★ Second puzzle, second POW! for Leslie! Her first one was at one end of the constructing spectrum – an easy-peasy, smooth Monday – and this themeless is at the other. It's a rare individual who has the potential to hit for the cycle, given that a Monday and a Friday puzzle require different skill sets. Check back here in five years; my money says that Leslie will be on the list.
At first glance, this grid doesn't look that much different from a standard 72-word themeless. Take the SE corner for example – triple-stacked 9s are a staple of Friday puzzles. The one big difference is the grid-spanner in the middle, the vivid POLAR BEAR PLUNGE. That has the potential to ice up every corner of the grid.
Leslie wisely used her black squares to separate POLAR BEAR PLUNGE from the NW and SE corners, while still allowing for decent solving flow. However, it's impossible for the ends of POLAR BEAR PLUNGE to not affect the SW and NE corners. I like her decision to break up the outside slots (SPELL / DUE and FAD / AIDES). Many constructors would keep those as 9-letter slots, giving themselves a huge problem. It's easy to construct 9-letter triple stacks when you have few other constraints, but when you fix three letters into place, it becomes much more difficult.
I love how careful Leslie was with her short fill. I'm always picking out some nit in a themeless, but not today. Top-notch work. It's not rocket science – you can get yourself a solid word list and work with the minimum score fixed at a high level – but so many constructors get fed up with the sheer quantity of iterations they must iterate through to get a clean, colorful product like this.
This wanna-be surf bum enjoyed kicking off the puzzle with RASHGUARD (try surfing without one for a day, see what happens), but Jim Horne commented that he'd never ENCOUNTERed it before. So although I see it as a great entry, something like FIRST STEP or ROSE PETAL or SKI SEASON is a safer headliner, given their more universal recognition.
Nearly faultless execution, with both quality and quantity of feature entries. Can't wait until Leslie's next outing!
★ Lynn puts herself in limbo today. Get it, limbo? Because she lowered the bar?
Speaking of lowering the bar, I'll be here all week, folks!
Making a trigram descend is not a novel idea – the one Mary Lou Guizzo and I did a few years ago is just one in this theme class – but Lynn executed it so well. The breakdown:
When it comes to puzzles featuring down-oriented themers, Will Shortz is laxer than other editors about including long across fill, not worrying about muddying up the theme. Today, I like the inclusion of BOARD GAME. That provides color, important since there's not much room for down-oriented long fill (the five themers take up too much space). I'd have loved for READS UP ON to be as snazzy as BOARD GAME, but what can you do.
Same sentiment for the assemblage of ABBR / NGO / ECTO in the NW corner, but that's a reasonable result, given the level of technical difficulty.
Overall, a Monday offering I'd happily give to a newb. I'd likely have to circle the BARs for them afterward, as they're easy to miss (see below for highlighting), but that only shows them how much a genius me be.
Tuesday's job is tough – it has to be easy and welcoming enough for newish solvers, but also interesting for more experienced folks. This theme hit that sweet spot, such a clever link between the Tarot and well-known "THE ___" phrases. I've done a lot of Tarot puzzles and a lot of "THE ___" puzzles, and I've never thought of connecting them. Brava!
Speaking of that balance of easy vs. interesting, there's so much to love about the grid. Four 15-letter entries can be tough to work around, but Olivia produced such a smooth, accessible product for newbs, while also working in MR TOAD, OPEN WIDE, SMART KEY, KISSED UP for the veterans. Check out how wisely she spaced out OPEN WIDE and SMART KEY, using black squares to separate everything judiciously.
The one ding was ASLOW, which could have been massaged out with a black square at the A (and at the T of KLIMT). That would have also allowed removal of OCHS and/or ACER. The northwest corner of a crossword is so important in setting tone and expectations; an extra set of black squares would have been well worth it.
It's rare for me to take interest in a Monday or Tuesday theme, and I was curious enough to research the other Tarot cards to see what other phrases might have been possible. Spurring on curiosity is a great thing!
I'm glad Olivia pared it back from a 21x21, as that would have gotten old. The 15x15 format is perfect for this tidy and novel concept.
★ It's rare that I do a week's worth of puzzles and one jumps out at me as an instant POW! winner. Today's fit that bill. Impressive from a constructor's standpoint, and a delightfully challenging and entertaining solving experience.
