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Jeff Chen's "Puzzle of the Week" selections with his comments

pow

Showing 25 out of 323 POW selections from
4/25/2019 to 10/12/2019

Use the Older / Newer links above to see more.

POW Sat 10/12/2019
FETAWIDTHSCSI
AMORALEVELRUN
NERFPETPROJECT
FRISONREPLACE
ISAACEMOAMEN
COMMASADAMWEST
NOPRESSURERSS
SECRETCODE
DEGREEMILL
ADDSIERRACLUB
DIALTONESAIGON
VOTEADATEENA
ICESAWSRAETAT
LENSFILTERBENT
PSUARARATRAZE
METREMISSOMAR

★ Brilliant puzzle; my favorite of all of Andrew's stair stacks. A quad of greatness in NO PRESSURE / SECRET CODE / DEGREE MILL / SIERRA CLUB, every single one of them colorful in its own right, and better yet, every single one has the potential for clever cluing. [Green giant] is indeed delightful wordplay for SIERRA CLUB, no telltale question mark required to give away the game.

And almost zero wastage throughout the crossing down entries! It's all too common to need a bunch of neutral entries to hold together a stair-stack. SCARCEST doesn't do much, but SERENA SLAM, TV PRODUCER, LUGE TEAM = a cornucopia of color.

There's yet more? Andrew did such a smart job of quasi-sectioning the SW and NE corners, keeping good solving flow while making his filling job easier. When you can work on a corner independently, it's much easier to optimize for greatness like ADVIL PM, LENS FILTER, DATE NUT, ICE SAWS. Now that's the way to squeeze out every last drop of potential.

Best compliment I can give is that I wish I'd constructed this grid. Andrew's prodigious efforts and hard work in the stair-stack space have clearly paid off.

POW Tue 10/1/2019
ROAMAHABDEBIT
ANTIFOIESCENE
WELLDRILLTRYST
FIASCOSIPUHUH
IOSCPAZOOIRE
STEWUNDERCOVER
HASHFDRTIERS
OFFSEASON
AZUREAUKKITT
WETLAUNDRYSTAY
ANTTSOAHASUP
IDESDJSOBLATE
TARPSOPPOSITES
EYEUPKOOKMINE
DADDYETDSBEST

★ I am officially cool enough to love this puzzle! See, all you young ‘uns, I never stopped being hip. Let's dab and dap and crunk and—

Hey, where are you going? I thought we might go twerk together?

Great theme, OPPOSITES at the ends of solid base phrases. These findings would have been enough to impress me, but I love a punchline. So many OPPOSITES repelling, amirite? Yeah boy!

What? Why are you rolling your eyes at me?

Erik injected so many debut terms into his fill, which gave the puzzle a fresh feeling. It could easily be too fresh for some, entries like AFRO PUFF, ZENDAYA, BEYHIVE lending recency that not many NYT puzzles exhibit. I liked AFRO PUFF best, since even if you don't know the term, you've likely seen an AFRO PUFF before, and it's such a descriptive term.

It's true that if you don't know ZENDAYA, you're a little screwed; a bizarre set of letters that might look so wrong in your finished puzzle. Ah well.

BEYHIVE is somewhere in between. Beyonce is a must-know, and one could argue that an NYT solver ought to be able to figure out the wordplay.

I knew all three of these! Not everyone can Bey as cool as me.

Overall, even if this smooth and well-crafted puzzle doesn't produce that strong of a victory moment for some solvers – people staring at their finished grid, wondering if it could possibly be right — all the crossings are fair enough. Maybe it is too bleeding-edge, but I like that the NYT occasionally errs on that side. It's a great way to attract younger solvers into the fold.

POW Sun 9/29/2019NOW WEIGHT JUST A SECOND
PUTTSSLEWWONTERGS
APRILEAVEAARONLEAP
SHIPOFTHEDESSERTFIDE
SIBETONOFABINGE
GLASSWORKNOBELMINDED
OLLIEEEKRITUALETE
DECOEELCTRLERR
THEMORALEOFTHESTORY
WHOSUDSPARESHOD
HERTREKSDENYISAY
ITSNOTROCKETTESCIENCE
MAYAFUNDSATANAHA
LISTBEDSRAJAPER
ICAMEISAWICONCURRED
ENOREDOEAUKNUT
ARMITALIANTHSEEME
SEMICOLOGNEDEATHSTAR
EPOCHLGAOARSHON
DONAMAJORTHOREAUFARE
USERALLOYURSAMINIS
PERECEOSESTSWREST

★ It's rare that my opinion of a puzzle changes so dramatically. My thought process during my solve:

  • Ooh, Tom's back! He always brings the heat; one of the most original constructors in the biz. Hooray!
  • Huh. I hope my expectations aren't too high. That's not fair to Tom.
  • Title … blergh. It's not going to be homophones, is it?
  • First themer uncovered! NOBEL MINDED? Sigh. Not worth the WEIGHT. Homophones … or homophonic puns, maybe?
  • Second themer, second blergh. SHIP OF THE DESSERT? We've all seen the "desert" vs. "dessert" wordplay hundreds of times.
  • (skipping to the bottom, working out last themer) MAJOR THOREAU FARE? Wait. Is this a scientist pun homophone puzzle? There was NOBEL up above.

Long story short, a lot of confusion, not a lot of clicking, and a feeling of "was that it?" upon finishing.

Thankfully, Jim Horne and I trade ideas every week, doing our best rendition of "Siskel and Ebert," replete with "perhaps you could describe your thoughts more" to be read as SERIOUSLY, WHY WOULD YOU POSSIBLY THINK THAT?

Jim said he loved the puzzle. LOVED.

That's infrequent enough that I take some serious notice.

"Perfect title," he said.

Perfect for non-morons, maybe. Okay. Let me see ...

Weight? How does weight possibly—WAIT! It's all about which syllable is stressed, that change forming a new word.

Okay, now that's something. It's consistent – each time, Tom used words that have their first syllable stressed, switching to a second-syllable accent. It's also tight – how many pairs of words can you think of that fit this pattern? (No others came to my mind.)

All that, plus non-flashy, smooth-as-silk gridwork. Tom knows the formula for a solid solving experience: stick to 140 words, with a couple of long bonuses, and smoothness in your short fill. He did end up with a bit of DONA ESTS ETE OFA RTE SLO and the mysterious UMW (United Mine Workers), but that's better than average for a Sunday.

I do wonder if a title involving the word "stress" would have been better, for us dunderheads. Perhaps playing on "stress test" or "stress management"?

I feel sad for solvers who don't have a Jim. Consider my mind changed, in a big way. Thanks to Tom for coming up with a great theme set, and to Jim for persuading me to take another look.

