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

pow

Showing 25 out of 341 POW selections from
8/26/2019 to 2/12/2020

Use the Older / Newer links above to see more.

POW Wed 2/12/2020
OKRAATETHREES
SNOCONESHEAVEN
LOVECONQUERSALL
OWEHITPOMP
SONSOLEEMO
DEATHANDTAXES
DOWSOXSIXERS
REINSWEBCIRCA
ALTOIDLABOTS
THUNDERSTORMS
SIPEPIGTOS
ALLAUTAGPS
WARTOENDALLWARS
IMEANTONEDOZEN
NOODGEGODKEYS

Oh, GROOOOOOOAN, yet another puzzle with gods hidden in phrases. And Rich Proulx couldn't even be bothered to locate them inside phrases, lazily resorting to circles higgledy-piggledy scattered about?

AND he drew from a mish-mash of backgrounds, Roman, Greek, Norse, and then back to Greek? Come on, at least be consistent! Make more of an effort to ...

Wait.

Oh.

Oh!

OOOOOOOH!

I love being slapped upside the head with my ego and stupidity. This is a true WITT (Wish I'd Thought of That) theme, where LOVE CONQUERS ALL contains the god … are you ready for it … this is so awesome … oh my god(s)! … THE GODDESS OF LOVE, VENUS!

This might be my all-time favorite within the "circles spread throughout phrases" theme type.

CRUCIVERA EXTOLS SUCH WORK DEARLY, SIR!

POW Mon 2/3/2020
FETAPIBBBAHAI
LARDETREALERT
USERACESNEATO
EYEOFTHETIGER
SADIEZINMMA
THEBEESKNEES
IBMPADPEONS
DRYHEATINHOUSE
AIMEESROTAT
HAIROFTHEDOG
ORSAHAROAMS
THEMONKEYSPAW
KRAUTMAINORCA
OAKENANNOLOAN
SEEYASAGSONUS

Animal themes have been done ad infinitum in crosswords, so an extra layer is essential. Thankfully, that's what Michael has given us today. Note that it's hardly a loosey-goosey (ha) set of themers, but nice and tight — every phrase is an animal's part, expressed in a possessive format. I enjoyed the 50/50 approach of having two themers as "X OF THE Y," and two as "THE X'S Y."

Outstanding debut gridwork, too. Monday products ought to be newb-friendly, with the potential to convert those on the fence. One major tenet is to make your short stuff unnoticeable, allowing a solver to breeze through without having any needle-scratching-across-a-record moments. There were two blips in ALEE and ORY (the latter heavily globulous), but that's an admirable result for any constructor, much less a rookie.

I appreciate that Michael didn't try to do too much. Stick to 78 words your first couple of times, so you have the best chance of coming through with a beautifully smooth early-week product. Toss in a pair of bonuses like HEAR ME OUT and MY MISTAKE, and call it good. If you can insert a bit of SHA NA NA, DRY HEAT, and a Z in BREEZED, definitely do it! As long as you can do it with minimal compromises, that is.

Too often, experienced constructors hear the call of the dark side, aiming for an audacious product that newer solvers might end up cocking their heads at — or worse. Today's is a perfect example of a welcoming gateway; a crossword with a simple yet novel theme, and a grid that allows for a fist-pumping victory. Bravo!

POW Tue 1/28/2020
AHHSHAMUGATOR
COYRANONELOPE
COMPOUNDWLAPEL
EDNALEERSMONA
SOARMALCOLMX
SOLOCUPPROORE
LASERYOGIS
GENERATIONY
EGRETWASTE
NRAORCTHESAME
CONTROLZERIN
LADEBEAKSLENT
ONEALFINALFOUR
SEUSSTROVELEE
ERREDSEXEDATE

I love it when artists combine two disparate concepts into something unique. I've participated in so many FINAL FOUR pools, created so many single-letter puzzles for crosswords, yet I've never thought of combining them. W X Y Z as the FINAL FOUR of the alphabet — and as final parts of the four themers — is so fun.

Glittery gridwork, too. For those who might not love the theme as much as me, how about some colorful OPEN MRI / TOPOLOGY and GROANER / GRANDEUR in those big corners? Lovely stuff.

Some may argue that TOPOLOGY could be tough for early-week solvers, but educated solvers should at least have heard of a topo(graphic) map, so it's inferable. And if you've never heard the term before, go check out Martin Gardner's work. His Scientific American columns fascinated me as a kid, and my shelves are chock full of his books.

HOODOO … okay, that might be tough, and I'd be more sympathetic to complainers. I'd lend even more an ear to those kvetching about the CANTOR / ORC crossing.