Those gigantic SW and NE were especially mind-blowing. Regions of 7x7(ish) scream I CANNOT BE FILLED WITH BOTH SNAZZINESS AND SMOOTHNESS! I've tried it and failed. I've come up with a relatively smooth product, and also a relatively snazzy one, but never both at the same time. I even went as far as to send in a 58-worder to Will Shortz, who kindly said it was a strong construction but lacked color.
Let's call a spade a spade: it would have sucked to solve. I'm glad Will rejected it.
I like how Trenton balanced ease of construction vs. solving flow. The center isn't perfect – it does sort of cut up the puzzle into four quadrants – but it's workable. I never felt like I was completely cut off, stuck like a duck.
It did help that my knowledge of Trenton's love for rare letters breezed me through that NE. Superhero ... let's see, who has a rare letter … AQUAMAN! That led to AQUINAS and I was off to the races.
Fantastic long entries, too. HILARITY ENSUES? Dang it, I wish I had debuted that one! PARKING GARAGES isn't colorful in itself, but it has so much potential for a clever clue. Get it, you get tickets in PARKING GARAGES? Not speeding tickets, but entry tickets?
That one could have used some clevering up.
So much to love in this one. First-class use of the mid-length fill slots – WITS END, LAB MICE, MAKE PAR, I MANAGE, ALTO SAX, BEELINE, CLIP ART, SASHIMI. That's great for a normal themeless featuring 7-letter entries, and it's phenomenal for a construction this daunting.
Beautiful work all around. Both the constructor and the solver in me give Trenton a standing O.
★ It takes a lot to overcome my rebus fatigue, but the notion of circles representing balloons, popping into POPs? Delightful!
Add in brass-ring quality themers: IS THE POPE CATHOLIC is fantastic on so many levels — so colorful, so fun to say, and rarely seen in crosswords since it's 17 letters. I'm usually not a fan of words hidden in other single words, but APOPLEXY is such a crazy entry. HIPPOPOTAMUSES did make me wonder if HIPPOPOTAMI was the correct plural, and that made me love it even more.
(Thanks to Matt Gaffney for sending me a hilarious Hiphopopotamus link!)
Some problems in the short fill left me with that same feeling you get after losing at the ring toss 58 times in a row, though. It would have been one thing if it were only minor offenders like ACS (no one uses this to refer to multiple air conditioners, but it's easy enough to figure out), ERE and NAE, but PES? SKAT? OESTE?
Take a close look at the slew of themer intersections. IS THE POPE CATHOLIC crosses TOOTSIE POP crosses HIPPOPOTAMUSES crosses RED POPPY, and APOPLEXY crosses POPULAR. So much inflexibility is enough to make any constructor cross. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)
As much as I liked Ed's ambitious long themers, a couple of shorter ones like POPPY (instead of RED POPPY), POPPA, POPEYE, POPULI, AIRPOP, etc. would have allowed for a smoother, better overall end product. I appreciated Ed's sentiment, but the notion of POP sounds vs. non-POP sounds didn't occur to me while solving.
Such a beautiful carnival effect — so charming, those circles — representing balloons suddenly blossoming into POPs. My big smiles made it easy enough to overlook the problems in execution.
SUPERFREAK + SACRE BLUE + ZORRO MASK? IT FIGURES to add up to I HAD A BLAST with a STANDING O.
Wow, so much color, so much sparkle!
I'm usually a stickler for cleanliness when it comes to 70-word themeless puzzles — they're a relatively easy construction task — but I'm more than fine with some OK SO / NOT US / TGI to get the explosion of fireworks all throughout.
Hardly a SNOOZEFEST or an UTTER BORE – having both in one corner made for a nice tie-in. Something so fortuitous when two long answers happen to fit in an isolated region.
Oh, and [One with something to prove]? Not GUY WITH A CHIP ON HIS SHOULDER, but literally, a PROSECUTOR trying to prove someone guilty.
I HAD A BLAST indeed, thoroughly superfreaky.
I've always wanted to do a CAMOUFLAGE crossword, but I've never figured out an interesting way to execute it. This is it! At first glance, I thought I missed everything. Indeed, I did — just a s with real CAMOUFLAGEd creatures! It was so much fun to scan through the grid a few times before finally locating CHAMELEON, OCTOPUS, LEAF INSECT, and LEOPARD.
The middle two were especially eye-popping, David managing to hide those in such a clever way. I'd never have thought of trying for LEAF INSECT – it seems impossible to insert those into a grid stealthily. LEA / FIN / SECT, I love it!
