★ Welcome back, Josh! It's been over two years since his last NYT puzzle, so it's fantastic to see that one of the themeless greats has picked up right where he left off. A friend recently asked me what makes for a colorful piece of fill — all I have to do is point to SQUATTERS RIGHTS. Awesome phrase that evokes all sorts of imagery. Even if you don't know exactly what the phrase means, it's self-explanatory after you muse over it. However, it's not perfect, given its straightforward clue. (I'll get to perfect in a few paragraphs.)
LOOKBOOK is a similar case. It didn't hit me strongly since I'd never heard the term, but I'd so much prefer this to ABOUTNESS. Both are two regular words, so at least people can figure out how to fill them in (as opposed to a name they've never seen), but LOOKBOOK has a quality of simply making sense. A portfolio is a BOOK that people LOOK at, what's not to understand?
SCHMALTZ / QUEER EYE / USED CARS headlining, STARTER PISTOL, MOVIE SET, BIGWIGS doing THE ROBOT. That'd be close enough to garner a POW! alone.
But wait, there's more! MAIDS OF HONOR, what a fantastic entry, and its clue STOLE THE SHOW. I was baffled by [Shower heads, perhaps], first, because an S at the end didn't work. Even after uncovering HONOR, I still had no idea. Finally, after three pained minutes, a brilliant a-ha gobsmacked me. That's a bridal shower, not a bathroom shower!
That, my friend, is the definition of a perfect themeless entry: a colorful phrase that everyone will know, that's clued in a devilishly clever way.
I wasn't hot on the plural DAHLS, since Sophie sadly hasn't achieved the same level of fame (yet!). And LAMBO stuck out; not the type of debut I'd strive for. It is figure-out-able — short for Lamborghini — but wow, does it sound pretentious. I know, how ironic, coming from me, the king of pretension!
Along with everything else, I ticked off half a dozen great clues, like Frost accumulation = POEMS. Beautiful way to disguise Robert Frost. So, so, so much to love; a nearly perfect themeless.
★ I solved on computer, confidently typing in FELT HATS, then quickly realizing I had to put Xs in for some reason. Easy enough change. Hitting STRIKE THAT, everything made sense, and I enjoyed the concept. Colorful and colloquial revealer; a perfect explanation for what was going on. Probably not a standout Thursday, though.
Or was it? I continue to have the privilege of weekly conversations with Jim Horne, my XWI partner, and listening to his experience elevated this puzzle in my eyes. He's a great solver, so eschews pencil (I imagine a $5,000 fountain pen requiring hourly oiling and silk cloth massaging). I hadn't thought about the solving experience from an old-school perspective. Like me, he confidently penned in FELT HATS — and then he had to literally strike THAT, using Xs to X out those four letters. Awesome!
Jim asked if I had noticed the different ways THAT was broken across phrases. He thinks he knows me so well that I would be one of the five people in the world to know and care. Ha! I did notice, so there!
I mean, I did notice, but in a way he didn't expect. Some constructors would insist on breaking up THAT in different ways, claiming that it's elegant to do so. I wouldn't totally not be not one of those negative-positive asserters, no sir! In today's case, it led to DEATH AT A FUNERAL, which is so much less interesting than many of the other THAT phrases out there. I say, constructor's elegance be damned!
That one nit aside, I highly enjoyed my solve. Neat concept, cool to see a ridiculous number of Xs integrated more smoothly than I expected, and hearing about the pen and paper experience drove it over the top. Well done!
★ Show of hands. Who noticed that the letters between the circled sets spelled out something? It'd be a shame if you didn't, because adding this extra layer — MAY I CUT IN is spot-on perfect! — elevated this from a reasonable puzzle to a POW! winner.
My initial impression was of the "meh" variety, when I first uncovered the TWIST in SHIRT WAIST. That is a fine finding, and I liked that Paolo took care to split TWIST across the two words. Same goes for BOY PROBLEMS, MOUNTAIN GOAT, and all the rest. High marks for strength of theme phrases, as well as consistency in execution.
REEL, though ... reely? That seemed like a deep dive into the depths of dance. And BOP? Surely there have to be other more well-known dances. The MAMBA? MODERN? SWING? Deep disappointment, given everything I love about Paolo as a constructor.
I solved electronically, and Across Lite can't shade letters, so I might have been doomed to dismiss this puzzle as yet another throwaway NYT Sunday, if I wasn't committed to blogging it. That second look was so worth it. I needed no more than MAYI before I realized what Paolo had done. I'd have bet a thousand dollars that the rest would have spelled out the full phrase, and Paolo didn't disappoint.
Such great grid execution, too. The average Sunday has seven themers, and this one has nine — that need to be placed in a specific order — so I'd have been happy with simply a clean grid. Paolo blew that out of the water, with fewer short gluey bits than the NYT Sunday average, and even some KARATE KID, SUPERLIKE, GEEKDOM bonuses.
This isn't a ground-breaking puzzle, but this level of quality, along with an extra level providing the cherry on top, should be the floor for all Sunday NYT crosswords. If I were in Will Shortz's shoes, I'd be tapping Paolo for a Sunday Squad of 21x21 specialists.
