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


Showing 25 out of 403 POW selections from 10/27/2020 to 4/6/2021

Use the Older / Newer links above to see more.

POW Tue 4/6/2021

★ Whoa Nelly, it took me fifteen minutes of searching to find even one more exclamation that could fit into this theme! I so badly wanted "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!" to work because I love "Derry Girls" so much, but sometimes the powers that be don't cooperate.

Clever grid design, utilizing mirror symmetry to accommodate the frustrating 14, 10, 10 / 10 lengths. Not all editors or solvers love mirror sym, but I find it so pleasing. Smiley face of black squares; that's my jam.

Smiling's my favorite!

Beautiful gridwork, too. The middle columns of mirror sym grids can be tricky, but Amanda and Karl did so well. DWELLERS is a fine entry, BAR CAR is fun, and even though I'm terrible with pop music, it's hard to avoid Demi LOVATO's name if you scan headlines.

Great use of mid-length entries, too, MAHLER lending a classical feel, APOLLO clued to the famed theater, and TAYLOR Swift — a little something for everyone.

I wasn't keen on the trio of BFFS, DEETS, TOTES (as "totally!"). But Erik Agard, editor of the USA Today crossword, said something smart, that puzzles should contain answers that people already know — but some days, those answers are for people that aren't you. This is a perfect example of that, executed in a way that even a crank like me can still successfully finish.

Jim Horne expressed another sentiment with an apt opera analogy. As a conductor, you're pressured by opera diehards to perform the standards. But if you don't try newer compositions aimed at younger crowds, you'll never create a new generation of opera fans.

I didn't know what a NET CORD sensor was, but it's common tech in that world. Much more accurate than a human, I imagine.

Another delight from an up-and-coming constructing duo.

POW Mon 3/29/2021

People ping me so often with various TO BE OR NOT TO BE ideas that it's hard for me to be impressed with any of them. That leaning made me shrug when I hit today's revealer. Rhyming words, one with a double B, one with a single B … not impressive, since there should be a big handful of these. Dozens. Hundreds, maybe!

May-B not.

The fact that HABIT / RABBIT and TREBLE / PEBBLE don't just rhyme, but their endings differ only by a single vs. double B, makes the set so tight. I couldn't think of a single other pair that would work like this.

My appreciation for this concept grew and grew. There's something so impressive about the theme tightness.

And there's Lynn's beautiful gridwork, perfect for newer solvers. It's not technically perfect, but entries like ESE are easily figure-out-able. Plus, they're fine prices to pay to allow for the fun long bonuses, THIN MINT, BELGIANS, ENTR'ACTE.

Not only a strong Monday grid, but a crossworthy addition to the TO BE OR NOT TO BE genre.

POW Wed 3/24/2021

★ So amusing to think about Mario going down the runway, trying to out-pose the Minions. I didn't fully appreciate the concept at first since it seemed like you could pick any costume and find dozens of toons that wore it. As I drilled down, though, how many toons wear denim overalls? I'm deep in the midst of cartoonland — for my kids, not me! — and I could only come up with Wreck-it Ralph and Bob the Builder.

(I admit, I have an affinity for Wreck-it Ralph. So misunderstood.)

The others were even tighter. I couldn't come up with anyone but Popeye and Donald Duck for the SAILOR SUIT. All I could think of was Buster Bluth, who will sadly never win WHO WORE IT BETTER, but who's a winner in my book.

Fun echo to the theme in [Runway model?] = AIRLINER.

Great bonuses in BLIND SPOT, WHITE SEA, STRESS OUT. It's amazing what a megastar GAL GADOT has become in such a short time — she blew me away in her 2017 "Wonder Woman" role. A shame that the reviews for the sequel have been so negative.

Also appreciated were the fun touches in the clues. LAT confused me for a long. time, until I realized that there was a period after long. As in longitude! And I know a lot of people who can blow a lot of hot air, but VENTS do that as well.

Neat concept, one that grew on me. It kept calling me back to take a second and a third look, which is one trait of a great puzzle.

POW Mon 3/15/2021

★ What do GOLDEN EAGLE, RATTLESNAKE, and PRICKLY PEAR have in common? They're all on the MEXICAN FLAG? What a delightful discovery! This is an instance where I'm ecstatic to be stumped at "Name That Theme." Now that's an A+ a-ha moment.

All four themers being exactly 11 letters, how fortuitous! Perhaps Crucivera, the Greek goddess of crosswords, has a Latin(a) counterpart.

