★ I've solved about 3,500 NYT crosswords over the past ten years. That's either impressive or sad — probably a bit of both. What is definitely impressive: a theme I've never quite seen before. It so rarely happens that I had to sit back and marvel at today's.
Puzzleheads are familiar with "letter bank" brainteasers, those where you must form long words using a small set of letters (the "bank"). We've seen plenty of crosswords like this, and the fun NYT "Spelling Bee" feature also depends on the letter bank principle.
There are also plenty of "words within entries that describe the entry" puzzles. Heck, there's even a term for this puzzle type, called "kangaroo words." I'd never have thought to combine these two genres, though. Luci and David did a masterful job of doing just that, in an interesting and elegant way.
POLITICS AS USUAL formed out of the letter bank of US CAPITOL? That's perfect! Each of the four examples works so well, the resultant phrase described, or at least hinted strongly at, by the letter bank phrase.
There's even something for dedicated puzzle junkies who might pooh-pooh any sort of letter bank theme: the letter bank phrases use no duplicated letters. It won't matter to 99% of the solving population, but check out how US CAPITOL doesn't duplicate any letters within itself. Neither does UNEARTHS, or any of the others. It would have been fine to do so, but that would have made it much easier to find usable examples. The fact that Luci and David unearthed four great examples while under a tough constraint makes it even more impressive.
And an exemplary grid, to boot? It's everything I want from a four-themer grid — a couple of long bonuses (SOLO ARTIST, TABLE LINEN), some solid mid-length material (IM ON IT, ALL SET), and short fill that JB Smoove would approve. Not only is there little glue (SLO), but I enjoyed the tie-ins of PIG/RAT in consecutive downs, and PLUS/MINUS in the same region.
An all-around delight from these two Stanford products.
★ How often do constructors hope that their work leaves solvers with an empty feeling? I enjoy the occasional "leave some squares blank" puzzle. Two from 2013 stand out, one playing on "Wheel of Fortune," and David Kwong's ingenious puzzle Sid mentioned above. Another from 2015 also won a POW!, but this trope goes back a long ways.
Today's RUN ON EMPTY theme worked well, the consistency of RUN atop (three squares to be left blank) so neat and tidy. I particularly enjoyed LABOR UNIONS above what was before the Big Bang: an empty space. Perfect!
Will Shortz is usually pickier about "hidden words" themes; that the hidden word must span across two words of a phrase — DRUNK DIAL wouldn't be acceptable. Despite DRUNK DIAL's evocative nature, I'd have preferred something like BOBS YOUR UNCLE, MR UNIVERSE, OVER UNDER, etc.
Will has also told me that he shies away from puzzles with squares intentionally left blank, saying that solvers expect to put in something, so it's unsatisfying to leave a square untouched. It's like listening to an unresolved penultimate chord in a piece of music. You feel on edge, unsatisfied, until that last note hits home, and then all is right in the world.
Thankfully, there were so many bonuses in the stellar gridwork to overcome those reservations. Sid's craftsmanship is so strong. See how he leans heavily on down entries for bonus fill, and spaces them apart? AD EXECS to BAD JOKES to WOULD I EVER is a perfect example of great spacing.
I also enjoyed Sid's featuring of GURU NANAK. I hate being forced to learn things when all I'm looking for is entertainment, but GURU is a word, and NANAK looks like Pakistani names I've seen. Although I didn't know this person, that didn't affect my ability to finish the crossword, and I ought to know who founded a religion with 25+ million devout followers.
A huge number of clever wordplay clues. GYM as a place where you might see "squatters" — that's people doing squats. [Gear for the bench] had me thinking about baseball, not a judicial bench and ROBE. Delightful!
Some Thursday crosswords focus on being hard for hardness sake, but I like this type much better. A reasonable trick, a colorful grid, and a slew of headslap-inducing wordplay clues to make the solve crunchier? That's my jam.
★ It's rare for me to have a magic solving moment, and Rich gave me one today. This wordplay enthusiast read [1st and 5th] and thought about 1st letter? 1st syllable? 1st theme answer? Even when I uncovered VULCAN SALUTE, I still had no idea what was going on. Not many Vulcans I know refer to the SALUTE in such a lengthy way as [1st separate, 2nd and 3rd …] That would be illogical!
It wasn't until I hit DIGITS that it all fell into place. Aside from my confusion that of course 1 and 5 are DIGITS, well duh, why would you even point that out … oh, that kind of DIGIT! Brilliant!
The theme set isn't perfect, since CAN I GET A LIFT doesn't seem like something a hitchhiker would say. Maybe CAN I BUM A RIDE? And then there's the question of how a Vulcan hitchhiker would try to bum a ride.
I'd make a terrible Vulcan.
What, no THE BIRD to match VICTORY? I wondered if that would be too edgy, but the NYT did print one a few months ago that … I mean, come on. MIDDLE sticking straight up? 3rd indeed!