★ SELF DRIVING CAR, now that's a marquee entry! Awesome phrase, and it can take all sorts of clever clues. I laughed at John's "auto correction" wordplay, but I also admired Will Shortz's crack about a (car) dealer yelling, "Hands off!"
ELDER STATESMAN is excellent, too, although it's harder to integrate wordplay into its clue. [Respected figure] generates Saturday-level difficulty from how general it is. That sort of difficulty isn't nearly as much fun for me. What could it have been?
(Two hours and 56 internet rabbit holes later)
How about [Old sage still in high demand?]? Maybe something about "Old Rough and Ready," Zachary Taylor?
Seriously, that was the best you could do, Jeff?
Off to rabbit hole 57 …
When a themeless features "awkward length" marquees — 12-14 letter phrases force black square placements right off the bat, cutting into precious flexibility — the rest of the long slots tend to suffer. That's especially the case if you try to "quad-stack," like John did in the lower left corner. Great results, though, OPED PAGE and RING TRUE ringing true, hardly having to TAKE A HIT with ony (super minor) APTS.
The opposite corner suffered a little more, requiring PICOT to hold that stack together, flowing over to OID. The latter is an odd suffix, but at least figure-out-able. PICOT was a head-scratcher. (Embroiderers, feel free to knit me a rebuttal.)
A friend asked me recently what distinguishes Friday and Saturday puzzles. Often, it's the presence of entries that might be considered niche. Don't take that as a reason to aim for esoteric words, though! While odd duck entries can be wildly elating for those in the know, they can turn off a lot of people.
I did almost call it quits in the lower right, unable to recall FAUX AMIS. That's another distinguishing factor — a Friday puzzle might have hinted at the direct translation, "false friends." Today's clue does give enough so you can work at "deceptive" leading to FAUX, though. Whew!
All in all, it is an excellent job minimizing trade-offs, offering up so much to love in the grid. Along with some delights in wordplay — NOAH organizing a "couples cruise," ha! — a well-deserved POW! for John.
★ Two of my favorite themeless constructors teaming up; how could I resist giving this a POW!? Cool middle, with TREASURE TROVES / MAIN THEME / ABOUT THE AUTHOR stacked, and ELIZABETH WARREN persisting through them all.
Not only are the Across marquee entries fantastic, but they can all take clever or interesting clues. I was so befuddled by ABOUT THE AUTHOR, thinking at first about a denim jacket (I swear, they'll come back in style one day), then a record jacket, and finally a book jacket.
Sad performance from an *ahem* author.
I wonder if ELIZABETH WARREN will prove divisive as a crossword entry. There's no doubt she's famous enough, having made a serious Presidential run earlier this year, but Will usually tries to stay away from politics, as one might at a dinner party. I imagine she'll evoke both cheers and jeers, depending on the political stance of the solver.
While it may be true that the NYT solvership skews left, it is a widely diverse audience. I bet there's a reasonable number of solvers who would prefer seeing IVANKA TRUMP in their grid, for instance, and I would at least have to listen to their grievances.
Caitlin and Andrew did especially well with their mid-length material, so often blah. Most editors prize two-word phrases for their potential to sing, and TO ORDER, ILL BITE, AL DENTE, HOT TAKE all strengthen that perspective. Wonderful work, making such good use of those corners.
I did get stuck in the lower right, worried that I wouldn't be able to finish. Thankfully, I remembered Constructor's Rule #7: if you're filling a big region, you'll usually have to lean on common letters (RSTLN E) — as a solver, if you're stuck in such a wide-open area, try penciling in a random E or T or S and see if that triggers anything. I still couldn't tell you anything about ORESTES, but the name looked familiar enough when I eventually stumbled upon ?RE?TES.
Meticulous craftsmanship, great sizzle in the long entries, and some wickedly sharp clues. I'd love to see more synergistic constructor pairings like this.
★ A while back, a friend asked me for feedback on a theme, with Aground = Ag round = SILVER BULLET. There are some periodic table haters out there, but I'm definitely not one — I loved the find, so impressively apt. I told him if he could find three others that worked so perfectly (elemental symbol + exact synonym = regular word), he'd almost definitely be on his way to an acceptance.
Jordan racing Jack reminded me of Edison jockeying with Tesla; Jack winning this War of the Crosswords. Sorry Jordan! Ah well. It's a great concept, even if you both came up with it in the same time frame.
I'm glad Will Shortz pushed back on COPPERTONE since it's not nearly as strong as something like ration = SUPPLY. Maybe if you bent over, squinted, and hummed "la la la!" while standing on one foot, you could make the case that ring = tone ... nah. Going the extra mile paid huge dividends — the final product is much better than the original set.
I was just as impressed with Jack's gridwork, lovely job with his adjacent downs, YOGI BERRA / SMELL TEST delightful entries, with no glue necessary to hold the region together. That's not difficult since both long downs run through only one themer, but so many constructors get impatient and call it good enough. The cleanliness of the entire grid shows Jack's attention to detail.
A year ago, I complained to Will that Thursdays were going downhill, with a slew of non-tricksy puzzles that were only hard for hardness's sake, tough in non-entertaining ways that didn't have a strong payoff. He disagreed, but when I gathered and presented five years of Thursday data, he didn't argue. With three consecutive Thursday POW!s now, I'm applauding Will's efforts in this area. Kudos to both Will and Jack!
