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

showing 25 out of 207 POW selections from 2/2/2017 to 7/18/2017

Click the links above to see these puzzles organized by constructor, or to try solving them.

POW Tue 7/18/2017

★ My first impression was that this puzzle had so many — too many — diagonals of black squares rising from left to right. Kvetching alert! Those middle diagonals break up the solving flow! All those pyramid blocks around the perimeter felt like cheating to this constructor (they make a grid way too easy to fill)! Forty-two total black squares is too many!

Boy, did I feel silly when I realized that the black squares were thematic. I didn't catch on to the theme until very late, and I loved when the switch finally flipped on. STAIRCASE WIT, ESCALATOR CLAUSE, ON THE UP AND UP made for a simple concept, but the black square patterns — every single one of them rising diagonally — made for an elegant touch.

Excellent craftsmanship, very little crossword glue anywhere. Some people may complain about SCRY, but I think it's a fair word, even for more novice solvers. Then again, I do love sci-fi and fantasy novels ... if you haven't read the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, you're missing out on some awesome SCRYing! (More importantly, the crossing answers are all gettable; even REMY Martin ought to be at least familiar).

Great BANK clue, playing on Penn and Teller. How have I never realized that a BANK has both pens and tellers? Love those sorts of connections.

The puzzle did play hard for me, what with less common vocabulary such as TRICORN, ANTEHALL, ASYLA (that really is the plural of "asylum"!) to go with SCRY. I happened to be familiar with all of them, but I'd understand if these answers left an odd taste in solvers' mouths — I think it's better to stick to just one or two of these potentially head-scratching words.

But with great bonuses like COSPLAY (I happen to look a great deal like EVIL Spock to begin with), EVIL EYE, CHALLAH, ICE CUBE TRAY, I thought Mike executed well on his grid on the whole.

Great visual with all those STAIRSTEPS in black squares. I didn't immediately know what STAIRCASE WIT was, but even then, I liked learning the term. Neat idea, an inability to come up with the perfect comeback until one is at the bottom of the stairs and needs to rush back up to use it.

POW Sat 7/15/2017

★ Ha! I love it when the Gray Lady surprises me, this time kicking off with the slangy AMAZEBALLS. Maybe it just seems naughty to me, or it's often paired with other off-color language? In any case, I'm a big fan, as people in my writing group use it frequently in our discussions.

I can understand how other solvers might not approve — or worse yet, not be able to achieve a correct solve, given the ATTU crossing — but it's hard to imagine something like IMAZEBALLS looking right. Still, I wonder if I'll hear grumblings.

Very good craftsmanship in construction, a ton of sizzling long entries without much crossword glue. I did hitch when filling in ATTU at 1-Down — tough bit of trivia that I'm not sure all educated solvers should be expected to know — but just getting a little of CKS (checks?) and ANON shows careful consideration in the grid. Much appreciated; lent a feeling of elegance.

I felt like there were a couple of long slots leaving potential on the table — DATE SUGAR and IN ONE SENSE aren't as strong as DRAG RACING and IMMOLATES, for me, e.g. — but given that Zach started off with 16 long slots, a few neutral entries still means that we get assets well into the double-digits. Great stuff.

And that bottom stack, hatchi matchi! PLUTOMANIA wasn't familiar, but what a neat word to learn. Along with SEX SCANDAL atop TWEETSTORM = such fodder for active imaginations. I'm usually one for more positive, uplifting entries in crosswords, but that corner is so evocative. Love it.

I didn't get the SIGMA CHI clue — apparently, there's a song called "Sweethearts of SIGMA CHI"? I love a wickedly clever clue, but this one went way over my head. SIGMA CHI is still a pretty good entry, but the clue lessened its impact for me.

The only entry I hesitated on was SO BAD. It felt like a long partial to me, but perhaps that's what the kids say these days? Or is it SO BAD to try to disguise an ugly partial?

I dug this fresh themeless. I imagine there will be some AMAZEBALLS haters, but to me, the jam-packed ton of colorful entries and careful workmanship wins it my POW!

POW Sat 7/8/2017

★ Beautiful work; best 4x10 stacks I've seen in a while. Those upper-right and lower-left corners are so tough to fill with both snazz and smoothness that few constructors even try (I still haven't worked up the nerve).

To get PROCTORED / RAP BATTLE / ORIENTEER / BEER DARTS (don't know what this is, but it sounds awesome/dangerous) with just a CBER (and that's in use, so I hear) — and with HEAD STAND running through it all! Fantastic. Now, PROCTORED and ORIENTEER don't seem as pleasing to me as RAP BATTLE and BEER DARTS, but for one-word entries, they do nice jobs. Having done a little ORIENTEERing racing, it was fun for me to see.

Opposite corner had similar results, with CRAFT SHOW and WINE PRESS standing out. REMOULADE was almost as interesting to me, as I've taken a recent turn toward cooking. Not sure I'd ever make a REMOULADE, but what a fun word to say. Speaking of fun to say, TURPITUDE!

I would have liked every one of those eight long answers to be as awesome as RAP BATTLE, but for this type of extremely tough layout, these results are about as good as I've seen.

Interesting that I was less impressed by the easier to fill areas — I did pause for a moment at A AND E (never written out like this in real life), OMARR (outdated), TRE, LEM. And that's with David already having placed a black square between NEMEA and TRE, making for an easier time filling that corner.

I usually prize grid flow, having multiple ways in and out of each corner, but I'm curious if moving a black square up to the G of GENOA would have helped smooth out the bottom right. Grid would still have had plenty of flow, and I bet David could have worked in entries as strong as HOVERBOARD without quite as much crossword glue.

