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Puzzles for September, 2017
with Jeff Chen comments

View these same grids with comments from:
Constructor (25)Jeff Chen (30)Jim Horne (4)Hide comments
Fri 9/1/2017
METHANOLJANE
PAXROMANAIMAX
SUCCINCTLYMATT
HELENYAKTIE
OBELISKWOREON
ALASMESSAROUND
TONMONKEYBARS
MARKERPEN
GEORGEWILLRAD
CASPIANSEACEBU
ASPENSSNARLUP
NBAABETEASE
AINTOPERABOXES
PLOWRETOTALED
ELLADEADEYES

SMORGASBORD of great answers jam-packed into that wide-open middle, MONKEY BARS, GEORGE WILL, the CASPIAN SEA, and a LAYWAY PLAN doing the MESS AROUND. That is one beautiful swath of goodness!

My first impression of the puzzle was that PB had used a ton of cheater squares — three in the very NW, the one below NAT, the one before GEORGE WILL — 10 in all. Usually I barely even notice them, but today, there were so many strewn about that the overall visual effect stood out to me as inelegant.

I can understand why PB did it, those cheaters making it so much easier to fill the NW and SE smoothly. But aesthetically, the grid didn't appeal to me. Personal preference of course, but feels like kind of a cheat to use so many.

PB has been working with low word-count puzzles these days — usually 66, which is tough to pull off — and sometimes I wonder if he'd be better off sticking to 68s, which I think is his sweet spot. He produces such stellar work at 68 words.

For example, I'd love to see what he could have done by placing a black square at the Y of DEADEYES. That might have allowed him to remove the four cheaters in the SE, and still get two great entries where OPERA BOXES and RETOTALED sit. To me, RETOTALED doesn't do much but take up space.

Odd to see both CEBU and SHOAT in a PB puzzle. He's usually so careful to avoid entries that could seem esoteric. They're both perfectly fine words, just not PB-ish.

I did love PAX ROMANA, GAS BILL, OPERA BOXES, and that fantastic middle section. I'd bet that if PB had stuck to his 68-word sweet spot, he would have made his NW / SE as impressive as his middle.

Sat 9/2/2017
CASTRPGSPORK
RICEBEERLAUREN
IRIDESCEONEDGE
CTRTAKEGARAGE
KAOSTANGENTIAL
EXCOPTHESTONES
TICTACOLEO
SOUTHSUDANESE
BEDSTIMING
ADDRESSESOUTRO
QUEENSUGARSHOD
UNITASAVOWLLD
INCITESEMINOLE
LEERATETAGERES
ADDERSONODES

64-worder, yikes! I've developed a knack for sniffing out low word-count themeless grids — that huge SW alone is a good indicator that the constructor is dipping into those daunting waters. Check it out — you start with a 6x6 chunk of white space, hard enough to fill on its own. But then you extend four of the entries into the rest of the puzzle? Daunting is an understatement.

Erik worked in more snazzy feature entries than I'm used to seeing in a 64-worder. Love GREENHOUSE GASES / SOUTH SUDANESE, THE STONES, PAT BENATAR, CHESS SET, AIR TAXIS, SITH LORD, even IRIDESCE. Usually, we see more of the ADDRESSES, ENROLLEE, ETAGERES kind of filler in low-word count themelesses, so great to get these sparkly entries.

So tough to pull off without applying too much crossword glue. DUNNED was the only glob that stood out to me, an old-style word that felt like a throwback to the Maleska era of esoteric crosswords. But with just an OLEO of CTR, LLD otherwise, it's a good overall result.

(SOTU = State of the Union, SDSU = San Diego State University. I think one of those by itself would be fine, but both of them felt somewhat inelegant.)

Erik is so good at cluing — I look forward to the clues in his puzzles even more than the grids. [Movie lot?], as in a lot of people in a CAST, is a great way to kick things off. I didn't know the Vue car model, but a GARAGE as a [Room with a Vue, perhaps] is a clever play on "Room With a View."

A few were over my head this time around:

  • SON = [This is an issue] … ? "Issue" apparently can mean "offspring." Huh.
  • DEICED … I get that the clue is playing on "cleared for landing," but isn't deicing more often done before getting cleared for takeoff, not landing?
  • CRICKET as [Fair play]. (insert sound of crickets here). Ah, I have heard "That's not cricket," as a Britishism?

I enjoyed the solve, a solid Saturday workout. If I had seen some episodes of QUEEN SUGAR (I admit, I read the O magazine and love it, so I've seen ads for this series) or was more familiar with RICE BEER, it might have hit me a little more strongly.

POW Sun 9/3/2017UNITED KINGDOM
DISORDERARROWSPARE
ULTRACOOLLEILAWALES
BOARDINGOFFICERARENT
GEOSURERMARQUEE
STERNOINTERNETROUTER
TONYATSEAARCHIVE
ARASHAHSAOSTRAW
IMMANUELKANTOKSURE
DEEREYALEALUMNILIE
GAOLHEWEMITSEED
GOODWILLAMBASSADORS
BENTNOBUORRSPUD
LEENINJALOANSMOIST
INAPETINSTAGRAMMER
PALAUTNTUTESPGA
WRECKERBATONAROD
CORPORATEELITEOSMOSE
OVERPARELOPECAV
MARIAANIMALMAGNETISM
BRUNTTOPUPSNOTNOSED
SYNTHSHAMSSTHELENS

★ Just when I think I've seen it all when it comes to "words hidden in phrases" themes, something innovative crops up. Kudos to Andrew for doing something new with it — finding words like LAMB inside phrases is one thing, but finding connected word pairs like LAMB / ASS is on a different level!

Great revealer in ANIMAL MAGNETISM, too. I've seen this phrase used in a couple of crosswords now, and it's cool to get so many different interpretations from different constructors. It would have been incredible to get theme phrases that had the male / female animal-specific terms, like BULL / COW or COCK / HEN, but I imagine that's impossible.

I did wonder if this would have made for a better weekday (15x15) puzzle than a Sunday, as the theme was straightforward once I figured out the gist. But there's something nice about a straightforward Sunday puzzle once in a while — I imagine that some (many?) novice Sunday solvers breathe a huge sigh of relief when the theme is something they can easily understand.

I also thought Andrew did a great job in executing his grid, going down to 136 words to give solvers an extra challenge ... WITHOUT COMPROMISING MUCH to accomplish this. To work in bonuses like NINJA LOANS, STAGE NAME, IMPROVISE, PAW PRINT, NEW MOON, etc. with just a smattering of ILO, DCI, GAOL, LITRE, TAE, is fantastic work. I did worry at first after encountering both ILO and DCI right off the bat, but thankfully, that didn't persist.

I think Sunday constructors need to earn their right to work with sub-140 word puzzles, as a great majority accept bad compromises to dip into those difficult waters. I'd give Andrew that green light based on his standout execution.

Not a mind-blowing theme, but I enjoyed the added level of complexity in the "words hidden within phrases" genre. Along with sharp execution featuring great bonuses in the fill, this one gets my POW!

Mon 9/4/2017
PAPADUCKSSPAN
EARPURIAHKARO
WAITSINTHEWINGS
MEHGLEEDUH
RESERVOIRDOGS
OUTTAKELATH
RBIFORTNOOSES
ELMOBBQHIRE
SEEPINSUETGIN
ALESABASHED
MILITARYBRATS
MATACLUSIS
BACKDOORSLIDERS
ACHESNARESEAL
SOYATSLOTORGY

Love it when a Monday puzzle hides a theme like this! Tracy treats us to a BBQ with WINGS, DOGS, BRATS, and SLIDERS. I enjoy seeing how long it takes me to figure out a Monday theme — often two themers is all it takes — but I doubt I would have figured this one out without the BBQ revealer. Nice!

I did like DOGS and BRATS better than the other two, though. BRATS got obfuscated especially well, not just a different meaning but a different pronunciation (between BRATty kids and BRATwurst). SLIDERS … perhaps I don't go to enough BBQs, but I don't think of SLIDERS (little tiny hamburgers) getting put on the grill. The patties are, sure, but the full SLIDERS, no. Unless you want grilled buns? Maybe I should try this!