★ I love a clever "two characters combine to form another one" concept. We've seen two Us into a W, Bs split (top/bottom) into D+D atop each other, even some awesome letters combining to create symbols. I'm kicking myself that I've never thought of tossing numbers into the mix.
The genius part of today's notion is that people write numbers in a more homogeneous way than letters. The B into D+D puzzle works great if solvers write in allcaps, but what if they're lowercase users? Or worse yet, what if they're squigglers?
How many ways are there to write a 3, though? It is true that 1s have more variety, whether you use a single stroke vs. incorporating the serifs, but either way, once you slap a 3 to its right, you've unmistakeably got yourself an uppercase B.
And that revealer! UNLUCKY BREAK = B breaking into unlucky 13. That's Stephen-level thinking (both King and Hawking, mind you). I haven't WITTed (wish I'd thought of that) a concept so hard in ages.
Great grid, too. Some of Jake prior grids have been rocky, containing too much crossword glue. Not today's. He worked in enough excellent bonuses — PUN INTENDED, FLASH FREEZE, COUNSEL, BLUNTS (I live mere blocks away from three pot shops) — while forcing himself to keep the short stuff smooth, only a touch of FLA GIA IONA. It's a great balance between color and cleanliness.
Finally , a clever touch, using BIPOLAR as one of the crossing answers. How apt for a puzzle splitting one character into two.
★ Neville! It's fun to be around incredibly sharp people, and Neville is right up there. We shared a cab to the ACPT one year; I enjoyed hearing about his math dissertation. Contrary to popular belief, mathematicians are some of the funniest people around. Who doesn't like derivative humor … about derivatives!
I should integrate more humor into my write-ups.
This is far from the first time we've seen this concept, the most recent about a year ago. I remembered a few from way back, too, one that cleverly used breaks and splits, and another that took "go big or go home" literally.
As with all mature theme types, though, there's room for a standout, and Neville executed this one well. I appreciated the consistency; that all the LONG themers were recognizable, two-word phrases starting with LONG.
I thought I had guessed the conceit right off the bat, so I appreciated that the dastardly first themer threw me for a loop. Having seen this theme type many times before, I was reasonably sure I should put only one letter in the elongated boxes, but [Oboe sound] had me wondering if this was something completely novel. Perhaps musical in some way? Nope, that's "oboe" as in O-BOE; two long O sounds. Great way to throw us veteran solvers off the trail.
I also appreciated how the presentation made my solve more challenging. I tended to print a normal-sized letter in the middle of the long boxes (similar to how it's shown in the grid here). That made it hard to catch those special letters as I was solving the down entries. I like a clever challenge on Thursdays, and trying to make the D and S of ENDORSES snake around in my head was a fun problem to tackle.
There were a few hiccups: DUMONT and NATANT didn't ring a bell. Shall we say they were on the tail of the bell curve? These were easy to forgive, though, since the solve was so much fun, and there were more than enough clever clues. I was sure [Gets behind] was a literal clue, not ENDORSES.
ADDED NOTE: reader Jesse Witt shared that the NYT app's displayed solution is cool. Fully agreed, they did a great job with that!
★ Last week, I mentioned that I'd love to see Will Shortz hire a Sunday squad tasked with invigorating the flagging NYT Sunday crossword. Alex Eaton-Salners is one of the first people I'd tap. He has such a wide range of creative ideas, and today's worked so well.
I didn't have the greatest first impression since the concept fell quickly from the title and the first instance. S(TEN)O POOL isn't the most exciting answer, either. However, stepping back, I admired the creative way Alex played on sums.
Ah — then I noticed that the crossing numbers look like plus signs! What a great extra element. Granted, you can't have two words cross without having them look at least a little like a plus sign, but that's okay. Alex still gets credit.
The themers kept getting stronger and stronger, DAYS O(F OUR) LIVES and I(T WO)N'T HURT fantastic. SKIN O(F OUR) TEETH and MAKES W(EIGHT)? My momentum built like a runaway FREIGHT TRAIN.
I enjoyed the theme concept well enough but felt it might be too simple. Then, the coup de grace. I knew BREAK(S EVEN) had to include SEVEN. Based on the number of circles, it had to be FOUR plus THREE. Drop the mic; I'm done!
Wait. GPT isn't "something helpful in a dash." Is it? Maybe it is. Kids these days have all kinds of tech devices. No … it has to be GPS, as in a unit helpful in a dashboard. But then—
SEVEN plus ZERO. Dang, that's a clever trick! It made me wish Alex had tossed in a NEGATIVE ONE plus ONE to make ZERO, but good luck finding a phrase containing NEGATIVE ONE.
All this, while obeying crossword symmetry? Gridding around five crossing themers, AND weaving in GOOD GAME, I LIKE IKE, IN THE RAW, MT ARARAT, THE RULES? Yeah, there were a couple of entries some could classify as weird — BAHT, ALEE, BLEARS — but that's way better than an average Sunday. Considering how much tougher this theme is to pull off than usual ones, this is exemplary gridwork.
#SundaySquad. Will, please make Alex an offer!
★ "My Violent Evil Monster Just Scared Us Nuts"? I had M____VI?ES in place — MONSTER MOVIES! No, that's not long enough. MONSTERRRRRR MOVIES, said in a zombie drawl?