(The inner nerd in me says HA HA HA ALL THAT TIME I SPENT PLAYING D&D PAID OFF! Not surprisingly, I always had low Charisma scores in my character sheets. Even less surprisingly, I didn't care.)

POW Thu 1/23/2020
OCULARETASAP
SONORAYURTILE
TRICEPERGOLGA
ROCKSTHEBOWTIE
INOUTAXISICBM
CARPBRANAMORE
HENGIMMEASINAI
ARKLTD
THEGOODWIFICPA
MAMASRARASHAM
CLIPEIRELAILA
FREEVERSAILLES
TWASIDESTILTS
EATSTUNSENATE
AYEEPSTREXES

★ Regular readers of this column know that I love Thursday trickery. Nearly every single ground-breaking / avant-garde / mind-blowing work of iconoclasm has come on a Thursday, and for good reason — Will Shortz aims for Thursday to be the hardest themed day of the NYT week.

Will has been consistent in his philosophy, wanting Thursday to be nothing more than harder than Wednesday. However, all the clever, unique, crack-the-mold concepts have to be slated for Thursday — and there are a lot of them. Those pesky constructors and their breaking of every single crossword rule! Lawless agents of chaos!

Not every Thursday can break the mold, though — that's unrealistic. And even if it were possible, I wouldn't want it. My brain likes to be challenged, but it also likes success. Solving something hard but familiar can produce a great feeling.

That was exactly the case today. At first, I was underwhelmed by the theme being a simple sound change, and I wrote it off as not POW! material. Chatting with Jim Horne made me rethink, though, giving more weight to some of my first impressions:

  • VERSE to VERSAILLES? Now that's a spelling change! I've brainstormed hundreds of sound change puzzles, but I don't remember such an amazing transmogrification.
  • ROCK THE BOAT -> ROCK THE BOWTIE is not only a neat presto change-o, but what an awesome resulting phrase. Heck yeah, Bill Nye rocks his bow tie!
  • Amazing big corners — from a debut constructor! I'd rarely attempt a 6x7 chunk inside of a themeless puzzle, much less within a themed puzzle with more constraints. The SE is exemplary, super clean while shining with such winners as CHILLAX, PALETTE, T REXES.
  • Such clever clues for ALGEBRA — containing an "X" factor, as in "solve for X, heh heh — and SENATE. I've worked with many non-profits who used Ernst and Young — but that's the auditing firm, not senators Jodi Ernst and Todd Young.

There were a couple of blips, notably that "gimme a sign" as a base phrase doesn't sound as strong as "give me a sign," and there was more crossword glue than I'd like — close to a GROS amount. As much as I enjoyed some of the wide-openness, I'd have preferred a more standard grid layout that would have been easier to fill cleanly.

Barbara did so much right, though. I'm glad that Jim nudge-nudged me to take a second look.

POW Sat 1/18/2020
SLIPSHODWINK
LAVALAKESIRAN
ICEPALACESNUDE
DEMPOPAWHEELIE
IDOSGILINTERS
NOVICESGILA
TIEDONANTISPAM
OLDENBLUESTONE
YOWTAJSTINTS
NAVIDADSNITS
LINDROSGERE
KICKSTARTERDAD
CROATTEARITUP
UMBRAEARFLAP
PASTSSUDSED

Diagonal symmetry is one of the rarest categories in our database. It's a shame, because not only is it distinctive, but it can be aesthetically stunning. That's the case for this sword-ish grid, resembling a medieval coat of arms. My family's crest is currently a set of squiggles drawn by my 5-year-old, so I'm nudging her to, ahem, revise. I'll have to leave copies of this puzzle around to influence her subconsciously.

At just 64 words, this grid almost made our fewest words list. Typically, that makes me worried, since such a feat almost always comes with severe compromises created by the difficulty of filling gigantic white spaces. Ryan did something smart, nibbling away at said white spaces with extra black squares — those three pyramid shapes count for a whopping 12 cheater squares (black squares that don't affect word count), 3 each in the top two pyramids and all 6 of the lowest. Usually, I don't like such a huge count of cheaters, but today's enhance the overall visual impact, without affecting solving flow.

Ryan also left himself plenty of long slots for juicy fill, and wow, was the juiciness overflowing! Beautiful marquees in WINE TASTING, KICKSTARTER, POP A WHEELIE, SIDEWALK ART, ICE PALACES, IVE MOVED ON.

Hilarious clue for BAD DATES, too. Way back when I was in the dating pool, is that why all those people had emergencies come up? No, those were all real emergencies, I'm sure.