POW Tue 9/17/2019
LAPCATARGOTVS
ITHACAWHEWRIO
OVERTHEMOONANN
NSAIDAESIGN
SITTINGPRETTY
IMADEITOUST
DENIMESCPAPA
ONTOPOFTHEWORLD
LASTPECWIRED
BYESGUINEAS
INGOODSPIRITS
DEOXYINSTOT
LABONCLOUDNINE
ETAMOUELOANER
SODAWESAGEGAP

★ It's tough not to smile when a puzzle is all about happiness. Great interpretations of five catchy phrases; Paul imagining them as they'd apply to appropriate professions. Of course, a happy meteorologist would be ON CLOUD NINE, and an astronaut would be OVER THE MOON.

Even IN GOOD SPIRITS made me smile. My first impression was that a medium wouldn't be IN spirits as much as "within" them. I mean, it's not like the medium gets sucked in and swallowed by a ghost. Furthermore--

At that point, I delivered a kick in the pants to OCD Jeff, choosing to simply enjoy in the kookiness of a medium floating WITHIN GOOD SPIRITS.

Bah! Don't put WITH in bold! Bad, OCD Jeff, bad!

So many fantastic clues, too. Early-week puzzles often get toned down so that newer solvers won't get tripped up on their way to a victorious solve. What a treat to get [You drive it on a parkway and park it on a driveway] clue for CAR. [They're game] indeed describes PHEASANTS. YOYO MA taking a bow – his cello bow, that is – before his performance. A LAB being "chocolate-coated." Such joyful clues match the joyful theme.

A couple of blips though, in VINGT (tough foreign word), DEOXY (esoteric prefix), MOUE – gaaaaAACK!

That was the sound of a sock being stuffed in OCD Jeff's mouth. A puzzle this uplifting is allowed to have a couple of misdemeanors, especially when there are nice bonuses like IDIOT BOX to balance them out. No AW MANs today.

Above everything else, crosswords should entertain. If you don't deliver a few minutes of joy to your solvers, you've failed as a constructor. Smashing success today, Paul!

POW Mon 9/9/2019
COMBOBYOBSAWN
ORIONIOWAIMHO
TENDERRYESROOT
SKYUDONDENSE
SEMIDINGED
ALPHABETTIES
TOYOTAWANTEBB
TARPSHEXSTAIR
ADOICEEGOESTO
STANDARDDYES
SATOUTFEAT
TWERPDAFTALL
OGRESOCIALLIES
MESAOVERSKEIN
PEETPERMUSUAL

★ Loved this puzzle from start to finish. My first impression was that it was novel, fun, and nicely consistent. But was there more than "single words broken in two, in a fun way"?

It took me a while to realize what was going on with the theme, and I appreciated it more and more as I cottoned to the details. I wondered, aren't there tons of possibilities? It's easy to break words rhyming with RYES in two parts, right?

Then, it dawned on me that it wasn't just "rhymes with RYES," but "ends in -IZE." That's much more restrictive, lending a feeling of tightness. But there had to be a bunch of other short words Dan missed, right? SIGHS for example. And … PIES. BUYS!

Turns out there aren't any good options with any of those three. ROMANTIC SIGHS almost works, but it's not quite like the others. And there are few (interesting) words ending in -PIZE or -BIZE.

Perfect tightness makes the theme so elegant. Beautiful.

Lovely early-week grid, too. Dan worked in a good number of long bonuses – BODY SHOP, TED TALKS, EATS IT UP, DIET SODA. Note how widely-accessible those are, nothing cutting-edge flashy like the latest pop single or movie that will elate some and turn off others.

Along with squeaky-clean fill – the only nit I could pick was a bit of SORE AT and GOES TO, filler that felt like wasted potential – it's a fantastic product. Sticking to a 78-word grid is so smart. Some constructors feel like going to the max number of allowable words is beneath them (me included, sometimes), but it's a great way to achieve the epitome of Monday-ness.

Top-notch work. This is exactly what a newb-friendly NYT puzzle should be.

POW Wed 9/4/2019
SAGALTIMACAD
ILEOVERDIDONO
NFLVANILLALOU
GRABLIBELNUMB
LETINONDECIMAL
EDISONRABBLE
ONESMOAPLOY
CHOCOLATE
CARTRIVALTACO
CHASTELOSTIT
SAPROADMAPMAT
PISTACHIO
SCOOPORKAORTA
PEARLMTATOTAL
FORTESHYEVENT

★ I love letters-imagined-as-pictures themes, and I love ice cream. Given that PISTACHIO is my favorite flavor, how could I not give this one the POW!?

At first glance, there doesn't appear to be much theme material, since there are only two long entries. Not so! SINGLE, DOUBLE, TRIPLE, SCOOP, VANILLA, CHOCOLATE, PISTACHIO, OV, OOV, OOOV. Yes, they're mostly shorties, but placing any ten themers, no matter what length, creates so many problems.

Not only did Patrick figure out how to get the ice cream cones crossing the flavors, but he worked in so much beautiful fill. He kicked off the puzzle with triple-treat bang: ALFREDO GELATIN EDISON. With DECIMAL RABBLE COLUMBO ANOMALY in another corner – and the rest of the puzzle still to go – it was already a winner.

The only cherry on top would have been something to get rid of the pesky asymmetry. I'm not sure what you could do to balance OV, though. Patrick told me he wanted to put an actual cherry on top – a visual in the lone black square above OV. Oh, how I hope Joel and Sam and the digital team figure out how to do that!

A figurative AND a literal cherry on top? We'd be talking about Puzzle of the Year territory.

Bravo, sir! Patrick's been busy with a kid, so his NYT contributions have dropped off in the past few years. Here's hoping that he picks back up.

POW Mon 8/26/2019
CASTSBIBSLAUDE
ONEUPALOEESSEX
BAABAABLACKSHEEP
RIMRUETABMMA
ASSERTNICEST
BOOBOOBEAR
IKNOWLILONICKI
OREOSENDONBONA
TICKTAKETOSMOG
ASKSURLIEOXO
BYEBYEBIRDIE
DROOLERICINSTA
RANGEYOLKTATUM
ATEINEDGEENACT
TESSADEERDESKS

★ The best crossword themes are ones that you'd never think of yourself. Check out today's three layers:

  1. Triple-B initialisms
  2. First two words are repeated, with a "B-vowel-vowel" pattern
  3. Third words are animals

None of the aspects are that interesting by themselves but put together, they make a dynamite triplet of colorful phrases exhibiting both tightness and consistency.

Beautiful gridwork, everything I want out of an early-week puzzle. There's nothing that would turn off newbs, and so much bonus material to show them that crosswords can be enjoyable. NECKBONES. BLEARY-EYED. BOOTLICKER. LESBIAN.