I also got bogged down by some gridwork issues, a bit of AKNOT ARESO here, IMAGO there, and the super-tough crossing of ENOKI/KUSH. I do think those last four entries are fair game (most every editor would ding AKNOT), but in more moderation. A 5x5 corner like the NW is usually easy to fill, but allowing it to expand toward the center makes for a challenging swath of white space.
A fantastic theme doesn't come along often, especially for us die-hard daily solvers. Yeah, some issues in execution might normally take a puzzle out of POW! consideration, but a concept this fun makes Jeff incredibly happy.
★ I had zero chance of winning at "Name That Theme" today. With mirror symmetry, if there are no long across slots in the top half of the puzzle, the themers usually are in the long down slots. So, how are ALL TOO TRUE, GHOST SHIP, IRENE ADLER related?
If you can answer that question, Tribond has a job for you!
Even though I failed to figure out the theme (and even failed to identify the themers), I loved it. It's not just "seemingly disparate things that have hands" theme. Ross took it one step further and found neat examples where the lack of hands is notable. Such great theme phrases, too, each of them colorful. GHOST SHIP, TOUGH CROWD, and WATER CLOCK …
I did hesitate on that last one. I vaguely knew what it meant, but something like DIGITAL CLOCK or DIGITAL WATCH would have made for a sharper a-ha. That sent me down the rabbit hole of searching for an alternate themer set, involving ABANDONED SHIP 13 to match LOOK MA NO HANDS 13, and maybe DIGITAL WATCHES split 7 / 7 and TOUGH CROWD 5 / 5, but that would require an unconventional —
Right, you don't care about my unconventional obsessiveness. TOUGH CROWD, indeed.
Curious choice to include the long bonuses of ALL TOO TRUE and IRENE ADLER. While they are both excellent entries, they muddy the waters of what is fill and what is not. Maybe shading the three theme answers would have helped?
Generally, though, it's better to find a layout that makes your themers pop. Scooching WATER CLOCK and TOUGH CROWD inward one column might have helped.
Even with my hesitations, it's still a winner of a concept with a solid, interesting grid to boot. Great to get some delightful wordplay clues, too, like both OINK and INK = things that come out of a pen.
★ Many moons ago, a "broken words" puzzle broke my mind. Such a clever idea to split words … that can follow SPLIT! Although this theme type is fairly common these days, I still enjoy seeing sharp examples of it. Today's is exactly that.
What makes for an excellent "broken words" theme? First, there has to be a solid revealer, something along the lines of SPLIT ___, BROKEN ___, (something) DIVIDED, etc. Second, the words getting split ought to be long or complicated enough that they make solvers sit back and admire.
Ricky did exceptionally well with the second criterion. AMPERS/AND at nine letters and ASTE/RISK at eight is fantastic. HY/PHEN is shorter, but there's only one place to feasibly break the word.
TIL/DE isn't as exciting — until you consider how he could have split the word. There's no other option, since there's nothing that ends in TILD or starts with ILDE. Also, how many words end in TIL? All I could find besides UNTIL were LENTIL and PISTIL. There's something elegant about a problem that has so few possible solutions.
On that note, what other keyboard characters could Ricky have used? CARET is too easy, and most others require SIGN, like POUND SIGN or PERCENT SIGN. I was surprised at the theme's tightness, since my first impression was that there would be at least a half a dozen more to choose from.
BREAKS CHARACTER isn't an A+ revealer because 1.) grammatically, "breaks a character" or "breaks characters" would better fit the idea, and 2.) there's nothing to specify why keyboard characters, not movie characters, "characters" as in comedians, one's moral fiber, etc. Still, it works well enough.
I also appreciated Ricky's gentle nudges away from crossworld cultural norms, with AZUL and AMOR. Normally, I'd ding these, but I like how they reflect some of what makes Ricky Ricky, while still being accessible to a broad range of solvers (these answers are etymologically related to AZURE and AMOUR or AMORE, which might be more widely familiar).
I don't mind few bonuses in an early-week grid when a theme is meaty and the fill is smooth and accessible. Great work; a puzzle I'd happily give to newbs.
★ Rachel! It was such a pleasure to work with her on her debut puzzle (for Universal). She's open-minded, hard-working, and not willing to say "good enough." I have a strong feeling that this will be just the first in a long line of NYT puzzles with her byline.
I wasn't a fan of THE MANDALORIAN (the show). I had issues with the pacing, unable to connect with a fully-masked protagonist, and the seemingly endless supply of minor characters who didn't play into the storyline. But how can you resist baby Yoda? Even better, the return of Carl Weathers! His portrayal of Apollo Creed was amazing, but it's his comedic role in "Arrested Development" I appreciate most. There's still plenty of meat on that bone!
I wondered if non-dorks should have heard of the TURING TEST. I've managed to fool everyone so far … whoops. I mean, I'm a totally regular, non-robotic human being organism who likes normal hominid activities such as ball sports and intake of a variety of alcoholic liquid consumables.
And that clue for ACROPHOBIA! It's such a clever play on the different definitions of the word "high." Here in Seattle, we have a third definition of "high anxiety": worry about Feds coming in and busting up our pot shops.
