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

pow

Showing 25 out of 479 POW selections from 4/7/2022 to 9/23/2022

Use the Older / Newer links above to see more grids with commentary.

See which constructors have the most POWs

POW Fri 9/23/2022
LINGOHULAMAMA
OCEANENERGYTAX
FORTEWHITEGAZE
INVESTSNUDES
SECTSSHADY
REPPOLEFAE
LEAPWATERSIGN
MESSAGERECEIVED
BATHTOWELUSES
AKAATOMOPT
STONEWHETS
ASAHIINOROUT
NOCOMMENTRANTO
THEREITISICARE
SORTDALYATLAS

GENDER EUPHORIA is a perfect example of how a crossword puzzle can make me love learning something new. Even if you aren't familiar with the phrase, it's still figure-out-able because it's composed of two individual words. And what a joyful, uplifting phrase! It makes me feel such vicarious happiness for folks who ecstatically reach such an important realization.

WHITE GAZE is also two figure-out-able words, but it definitely doesn't scratch the itch that we in the puzzles-as-escape-from-reality camp seek out. I appreciated that the clue didn't make me feel guilty or shamed, though. I'm a huge fan of Toni Morrison's fiction, so I appreciated learning about her discussions on this topic.

Back to joyful and uplifting: Erik's cluing. He has an amazing ability to craft clues that give me a magic moment, when utter confusion flips to delight. Great example: [It's often drawn with three ellipses] ... what ... guh ...? I was baffled, running through what English letter or language constructs could possibly fit.

Slap in the forehead when I realized I should have known it all along!

It's often said that crossword constructors are successful only if they manage to set up their solvers for ultimate victory — a funny thing, to hope that people triumph over you. This is most often expressed in terms of themes and grids, but sometimes themeless constructors lose this concept, writing clues that are too clever or smug. Erik is among my top three clue-writers in the business, bringing me such pleasure while managing to make this dummy feel smart.

I fell into the MONO for LOFI trap, but aside from that one hiccup, I loved piecing together all the wonderful clues and answers ONE STEP AT A TIME.

Great solve? THERE IT IS, all right!

POW Mon 9/12/2022
DATAANTSGAMES
ERRSBOHOUNITE
ACAIEARNENACT
FONDATHEATRE
SEWATONCBS
AHIWANDAVISION
PETSGASCONDO
ALIASESCHAUCER
CLONEIOULOGE
HONDAACCORDDAD
ESSSTYEUSE
SHONDARHIMES
ARGUEITRYGALA
PEARLCECEHYMN
EXPELSASSTOOK

★ Not only is SHONDA RHIMES an incredibly talented producer, show-runner, and writer behind such mega-hits as "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal," and "How to Get Away with Murder," but she has a name that's perfect for crosswordplay? SHONDA RHIMES with FONDA, WANDA, and HONDA — awesome!

The only shame is that she doesn't play the new Black Panther. WAKANDA Forever!

I enjoyed that this is a "tight" set, i.e., there are few other possible themers. RONDA ROUSEY might want a cage match with Michael for her exclusion. There are some three- and four-syllable options, like WAKANDA FOREVER, LUANDA ANGOLA, and the ANACONDA PLAN, but those don't fit the sing-song FONDA WANDA HONDA pattern.

WANDAVISION adds freshness to the puzzle, too. That series got confusing and draggy in parts — it sure could have used some busta Rhimes — but it passed pandemic lockdown time pleasantly enough.

There's so much to love in the bonuses. TRANSITIONS / SEASHELL / GUERNICA / CINCO DE MAYO are so wisely spaced apart, leaving flexibility to achieve smooth short fill. Partials like A TO often irk constructors, but they're relatively easy for newer solvers to fill in, often more so than a foreign word like TOV (I've seen people misspell it TAV).

Perhaps GUERNICA could be challenging for newer solvers, but note that Michael was careful not to cross it with any proper names that might create ambiguity. It's a fantastic painting, too, crossworthy to say the least.

Crossword themes based on rhymes are too overdone to even be considered much these days, but using a RHIMES spin elevates this one to a POW!

P.S. If this review seems like a shameless plug to get Ms. Rhimes to hire me to do basically anything she wants, it is.