Good execution, but I finished with an error for the first time in years in a Monday puzzle: ARGOS / DOH instead of ARGUS / DUH. As a Greek mythology buff, I was embarrassed. As a solver, I was annoyed. Was the error my fault? Maybe ... probably ... but I would have asked Tracy to rework this crossing to make it less ambiguous. Crosswords need to set up the solver to win, and I don't think this crossing did that.

I didn't mind the KAHLIL / LATH intersection as much, as the final letter in KAHLI_ … well, I guess I'd understand if solvers thought KAHLIM or KAHLIF could be probable. It'd be different if LATH were a word I saw every day.

It's too bad. There were some nice bonuses in PRIME TIME, SIGHTSEER, OUTTAKE, along with just a few PANDG (P&G) type dabs of crossword glue, so the rest of the grid I thought was well done.

Monday puzzles are so tough to create — you want to ensure that novice solvers finish with a fully correct puzzle to achieve that burst of elation. It just takes a single box to throw that off.

The hidden theme worked 75% well for me. If Tracy had used LINKS (any other sausage terms I'm missing?) instead of SLIDERS and fixed the tough crossings, I would have given it POW! consideration.

Tue 9/5/2017
SANDEGGEDAMPM
CREEDVIOLABARE
HAWAIIANAIRCFOS
IBMDANKNOTIPS
SLOGANGREEKVASE
MEMOSSOUNDSDUD
DEBTDDELOP
INTERMISSION
SAOTEEITRY
ITDOHWAITOASIS
CAMOPANTSONLINE
AMIDSTWARMNBA
RITEWISECRACKED
UNITATTARNIETO
SATSYOUREDRAG

I enjoy working with new constructors, and I really enjoy it when they're like Michelle. Open to feedback, never quitting, willing to work as hard as it takes to create a product that solvers will hopefully enjoy conquering. It was a pleasure to go back and forth with her.

She had pinged me with a very different idea, and it was neat to see her take my feedback about brainstorming … and actually do some brainstorming! A few ideas later, she hit on something that seemed interesting — hidden plays / musicals, i.e. HAIR in BRITISH AIRWAYS, with INTERMISSION as a revealer. It didn't seem quite right to me, but switching it so the play had an "intermission" in the middle felt like it could have legs.

Michelle started a list of possibilities, and we tried to find as many long musicals that could be broken up by short intermissions, like a real musical. HAWAIIAN AIR has a looooong intermission, while the GREEK VASE much more reflects the actual relative durations of a musical's first half, intermission, and second half.

We debated WISECRACKED vs. WINGBACKED — the latter felt very close to a real thing, but WINGBACK seemed much more in the language. I suggested WII WHACKED, i.e. what happens to a TV screen when a kid wildly flings a Wiimote at it. Michelle politely said that might be a little … ahem … esoteric. Good call, looking back on it!

It is incredible that anyone ever listens to me.

I laid out a grid skeleton for Michelle, testing to make sure it wouldn't cause problems, and Michelle took off from there. I coached her a little on what solvers might hate and love, and she did a fantastic job of iterating over 20 different versions to come up with what you see.

Wed 9/6/2017
CHERIMHOTPAUL
HAZEMAORIOGRE
EDITPROAMLGBT
FJORDEXPLORER
IIIROMERO
PILAFSMSBIGIF
ROILBEAUTYCALL
ENOCARTMANTIA
FINGERFEUDMONT
AZTECSOPBARGE
BEATITBBC
MILITARYQUEUE
GWENDOGITSARA
PORTAGAVEEVAS
SOSOLORESRELY

I'm not sure how to describe today's sound change theme. FORD to FJORD, BOOTY to BEAUTY, FOOD to FEUD, COUP to QUEUE … the last three are all "ooh" to "eew," nice and consistent. That first one though — FORD doesn't have the "ooh" sound, nor does FJORD match the "eew" pattern. I spent a long time trying to figure out if there was perhaps another way these all connected, i.e., a consistent spelling change, or letter substitution? Alas, no.

Or was there! I was complaining to Jim about the one inconsistent themer, and he asked why adding a Y sound was inconsistent in FORD to FJORD. D'oh! I'm curious how many other people biffed on comprehending the theme concept.

FINGER FEUD was a winning themer for me, evoking a funny image. BEAUTY CALL was a so-so resulting phrase, but I enjoyed getting the base phrase of BOOTY CALL in my crossword. Love it; in total agreement with Dani.

MILITARY QUEUE felt too much like a real thing — aren't there a lot of lines in the military? — and I've seen FJORD EXPLORER in different crossword contexts. So these two didn't do much for me.

I enjoyed the bonuses Dani worked in, LION TAMERS, AGGREGATOR, MACUSER looking like a fun Scottish name, and even BIG IF and DOG IT. Unusual for me to notice short fill in a good way!

A couple of EVAS, URB, EZIO (perhaps he's more familiar to an older generation?) dabs of crossword glue, but nothing egregious. Pretty well-executed grid. I think EVAS could have been removed fairly easily, though — I'm almost sure there are better options in that mostly unconstrained corner. (I know, I'm so nit-picky!)

Big ups for the EDIT clue. It's hard to make a short entry interesting, but the clever wordplay in "Paraphrase" to "Pare a phrase?" is brilliant.

After having the theme explained to me, I liked the concept. Pretty neat that all the Y-sound-additions were done with different spelling changes! But alas, the cleverness went over my head.

Thu 9/7/2017
ARBITERASTERS
BEBRAVEBOOYAH
CALORICCLAUDIA
COLCOURTING
CRTSDRIESTESS
HOIHOOTHOT
ILLSEEYOUINUP
LETTERALIVEONE
LOSELUCASARTS
MCAMEDOMIT
MONOLDPROOSLO
OVERBIDSRVS
SAMOANSSEEKING
STEWIETINAFEY
YEARNSYTTRIUM

Ah, that feeling of having given up on an idea years ago, deeming it impossible … only to see another constructor make it happen. Impressive construction today, Alex putting all the across answers in alphabetical, or ABC, order.

I had been working with a grid containing exactly 26 across answers, one for each letter of the alphabet, but no matter how long I flailed away, it just wasn't happening. I like Alex's approach, which is much less constrained than the one I had been taking, making it actually doable.

I wasn't hot on ABC as a revealer, because 1.) ABC order is not as strong as ALPHABETICAL order and 2.) it came at the beginning of the grid, giving away the game early. In mine, I was planning on using THE ALPHABET SONG, which would come at a better location for a revealer. But like my overall approach, that also proved impossible to execute on.

Impressive that Alex finished the grid with not nearly as much crossword glue as I would have expected from this set of constraints. Yes, there did feel a lot when I solved — ESS, CRTS, HOI, HEE, COL, BBL, and more — but think about how difficult it is to fix so many letters into place, all throughout the grid. It's true that some letters could be shifted, i.e. from C to D or from R to S, while still maintaining alphabetical order. But a single move like that will affect the rest of the puzzle, forcing a cascade of changes.

And to work in some great bonuses! EVILDOER, I ADORE IT, LUCASARTS, BOOYAH! Well done there.

As a constructor, I was wowed — Alex's note about 76 words being easier than 78 words was particularly interesting to me. As a solver though, the effect was less impactful, especially for a Thursday puzzle, where I expect to work harder for a bigger a-ha moment.

Fri 9/8/2017
TAPASBARSUMAC
ALOTTODOSAFIRE
FIREAXESPICKED
TATARSQINEWE
SCARUNTAPED
CYBERCAFESNIC
NOAARTIESTALE
BUZZFEEDQUIZZES
CROATCOURTZAP
EONBASESALARY
CAKEPOPGATE
AJAROSAHASPS
REJOINSAYONARA
BROWNSIMAMORON
SKEETFAKENAME

Check out all those rare letters in BUZZFEED QUIZZES! Four Zs and a Q = snazzy seed for a themeless. I didn't realize Buzzfeed does quizzes, but I've finally started to admit that I'm no longer cool enough to know about these things.

I was cool once, honest!

(Okay, I wasn't.)