I did hitch at a few ESS, ELS clued as letter Ls, and TARES shorties. And THREE SCORE is an oddball. But there was the great DON'T GET CUTE, plus that amusing "plum pudding" reference in ATOM's clue and a Monty Python classic, "TIS but a scratch!"
Non-nerds might not enjoy the puzzle as much as I did, especially if they haven't heard of THE MANDALORIAN or familiarized themselves with Alan Turing through "The Imitation Game." But this dork had a ton of fun today.
★ That central feature, PASSPORT PHOTO, is perfect. Not only is it a snazzy phrase, but that clue is so clever! Such a brilliant misdirection toward immunizations.
If only my PASSPORT PHOTO didn't look like I was high, sleeping, drooling, and a felon. Okay, I'm going to take the picture in three, tw — *click*. Who does that?!
DON'T BE SO HASTY is another great entry. It's not quite as strong as PASSPORT PHOTO overall, since it's hard to give it a clever clue, but it's a colorful, colloquial saying. Robyn shines in this arena, consistently treating us with ones like NEVER FEAR!
I wasn't award that RARE BOOKSTORE was still a thing, but it did remind me of a novel I loved, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Sometimes our themeless solving experience is so tied into personal experience. If you're looking for an engaging, puzzly mystery, Mr. Penumbra is at the top of my list.
I appreciated the openness of the grid design. In the past, Robyn has sectioned off some of her corners, which is a huge help in construction (allowing for working on subsections in isolation) but can have detrimental effects on solving flow. It'd be so tempting in this grid to break up either ORIONS BELT or TEN FOOT POLE, so I'm glad that Robyn resisted.
I will say that the one area that bogged me down was the southeast corner, a tad bit cut off from the rest of the puzzle. I was confident SLOP was what you wouldn't find in a Michelin-star restaurant. GLOP? That didn't feel right. Along with not remembering Georgia ENGEL from decades ago (speaking of old, see: HEP) and not knowing Chekov's work in detail (OLGA?), I was worried I'd have my first Did Not Finish in months.
Thankfully, I wasn't so hasty, trying out a few random letters here and there until WOEBEGONE made my woes be gone. Whew!
Robyn's puzzles are always a ton of fun, a delightful combination of playful grid entries and a plethora of wickedly clever clues. HALF ASLEEP is a great entry, and [On one's way out] is some "Penn & Teller: Fool Us"-level trickery. I love the feeling I get after solving one of Robyn's themelesses, a golden glow protecting me from the woes of the world for a few precious minutes.
★ Jim Horne summed up today's wonderful solve perfectly: "They had me at PALM FRONDS." I was so stuck in this corner, unable to figure out if it was fans of Jesus, zealots, fans of Pilates? Nope, manual PALM FROND fans from the Biblical days; so brilliant!
A close second was something "sacrificed at the altar." That's sure laden with imagery of ancient sacrifices to the gods. Talk about Biblical! I laughed upon uncovering the wordplay here, some women "sacrificing" their MAIDEN NAME upon getting married.
Caitlin is a rising star, having recently joined the New Yorker's crack squad of themeless constructors, and Erik perhaps the best clue writer on the planet, so my expectations were already high. Yet, they still wowed me. We get a fun SLEEPYHEAD, the evocative SUCKED FACE, BLACK MAGIC with a wicked [Bad spells clue] that hid the plural. There was about an average number of long slots for a themeless, but they used every single one of them so well.
I wonder how newer themeless solvers feel about clues like [Get out of here!] for ESCAPE ROOM. I hitched when first encountering these directive clues years ago, but now I appreciate them more and more.
The one issue I had was the difficulty level of the lower-left corner, which felt ten times harder than the rest of the puzzle. It's a dirty trick to clue RAH as a crowd roar when every solver will auto-fill in OLE. (Have you ever heard a crowd roar RAH?). Along with barely knowing a thing about "Coco" and being unable to identify AC/DC as the singers of "Rock or Bust," even though I'm a fan of the group, my solve nearly ground to a halt.
Even with that corner, though, the entire solving experience was exactly what I want out of a Friday themeless: a load of great long entries, a ton of witty clues, and an elegantly constructed puzzle. Ticks all the boxes.
★ Ha! I caught you all off guard by picking two POW!s in one week. What can I say, I had so much fun solving today's puzzle that I had to do it. I've seen plenty of BACKward puzzles, "repeated string" puzzles, and palindromes, so I should have been predisposed to be tired of today's concept. But it was different enough, with such an apt revealer, that my solve was a delight.
I was interested enough by the concept to write some quick code to see what other themers would have worked. Not many more!
It's neat to see a constraint that gives a limited set — that "tightness" lends elegance.
I wondered if the circles could have spelled out something. Would that have been cool … or confusing? The circles in the puzzle didn't feel like a great way to indicate starting points, so perhaps making sure that every start point was under a black square, so you could innocently list the theme clues at their actual start points without adding extra numbers into the grid— ELUSPACE at 26-Across, not 25-Across, for example — would have made this concept even better.