Overall though, an entertaining product that this constructor greatly admired.

POW Wed 6/28/2017

★ I usually groan at quote puzzles, but I loved this one. Natalie Portman dating Jacques Cousteau would have produced the celeb portmanteau of … PORTMANTEAU! Quote puzzles need to pack a tremendous punch to make them worth all the real estate they take up. Today was a rare instance where I thought that was the case.

Nice job on a tough construction, too. 15 / 12 / 15 / 12 / 15 themer lengths is a punishing demand. No matter how you lay them out, there's going to be a lot of themer overlap you have to deal with.

David decided to take most of his pain in the upper left and lower right corners, where pairs of themers are dangerously close together. The upper left does suffer a bit with UNHIP (maybe I'm too unhip to say this?), DUOMO, DEWAR an esoteric trio. Along with NUEVO, it didn't make for the greatest start to the puzzle. Toss in SCHED, and that's about all the crossword glue I want in one puzzle.

Thankfully, the opposite corner came out clean as a whistle. Beautiful work there, not a drop of crossword glue in a region that had to work with difficult constraints — four parallel down answers having to thread through CALL and the end of PORTMANTEAU.

Elsewhere, there was only MTGS that stuck out. I might have placed a black square at the M of MCLEAN to smooth that out, but that's a judgment call. Overall, very good work in short fill considering the constraints.

Strong bonuses, too, with Uncle Sam's I WANT YOU and Shakespeare's ELSINORE weaving through three themers apiece. It's so hard to work in long bonuses when you have this much theme density, so the effort is appreciated.

Love the GPA clue too; Dean Wormer taking such pleasure in announcing Bluto's GPA as a 0.0. TEES also was nice, having their "home on the range" — the driving range, that is.

Funny/punny quote, good bonus fill with a smooth overall result. This is how a quote puzzle should be done.

POW Mon 6/19/2017

★ Susie is quickly becoming one of my favorite constructors. With clever themes, strong bonus fill, and minimal use of crossword glue, my only complaint is that she only publishes one or two NYT puzzles a year these days. More please!

Even though my knowledge of pop music is sorely lacking, this theme still delighted me. Love the idea of a marketing team coming up with the genius idea of a double bill, Keith URBAN and John LEGEND headlining as URBAN LEGEND. Same goes for Johnny ROTTEN and Fiona APPLE advertised as ROTTEN APPLE. So amusing, and perfect that Susie found four strong, common phrases that work in this way.

I did pause at KELLY GREEN, as I wasn't familiar with Tori KELLY, but I think that's my pop music deficiencies to blame, not the puzzle.

The "windmill" layout of themers often doesn't allow for much long bonus fill (it tends to confuse what is theme and what is fill), but Susie managed to work in some good stuff. Love DRILL BIT, THIN SKIN is good (thin skinned feels better), and STENCILS and PARFAIT ain't bad. Not a huge amount, but enough to pass my bar.

There was an AYLA (I don't think novice solvers should be expected to know this) and an ETE (tough foreign word, and a constructor's crutch), but a tally of just two bits of crossword glue is much appreciated in a Monday puzzle.

Susie always graciously passes on adding her two cents via Constructor Notes, which is too bad, since I'm always curious to hear the constructor's perspective. But when your puzzle is this good, it speaks for itself.

One of my favorite Monday puzzles of the year.

POW Tue 6/13/2017

★ Always such a treat to get Lynn's byline. She's an absolute wizard on early-week puzzles, producing fun themes surrounded by excellent long bonus fill, and a silky-smooth solve.

Homophone themes have been done many a time, and even homophones on letters of the alphabet. But I don't remember seeing this exact implementation. As a huge Q*BERT fan in my youth, it was fun to see CUE BERT as a kooky indication to signal BERT (from "Sesame Street"). And GEE, STRINGS amused this former cellist.

I paused at TEE BILL, having to think too hard to figure out the base phrase of "t-bill," a government bond. Embarrassing, given that I got my MBA with a focus in finance. Ahem.

I didn't like DEE FLAT as much, either, this one so grammatically tortured. Since Lynn had so many themers already, I would have preferred that one struck out, and EX FILES put in the center of the middle row.

Speaking of theme density, this grid didn't have quite the same astonishing level of snazz and smoothness that I've come to expect from a Lempel product. EXEMPLAR was fun, but JURISTS jarred my ear. Some research shows that it is a very common word in law, but I'd so much rather have something exciting, like LOOK HERE! or CAP GUN.

And it's odd to point out just a handful of AMTS, JRS, ATTY as more crossword glue than usual for a Lempel puzzle, but she's just that good.

Why not as much snazz and a bit more glue than usual? Six themers is not easy to work with, even if four of them are short — as a whole, they take up so much real estate. This is another reason I would have preferred just five themers — I'm sure it would have allowed for at least another pair of strong bonuses in the fill, and given Lynn the flexibility to smooth out one or two of those unsightly short entries.

But overall, such a fun solving experience. Not all themes have to be ground-breaking — a twist on a tried and true theme type can work great when you execute well on your grid. I thought Lynn did well today. Maybe not quite up to her (very high) bar, but still such an enjoyable early-week solve.

POW Thu 6/8/2017

★ What a neat idea! David found four nine-letter words such that 1.) they split up into three valid three-letter words, and 2.) the final six letters form a valid word, too. [Called for] is not WAR, for example — it's WAR / RAN / TED. Add in an apt MINCE / WORDS revealer, and I had a blast solving this.

(I've fixed up the answers below so that the answers match the clues.)

Such a neat visual too, those four black pluses so artistic. I like seeing grid patterns I've never (or rarely) seen before, and this one qualifies.

