs, though. NONSELF seems to be mostly employed in religious studies or biology? And SCORIA hasn't been used since the Maleska days. Ultimately, I think it's fine, but crossing it with two entries that felt not quite right--ODDONE (I so badly wanted ODDITY) and OIL CUP (OIL PAN perhaps?)--may cause some grumbling.

And for a puzzle depending on numbers to add up to 14, having TWOS and ONEPART in the grid felt inelegant. The latter has only been used a handful of times in the NYT crossword, and it strikes me as slightly partialish. Tough call.

Tom always does a nice job keeping his grids clean, and I like his ingenuity in making AERO seem actually fine, with a physics-ish clue. And WACO gets a nice piece of trivia that will appeal to Dr. Pepper drinkers. Just a bit of TOI and ETA and RATA kind of minor glue, otherwise.

Neat concept with a couple of aspects that made me hitch.

Thu 4/21/2016

Sound change / letter substitution, ST going to D. Some funny results in FALSE DART and my favorite, BLUEGRASS DATE. There are a ton of words that start with ST, so it was nice to see Alex incorporate six themers.

T BOONE, interesting that he's trying to move from oil to cleaner fuels

Aha, you might have missed themers five and six! They're tucked in the upper left and lower right--NOSE DUD and ICE DORM. Unusual locations. At first I wondered if a NOSE DUD was something the kids these days were piercing / inserting / snorting. And ICE DORM … maybe that's some sort of Icelandic thing? Even though it's kind of neat that pairs of themers intersect, I would have liked those short 7s to stand out better--perhaps at 1-Across and the last across position.

Alex uses a lot of long slots, although some of those felt like they left untapped potential, ANNOTATE, MASSAGER, IN STORES, ETHERNET all feeling more neutral than assets. But I really liked POWERED ON, looking curiously like POWER DON (Mafia bigwig). I also liked PROTÉGÉ, I AGREE, GUNSHY, and OIL TYCOON was my favorite. It was neat to get T BOONE crossing it — I like fortuitous crosses like that.

I wasn't sure about T BOONE as an entry itself though. Is that what people call him? I'm so used to the full T. Boone Pickens that just T BOONE by itself feels like a six-letter partial. Any friends of T BOONE want to weigh in?

Also a bit odd was SKYEY. To my surprise, it actually is in the dictionary, as "adjective form of sky." And Updike writes "a sheet of skyey water." I may have to try it out and see if people around me flinch.

As with most straightforward Thursday themes, I was left wanting more trickery, more of an a-ha moment. It is asking for a lot to want a fresh, tricky idea every single week (and Will has gone on record saying that all he wants out of a Thursday is for it to be harder than a Wednesday), but a guy can wish.

POW Fri 4/22/2016

★ There is so much to love about this puzzle. This stuck-in-fourth-grade-man-child loves the SMARTY PANTS / MADE YOU LOOK combination (I pulled that gag on my nephew the other day), and ORDER ONLINE makes for a beautiful third element in the starting triple-stack.

There was actually an "Order of the Dragon" created to defend Europe against the Turks in the 15th century. Cool!

70-word puzzles often have a limited number of long slots to begin with, but Robin pushes to squeeze in 14. That's important to me, as I've found that I need at least 10 strong entries in order for a themeless to really sing to me. There are a few neutral ones like EDGINESS and RADIATORS, but check out all the goodness in IVY LEAGUE, GREEN EGGS, LIVE A LITTLE! And this data junkie loves seeing a SPREADSHEET.

Also nice was that Robyn took advantage of her mid-length slots, often tough to convert to assets. NAIL GUN with its [Sharp shooter?] clue is great, and ZYDECO is such a cool word. And really, Robyn had me at DRAGON, giving us a taste of Harry Potter's beautifully crafted world filled with Chinese Fireballs, Norwegian Ridgebacks, Hungarian Horntails, Peruvian Vipertooths, Ukrainian Ironbellies okay okay I'll stop!

It's not a perfect puzzle, as there are a handful of gluey bits marring it. That's very common with triple-stacked 11s, entries like YOO and TYRE making that fine upper left corner possible. And we constructors all have our bugaboos, one of mine being five-letter partials wasting a slot that could be something as cool as MR YUK. So it's hard for me to give A REST a rest.

Overall though, so much to love here. I got a ton of enjoyment out of this one. A well-deserved POW!

Sat 4/23/2016

Paolo is one of my favorite rising stars in crosswordland, mostly doing themelesses but also showing some early-week range. One of the millennials (or younger?), he does a great job of capturing the flavor of his generation. It's so tough to make your shortish entries sing, but I was pleasantly surprised to uncover TUMBLR. I only vaguely know what that is, but Paolo did a nice job making sure that each crossing made it gettable. RAGE QUIT is another prime example.