Fantastic gridwork, too, as I've quickly come to expect from Sid. Not a single gloopy short entry, and a whole lot of MAITRE D', ALTIMETERS, GAY RODEO (apparently this is a thing, neat!), SHOT POOL, PANHANDLER. Many constructors would have broken up ALTIMETERS at the M for the sake of gridding ease, and I'm glad that Sid went the extra mile. More bonuses without compromises? Heck, yeah!
Neat to get GODS clued as Rama and Krishna, instead of the usual Greek or Roman god references. That's the kind of subtle influencing that's more effective than the in-your-face approach.
So well done. Interesting concept, top-notch execution, fresh cluing. Sometimes we're blessed with two great puzzles in a week; who am I to deny one of them?
★ Did you notice the big slash in the middle of the puzzle? What a fantastic way to make PERSONAL / PRONOUNS shine! I love the topical concept, lots of folks discussing whether inclusion of SHE/HER, HE/HIM, THEY/THEM should be standard practice in email signature lines.
It's no surprise that the grid is outstanding, given David's top-notch skills. The huge diagonal of black squares creates all sorts of construction difficulty since it doesn't separate themers as much as you'd usually want.
No problem for the master gridsman; a wealth of bonuses in the fill, with minimal glue needed. When you can achieve MAI TAI, OK THEN, BROUHAHA, LEMON TEA, TRI-TIP, THE WHO, FB POSTS, CHAI LATTE for the price of minor EDS and MSRP — all while working around the big slash in the middle — that's outstanding. Such smart black square placement, breaking up the white spaces just enough to facilitate grid-filling, but not restricting solving flow.
Such a fun set of themers, too. THEY is a tough one to hide, and BUT HEY does the job admirably. HIMALAYANS isn't as strong, since it doesn't disguise HIM well, BUT HEY, what are you gonna do. (HI MOM would have been great, but it is awfully short.)
Topical puzzle presented in a non-preachy way, impressive visual presentation, A+ craftsmanship. Easy POW! pick.
★ I mentioned earlier in the week that it's common for me to start with a negative impression of a puzzle when I immediately recall a similar concept (or two). It's also rare that I overcome this unfair (very few people have my OCD crossword recall) bias. Today was yet another example of me starting out scowling but slowly growing to a point where I admired the extra elements, wishing that I had thought of them. BUTTERFLY EFFECT with the butterfly visual, plus a gray square that changes two entries into a TORNADO? That's cool!
It's also rare for me to dig quote puzzles, so that dug an even deeper starting hole for this puzzle. And if it‘s not a famous quote, or at least one that gives me a laugh … we're talking excavating a sub-sub-sub basement. That speaks wonders for this "quote," that after struggling to uncover it, it elevated my impression of the puzzle as a whole. Such a concise, spot-on way to describe CHAOS THEORY.
The grid had problems, much too much ADEER OFFTO ON HER partials, plus usualish suspects like ALEE ASIN ATMO--and that's just the As. Don't get me started on ORTS, such a terrible leftover from the Maleskan days!
However, there were many constraints, and the elements worked together so well that I was able to look past the technical issues. It's not easy to generate a 140-word puzzle (this one has 141), and when you put in themers all over the grid, weaving them in and out of a black-square visual, you're bound to need some glue. Still, I wish a revision had been requested; a little more development time inside the chrysalis.
Overall though, there was so much to appreciate about this multi-layered theme that it still gets the POW! I give big props when a creative Sunday idea with depth comes along.
Ever notice that the CYCLE of LIFE and LIFE CYCLE mean the same thing? Meta!
I enjoyed this one much more than I thought I was going to. Kicking off a puzzle with a cross-reference — followed shortly by another one — is usually a surefire way to make me cranky. I can't drop into the solving flow; you're forcing me to jump around in ways I don't want to? Bah!
I ended up admiring the concept, though, a LIFE CYCLE starting with LIFE and ending with LIFE. It's rare to see a repeated entry in a crossword, so I appreciated that Brandon came up with a great way to justify it.
I did wonder about CYCLE being in the middle of the puzzle. And if CYCLE of LIFE (yet another cross-reference) should have created an infinite CYCLE, instead of having the chain end in the center of the puzzle. Since when does a circle have an end?
Then, my mind wandered, wondering what other implementations might have worked. Will Shortz typically doesn't like "corner blacks" in perimeter puzzles (like in the SW and NE corners) … ooh! How about LIFE and CYCLE intersecting at the E, in the lower right corner!
Kind of strange to start/end the sequence in the lower right, though, since that would mean solvers would generally start working the puzzle in the upper left, at what would be the middle of the chain.
All that wondering is usually a sign that the puzzle is doing something well. Spurring me on to think and brainstorm is an uncommon occurrence. And in the end, I concluded that I liked Brandon's approach more than anything that I could come up with. Even rarer!