I appreciated the other touches echoing the MEXICAN FLAG, too: PINATAS — with an awesome misdirection clue, [They get smashed at parties] — and SIESTA. It's rarely easy to work in mid-length material that reinforces theme without muddying it up. Philip's efforts here are a big success.

I did hesitate before giving this the POW!, since AWN and ALEE are entries called out on editors' spec sheets. They're the glue types that I often hear newer solvers complain about, giving them a reason to ditch the crossword and do something else.

I'd also have liked fewer 3-letter words — Rich Norris over at the LAT rarely allows constructors to go over 20 since these shorties can make a solve feel choppy. I'd have asked if Philip could take out the block between AWN and ERE while upping the smoothness factor. I'm not 100% sure it's possible, especially without losing the color of BOHEMIA and BASE HITS, but it'd be worth the effort.

Memorable debut!

POW Tue 3/9/2021

★ Fantastic debut! Will Shortz isn't taking many "hidden words" puzzles these days due to oversupply, so you must present an amazing one to catch his attention. It has to go above and beyond, and that's exactly what Simon did:

Length of finds. Four letters is about the minimum since three letters are too easy to work with. To find a six and two fives is fantastic work. Even the three …

Quality of phrases. The consecutive vowels are a bit tricky, but AIK is much less daunting than URABUS. When you can fit AIK into KUBLAI KHAN, one of the most auspicious leaders of ancient history, that makes up for the shortness.

Spanning across all words within the phrase. HAD NO HOPE isn't terribly exciting — not as much as FALSE TEETH, with its delightful clue about coming out at night — but when you span H ON DA across all three words, that made me stare in admiration.

Revealer. REVERSE works, although it's more overt than clever. I'd have loved to brainstorm for something more playful, like around cars having to BACK IT UP or something.

Tightness. Not 100% necessary, but when you can make people realize that there are virtually no other themer options, that makes your puzzle stand out. After 30 minutes of searching, all I could find was PORCINI MUSHROOM and HYDROFOIL, and the latter doesn't pass the "spanning" criterion.

All this with amazing gridwork. I eternally pound the table, yelling that with four themers and a short revealer, you're obligated to present a fantastic grid with an excess of bonuses and zero glue. There's no reason not to. Simon wove in FLEABAGS, THE BOXER, PLACEBO, TENTACLE, SNEAKER, all while demanding that his short fill never be compromised.

Tremendous debut, making me appreciate a tried-and-true theme type all over again.

POW Wed 3/3/2021

★ I used to hate Chinese New Year as a kid. The red envelopes were awesome, but when the teacher would make the Asian kids stand up and say what year we were born in, I cringed. Year of the dragon was the dream, followed closely by the tiger. Heck, I'd gladly take horse. Dog. Even rooster or snake would have been passable.

After all the laughing would subside, the teacher would clear her throat and try to research what wonderful traits Zodiac pigs exhibited. Let's see … the emperor summoned all the animals, and 11 showed up. Just as he was about to call it quits, the pig squealed in. Turns out the rascal got hungry, ate some trash, then fell asleep. Lazy, disgusting, boorish. Great.

Things would always go downhill from there, until I realized I could fool the throngs of non-Asian kids by telling them I was born in the year of the T. Rex.

Fantastic to see the Zodiac honored today with a well-disguised set of OX terms. I did wonder if STEERS was the proper plural of STEER, but says it's correct. Solid job obfuscating STEERS, BULL, and CATTLE in colorful phrases.

Also great is the tightness factor. What other themers could work? There is STOCK OPTIONS, but what else? No phrases start with COW that use it in a different sense.

Extremely impressed with Ann's gridwork! With four themers, I expect constructors to deliver at least four pieces of strong bonus fill, along with little to no glue. Ann hit on both counts, going the extra mile with CHEESE GRATER, FIRESIDE CHAT, along with SCENARIO, ELOQUENT, ENIGMAS, GALILEO, and more.

A 72-word grid is not for the faint of heart, usually requiring some themeless expertise to make it work. Beautiful big corners in the NW and SE! No secret to executing on a FIRESIDE CHAT / ELOQUENT / REDSTONE (not a Minecraft player, but the two words were easy enough to figure out) triplet. Few constructors have the patience for all the iteration needed, though.

I would have preferred this puzzle to run on Chinese New Year, but it's still an impressive debut. While the theme is tried-and-true "hidden synonyms," I thoroughly enjoyed the nod to the heritage that I've slowly come to accept, as well as the outstanding debut gridwork.