COMO ESTAS? I'm doing way better than fine, thank you very much!

And literally, beautiful gridwork. The mirror symmetry produces an aesthetically pleasing visual. BOO BOO BEAR looks like he's wearing a hat — so charming!

Hard to find fault with anything. It's not ideal to use both BONA and LAUDE in one grid since they can't be clued in any way (for newbs) except for [___ fide(s)] and [Summa cum ___]. That's an incredibly minor issue though, something I usually wouldn't bother to mention.

This is a perfect example of how three solid themers can carry a puzzle. Erik did everything right today.

POW Tue 8/20/2019
PTAAWEOHSTOP
ARTCELSNAPOLI
TEESHIRTTIRADE
HAULROUGHRIDER
STPADDYREST
CUERIDZITS
BUNKERHILLDYE
FROSTESLACORN
FDRGREENSALAD
SUMSLESAIR
NEATMTADAMS
CUPOFCOCOAISEE
AVICIIGOLFBALL
REGALEINITDOM
EASTERSECANA

★ When I played golf, my thematic sequence would have been:

TEE SHIRT

WHIFF ENPOOF

ROUGH PATCH

ROUGH CUT

ROUGH HOUSE

SHANK BONES

Ending sadly with MERCY RULE. No GREEN PEACE for me, which is why I gave up the pointless game. Sour grapes? Bah!

Evan did nearly everything right today. TEE, ROUGH, BUNKER, GREEN, CUP make for a descriptive golf sequence, and they're beautifully disguised within phrases. It wasn't until GREEN that I knew what was going on.

Smoothness, Evan's strokes like butter. A couple of minor hitches with some concentrated initialisms in CGI ESL FTC, but those are all ignorable.

And the bonuses! Nothing lengthy, but so much of the mid-length material sang. GLACIER and MT ADAMS. ON THE DL. Slangy ST PADDY. Even some SPRITZ TIRADE to round things out.

Thankfully, CARDI B has been in the crossword twice before, so she didn't give me hesitation. Third time's a charm!

Can't say the same with AVICII, which was the one major barrier to me awarding the POW! Especially in an early-week puzzle, you want to do everything you can to create a moment of "oh yeah, I defeated the NYT crossword!" Today, I got a "umm … I might have possibly finished the crossword, albeit with a bizarre corner, WEIRDER than ever; that can't possibly be right, so let me double-check everything, no, it must be right, but it can't be right because it's so odd" moment.

Not ideal.

It's a constructor's job to put solver above self, setting them up for glorious victory. That didn't happen today.

However, Evan did so well aside from AVICII that I still gave him the POW! Interesting, well-hidden theme, solid and smooth gridwork overall. I'd happily give this one to a newb, with the big caveat that they won't get as satisfying a victory as they deserve.

POW Sun 8/18/2019REVOLUTIONARY
REGIFTSICHECKQURAN
ICESHEETTHESUNUSEBY
POTLATCHGOESFORASPIN
ELSEOTERIDEFCONSTY
NITUNSHORNKOTB
HOPSOOLALAKIRSCH
UBERSATMTENAMCAMEO
RABATELBATILLOVALS
NILLASLAPSTABSABLE
SLRRIOTPOLARINDUS
OCTOPIABOKAZOOS
BLASTMARIOABETIRE
VOLTAROMASONYSONIA
EXITSBRATENDSOMENS
GENOAGENESENSRISKY
ARGYLEADAGIOARTS
SETHCADBURYOPS
SAWSTAKEDRAIMISWAT
TURNTURNTURNTASMANIA
UTICASENATEEMERGENT
BOTOXHEALERINSERTS

The mighty orb, fit for a king or queen with its regal aura. What Atlas held high! The onus of Sisyphus! Lo, the lunar rotundity!

I'm apparently obsessed with balls.

It's rare for a Sunday puzzle to hold my attention all the way through. This one did. The theme wasn't stellar, but there were enough visuals – the four spheres in thin outlines, and the giant one quasi-outlined by black squares – to pique my interest.

David did a standout grid job, giving us quality fill, packed with a huge quantity of bonuses. It's almost impossible to execute on a Sunday 140-word puzzle without some ENS ESSE FHA NCO OBI RTE USS, but note how minor and ignorable most of those things are. I doubt most solvers would even remember encountering them.

And the bonuses – these are just my top ten (!):

  1. APPARATED (sorry, Muggles – this is HP's equivalent of teleporting)
  2. TASMANIA
  3. POTLATCH
  4. QUANTICO
  5. BRAVADO
  6. DEFCON
  7. KAZOOS
  8. CAT TOYS
  9. KIRSCH
  10. REGIFTS

Okay, I have to mention one more. How brilliant is [It charges to do some cleaning]? Everyone charges to do some cleaning, even my enterprising four-year-old. But wait — "charges," as in plugs in to the wall! Delightful.

Creating a magical Sunday grid isn't magic. It's a matter of not trying to do anything lower than 140 words, being careful about spreading out your themers, and then spending dozens of hours testing, resetting, repeating, exploring nearly every branch of your decision tree. Once you get to David's level of experience, it comes much faster, but I imagine this one still took an eternity.

The themers felt more like they were worming – right, down, left, down – more than rolling, but what can you do. When you have little features like having the first themer be GET THE BALL ROLLING, it's easy to brush away the quibbles.

POW Sat 8/10/2019
STEADICAMMAIA
POWERMOVETURNT
LIESAHEADATEIT
ALLOWEDIMITATE
YELPERECOCAN
REDSUPSOLD
OPPSTIPSAUDIS
WHATDOYOUEXPECT
NORUSHRAPESSO
ENABLETWOS
RESLASITSLIT
SLIPUPSUNREADY
HITONHALTERTOP
INIGOERNESTINE
PECSDEARSANTA

★ The mysterious clue for DEAR SANTA would have earned this puzzle the POW! alone. That huge SE corner, so hard to break into, made it even more baffling, given that I had precious few crossing letters to help me out. What a wow-moment when I realized that "anti-coal" was misdirecting away from children's desire to stay on the "nice" list and get toys instead.

I'll be holding this one up as the paragon, the perfect themeless entry/clue pair. Great entry + sizzlingly clever clue = Jeff has to go find the socks that Anna and Erik knocked off.

But wait, there's more! Big NW / SE corners like these are notorious for not being fillable with color and creaminess. LIES AHEAD doesn't do much, yes, but STEADICAM over POWER MOVE is delightful. IM HERE TO HELP running through both is fantastic. And if EWELL is your weak link, that's a huge win. (He was a biggish star in his day, so crossworthy.)

AND a central grid-spanner running through the triple-stacks in the SW / NE? What did I expect? I tell you what, not something as great as WHAT DO YOU EXPECT!