A frequent reader, John Sutton, wrote in the other day, asking if I could spend a few lines explaining clues that one might never figure out via Google. You can go to AL JARREAU Wikipedia page if you don't know him, for example, but you can't do that with a wordplay clue. Great idea; here are two I noted:

  • TAJ: The "opening" in [Opening for a Mughal masterwork] is a bit of wordplay, aiming at "starting word," as in the TAJ Mahal.
  • Dalmation, for one is CROAT? Yes, when you're referring to Dalmatia, Croatia.

I'll try to do this more for tricksy Friday and Saturday clues.

I didn't connect with everything — LINDROS sounded alien to this red-blooded ‘Murican, LAVA LAKES didn't ring a bell, and SUDSES sounded soapy — but there wasn't anything newfangled that turned off this ol' geezer in the vein of DANK MEMES. All in all, a beautiful product that sang like Excalibur.

POW Tue 1/7/2020
BBOYINITTRAP
REVUPNORAHUGE
ADELEMROCTOBER
THREEPOINTER
SOSPINBICIAM
GHOSTOFACHANCE
AWAYERSCTRL
BURNTCDSSHEET
ERIESOUECON
LANDSCAPEPHOTO
ALGPORLEIIPO
OUTSIDESHOTS
STEPNIECEMANIA
PAVEALESSLACK
AXEDNYETELSA

★ This is a fantastic example of one of my favorite early-week theme types, where seemingly unconnected phrases suddenly link together in a surprising way. I completely failed at "Name that Theme," and pleasantly smacked my forehead when realizing how OUTSIDE SHOTS described the three themers:

  1. The usual meaning of OUTSIDE SHOT is a long shot; an outside chance. Ross could have gone with a dictionary-ish definition like LOW CHANCE OF SUCCESS, but finding a sizzly in-the-language phrase like GHOST OF A CHANCE is dynamite.
  2. I ruptured my Achilles tendon taking a THREE POINTER (sadly, with no one guarding me, even more sadly, it bricked). I'm all too familiar with what an outside shot I have of making any given three, given my heaving, grunting form.
  3. LANDSCAPE PHOTO isn't as strong a phrase as the others, but it works. It also gives a completely different meaning of OUTSIDE SHOT, this one a literal interpretation.

Together, the three form a trifecta of near perfection.

Speaking of perfection, the grid shows a master at his best.

  • Color: OVERSHARING BEDHOG, INTENTIONAL SCHISMS, IRON BARS, along with MR OCTOBER and STEPNIECE.
  • Cleanliness: just a minor blip in ALG.

Not only is it a friendly grid for newbs, but it's so juicy. There's no magic to what Ross has achieved, but the time, care, and hard work are much appreciated. All constructors working with four themers can and should be outputting grids as excellent as this one.

This crossword put a huge smile on my face. I'd gladly give it not just to newbs, but to more experienced solvers as well. I love lauding art that's on par with Ansel Adams.

POW Fri 1/3/2020
AIMOPHELIAGUN
STAGFLATIONRNA
TUNATARTAREAFT
UNITSPARMUNRO
TEASETBINDI
ESCRITZCRACKER
ACHORUSLINE
BTWOCARETEDDY
THATSUNREAL
WETHEPEOPLEHUM
FEELSISMENE
LORRECOATALPS
ORBCROPCIRCLES
ACETAKEREVENGE
FEDSEERESSOSS

★ Sometimes all it takes is a single entry or clue for a themeless to sing to you. For Jim Horne, it was a clue whose cleverness I missed the first time around. "One" is its final number? I had already filled in most of A CHORUS LINE, so I didn't stop to think about it. I'm so glad Jim pointed out what a great misdirect this is! If you didn't notice the quotation marks, the clue would feel deviously mathematical.

For me, it was STAGFLATION. The MBA in me gets tickled by econ terms, especially one so colorful. (It describes when economic growth is stagnant, but inflation is high — a double whammy.) You'd think that economists are boring, but I have a lot of econ friends who are hilarious.

"Hilarious" in quotes might be a better description.

I had two hesitations before giving this one the POW!:

  1. IOR is a particularly gloopy gluey bit, less in the camp of "minor crossword blip" and more "three random letters stuck together." Inelegant to say the least; glad Will Treece recognized this.
  2. The other was more subjective — STAGFLATION is a downer already, then you add in ANEMIAS, UNFRIEND, BRUTALITIES, and TAKE REVENGE? Make love, Will, not war!