Wait. It starts with MN? Clearly, I had something wrong. D'oh! MNEMONIC DEVICES. It's a fantastic entry/clue on so many levels, but best of all, I'll remember the order of planets much more strongly now. I could never remember the usual planets device, My Very Educated Mother … Jubilantly … Spewed Up Nincompoopery?
Apparently, you don't know my mother.
Two more grid-spanning entries to boot? STICKY SITUATIONS is solid, and SO ITS COME TO THIS is wildly amazing. Can't you just visualize someone giving you the stink-eye while wryly grumbling that phrase?
Oh, so you do know my mother.
Themeless constructors rarely start with so many grid-spanning entries because they quickly ossify a grid. You can often use black squares to (sort of) separate the marquee entries, but there will always be regions that lose precious flexibility. I was impressed by what Emily and Eric did in the west region, with ROBOT ARM threaded in so carefully. On the other side, SOLITUDE isn't as snazzy, but it is peaceful. Toss in a GPS UNIT, and I'd call that a success.
As you fix more and more into place, though, rigidity sets in. Once you decide on ROBOT ARM, you're not going to have much choice for something ending in RI. Then, the tops of SO IT COMES and TANDOORI constrain that NW corner. GOES INTO is a fine entry, but it's hardly a marquee 1-Across.
ON GOD felt strange. As with most of Erik's puzzles, I sheepishly go to Twitter and search for that term, as it's usually something the kids say these days. On God, it is!
Overall, the headline entries packed incredible punch, and the supporting material did enough to elevate this product to POW! territory. Well done!
★ I love every aspect of this crossword, a beauty that ticked all the boxes. Like Jeremey said, it's not just another rebus, nor is it another play on the pound sign (a.k.a. the octothorpe); it's so much more. Even having a strong feeling that some rebus-like element was in play, it took a long time to piece together the concept: overlaying the equal sign = on top of capital II to form #. What a delight when that finally clicked into place.
Sometimes a rebus gets boring when you repeat it; multiple instances of the same thing over and over, but I was so tickled by the deconstructed HASHTAG idea that it made me smile every time I put it in.
Other aspects of the puzzle felt hard in the right way, too. Little esoterica or crazy dictionary definitions; most of the difficulty coming from wordplay clues that gave me head slap moments:
And some great fill in GET IN GEAR, MESH TOP, OH LOOK, MAD MEN, NOGGIN, US VETS? Totally worth some DO BE, HOO, IM IT, SMU. Note how all of these, save the last one (Southern Methodist University), are easy to figure out.
★ I've solved about 3,500 NYT crosswords over the past ten years. That's either impressive or sad — probably a bit of both. What is definitely impressive: a theme I've never quite seen before. It so rarely happens that I had to sit back and marvel at today's.
Puzzleheads are familiar with "letter bank" brainteasers, those where you must form long words using a small set of letters (the "bank"). We've seen plenty of crosswords like this, and the fun NYT "Spelling Bee" feature also depends on the letter bank principle.
There are also plenty of "words within entries that describe the entry" puzzles. Heck, there's even a term for this puzzle type, called "kangaroo words." I'd never have thought to combine these two genres, though. Luci and David did a masterful job of doing just that, in an interesting and elegant way.
POLITICS AS USUAL formed out of the letter bank of US CAPITOL? That's perfect! Each of the four examples works so well, the resultant phrase described, or at least hinted strongly at, by the letter bank phrase.
There's even something for dedicated puzzle junkies who might pooh-pooh any sort of letter bank theme: the letter bank phrases use no duplicated letters. It won't matter to 99% of the solving population, but check out how US CAPITOL doesn't duplicate any letters within itself. Neither does UNEARTHS, or any of the others. It would have been fine to do so, but that would have made it much easier to find usable examples. The fact that Luci and David unearthed four great examples while under a tough constraint makes it even more impressive.
And an exemplary grid, to boot? It's everything I want from a four-themer grid — a couple of long bonuses (SOLO ARTIST, TABLE LINEN), some solid mid-length material (IM ON IT, ALL SET), and short fill that JB Smoove would approve. Not only is there little glue (SLO), but I enjoyed the tie-ins of PIG/RAT in consecutive downs, and PLUS/MINUS in the same region.
An all-around delight from these two Stanford products.
★ How often do constructors hope that their work leaves solvers with an empty feeling? I enjoy the occasional "leave some squares blank" puzzle. Two from 2013 stand out, one playing on "Wheel of Fortune," and David Kwong's ingenious puzzle Sid mentioned above. Another from 2015 also won a POW!, but this trope goes back a long ways.
Today's RUN ON EMPTY theme worked well, the consistency of RUN atop (three squares to be left blank) so neat and tidy. I particularly enjoyed LABOR UNIONS above what was before the Big Bang: an empty space. Perfect!
Will Shortz is usually pickier about "hidden words" themes; that the hidden word must span across two words of a phrase — DRUNK DIAL wouldn't be acceptable. Despite DRUNK DIAL's evocative nature, I'd have preferred something like BOBS YOUR UNCLE, MR UNIVERSE, OVER UNDER, etc.