I did wonder if it was odd to break up those four creatures with black squares, but the overall effect overshadowed that qualm in a major way. It's an incredibly neat effect, one part "Where's Waldo" and another part "Magic Eye."
AND a ton of bonuses worked in throughout? When you have to build around short fragments, that's usually near impossible. GOES STAG, LACOSTE, TIE CLIP, DOORMAT – that all speaks to the PRO SHOP David runs. Such careful, polished gridwork.
AND a hat tip to DADS changing diapers? With a young son going through potty training, this dad (doing a lot of dirty work) appreciated it.
This notion makes all my dozens of CAMOUFLAGE ideas run to shamefully hide in the woodwork.
★ I've had the pleasure of working on a couple of crosswords with John Guzzetta — we seem to be on similar wavelengths. His comment above made me laugh — about ten years ago, I pulled a prank on a friend, playing Darth Vader's Imperial March (on cello) as she walked down the aisle. During the rehearsal, not the actual ceremony!
I solve so many themelesses that they all tend to run together in a mish-mash of interesting phrases. One rarely stands out, so I appreciate it when I can hang on to something, anything that makes it feel distinctive.
Jill and I have French friends who like to poke fun of their Frenchness – it's delightful to hear Romain say he doesn't care about something "because I'm French" in an exaggerated accent. So many phrases today reminded me of that shrugging attitude: WHO CAN SAY, IT DEPENDS, WHAT GIVES.
I also enjoyed knowing "1-up" for EXTRA LIFE right off the bat, bringing me back to the old days when I'd hang out at the local arcade, a bunch of kids crowded around a "Donkey Kong" machine, our quarters lined up along the top.
Great cluing, too, making short, usually neutral entries stand out. [Some nerve?] elevated OPTIC. The wordplay for RUNE's clue was genius – it may be set in stone, literally!
A couple of minor dings here and there – MAZY and UNHIT are oddballs, and AREOLA is one of those entries we snooty constructors roll our eyes at since it gets used way too much because of its friendly vowels – but overall, a delightful solving experience.
★ YES! Finally, the NYT takes advantage of the Magazine's ability to do something that virtually no other crossword venue can: print in color. What better way to flaunt the fact that not only is print media not dead, but it can be better than e-formats? Yay for all the great old-timey things, said this Luddite!
This Luddite, who is happily using his computer to type this post … huh.
Great theme concept, too, playing on OPERATION's body-part-removal mechanism, interpreting phrases as if those parts were gone. (How anyone could successfully remove those friggin' little pieces without that horrible BZZT! Is beyond me, though.) I loved the ones that surprise, like how SPIT (SHIN)ED becomes SPITED. It'd be even better if SHIN had spanned the two words of the phrase, but that's asking for a lot.
It's not as interesting when a single word becomes another single word, i.e., DE(LIVER)ED to DEED. Slightly better is something like AL(ARM)IST to A-LIST, but it's still not as strong as SPIT (SHINED).
The one outlier: S(HAND)ONG. Since the base phrases aren't clued, they must be easily recognizable in order to generate a strong a-ha moment. Perhaps as a good Taiwanese boy, I should have known the province of SHANDONG, China, but considering I got kicked out of Chinese school as a kid, what do you expect?
I'd have gone with Garry S(HAND)LING or better yet, AX (HAND)LE. Five minutes of coding can do wonders!
It's rare these days that a Sunday puzzle will hold my attention – great fill like SKELETON KEY, BATARANGS, GOOD ONE, DEADPOOL helped tip the scales. Some aspects could have been improved, but overall, an amusing wordplay-based idea that entertained.
★ Brilliant puzzle; my favorite of all of Andrew's stair stacks. A quad of greatness in NO PRESSURE / SECRET CODE / DEGREE MILL / SIERRA CLUB, every single one of them colorful in its own right, and better yet, every single one has the potential for clever cluing. [Green giant] is indeed delightful wordplay for SIERRA CLUB, no telltale question mark required to give away the game.
And almost zero wastage throughout the crossing down entries! It's all too common to need a bunch of neutral entries to hold together a stair-stack. SCARCEST doesn't do much, but SERENA SLAM, TV PRODUCER, LUGE TEAM = a cornucopia of color.