Great gridwork, too. Perimeter puzzles are notoriously difficult, especially when it comes to knitting everything together in the middle. To weave in so much great material like EMAIL BLAST, BOSTON ACCENT, AMBIENT NOISE, while requiring only some ANOS, NEHI, plural CARLAS — that's a cause to yell WAHOO, indeed.
This puzzle grew on me, a thing of beauty whose elegance unfolded with careful study. It's one I'll remember.
★ Brilliant finds. After decades of brainstorming thousands of ideas, I'm kicking myself that I've never noticed how perfectly THE AFRICAN QUEEN describes Cleopatra. I've even seen THE AFRICAN QUEEN three times!
Same goes for "The Dirty Dozen," one of my favorite old-timey classics. TWELVE ANGRY MEN is so apt. Frankenstein as DOCTOR STRANGE, too. "Titanic" as WATERSHIP DOWN? Amazing link!
I usually enjoy Sunday NYTs less than weekday ones, since it's tough to retain solver interest through a full 21x21 grid. This one achieved saw me through with full marks. Such a genius set of finds, an absolute WITT (Wish I'd Thought of That).
It'd have been a slam-dunk POW! choice, except for some needle-scratching moments throughout the fill; a surprise given that Francis is one of the top-notchiest of top-notch constructors. There were so many answers I'd never (or rarely) encountered before: ARRANT, which the dictionary says is archaic, UNEEDA, VARESE, SANRIO?
Just because I haven't heard of something doesn't mean it's off-limits, but more than one of these in a single puzzle risks alienating solvers. Worse, crossing VARESE with TEVA strikes me as setting up solvers for failure. SMEE crossing MATSUI feels less unfair, but it's still a toughie because it's easy to confuse SMEE and SNEE.
However, the theme was so smile-inducing, and there were so many delightful clues — ANKLE SOCK go above a tongue, vey cheeky!, SHARON as a [Stone to cast], EAR with the hilarious [Hear here!]. And my favorite, [Lengths for rulers]. INCHES fits in perfectly, but it's royal rulers' REIGNS.
All in all, I found it easy to overlook the potholes and still call it a solid POW!
★ The unabashed physics dork in me loved JUST A PHASE as a punny way of summing up SOLID, LIQUID, GAS, PLASMA. The father in me also loved it, but for a different reason. One day, far, far, away, there will come a time when I don't have to yell at my kids that GASes and LIQUIDs are fine, but they have to flush the toilet after depositing SOLIDs.
It's been a long phase.
I've seen many a crossword including SOLID, LIQUID, and GAS, but PLASMA is a great bonus. Well, at least for those of us who delight in teaching our 5-year-olds about force diagrams and the concepts required to predict projectile motion.
No wonder my kids throw so many things at me.
I'd love an ordering, with PLASMA to GAS to LIQUID to SOLID, but I'm okay with mixing them up so LIQUID ASSET could be featured. What a great entry! I (unsurprisingly) spent an hour coming up with a couple of ways to get the themers in order, but (surprisingly), I didn't like them as much as what we see today. PLASMA SCREEN TVS is so much more solid (groan) than PLASMA SCREENS, which would have balanced out ITS JUST A PHASE nicely.
And what fine gridwork, in a debut! I'd usually recommend newbs to avoid long acrosses, but ALARM BELLS and DAISY CHAIN are well worth a bit of AMT and SSE. Elsewhere, I appreciated that Eric stuck to lesser offenders like OTRO.
There's something amusing about the doubles inside OHHI and NAAN next to each other, too. HA HA!
All in all, an entertaining Monday puzzle that might appeal to my dork friends more than the general solving population, but I appreciate that it's still accessible to most.
★ PLAY WITHIN A PLAY deserves a standing O; such an evocative phrase. There's so much you can do with the cluing, too. I'm not familiar with The Murder of Gonzago, but I enjoyed learning about it — there's something so meta about Shakespeare writing a play about a play. You could also go in the wordplay-related-cleverness direction, since the phrase is so recognizable. Maybe use language about actors acting an act? Or reenactments? It's a perfect seed.
I dig mini-themes, and the wackiness of the consonant pileups in KRYZYZEWSKI / KYRGYZSTAN delighted me. There's a reason they call him "Coach K"! I have a feeling that this could alienate some solvers, especially non bball-fans, but I loved it. Even knowing Coach K well, all I could drop in was the K and the SKI. It was so amusing to work out the actual sequence of letters in a name that I've heard a hundred times. I'm so glad that Adam and Paolo made each and every crossing fair!
So many delightful clues, too. My favorites:
I have a feeling that some solvers won't connect to this puzzle because they don't know (or care) who Coach K is, but this admirer of one of basketball's most storied coaches loved it. The entertaining mini-theme, the sizzling PLAY WITHIN A PLAY, so many smile-inducing clever clues? Definitely my POW!
I could see how yesterday's would be other solvers' POW!, though. So much about themelesses is one's personal connection to the feature entries.
PS. Congratulations to Paolo Pasco for winning this year's Boswords Crossword Tournament!