POW Wed 2/24/2021

★ This is the PARADOX puzzle that I've been racking my brain for. Years have gone by, and I've explored two separate "docs" in single rows, two docs spread through long entries, and dozens of other executions, but I'd never considered looking for long entries fortuitously containing two (non-spread-out) docs. That seems impossible, given the limited number of doctors who 1) are famous and 2) have short names. You're not going to have much luck with ZHIVAGO or JEKYLL, after all.

Such amazing finds:
  • THE WHOLE TRUTH containing Dr. WHO and Dr. RUTH. Wow!
  • I didn't know the DEVIL'S DOZEN, but what a colorful phrase.
  • DRE and NO are easier to work with — simple *DRE*NO* and *NO*DRE* searches turned up ADDRESS UNKNOWN, CHILDREN OF MEN, KEYNOTE ADDRESS, FOR NO GOOD REASON — but DREADNOUGHT is a fantastic word. [Here are both of those searches combined in a single RegEx — JH.]

Excellent presentation, too. One of the problems I always struggled with: PARADOX is an awkward length for a revealer, hard to tuck away. I like Andrew's solution, using mirror symmetry so he could put PARADOX in a perfect location for a revealer. The constructor in me also appreciates Andrew's clever solution to the layout problem of themers being 11, 13, and 11 long. That may seem trivial, but each one of those forces black square placements, making the layout a bear. Andrew's skeleton is one of the few ways of making this set of awkward-length themers work.

Work in some TWEETSTORM, HOME DESIGN, VAPE PEN, GEN XER snazzle, all the while carefully minimizing short gluey entries, and that's a perfect balance. It's not trying too hard with a 74- or 72-word grid, and it's not taking the easy way out with 78 words.

Great REVENUE clue, too, playing on "cash in." It might be too literal for accountants, but this finance guy gives it a bonus.

Fantastic puzzle. I don't even mind that Andrew stole my intended thunder. When a product is this strong, all you can do is stand up and clap.

POW Fri 2/19/2021

★ Two POW!s in one week?! Hey, sometimes you gotta break the rules. I loved that combination of ALPHA FEMALE and DEMIGODDESSES. I hadn't heard the latter, but it's an easy extension of "demigod," which came into popularity with the "Percy Jackson" series). How did I not know Helen of Troy was a DEMIGODDESS (father = Zeus, mother = either Leda or Nemesis)?

Along with the awesome phrases MADE BANK, MANI PEDI, AWKWARD AGE? Talk about I CANT RESIST!

Plus, a stellar clue for CEREAL AISLE, playing on "way of Life" (note the capital L in the clue)?

All this, while enjoying BAHAMA MAMAS? Make mine a double!

I could stop here, but check out [Protrusions near a trunk, maybe]. It had me groaning, because it was going to be some obscure Maleskan entry like KNARS. No, that's an elephant's trunk. Delightful!

Add in a FRACAS to the fun? Don't mind if I do!

I didn't understand [Hair pieces] for HANKS. I thought it must be some cultural reference I was missing, Tom Hanks in ... Saving Private Rapunzel? That Thing You Hairdo? Nope, the dictionary says it means "coils or skeins of yarn, hair, rope, or other material." Huh.

LACUNA was tough, too. I learned the word from making crosswords, researching potential fill a LAC??A pattern and thinking LACUNA was some sort of South American animal. It's a shame for constructors that the Barbara Kingsolver book, "The Lacuna," wasn't better received. That alternating vowel-consonant pattern is so friendly.

All in all, so much to love, such a fun solving experience; POW!-worthy indeed. Great week for the NYT crossworld.

POW Mon 2/15/2021

★ I'm a dog person (don't tell the ghosts of my RIP cats, Sam and Riley), and this theme scratched my belly. It was a much slower solve than usual, and I had to admit defeat in my "Name that Theme" game. I was sure that BUDDY, BARNEY, MAJOR had to be related in some way … but how? I spent way too much time sweeping the corners of my brain for details on the movie "Elf." His name is BUDDY; there's probably a BARNEY character ... wasn't Major MAJOR from Catch-22 in that movie?

This is why you should never listen to me.

WHITE HOUSE DOGS! I don't know that I would have gotten such a great a-ha if it hadn't been for MAJOR's Putinesque shenanigans. I'd hate to be the Secret Service agent assigned to MAJOR duty, that troublemaker.