Will has also told me that he shies away from puzzles with squares intentionally left blank, saying that solvers expect to put in something, so it's unsatisfying to leave a square untouched. It's like listening to an unresolved penultimate chord in a piece of music. You feel on edge, unsatisfied, until that last note hits home, and then all is right in the world.
Thankfully, there were so many bonuses in the stellar gridwork to overcome those reservations. Sid's craftsmanship is so strong. See how he leans heavily on down entries for bonus fill, and spaces them apart? AD EXECS to BAD JOKES to WOULD I EVER is a perfect example of great spacing.
I also enjoyed Sid's featuring of GURU NANAK. I hate being forced to learn things when all I'm looking for is entertainment, but GURU is a word, and NANAK looks like Pakistani names I've seen. Although I didn't know this person, that didn't affect my ability to finish the crossword, and I ought to know who founded a religion with 25+ million devout followers.
A huge number of clever wordplay clues. GYM as a place where you might see "squatters" — that's people doing squats. [Gear for the bench] had me thinking about baseball, not a judicial bench and ROBE. Delightful!
Some Thursday crosswords focus on being hard for hardness sake, but I like this type much better. A reasonable trick, a colorful grid, and a slew of headslap-inducing wordplay clues to make the solve crunchier? That's my jam.
★ It's rare for me to have a magic solving moment, and Rich gave me one today. This wordplay enthusiast read [1st and 5th] and thought about 1st letter? 1st syllable? 1st theme answer? Even when I uncovered VULCAN SALUTE, I still had no idea what was going on. Not many Vulcans I know refer to the SALUTE in such a lengthy way as [1st separate, 2nd and 3rd …] That would be illogical!
It wasn't until I hit DIGITS that it all fell into place. Aside from my confusion that of course 1 and 5 are DIGITS, well duh, why would you even point that out … oh, that kind of DIGIT! Brilliant!
The theme set isn't perfect, since CAN I GET A LIFT doesn't seem like something a hitchhiker would say. Maybe CAN I BUM A RIDE? And then there's the question of how a Vulcan hitchhiker would try to bum a ride.
I'd make a terrible Vulcan.
What, no THE BIRD to match VICTORY? I wondered if that would be too edgy, but the NYT did print one a few months ago that … I mean, come on. MIDDLE sticking straight up? 3rd indeed!
I also got bogged down by some gridwork issues, a bit of AKNOT ARESO here, IMAGO there, and the super-tough crossing of ENOKI/KUSH. I do think those last four entries are fair game (most every editor would ding AKNOT), but in more moderation. A 5x5 corner like the NW is usually easy to fill, but allowing it to expand toward the center makes for a challenging swath of white space.
A fantastic theme doesn't come along often, especially for us die-hard daily solvers. Yeah, some issues in execution might normally take a puzzle out of POW! consideration, but a concept this fun makes Jeff incredibly happy.
★ I had zero chance of winning at "Name That Theme" today. With mirror symmetry, if there are no long across slots in the top half of the puzzle, the themers usually are in the long down slots. So, how are ALL TOO TRUE, GHOST SHIP, IRENE ADLER related?
If you can answer that question, Tribond has a job for you!
Even though I failed to figure out the theme (and even failed to identify the themers), I loved it. It's not just "seemingly disparate things that have hands" theme. Ross took it one step further and found neat examples where the lack of hands is notable. Such great theme phrases, too, each of them colorful. GHOST SHIP, TOUGH CROWD, and WATER CLOCK …
I did hesitate on that last one. I vaguely knew what it meant, but something like DIGITAL CLOCK or DIGITAL WATCH would have made for a sharper a-ha. That sent me down the rabbit hole of searching for an alternate themer set, involving ABANDONED SHIP 13 to match LOOK MA NO HANDS 13, and maybe DIGITAL WATCHES split 7 / 7 and TOUGH CROWD 5 / 5, but that would require an unconventional —
Right, you don't care about my unconventional obsessiveness. TOUGH CROWD, indeed.
Curious choice to include the long bonuses of ALL TOO TRUE and IRENE ADLER. While they are both excellent entries, they muddy the waters of what is fill and what is not. Maybe shading the three theme answers would have helped?
Generally, though, it's better to find a layout that makes your themers pop. Scooching WATER CLOCK and TOUGH CROWD inward one column might have helped.
Even with my hesitations, it's still a winner of a concept with a solid, interesting grid to boot. Great to get some delightful wordplay clues, too, like both OINK and INK = things that come out of a pen.
★ Many moons ago, a "broken words" puzzle broke my mind. Such a clever idea to split words … that can follow SPLIT! Although this theme type is fairly common these days, I still enjoy seeing sharp examples of it. Today's is exactly that.
What makes for an excellent "broken words" theme? First, there has to be a solid revealer, something along the lines of SPLIT ___, BROKEN ___, (something) DIVIDED, etc. Second, the words getting split ought to be long or complicated enough that they make solvers sit back and admire.
Ricky did exceptionally well with the second criterion. AMPERS/AND at nine letters and ASTE/RISK at eight is fantastic. HY/PHEN is shorter, but there's only one place to feasibly break the word.