This is such a difficult construction. Any 68-worder is hard. Throw in:

  1. two gigantic corners,
  2. long answers running through said big corners, and
  3. a grid-spanner,

and there's no way a puzzle should be this silky and sparkly. HALTER TOP, MOUSE POINTER, PARASITIC, OWNERSHIP, it's all so good. Some might even say ITS LIT.

(Some who are hipper than me. See: TURNT is a thing?)

Some might ask why I put OWNERSHIP on that list of sizzlers. It's just a ho-hum word, right? Yes, but give it a riddly clue like [It can pass when you pass] and heck yeah, it's an asset.

A couple of blips in IDONT OPPS RES TAI don't even matter when your overall product is this entertaining and smooth. It's such a pleasure when I know immediately, without a doubt, that a puzzle is POW!-worthy.

POW Fri 8/2/2019
AMBUSHPISTIL
TOUPEESASTHMA
AIRDRIEDPAYEES
AISLEWAYMAT
ESTATELAWGUNS
INTELNUTWAS
ODESTAXEVASION
TUGWAGEREDCPU
APOSTROPHEAMID
SISMIAINANE
TRAPMEZZANINE
IOUBUZZARDS
BURGERARBITERS
ITUNESDOROTHY
ASSURERANCOR

★ I haven't experienced this many delightful clues in a long time. When solving themelesses, I keep running tabs on:

  • Great long entries
  • Gluey bits
  • Clever clues
  • Interesting trivia clues
  • Clues I'll have to explain to confused solvers

The third category is usually short, sometimes a big fat zero. I couldn't believe my eyes when the tab ran to seven. Unheard of! I had a tough time coming up with a top three, since so many were so good:

  • I've written APOSTROPHE clues riffing on a "character" in a book title. Yet I still got fooled! So clever to further obfuscate by including the word "raised." The APOSTROPHE is literally raised in "Rosemary's Baby"!
  • Noted library opened in 2001. As a writer, I ought to know this one. Which of the famous libraries was it? Not a physical library, but a library of online music, ITUNES.
  • How is ESTATE LAW an [Important thing to know, if you will]? The last part is sheer genius. Think of "will" as a verb, as in, will something to your kids.

Although the construction seemed to be yet another of Andrew's "stagger-stack" constructions, I appreciated the variety. He did start with a typical stair-stack in the middle three columns – SELENA GOMEZ / DELUXE PIZZA / WATER HAZARD, all great – but he wove in so many long entries. TOUPEES, AIRDRIED, AISLEWAY, ESTATE LAW, TAX EVASION, APOSTROPHE, MEZZANINE, BUZZARDS, DOROTHY. It's an embarrassing wealth of riches.

There were a couple small prices to pay, notably the oddball BUR along with some ATA SYR WTS. That'd usually be a yellow or even red flag, given that it's a 70-word construction. This is no typical easy-peasy 70-word construction, though.

So many interlinked feature answers, and so many mind-blowing clues make Jeff a happy boy.

POW Fri 7/26/2019
FOOLZEBRAFINCH
EDNAAQUAMARINE
LOISFUZZYNAVEL
TROTTAZOETD
ENTAILROMAN
SARONGTBILL
ATILTCHALKLINE
GENERICTWIX
ORGANBANKTHANE
VERBSPIANOS
MEARAMUSTNT
ELIPHILJACK
CASTASPELLASHE
ONEIDALAKEZEKE
NARCOLEPSYZEAL

★ So many rare letters worked in so smoothly! J Q X Z are the crossworld's Big Four, and to have one each of J Q X plus six (!) Zs is fantastic. It doesn't come anywhere close to the record number of Zs – scads of themed and themelesses with more – but Trenton worked them in so beautifully, his grid showing none of the signs of strain that most puzzles on that list exhibit.

Such a wondrous north section, with a string of connected ZQZZZ. That could be a new name brand for a sleep product — ZQZZZQUIL, anyone?

As if that wasn't enough, the clues stood out; so entertaining:

  • Doughnut played upon as [Dough nut?] for MISER.
  • How charming, CAST A SPELL clue playing on "charming." I always wondered if Prince Charming was secretly a wizard.
  • Will knows that Jim's a concert pianist, so I wonder if the clue for PIANOS was a shout-out to him. Their players are often benched indeed – on a piano bench!
  • And my favorite, [It comes from Mars]. ETS? Cosmic rays? Men? Nope, the candy bar TWIX. That's MARS, the candy company, not the planet. Beautiful misdirect.

ALL THAT JAZZ and hardly any wastage in his 16 long slots? (Maybe LAST TO LEAVE is a bit dull, but what else?) Sometimes I have to mull over which puzzle strikes me best during any particular week. This was not one of those weeks. Such a tremendous pleasure to do a themeless as enjoyable as this one.

POW Fri 7/19/2019
DRYLOOFAASANA
JUMBOTRONCABOT
ESCAPEKEYERNIE
DEANSLISTTOES
KILNAVENGED
MADEDOSKINGAME
EVADEBLEDSTAT
NETDELIRIAIKE
ARIAGUMSLAVER
CANTLOSEWADERS
EGGHASHPENS
EPICPORTHOLES
BJORKIMONAROLL
MOOSENAVALBASE
WELTYKNOPEFEW

★ The 68-word themeless construction is a tough task, and Peter is one of the masters at it. It is so hard to produce a 68-word product that shines with brilliant color while not causing hitches due to crossword glue. I advise newer constructors – heck, even experienced constructors – to stick to 70 or even 72-word grids, since the 68-word task almost always requires some trade-off (usually blah answers or a whole bunch of gloop).

Featuring 16 long slots within a 68-worder is usually asking for trouble. Taking up that much real estate, you're bound to leave potential on the table, needing to fill a couple of these slots with neutral entries. But AVERAGE JOE. DATING POOL. DEANS LIST. JUMBOTRON. PORTHOLES. What can you point to as a meh-only entry? Talk about IM ON A ROLL, CANT LOSE!

There could be questions about ALAN HALE. Not for this huge "Gilligan's Island" nerdboy, though.

Okay, you might argue over SKIN GAME. The Skins Game is common in golf lingo, but what is the phrase in the singular? The dictionary defines SKIN GAME as "a rigged gambling game, a swindle." Huh.

Great clues, lifting my already great solving experience to the heavens. ERNIE as the orange half of an iconic duo. (Raise your hand if your first thought went to the Trumps.) AB NEGATIVE misdirecting with [Type least likely to turn up in a hospital]. Not a healthy specimen who hardly gets sick, but the least common blood type.

And having spent a lot of time in the DATING POOL before meeting Jill, [All available options?] made me laugh. Such a great use of the word "available."