Sam didn't stop there with the rare letters. BAZOOKA JOE running through BUZZFEED QUIZZES gave us a juicy J in the SW, as did YOU'RE A JERK. I loved the former, but wasn't as hot on the latter, especially given the presence of I'M A MORON. These are fine entries, but both in one puzzle seemed to me like a bit of a downer. Personal preference — I'd rather my crosswords be uplifting; an escape from the daily grind.

And don't forget the first Q in QUEEQUEG! Or the X in FIREAXES! During my solve, I didn't notice quite how many rare letters there were. Impressive, a full 10 complement of JQXZs.

It's not easy to work with so many rare letters. Those two Js in the SW force some unsightly crossword glue in REJOIN and AJA. (Steely Dan fans might disagree, but AJA is one of those constructors' crutches for the difficult-to-fill ?J? pattern.) That QUEEQUEG / BUZZFEED QUIZZES crossing constrained the middle, forcing SQ IN (square inch) and the awkward plural FIDOS.

So many constraining rare letters also force trade-offs in terms of the long slots. Sam did well to generally fill the grid smoothly, but using UNTAPED, the outdated-sounding CYBERCAFE, SIT AT HOME, RATE CAP / BASE SALARY tailored to finance wonks … these more take up space than shine, in my eyes.

I'm not a huge baseball fan, but MIKE PIAZZA does seem crossworthy to me. Most any Hall-of-Famer is fair game, methinks.

Neat to get all those rare letters. Along with some standout entries like SAYONARA and FAKE NAME, I enjoyed this one.

POW Sat 9/9/2017
WORLDSAPARTZAG
IHEARTRADIOODE
GOTTURNEDONNET
EMAILTINEAR
THANFELTIDLE
NODICEARTINESS
TROTHASIANFAT
SLEEPSBRAVED
EEEROLFEWANES
GASPEDALMENSAN
ORCANASADELL
TOETAPCIRCA
RUNPEACESUMMIT
INTPRNIGHTMARE
PDSSPIDEYSENSE

★ A ton of strong entries today, most all of them hitting home so well for me. That bottom stack in particular — PEACE SUMMIT, PR NIGHTMARE with its crazy PRN start, and SPIDEY SENSE? Yes, please! And there was so much goodness in those four corners, WORLDS APART to ZONE DEFENSE to HORSE AROUND to VAN DAMME (check out "JCVD" if you haven't seen it — amazing movie!).

And ADOLESCENTS isn't usually an entry I'd point out as an asset, but its clue made it shine. Such an innocent looking [Minority group] clue made me think of voting minorities, not under the age of 18 folks. Perfect wordplay; so clever.

The EMAIL clue, referencing the shenanigans in the 2016 election? Too soon, Will and Joel. Too soon.

I typically hold 72-word themelesses to a very high bar, because they're pretty easy to execute on. For me to pick one as a POW!, it usually has to contain well over 10 great entries, and close to no crossword glue. This one made me rethink my criteria. I counted about 11 assets and 3-4 liabilities. EEE in particular is EEEgregious, a constructor's crutch that I'd never use in one of my puzzles.

But I enjoyed the puzzle so much, that I was able to overlook these issues. Although there were some lost opportunities in the long slots — ARTINESS and GET REST don't do much except take up valuable real estate — the feature entries were so strong. Made me think I need to adjust my evaluation metrics, perhaps giving strong entries one point and super-strong ones two points?

My OCD need to measure and record everything aside, themeless puzzles are all about how the entries hit a solver's personal interests. This one was spot-on for me.

Sun 9/10/2017SIZE MATTERS
BESAFEJULIANASCAR
ASHRAMANOINTCOMPOTE
STATICCYCLINGONEONTA
HERLEEZAIOSRAID
SKYTELSILOFREQUENCY
SAOICEDINSLUGS
SLIMAARYLEMLALAS
HEPPCCYCLONESRICCI
YAHWEHPOIOTTERSINN
AVOIRSTASHHALECOLA
WENTPROSTAHLBLARNEY
ASSTALOTMOANALUCAS
YOOSTOKERTBALADOGA
NUBIADRAWSSINAIMUY
PARTVSNIPVOXMMES
REAIRUNUSEDGAI
SILENTSUPPORTOBOIST
TRIXIMARIFLESEE
RENAULTSAIGONFISHING
ENEMIESSCRUBSSAMOSA
WESSEXTENETSTONED

A mash-up of letter addition and sound change today, using the "sigh" sound. Static cling becomes STATIC CYCLING, low frequency to SILO FREQUENCY, etc. Took me a while to figure out some of the base phrases, as BEQ did a nice job of employing obfuscating spelling changes like GONE to SAIGON and NIGH to SINAI.

I was going to applaud the non-repetition of any one "sigh" addition, but there's CLING to CYCLING and CLONES to CYCLONES. Ah well.

Humor is so subjective. None of the themers made me laugh out loud, but they were all decent. Well, except for SHARK SIPHON SOUP. That one felt inconsistent, as the "in" sound of "fin" didn't stay the same. (I pronounce "siphon" with an "un" sound. Have I been wrong all these years?) The resulting phrase felt awkward, too.

Eight themers are slightly above average (we usually see seven on Sundays), but there's a good amount of crossword glue that I'm not used to seeing in a BEQ puzzle. Nothing was major, but with a listing of AME, ALAI (can only clue in one way), STA, MAI, IMA, AAR, YOO, INST, GAI, etc. it felt like it didn't hit the high standard I expect from BEQ.

The title also felt wonky. I get the play on SIZE MATTERS = "sigh" sounds matter. But that singular vs. plural (matter vs. matters) makes the wordplay not work for me. Perhaps a play on SIGHS would have been better? Or SUPERSIZED?

I did like some of the bonuses though — BLARNEY, COMPOTE, WENT PRO, and especially BAR EXAMS with its brilliant clue, playing off of "practice tests." Since the theme didn't personally hit me that well, these bonuses strewn throughout the puzzle were very welcome.

POW Mon 9/11/2017
PSISOSPADLSD
OMGPOMADEAPE
MALAYPENINSULA
PROFSLEDARID
TORTILLAFLAT
OWESEA
PALEODAWES
EGADHICKMAXX
AUKDASHESLPS
RAEILLINILOW
PERFECTGPA
FLUKESHAWL
LEADMOOTMAIL
ARCOPAPAPLEA
LAIRTHATELON
ALDAYULERAND

★ Great start to the week, a solid offering from two of my favorite people in the crossworld. I've seen a couple of LA LA LAND puzzles over the years — especially after the Oscars brouhaha — so (probably like Erik) I was a tad underwhelmed to get "phrases containing LA and LA." What a nice a-ha moment when I realized that it wasn't just any old phrases, but actual LANDs containing LA and LA. Beautiful!

Mirror symmetry can be a godsend. I don't imagine there are many place names containing LA and LA. As a constructor, it can be supremely frustrating to find great theme answers, only to realize that they don't pair up. Lengths of 14, 12, 10, 10, bleh! Except that mirror symmetry handles some kooky theme set lengths perfectly. Good trick to have in one's arsenal.

Mirror symmetry typically requires more black squares than regular symmetry, and today's grid is no exception. It's usually necessary to deploy some black squares in the middle of the puzzle, and they tend to chunk up, like the "hat" sitting atop HICK. Some editors put a limit on black squares at 36 or 38, but I don't mind when a puzzle gets up to 40 or even 42, as long as it's still visually pleasing. This grid looked fine to me.

Tough to make one's voice heard in an early-week puzzle that calls for simple clues, but I love what these guys have done. OOPSIE! SLED clue referencing "Calvin and Hobbes." PERFECT GPA! Even a fun quote with LOW. (It's from Michelle Obama, taking the high road when others go LOW.)

I wasn't sure about AFROED, but it does have dictionary support. More importantly, Erik has been awesomely AFROED in the past, so I defer to him. Otherwise, not a single hitch in the short fill — such meticulous work in filling out their grid, not an OOPSIE in sight. Your effort and care are much appreciated, sirs.

A joy to solve; exactly how interesting, smooth, and snazzy a Monday puzzle should be.