I couldn't remember dogs from bygone eras, so I was glad to get a hint from the clues ... and that's when I realized the genius of this puzzle. BUDDY from POTUS 42. BARNEY from 43. BO from 44. (45 didn't have a dog.) MAJOR from 46.

They're all in order!

If you're not as wowed as I am, think about how difficult it is to get everything to work with crossword symmetry. You have some flexibility with BUDDY and MAJOR, but not much with BARNEY. (I don't remember BARNEY FIFE, but I imagine older generations will.) It's hard to believe that the crossword gods allowed the stars to align.

I wouldn't have hesitated to give this the POW! if it had run later in the week. However, I don't think it's a great puzzle for newer solvers, as some crossings felt treacherous. BUSK / KAILUA … I've had the fortune to visit Honolulu a handful of times, and I debated, was it KAILUA or HAILUA? "Busker" sounded vaguely familiar, though. And Jim Horne told me a great story about BUSKing in Montreal, where it's an art form. You have to audition for a busking spot in the Metro alcoves!

I appreciated the rhyming clue for YUBA, giving me a much-needed nudge. There's no way I'd figure out YUBA crossing KAILUA without it. And thankfully, I remembered Obama's adorable BO, as the BO TREE didn't ring a bell.

Some trade-offs, but well worth the novel and delightful theme. Plus RHUBARB PIE! Such an impressive debut.


★ For years, I've been pounding the table that the NYT Sunday crossword is missing a huge opportunity to take advantage of color printing in the magazine. I love today's concept, incorporating the color red to represent RED rebuses in the print version. It's so smart to have the first rebus be REDR, as in "red R." I've spent a ridiculous amount of time brainstorming color concepts with lots of folks, and this is a true WITT (Wish I'd Thought of That).

Not only that, but the letters tacked on to RED change, spelling out a meta answer. RUBY LIPS doesn't feel like a jump-out-of-your-chair-and-praise-the-heavens final answer, but it's solid enough and appropriate for Valentine's Day.

Five years ago, I would have never picked this as a POW! There would have been way too many execution flaws that would have disqualified it many times over. It's fantastic that Joel helped Lisa along — Sunday 140-word puzzles are challenging to create. I wish he'd had more time to push her to revise a few more times. There are so many partials, abbreviations, tough foreign words, prefixes — everything that editors call out to avoid on their specs sheets.

I also wish RUBY LIPS had formed the shape of lips. That would have been mind-blowing. I'm not sure that's possible to do with a perfect set of lips, given the stringent constraint of placing eight crossing themers in fixed places, but even a rough shape of lips would have given this some Puzzle of the Year consideration. Along with much stronger execution, of course.

All those qualms are from the technician in me, though. That annoying blurghole sometimes has to take a swift kick in the pants from the solver in me who adores innovative, audacious ideas, especially those that take advantage of the NYT Sunday Magazine's huge advantage of color printing. Fantastic concept, Lisa!

POW Wed 2/3/2021

★ A great man, JOHN LEWIS. Last year, I read the "March" trilogy, awed by his strength and courage in the face of so much hatred. It's a gripping read; highly recommended.

I was curious why this puzzle came out so long after his passing — usually, some constructor scrambles to put together a tribute so it can run a week or two afterward. I do like that it's running during a week where all the NYT constructors are African-American, though, as well as at the start of Black History Month.

The FREEDOM RIDERS ... it's hard to imagine how frightening that must have been. I hesitate to go into parts of our country today because some folks have out and out said they don't like people "like me." To get on those buses in the face of vitriol a million times more intense is bravery beyond belief.

GOOD TROUBLE is a fantastic phrase. That's well worth highlighting, evoking the subtly powerful smile Lewis often gave people.

I wasn't a huge fan of some aspects of the work today — GEORGIA'S FIFTH felt forced into being a theme answer to observe symmetry, stacking themers resulted in OOLA, Lake BIWA is a deep cut. It would have been awesome if the themers had told the story of his life more, rather than being an assorted collection of themers. I'd even be fine ditching symmetry to achieve that.

Overall, though, a welcome celebration of an amazing man, someone who continues to inspire and make a difference even after his death.

POW Fri 1/29/2021

★ Incredibly well done! Great long entries, a wealth of clever and/or amusing clues, not much short glue (although SERE, I sere you).