No doubt, this was a difficult puzzle, harder than most Fridays. Took me a long time to gain a toehold in the big NW corner. But the fact that I had to work hard to uncover such a slew of great entries only made my successful solve that much sweeter. Easy peasy POW!

POW Fri 7/12/2019
STARSHIPSSONIA
CHICKASAWAXONS
RELAYRACEMESSI
UTEDWEEBNETS
BADPRTAMSEA
RIMFETATRI
TOBECONTINUED
WHATSHOULDIDO
CHEMICALPEELS
REMPANSSNL
ERASLCSALEM
SETHSEVENOVA
TAROTDATAMINER
EMILEINAMOMENT
DIXIETELEPORTS

★ My inner nerd dug the heavy sci-fi bent, from STARSHIPS to TELEPORTS to waking up from THE MATRIX and saying WHERE AM I? Perhaps even a nod to Star Trek's most famous android, DATA, in DATA MINER? Loved it all.

I can understand how non-sci-fi DWEEBs might not have enjoyed the quasi-mini-theme as much, though.

"Stair stack" puzzles (describing the middle three rows) are familiar enough now that they have to shine to be noticed. The middle triplet is almost always great, since if you don't have at least that, it's a non-starter for most editors.

Where this one stood out from other stair stacks was in the lower left and upper right corners. These regions too often get filled with neutral or blah material, since they're often highly constrained by the middle stair stack. Not only are both of Evan's SW / NE corners clean and smooth, but WHERE AM I / THE MATRIX are so strong, doubly so when adjacent. NOSE STUDS and IN STEREO are winners, too.

Excellent work in squeezing the most out of all the long entries. I wasn't big on SWEETEN UP – filler more than an asset – but there were no other wasted long slots. That's a fantastic hit rate.

A couple of amusing clues, too. SEVEN was confoundingly self-referencing — clue number 49 divided by SEVEN itself. I had to stop and think about it, and I loved how it gave me an initial DOES NOT COMPUTE that was quickly resolved.

MOP, with its head usually on its bottom? That's the way to make a boring ol' common entry stand out!

In any particular week, Jim and I don't usually agree on which puzzle we liked best. Jim's words expressed my thoughts on today's puzzle so concisely: "Everything a Friday puzzle ought to be."

POW Fri 7/5/2019
GUARRINDFRAT
ONSALENOWGRECO
ASIFICARERETRY
THATSALIEAEROS
SYNPSABADCOP
LETTSPSYCHO
ASFARHIDECOOP
SCAMRELAXLOBE
ERTEARTYDELED
SAFESTSTARS
PIXIESREYBRA
TINCTPHARMAREP
ARGUEAUDIOTAPE
LOESSSLEEPOVER
INREMARSPOLY

★ I almost disqualified this puzzle from POW! contention based on technical flaws. A 70-word crossword (generally an easy themeless construction) shouldn't contain more than a couple of dabs of crossword glue. AEROS, AS FAR, DELED, UNSHY? Add in ASES, ERTE, SYN, TALI? Yikes! It's like seeing a bunch of unsanded welds holding together a bronze sculpture.

What's the most important aspect of a puzzle, though? How much fun and entertainment it provides. Nothing else comes close. I had a blast solving this one, for so many reasons:

Great feature entries. ON SALE NOW / AS IF I CARE / THAT'S A LIE = great triple-stack. FREECYCLE / RETROCOOL / ACROPHOBE, another one! With BAD COP running through it! Heck, most every long slot held something wonderful. AUDIO TAPE was only so-so, but everything else was great to stellar.

Playful clues. DAY TRADER is a fantastic entry, and [One who gives a lot of orders] makes it even better. (Buy / sell orders.) The neutral HULA cleverly plays on "wiggle room." Even the ugly as sin SYN gets rescued by disguising the link between "illustration" and "for example," making me think it was going for some art term.

MORE playful clues! Shouting HIDE at a birthday party. MARS, the subject of "areology"? Ah yes, the Greek war god is Ares — I enjoyed making that link. [Rush home?] needed a telltale question mark, but that didn't lessen my enjoyment. (That's a FRATernity rush, not a mad dash to get home on time.)

Then I put my constructor's hat back on, wondering why Freddie resorted to so much glue. Turns out that there's a reason for it. The four corners may not look any bigger than normal, but note how many mid-length entries link into them. The SE, for example: DAY TRADER, AERIES, DRY MOP running through the stack makes for a tougher constructing challenge than usual.

All in all, this puzzle gave me a feeling of glee. POW! for that.

POW Wed 6/26/2019
BEBEAPPFARMS
OVERMAIDARIAL
BEERMAKERNINJA
SNOOTCOBBSOB
TRUEBELIEVERS
ASHSUELOLL
THENERVESTOPIT
TOROYTDGOSH
SWEDESCAMISOLE
ONTVTADREM
JAZZGUITARIST
OWEANDYSNEAD
LABORAPPRAISER
TIREDLOSESTAY
STARESADMERE

★ Brilliant themes don't come around often. The way they get presented can make them stand out even further, or hold them back. Today's puzzle hit on all cylinders, an auto-POW! pick.

Discovering HEBREWS → He brews → male who makes beer is a constructor's dream. The muse blesses you with her benevolence! How to execute a full theme set in a 15x15 crossword, though? Some might take it in a "dictionary theme" direction, with a grid entry like PERSON MAKING BEER. Others might put HEBREWS into the grid, with a clue of [Headline: "Male Makes Beer!"]

Even if you landed on the optimal solution of choosing a colorful phrase to describe "Hebrews" – BEERMAKER is great – you might write the clue as [Hebrews?], or [Hebrews, in a way]. Putting HEBREWS in all caps was a touch of genius, shouting to solvers that something odd was going on. A question mark might do that, but the CLUE YELLING IN MY FACE made me take special attention. There was zero doubt that I was going to review what the heck was going on once I filled in the last square.

I was annoyed that I finished without hitting a revealer to explain everything, but it didn't take long to figure it out. HE BREWS, WE AVER, SHE RIFFS, I RATE, all with snazzy, in-the-language phrases describing them? That's as big a WITT (wish I thought of that) moment as I've had this entire year.

Along with strong grid execution – extras in BEEN THERE, POOR TASTE, CAMISOLE, EN GARDE, MARS RED, FAN BELT, and not much crossword glue – it's a work of top-notch craftsmanship.

THE NERVE of C.C., making me feel so pleasantly jealous. It's no wonder that she's near the top of my POW! list. I give her strong odds to take over the top spot in the next few years.