Tue 9/12/2017
HIPSENDOWSHAH
OMRIVERDIHONE
MISTRESSESATTA
ENTUSSESPIED
LAUDSCISTERNS
AWNUTSONTOONE
BETEPRODRANAT
LIFELINES
SPASMTEARSLIM
ARTHOARCREEPO
VIEWINGSUTAHN
AVIATEJABDOO
GYNTDIVERSIONS
ETTEGLADETREK
DOORELLISDESI

There have been many plays on Roman numerals in crosswords over the years, but I don't remember this exact implementation. Fun a-ha, realizing that MISTRESSES should be parsed as MI STRESSES (M = 1000, I = 1). My favorite was LIFELINES changing to LI FELINES (L = 50) — such a cool transformation!

Nice that Bruce used a big set of V, L, C, D, M. Would have been perfect to get X for the sake of completion, but there aren't many options starting with XI. XIA DYNASTY = 11, A DYNASTY? Um ... no.

Also would have been nice to get an arithmetic progression, going V L C D M or M D C L V, but what can you do. More important is to pick themers that produce some laughs.

Pretty good grid execution, nice bonuses in HOME LAB / IM IN AWE / PR STUNT — great triplet! — along with AW NUTS, IPHONES. It would have been great to get a few more fantastic entries outside of that snazzy NW corner. Most of the mid-length fill does a fine job, but LEAD ORE or ATE INTO aren't going to win many accolades.

A touch too much crossword glue for my taste, for an early-week puzzle. Entries like NRC (National Response Corporation? Nuclear Regulatory Commission? Natural Resources Consultants?) can be a turn-off to newer solvers, as can tough names like OMRI. CREEPO is an odd word, and some DOO ETTE rounds it out.

Given how important I think it is to hook newer solvers into the fun of crosswords, I'd much prefer constructors to err on the side of cleanliness instead of jazziness. For example, as much as I liked the colorful entries in the NW corner, I might have preferred to get just two of those great answers without the price of OMRI.

I know, I want everything! So demanding.

Great clue in DUELS — "Pacers" meaning "people who pace" instead of the Indiana Pacers.

Nice theme idea. Roman numerals have been such a gold mine for constructors; fun to see a slight twist.

Wed 9/13/2017
MOPSPOWECLAT
IBETHUESBRIDE
LEPETITDEJEUNER
OSSIEGMANELM
EINEKLEINEDES
SRIEZRA
BRIOOLESEENIE
UNAPOCADEGRACIA
TAMERCUTEMEIR
SLAWARP
HMONACHTMUSIK
OEDGLUESHOAL
THELITTLETHINGS
STAINSLOERIAA
YADDAANNKANT

THE LITTLE THINGS today, three foreign phrases that translate to "the little lunch," "a little grace," and "a little serenade." Interesting to learn that the last one actually doesn't mean "a little night music," as I'd thought every one of the hundreds of times I've played it! (Former cellist.)

Dan got in touch with me about this one at Will's behest. It's a tough set of themers to work with, so it was no surprise that Dan hadn't been able to come up with a grid that met Will's criteria for smoothness and snazziness. I wasn't super hot on the theme, but I gave Dan a couple of tips on how to lay it out better.

After several back and forths, he was still having trouble. Again, no surprise, given the frazzling theme set of 15 / 10 / 15 / 10 / 15. It's a constructor's nightmare.

Normally, I don't build grid skeletons for people without asking for a shared byline, but Dan was so earnest and hard-working, never quitting, that I hated to see him stymied. I offered to help him out, gratis — I like a challenge, anyway.

Took me five or so hours to figure out a grid skeleton that tested out well, with generally solid fill plus a few strong bonuses in the long slots. During the first two hours, I had become worried that perhaps this theme set was intractable, so it was a huge relief when I finally landed on a layout I was nearly certain could be filled well.

Unfortunately, I had put in UNA POCO DE GRACIA, not POCA. Sigh. Such an idiot!

Such a seemingly easy thing to correct proved to be not so easy, so it took me a couple more hours to come up with proper adjustments. Dan took it from there, and after a few more back and forths, it was in the can.

Overall, I think it turned out well. I did worry (slightly) that solvers might mess up the K in KROC or the second E in EBENEZER since they're crossed with tough foreign words, but ultimately, I think educated solvers ought to know those names.

The theme still only tickles me as much as I would like — just a LITTLE, ha ha — but I think Dan did a nice job of finding a solid set of themers for the concept and finishing things out.

Thu 9/14/2017
ALASACMEROBS
COMACHILDERIE
TOOTHISOWNHORN
SUEDMANIFESTS
CENSUREDCACHE
GETMADDENROSS
INTROSSEUSS
DOUNTOOTHERS
STAFFRYDELL
NESTSTEVIEVIE
EXULTDIASTEMA
SPREADTOOTHIN
SEEDPEARLSILES
URDUSTAIRELSE
STOPASNOFEST

DIASTEMA? That's a … gap in one's teeth? I was confused at the end of my solve, having missed the concept, but I got a nice a-ha when I realized that John split theme answers so that they were "gap-toothed": TOOT / HIS OWN HORN, DO UNTO / OTHERS, SPREAD TOO / THIN. Fun twist on the old "words hidden within theme phrases" theme type.

DIASTEMA is an unusual revealer. I might have chosen to go with GAP TOOTHED so as to be more transparent, but there's something to be said about using DIASTEMA to delay the a-ha moment; to make the solver work for it. It does run the risk of the solver finishing the grid without understanding the theme, and putting the puzzle aside.

I get John's point about matching verb tenses in the themers, but I found the lack of symmetry odd. Along with DIASTEMA being in an unusual location for a revealer — with no symmetrical theme answer — the layout felt a little clunky. Other solvers might not notice any of this, but symmetry is such a core feature of crosswords that breaking it requires an extraordinary or theme-specific reason to do so, in my book.

I wonder if it would have helped to split MOLAR, CANINE, INCISOR, etc. instead of just TOOTH? Or to use TEETH?

Some tough fill. Totally fine to use esoteric words in a Thursday puzzle, like DUMONT, RYDELL, NESSUS (and DIASTEMA!). But too many of them can be a turn-off, especially when they leave room for a solver to finish with an unfair error. I finished with SHIEST / RIDELL instead of SHYEST / RYDELL, and DOMONT / CENSORED instead of DUMONT / CENSURED. Ultimately, I think both errors are more on me than on the puzzle — SHIEST is apparently a variant spelling — but that didn't stop me from coming away frustrated.

Neat concept, fun to see those gaps in the TOOTHs (maybe it should have been TEETH!). Some problems in execution, though.

Fri 9/15/2017
IMPEIDENCHSHH
MATEDENOLATEE
BUBLEADVERSARY
UNAMEDIAFRENZY
YARDARNYAZOO
IKNOWRIGHTRAGU
NEUMANNAHAS
GAMWIGLEVTIE
WANEFRENEMY
GDAYGRACIOUSME
LILACDRTSTET
ALLTHATJAZZCRO
SANTACRUZABASE
STEFLAREPOSEY
YEWFUMEDSWEDE

Damon used this grid pattern earlier this year to great effect, so I was eager to see what he would do with it this time. I like how this pattern let him spread so many great long entries all throughout the grid, intersecting MEDIA FRENZY with DEAD RINGER with I KNOW, RIGHT? with HALF CRAZED with GRACIOUS ME with THE RITZ with ALL THAT JAZZ. It's like the snazziness never stopped!

With 14 long slots and 4 mid-lengthers, I'd be happy to see a total of 12 or so converted into assets. Things like ADVERSARY and NEUMANN aren't eye-openers, but most all the rest is fantastic. Very well done there.

The grid leans toward the end of the spectrum of having a ton of great fill at the cost of quite a bit of crossword glue. (The opposite end is Patrick Berry, whose puzzles are squeaky clean, magically assembled, but sometimes lacking in pizzazz.) I hit IDEM early, then ARN, DR T (a terrible entry considering the forgettability of the movie), STET, NUS, CRO, ENOLA, AVEO. Too much for my taste.

The LEV / AVEO cross felt iffy, too. A bygone car is bad enough, but LEN, LEY, LEO, LEK, LEB, all seemed plausible. LEO felt like it had to be right, and AOEO looked *sort of* plausible, given all the odd car model names out there. I had a tough time believing LEV / AVEO because I've seen LEV mostly as an Israeli name.