Some strong fill, too, not easy given the constraints. It may seem easy to work around such short theme answers, but I've highlighted them below to give you a better sense of how inflexible the grid skeleton is.

I usually prefer when themeless-esque grids feature entries longer than seven letters since it's easier to convert those into sparkling fill. Today though, I might have liked it better if David had shifted over his first vertical set of black squares to where the SHE of SHEBANG is. It's tough enough to work around all those little theme answers, and entries like DIDICONN don't do much for me. (Sorry, Conn fans!)

Also, David's mid-length fill shone today. Starting off with a BAD ASS (take that, Gray Lady!), a BAR TRAY, continuing with ABOUT ME, HOT RODS, finishing with SHEBANG, I'M BEAT — that's a lot of great mid-length material worked in.

There were some SEINES ADELIE ETCHER SATORI entries that didn't shine as much (and/or felt like liabilities), but that's more par for the course with mid-length material.

Always the trade-offs — I like that David worked in a good amount of snappy fill and kept his crossword glue to a minimum, just some AGTS, ESTD. I'm sure he could have worked in a few more jazzy entries at the cost of more dabs of glue, but the balance that he chose made the puzzle seem highly polished and professional to me.

Four great theme finds plus above-average execution earns David another POW!

ADDED NOTE: I hadn't even noticed that the black square chunks look aptly like plus signs! Wow, I like this one even better now!


★ As a writer (I recently landed a two-book deal with HarperCollins, woo hoo!), I enjoyed the "rules" Tom featured today. Something so amusing about the image of a professor lecturing to his/her students, saying DON'T USE CONTRACTIONS, and then wondering why all the students were tittering.

I smiled at the first one — NEVER GENERALIZE, the entry itself generalizing — and didn't stop until I reached the last one. Er, ones. It confused me to get AVOID REDUNDANCY, and then to get it again. Neat a-ha moment when I realized the meta-wink, using that entry redundantly!

A friend and I were chatting a while back about how Tom is such a standout in Sunday puzzles; how his byline is one of the few that once we see it, we can't wait to dive in. This one wasn't quite as creative as some of his others, but this writer sure enjoyed it. Will does try to space out Sunday constructors so that there's a ton of variety in authors, but I'd welcome Tom's Sunday byline more than every three months or so.

And Tom is one of the few constructors who I'd encourage to use less than 140 words. Will's experiment in this sub-140 space hasn't been too successful in my eyes, but there are a few people who do make me see the value in it. 136 words is incredibly tough to pull off, and there is a handful of MMV, OCA, ESO, STET, RDS kind of stuff. But it's all minor, and the quantity is less than we see in most 140-word puzzles.

Most importantly though, going down to 136 words allowed Tom to feature a lot of long or mid-length bonus material that shines. PIERCED EARS. MADE FOR TV. HOLE IN ONE. MUSICIAN, with its clever [Person of note?] clue. HEYDAYS. ADMIRAL Ackbar for us "Star Wars" nerds. END RUN. Even GOOGLE with a McCoyesque clue, referencing their heavily guarded PageRank algorithm. Great bonuses all throughout the puzzle.

This is the type of trade-off I think is well-worth it. So much great bonus fill for some minor gluey bits (and an odd OVERGO) … that's the way to do a sub-140 word Sunday puzzle.

Looking forward to the next McCoy byline already.

POW Wed 5/24/2017

★ Plumber-themed puzzle! Now that's something you don't see every day. I enjoyed how Mike related all these common phrases to a plumber's moods. Not sure why I was so amused — maybe because it reminded me of all the creative ad slogans I see on plumbers' vans around town? I pity the stool!

What made the puzzle stand out for me was the grid execution. 14- and 12-letter entries are hard to work with — they force placement of black squares right off the bat, and they force you to squeeze themers toward the middle — but Mike did great.

First, he incorporated nearly flawless "parallel downs" in TOLL ROADS / SEE DOUBLE and IM NOT SURE / GAG WRITER. All are good phrases, with GAG WRITER being a standout. And he avoided crossword glue almost completely, which is a usual problem for parallel downs.

Now, he did incorporate odd-looking cheater squares at the end of HERO and before TRIO. But I‘d take that visual imperfection any day when it leads to solid to fantastic long downs without any crossword glue.

He also managed to work in a couple of other extras in PSYCHED, LIKE NEW. I wasn't sure about STOKERS, but they do appear to be real positions in a steamship.

I breezed right through the puzzle, meaning that the short fill did its job beautifully. Okay, an OER here, an ENG there, and some may take issue with EBSEN. (I'm okay with him since he seems to have been a relatively famous actor in his day.) Mike clearly filled his grid with a lot of effort and iteration to produce a top-notch product.

I would have loved 1.) more playfulness out of the themers, maybe having them tell a story about the poor plumber's day, and 2.) to have it run on a Monday. Something this smooth and straightforward would have filled that critical early-week slot so beautifully, much more approachable for newbies than the average Monday puzzle these days.

Still, I thought the execution was top-notch. Maybe wishing it had been more playful is a *rim shot* pipe dream.

POW Mon 5/15/2017

★ "Hidden word" themes used to mostly be done with just a single word — perhaps TOT hidden across SIGNIFICANT OTHER, AUTO TUNE, etc. — but that tends to get repetitive for solvers. Today, Peter took an apt revealer, INNER CHILD, and used it with four different synonyms of CHILD, providing both variety as well as some good a-ha moments. At first, I wasn't sure what was inside CAMINO REAL, for example … but quickly came to see MINOR inside. I've highlighted them below.