However, I greatly enjoyed the novelty of the grid design, neither a standard "triple-stacks in each of the four corners" nor a "wide-open middle," but something neatly in between. The smart black square placement allowed for smooth solving flow, while also making it constructor-friendly to fill. I like the trade-offs.

I had been vacillating, POW! or scow, and the conversation Jim and I had pushed it over the edge. It's not easy to cater to a hugely varied solving population.

POW Mon 12/23/2019
MAYANSDOTCOM
EXOTICEUROPA
MIDDLERELIEVER
ESAUNOAHXENA
SLEDRIDE
AWAKEISLAM
RIGSTAMOSEWE
CFOSOPALAVOW
HIGHSPEEDDRILL
EATSOL
REDDELICIOUS
TUXNINOPTA
SPINTHEDREIDEL
PETERIELROND
SESTETSIESTA

★ RIDDLE me this: who stumps Jeff at "Name That Theme" on Mondays? NO ONE! Holy mixed up R I D D L Es, Batman!

D'oh! The joke's on me.

During the holiday season, we get inundated with Christmas songs, Christmas presents, Christmas eggnog-that-looks-and-tastes-vaguely-like-snot, that it's fantastic to get a Hanukkah theme today — and a fresh one at that, the letters D R E I D E L spun around within phrases. Although those Ds and Es are common enough, seven letters isn't easy to work with. The only others I found were SOLDIERED ON, BEWILDERED, IDLE DREAM, TUMBLE DRIED, and of course, THE RIDDLER.

Hilarious clue for YODA, too. It's difficult to get creative on Mondays since you don't want to risk confusing newer solvers. [… who could have this clue written?] is delightful. No dark side there.

A couple of sticky points in the grid, particularly a few crossings that might trip up newbs: EUROPA / MARA, SESTET / TRE, ELI / ELROND. I'm guessing that all of these are guessable, but the ambiguities aren't ideal. At the least, they could take away from the sense of unassailable victory you want newbs to feel. Shifting the black squares in the bottom part of the grid could have helped, breaking up those big 6x3 sections.

I enjoy left-right symmetry, and it can be a lifesaver — 14 14 14 12 is a constructor's nightmare! Will Shortz likes it fine, but not all editors do. Today, I could see how an editor might object to those unsightly 2x2 blocks of black squares, but I thought they looked a tiny bit like a dreidel's stem and point.

Ooh, it would have been amazing to arrange more black squares to form the outline of a DREIDEL! I'm constantly thinking about Sunday grid art concepts, and that would have been fantastic. Ah well.

I love it when a puzzle makes me go off on research rabbit holes. It's a nearly-perfect Hanukkah theme.

POW Thu 12/19/2019
CVERREHABEMI
SWATHICEPLANET
AGREECOMPANCAR
DIGRAPHTHORNY
IRANALIASNOM
ELSASYNCBEAUT
LETTILECGI
SPABECHDELHSN
VALALOESAT
UTLEYSWTSRAMS
OSXKAYOSARGO
NOTIMEPOPCORN
STATELINEOHMAN
FIRSTLOOKPEATY
WESZYNGAEASE

★ I love seeing interesting word findings, and IN THE WAY / IN THEORY is a perfect example. There's something so curious about how different those two phrases are, even though they share so many letters. The parsing shift (changing the spacing) makes it even more distinctive. It's the type of discovery that sets off so many crossword constructors' spidey-sense.

I wonder if this finding came first, or the idea of using two-letter state abbreviations to alter phrases across STATE LINEs came first.

COWGIRL / NEW GIRL, COMPANY CAR / COMPACT CAR, ANYONE / ACT ONE — such a parade of delights! This is the second time in two weeks where I've thought that a weekday puzzle could have been expanded into a Sunday. So much for what I previously said about it being a rare occurrence!

Great gridwork too; not a surprise considering Andy and Erik are two of the best in the biz. (Congrats to Erik for his new job as the editor of the USA Today crossword!) So much goodness in ICE PLANET, FIRST LOOK, ETERNAL, PASTEL, TRACHEA, PATOOTIE. Everywhere you look, there's something else that makes the solving experience even better.

I was of two minds (appropriate for this puzzle!) on MEAN MUGS, though. It's probably another thing that millennials make up so that they can have their own language that excludes us, the hopelessly unhip. At least MEAN and MUGS are words I recognize.

I did also wonder about the BECHDEL / COSA crossing. The BECHDEL test is common knowledge in gender studies, but it's not something I'd expect all educated NYT solvers to know how to spell. Crossing it with a mafia term might be a recipe for leaving certain solvers with negative connotations with the name BECHDEL, and that would be unfortunate.