Sometimes I wonder if my life as a constructor has corrupted my ability to enjoy puzzles, especially themelesses. I loved sussing out I KNOW, RIGHT, and felt like overall, there was so much color everywhere in the grid. Yet my stupid constructor's brain couldn't get past all those dabs of crossword glue to give this one the POW!

Stupid brain.

Sat 9/16/2017
SHELOVESMESAGS
HESAKEEPERTROI
EASYSTREETARID
ELALEMERGENC
PSYOPSDASHSPA
WALLOWESTEE
CISNODSHOOHAS
ASHPITSJESSICA
STARCHCOLTMER
THROBTHEGAP
PAKASIAATESTS
ATTORNEYTARA
RYANIDONTGETIT
TONEPOTATORACE
YUKSENEMYLINES

The JASA class is back! With a standard themeless layout — four sets of triple-stacks, one in each corner — you have to make every one of those long entries count. So many colorful assets, from SHE LOVES ME (she loves me not) to ARREST HIM! to ENEMY LINES to SHARK TANK (I love me some Mr. Wonderful!). High conversion rate, making good use of those 12 long slots.

But that's not all! They could have gone the easy route by doing a 72-word puzzle — perhaps by putting black squares at the Rs of EMERGEN-C and of ATTORNEY. A 70-word puzzle allows for a couple more juicy long entries, in this case allowing for some PANIC BAR goodness.

The stretching did come at a price, though. See how EMERGEN-C and RHEOSTAT (a boring term, even for this mechanical engineer) extend in toward the middle of the grid? That makes the NE corner much less flexible. As a result, in order to get the GO IN PEACE / SID CAESAR type goodness, they had to dab in some ERTES, TROI, MER.

Those three are fairly ignorable (although ERTES is tougher to swallow, taking up slightly more real estate), but those types of trade-offs occurred in other places too, notably the SE. TTY is … tele … typewriter? Huh. GOL attempted to be cute by misdirecting toward the much more common OLE, but it's not a good entry. Along with the mysterious CHAYOTE in that region and the groan-worthy A-TESTS, it felt like the weak part of the grid.

Speaking of that, POTATO RACE? Again, huh. Wikipedia says it's basically a race involving potatoes. Go figure.

But overall, kudos to the class for producing a mostly solid grid with a good number of feature entries. Also, a nice wink to get MEEMAW, from the senior-aged class!

Sun 9/17/2017SUPER LOOPER
SEAWARSFEATDALIASH
IMRIGHTAMMOELEGANCE
LOBSTERMIDORBEVEROOM
OTOHSUTRATITATTIRE
SERBUTAUSTINPRIONS
OPSSHELTERTOTEM
PIANOSIELLANOSESA
UNDEROOFBLACKBOARDER
LADTONIERTEETHE
STERMIDEASTSENECA
AIRESCONCERIESMAXED
RESCUEEQUALTOLISA
ALTPOPENMESHLAP
COMPUTERATORSPOILERT
RNAASTRALETHLODES
YAYMETHEPIPSPLO
SPADESNANOTUBESPAM
CLOVESOTSSATYRELLA
ROLERSALBATTERMINALS
OPENLATEARIEDILUTES
WESEYESRATSSTEPONE

We've had a couple of puzzles involving looping answers over the past few years, including one with the letters L O O P looping, Coriolis force, and my favorite — one with things that actually loop! The title of SUPER LOOPER gave away the game instantly for me — would have been nice to get something more clever there, allowing for an a-ha moment.

I enjoyed many of the finds, especially the ones that were snazzy entries in their own right. LOBSTER THERMIDOR was particularly nice, as were SPOILER ALERT and ROLE REVERSAL. Great stuff.

Not as hot on BEVERAGE ROOM. It was hard enough to parse due to the looping effect, and no smile when I realized it had to be BEVERAGE ROOM … didn't sound like an actual thing. Some research shows that it is an actual term, but that didn't quell my grumblings.

Any Sunday puzzle is tough to make, and to introduce more constraints is asking for pain. You might think, what's the big deal, adding just two more fixed squares to each of the theme entries? It's a huge deal, greatly reducing much-needed flexibility.

So, not a surprise to get a slew of crossword glue. I stopped counting after I hit 10 dabs of glue, and it felt like it kept on going. Nothing egregious, except maybe OSO, STER, and IF I DO, but so much in aggregate left me with an impression of inelegance.

Certainly, reducing the number of theme examples would have helped — eight or even seven would have been perfectly fine for me. I might have even preferred for this to be a weekday puzzle (15x15) with just four themers, as once I figured out what was going on, the concept got repetitive.

Overall though, I appreciated the snazzier finds like LOBSTER THERMIDOR, and how Mark worked in some great bonuses that helped keep my attention, like WISHBONE, TAPAS BAR, LOOSEN UP. That's not easy to do with such a constrained puzzle.

ADDED NOTE: I completely missed that each loop starts with ER, making for LOOP-ERs! Nice touch, much harder to find good theme answers than I thought.

Mon 9/18/2017
PAPERAPESETCH
LLAMAREPOTHOU
OPTICERICHEWN
WHITEKNUCKLED
SAODNAEUROPA
VIEFITSNON
GREENEYEDTRAIT
NUNSLODESELSE
ABETSREDHANDED
SIRAPEXAMT
HOGTIEAKAPRO
YELLOWBELLIED
ORBSTRAYGATED
NEATEGGSATALL
SPRYDYESMESSY

Nice and consistent theme, [color] + [bodily descriptor using -ED]. Neat finds — I wouldn't have imagined that there were four of these phrases, much less four that so perfectly exhibited crossword symmetry. A constructor's dream!

Interesting layout. Typically it's best to alternate themers left / right, so in this case, GREENEYED would go all the way to the right, and RED HANDED would shift to the far left. That usually allows for better spacing and thus, easier filling. But two shortish themers, at nine letters apiece, gives a lot of flexibility in placing your themers. It's fun as a constructor to buck convention to see what happens.

A pair of strong bonuses in ENERGY BAR and THE DONALD. The latter may not be to everyone's political tastes, but it is a colorful nickname. (I keep trying to get people to call me El Jefe, but that hasn't stuck. Harrumph.)

Smooth grid, too, not a surprise for a McCoy. NON, ONS, and AMT are all minor, so I breezed through the puzzle. Well crafted; I'd happily give this to novice solvers.

But given how much flexibility the low(ish) theme density allowed for, I would have liked to see more bonuses in the fill. I'd bet a huge sum that given Tom's skills, he could have worked in another pair (or two) of great long entries, perhaps by taking out the black square in between ORBS and TRAY, while still keeping the grid nice and smooth. The theme wasn't anything mind-blowing, so these extra bonuses could be important in terms of holding solvers' attention.

Solid Monday offering, if not as awe-inspiring as Tom's puzzles usually are. Tough to achieve that in a Monday puzzle, anyway.

Tue 9/19/2017
ADDSOMITHOPED
PROWFOREANODE
ALGAFROSGORSE
CAMPAIGNSIGNS
HUENCAANIECES
ERAGENGHISKHAN
SATIEEONNERO
DRIBSKEE
VOTEMAARESTS
WRONGANSWEROAT
SONTAGHILOAKA
SILENTPARTNER
SPIKEERINHDTV
OSLINLENDISEE
PASTALEGSSONS

There's a brilliant idea here, SILENT PARTNER referring to two-word phrases where both words contain the same silent letter. Neat finds — my favorite was GENGHIS KHAN, as my old Ultimate Frisbee team (who recently went to the city league summer league finals, woop woop!) is named Genghis Khan Wild (get it?).

There have been a lot of plays on silent letters, a SILENT NIGHT puzzle one of my favorites, but I can't remember this particular implementation. I wished I had thought of it, gosh darn it! ... once I understood it.

I so badly wished it had been SILENT PARTNERS, plural. The clue for SILENT PARTNER was so convoluted that I didn't get it, even after reading it a few times. It would have been so much better if it had read [… and what G, H, W are …] for SILENT PARTNERS. Seemingly small change, but it would have made all the difference in the world for me.