There's yet more? Andrew did such a smart job of quasi-sectioning the SW and NE corners, keeping good solving flow while making his filling job easier. When you can work on a corner independently, it's much easier to optimize for greatness like ADVIL PM, LENS FILTER, DATE NUT, ICE SAWS. Now that's the way to squeeze out every last drop of potential.
Best compliment I can give is that I wish I'd constructed this grid. Andrew's prodigious efforts and hard work in the stair-stack space have clearly paid off.
★ I am officially cool enough to love this puzzle! See, all you young ‘uns, I never stopped being hip. Let's dab and dap and crunk and—
Hey, where are you going? I thought we might go twerk together?
Great theme, OPPOSITES at the ends of solid base phrases. These findings would have been enough to impress me, but I love a punchline. So many OPPOSITES repelling, amirite? Yeah boy!
What? Why are you rolling your eyes at me?
Erik injected so many debut terms into his fill, which gave the puzzle a fresh feeling. It could easily be too fresh for some, entries like AFRO PUFF, ZENDAYA, BEYHIVE lending recency that not many NYT puzzles exhibit. I liked AFRO PUFF best, since even if you don't know the term, you've likely seen an AFRO PUFF before, and it's such a descriptive term.
It's true that if you don't know ZENDAYA, you're a little screwed; a bizarre set of letters that might look so wrong in your finished puzzle. Ah well.
BEYHIVE is somewhere in between. Beyonce is a must-know, and one could argue that an NYT solver ought to be able to figure out the wordplay.
I knew all three of these! Not everyone can Bey as cool as me.
Overall, even if this smooth and well-crafted puzzle doesn't produce that strong of a victory moment for some solvers – people staring at their finished grid, wondering if it could possibly be right — all the crossings are fair enough. Maybe it is too bleeding-edge, but I like that the NYT occasionally errs on that side. It's a great way to attract younger solvers into the fold.
★ It's rare that my opinion of a puzzle changes so dramatically. My thought process during my solve:
Long story short, a lot of confusion, not a lot of clicking, and a feeling of "was that it?" upon finishing.
Thankfully, Jim Horne and I trade ideas every week, doing our best rendition of "Siskel and Ebert," replete with "perhaps you could describe your thoughts more" to be read as SERIOUSLY, WHY WOULD YOU POSSIBLY THINK THAT?
Jim said he loved the puzzle. LOVED.
That's infrequent enough that I take some serious notice.
"Perfect title," he said.
Perfect for non-morons, maybe. Okay. Let me see ...
Weight? How does weight possibly—WAIT! It's all about which syllable is stressed, that change forming a new word.
Okay, now that's something. It's consistent – each time, Tom used words that have their first syllable stressed, switching to a second-syllable accent. It's also tight – how many pairs of words can you think of that fit this pattern? (No others came to my mind.)
All that, plus non-flashy, smooth-as-silk gridwork. Tom knows the formula for a solid solving experience: stick to 140 words, with a couple of long bonuses, and smoothness in your short fill. He did end up with a bit of DONA ESTS ETE OFA RTE SLO and the mysterious UMW (United Mine Workers), but that's better than average for a Sunday.
I do wonder if a title involving the word "stress" would have been better, for us dunderheads. Perhaps playing on "stress test" or "stress management"?
I feel sad for solvers who don't have a Jim. Consider my mind changed, in a big way. Thanks to Tom for coming up with a great theme set, and to Jim for persuading me to take another look.
★ It's tough not to smile when a puzzle is all about happiness. Great interpretations of five catchy phrases; Paul imagining them as they'd apply to appropriate professions. Of course, a happy meteorologist would be ON CLOUD NINE, and an astronaut would be OVER THE MOON.
Even IN GOOD SPIRITS made me smile. My first impression was that a medium wouldn't be IN spirits as much as "within" them. I mean, it's not like the medium gets sucked in and swallowed by a ghost. Furthermore--
At that point, I delivered a kick in the pants to OCD Jeff, choosing to simply enjoy in the kookiness of a medium floating WITHIN GOOD SPIRITS.
Bah! Don't put WITH in bold! Bad, OCD Jeff, bad!
So many fantastic clues, too. Early-week puzzles often get toned down so that newer solvers won't get tripped up on their way to a victorious solve. What a treat to get [You drive it on a parkway and park it on a driveway] clue for CAR. [They're game] indeed describes PHEASANTS. YOYO MA taking a bow – his cello bow, that is – before his performance. A LAB being "chocolate-coated." Such joyful clues match the joyful theme.
