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

showing 25 out of 215 POW selections from 3/28/2017 to 9/11/2017

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

POW Mon 9/11/2017

★ Great start to the week, a solid offering from two of my favorite people in the crossworld. I've seen a couple of LA LA LAND puzzles over the years — especially after the Oscars brouhaha — so (probably like Erik) I was a tad underwhelmed to get "phrases containing LA and LA." What a nice a-ha moment when I realized that it wasn't just any old phrases, but actual LANDs containing LA and LA. Beautiful!

Mirror symmetry can be a godsend. I don't imagine there are many place names containing LA and LA. As a constructor, it can be supremely frustrating to find great theme answers, only to realize that they don't pair up. Lengths of 14, 12, 10, 10, bleh! Except that mirror symmetry handles some kooky theme set lengths perfectly. Good trick to have in one's arsenal.

Mirror symmetry typically requires more black squares than regular symmetry, and today's grid is no exception. It's usually necessary to deploy some black squares in the middle of the puzzle, and they tend to chunk up, like the "hat" sitting atop HICK. Some editors put a limit on black squares at 36 or 38, but I don't mind when a puzzle gets up to 40 or even 42, as long as it's still visually pleasing. This grid looked fine to me.

Tough to make one's voice heard in an early-week puzzle that calls for simple clues, but I love what these guys have done. OOPSIE! SLED clue referencing "Calvin and Hobbes." PERFECT GPA! Even a fun quote with LOW. (It's from Michelle Obama, taking the high road when others go LOW.)

I wasn't sure about AFROED, but it does have dictionary support. More importantly, Erik has been awesomely AFROED in the past, so I defer to him. Otherwise, not a single hitch in the short fill — such meticulous work in filling out their grid, not an OOPSIE in sight. Your effort and care are much appreciated, sirs.

A joy to solve; exactly how interesting, smooth, and snazzy a Monday puzzle should be.

POW Sat 9/9/2017

★ A ton of strong entries today, most all of them hitting home so well for me. That bottom stack in particular — PEACE SUMMIT, PR NIGHTMARE with its crazy PRN start, and SPIDEY SENSE? Yes, please! And there was so much goodness in those four corners, WORLDS APART to ZONE DEFENSE to HORSE AROUND to VAN DAMME (check out "JCVD" if you haven't seen it — amazing movie!).

And ADOLESCENTS isn't usually an entry I'd point out as an asset, but its clue made it shine. Such an innocent looking [Minority group] clue made me think of voting minorities, not under the age of 18 folks. Perfect wordplay; so clever.

The EMAIL clue, referencing the shenanigans in the 2016 election? Too soon, Will and Joel. Too soon.

I typically hold 72-word themelesses to a very high bar, because they're pretty easy to execute on. For me to pick one as a POW!, it usually has to contain well over 10 great entries, and close to no crossword glue. This one made me rethink my criteria. I counted about 11 assets and 3-4 liabilities. EEE in particular is EEEgregious, a constructor's crutch that I'd never use in one of my puzzles.

But I enjoyed the puzzle so much, that I was able to overlook these issues. Although there were some lost opportunities in the long slots — ARTINESS and GET REST don't do much except take up valuable real estate — the feature entries were so strong. Made me think I need to adjust my evaluation metrics, perhaps giving strong entries one point and super-strong ones two points?

My OCD need to measure and record everything aside, themeless puzzles are all about how the entries hit a solver's personal interests. This one was spot-on for me.


★ Just when I think I've seen it all when it comes to "words hidden in phrases" themes, something innovative crops up. Kudos to Andrew for doing something new with it — finding words like LAMB inside phrases is one thing, but finding connected word pairs like LAMB / ASS is on a different level!

Great revealer in ANIMAL MAGNETISM, too. I've seen this phrase used in a couple of crosswords now, and it's cool to get so many different interpretations from different constructors. It would have been incredible to get theme phrases that had the male / female animal-specific terms, like BULL / COW or COCK / HEN, but I imagine that's impossible.

I did wonder if this would have made for a better weekday (15x15) puzzle than a Sunday, as the theme was straightforward once I figured out the gist. But there's something nice about a straightforward Sunday puzzle once in a while — I imagine that some (many?) novice Sunday solvers breathe a huge sigh of relief when the theme is something they can easily understand.

I also thought Andrew did a great job in executing his grid, going down to 136 words to give solvers an extra challenge ... WITHOUT COMPROMISING MUCH to accomplish this. To work in bonuses like NINJA LOANS, STAGE NAME, IMPROVISE, PAW PRINT, NEW MOON, etc. with just a smattering of ILO, DCI, GAOL, LITRE, TAE, is fantastic work. I did worry at first after encountering both ILO and DCI right off the bat, but thankfully, that didn't persist.