That's my kind of home remedy! Let's just add in some whiskey ...

Ah, RAGE QUIT. Byron Walden once told me that he avoids putting marquee answers at 1-Across. I thought that was odd--wouldn't you want to highlight your great entries? But I've gradually come to see his point. Today, RAGE QUIT headlines the puzzle … but as Paolo points out, it's been in the NYT puzzle twice already in the past 12 months. I usually don't mind repetition, as it'll naturally occur, but there's something about RAGE QUIT that makes it less fun to see over and over. Perhaps because it seems like such a specialized term? Or how angry it sounds?

But back to the great stuff. Paolo takes nice advantage of his long slots, giving us the colorful YOU HEARD ME, TAX EVASION, RAN RAMPANT, GINGER ALES as home remedies (for indigestion, motion sickness, etc.), and STARGAZE. Along with clever mid-length entries like GYM RAT and LA-Z-BOY, there's a ton of snazzy material packed in.

I might have included BROMANCE in the list of assets a few years ago, but it feels like it's losing its shine, similar to RAGE QUIT. It has shown up in the NYT crossword a lot now, so perhaps it's simple overexposure.

I also like the fortuitous crossing of DATA SET and STATS. Sure is fun to get those related answers crossing each other.

With just a smattering of the EDD (crossworthy or not?) and ESA (this stands for … what? Ah, European Space Agency), I'm impressed at how much solid material Paolo worked in without requiring much crossword glue.

Sun 4/24/2016 "TEE" TIME

Straightforward theme, adding the T sound in the form of TY. I like how consistent Kathy was, always adding the TY to the end of the first word of a two-word phrase. It's pretty easy to find words that turn into another word when you add TY (BEAT, BEAU, CHAN, HEAR, etc.) so tightening things up by following the same pattern every time is nice.

I'd chow down on that CHOW MEIN!

And some entertaining results. SAFETY CRACKERS made me smile at today's world filled with overprotective people. Let children cut themselves on Triscuits, I say! PATTY DOWN was funny too, making me visualize an overly dramatic cook. BUSTY FARE, though … ick. Yes, people don't go to Hooters for the wings, but this entry/clue ... ick.

Impressive theme density. Very few constructors can make a Sunday 140-word puzzle, and even fewer will dare to stack theme entries, like CASUALTY FRIDAY and PATTY DOWN, in order to pack ‘em in. Great that Kathy cottoned to the little-known secret that stacking themers is not only pretty easy (if there isn't a lot of overlap), but it makes puzzle construction smoother by creating more space for other themers.

Adhering to the 140-word maximum means incorporating some long fill. Very nice to get some entries like SMIDGEN, CHOW MEIN, TORPEDO, but it felt to me like there was a lot more potential. Entries like LENGTHENS, OPPOSITES, BIMONTHLY … they just aren't the FLASHIEST things in the world. It takes time to develop this skill, and constructing themelesses helps that along. I have a feeling Kathy will get there, as my interactions with her makes me think she's the type of driven individual that can tackle whatever she sets her mind to.

I much appreciated Kathy keeping her grid relatively clean, a very difficult task even for seasoned constructors. The only thing that made me groan was RSTU, as random strings of letters seem like the some of the most inelegant of all crossword glue to me. The minor things like HALER and RES are much more palatable, and there are very few of them. Well done, indeed.

Mon 4/25/2016

Singing: don't mess with Mr. In-Between! I recognized that lyric, but when I went to look up the song, Google misdirected me to a very different "Mr. In-Between" which seemed like it was the one the clue was talking about. Jim Horne had to steer me to the correct one. Then I realized that I had originally been thinking of a third song in the first place. So confusing!

I'm James ARNESS, and I endorse this blog post

Anyhoo, that MRINBETWEEN is such a kooky looking string of letters, and it makes for a good Monday revealer — phrases have MR stretched across them: BOTTOM ROW, STEAMROLLER, PALM READING, AM FM RADIO. All colorful phrases, and the one perhaps least in the language--BOTTOM ROW--getting a crossword-related clue. Nice!

Constructors often are faced with the choice of 1.) very smooth short fill but not so snazzy long stuff or 2.) really snappy long fill at the price of some short gluey bits. Today, Betty gives us a raft of wonderful bonus material, doing especially well with her mid-length answers: KABOOM!, FLUMMOX, IN ORBIT, NO, WAIT!, TWEEZE, EGG DYE. I'm usually not one to notice mid-length single-word answers, but KABOOM and FLUMMOX are especially nice.

Along with some longer fill like TORE OPEN and TITLEIST (sorry, non-golfers, but it really is a huge name in the golfing world), and a high density of theme answers, we were bound to get some compromises in the short fill. Starting off with A BANG isn't the type of bang I like, and along with LE ROI and IT IN right across the top, that's three glaring partials.