TIL/DE isn't as exciting — until you consider how he could have split the word. There's no other option, since there's nothing that ends in TILD or starts with ILDE. Also, how many words end in TIL? All I could find besides UNTIL were LENTIL and PISTIL. There's something elegant about a problem that has so few possible solutions.
On that note, what other keyboard characters could Ricky have used? CARET is too easy, and most others require SIGN, like POUND SIGN or PERCENT SIGN. I was surprised at the theme's tightness, since my first impression was that there would be at least a half a dozen more to choose from.
BREAKS CHARACTER isn't an A+ revealer because 1.) grammatically, "breaks a character" or "breaks characters" would better fit the idea, and 2.) there's nothing to specify why keyboard characters, not movie characters, "characters" as in comedians, one's moral fiber, etc. Still, it works well enough.
I also appreciated Ricky's gentle nudges away from crossworld cultural norms, with AZUL and AMOR. Normally, I'd ding these, but I like how they reflect some of what makes Ricky Ricky, while still being accessible to a broad range of solvers (these answers are etymologically related to AZURE and AMOUR or AMORE, which might be more widely familiar).
I don't mind few bonuses in an early-week grid when a theme is meaty and the fill is smooth and accessible. Great work; a puzzle I'd happily give to newbs.
★ Rachel! It was such a pleasure to work with her on her debut puzzle (for Universal). She's open-minded, hard-working, and not willing to say "good enough." I have a strong feeling that this will be just the first in a long line of NYT puzzles with her byline.
I wasn't a fan of THE MANDALORIAN (the show). I had issues with the pacing, unable to connect with a fully-masked protagonist, and the seemingly endless supply of minor characters who didn't play into the storyline. But how can you resist baby Yoda? Even better, the return of Carl Weathers! His portrayal of Apollo Creed was amazing, but it's his comedic role in "Arrested Development" I appreciate most. There's still plenty of meat on that bone!
I wondered if non-dorks should have heard of the TURING TEST. I've managed to fool everyone so far … whoops. I mean, I'm a totally regular, non-robotic human being organism who likes normal hominid activities such as ball sports and intake of a variety of alcoholic liquid consumables.
And that clue for ACROPHOBIA! It's such a clever play on the different definitions of the word "high." Here in Seattle, we have a third definition of "high anxiety": worry about Feds coming in and busting up our pot shops.
I did hitch at a few ESS, ELS clued as letter Ls, and TARES shorties. And THREE SCORE is an oddball. But there was the great DON'T GET CUTE, plus that amusing "plum pudding" reference in ATOM's clue and a Monty Python classic, "TIS but a scratch!"
Non-nerds might not enjoy the puzzle as much as I did, especially if they haven't heard of THE MANDALORIAN or familiarized themselves with Alan Turing through "The Imitation Game." But this dork had a ton of fun today.
★ That central feature, PASSPORT PHOTO, is perfect. Not only is it a snazzy phrase, but that clue is so clever! Such a brilliant misdirection toward immunizations.
If only my PASSPORT PHOTO didn't look like I was high, sleeping, drooling, and a felon. Okay, I'm going to take the picture in three, tw — *click*. Who does that?!
DON'T BE SO HASTY is another great entry. It's not quite as strong as PASSPORT PHOTO overall, since it's hard to give it a clever clue, but it's a colorful, colloquial saying. Robyn shines in this arena, consistently treating us with ones like NEVER FEAR!
I wasn't award that RARE BOOKSTORE was still a thing, but it did remind me of a novel I loved, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Sometimes our themeless solving experience is so tied into personal experience. If you're looking for an engaging, puzzly mystery, Mr. Penumbra is at the top of my list.
I appreciated the openness of the grid design. In the past, Robyn has sectioned off some of her corners, which is a huge help in construction (allowing for working on subsections in isolation) but can have detrimental effects on solving flow. It'd be so tempting in this grid to break up either ORIONS BELT or TEN FOOT POLE, so I'm glad that Robyn resisted.
I will say that the one area that bogged me down was the southeast corner, a tad bit cut off from the rest of the puzzle. I was confident SLOP was what you wouldn't find in a Michelin-star restaurant. GLOP? That didn't feel right. Along with not remembering Georgia ENGEL from decades ago (speaking of old, see: HEP) and not knowing Chekov's work in detail (OLGA?), I was worried I'd have my first Did Not Finish in months.
Thankfully, I wasn't so hasty, trying out a few random letters here and there until WOEBEGONE made my woes be gone. Whew!
Robyn's puzzles are always a ton of fun, a delightful combination of playful grid entries and a plethora of wickedly clever clues. HALF ASLEEP is a great entry, and [On one's way out] is some "Penn & Teller: Fool Us"-level trickery. I love the feeling I get after solving one of Robyn's themelesses, a golden glow protecting me from the woes of the world for a few precious minutes.
★ Jim Horne summed up today's wonderful solve perfectly: "They had me at PALM FRONDS." I was so stuck in this corner, unable to figure out if it was fans of Jesus, zealots, fans of Pilates? Nope, manual PALM FROND fans from the Biblical days; so brilliant!
A close second was something "sacrificed at the altar." That's sure laden with imagery of ancient sacrifices to the gods. Talk about Biblical! I laughed upon uncovering the wordplay here, some women "sacrificing" their MAIDEN NAME upon getting married.