★ A (w)holesome concept, the LETTER W's disappearance making me go down many rabbit holes. I spent so much time floundering while trying to uncover that set of instructions. So many mistakes I had to shred ... shrewd I was not!
I'm glad I stuck with it, as the payoff was so satisfying, finally dawning on me how many clues had been affected. Fantastic job of making all the W-removals all seem so innocent. Kicking it off with [Major source of wheat] is brilliant. Hawn to Han of the silver screen is amazing!
I do wish there had been more longer entries whose clues had been affected. For a puzzle with this much grid flexibility, it'd have been great to put focus on those long downs, where MINUTEMEN and ELABORATE sit. Having so many short themers made it hard to keep track of them.
I'm glad I read Robyn's note since I couldn't figure out why NOW was in such a strange spot. I hadn't noticed there were any other Ws in the grid; that's a nice touch.
There was a lot of crossword glue spread throughout but think of all the short "themers" Robyn had to place. Plus, the three-part revealer! Normally, a puzzle with 10+ gloopy bits would fall automatically out of POW contention, but in service of such an entertaining experience, I let it slide.
I enjoy getting a clue-focused puzzle once in a while. It's been a while since we've such clue trickery — one I remember played on IT. I did find the "quote puzzle" aspect of this one frustrating, but thankfully, Robyn kept that part short. Finally earning all that delightful W-wordplay was well worth it.
★ A friend of mine once told me stories about his grandmother, an avid MAH JONG player. The world's best poker players and magicians ain't got nothing on her. She'd pick up an individual MAH JONG tile, never turning it over, and with one rub of her thumb on the underside, would know exactly what it was, without looking. Then, with as many as ten tiles left on the table, she'd foretell the winner, already knowing how the game would play out, rattling off exactly what everyone had in their hands.
That's how you earn a nickname like the RED DRAGON!
Erik continues to amaze, coming up with an approach I'd never considered. I'm envious that he nabbed a MAH JONG theme before me, but more so that he found three tiles that could be used in their entirety. I'd considered phrases ending in DOTS, WINDS, BAMBOO, but non-players would barely make the connection that any of those are MAH JONG "suits."
It's so perfect that PLUM BLOSSOM, NORTH WIND, RED DRAGON also evoke East Asian imagery, allowing non-players to easily make the connection to MAH JONG.
Tight theme, too. The only other tile I could think of that might have worked was BAMBOO SHOOT, but that would have confused the issue, since bamboo is not just a bonus tile but one of the suits.
Along with beautiful Monday gridwork — a couple of great bonuses in RHOMBUS, HATHAWAY, SORORITY — and clean short fill that's accessible for even the newbiest of newbs, Erik made my job today a delight. He even summed it up for me, with GOOD FOR YOU, OUTTA SIGHT, and ON A TEAR. Fantastic start to the week!
★ It's been so long since we've had a "warp" puzzle (words warp from the right side back to the left) that I was pleasantly bamboozled. "Name That Theme" quickly went off the rails, today. I guessed that MUS / LIT was MUSLIM ... with one letter changed for some reason.
LET/TOI … LETTOR? As in, a person who lets?
Okay, I got nothin'.
Even after hitting WRAPPING PAPER, it made no sense. Usually, this sort of "wrap" thing indicates that MUS and LIT "wrap" the row, meaning that they bracket the inner contents.
Great moment of realization when I finally figured out that the words started on the right and "wrapped" back to the left (LIT/MUS, TOI/LET, etc.). I also appreciated how Kevin chose four examples of well-known paper from different walks of life. All of them containing exactly six letters was a nice touch, too.
There was a lot of interesting fill. It's HALFTIME, BEER ME! SODA POP, AMULET, RICHARD GERE's full name, PRESTO! It's true that the theme allowed for more flexibility than most themes — ending in LIT and starting with SUE aren't tough constraints — but Kevin executed well.
There was some ACRO ASST ATOI (tough to avoid this one) ENE ANOWL, but it was mostly minor. Whenever you have so many overlap regions, you're bound to need some crossword uglies. Most important thing is to make them as unnoticeable as possible, and Kevin did well in that regard.
Entertaining debut. Newer constructors often ask me what types of themes they ought to work on, and my answer is the maddeningly vague "something different and interersting." I enjoyed how Kevin misled this veteran solver, but did it in such a way that all the pieces were there for me to inevitably figure out what was going on.
★ I love lofty attempts to do something new and cool in a Sunday crossword. Those five little boxes baffled me, the tricksy crossings remaining opaque until I hit the apt revealer, TICK ALL THE BOXES. A-ha! BOX in the Across direction, and TICK in the Down. Clever!
I appreciated the quality of the Down theme answers. I'm sadly familiar with PUTting LIPSTICK ON A PIG, as my daughter and book agent like to point out. TICKLE THE IVORIES, now THAT'S THE TICKET! And even though STICKY SITUATION and CARROT AND STICK use TICK in too similar a way, they're both fantastic entries.
The puzzle fell too quickly once I hit the revealer since once you figure out how one rebus box works, you can fill in the rest right away. That bothered me less than usual, though, since the rebus was complicated. What sense of relief to finally see the light!