So many of the marquees resonated with me, a PARENTHOOD vibe running throughout. I'm in the midst of a PICKY EATER period, where our kids won't even touch a potato even though they love fries. Sometimes I wonder if my life is a giant SATIRE, with our living room ACCENT RUG accented by Lego booby-traps I have ZERO CHANCE of avoiding. Reaching CRISIS MODE …

I was sure that "something you can't get in a restaurant" would be ANYTHING THAT MY KIDS WILL EAT, but that's slightly too long.

BERT AND ERNIE — surprisingly together for 50+ years! — unfortunately haven't worked themselves into my household, which is more filled with ASH AND THAT FREAKING ANNOYING SQUEAKY PIKACHU. I don't care if that's too long, that's my answer, and I'm sticking to it.

Jeff Foxworthy is studying me for his next "You Know You're a Parent" bit.

Robyn does such a wonderful job of weaving joy and delight into both her grids and her clues. Aside from CRISIS MODE, there's so much to uplift — EXTRA SPICY OVER THE TOP SECRET RECIPE is right! And such great clues for a bunch of otherwise ho-hum short entries, my favorite the innocent [Union deserters]. After plunking in REBS, I couldn't figure out my error. That's a marriage union, ha!

Okay, maybe a bit of a downer, but it's worth the cleverness.

It's been a while since I've given Robyn a POW! (four whole months, the horror!), mainly because my standard for her is so sky-high. This one gave me so much delightful diversion that there could be no question about it. No sad TROMBONEs today.

POW Fri 1/22/2021

★ Notoriously difficult themeless layout, featuring 7-letter entries — 36(!) of them. It's not a difficult grid to fill in, but doing so with color is another story. Looking at the whole set of possible 7-letter entries, the ratio of sizzling ones (two-worders like LIP RING or evocative one-worders like GEYSERS) to neutral ones (DISMAYS, LARAMIE) is low — I'd estimate roughly 1 sizzler for every 4 neutrals. It's tough to avoid so much blah filler.

(8+ letter entries have more possibilities in forming multi-word phrases, so you might get 1 sizzler for every 3 neutrals. Much easier to select colorful entries!)

Given these technical issues, an average grid might have only 20% of its 7-letter slots converted to great material. And given the competition in themelesses these days — especially in 72 worders, the easiest of all themeless tasks — I'm not impressed unless that figure is upwards of 40-50%.

That's all a long-winded way of explaining why the constructor in me enjoyed this one so much. BALL HOG, ER NURSE, GET LOST, HASHTAG, HOME GYM, IPAD PRO, the list went on and on. Well over 50% — bravo! All the word list groundwork clearly paid dividends.

The solver in me enjoyed the cluing even more. I've been critical of Daniel's puzzles, some of which have felt drab in their cluing. Much improvement today, for example, OPEN BAR a place for "free spirits." TRIVETS as "Pot supporters," too — neither needing a giveaway question mark! Excellent work.

My one big hesitation before giving this the POW!, though: the AGONIST / ARGOT region. The gridwork isn't the problem, but the cluing made the area near unsolvable. I'd much rather get a dictionary-ish biochem clue for AGONIST (it's a commonplace word in the pharma R&D industry). Given the region's toughness, you have to clue ARGOT in an easier way than [Cant].

I spent so many frustrating minutes feeling like Daniel was my antAGONIST that I initially disqualified this puzzle for POW! consideration. After a day of reflection, though, I decided that was petty.

All in all, careful gridwork selecting for color and a big step up in cluing fun earn Daniel his first POW!

POW Fri 1/15/2021

★ 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.

POW Thu 1/7/2021

★ 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.

POW Sat 12/26/2020

★ 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.

POW Sat 12/19/2020

★ 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.

POW Thu 12/10/2020

★ 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!

POW Thu 12/3/2020

★ 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.

13ravo, Jake!

POW Thu 11/26/2020

★ 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!

POW Sun 11/22/2020IT ALL ADDS UP

★ 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!

POW Sat 11/14/2020

★ "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!

POW Thu 11/5/2020

★ 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:

  • If you still don't understand Jeremy's APP clue, think about physically tapping your phone screen. Groanworthily great!
  • The sun and Sunoco have in common … the letters S U N? And gas — that's hydrogen gas, for the sun.
  • [Thank you for waiting]? The clue is talking to me? Ah, it's a TIP, a "thank you" gesture for someone waiting on you.
  • This MBA knows a thing or two about divisions in board of directors. Not quite as much about SAWS creating divisions in literal boards.

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.

GEM, indeed.

POW Tue 10/27/2020

★ 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.