POW Thu 6/20/2019
SMTWTFSNBCTV
FIREWALLFLORA
PROTOZOANLEBON
DENLITMUSTESTS
PANSTIED
THRONGTEXASBBQ
BEALESALEMLEA
SIDESELLSMATT
PSICHICAZESTA
STOPLOSSPEWTER
ROAMDUAL
STPAULIGIRLMCS
SOLIDCONSONANT
NOISETAUTENED
STEEDRESENTS

★ I heard a lot of complaints about Trenton's last trick puzzle. HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY GIVE THIS PIECE OF @#$@! YOUR POW!, YOU UTTER MORON?

Anytime I hear feedback like this, my pat answer: I like what I like, and I'm happy to explain why at length. You don't agree? Write your own blog.

(Seriously, you should. Blogger.com and other similar services make it easy.)

I wonder if this one will engender a similar love/hate split. Or if it had run on a Friday, as a seemingly regular themeless, it would have been lauded as a good grid with a fantastic bonus?

So many great entries. SMTWTFS / FIREWALL / PROTOZOAN to kick it off. LITMUS TESTS. TEXAS BBQ. ST PAULI GIRL. NUTELLA. NFL TEAM. ZEALOTS. Yes, there's some potential left untapped, STOP LOSS, TAUTENED, RESENTS, CLOUDED not doing much in their long slots. With so much strong material though, it qualifies as a good themeless in my book.

To pull all this off with just some ignorable STDS … and what else? Maybe TBSPS is a bit ungainly, but it's seen in recipes all the time.

Such fantastic craftsmanship. Some constructors say that using so many cheater squares – the pyramids at the top and bottom – is a dirty rotten cheat. I do not. I value color and cleanliness so highly that as long as there's not a ridiculous number of cheaters, they rarely bother me.

I enjoyed the solve. I liked the revealer, even though the a-ha moment wasn't that strong, since I was positive something fishy was going on.

Most importantly, I loved going back and admiring the uncompromising craftsmanship Trenton so carefully employed.

I hesitated before giving it the POW!, since it would have been better suited as a themeless with a big bonus, instead of running on a Thursday, where it won't meet some people's tricksy-Thursday expectations. But it was too good, too fun, too admirable not to give the POW!

POW Fri 6/14/2019
CHARGEIGOTDIBS
AATEAMNOREASON
PREGGOSOBSTORY
IDLESSEUSSPED
SPUNWATTMOUE
CANTWINBADPR
ESCOLDTIMER
SHAMMARRIAGES
SEALIONSGUY
BRAINNOTDONE
RAMSARESEBBS
EVEOWNEDBROAD
WINKWINKREMOTE
ENROLLEEELISHA
DEADSEXYMASTER

★ Every once in a while, a new voice emerges onto the scene, making me sit up a little straighter. It hasn't been since Robyn Weintraub started making her playful themelesses that I've felt this great a disturbance in the Force. I loved today's solving experience, packed with joy and entertainment from start to finish.

Let's start with the feature entry. If you're going to pick a 13-letter seed, you have to make sure it's solid gold — both on its own right and for its cluing potential — because 13-letter seeds often make trouble for the rest of the grid. Caitlin made hers count, SHAM MARRIAGES colorful, and made even better by the clever repurposing of "actors' unions." Brilliant!

I call I GOT DIBS on this puzzle, far from a HARD PASS, a DEAD SEXY solving experience, WINK WINK, PREGGO, CAPISCE? Zero BAD PR on this one.

With a 70-word themeless, I want every long entry to count. ENROLLEE and ATE LUNCH struck me as more neutral, but everything else was an asset. No SOB STORY there; great usage of long slots.

And the clues. ORBS as "round figures"? The DERMIS being "skin deep"? Clever clever, wink wink!

Just a couple of dings, DAT and MARG thankfully minor. I used to be perfectly fine with KOD = KO'D in boxing, but I've heard a good number of complaints about this one, from both solvers and editors. What do editors know, anyway, you might ask, when KO'D is seen all the time in boxing recaps?

Well, they do control publication, so there is that. Thus the reason I lowered the score on KOD a while back.

I'm hoping to see a lot more from Caitlin. I have a feeling we might be lucky enough to be witnessing the emergence of a great new themeless writer.

POW Fri 6/7/2019
NORAFATHADATA
AREYOUGOODIDOL
DOMEASOLIDNULL
IMATENTSTELLY
REIDDIETHAT
SONOFECUMENISM
NAPSPARDNER
JUSTSOLEDGES
ENTITLEELSA
BOOKCLUBSASPEN
RNAROSSHODA
MAYORONEILTIP
ISAWOPENDEBATE
SIRIVOICEACTOR
TACTAPNEACORY

★ JUST SO nice to have so much sparkling color throughout the grid. I don't often sit up while doing themelesses, but entries like DO ME A SOLID, VOICE ACTOR, STORY ARC, DON'T I KNOW IT, DINE AND DASH made for an attention-getting, juicy solve.

Great fun in the wordplay clues, too:

  • TENTS fall apart when the "stakes are raised." That's the kind of groan I love.
  • [More than nods] had me thinking about signs of agreement, but it was referring to nodding off into NAPS.
  • Did you skim over TELLY as a [Flat screen?] It's worth another look. Get it, "flat" as in a British apartment, where one would watch the telly?
  • Similarly, you might have missed the laugh with POTATO, a thing that's an [Eye site], playing on "eyesight."
  • Even the usually ignorable AYE got elevated by [Answer to one's mate]. That's a seagoing mate, not a life partner!
  • And the best one, a STORY ARC as something that might build character over time. Brilliant!

So many fantastically entertaining clues. I might have picked this for the POW! on that merit alone.

Two entries made me pause: ECUMENISM and NAPERY. I'm not a religious person, so the former didn't come easily. It was a word that I could dig out of the back of my head, though, and it was neat to read up on a movement to promote unity among all the sects of Christianity.

NAPERY. Man, did I stare at that one for a long time. Hasn't been used in the Shortz era since 2000 — almost two decades ago! The Goog shows NAPERY has a lot of usage, albeit more olden-style and perhaps outside the US. A bit of an oddball, but not so much so to ding the entire puzzle from the POW! race.

Bracing for the onslaught of hate mail from linen enthusiasts …

Great craftsmanship, only IMA for crossword glue. Not quite as many colorful long entries as I want in a 72-word puzzle, but their quality was so high. Along with the outstanding amount of clever wordplay, it gets my POW!