Such nice finds. It's often very easy to work with short hidden words, so there's not much of a wow factor. But INFANT across CAPTAIN FANTASTIC is, well, fantastic. And although TYKE isn't as long as INFANT, what a great discovery of TYKE across QWERTY KEYBOARD. Beautiful base phrase.

Speaking of base phrases, I wasn't sure what CAPTAIN FANTASTIC was. Even though it didn't make much at the box office, I think it's fair game, as 1.) it garnered Viggo Mortensen some important nominations and 2.) even if you don't know the title, it's made up of two regular, inferable words.

Such high theme density — 10 15 16 15 10 — would usually mean some dabs of crossword glue and/or no bonuses in the fill. But Peter spends his black squares wisely, separating themers wherever possible, and filling the tough sections with great care.

For example, most constructors would need some crossword glue in the area between CAMINO REAL and PRIVATE ENTRANCE. Beautiful work in there, not just silky-smooth, but with RAISINET and ONE SEC thrown in as bonuses.

Speaking of bonuses, this Trekkie loves the crossing of SEXTANT and STARSHIP. (Trivia: there was a real-life Jean Picard ... who was an astronomer!)

Hardly anything to nitpick in the grid. ANC could be hard for some, but educated solvers ought to know the African National Congress.

What better way to celebrate Peter's 100th NYT crossword with a POW! A nearly perfect Monday puzzle — interesting theme, silky-smooth fill, and some strong bonus entries — from one of the best in the business. If you like hard crosswords, consider subscribing to Peter's Fireball Crosswords for a delightfully tough challenge every week.

POW Mon 5/8/2017

★ LGBTQ getting its due today — that's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning — using homophones to disguise those five letters. How fortuitous that each letter has a real-word sound-alike! It's so common for a constructor to get a beautiful idea … but a single element ruins the idea. Thank goodness it's not LGBTR or LGBTM.

Excellent selection of themers, GEE, YA THINK? my favorite. Those colloquial ones pop for me. CUE THE MUSIC was fun too. Not familiar with BEE BALM — BEE STINGS or BEE POLLEN might be better — but it's much, much easier to work with a central 7-letter answer than a central 9-, 11-, 13-, or 15-letter one.

BEEHIVE might have been more known, but it is a single word, which would make the theme slightly inconsistent. Better to have each of the key homophones be single words.

Speaking of consistency, it would have been so perfect to have each homophone be exactly three letters — ELLE sticks out in this way. But sometimes you have to make do with what you have. I did like that C.C. made the effort to work in two themers with three words, rather than just a single one — something about a two/three split that's so much more pleasing than a one/four split.

I know, I'm so anal!

I normally like revealers to be placed in an elegant spot — the lower right corner, or dead center of the puzzle — but there's something nice about crossing LGBTQ through one of the themers.

I didn't remember MALIK right off the top, but he does seem to be crossworthy. So even for a Monday-puzzle, I think that's fine, considering how easy the crossing answers are.

The only real hitching point for me was in the north. Ian McEwan's "Atonement" was big enough to warrant crossworthiness, but OTERI, not so much. And GOL … oof.

But overall, a well-executed tribute to the LGBTQ community. Love it.


★ The Jewish Association Serving the Aging (JASA) Crossword Class is back, with a theme involving words that seem like they should rhyme — each pair of words is identical, except for the first letter — but they don't. Neat finds in KOSHER NOSHER, GARDEN WARDEN, HATCH WATCH. And not only is BASELINE VASELINE a cool discovery, but the image of a baserunner slipping 'n sliding into second — and right past it — amused me to no end.

There are many, many pairs of words that display this property, so I appreciated the extra effort to work in faux-rhymes to the clues as well. At first I wondered why the theme clues were so long — I actually skipped them at first, tl;dr — but then I got a smile when I realized what was going on.

Where I thought this puzzle shined was in its grid execution. Most Sunday 140-word puzzles have globs of crossword glue in them, stuff that most constructors need to stick everything together. But I hardly paused at anything throughout my solve. Even upon a post-solve scan, I could only find an OTRO. An old NEHI. LBOS (leveraged buyouts, which are 100% fine to this MBA).

Beautiful work to keep it to just a few short, minor offenders. Not sure how much rework Natan had to go through in revisions, but it was well worth it.

And great bonus fill. PRO SURFER (I lurve surfing), IM SHOCKED, ACTUAL SIZE, GO TO PRESS, COUGH DROPS, ESCAPISTS, made my solve even more enjoyable.

Intersecting pairs of theme answers (MODEL YODEL and KOSHER NOSHER, HATCH WATCH and GARDEN WARDEN was really smart — if HATCH WATCH had to be worked in horizontally, it would have infringed upon one of the other themers in the bottom half of the puzzle. It's not often possible to get themers to cross like this, but when it is, it often makes the construction so much easier. Does wonders for good spacing.

I did stumble on two entries. MOOC is apparently a "massive open online course." Thank goodness all the crossings were gettable. (And Finn has been working for Columbia University.) SWOLE … that's modern lingo for "bulked up"? Huh. Kids these days.

Fun, interesting theme, with top-notch execution.

POW Wed 4/26/2017

★ In general, I try to be kind to newbies, erring on the side of encouragement while downplaying puzzle's flaws. So I love when I can flat out call a great debut a great debut. It was fun enough to uncover these crazy double-X entries, but to get that spot-on DOS EQUIS revealer — meaning "two Xs" in Spanish — was so perfect.

I remember running into the word ANTI-VAXXER a while back. It looked so bizarre at first, but within seconds, I decided I loved it. (Not the movement, mind you!) I had meant to seed a themeless with it, but I never got around to it. Great to see it featured today.