A couple of blips though, in VINGT (tough foreign word), DEOXY (esoteric prefix), MOUE – gaaaaAACK!
That was the sound of a sock being stuffed in OCD Jeff's mouth. A puzzle this uplifting is allowed to have a couple of misdemeanors, especially when there are nice bonuses like IDIOT BOX to balance them out. No AW MANs today.
Above everything else, crosswords should entertain. If you don't deliver a few minutes of joy to your solvers, you've failed as a constructor. Smashing success today, Paul!
★ Loved this puzzle from start to finish. My first impression was that it was novel, fun, and nicely consistent. But was there more than "single words broken in two, in a fun way"?
It took me a while to realize what was going on with the theme, and I appreciated it more and more as I cottoned to the details. I wondered, aren't there tons of possibilities? It's easy to break words rhyming with RYES in two parts, right?
Then, it dawned on me that it wasn't just "rhymes with RYES," but "ends in -IZE." That's much more restrictive, lending a feeling of tightness. But there had to be a bunch of other short words Dan missed, right? SIGHS for example. And … PIES. BUYS!
Turns out there aren't any good options with any of those three. ROMANTIC SIGHS almost works, but it's not quite like the others. And there are few (interesting) words ending in -PIZE or -BIZE.
Perfect tightness makes the theme so elegant. Beautiful.
Lovely early-week grid, too. Dan worked in a good number of long bonuses – BODY SHOP, TED TALKS, EATS IT UP, DIET SODA. Note how widely-accessible those are, nothing cutting-edge flashy like the latest pop single or movie that will elate some and turn off others.
Along with squeaky-clean fill – the only nit I could pick was a bit of SORE AT and GOES TO, filler that felt like wasted potential – it's a fantastic product. Sticking to a 78-word grid is so smart. Some constructors feel like going to the max number of allowable words is beneath them (me included, sometimes), but it's a great way to achieve the epitome of Monday-ness.
Top-notch work. This is exactly what a newb-friendly NYT puzzle should be.
★ I love letters-imagined-as-pictures themes, and I love ice cream. Given that PISTACHIO is my favorite flavor, how could I not give this one the POW!?
At first glance, there doesn't appear to be much theme material, since there are only two long entries. Not so! SINGLE, DOUBLE, TRIPLE, SCOOP, VANILLA, CHOCOLATE, PISTACHIO, OV, OOV, OOOV. Yes, they're mostly shorties, but placing any ten themers, no matter what length, creates so many problems.
Not only did Patrick figure out how to get the ice cream cones crossing the flavors, but he worked in so much beautiful fill. He kicked off the puzzle with triple-treat bang: ALFREDO GELATIN EDISON. With DECIMAL RABBLE COLUMBO ANOMALY in another corner – and the rest of the puzzle still to go – it was already a winner.
The only cherry on top would have been something to get rid of the pesky asymmetry. I'm not sure what you could do to balance OV, though. Patrick told me he wanted to put an actual cherry on top – a visual in the lone black square above OV. Oh, how I hope Joel and Sam and the digital team figure out how to do that!
A figurative AND a literal cherry on top? We'd be talking about Puzzle of the Year territory.
Bravo, sir! Patrick's been busy with a kid, so his NYT contributions have dropped off in the past few years. Here's hoping that he picks back up.
★ The best crossword themes are ones that you'd never think of yourself. Check out today's three layers:
None of the aspects are that interesting by themselves but put together, they make a dynamite triplet of colorful phrases exhibiting both tightness and consistency.
Beautiful gridwork, everything I want out of an early-week puzzle. There's nothing that would turn off newbs, and so much bonus material to show them that crosswords can be enjoyable. NECKBONES. BLEARY-EYED. BOOTLICKER. LESBIAN.
COMO ESTAS? I'm doing way better than fine, thank you very much!
And literally, beautiful gridwork. The mirror symmetry produces an aesthetically pleasing visual. BOO BOO BEAR looks like he's wearing a hat — so charming!
Hard to find fault with anything. It's not ideal to use both BONA and LAUDE in one grid since they can't be clued in any way (for newbs) except for [___ fide(s)] and [Summa cum ___]. That's an incredibly minor issue though, something I usually wouldn't bother to mention.
This is a perfect example of how three solid themers can carry a puzzle. Erik did everything right today.