Those are minor nits, though. It's so rare for me to solve a crossword that's novel enough that I can't immediately recall something at least a little like it. Such a joy when that happens, and even better when the craftsmanship is this good. Easy POW! pick.

POW Fri 12/13/2019
RASHGUARDBANFF
ENCOUNTEROPERA
FIRSTSTEPSTEED
EMITNICECEDE
RAMALEPHSARA
INGAPADTHAI
SMOREVERYAND
POLARBEARPLUNGE
ENDVEALANDES
LEGWEARMANO
LYREVWBUSSPA
BOCAORESRAIL
DEWARROSEPETAL
ULTRAMOLTOBENE
ETHELSKISEASON

★ Second puzzle, second POW! for Leslie! Her first one was at one end of the constructing spectrum — an easy-peasy, smooth Monday — and this themeless is at the other. It's a rare individual who has the potential to hit for the cycle, given that a Monday and a Friday puzzle require different skill sets. Check back here in five years; my money says that Leslie will be on the list.

At first glance, this grid doesn't look that much different from a standard 72-word themeless. Take the SE corner for example — triple-stacked 9s are a staple of Friday puzzles. The one big difference is the grid-spanner in the middle, the vivid POLAR BEAR PLUNGE. That has the potential to ice up every corner of the grid.

Leslie wisely used her black squares to separate POLAR BEAR PLUNGE from the NW and SE corners, while still allowing for decent solving flow. However, it's impossible for the ends of POLAR BEAR PLUNGE to not affect the SW and NE corners. I like her decision to break up the outside slots (SPELL / DUE and FAD / AIDES). Many constructors would keep those as 9-letter slots, giving themselves a huge problem. It's easy to construct 9-letter triple stacks when you have few other constraints, but when you fix three letters into place, it becomes much more difficult.

I love how careful Leslie was with her short fill. I'm always picking out some nit in a themeless, but not today. Top-notch work. It's not rocket science — you can get yourself a solid word list and work with the minimum score fixed at a high level — but so many constructors get fed up with the sheer quantity of iterations they must iterate through to get a clean, colorful product like this.

This wanna-be surf bum enjoyed kicking off the puzzle with RASHGUARD (try surfing without one for a day, see what happens), but Jim Horne commented that he'd never ENCOUNTERed it before. So although I see it as a great entry, something like FIRST STEP or ROSE PETAL or SKI SEASON is a safer headliner, given their more universal recognition.

Nearly faultless execution, with both quality and quantity of feature entries. Can't wait until Leslie's next outing!

POW Mon 12/2/2019
LABORALPSHEMS
EVADEBITEURGE
GOREDBOARDGAME
OWEBURNMOE
SAMBASEGOSLAP
LIARSLONESOME
NGOMBASEWES
FEIGNYAPCREST
ACMEOGREAIR
STUDYFORABETS
TOMANDYDASHES
HMOMOORELI
READSUPONEBBED
NEATSORETRACE
SLAVEXESSORTS

★ Lynn puts herself in limbo today. Get it, limbo? Because she lowered the bar?

Speaking of lowering the bar, I'll be here all week, folks!

Making a trigram descend is not a novel idea — the one Mary Lou Guizzo and I did a few years ago is just one in this theme class — but Lynn executed it so well. The breakdown:

  1. Well-hidden BARs. No BAR OF SOAP or HEATH BAR CRUNCH or DIVE BAR. I had no idea what was going on until I hit the revealer, and that made for a snappy a-ha moment. Lynn even avoided the BAR sound completely. SANTA BARBARA might have been too overt, for instance.
  2. Judicious BAR spacing. It is possible to get the BARs on a perfect diagonal line, but that requires either the themers to be in columns 4/6/8/10/12, or 2/5/8/11/14. Both of those present technical difficulties, especially when you have Monday smoothness as a target. Lynn's BARs don't lie on a perfectly straight line, but that's hard to see, even if you use a ruler. Fine compromise.
  3. Great execution around themers. Typically, you'd space out CABARETS and LOWER THE BAR by placing the former at the top of the grid and the latter at the bottom, to minimize overlap. Today though, you need to keep both of them toward the bottom. That should cause problems in the SE corner, but Lynn just shrugs it off and produces a silky smooth result, even tossing in some DASHES and SELECT.

When it comes to puzzles featuring down-oriented themers, Will Shortz is laxer than other editors about including long across fill, not worrying about muddying up the theme. Today, I like the inclusion of BOARD GAME. That provides color, important since there's not much room for down-oriented long fill (the five themers take up too much space). I'd have loved for READS UP ON to be as snazzy as BOARD GAME, but what can you do.