I had seen the other themers before, some even in a "phrase containing two Xs" context. But I hadn't seen a puzzle featuring adjacent double Xs. Nice.

A single X can be tough to fill smoothly around. Try filling around 10 of them … plus the Q from DOS EQUIS! I would have bet a lot of money that a new constructor wouldn't be able to produce a silky, lively grid. But I marveled as I solved, each pair of Xs filled around with care. No crutches like OOX or XKE or MXS. Beautiful.

But that's not all! Trent managed to work in some lively bonus entries through those Xs: BOX SEAT, and the lovely pair of ELIXIR and AP EXAM.

I would have liked a little more in terms of long bonuses — ARRIVING is fine, but not snazzy — but to get some YES SIR, VIN ROSE, GONDOLAS was good enough, especially given that I was already getting a lift from uncovering all those smoothly integrated Xs.

Sure, there's a bit of minor ORU (Oral Roberts University), SYS, AGGRO (although I kind of love this term, used in gamerspeak for "lock onto"), RIA, MOA. But those are all easy to gloss over and well worth the great stuff Trent managed to pull off.

It might have made for a perfect Tuesday puzzle — the theme was a little easy for a Wednesday — but all in all, can't wait to see more from Trent.

POW Fri 4/21/2017

★ SO MANY great entries! Damon starts with 14 long slots (8+ letters), and converts most into sizzling material. Love GO-GO BOOTS, and in my previous career, the ACTs OF GOD clauses in legal contracts were always good for a laugh. HOT DATES, SMEAR TACTIC, SPY STORY ... everywhere I looked, great material packed in tight.

My daughter has a weird fascination with HELLO KITTY. Sigh, so much pink. Still, a great entry.

SETTLE IN and TOTAL BASES didn't do much for me (I'm plus/minus on baseball), but Damon's slugging percentage (or whatever metaphor you baseball fans like to use) in converting long slots to great entries is very high.

Excellent use of mid-length entries, too. I grew up idolizing THE FONZ, a virtual MESSIAH to me. AFROPOP too? OMIGOSH! Constructors tend to overlook the potential of these mid-length slots, but Damon does so well with them.

GRAMMAR NAZI … I chuckled at this one in the end, but I uncovered the NAZI end of it first. Never pleasant to see NAZI in a crossword. GRAMMAR NAZI sure is a colorful term, though.

There was something non-themeless feeling to this puzzle, and it took me a while to figure out what. During my solve, I felt like I stopped and started dozens of times. Took me a while to figure out that the number of three-letter words was most of the root cause.

Now, most people won't care how many three-letter words there are in a themeless. But so many shorties leads to so much starting and stopping. Typically, themelesses don't have more than 12 three-letter entries, for good reason.

And entering ERG, then DAN, RIA, TEA, OHS, across the middle … that row of shorties takes away from the themeless feel to the layout.

But overall, a fairly smooth solve (aside from what Damon mentioned plus TE AMO, ERG, and OFT) and a huge number of great entries gave me a very nice solving experience.

POW Tue 4/11/2017

★ UNITED NATIONS used as rationale to smash two countries together. I've seen this theme type before — my wife and I even did a puzzle like this years ago, also using country pairs — but the added touches of 1.) UNITED NATIONS as a revealer and 2.) country pairs *generally* near to each other were great.

I particularly liked SWITZERLANDORRA. Not only does it roll off the tongue as a portmanteau, but the two countries are nearly adjacent (separated by France). It would have been perfect if there had been abutting countries sharing this type of letter overlap, but that would be too perfect.

If only country namers had been crossword fans …

I also liked how easy PAKISTANZANIA was to say. This one wasn't quite as good, though, since the two countries are from different continents. But I liked tying them together through the Indian Ocean.

NICARAGUATEMALA … it's great that they're so geographically close, but the portmanteau was much harder to pronounce. But it still works, especially given that [Central American bloc?] works so well.

I appreciated Zachary and Diane's efforts to work extras into the fill. I expect at least a pair of long bonus entries in a four-themer puzzle, and to get more than that is great. Love SIGN HERE and LENTANDO (I played in orchestras for 20+ years). LAST NAME is pretty good. STONERS was funny with its [High achievers?] wordplay. GAZE INTO was more neutral for me — add-a-preposition is rarely exciting — but tying it to a crystal ball was fun.

Short fill was strong, too. Some early-week solvers might have a tough time with AKIO Morita and AKIRA Kurosawa, but both are crossworthy. AKIO Morita might be more on the cusp, but thankfully all the crossings are straightforward.

The only dabs of crossword glue were the minor ENC and the less minor OLIO. Nice work, especially considering they went all the way down to 72 words, making it possible to include nice mid-length fill like DOMINOS, WOE IS ME, HOLIDAY, GENTILE.

So neat to hear about crosswords engrossing an entire family — ARE YOU LISTENING, TESS AND JAKE CHEN? I was already leaning toward giving this one the POW!, and that put it over the edge.

POW Thu 4/6/2017

★ I love it when a crossword surprises me! I got to XS AND OS pretty quickly and having already figured out that X MY GRITS was (KISS) MY GRITS (I watched WAY too much "Alice" as a kid), I shrugged. X representing KISS, O for HUG, got it. Been done before.

Then I stared at THREE X ___ for the longest time, wondering what song could start with THREE KISS. Great, great, great a-ha moment to realize that the Xs all represented different things: THREE (TIMES) A LADY, (KISS) MY GRITS, and (TEN) SPEED. Same with the Os! TURNED FULL HUG made no sense but TURNED FULL (CIRCLE), (ZERO) SUM GAME, BEAR(HUG)S did.