★ When I played golf, my thematic sequence would have been:
Ending sadly with MERCY RULE. No GREEN PEACE for me, which is why I gave up the pointless game. Sour grapes? Bah!
Evan did nearly everything right today. TEE, ROUGH, BUNKER, GREEN, CUP make for a descriptive golf sequence, and they're beautifully disguised within phrases. It wasn't until GREEN that I knew what was going on.
Smoothness, Evan's strokes like butter. A couple of minor hitches with some concentrated initialisms in CGI ESL FTC, but those are all ignorable.
And the bonuses! Nothing lengthy, but so much of the mid-length material sang. GLACIER and MT ADAMS. ON THE DL. Slangy ST PADDY. Even some SPRITZ TIRADE to round things out.
Thankfully, CARDI B has been in the crossword twice before, so she didn't give me hesitation. Third time's a charm!
Can't say the same with AVICII, which was the one major barrier to me awarding the POW! Especially in an early-week puzzle, you want to do everything you can to create a moment of "oh yeah, I defeated the NYT crossword!" Today, I got a "umm … I might have possibly finished the crossword, albeit with a bizarre corner, WEIRDER than ever; that can't possibly be right, so let me double-check everything, no, it must be right, but it can't be right because it's so odd" moment.
It's a constructor's job to put solver above self, setting them up for glorious victory. That didn't happen today.
However, Evan did so well aside from AVICII that I still gave him the POW! Interesting, well-hidden theme, solid and smooth gridwork overall. I'd happily give this one to a newb, with the big caveat that they won't get as satisfying a victory as they deserve.
I'm apparently obsessed with balls.
It's rare for a Sunday puzzle to hold my attention all the way through. This one did. The theme wasn't stellar, but there were enough visuals – the four spheres in thin outlines, and the giant one quasi-outlined by black squares – to pique my interest.
David did a standout grid job, giving us quality fill, packed with a huge quantity of bonuses. It's almost impossible to execute on a Sunday 140-word puzzle without some ENS ESSE FHA NCO OBI RTE USS, but note how minor and ignorable most of those things are. I doubt most solvers would even remember encountering them.
And the bonuses – these are just my top ten (!):
Okay, I have to mention one more. How brilliant is [It charges to do some cleaning]? Everyone charges to do some cleaning, even my enterprising four-year-old. But wait — "charges," as in plugs in to the wall! Delightful.
Creating a magical Sunday grid isn't magic. It's a matter of not trying to do anything lower than 140 words, being careful about spreading out your themers, and then spending dozens of hours testing, resetting, repeating, exploring nearly every branch of your decision tree. Once you get to David's level of experience, it comes much faster, but I imagine this one still took an eternity.
The themers felt more like they were worming – right, down, left, down – more than rolling, but what can you do. When you have little features like having the first themer be GET THE BALL ROLLING, it's easy to brush away the quibbles.
★ The mysterious clue for DEAR SANTA would have earned this puzzle the POW! alone. That huge SE corner, so hard to break into, made it even more baffling, given that I had precious few crossing letters to help me out. What a wow-moment when I realized that "anti-coal" was misdirecting away from children's desire to stay on the "nice" list and get toys instead.
I'll be holding this one up as the paragon, the perfect themeless entry/clue pair. Great entry + sizzlingly clever clue = Jeff has to go find the socks that Anna and Erik knocked off.
But wait, there's more! Big NW / SE corners like these are notorious for not being fillable with color and creaminess. LIES AHEAD doesn't do much, yes, but STEADICAM over POWER MOVE is delightful. IM HERE TO HELP running through both is fantastic. And if EWELL is your weak link, that's a huge win. (He was a biggish star in his day, so crossworthy.)
AND a central grid-spanner running through the triple-stacks in the SW / NE? What did I expect? I tell you what, not something as great as WHAT DO YOU EXPECT!
This is such a difficult construction. Any 68-worder is hard. Throw in:
and there's no way a puzzle should be this silky and sparkly. HALTER TOP, MOUSE POINTER, PARASITIC, OWNERSHIP, it's all so good. Some might even say ITS LIT.
(Some who are hipper than me. See: TURNT is a thing?)
Some might ask why I put OWNERSHIP on that list of sizzlers. It's just a ho-hum word, right? Yes, but give it a riddly clue like [It can pass when you pass] and heck yeah, it's an asset.