Some nice bonuses, not a surprise in a Gagliardo / Burnikel offering. DR LAURA, SO AND SO, TAKE TEN, PORSCHE, APACHES, IRON AGE — fantastic use of the mid-length slots.

DOG MEAT … I hitched on this one. My western bias is showing for sure, but I'm not sure I'd put this entry into one of my own puzzles. Should it pass the breakfast test? I'm not sure, but if it elicited an icky reaction from this dog-lover, I imagine it could do the same for many others.

A couple of blips in the fill, GORSE, EDS, HOS, ORO, SKEE, SNO. All in all, too much for my taste, but I can see how other constructors would find these as acceptable prices to pay for all the great bonus entries like IRON AGE plus the aforementioned. Given that IDENTIKIT and ON ONE KNEE didn't do that much for me, I would have preferred focusing on all those great seven-letter entries and getting a smoother grid.

Fantastic idea, wish I had thought of it. It would have been a theme of the year if it had used the plural SILENT PARTNERS.

Wed 9/20/2017
SANDPCDSCAVA
CLAREKLEEOLAF
AFTERSHAVENOGO
BAHSWAMISDOUR
AVIANLATEFEE
FENWAYWIM
INISZESTANJOU
JOEBETTORSKMS
ILLBESUVABRAE
BATDECORS
POPQUIZSINEW
AFARMUSEUMLYS
UGLIBMWXSERIES
LOMBEBAYSONAR
ADESRAGHIGHS

Even after finishing my solve, it took me a while to figure out the notepad's meaning. 25 consecutive things? At first, I thought it was alphabetical order, with BCE as #2 and CDS as #3? But #1 was … SCAB? Huh. I'm not sure I would have given it more thought if I was a typical solver, which would have been a shame because it's an interesting concept: each of the numbered entries contains two consecutive letters of the alphabet, covering all 25 pairs. SCAB, BCE, CDS, etc.

I probably should have figured it out from BMW X SERIES. What a cool entry, with its five consonants in a row! There aren't many *WX* entries to choose from, and even though I'm no car aficionado, I thought this was fun. JK ROWLING is a great way to get the *JK* sequence, too.

Given that there needed to be 25 theme answers, it's no surprise that there was quite a bit of crossword glue holding the grid together. Sure, there's a lot of flexibility given that AB has tons of choices, as does DE, GH, etc., but anytime you need to shove in 25 themers, it ain't going to be easy. That constructor's viewpoint made it a little easier to stomach AFORE, ENOL, INIS, KMS, LYS, SSRS, ROI, OF GOD, etc.

But just a little.

Many nice thematic entries in this grid, like POP QUIZ, BBQ RIBS, SWAYZE. But as a solver, it didn't have much impact for me — not enough to make up for the necessary compromises.

Perhaps if there had been a better visual element? Even highlighting the letter doublets? It would have been cool if all the doublets connected, snaking their way through the puzzle. Likely impossible to do, but fun to think about.

Thu 9/21/2017
TWOTIMCADSTEW
RESOLEONEBYONE
INSULTPARANOIA
STOPSDSLSALAR
EUBIESPACY
GIVEEARMOIST
ODESSTRIKEEGS
BEEABASENOT
SOPHLANCENORA
SOFTGAFLOWER
TATTLFLEAS
ELATEEELHELEN
MAKESUREMODELA
PIESHELLPRIVAT
INSTYESSENILE

Neat idea here, Adlai Stevenson not a TWO TIM but a TWO TIM(ELOSER). Interesting find, that the second half backward forms a real word in RESOLE. I'm glad Will ended up starring the appropriate clues, as these themers would have been tough to pick out, in what was already a very tough puzzle.

Icing on the cake to get a double UEY in the center, STRIK (ESABA) LANCE flipping twice. Great discovery!

It threw me off that all these answers pulled UEYs … to the right. Seems like a big traffic no-no. But since Matt lived in England for a long time, I let this hiccup pass.

I would have preferred to have the themers run vertically, so the UEYs would be done in the proper direction. (Sorry, Anglophiles!)

Nice bonuses in TOO LATE NOW, SYNAPSE, TOUPEES, PARANOIA, PIE SHELL, and … VEEPSTAKES? That last one didn't register for me, but what a great term to learn. (Pols jockeying to get named to a Presidential ticket.) Considering the high theme density, not easy to work in these bonuses.

Wait, wait, wait, you might say — it's not that dense, considering the shorties in SALAR(YCAPS) and TATTL(ELATE). But when you stack pairs like this, the grid quickly becomes inflexible. So, a good job executing, with just a bit of IDEO, ELAL, INST.

Okay, AFLOWER felt inelegant as an "A prefix" constructor's crutch, but it does have dictionary support. GIVE EAR … it also has dictionary support. But again, hmm.

Maybe these entries are more common in England?

I would have preferred going up to 76 words, perhaps by rearranging black squares to break GIVE EAR and AFLOWER into two words apiece. For me, this would have made for a more elegant-feeling grid.

Overall though, a clever idea with some great finds. Fun to figure out all those answers pulling UEYs.

Fri 9/22/2017
MICASAESSUCASA
INEVERSAIDTHAT
THREECARGARAGE
EARNDULLELI
ARMYSWIRLTHIN
LEISTANDCHEEK
ESCAPADEOHENRY
CARESPIT
SHTICKTHEMAMBO
TOADYDIODEIAN
AMPSROMPSMAZE
REIMACEDEMO
ROMANTICPERIOD
ICINGONTHECAKE
CAREERCRIMINAL

Fourteen-letter entries are rare in themelesses, and for good reason — they're so annoying to work around. Each one forces a black square placement right off the bat, and that's no bueno for constructors needing maximum flexibility.

So it's neat to get six (!) 14-letter entries today … triple-stacked, nonetheless! Most of them feel so fresh, a reflection of how most themeless constructors avoid 14s like the plague. MI CASA ES SU CASA is awesome, as is ICING ON THE CAKE.

Visually, I don't care for most black squares in the corners of themelesses — Rich Norris over at the LAT has discouraged their use — but those chunks in the NE / SW felt like reasonable prices to pay to get those colorful stacks.

Clean stacks, too. Well, mostly. It's inevitable to get some minor crossword glue like CTR and ESA holding a triple-stack together. I was less enthused about INHERES … ["The door is open!" cries?]. It is in the dictionary, but it's such an odd word, not something I hear every day. Or year. Or decade.

And UDALL and SIGURD felt like fair game to me, but even this Norse myth buff had a tough time piecing together SIGURD. So although I appreciated the lack of ugly short fill, the mid-length stuff did feel somewhat offbeat.

Love the MACE clue, a literal "old ball and chain." Ha!

But there were some clues I had to look up to figure out:

  • TIME INC is a [Life preserver?]? I think they bought … Life magazine? Hard to tell from the Wikipedia article.
  • DOCTOR is one who's gotten the third degree? But don't most physicians get a bachelor's and then an MD? Ah, must be referring to Ph.D.s. But some go straight from bachelor's to Ph.D. programs. Huh.
  • [Current director] attempted to misdirect from electrical current to "contemporary film director," perhaps? But it fell flat on this engineer, as that's an awkward way to describe a DIODE.

Overall, the cluing felt like it was trying a little too hard.

There wasn't as much great fill as I like in a themeless — tough to include much else when the triple-stacks take up so much real estate — but wow, were most of those 14s fantastic.

POW Sat 9/23/2017
HIGHSCORESPSAT
AREYOUDONEAWLS
DEEPFREEZEWEEK
UNSEATYIPPEE
PEERCOMFORT
DRAPEWISPS
SPICIESTPENPAL
NOTONCEPARTONE
ALFREDDIGESTED
POINTSATED
GETBUSYJAMB
TUREENBMOVIE
GIRLHOUSEPLANT
OREOACROBATICS
VESTRONWEASLEY

★ Robyn hit my SWEET SPOT with this one — a ton of colorful answers right up my alley, with not much crossword glue holding the grid together. Along with easy, unrestricted solving flow that was problematic in many of her previous puzzles, it wowed me!