Same sentiment for the assemblage of ABBR / NGO / ECTO in the NW corner, but that's a reasonable result, given the level of technical difficulty.

Overall, a Monday offering I'd happily give to a newb. I'd likely have to circle the BARs for them afterward, as they're easy to miss (see below for highlighting), but that only shows them how much a genius me be.

POW Tue 11/26/2019
DORMPODSUSHER
ACERAPOPSMOKE
THETOWEROFBABEL
ASLOWNANOROSY
ANEWGMAT
THEDEVILYOUKNOW
RUMREDOGEENA
ENOSNECKSYORK
ACTEDAINTNYE
THESUNALSORISES
SEARSWIM
ACAIRICEKLIMT
TAROTCARDREADER
IRENENOUNTOTE
TEASEAPPSELSE

Tuesday's job is tough — it has to be easy and welcoming enough for newish solvers, but also interesting for more experienced folks. This theme hit that sweet spot, such a clever link between the Tarot and well-known "THE ___" phrases. I've done a lot of Tarot puzzles and a lot of "THE ___" puzzles, and I've never thought of connecting them. Brava!

Speaking of that balance of easy vs. interesting, there's so much to love about the grid. Four 15-letter entries can be tough to work around, but Olivia produced such a smooth, accessible product for newbs, while also working in MR TOAD, OPEN WIDE, SMART KEY, KISSED UP for the veterans. Check out how wisely she spaced out OPEN WIDE and SMART KEY, using black squares to separate everything judiciously.

The one ding was ASLOW, which could have been massaged out with a black square at the A (and at the T of KLIMT). That would have also allowed removal of OCHS and/or ACER. The northwest corner of a crossword is so important in setting tone and expectations; an extra set of black squares would have been well worth it.

It's rare for me to take interest in a Monday or Tuesday theme, and I was curious enough to research the other Tarot cards to see what other phrases might have been possible. Spurring on curiosity is a great thing!

I'm glad Olivia pared it back from a 21x21, as that would have gotten old. The 15x15 format is perfect for this tidy and novel concept.

POW Sat 11/23/2019
ASSUAGELABMICE
SKIPPEDAQUAMAN
WITSENDOUTKAST
ACELEASILENTW
NAMEITNEPALI
PARKINGGARAGES
PRECIOUSREST
POI
SACSFADDIETS
HILARITYENSUES
ARISENSTEELS
RAPHAELBOAPOE
ISAIDSOALTOSAX
FIRMESTBEELINE
SATIRESESSENES

★ It's rare that I do a week's worth of puzzles and one jumps out at me as an instant POW! winner. Today's fit that bill. Impressive from a constructor's standpoint, and a delightfully challenging and entertaining solving experience.

Those gigantic SW and NE were especially mind-blowing. Regions of 7x7(ish) scream I CANNOT BE FILLED WITH BOTH SNAZZINESS AND SMOOTHNESS! I've tried it and failed. I've come up with a relatively smooth product, and also a relatively snazzy one, but never both at the same time. I even went as far as to send in a 58-worder to Will Shortz, who kindly said it was a strong construction but lacked color.

Let's call a spade a spade: it would have sucked to solve. I'm glad Will rejected it.

I like how Trenton balanced ease of construction vs. solving flow. The center isn't perfect — it does sort of cut up the puzzle into four quadrants — but it's workable. I never felt like I was completely cut off, stuck like a duck.

It did help that my knowledge of Trenton's love for rare letters breezed me through that NE. Superhero ... let's see, who has a rare letter … AQUAMAN! That led to AQUINAS and I was off to the races.

Fantastic long entries, too. HILARITY ENSUES? Dang it, I wish I had debuted that one! PARKING GARAGES isn't colorful in itself, but it has so much potential for a clever clue. Get it, you get tickets in PARKING GARAGES? Not speeding tickets, but entry tickets?

That one could have used some clevering up.

So much to love in this one. First-class use of the mid-length fill slots — WITS END, LAB MICE, MAKE PAR, I MANAGE, ALTO SAX, BEELINE, CLIP ART, SASHIMI. That's great for a normal themeless featuring 7-letter entries, and it's phenomenal for a construction this daunting.

Beautiful work all around. Both the constructor and the solver in me give Trenton a standing O.