I think Sunday constructors need to earn their right to work with sub-140 word puzzles, as a great majority accept bad compromises to dip into those difficult waters. I'd give Andrew that green light based on his standout execution.

Not a mind-blowing theme, but I enjoyed the added level of complexity in the "words hidden within phrases" genre. Along with sharp execution featuring great bonuses in the fill, this one gets my POW!

POW Thu 8/24/2017

★ Of all the celebrity collaborations this year, this might be my favorite. Not only am I a huge Neil Patrick Harris fan, all the way back to his Doogie Howser days, but I love it when a crossword contains a little magic. HARRY HOUDINI, the famous ESCAPE ARTIST, pulls a real-life DISAPPEARING ACT in the today's crossword!

I was confused as to what was going on at first, but what a smile I got when I realized that 1.) you're supposed to skip over the letters in HARRY HOUDINI for the down answers, and 2.) all those down answers look innocuously like real words in the grid! To an outside observer, it might appear to be a straightforward HOUDINI tribute crossword. But with things like ACHING actually being ACING and LOANER being LONER, it's deviously clever.

I've seen this "skipping" trick many times before in crosswords, so I appreciate a good rationale as to why it should be done. This one is just perfect to me, HARRY HOUDINI mysteriously "vanishing" out of the grid.

Smart construction, too, David and Neil using black squares to segment the regions around HARRY HOUDINI, so that they don't have to fill any giant spots in the lower half of the grid. Notice how they only had to work around HAR- in the SW, -YHOU- in the south, and -INI- in the SE. Wise choice to break things down into manageable chunks.

(Once you chunk the puzzle up into bite-size pieces, it's not as hard to pull off this "down entry is still valid with or without one letter" trick as it might seem — just takes a TON of trial and error. And time. And willingness to deal with soul-crushing frustration.)

Using so many black squares meant that they weren't able to include as much great bonus fill as David usually works in, but with some RED SOX, PHREAK, SEX TAPE, it's fine by me. With a standout theme, you don't need very many bonuses.

A bit of INS, DOA — and the TAXCO / ESSEX crossing may be tough for some — but overall, so well crafted. One of my favorites of the year so far.

POW Wed 8/16/2017

★ I love it when 1.) I can't guess the theme, even after seeing all the themers, and 2.) when it immediately comes to me after uncovering the revealer. (It's not so fun when #1 happens without #2.) I sat for a long minute wondering how SKRILLEX could possibly be connected to PAT SAJAK, SPIDERMAN, and MINNESOTA FATS, but great moment of clarity when I realized that they're all masters of (some sort of) SPIN.

MINNESOTA FATS' spin skills might not be immediately obvious to some, but to those of us that played pool for four hours a day during freshman year (don't judge me), putting spin on the cue ball is a critical mechanic of the game.

And SPIDERMAN spins a web, of course, while SKRILLEX spins records. PAT SAJAK might not actually do the spinning of the Wheel of Fortune, but he'd be my first choice for that type of SPIN CLASS. (I always wondered if contestants could adjust the amount of force they apply to their spins to aim for certain slots. Anyone know?)

Even with MINNESOTA FATS being an awkward 13 letters, Andrew and John did a nice job of executing. A 13-letter middle themer tends to force big corners, and I love it when those big corners yield such great material as WINE LIST / ELEMENTS / DETOXES, and TOPICAL / MARADONA / ICE TONGS. I love it even more when you can carefully pull off these swaths of goodness without much crossword glue. LSTS isn't great, but if that's the only price to pay, I'm eager to shell out.

(OXO clued as "random string of Os and Xs" isn't great, but since OXO is a big brand name, the entry doesn't bother the constructor in me at all.)

I have so much fun with these "how are these seemingly unrelated themers related" puzzles. Neat reveal in SPIN CLASS. Along with strong execution, it's my POW!

POW Wed 8/9/2017

★ Such a great idea! At first, I was confused by a queen "beating" a king at a CHESS MATCH. She doesn't actually beat him, does she? I still didn't get the theme after wondering why an ace "beats" a pair at DOUBLES TENNIS — an ace just wins one point, right?

Beautiful a-ha click when I got to SOCK DRAWER. Two pair does beat three of a kind there (as this disorganized non-sorter of clothing well knows). Such a fun realization that the themers are all wordplay examples of when poker hand orderings get reversed. So playful, so amusing, and so novel.

Well crafted grid, too. Some bonuses in REDBOX, GO TO THE DOGS, LAME BRAINED, DO THE BEST YOU CAN; not too many dabs of crossword glue in ISR, RES. (Some complain about ESAI Morales popping up in too many crosswords, but he's had enough big roles to be fine to me.)