Caitlin is a rising star, having recently joined the New Yorker's crack squad of themeless constructors, and Erik perhaps the best clue writer on the planet, so my expectations were already high. Yet, they still wowed me. We get a fun SLEEPYHEAD, the evocative SUCKED FACE, BLACK MAGIC with a wicked [Bad spells clue] that hid the plural. There was about an average number of long slots for a themeless, but they used every single one of them so well.
I wonder how newer themeless solvers feel about clues like [Get out of here!] for ESCAPE ROOM. I hitched when first encountering these directive clues years ago, but now I appreciate them more and more.
The one issue I had was the difficulty level of the lower-left corner, which felt ten times harder than the rest of the puzzle. It's a dirty trick to clue RAH as a crowd roar when every solver will auto-fill in OLE. (Have you ever heard a crowd roar RAH?). Along with barely knowing a thing about "Coco" and being unable to identify AC/DC as the singers of "Rock or Bust," even though I'm a fan of the group, my solve nearly ground to a halt.
Even with that corner, though, the entire solving experience was exactly what I want out of a Friday themeless: a load of great long entries, a ton of witty clues, and an elegantly constructed puzzle. Ticks all the boxes.
★ Ha! I caught you all off guard by picking two POW!s in one week. What can I say, I had so much fun solving today's puzzle that I had to do it. I've seen plenty of BACKward puzzles, "repeated string" puzzles, and palindromes, so I should have been predisposed to be tired of today's concept. But it was different enough, with such an apt revealer, that my solve was a delight.
I was interested enough by the concept to write some quick code to see what other themers would have worked. Not many more!
It's neat to see a constraint that gives a limited set — that "tightness" lends elegance.
I wondered if the circles could have spelled out something. Would that have been cool … or confusing? The circles in the puzzle didn't feel like a great way to indicate starting points, so perhaps making sure that every start point was under a black square, so you could innocently list the theme clues at their actual start points without adding extra numbers into the grid— ELUSPACE at 26-Across, not 25-Across, for example — would have made this concept even better.
Fantastic gridwork, too, as I've quickly come to expect from Sid. Not a single gloopy short entry, and a whole lot of MAITRE D', ALTIMETERS, GAY RODEO (apparently this is a thing, neat!), SHOT POOL, PANHANDLER. Many constructors would have broken up ALTIMETERS at the M for the sake of gridding ease, and I'm glad that Sid went the extra mile. More bonuses without compromises? Heck, yeah!
Neat to get GODS clued as Rama and Krishna, instead of the usual Greek or Roman god references. That's the kind of subtle influencing that's more effective than the in-your-face approach.
So well done. Interesting concept, top-notch execution, fresh cluing. Sometimes we're blessed with two great puzzles in a week; who am I to deny one of them?
★ Did you notice the big slash in the middle of the puzzle? What a fantastic way to make PERSONAL / PRONOUNS shine! I love the topical concept, lots of folks discussing whether inclusion of SHE/HER, HE/HIM, THEY/THEM should be standard practice in email signature lines.
It's no surprise that the grid is outstanding, given David's top-notch skills. The huge diagonal of black squares creates all sorts of construction difficulty since it doesn't separate themers as much as you'd usually want.
No problem for the master gridsman; a wealth of bonuses in the fill, with minimal glue needed. When you can achieve MAI TAI, OK THEN, BROUHAHA, LEMON TEA, TRI-TIP, THE WHO, FB POSTS, CHAI LATTE for the price of minor EDS and MSRP — all while working around the big slash in the middle — that's outstanding. Such smart black square placement, breaking up the white spaces just enough to facilitate grid-filling, but not restricting solving flow.
Such a fun set of themers, too. THEY is a tough one to hide, and BUT HEY does the job admirably. HIMALAYANS isn't as strong, since it doesn't disguise HIM well, BUT HEY, what are you gonna do. (HI MOM would have been great, but it is awfully short.)
Topical puzzle presented in a non-preachy way, impressive visual presentation, A+ craftsmanship. Easy POW! pick.
★ I mentioned earlier in the week that it's common for me to start with a negative impression of a puzzle when I immediately recall a similar concept (or two). It's also rare that I overcome this unfair (very few people have my OCD crossword recall) bias. Today was yet another example of me starting out scowling but slowly growing to a point where I admired the extra elements, wishing that I had thought of them. BUTTERFLY EFFECT with the butterfly visual, plus a gray square that changes two entries into a TORNADO? That's cool!
It's also rare for me to dig quote puzzles, so that dug an even deeper starting hole for this puzzle. And if it‘s not a famous quote, or at least one that gives me a laugh … we're talking excavating a sub-sub-sub basement. That speaks wonders for this "quote," that after struggling to uncover it, it elevated my impression of the puzzle as a whole. Such a concise, spot-on way to describe CHAOS THEORY.
The grid had problems, much too much ADEER OFFTO ON HER partials, plus usualish suspects like ALEE ASIN ATMO--and that's just the As. Don't get me started on ORTS, such a terrible leftover from the Maleskan days!
However, there were many constraints, and the elements worked together so well that I was able to look past the technical issues. It's not easy to generate a 140-word puzzle (this one has 141), and when you put in themers all over the grid, weaving them in and out of a black-square visual, you're bound to need some glue. Still, I wish a revision had been requested; a little more development time inside the chrysalis.