POW Wed 9/7/2022
EREWIKISSHIP
LEXGENOMENONE
IVEGOTTHISANNA
TIMIDLGAIDO
ESPNWISHMELUCK
SETBARTETREI
RINKSCHANT
IDLIKESOMEHINTS
SOAMIWAVED
ATVNESLIDDAD
WHATINHELLBANE
ECOIONWINES
EDAMGOOGLETIME
KEKEMELEESSIR
EWESADAMSHAT

★ When a friend first spurred me on to pick up crosswords more than a decade ago, I was skeptical. Part of it was the perception that crosswords were for old people, but the majority was the fear that I was too dumb to finish one. But hell to the yeah, I crushed that Monday; I'VE GOT THIS!

Oh. They get harder as you go?

When I tried my first Tuesday, WISH ME LUCK was running through my head. I eventually managed to finish. But my first Wednesday, I'D LIKE SOME HINTS was my overwhelming sentiment.

(Replacing SOME with ALL THE would be more accurate.)

On Thursdays they run trick plays? WHAT IN the HELLz, Shortz?!

And Fridays were impenetrable. I looked at one as a lark and couldn't fill in a single square. Stop — GOOGLE TIME!

What an absolute delight to have this wonderful set of memories played back for me, nearly word for word. So many people seem to have "be able to regularly complete the NYT crossword" on their bucket list, and Ekua captured that spirit with playfulness. It's so meta!

Solid gridwork, too, especially for a debut. She could have stuck to a single set of long Down bonuses, but working HONDURAN / INNOCENT and DO THE DEW! / LAVA CAKE help the solve erupt with flavor. Keeping the gluey bits to things that Wednesday solvers tend to gloss over anyway — INT, NES, REI — shows the wisdom of an experienced constructor.

One of the most memorable debuts in years. I can't wait to see what Ekua does next.

POW Sun 9/4/2022 Ups and Downs
SCRUBSADOCOBSAGAR
PRESETMEWSINRELARY
OATBARPANTLOOMLARGE
TMIRIMREOARTIELOB
SENECASEDMUNDHSWINE
RANRDRSABTESTACNE
GALOOTSERRWALKER
AKCWASPKAROJOLLY
DEEPLYEVILSBUSES
LINUSSWIPETELECASTS
IRANTTOPSGREETFLAT
BACKDOORSCREEPSEIKO
BATIKLHASASISTER
PARACREINTHUDSIM
CHANELHOTDREAMER
LORDSIOUANERSIAMB
ANTSYMALTOSENASTIES
MOIALFREEINTISNAH
BRATWURSTALASSUTURE
EELSMEETROCKHEATED
DESKPERESTYASTERS

★ Plenty of NYT crosswords have their ups and downs, but Tracy takes us on a thrill ride, featuring RAMPs to climb, SLIDEs to plummet down, and a beautiful diagonal of black squares to emphasize the concept. Way more ups than downs!

Many puzzles have featured diagonally rising / falling themers. This one was so much more enjoyable than others, partially because it wasn't so overly complicated that solvers griped to the depths of Tartarus (I learned a hellish lesson that day). The overt circles made it immediately clear what was going on, and I appreciated that. They also served as a pretty set of CHUTEs and ladders, reminiscent of that game board.

What put this puzzle over the top: two delightful "apticlues." (Coinage courtesy of the brilliant Jim Horne!) Many phrases would work with HILL, like ACHILLES HEEL or PHILLY CHEESESTEAK, but how many are related to something that actually ascends? Why have I never noticed the awesomeness of HILL inside Sir EDMUND HILLARY?

Same goes for PARACHUTE IN. DESCHUTES RIVER would have worked, but it wouldn't have the delight of CHUTE within a phrase that's coming down to earth.

There isn't any symmetry in the themer placements, which bothered me at first. There's enough flexibility in entries like SLIDE that at least one or two pairs could have exhibited some degree of symmetry. Ultimately, though, it's so hard to jigsaw these risers or fallers that I was impressed with Tracy's ability to work in six of them.

Beautiful gridwork, too; unexpected given how difficult it can be to 1) work around diagonal themers, and 2) build even a normal 140-word Sunday grid. If I were a betting man, I'd have set the over/under for gluey bits at 12 for an average constructor. I've had the pleasure of working with Tracy and know how strong she is, so I'd lower that to 6. She was well under! She did go up to 144 words, but with all the sparkle of LOOM LARGE BRATWURST BEAR CRAWLS ROULETTE, I hardly noticed.