I wonder if using an assortment of Across rebuses would have alleviated that issue? Aside from TICK, there's CHECK, X, MARK … SLASH? I'd have preferred the variety, but I can see how the notion of a rebus that works differently in Across vs. Down is hard enough for most solvers.
A bit too much dependence on usual crossword glue such as RIAS, ERGS, ORO, STLO, ALL, NNE, SENS, EPI, etc., but most of them are minor enough. Toss in the tougher HUS and LAE, though … I'd have asked for a round of revisions.
Thankfully, Laura worked in a couple of great bonuses. HERDED CATS is fantastic. NO RELATION, too, along with its mystifying clue on Elizabeth Warren vis-à-vis Earl Warren. SENIOR PROM as the "last dance" and SEAHORSE with a neat piece of trivia on males carrying the babies, and it's starting to feel like Laura had the HOT HAND.
The puzzle didn't 100% hit for me because of the repetitive nature of those five boxes, but I love Laura's audacious target and sizzling themers. I'd love to see more NYT Sunday puzzles aim this high.
★ I love it when a constructor does so much so right. I love it even more when said constructor does that while making their debut. Makes me go yodel from my rooftop that someone gets it!
(My neighbors hate when I do that.)
I looked into this theme a few months back, initially getting excited when I found JAMES K POLK, RISK PREMIUM, ASK PRICE, and best of all, FACEMASK PENALTY. I ended up junking it, muttering curses at Crucivera, the goddess of crosswords, for her cruciverbal cruelty. Lengths of 10, 11, 8, 15, 8 (ESCAPEES) — not even mirror symmetry could save that. I scraped up DESK PHONES and MUSK PERFUME to create symmetry, but that felt desperate.
How wrong I was. I did still think DESK PHONES was boring today, but it was easy to shrug off with so much else to love.
Newer constructors should study this grid; three points in particular:
Extremely well done, Sid. We'll be keeping our eyes open for more of your products.
★ Folks, do we have a special for you this week! It's Day 1 of the CUJO show (Cracking Up Jim with Overthinking), where Jeff unintentionally makes Jim Horne snort via OCD overanalysis. Today went something like this:
Jeff: Delightful theme. AU PAIRS = pairs of Os. But …
Jim: wait for it … (holding back a snicker) ... wait for it …
Jeff: … doesn't AU PAIRS in the plural imply at least two, not two and only two? Why not three pairs of OOs?
Jim: OO OO OO? What are we, the SCOOBY DOO team, chased by ghosts?
Jeff: And what's up with FIVE O in the grid? Is that a secret insider thing? Wait! Are there FIVE "AU"s? Huh. Let me do a letter count frequency analysis ...
(rest drowned out by Jim's cackling)
Overthinking aside, fantastic revealer. I was sure it was going to be DOUBLE O, as in James Bond's designation, but AU PAIRS is perfect.
At least for non-overthinkers who wonder if phrases like TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL or DOO BE DOO BE DOO — or SCOOBY DOOBY DOO! — would have been a welcome addition.
Solid gridwork; I appreciate that Olivia didn't try to do too much, sticking with the max 78 words in her grid. A Monday offering should have a couple of colorful long bonuses — SNAPDRAGON and SCRAP METAL, check — and little to no gluey bits. ARAIL isn't great, but it's easily gettable from the common simile. Overall, grid execution that welcomes newer solvers.
There are hundreds of OO pairs out there — use the search string *OO*OO* to see for yourself — so the theme is looser than I like. However, Olivia chose some of the best ones available. Along with the amusing and a-ha inducing revealer, I smiled enough to award this one the POW!
★ The first marquee answer delighted me, and it was highlight after highlight from there. PORCH SWING is a great answer in its own right, but when you elevate it with the mysterious [Option when one wants to move out of the house?] — that's literally move, right outside your house — it's Einstein-level brilliant.
WHAT'S SO FUNNY? UP TO SPEED. I AM SO THERE. FREE WIFI. All that, plus CROISSANTS? Heck yeah, I am so there!
If you haven't been watching Dan Feyer's weekly speed-solving adventures, you're missing out. A lot of it is him tearing through without commentary, but I like his short and sweet impression about each puzzle. As he says about Robyn, so many colloquial, catchy phrases — that's why she's one of the best.
Slew of great clues, too:
Although Will Shortz and his team contribute to clever clues, it's clear that some constructors spend much more time than others on their wicked wordplay. Robyn's themelesses always have more than a handful of clues that shine.
I wasn't thrilled to get TYRO in a 72-word themeless, or TOR clued to the mountain peak instead of Toronto, but I can easily overlook those minor issues, given the overall awesomeness.
★ This one brings me back to my days of high school French, attempting to memorize conjugations. I fail to remember. You fail to remember. Um … someone fails to … uh …
"Je ne sais pas" is one of the few phrases I do remember. Needless to say, my AP French exam didn't go well.