Overall though, there was so much to appreciate about this multi-layered theme that it still gets the POW! I give big props when a creative Sunday idea with depth comes along.
Ever notice that the CYCLE of LIFE and LIFE CYCLE mean the same thing? Meta!
I enjoyed this one much more than I thought I was going to. Kicking off a puzzle with a cross-reference — followed shortly by another one — is usually a surefire way to make me cranky. I can't drop into the solving flow; you're forcing me to jump around in ways I don't want to? Bah!
I ended up admiring the concept, though, a LIFE CYCLE starting with LIFE and ending with LIFE. It's rare to see a repeated entry in a crossword, so I appreciated that Brandon came up with a great way to justify it.
I did wonder about CYCLE being in the middle of the puzzle. And if CYCLE of LIFE (yet another cross-reference) should have created an infinite CYCLE, instead of having the chain end in the center of the puzzle. Since when does a circle have an end?
Then, my mind wandered, wondering what other implementations might have worked. Will Shortz typically doesn't like "corner blacks" in perimeter puzzles (like in the SW and NE corners) … ooh! How about LIFE and CYCLE intersecting at the E, in the lower right corner!
Kind of strange to start/end the sequence in the lower right, though, since that would mean solvers would generally start working the puzzle in the upper left, at what would be the middle of the chain.
All that wondering is usually a sign that the puzzle is doing something well. Spurring me on to think and brainstorm is an uncommon occurrence. And in the end, I concluded that I liked Brandon's approach more than anything that I could come up with. Even rarer!
Great gridwork, too. Perimeter puzzles are notoriously difficult, especially when it comes to knitting everything together in the middle. To weave in so much great material like EMAIL BLAST, BOSTON ACCENT, AMBIENT NOISE, while requiring only some ANOS, NEHI, plural CARLAS — that's a cause to yell WAHOO, indeed.
This puzzle grew on me, a thing of beauty whose elegance unfolded with careful study. It's one I'll remember.
★ Brilliant finds. After decades of brainstorming thousands of ideas, I'm kicking myself that I've never noticed how perfectly THE AFRICAN QUEEN describes Cleopatra. I've even seen THE AFRICAN QUEEN three times!
Same goes for "The Dirty Dozen," one of my favorite old-timey classics. TWELVE ANGRY MEN is so apt. Frankenstein as DOCTOR STRANGE, too. "Titanic" as WATERSHIP DOWN? Amazing link!
I usually enjoy Sunday NYTs less than weekday ones, since it's tough to retain solver interest through a full 21x21 grid. This one achieved saw me through with full marks. Such a genius set of finds, an absolute WITT (Wish I'd Thought of That).
It'd have been a slam-dunk POW! choice, except for some needle-scratching moments throughout the fill; a surprise given that Francis is one of the top-notchiest of top-notch constructors. There were so many answers I'd never (or rarely) encountered before: ARRANT, which the dictionary says is archaic, UNEEDA, VARESE, SANRIO?
Just because I haven't heard of something doesn't mean it's off-limits, but more than one of these in a single puzzle risks alienating solvers. Worse, crossing VARESE with TEVA strikes me as setting up solvers for failure. SMEE crossing MATSUI feels less unfair, but it's still a toughie because it's easy to confuse SMEE and SNEE.
However, the theme was so smile-inducing, and there were so many delightful clues — ANKLE SOCK go above a tongue, vey cheeky!, SHARON as a [Stone to cast], EAR with the hilarious [Hear here!]. And my favorite, [Lengths for rulers]. INCHES fits in perfectly, but it's royal rulers' REIGNS.
All in all, I found it easy to overlook the potholes and still call it a solid POW!
★ The unabashed physics dork in me loved JUST A PHASE as a punny way of summing up SOLID, LIQUID, GAS, PLASMA. The father in me also loved it, but for a different reason. One day, far, far, away, there will come a time when I don't have to yell at my kids that GASes and LIQUIDs are fine, but they have to flush the toilet after depositing SOLIDs.
It's been a long phase.
I've seen many a crossword including SOLID, LIQUID, and GAS, but PLASMA is a great bonus. Well, at least for those of us who delight in teaching our 5-year-olds about force diagrams and the concepts required to predict projectile motion.
No wonder my kids throw so many things at me.
I'd love an ordering, with PLASMA to GAS to LIQUID to SOLID, but I'm okay with mixing them up so LIQUID ASSET could be featured. What a great entry! I (unsurprisingly) spent an hour coming up with a couple of ways to get the themers in order, but (surprisingly), I didn't like them as much as what we see today. PLASMA SCREEN TVS is so much more solid (groan) than PLASMA SCREENS, which would have balanced out ITS JUST A PHASE nicely.
And what fine gridwork, in a debut! I'd usually recommend newbs to avoid long acrosses, but ALARM BELLS and DAISY CHAIN are well worth a bit of AMT and SSE. Elsewhere, I appreciated that Eric stuck to lesser offenders like OTRO.
There's something amusing about the doubles inside OHHI and NAAN next to each other, too. HA HA!
All in all, an entertaining Monday puzzle that might appeal to my dork friends more than the general solving population, but I appreciate that it's still accessible to most.