That starting triple-stack of HIGH SCORES / ARE YOU DONE / DEEP FREEZE was dynamite. PAW PRINTS with its brilliant [Dog-walking trail] clue (think of a trail of PAW PRINTS left behind), IT FIGURES / CORNER LOT, GET BUSY (did you also titter at the alternate meaning?), PENPAL, and another great triple-stack in the SE to finish it off. Yes!

Now, not everyone will love (or even know) RON WEASLEY. I debated whether the BEHAR and SUNOCO crossings were fair. I even debated whether or not RON WEASLEY was crossworthy, considering there are some infidel muggles out there. Ultimately, given how huge the HP series is, with giant box-office takes on the eight blockbuster movies, though … and Joy BEHAR is big enough a star that NYT solvers ought to know her.

Great clue on HOUSEPLANT, too. I was thinking of a "mister" as a guy, not a device that produces mist. Wicked clever! And the clue for ROE as [Potential perch] — great misdirection from "fish" to "a place to sit on."

I didn't care for ALEE, RECD, MPAA, but they all felt minor. Nice craftsmanship to keep it to just these insignificant blips. Well, there was SEE IF. The clue tried to disguise it as not a partial, but let's call a spade a spade, people.

Robyn's sparkly voice shining through, along with strong execution. Wonderful solving experience.

Sun 9/24/2017STATE LINES
OPENERAGATEWAYARSON
POSEDASONSTAGENEWDO
CATCHMEIFYOUCANCLAIR
ICETJAMATIKISHAMUS
THRACEBRISONEMOTIME
ROTORSICSPARE
PAIRMOANATTIREMIX
MAANDPAKETTLETDBANK
ESMEOLESOLDEEDGE
ATEILLOOPSMICHAELS
LETSKEEPTHISINHOUSE
WITHMAYORONIREPEWE
AVIASEALBOERENOL
RENTALEVERYTHINGSOK
MSGDOUBLEALTAAGED
MOANAZINOBEYS
HITORMISSSKIMISHALL
INADAYEEROLADSENYA
CELEBOHTOBEINENGLAND
KRILLSITUATEBEELINE
STALESTEEREDTRESSED

State abbreviations have been mined for crossword themes over and over, but I can't remember this exact implementation. I enjoyed a few, CATCH ME (Maine) IF YOU CAN a potential tourist slogan for the Pine Tree State. EVERYTHINGS OK (Oklahoma) might be another one. Amusing to imagine a bunch of marketing folks brainstorming slogans like these.

Many others didn't work for me, though. LETS KEEP THIS IN (Indiana) HOUSE felt made-up, weak for a central feature base phrase. For as many IN phrases as there are, why not go with one more spectacular? Not to mention, it was weird to get IN in OH (Ohio) TO BE IN ENGLAND, but not have it stand for Indiana.

MA (Massachusetts) and PA (Pennsylvania) KETTLE felt like it should be pluralized; tortured grammar.

HIT OR (Oregon) MISS gave me an uncomfortable picture of physical violence. I hope that's just me.

ONE MO TIME … is that something people say? Seems to be an MC Hammer song?

I appreciated that the grid was smooth(ish). I ticked off about ten dabs of crossword glue, not terrible considering how difficult it is to construct a 21x21.

But I think it's important to avoid too much glue of one type. Notice anything in common between ETUI ENOL ETE EERO ESME EDH? Reminded me of another puzzle I helped a friend out with.

I would have much preferred to go up from 138 words to the maximum of 140, by breaking up GATEWAY at the E. That would have allowed Alan to remove ETUI in the top, and OSS, EERO, ROUE, ETE in the south. GATEWAY is a nice bonus, but it doesn't make up for all those dabs of glue.

Overall, I liked the idea here, and the couple of nice bonuses too, in PAST LIVES / AA MEETING, IM BROKE, MADE SENSE. I think it had the potential to be a really strong puzzle, if it had been spun as "marketing slogans for states."

Mon 9/25/2017
ADDERDABAFTER
DIANAEMUDRONE
HANDYBILHOITY
ORDGRUELESTEE
CYYOUNGMARTYRS
ANATONE
TREKSFOODSTAMP
WAVEHOTSYWIRE
OPENHOUSEDIDIN
OPRYAIR
STDENISSCULPTS
IHOPEPOWERAAH
LOVEYEGONAMBY
TREEDERRAMBLE
SAYSODENLAYER

Five sets of crossing rhymers, each 2x5 letters, each sharing the same last four letters. (Highlighted below.) I like saying HOTSY TOTSY and HOITY TOITY, so those were winners for me.

Not so much HANDY DANDY, which the dictionary defines as "handy." Huh. I had just learned the term "Handy Andy" recently, so HANDY DANDY befuddled me. I thought maybe I'd missed some clever extra layer in the puzzle.

Bruce did a good job of spreading out those five crossing pairs of themers, and using his black squares wisely to make for easier filling. I wouldn't have been surprised to see some crossword glue in the NW and SE, but both regions came out nice and clean. CY YOUNG and RAY GUNS even make for excellent bonuses in the NW. Very well done there to Bruce and Frank!

Not quite as strong in the more open SW and NE corners, but still, the execution is good. SILTS is a strange plural, and REYES is a bit off the beaten path, but big 5x5 chunks containing crossing answers often require more dabs of glue than this to hold them together.

I enjoyed getting some BULL MOOSE and OPEN HOUSE; neat that they extended into that toughish HOTSY TOTSY center for an added degree of difficulty.

HONEY-DO is fun too, although it's not as nice as getting the full "honey-do list."

And FOUR SPEED … sometimes constructors have to choose between sparkling fill and clean but less interesting fill, and Bruce / Frank went with the latter in this case. I like their decision, especially because they already gave us some great goodies in BULL MOOSE and OPEN HOUSE.

Well-executed puzzle, but rhyming puzzles have been done to death. It takes a dazzling new feature to wow me in this genre, and the crossing themers didn't quite do it. It feels like there's a Schrodinger-type puzzle in here somewhere, with a single entry of (H/T)OITY … perhaps akin to one of Patrick Merrell's? That wouldn't be a Monday puzzle though!

POW Tue 9/26/2017
NEHIWOKSDUBS
ADAMROOTSACLU
PURPLEHARTLOIS
DEENLEOANTI
STYLEPAWPRINZE
WEBSKYSAL
ETONFLAKPARIS
PRYORCOMMITMENT
TASTENYADASEA
OERRAPCRY
BARRFIGHTABUTS
ACAIFOETIRE
MOPEFALLENIDLE
BRITSPIESBOON
INDYEXITEGGO

★ So much fun to make comedy out of regular phrases … using comedians! FALLEN IDLE made me laugh; so appropriate to kooky Monty Python humor. PURPLE HART (heart), PAW PRINZE (prints), PRYOR (prior) COMMITMENT, BARR (bar) FIGHT — nice that Joy and Lois drew from different ages, genders, races, and styles of comedy. I only vaguely knew Freddy PRINZE, but that was fine with me, as hitting 4/5 for this pop culture idiot is pretty darn good.

Five themers can give newer constructors fits, so it's a good thing the early-week veteran was on board. Lynn is such a strong constructor, always turning in clean and snazzy grids, and today's is no different. The 15-letter central entry is much easier to work with than a 13 or 11 or even 9 — a 15 doesn't force you to place any black squares — but still, look how many down entries must run through at least two across entries. So many constraints.

Lovely long downs in HARDY BOYS, NOTORIETY, DALAI LAMA, RESCUE DOG. So important to make your long fill slots count, and they did great here.

Smart to stick to 78 words, the max allowed. Some constructors might have attempted the low-word-count challenge (74 or even 72), but that's generally not wise, requiring a lot of compromises.

It is true that there are a ton of short words — a whopping 69 out of 78 that are five letters or less — but that's perfectly fine for an early-week puzzle. The high word count makes it so much easier to avoid dabs of crossword glue. Just some NEHI, OER, ENO, which I'm even hesitant to point out because they're so minor.

Amusing theme, superb execution. Not easy to entertain with an early-week puzzle, but this one succeeded for me.