More troublesome were the ARNESS/LANTZ, LANTZ/GIZMO, ARNESS/ELS crossings. Regular solvers really ought to know James ARNESS and Ernie ELS (the "Big Easy" of golf). But I wouldn't be surprised to see a beginner get FLUMMOXed on any of those three crossings and declare them unfair. I wouldn't disagree.

Overall, nice theme concept with an enjoyable revealer, plus a ton of great mid-length fill. But given the rocky areas, I think it would have been better run as a Tuesday or Wednesday puzzle.

Tue 4/26/2016

Really fun idea, ___GATE words interpreted as various Watergate or Irangate-like scandals. I especially liked the ones where the meaning of the first part was changed completely. ELON GATE as a scandal related to Elon Musk = clever! NAVI GATE as a scandal related to the "Avatar" race is also humorous, although I'm not sure how many solvers will know who the NA'VI are. DELE GATE is a great insider's nod to the crossworld, as DELE is a niche term for editors … and crossword solvers.

FLOODGATE, TAILGATE, and APPLEGATE weren't as fun for me, as those terms naturally look like FLOOD GATE TAIL GATE, and APPLE GATE. I did a quick search to see if Finn had other options, but I couldn't turn up any others. Ah well.

Finn is so good about jazzing up his grids with bonus material. I love that FRENEMY / STAGE MOM pairing — it's tough to pull off parallel downs from a construction perspective, and to get answers that feel related is really fun. Same goes for LOST LOVE and CHAGRIN. That there is poetic.

The grid is already constrained by having six theme answers, but Finn manages to work in even more long bonus fill with AIR COVER and CROSSFIT. Incorporating long across answers like this is not easy to do, because you create biggish white spaces that are hard to fill. Really nice that Finn took his usual care to make sure the results were really smooth.

I also liked the clue for SEAN [Actor Bean, whose first name looks like it rhymes with his last, but doesn't], REPO [Pickup that gets picked up, perhaps], and TSA [Decidedly not-lax grp. at LAX]. All had a really jovial style to them, and that made me smile because it makes me think of Finn's natural effervescence.

Do people still say WORD UP without drawing eye rolls?

A very strong grid to bolster up a nice theme. The ___GATE pattern did get repetitive for me after two or three instances, but the bonus material and the silky-smooth product helped make up for that.

Wed 4/27/2016

Nice finds, five female authors who used male pen names. I knew ROBERT GALBRAITH (fantastic new series by Jo Rowling, AKA J.K. Rowling), ISAK DINESEN (since ISAK is such a crossword-friendly name), and GEORGE ELIOT ("Silas Marner" is a must-know!). ELLIS BELL was mystifying, but what a neat piece of trivia — I had no idea Emily Bronte wrote under a pen name!

Would you look at that — ELLIS BELL!

ANDY STACK was also mystifying. Even Google hitched, trying to tell me all about Andy Stack, the musician, much to my chagrin. Finally, I figured out that Ann Rule, the actual writer behind the True Detective stories, sounded familiar (although I later realized I was thinking about Anne Rice).

I can totally see publishers forcing women to take a male pen name, especially for certain genres. But it works the other way too. A friend of mine, Jason Nelson, landed a great four-book deal, but with a stipulation: he had to publish under the name J.C. Nelson. Apparently they've learned over the years that this type of fiction is much more likely to be bought by their heavily female-weighed audience if the author is also female (or at least isn't recognizably male). He had no hesitation about doing so, given that the publishing industry is incredibly challenging.

I wondered if I would do the same, assuming I ever get a book deal. (I've found that landing an agent was roughly five times as hard as getting a crossword published in the NYT, and landing a book deal has been much, much harder.) Wouldn't it feel odd, to pitch yourself as something you're not? And what would you do about book signings? Talk about the awkward stares.

Ultimately though, without a major publishing house throwing its marketing weight behind you, it can be nearly impossible to make it as an author. Sure, there are many anecdotes about self-published authors catching fire, but if Penguin Books came to me and offered me a book deal complete with sponsored tour, on the condition I had to wear a Lady Gaga wig? Heck, I'd put on a meat dress.

I enjoy a crossword puzzle that makes you think.

Thu 4/28/2016

Whoa. Entries going seemingly every-which-way! Even after finishing my solve, I had to stare at this to figure out the logic behind it. It goes like this:

  • Entries in the northern half go up (reversed).
  • Entries in the southern half go down, as normal.
  • Entries in the left half read left to right (reversed).
  • Entries in the right half read normally.
  • If an entry crosses halves of the puzzle, it's categorized into the half it mostly sits in.

Doesn't know if he's coming (STEGOSAUR) or going (RUASOGETS)

If you think about the puzzle in terms of quadrants, it makes more sense: answers mostly in the NW read totally messed up, while entries in the SE read totally fine. Answers in the other two quadrants are only half-messed-up, either reading normally vertically or horizontally, but not both.