POW Wed 11/13/2019
PAIRTAGSADOBE
ONMEOILYPULAR
STUDODORLEDGE
HIPPOTAMUSES
PESSPEXSST
STAYSINSAYOVER
HASTEARVENI
ISTHEPECATHOLIC
ETREACRETOI
LEAPSATSOAPERA
DRYNOAMURB
BALLOONDARTS
IGGYPERICNOOK
ROUTESANEDORA
ADMENELKSSTAT

★ It takes a lot to overcome my rebus fatigue, but the notion of circles representing balloons, popping into POPs? Delightful!

Add in brass-ring quality themers: IS THE POPE CATHOLIC is fantastic on so many levels — so colorful, so fun to say, and rarely seen in crosswords since it's 17 letters. I'm usually not a fan of words hidden in other single words, but APOPLEXY is such a crazy entry. HIPPOPOTAMUSES did make me wonder if HIPPOPOTAMI was the correct plural, and that made me love it even more.

(Thanks to Matt Gaffney for sending me a hilarious Hiphopopotamus link!)

Some problems in the short fill left me with that same feeling you get after losing at the ring toss 58 times in a row, though. It would have been one thing if it were only minor offenders like ACS (no one uses this to refer to multiple air conditioners, but it's easy enough to figure out), ERE and NAE, but PES? SKAT? OESTE?

Take a close look at the slew of themer intersections. IS THE POPE CATHOLIC crosses TOOTSIE POP crosses HIPPOPOTAMUSES crosses RED POPPY, and APOPLEXY crosses POPULAR. So much inflexibility is enough to make any constructor cross. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

As much as I liked Ed's ambitious long themers, a couple of shorter ones like POPPY (instead of RED POPPY), POPPA, POPEYE, POPULI, AIRPOP, etc. would have allowed for a smoother, better overall end product. I appreciated Ed's sentiment, but the notion of POP sounds vs. non-POP sounds didn't occur to me while solving.

Such a beautiful carnival effect — so charming, those circles — representing balloons suddenly blossoming into POPs. My big smiles made it easy enough to overlook the problems in execution.

POW Sat 11/9/2019
ISITSNOOZEFEST
NAPENOPROBLEMO
ACHEUTTERBORES
PROSECUTORAILS
TENOKSOOCTET
BEANIMUP
ALASIHADABLAST
DEPPTUXESALTO
SUPERFREAKNAAN
RAILPENN
WRUNGBAMAPDA
TOESUSEDASBAIT
IMOUTRAGEDUTNE
GARAGESALEYOGI
ENGLISHTEASNOT

SUPERFREAK + SACRE BLUE + ZORRO MASK? IT FIGURES to add up to I HAD A BLAST with a STANDING O.

Wow, so much color, so much sparkle!

I'm usually a stickler for cleanliness when it comes to 70-word themeless puzzles — they're a relatively easy construction task — but I'm more than fine with some OK SO / NOT US / TGI to get the explosion of fireworks all throughout.

Hardly a SNOOZEFEST or an UTTER BORE — having both in one corner made for a nice tie-in. Something so fortuitous when two long answers happen to fit in an isolated region.

Oh, and [One with something to prove]? Not GUY WITH A CHIP ON HIS SHOULDER, but literally, a PROSECUTOR trying to prove someone guilty.

I HAD A BLAST indeed, thoroughly superfreaky.

POW Wed 10/30/2019
DALIROBCZECHS
ANAPHORAPROSHOP
BECHAMELEONLINE
MOOREISSUEPEA
POSTDOCTOPUSSR
INTOOPUSGRIT
TEEDECAFSIGN
CAMOUFLAGE
TODOLEAPSADD
AIDSLIDSALOE
PLEAFINSECTION
AKCCREELGAMER
GALILEOPARDONME
ELISIONGOESSTAG
SIPHONALTTOTO

I've always wanted to do a CAMOUFLAGE crossword, but I've never figured out an interesting way to execute it. This is it! At first glance, I thought I missed everything. Indeed, I did — just a s with real CAMOUFLAGEd creatures! It was so much fun to scan through the grid a few times before finally locating CHAMELEON, OCTOPUS, LEAF INSECT, and LEOPARD.

The middle two were especially eye-popping, David managing to hide those in such a clever way. I'd never have thought of trying for LEAF INSECT — it seems impossible to insert those into a grid stealthily. LEA / FIN / SECT, I love it!

I did wonder if it was odd to break up those four creatures with black squares, but the overall effect overshadowed that qualm in a major way. It's an incredibly neat effect, one part "Where's Waldo" and another part "Magic Eye."

AND a ton of bonuses worked in throughout? When you have to build around short fragments, that's usually near impossible. GOES STAG, LACOSTE, TIE CLIP, DOORMAT — that all speaks to the PRO SHOP David runs. Such careful, polished gridwork.