Neat to see so many "(pronoun) = (awesome)" phrases. I did wonder why I AM THE GREATEST didn't make the cut, but I imagine it wasn't the greatest for crossword symmetry. THEY'RE ... GRRREAT! is pretty great, anyway.
People will debate whether JEMELE HILL is a Monday-friendly entry. This sports fan didn't know her, so I appreciated that Erik was careful to make every crossing answer gettable. As long as an entry doesn't stand in the way of my victorious solve, I like a bit of learning. I AM THE GREATEST!
(Records of my AP French results say otherwise.)
Some beginning solvers have a ton of trouble figuring out where spaces should go, though, which makes JEMELE HILL even tougher — is it JEM ELEHILL? J.E. MELEHILL? Or a last name, JEMELEHILL?
Some solvers gripe that they detest when my puzzles shove learning at them, when they just wanted ten minutes of pure entertainment. Even if it's only a single entry, it seems to sour their experience, making them feel dumb.
Should crosswords be pure entertainment or a vessel for expanding solvers' horizons? There is no right answer, more a difference in philosophy.
I enjoyed this concept. I would have loved a progression of I, YOU, HE/SHE, WE, THEY (or a subset of those), but that's a minor ding, easily overlooked given the cool discovery of four superlative phrases that followed the same format.
★ I love it when a puzzle makes me feel smart. Whizzing through this bad boy 66-worder made me a SPRING CHICKEN once again. There was so much variety, something for everyone, yet so much of it struck a chord with me. It's like when Cliff Clavin went on Jeopardy!
As a father of two little kids, I loved CHOO CHOO TRAINS and its devious clue — there's a lot of milk being chugged at my house.
SPREAD TOO THIN? Me? During the pandemic, trying to manage kids, work, projects, sanity? You don't say.
Oil and a brush? Yes, it's a SHAVING KIT (gotta keep the blades brushed off and oiled) with great wordplay misdirection toward the arts, but it also hits the mark as I attempt to cut my son's hair as he jiggles continuously. Now, that's an art.
I've played "Rhapsody in Blue" dozens of times in orchestras, so GLISSANDO gave me a big pick-me-up. Ah, the good old days (when I used to be able to play well enough that neighbors didn't stick their fingers in their ears).
Who you callin' a CHEAPIE? Me, because on principle, I eat whatever my kids don't, no matter how much they've pre-chewed it? Okay, fine.
Even the things I didn't know didn't feel force-fed. "Maundy Thursday" was new to me, but it was easy enough to figure out LAST SUPPER. I'll happily learn something, as long as it doesn't get in the way of a successful solve.
And some great clues? STAMP as one "stuck in a corner"? Spicing up the otherwise boring NINETEEN via a novel clue, that all of its letters are Scrabble one-pointers? [Airdrops?] confused me even after solving MISTS, but what a delight to finally understand it. "Air drops," indeed.
Such great craftsmanship, too, nothing I gave the stink-eye (maybe BANC, but as a finance guy I think it's generally fine). That's a tough ask out of a 70-worder, and a 66-worder is a much, much tougher construction.
A pure delight from start to finish. Brian, I choo-choo-choose you!
BOOT CAMP …
HAT TRICK … Things you can wear!
THIMBLE RIG … Things you can wear!
Ahem. You already guessed that. Bzzzzt!
IRON MAIDEN … Things you can wear!
Well, technically you could wear an IRON MAIDEN. It wouldn't be comfortable, but you could—
Bzzt bzzt bzzt!!!
I love getting bamboozled by a Monday theme. Hitting the revealer—MONOPOLY tokens—I slapped my forehead. I should have gotten it. At least, I should have stopped guessing "Things you can wear."
The BOOT, HAT, THIMBLE, IRON, DOG, aren't a complete set, but it'd be impossible to include all the kooky items they've used over the years. A penguin? T. rex? Don't even get me started on the Pokemon collector's set. I choose you, Pikachu!
What's most important is that the theme set screams MONOPOLY, and this does just that. I'd never heard of THIMBLE RIG, but the THIMBLE is one of the iconic tokens. (The one I always got stuck with. Seriously, a THIMBLE?)
Maybe I'd have used WHEELBARROW RACE in there instead, paired with IRON SUPPLEMENTS. My brother always got infuriated when we landed on the same spot, and I invoked the wheelbarrow carry rule. Your token goes onto mine, and then you have to pay rider's fees, doubling with each step.
What, you never played Calvinopoly?
Stellar gridwork, as I've come to expect from Christina. She did everything right—squeezing BOOT CAMP and HAT TRICK together for smart overall themer spacing, wisely alternating her long down slots (DADS TO BE not interacting much with COWBOYS), choosing great bonuses (SHARK OIL and NO CAN DO!), and all the while, minimizing her crossword glue.
Making a crossword isn't rocket science, yet forcing yourself to work with only common short words and names is something that few constructors adhere to. The great majority give in and say "good enough" way too quickly. Not Christina, always putting in the serious time and hard work required.
Exemplary Monday offering. I'll be pointing newbs to this one, and that's the highest Monday compliment I can give.