POW Sun 6/2/2019STONERS' FILM FESTIVAL
ALOFTATTNTVPGWAFTS
SOFIATAROHEROELLIE
PUFFPIECESAXEDBOONE
CITELATERONPOTSHOTS
ASHELMGAWKFRIAR
VERDEUTESALITMIA
HIGHDRAMASMOKEBOMB
ELROYGERMIHAVEEDIE
ELISLANDOMATESTENT
LEDSEISDUPLESCOLDS
JOINTRESOLUTION
CASABAEASESRUNTTCU
LLAMAKNITEMITSROOK
ALIAKENNYDOSEGUIDE
ROLLINGINTHEAISLES
ATMDISSAFROFLEES
ALISTPEAROLDTWA
BAKEDHAMCHICANACRIT
AVIANNOAHDIRECTHITS
MONDODOPEETTANIECE
ANGSTSTEMDYEDTASHA

★ Riffing on Will's note, it looks like Erik's going to be the most published person in the NYT crossword this year. For years, there was a heated battle for that title, between old guarders Manny Nosowsky, Patrick Berry, Liz Gorski, Nancy Salomon, and more. It's amazing to see how long Patrick was in the running year after year – almost two decades!

Then came this Steinberg guy. And that funny-looking Chen dude. It even looked like C.C. Burnikel might take the title at one point.

But then came Agard. En garde!

He's swept in like a force of nature. It looks like the crossworld will be his for as long as he wants it. Astonshing output.

Sunday puzzles as of late haven't been inspiring, so I appreciated Erik's breath of not-so-fresh air today. Here in Seattle, where pot shops are vying with coffee places for retail dominance, pot terms abound. I once made a pot-related crossword myself (unfortunately, for the now-defunct Buzzfeed crossword.)

What I like so much about this one is that there's a limited number of pot-related terms — it's hard enough to come up with enough theme phrases, period. Then you tighten things up by forcing yourself to make all the themers relate to each other? That's a bit of magic there.

Not all the themers were as pot-specific as I would have liked – PUFF, SMOKE, and ROLLING are more general than POT, JOINT, BAKED – but it all works.

I also liked that Erik kept the grid at 140 words, making for an easyish fill to go with his easyish theme. I did struggle with NOSRAT, even after having seen "Salt Fat Acid Heat." An easier clue for UTES would be appreciated, but other than that, the crossings seemed fair.

Along with a couple of strong clues – I like Princess LEIA quotes, and TWA inside of "jetway" is a fun find – and some great bonuses in OFF THE GRID, KEGSTANDS, FLOOR MODEL, even MODESTY, it made for a pleasant solving experience.

I did feel a strong urge to get me some White Castle as I solved, though …

POW Wed 5/22/2019
GRAMMOJOWAKE
AURAAVECCABIT
UBERKETTOVENS
LEATHERWALLET
HISANAIS
BROADWAYTICKETS
OARADSKIRIN
OPTFROICYADA
BAHAIORATAR
STOPDROPANDROLL
PEACHTIE
ALLWHEELDRIVE
KAUAIELMOUNIX
INDUSRIISNINA
MAIDSATESTEM

★ AES has some of the best theme ideas in the crossworld today. (A shame that he shares initials with Adlai "Madly for Adlai" E. Stevenson.) How could it be possible to come up with strong, in-the-language phrases for:

  • One for the money
  • Two for the show
  • Three to get ready
  • Four to go

I wouldn't have even tried – feels impossible.

LEATHER WALLET cleverly fits [One for the money], a bit of wordplay we might see within a great themeless puzzle.

BROADWAY TICKETS are certainly [Two for the show].

ALL WHEEL DRIVE is another deft interpretation, for [Four to go]. Brilliant!

If it hadn't been for STOP DROP AND ROLL not feeling apt for [Three to get ready], this would have been an automatic POW! pick. Even POY! territory.

I liked this idea so much that I spent a lot of time thinking about what else might have fit. (I wasn't a fan of any of Alex's original suggestions.) The best I could come up with was there's an old saying about the Three S's needed to get ready for a big event. But as spot-on as it was, it wouldn't have passed the NYT censor. (S___, shower, shave. First one rhymes with "hit.")

Ultimately, I couldn't think of anything that worked better than STOP DROP AND ROLL. So I gave it a pass in service of a great overall idea.

Strong gridwork, too. MAKES WAR, FIDELIS, JETWAYS, OPHELIA, WAVE SKI, all reason to APPLAUD. CAN'T LOSE!

Well, there's COLICKY. I don't know that much about Alex since he likes to keep a low profile (we still haven't convinced him to put up a pic.) I can guess that he has no kids though – for us parents of little kids, COLICKY is too soon, Alex. Too soon.

Good use of cheater squares. It's tough to work so many down entries through LEATHER WALLET and BROADWAY TICKETS. So I'm sure the black square above COLICKY was key in allowing Alex to make that NE corner smooth.

Even though STOP DROP AND ROLL didn't work for me, I managed to overlook it. Great idea and excellent craftsmanship earns Alex another POW!

POW Wed 5/15/2019
RECESSFTCHER
EROTICCREATURE
TANTRARANSOMED
JAILHOUSEROCK
EMOIOSERTE
HAILCAESARMEN
SONARDAUNTED
DUDERANCH
SKYDOMEAETNA
SANRUSSIANMOB
USEDSENOWE
THEITALIANJOB
RIPSOPENIODINE
AMASSINGEVILER
SIDSATSINEWS

★ I'm envious. It takes a great constructor to transform a stale theme – I've seen dozens of "salad dressing" concepts over the years – into something incredible. Who would have ever thought to riff on CROSS DRESSING, interpreting it as "a revealer literally crossing dressings"? And to attempt the impossible, crossing CROSS DRESSING through FIVE symmetrical dressings, incorporated into great phrases?

It should be impossible. There's no way that Crucivera, the crossword goddess, is benevolent enough to allow such a fortuitous happenstance.

You'd have to come up with a way to intersect five salad dressings through CROSS DRESSING, at symmetrical rows. That's hard, but doable.

But add in the constraint of having the five phrases also be symmetrical in length? And have those lengths match up in position, so the dressings still fit properly?

Nah. I wouldn't have even tried.

Sure glad C.C. did! Wow. I uncovered the revealer and figured out the theme early on. But I kept stopping to admire the feat. It didn't seem humanly feasible. I mean, getting CAESAR and RUSSIAN to intersect in rows 6 and 10, that's pretty cool. But to have HAIL CAESAR and RUSSIAN MOB just happen to fit into total, absolute, mystifying crossword symmetry?

Screw HAIL CAESAR. HAIL Crucivera is more like it.

Fantastic clue in RECESS, too, reimagining "trial separation" in a funny way.

A couple of blips in the fill: a little more crossword glue than I like, and a ton of 3-letter words that broke up solving flow. Not the most elegant of finishes. But:

  1. Much of that is expected with six interlocked themers. After looking carefully at the grid design, I don't think I could have done better.
  2. Who cares? When a theme is this eye-popping, such trivialities matter not.
POW Sat 5/11/2019
TRIPSSOSONCIS
BORATCROCBONE
STICKSHIFTANNA
POSTITNOTETEL
STRINGTHEORY
TEATATSUMUP
OVERSIZEDBARED
MIRONEVISIMAY
BLINGLASTPLACE
GADOTPORPED
HELOVESMENOT
ANISCARECROWS
LISPLETSSEENOW
LUTEANTESACRA
ESSASEEDSTEEP

★ A month ago, Robyn became the first woman to make the finals puzzle for the ACPT. And it was a beaut! She's got such an excellent aptitude for selecting long entries that delight.