Very cool that Damon found so many different things that X and O commonly represent.

Did you notice that all the Xs are confined to the left side of the grid? And the Os on the right? Elegant touch. And it wasn't lost on me that Damon avoided extraneous Os. That may not seem very difficult, but O is such a common letter that it's hard to avoid. These two elegant touches helped elevate this puzzle in my eyes even further.

Normally when a theme tickles me this much, I don't bother talking about the fill. But Damon does so well to spread around his crossword glue, keeping it to just minor ENE UNE ESTD ATL shorties.

All O (around), a superb puzzle.

POW Tue 3/28/2017

★ What a fun idea! I like Tom Swifties, but when they've been so overdone in both real life and in crosswords that they run the danger of feeling bleh. I appreciate Ryan's different take on the theme trope, expanding it to full-name celebs. The cluing — done in a Tom Swifty-esque way — is what makes the theme work for me. Given GLENN CLOSE's iconic role in "Fatal Attraction," thinking about her getting a little too close was fun.

I used to listen to HOWARD STERN — my twin brother was once interviewed on it! — so linking STERN to a STERNLY-issued warning was also fun. Great stuff.

JAMES BLUNT wasn't as familiar to me as the others, but that's not a surprise given my horrible pop music knowledge base. It would have been great to get EMILY BLUNT in there to make it two men and two women, but perhaps JAMES BLUNT is more famous? Tough to judge. And JAMES does have that relatively rare J that can make crosswords more interesting.

Love DEAL ME IN as a bonus entry. SPORADIC and OFFLINE are good too. It would have been nice to get maybe one more pair of long downs, but these themers are of "awkward lengths," in that they force placement of several black squares immediately. Makes it much harder to work in high quantity and quality of long fill.

A couple of hiccups in the grid. Some of that is to be expected, especially in places where themers and long fill answers mesh together — EAP and INTER is a prime example, with that east section fairly constrained.

But avoiding DREI should be easier in a relatively flexible section like the lower right. Along with HARRYS (plural name), REG, UNI, ONS, DO NOW, it felt just over the threshold of too much. I'd have liked to seen rework to smooth it all out a tad.

But it's hard to argue with an early-week theme that tickles, and this one gave me a lot of smiles.

POW Mon 3/20/2017

★ Neil deGrasse Tyson! Fanboy SQUEEEE! (Sorry for breaking your eardrums.)

Huge fan of Tyson's — Jill and I watched all of his "Cosmos" remakes. In a time when science gets dismissed by all too many people, I love Tyson's efforts to educate and make change with humor. What a pleasure to get an amusing astronomy theme from him and Acme.

I had heard HEAVENLY BODIES before, in this [Total hottie?] sense, but the others felt fairly fresh. I particularly liked the more esoteric terms like STAR CLUSTER and GAS GIANT, showing off Tyson's depth in astronomy.

Did you understand the clue for RED DWARF? [Bashful?] refers to Bashful, one of the Seven Dwarfs — the one who frequently turns red. Concise, amusing, spot-on. Perfect!

There were a few rough aspects to the grid — the north, in particular, felt clunky. AIRE (suffix), ITSA (partial), AS BIG (quasi-partial) all in one area is not good. Adding a cheater square up there, perhaps at the A of AIRE, might have helped, while still allowing for PAYPAL. The overlap of LITTLE DIPPER and GAS GIANT does make things slightly tricky, but a section that unconstrained ought to be smoother, especially when it's so close to where most solvers start a puzzle.

At 80 words, this is over Will's usual max of 78. I don't mind that, if I get some nice bonuses in the fill. But aside from PAYPAL, there was only PUMICE, TWEETS, PSYCHO that added to the quality of my solve — not enough for my taste. No doubt that the grid construction is challenging, especially with five themers and a central 11-letter entry splitting up the puzzle, but I would have liked to see what happened if the three black squares after KNEAD were removed, allowing for a long down answer where AFAR and HOOVES are right now. Would have required moving around a ton of black squares, but even getting a single pair of great bonus entries can add so much.

That all said, when a theme shines, I don't mind grid flaws nearly as much. So happy to get this concept that's so appropriate to Tyson. Well done to Acme for bringing him into the NYT constructors' fold!

POW Mon 3/13/2017

★ I get nervous every time I see BERMUDA TRIANGLE in a crossword — it's been used so many times in various crossword progressions, often involving a square. What a pleasure to get the unexpected FINAL SALE next, and then TENNIS ACE. I enjoy when I can't figure out a Monday theme until the very end. POINT OF NO RETURN gave me a smile. What a fun way to interpret "situations where a return is not possible."

I also hesitated after uncovering ATTY, an abbr., to start the puzzle. But things turned around very quickly, getting YO MAMA / FUTILE / DOGSLED, all such fun answers. (I admit, I keep a spreadsheet of YO MAMA jokes that make me laugh.)

So much strong bonus fill past that, too. BLARNEY as an Irish term for nonsense, BRA SIZE, THIN AIR, THE FED, even GARGLE, such an amusing word. Don't forget the UNDEAD! Although there weren't any long bonus answers, Alan did so well by employing a huge quantity of mid-length bonuses.

And all of that with just some minor ENE, OCT, NOID! That last one stuck out more than the others, as "no I.D." feels shaky to me, but I do fondly remember "Avoid the Noid" commercials.

All in all, such an enjoyable Monday experience. A fun theme, a ton of great bonus fill, and not a lot of liabilities or odd entries to distract. Very well done, especially for someone still early in his construction career.