Wed 9/27/2017
WATTFLAPSSTAN
ELOISERGEWACO
LOWETOTALEXAM
TUNDRAAFLCIO
CYPRESSHILL
HAREMMAAGUILE
ERISBORNEPNIN
ACEMATADORIED
THREERINGCIRCUS
TRIOREDO
ANCUNIONKER
DNAEMANUELSOW
EDGERLDSASSAI
GRIFTLIETWERP
SENSEYESHESSE

Nice idea here, a THREE RING CIRCUS visually represented, featuring a GLASS EATER, WIREWALKER, and FIRE DANCER in literal rings.

So tough to fill around those rings of letters, as they put a ton of constraints around the surrounding areas. Anytime you have "triple-checked" letters — ones that must work with acrosses, downs, plus one more constraint — you're bound to need some crossword glue to hold everything together.

Jacob does well to place a few black squares in the centers of the rings, which helps immensely in facilitating fill. I doubt this grid would have even been possible (unless you used an entire bottle of crossword glue) without at least one black square in the center of each ring.

The more black squares in the centers of rings, the better. Notice how much cleaner the top ring was than the bottom ones? Yes, FSTAR is not good (random letter + STAR = constructor's crutch), and SELAH is tough, but those are the kinds of compromises common to triple-checked letter puzzles.

The SW: ANC, NAGIN, DEGS, EFS, ERTE. The SE: KER, ESSES, SWE, LATH, ASSAI. Yikes. And yikes. One set alone would have been too much for a single puzzle. (I'm personally fine with ASSAI, but I'm not sure non-musicians would agree.)

I might have tried to reposition those bottom two rings, such that it was possible to get more black squares in their centers.

It would have been nice to get something more familiar than a GLASS EATER — perhaps a lion tamer or trapeze artist or a contortionist — but those last two are so long that it would have made things even harder.

I loved the thought behind the puzzle, but not the execution.

Thu 9/28/2017
EQUITABLEBOGGS
MULTIPLEXAROOM
TOTEMPOLEGIJOE
INSTARGOUDA
ATMTNTELMER
NRAODSREP
SITEIPO
EVENCANDYGNAW
LIFTETRE
MAREUSEUPTHAN
GINPONZIGEL
PASTDIGINOLES
AMBERALEASIAGO
NEEKTELTONKAS
TSEOEDSANGELO

Love the visual, a PINATA filled with CANDY. So cool how the black squares also form the string that hangs the PINATA from the ceiling! Beautiful concept.

I didn't understand the notepad at first, but then it became clear that C and Y weren't present in the rest of the grid. Huh.

Why include this extra layer, instead of leaving it be simply with CANDY in the PINATA, I wondered? I suppose there ought to be some extra way of figuring out what's in the PINATA, since CANDY doesn't have any crossing answers. But this felt like an inelegant way to do it. Would have been incredible to increase the center of the PINATA to three rows, for instance, filling it with NERDS, ROLOS, PEZ, etc. Maybe not possible, but fun to think about.

(I love discussing puzzles with Jim — fascinating to hear him explain why he found the C AND Y gimmick so satisfying! Puzzles are subjective, no doubt.)

The grid art applies so many constraints that Joe was forced to fill themeless-esque big swaths of white space. Nice work in the NW, EQUITABLE / MULTIPLEX / TOTEM POLE making for a strong triple-stack. I TEN (I-10) isn't great, nor is INS, but those aren't that bad.

The only section I thought suffered was the south, with RKO, KTEL, OEDS (plural?). Again, none of these are terrible, but all three clumped up shines a spotlight on them. Not a surprise though, given that PINATA constrains it on the right and AMBER ALE on the left, making for a construction challenge in that biggish section.

GO JUMP IN THE LAKE, ULTIMATE FRISBEE (although it's technically just called Ultimate now), TRIVIA GAMES, GET GOING (although a minor dupe in GO / GOING) = great stuff to keep solvers entertained. Overall, a reasonable balance between snazziness and cleanliness.

Fantastic concept, great visual. If CANDY had been hinted at in a way I found to be more clever, and this ran on a Tuesday or Wednesday with adjusted clues (anyone else feel frustrated with the incredibly difficult cluing for all those short words?), it would have been an easy POW! pick for me.

Fri 9/29/2017
AHIPIPPAAGAPE
MOTIDIOTVAPOR
IVSPABLONERUDA
GENDERBINARY
AROUSESETSHOT
BBGUNSLEAVES
POIPOACHRELO
LAGSTROOPTRES
ERGOASAHITKO
ADIDASGANDHI
SEABASSLAMENT
JOLLYRANCHER
GIVEMEARINGUSA
ACERBSINGEMIC
GEEKSHADERPSY

Eleven-letter answers can be so problematic in themelesses. They aren't nearly as awkward as 12s, 13s, or 14s, but they're not nearly as friendly as 10s or 9s. Their relative rarity makes today's featured 11s feel that much more fresh and sparkly — PABLO NERUDA, TELEKINESIS, OVER THE HUMP, ITS NO BIGGIE, HOVERBOARDS = fantastic stuff.

Why are 11s tricky? Well, when you place an 11 in row three, as with PABLO NERUDA, it automatically creates six three-letter words (in the NW and SE). That's not a problem in itself, but too many three-letter words can make a themeless feel choppy, so you generally want to hold them to about 12 or fewer.

With today's grid, I kept on feeling like I was starting and stopping with all those short answers, so it was no surprise to count ‘em up to find a whopping 17 three-letter entries. Much appreciated that they were almost all fine (DMC the only dab of crossword glue), but hitting so many of them broke up my solving flow. Look how squished the four corners appear, too, not as wide open-feeling as I like in themelesses.

GENDER BINARY was an interesting feature entry. I wasn't aware of the term, but I did appreciate learning about this either/or bias that many cultures harbor. It didn't give me the same elation as JOLLY RANCHER, so I didn't enjoy it as much. (Although I appreciated it more after Damon pointed out the connection between it and PABLO NERUDA!) But it's good to learn something new from a crossword, just as long as the crossword doesn't come across as teachy.

Excellent use of long slots overall, with just GARY HART leaving me wondering if he's lost his crossworthiness. And with very little crossword glue — just DMC, POLIS, NATL — it's a solidly executed puzzle.

Sat 9/30/2017
VOWEDPHSCALE
ABIDESGETTAKEN
RANDRYMAMABIRD
IMEANREALLYMOI
EARSDJSABUT
TEAARGOPHLOX
ARCBEERBRAT
LAKSHMIAIRSICK
COINSTARDEA
KMARTTOMYANT
MOABVANARTE
AMYRIJKSMUSEUM
GOBLONDEOBISPO
IDEALGASPEDALS
COSPLAYREYES

ML asked me to come on board with this one after an encouraging rejection from Will. It's so tempting to try to fix a few little spots here and there on a themeless … but often, the skeleton and basic structure make that near impossible.

We decided to do a total teardown, starting with ML's (and Will's) favorite entries: I MEAN, REALLY! and RIJKSMUSEUM. I love the former as a colloquial phrase, and the latter as a place of incredible beauty (and weird consonant patterns!). If you ever get the chance to travel internationally and can't figure out where, the Netherlands is amazing.

As I mentioned yesterday, 11-letter entries are problematic for themelesses. ML originally had stacked sets of 11s in the corners, but that's a rough way to start — you force a bunch of 3-letter slots right off the bat, and too many of those can make for a choppy solve. So I repositioned those 11s more toward the middle of the puzzle.

It quickly became apparent that a few cheater squares would help out, and I'm pretty liberal in that aspect of constructing. I didn't like nibbling away a precious 8-letter slot into a 7-letter one, but thankfully COSPLAY seemed to work there. (I'd totally dress up as a Klingon at ComicCon, BTW.)

I like trying multiple dozens of versions of every region within a themeless. Luckily, ML graciously puts up with my OCD about exploring the entire solution space. We saved so many versions that I didn't remember which one we finally submitted. Thankfully, ML has a good eye for what's the best trade-off between strong entries and gluey short ones.

Looking back on it, I would have tried to open up the NW and SE corners, which feel more disconnected from the rest of the puzzle than I like. It did let us easily try many dozens of versions in each area, but with so few entries connecting everything up, hopefully solvers don't get stumped on LAKSHMI or RIJKSMUSEUM.