A couple of blips in IDONT OPPS RES TAI don't even matter when your overall product is this entertaining and smooth. It's such a pleasure when I know immediately, without a doubt, that a puzzle is POW!-worthy.
★ I haven't experienced this many delightful clues in a long time. When solving themelesses, I keep running tabs on:
The third category is usually short, sometimes a big fat zero. I couldn't believe my eyes when the tab ran to seven. Unheard of! I had a tough time coming up with a top three, since so many were so good:
Although the construction seemed to be yet another of Andrew's "stagger-stack" constructions, I appreciated the variety. He did start with a typical stair-stack in the middle three columns – SELENA GOMEZ / DELUXE PIZZA / WATER HAZARD, all great – but he wove in so many long entries. TOUPEES, AIRDRIED, AISLEWAY, ESTATE LAW, TAX EVASION, APOSTROPHE, MEZZANINE, BUZZARDS, DOROTHY. It's an embarrassing wealth of riches.
There were a couple small prices to pay, notably the oddball BUR along with some ATA SYR WTS. That'd usually be a yellow or even red flag, given that it's a 70-word construction. This is no typical easy-peasy 70-word construction, though.
So many interlinked feature answers, and so many mind-blowing clues make Jeff a happy boy.
★ So many rare letters worked in so smoothly! J Q X Z are the crossworld's Big Four, and to have one each of J Q X plus six (!) Zs is fantastic. It doesn't come anywhere close to the record number of Zs – scads of themed and themelesses with more – but Trenton worked them in so beautifully, his grid showing none of the signs of strain that most puzzles on that list exhibit.
Such a wondrous north section, with a string of connected ZQZZZ. That could be a new name brand for a sleep product — ZQZZZQUIL, anyone?
As if that wasn't enough, the clues stood out; so entertaining:
ALL THAT JAZZ and hardly any wastage in his 16 long slots? (Maybe LAST TO LEAVE is a bit dull, but what else?) Sometimes I have to mull over which puzzle strikes me best during any particular week. This was not one of those weeks. Such a tremendous pleasure to do a themeless as enjoyable as this one.
★ The 68-word themeless construction is a tough task, and Peter is one of the masters at it. It is so hard to produce a 68-word product that shines with brilliant color while not causing hitches due to crossword glue. I advise newer constructors – heck, even experienced constructors – to stick to 70 or even 72-word grids, since the 68-word task almost always requires some trade-off (usually blah answers or a whole bunch of gloop).
Featuring 16 long slots within a 68-worder is usually asking for trouble. Taking up that much real estate, you're bound to leave potential on the table, needing to fill a couple of these slots with neutral entries. But AVERAGE JOE. DATING POOL. DEANS LIST. JUMBOTRON. PORTHOLES. What can you point to as a meh-only entry? Talk about IM ON A ROLL, CANT LOSE!
There could be questions about ALAN HALE. Not for this huge "Gilligan's Island" nerdboy, though.
Okay, you might argue over SKIN GAME. The Skins Game is common in golf lingo, but what is the phrase in the singular? The dictionary defines SKIN GAME as "a rigged gambling game, a swindle." Huh.
Great clues, lifting my already great solving experience to the heavens. ERNIE as the orange half of an iconic duo. (Raise your hand if your first thought went to the Trumps.) AB NEGATIVE misdirecting with [Type least likely to turn up in a hospital]. Not a healthy specimen who hardly gets sick, but the least common blood type.
And having spent a lot of time in the DATING POOL before meeting Jill, [All available options?] made me laugh. Such a great use of the word "available."
No doubt, this was a difficult puzzle, harder than most Fridays. Took me a long time to gain a toehold in the big NW corner. But the fact that I had to work hard to uncover such a slew of great entries only made my successful solve that much sweeter. Easy peasy POW!
★ My inner nerd dug the heavy sci-fi bent, from STARSHIPS to TELEPORTS to waking up from THE MATRIX and saying WHERE AM I? Perhaps even a nod to Star Trek's most famous android, DATA, in DATA MINER? Loved it all.
I can understand how non-sci-fi DWEEBs might not have enjoyed the quasi-mini-theme as much, though.
"Stair stack" puzzles (describing the middle three rows) are familiar enough now that they have to shine to be noticed. The middle triplet is almost always great, since if you don't have at least that, it's a non-starter for most editors.