POW Mon 3/6/2017

★ Such a well-constructed puzzle. The fill is so smooth, so interesting — such a difficult thing to accomplish for a Monday puzzle.

Susie tells us "that's a wrap!" today (what, no one laughed?), riffing on different types of coats. Although all of the phrases were snazzy, I liked CITY SLICKER and CHEVY BLAZER the best for this theme, because those terms aren't related to the "coat" meaning. Amusing reinterpretations.

The others — BUBBLE WRAP, SUGAR COAT, DUST JACKET — all have regular usage that refers to some sort of coating, i.e. BUBBLE WRAP is used around packages. It would have been nice to get a few others like CHEVY BLAZER where there's a big change in meaning (can't think any off the top, though!).

This five-themer layout isn't easy, the nine-letter SUGAR COAT dividing the puzzle in half. Typically, that causes problems for constructors in the four corners of the puzzle, as those regions tend to be pretty wide-open. Not Susie! She starts out with proper themer spacing and carefully distributes her black squares, ending up with some delightful entries in those big corners: INKLING, BEESWAX, CD RACKS, and DRACULA.

And with such little crossword glue! There's EXT, LAC and FGS, but as a solver, it's easy for me to skim past those short and minor offenders. Okay, SST isn't great as an outdated initialism (supersonic transport), but it's easy to overlook the one goopy glob of crossword glue in otherwise stellar execution.

Given that the theme was all about protective clothing, I would have preferred RAIN HAT and BROGAN to not be in the grid; muddied the theme a touch for me. But that's a minor nit.

This is my kind of Monday puzzle. The theme isn't anything groundbreaking, but it made for a wonderful solving experience. Getting the aforementioned bonus answers, plus some more in RUGRATS, ACROBAT, OCEANIA, FOOTRACE — it all helped to evoke a ton of IMAGERY. Very well done.


★ I'm such a sucker for any sort of science or math puzzle. Put in a W BOSON or a TITRATION CURVE or a GOLDEN RATIO, and you've made this solver elated (and probably pissed off many others). So even though the periodic table has been mined for all sorts of crossword themes over the years, I loved Tim's new twist. Fe (iron) found right within the EIFFEL TOWER … just as in real life! Another perfect one in a WEATHER BALLOON containing He (helium). Such a fun concept.

Not all of them worked that way, but there were still interesting connections. A LEPRECHAUN hoards gold. AEROBIC EXERCISE involves oxygen. A DAGUERREOTYPE uses silver, lithium is one type of MOOD STABILIZER, etc. Although these were a bit looser than Fe in the EIFFEL TOWER, all of them had enough of a connection that I enjoyed.

Nice mix of snazzy long fill and smooth short fill. I like how Tim used his long entries to help break up some of the monotony that can come with a bunch of 3-5 letter entries. Strewing FAKE IDS, SONNY BOY, LIL ABNER, STAKEOUT, EPIC HERO, ITS COOL across the grid made for great variation — never too many shorties all at once without getting some spicy long bonuses.

And the smoothness of the fill = excellent. A couple of minor ENL, ETD dabs of crossword glue, but I easily overlooked those.

Well, there was IL DUCE. Not loving Mussolini in my crossword. Although IDI / AMIN works his way in, as does STALIN. Hmm. Not sure why IL DUCE is worse, but I cringed at it.

BETHEL was my only other source of hesitation. It is an oddball word, but ultimately, as the lone esoteric word in the grid for me, I enjoyed learning it. I like learning a thing or maybe two from my crossword.

I would have liked all two-letter chemical symbols, as it's a bit too easy to work with O and U, but NUCLEAR REACTOR was so spot-on that I didn't mind. All in all, great entertainment.

POW Sat 2/25/2017

★ Loved this one. A 66-word grid without extraneous black squares ("cheaters") is extremely tough to fill with snazziness and smoothness. Mark has so many great entries, BIOBURDEN my favorite (my previous career was in biotech). SWIPE LEFT is a Tinder thing (so I'm told), so that gives the puzzle some freshness.

What stood out for me was that so many of Mark's one-word entries were so good. I love Arthurian lore, so EXCALIBUR elated me. The word EBULLIENT feels so bubbly, so effervescent, so … EBULLIENT! And what a great clue for ARMADILLO, that it hops straight up when startled.

The fact that ABORIGINAL and ORIGINAL have similar meanings ... I stared at those first two empty squares for the longest time, wondering if there was some trick going on utilizing empty squares. Love it.

Single-word entries are often harder to make memorable than multi-worders — MINIATURE vs. something as neat as the mid-length BBQ RIBS for example — but Mark shined today.

Speaking of mid-length entries, BBQ RIBS wasn't the only standout. CAPISCE?, PUP TENT, OPEN NOW, TOY CAR, ALIMONY all added to my solve. Great stuff.

And what the heck kind of long entry starts with DS*? I was sure I had something wrong, especially since I was thinking about [60s sorts] as people from the 60s. LSD maybe? No, it was 60s ... as in 60 percent! What a fantastic clue/entry pair.

Nice and smooth grid, too. I did hitch on the BANC / BIEN crossing, as I don't know my Indochina War trivia. But this is a Saturday puzzle, so a ["Tres ___!"] clue would have been way too easy.

AIRSOFT was the one head-scratcher for me today. I used to run a boys' group, where we did all sorts of laser tag-type events, so it's mystifying that I hadn't heard of this. But one head-scratcher in a puzzle is fine and even welcome; a good source of learning.

DEWED was just about the only real complaint I had. "Dewy," yeah? But that vowel-consonant alternation in DEWED is so constructor-friendly.

All in all, such a delight to solve.