Today's was another win in her string (theory) of great puzzles. STRING THEORY – clued to "The Big Bang Theory," without actually duplicating "theory" in the clue! EVIL GENIUS! SCHNITZEL, such a funny sounding word. INNER PEACE.

LAST PLACE's clue cleverly misdirects. [Rough finish]? Last is a rough way to finish, indeed. It's even more devious once you note that MATTE is in the puzzle too, subconsciously tipping you toward thinking about photo finishes.

Er, finishes of photos. Not races. A double-cross misdirect!

Beautiful disguises for Gal and Berry, their capital letter hidden at the first word of the clue. There have to be tons of gals in superhero movies. And berries featured in cosmetic ads. D'oh! That's Gal GADOT and HALLE Berry.

Speaking of great clues, [One may get stuck in an office] isn't an overworked person, but a POST IT NOTE. STICK SHIFT – a manual shift – employs the common term [Car owner's manual?] in its clue. Two fantastic entries in their own right, made even better by wickedly sharp clues.

Even two ho-hum shorties got the star treatment through great cluing. [Message on a tablet] – a drug company's tagline? Nope, that's an EMAIL on an iPad or Surface tablet. I must admit I groaned when I figured out that SEALY (a big mattress brand) was literally for the "rest of the people." But it was a good sort of groan.

I had so much fun solving this one that it made me want to figure out why. It's not often that I feel like I have a lot to learn from any one constructor, but Robyn's ability to entertain and elate through her themelesses is astounding. She's caused me to rethink my own philosophies on creating themelesses.

POW Sun 5/5/2019PAPER WORK
CARATALCOHOLSPRAWLS
EVITABEGUILETRAMWAY
LOTTERYTICKETREMAINS
SWANKESTHERWINELIST
WASURANUS
ANCHORBUILDINGPERMIT
MORANEMMAPTASHADE
BOARDINGPASSORGODOR
LDSOLEOSELANTRAELI
ELHILENERASABBA
RECORDDEALSHEETMUSIC
YUGODISHDVISPAR
CAMSIGHSATSWANSLGE
REBATRASEATINGCHART
ORALBERSEDENHOSEA
COLLEGEDIPLOMASOTHEN
DONATEMAO
CONTRACTTSKBELLYRUB
ONEIOTABREAKFASTMENU
TURTLERAIRLIFTICEIN
SPOOLEDSEABASSEASTS

★ It's not often that I have a Sunday solving experience that delights from start to end — today's hit that mark! Made me a real laughing boy. Amusing re-interpretations of "___ PAPER" phrases – so many great ones! A LOTTERY TICKET as [Scratch paper?] was a perfect way to kick off the puzzle. I used to love scratching McDonald's Monopoly game tickets. Not that I ever won anything, but oh, that anticipation.

[Fly paper?] as a boarding pass? Maybe a bit stretchy grammatically, but it was so amusing that I didn't care.

[Crepe paper?] Oh, as in crepes on a BREAKFAST MENU! Genius that all of these answers are real phrases, in the language!

And SEATING CHART, the best of all. It's doubly apt for Sam, the law professor, who likely has used a SEATING CHART in his day – and written his share of "position papers"!

Sam and Doug are two of my favorite people in the crossworld – could easily be in the top two. Such fun to see their humor and wit come through today. I suppose a review should try to be unbiased, objective. But my commentary, I get to do what I want. So there.

I'm privileged to know these fine gentlemen, happy to consider myself their third Stooge. (Okay, I'm Larry Joe at best. But I'll take it.)

Constructors out there looking to make a Sunday grid, take note of the delightful bonuses: CRASH CYMBAL. GREEN CARD. SCHOOL TIE. STRING ART. TAE KWON DO. BELLY RUB! MADE A SPLASH is so appropriate. They do it right – work in about half a dozen great long fill bonuses, and you make solvers happy.

Their short fill wasn't perfect, mind you. Quite a bit of ABM AERO DVI ELHI IMA … that's a doink in the eye. But think about the qualities of everything I've listed. It's all 1.) short stuff, 2.) easy to figure out from the crossing answers, and 3.) largely innocuous. As long as you stick to the usual suspects — the tiny minor offenders — it's gloss-over-able.

The puzzle accomplished what so few Sunday puzzles do these days – held my attention from the first to the last square. That's no doubt worthy of a POW! (The good kind, not the kind when Moe slaps your head. Wise guy.)

POW Thu 4/25/2019
BAHLEPERSTORE
RDAOBAMATITHE
AMPCOLONHYPHEN
VIPROOMEXJETS
ENYAKAPPAARTY
FTDSILVER
ONAIRAYESEMI
COCOAENMSUMAC
DREWHOAEMORY
SNORTSNAT
JIBERESINMIFF
ADORESTOPICAL
PARENTHESISOXO
AHANDERICANEO
NOTESMANETSSR

★ Many moons ago, I submitted an EMOTICON puzzle to Will, using a double O rebus for EYES, an I for a NOSE, and a U for a MOUTH (the three squares on top of each other). It sort of looked like a HAPPY FACE if you cocked your head and squinted. And if I paid you ten dollars. Needless to say, Will politely rejected it.

OO

I

U

Yeah, that doesn't work.

Even having spent umpteen-fifty hours doing that, AND today receiving what seemed like hit-me-over-the-head hints in COLON HYPHEN and PARENTHESIS, I still got stuck like a duck in the center. The timer ticked away as I sweated, wondering why DOT DOT or COLON wasn't fitting at the start of 39-Across.

Delightful a-ha when I realized it was EYES! Clever double-interpretation, using COLON in one place and an EYES rebus in another.

Good gridwork, especially for a debut. I wasn't keen on A HAND NOICE (I think that's what Jake Peralta says on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," stretching out the word "nice"?) or SSR, but that's not much for a grid with so many things going on.

(NO ICE makes more sense of course, as a different meaning of ["Neat"]. But I do love me some Jake Peralta.)

HORST was also a baffler, but I could more easily excuse that in the service of the center, a strong triplet in EYESORE / PIANO SEATS / PLYMOUTH.

There was even a little VIP ROOM and TIP JAR to spice things up.

I'm suffering from a touch of rebus fatigue, having seen so many of them, but I appreciate when a rebus does something fresh. For that great lightbulb moment when I finally broke open the center of the puzzle, I'm giving out something rare today: a POW! on a debut. Well done, Jon!