Where this one stood out from other stair stacks was in the lower left and upper right corners. These regions too often get filled with neutral or blah material, since they're often highly constrained by the middle stair stack. Not only are both of Evan's SW / NE corners clean and smooth, but WHERE AM I / THE MATRIX are so strong, doubly so when adjacent. NOSE STUDS and IN STEREO are winners, too.
Excellent work in squeezing the most out of all the long entries. I wasn't big on SWEETEN UP – filler more than an asset – but there were no other wasted long slots. That's a fantastic hit rate.
A couple of amusing clues, too. SEVEN was confoundingly self-referencing — clue number 49 divided by SEVEN itself. I had to stop and think about it, and I loved how it gave me an initial DOES NOT COMPUTE that was quickly resolved.
MOP, with its head usually on its bottom? That's the way to make a boring ol' common entry stand out!
In any particular week, Jim and I don't usually agree on which puzzle we liked best. Jim's words expressed my thoughts on today's puzzle so concisely: "Everything a Friday puzzle ought to be."
★ I almost disqualified this puzzle from POW! contention based on technical flaws. A 70-word crossword (generally an easy themeless construction) shouldn't contain more than a couple of dabs of crossword glue. AEROS, AS FAR, DELED, UNSHY? Add in ASES, ERTE, SYN, TALI? Yikes! It's like seeing a bunch of unsanded welds holding together a bronze sculpture.
What's the most important aspect of a puzzle, though? How much fun and entertainment it provides. Nothing else comes close. I had a blast solving this one, for so many reasons:
Great feature entries. ON SALE NOW / AS IF I CARE / THAT'S A LIE = great triple-stack. FREECYCLE / RETROCOOL / ACROPHOBE, another one! With BAD COP running through it! Heck, most every long slot held something wonderful. AUDIO TAPE was only so-so, but everything else was great to stellar.
Playful clues. DAY TRADER is a fantastic entry, and [One who gives a lot of orders] makes it even better. (Buy / sell orders.) The neutral HULA cleverly plays on "wiggle room." Even the ugly as sin SYN gets rescued by disguising the link between "illustration" and "for example," making me think it was going for some art term.
MORE playful clues! Shouting HIDE at a birthday party. MARS, the subject of "areology"? Ah yes, the Greek war god is Ares — I enjoyed making that link. [Rush home?] needed a telltale question mark, but that didn't lessen my enjoyment. (That's a FRATernity rush, not a mad dash to get home on time.)
Then I put my constructor's hat back on, wondering why Freddie resorted to so much glue. Turns out that there's a reason for it. The four corners may not look any bigger than normal, but note how many mid-length entries link into them. The SE, for example: DAY TRADER, AERIES, DRY MOP running through the stack makes for a tougher constructing challenge than usual.
All in all, this puzzle gave me a feeling of glee. POW! for that.
★ Brilliant themes don't come around often. The way they get presented can make them stand out even further, or hold them back. Today's puzzle hit on all cylinders, an auto-POW! pick.
Discovering HEBREWS → He brews → male who makes beer is a constructor's dream. The muse blesses you with her benevolence! How to execute a full theme set in a 15x15 crossword, though? Some might take it in a "dictionary theme" direction, with a grid entry like PERSON MAKING BEER. Others might put HEBREWS into the grid, with a clue of [Headline: "Male Makes Beer!"]
Even if you landed on the optimal solution of choosing a colorful phrase to describe "Hebrews" – BEERMAKER is great – you might write the clue as [Hebrews?], or [Hebrews, in a way]. Putting HEBREWS in all caps was a touch of genius, shouting to solvers that something odd was going on. A question mark might do that, but the CLUE YELLING IN MY FACE made me take special attention. There was zero doubt that I was going to review what the heck was going on once I filled in the last square.
I was annoyed that I finished without hitting a revealer to explain everything, but it didn't take long to figure it out. HE BREWS, WE AVER, SHE RIFFS, I RATE, all with snazzy, in-the-language phrases describing them? That's as big a WITT (wish I thought of that) moment as I've had this entire year.
Along with strong grid execution – extras in BEEN THERE, POOR TASTE, CAMISOLE, EN GARDE, MARS RED, FAN BELT, and not much crossword glue – it's a work of top-notch craftsmanship.
THE NERVE of C.C., making me feel so pleasantly jealous. It's no wonder that she's near the top of my POW! list. I give her strong odds to take over the top spot in the next few years.