Okay, that still is hard to wrap your mind around. Hatchi matchi!

There was a ton of outraged feedback on a similar puzzle a few years ago, so it'll be interesting to see what people say about this one. I personally enjoyed much of it — trying to figure out how to enter the beautiful STEGOSAUR upside-down — but overall, it was so confusing.

My biggest issue was the confusion involved with entries like ERGONOMIC stretching across the halfway mark ... but the entire entry being entered backward. Same went for STEGOSAUR and SALIVATE. I thought and thought and thought about some way of really defining the quadrants to make this not an issue? But you'd need two fairly solid lines of black squares across the middle row and center column, and that would split the puzzle into four pieces. No good.

Once I got the hang (more or less) of the logic, the puzzle did become more enjoyable. I wasn't super happy about trying to figure out if PARTAS was a real thing (and even SATRAP felt weird), along with PES and SCH in that corner, but overall, Kurt filled the grid pretty nicely given the extreme difficulty involved with the constraints.

Fri 4/29/2016

Debut! Always nice to see another voice in the NYT crossworld, and especially nice to get a nerd culture-flavor that this hardcore dork loves. SORT DATA, yes please! VIRUS SCAN (with its misleading clue about catching infections) = please sir, might I have some more? If only GOTO had been clued as [Line frequently written in Pascal by poor coders depending on it to get them out of jams].

Go, little fella!

I like it when a debut constructor breaks out a newish pattern, not just resorting to the standard "four sets of triple-stacks, one in each corner." It's tough to feature 12-14 letter entries in themelesses — they force placement of black squares right off the bat, reducing flexibility — so I loved seeing HAMSTER WHEEL and PASSIONFRUIT so prominently displayed. Interlocking SLAM POETRY and LATIN LOVER formed a nice skeleton for the grid.

I also like how Andrew chose to stick with a 70-word puzzle for his debut. Many themeless constructors would choose to take out the black square between GOTO and TKO, and try for a 68-worder. But I'd much rather take two great answers (VIRUS SCAN and ENGINEERS — okay, so this mechanical engineer is biased) along with pretty smooth surrounding fill, than three so-so answers with a bunch of glue to hold it together.

Speaking of glue, there is a little more than I'd like. Part of that stems from featuring 12-letter answers, as they make filling the middle hard (ETERNE). Melding that middle with the NE triple-stack then becomes hard as well (SNERD). Other merge points give OREL and SNO. None of these are that bad, but the themeless bar is so high these days. So many people can create snazzy themelesses with very little to no glue; that's become my expectation.

Super fun to see LMAO. Will and I talked two years ago about using the word "ass" — he said the NYT's policy = it's fine as long as it's not referring to a person's rear. Neat to see the NYT loosen up, already. (Laughing my ass off)

Sat 4/30/2016

Mark has done some amazing wide-open themelesses, which tend to be incredibly difficult to solve. It's no surprise that Will chose one of his puzzles for the finals of the ACPT this year, a 60-worder using no cheater squares. You can still order it. Well worth the price.

Denzel AND Ray Allen, dang!

Today, Mark stays at 68-words, but he tackles one of the harder challenges in themelesses: the 9x4 chunk. Executing on a 9x3 — a triple-stack — is hard enough to do with cleanliness and snazziness, and a quad-stack is maybe five times as hard. I like what he's done with the NW corner in particular. HE GOT GAME is one of my favorite Spike Lee Joints, featuring the great Ray Allen playing Jesus Shuttlesworth. AMENHOTEP is an important name in history (and a cool one at that), and FACEPLANT is a great way to kick off that corner.

STATIONER … that's one of my quibbles with quad-stacks. It's so tough to get four great answers. STATIONER is fine, I just wouldn't personally count it as an asset.

Same goes with AVERAGING and EROSIONAL in the opposite corner. I do think AVERAGING was elevated by its clue [Doing mean work?] — but innately, I don't find it that colorful.

Some of Mark's entries remind me of Byron Walden's style — an incredible wealth of great answers, but some that make me wonder if they're really legit. SHOP VAC is fantastic. So is SLAPJACK (quite a painful game I used to play as a kid). GOBANG … yep, it looks like it's a thing. GAOLER … a jailer in England? MAGNETOS … huh. When a mechanical engineer scratches his head, it's likely that others will too.

Still, there was enough strong material that I really enjoyed the challenge of solving those big 9x4 corners. Mark's puzzles tend to be the type that really stretch me to become a better solver, and I appreciate that process.

Speaking of appreciation, I also want to say a personal thanks to Mark, who's been instrumental in catching some typos and scoring discrepancies in our XWord Info Word Lists. His help has been great.