POW Fri 2/17/2017

★ A ton of sizzling material!

It's easy enough for strong constructors to make a good, single triple-stacked quadrant, and even not so hard to make it both colorful and clean. Check out that great SW corner, for example: IN BAD TASTE / NEON YELLOW / HIDDEN MIKE are all fantastic answers, and nary a dab of crossword glue necessary to hold it all together.

But I've come to appreciate going above and beyond, linking stacked entries — what a delightful combination in INDIAN FOOD and Thai STICKY RICE. Same goes for CHAIN EMAIL and TEXT ALERTS. Four strong corners, two of them mini-themed on their own = very cool.

I also appreciated the long answers jutting into the middle, BOHO CHIC a beautiful entry. TEN HUT and CREAKY are two good mid-length answers, too. I wasn't sure about ONES ALL, as it felt like a partial, but in the end, I think it works.

On that note, there were a few answers I wondered about:

  • HONKY TONKS as a plural noun? I associate it with a musical style, but it does have dictionary support as a noun. And it's so fun to say, that I gave it a thumbs up.
  • CHAIN EMAIL … is that what those are called? After struggling to come up with something more accurate or snazzy, I decided it indeed was the correct term.
  • PISH. This isn't something I hear every day, but the word amuses me.
  • HOT LICK. I played in jazz bands for ten years but never heard anyone say this. I have seen it in reviews and critiques, though, so I think it's fine.

Overall, so many great entries — I'm hoping ELAINE CHAO brings some sensibility to the current administration, another yummy entry in RACK OF LAMB with a BUTTER DISH right next to said lamb (don't judge me with your STEELY GAZE) — and these are in addition to all the ones I've already mentioned. I love it when a constructor can pack so much juicy fill into a single grid.

And just a little AMO, SGT, TRE to hold it together. The last two are so minor I even hesitate to mention them.

Beautiful work of craftsmanship.

POW Tue 2/7/2017

★ Great puzzle. Finn gives us a twist in the "definitional" theme type, i.e. a single word with multiple meanings. Entertaining to think about Queen or Queens in four different ways.

Will doesn't run this theme type often, since the grid entries tend to sound forced, as if from a dictionary. Finn does well to choose themers that can stand alone — CHESSBOARD, NEW YORK CITY, RUPAULS DRAG RACE, and ROCK AND ROLL / HALL OF FAME are all great entries. Much better than PIECE IN CHESS or FEMALE MONARCH or something.

Fantastic that Finn was able to divide up ROCK AND ROLL / HALL OF FAME in the most natural place. Cross-referenced answers are a pet peeve of mine since they break up my solving flow, but if you have to, do it this way. If Finn had required a 7 and a 14-letter themer and needed to pair them with ROCK AND / ROLL HALL OF FAME (7/14), that would have worked, but it would have been inelegant.

I enjoyed ARROWHEAD and BRUNO MARS (I didn't know who the latter is, but I've at least heard his name in the news). I'd have loved to get one more pair of bonus entries, perhaps by shifting NEW YORK CITY to the left and then trying for a nine-letter entry where MEAT and JOAD are. I'm sure it would have caused some problems, but a guy can wish.

This might have also solved the Y??U issue — a shame to have the one odd entry in an otherwise stellar grid. I did like the attempt to save it with a clue relating to the more recognizable YALE, but "random rivers" is one of those categories most constructors try hard to avoid.

There was one other spot I hitched on: the SXSW x NSFW crossing. I (mostly) knew these — South by Southwest and not safe for work — but there's no way for someone to infer these. I likely would have asked for a revision in this corner.

But these are minor issues. Overall, I dug the spin Finn put on the "definitional" theme type. Smooth, enjoyable solve.

POW Thu 2/2/2017

★ Fantastic debut. Check that — fantastic puzzle, period. I quickly realized something backwardy was going on halfway through, and I enjoy a good backwards puzzle. But I got a little annoyed that random words were reversed. YOU HAVE TO BE CONSISTENT, YOU STUPID CONSTRUCTORS, MYSELF INCLUDED!

Boy, did that slight(-to-gigantic) irritation flip to delight in a big way when the a-ha hit. Alex runs an orderly ship, the first several across entries going left to right as usual. But as soon as you hit BACK TO FRONT, you need to start entering the acrosses ... in BACK TO FRONT order! And then when you get to FORWARD HO, you go ... FORWARD again. Things switch again, appropriately at IN REVERSE, and then flip one last time at LEFT TO RIGHT.

This in itself was a fresh and amusing take on a backwards-type puzzle. But the friendly-sounding cluing made it stand out even further. I didn't get what [watch out now!] and [you can relax ...] meant during my solve, but afterward, it all came across so fun and amusing, like a square dance caller yelling out instructions or something. Colorful, really playful, right on my wavelength.

And the gridwork! Usually backwards puzzles have enough glitches in the matrix that my entertainment level diminishes. It's especially tough to construct something like this, where only certain entries are flipped. I was utterly amazed at how well Alex did with his fill. (I've used the dual-grid trick he described once before with a backwards puzzle — I originally learned it from Patrick Merrell some time ago. It's quite handy!)

There were a couple of toughies in TAMA, COATI, and GERI, but they are all legit(ish). And a minor ERN, that's it? Whoa. Such care to give us a smooth solve is very, very much appreciated.

There weren't a huge number of long bonuses, but RECORD DEAL and DAVINCI were both great, and EPONYM helped out too. (PINKEYE, though … eew.)

Loved this puzzle. It's so rare for me to see something as innovatively fun as this, while still working within all the general rule of one-letter-per-square. Can't wait to see what Alex has planned next.