AND a hat tip to DADS changing diapers? With a young son going through potty training, this dad (doing a lot of dirty work) appreciated it.

This notion makes all my dozens of CAMOUFLAGE ideas run to shamefully hide in the woodwork.

POW Fri 10/25/2019
GULPTOMSALEM
ONBALANCEALEXA
WHOCANSAYGLITZ
NIMPLATEAUTRY
STBASILDHARMA
RUNEAREOLA
ITDEPENDSOPTIC
TARASOUPSLIFT
SCARFWHATGIVES
YOGURTNILE
SOGOODGLASSED
CANSTABLEDTAU
ALERTWRITLARGE
VAGUENASTYFALL
EDGEDTHOBYES

I've had the pleasure of working on a couple of crosswords with John Guzzetta — we seem to be on similar wavelengths. His comment above made me laugh — about ten years ago, I pulled a prank on a friend, playing Darth Vader's Imperial March (on cello) as she walked down the aisle. During the rehearsal, not the actual ceremony!

I solve so many themelesses that they all tend to run together in a mish-mash of interesting phrases. One rarely stands out, so I appreciate it when I can hang on to something, anything that makes it feel distinctive.

Jill and I have French friends who like to poke fun of their Frenchness — it's delightful to hear Romain say he doesn't care about something "because I'm French" in an exaggerated accent. So many phrases today reminded me of that shrugging attitude: WHO CAN SAY, IT DEPENDS, WHAT GIVES.

I also enjoyed knowing "1-up" for EXTRA LIFE right off the bat, bringing me back to the old days when I'd hang out at the local arcade, a bunch of kids crowded around a "Donkey Kong" machine, our quarters lined up along the top.

Great cluing, too, making short, usually neutral entries stand out. [Some nerve?] elevated OPTIC. The wordplay for RUNE's clue was genius — it may be set in stone, literally!

A couple of minor dings here and there — MAZY and UNHIT are oddballs, and AREOLA is one of those entries we snooty constructors roll our eyes at since it gets used way too much because of its friendly vowels — but overall, a delightful solving experience.

POW Sun 10/20/2019BE PATIENT
AMMANBITES
CLAIRELAGAMECHE
SHALLOWDIPLOTINHATS
AIRBEDSEASELANTONIO
GAMERREARENDERSEDER
EPICPONDTEAMDONT
LESBLOOPIKNOWNNE
YTTRIUMOCCAMGRANGER
URNSORATESIRI
RATEDGCLIPARTBENICE
ERASIGHBODEMUSMEG
DAMPNOUNTHANSHAG
IGORGOTITFIENDPOSE
DORISDELIVEREDTIMED
NAVAJOELITEELATES
IVANITEAPLUMS
EVILOMENSMIAMIHEAT
BIGEYECAVEMANPLINTH
ECIGSKELETONKEYNERO
RAVEOPERATIONEMIR
TRESITSYEASTDYAN

★ YES! Finally, the NYT takes advantage of the Magazine's ability to do something that virtually no other crossword venue can: print in color. What better way to flaunt the fact that not only is print media not dead, but it can be better than e-formats? Yay for all the great old-timey things, said this Luddite!

This Luddite, who is happily using his computer to type this post … huh.

Great theme concept, too, playing on OPERATION's body-part-removal mechanism, interpreting phrases as if those parts were gone. (How anyone could successfully remove those friggin' little pieces without that horrible BZZT! Is beyond me, though.) I loved the ones that surprise, like how SPIT (SHIN)ED becomes SPITED. It'd be even better if SHIN had spanned the two words of the phrase, but that's asking for a lot.

It's not as interesting when a single word becomes another single word, i.e., DE(LIVER)ED to DEED. Slightly better is something like AL(ARM)IST to A-LIST, but it's still not as strong as SPIT (SHINED).

The one outlier: S(HAND)ONG. Since the base phrases aren't clued, they must be easily recognizable in order to generate a strong a-ha moment. Perhaps as a good Taiwanese boy, I should have known the province of SHANDONG, China, but considering I got kicked out of Chinese school as a kid, what do you expect?

I'd have gone with Garry S(HAND)LING or better yet, AX (HAND)LE. Five minutes of coding can do wonders!

It's rare these days that a Sunday puzzle will hold my attention — great fill like SKELETON KEY, BATARANGS, GOOD ONE, DEADPOOL helped tip the scales. Some aspects could have been improved, but overall, an amusing wordplay-based idea that entertained.

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.