I would have liked a couple more great bonuses considering that there were only three theme answers. Since the solving experience was so smooth, I would have accepted just a touch more crossword glue to get another great bonus entry or two. Perhaps if AMES IOWA and TRIBUTES could have been replaced with snazzier entries?

It's so rare for me to see a non-derivative theme idea. Loved, loved, loved this one; made me brainstorm for other examples, which is a sign of a great theme idea. (All I could think of was some potty humor related to a STRAIGHT FLUSH …)

POW Tue 8/1/2017

★ Shocking themers, clued in kooky ways! This type of humor can be hit or miss, but it sure hit strongly with me. There was something so amusing about a seamstress slying saying ILL BE DARNED, and an astronomer trying to elicit a groan with OH MY STARS!

My favorite was GOOD GRAVY — how is it that I've never used this line at a Thanksgiving dinner?

WELL I NEVER was the only one I didn't laugh at immediately, as I had to think about why a teetotaler would mention a well (and what a teetotaler was — it's someone who doesn't drink alcohol). But then I remembered that a "well drink" refers to a bar's cheap liquor they pour from a spout. So this one worked for me in the end, but it didn't have quite the hilarious impact the others did.

It's a rare early-week puzzle that uses an eye-catching, artistic grid. Something so pleasing about those two "arms" of black squares extending from the left and right sides toward the middle, curling in like spirals. This sort of layout often chokes down puzzle flow, but Jay did a nice job making sure that all parts of the grid connect together without narrow constrictions.

This layout also allowed Jay to work in a lot of long entries. None of them jumped out at me as stellar, but they all do a fine job — INWARDS, ON ORDER, STEP ONE, ITALIANO. I would have liked even one long bonus that I could point out as fantastic, but there's always a trade-off between snazzy fill vs. clean fill, especially with biggish grid spaces like the NE and SW.

I did hitch at the collection of SEL (French for salt), EDS, EER, ATIE, TRE. Nothing major, but in total, it went over my threshold for early-week puzzles.

This POW! choice might come as a surprise to regular readers since crossword glue tends to heavily affect my perception of a puzzle, but the theme concept tickled me so much, and the grid was so neat-looking that I was able to overlook the flaws.

I still laugh, thinking about saying GOOD GRAVY at Thanksgiving. Tee hee.

POW Sun 7/30/2017BY DESIGN

★ I'm loving this celebrity series — having a puzzle oriented around that person's profession is so much fun.

Today we get Isaac Mizrahi, with theme phrases reinterpreted in kooky, design-related ways. There's something so fun about SHOOTS FROM THE HIP as a paparazzo sneaking a pic from his/her pocket. TAKE UP A COLLECTION worked great as well, the phrase defined as shortening (taking up, in tailoring lingo) a designer's clothing collection. ON PINS AND NEEDLES I could actually see as a punny title for a seamstress's tell-all.

Not all of them hit for me — WORK THE NIGHT SHIFT felt iffy, "shift" not quite design-specific enough for my taste — but so many of them gave me a smile. It's a rare Sunday puzzle of this type that accomplishes that, so huge kudos.

A couple of nice bonuses, too, ALIEN RACE, TEN SIDED evoking images of a (warning, D&D dork alert!) 10-sided die, IMHOTEP a colorful character from ancient Egypt, SIM CARD, and even PARAGON. HONESTLY!, a good amount of bonus material for those solvers not so interested in fashion design.

There were a few blips here and there, but nothing that made me cringe. I don't like an OLEO of A HILL, VAR, ENDE (so tough to keep him and ONDE straight), ENERO, AERO, ORDERER (notice all those constructor-friendly Os, Es, and Rs?), etc. But overall, David and Isaac kept the level right around my threshold … slightly over, but not so far as to bog down my solve.

I'd be curious if moving ON PINS AND NEEDLES down one row would have helped to smooth out some sections. It's so tough when just a single row separates two long themers, as with WORK THE NIGHT SHIFT and ON PINS AND NEEDLES (see results: OLEO, EOE, A HILL).

Overall, a great sense of fun and joy in this puzzle. David and Isaac wore it well.

POW Tue 7/18/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Sat 7/15/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Sat 7/8/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Wed 6/28/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Mon 6/19/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of my favorite Monday puzzles of the year.

POW Tue 6/13/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Thu 6/8/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking forward to the next McCoy byline already.

POW Wed 5/24/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Mon 5/15/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Mon 5/8/2017

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

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

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

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

I know, I'm so anal!

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun, interesting theme, with top-notch execution.

POW Wed 4/26/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Fri 4/21/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Tue 4/11/2017

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

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

If only country namers had been crossword fans …

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

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

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

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

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

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

POW Thu 4/6/2017

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

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

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

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

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

All O (around), a superb puzzle.

POW Tue 3/28/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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