This is a great example of a puzzle that doesn't push the envelope of theme development, but does a fantastic job of presenting a concept that's both interesting and beautifully executed for the NYT's broad solving population.

POW Sat 8/27/2022
DIYTHATSAFIRST
EMORELEASEDATE
SAGIMAXTHEATER
KWAMESTEELTAM
JAMESIELMS
ORALMASTERKEY
BETFACTORIES
HUGUENOTS
WATERRIDEBAG
JAZZDANCEGALA
BODYSHAZAM
RADSPOTSABODE
ONLINEPOKERODD
ONEMORETIMEKIA
MEDSTUDENTSANY

★ SHAZAM ALADDIN BAZOOKA might earn my vote for the snazziest 3x7 corner of all time. It can be challenging to milk 7-letter slots to their full potential, and to include GAME DAY — with not a single piece of short supporting fill sticking out — is amazing. This corner is cause for a GALA in itself.

David Steinberg went through a phase of exploring quintets of stairstacked 9s, and it was fascinating to hear his technical analysis. Andrew's version is much more segmented than any of David's, but that's precisely what allowed so many of his long slots to shine. I like the trade-off. As long as the grid doesn't get too choked off — the upper left and lower right corners are borderline but acceptable — I'd almost always prefer color to technical wizardry. Being able to fill out each of the five subsections (the four corners and the middle) nearly independently from each other is a tremendous advantage.

And Andrew sure took full advantage! FACTORIES is more neutral than an asset, but every other long slot vibes with jazz. And when you JAZZ (DANCE) up FACTORIES with an innocent "where jobs may be on the (factory) line," that flips the boring entry into the plus column.

I struggled mightily with the lower left corner, baffled by the question mark in [Venue for computer chips?]. Well worth pushing through my frustration, as that clue earns a WSOP bracelet.

Along with a handful of other clever clues, like the everyday ERODES shored up with [Breaks the (river) bank?], I had such an incredible solving experience. SHAZAM, indeed!

POW Fri 8/19/2022
FIJIBEARDFUSS
ANEWOLDERONCE
SMOOTHMOVEEXLAX
TIPJARSSWAHILI
DAISTOKES
BARMENUCOOLEST
AIDAINGENUE
TRYMEFIRSTLIP
GALILEETEVA
ATHEISTSTPETER
SWORNRASH
POTUSERTHOREAU
IWONTMINCEWORDS
RANDTABBYOVID
EYESSLAYSMETA

★ When I was a junior in high school, I made the California state orchestra as a cellist. Not by pure musical talent, mind you, but by a dogged persistence at perfecting each microsection of my tryout piece and subsequent technical flim-flammery to join said snippets up.

Needless to say, my live tryout upon arrival placed me in the back half of the cellos, where I preceded to be that guy who miscounted a long rest section and squeaked a note — a quarter-tone low, at that — when it was supposed to be dead quiet. One of the bassists leaned over and hissed, SMOOTH MOVE, EXLAX.

Thankfully, the rest of my movements that weekend weren't as flatulent.

Also, thankfully, I can look back on it now and laugh at today's fantastic marquee entry.

I get nervous when a themeless features two 15s and not many other long entries. Sure, it's possible to squeeze juice out of 7-letter slots, but it's hard, since those mid-lengths are tilted toward boring, one-word entries like …

Dang, Patrick did such an amazing job of utilizing these slots that it's tough to pick out even one that's more neutral than an asset! Even something humdrum like ATHEIST got elevated with a zingy punster's clue. [One in a state of disbelief], as in not believing in God = genius.

And there were so many of these delicious bites of wordplay joy! I lost count after half a dozen, choosing to forget about quantification and instead soak up the fun. My favorite was TIP JARS being "open to change." They're literally open to change, as in nickels and dimes. Spectacular!

I did stumble on LET SERVE, occupying one of the precious 8-letter slots. I had NET SERVE, which felt reasonable, but LET SERVE is indeed a technical tennis term. It's not something I'd strive to include in a themeless, though, since I usually hear announcers simply say "let."

Such top-notch use of all those mid-length slots, both in grid entries and their clues. It would have been the POW! even without the hilarious headliner. Smooth move indeed, Patrick!

POW Wed 8/10/2022
STEALSAGSCUB
MELLOWHURTORE
SALUKIERIEAGE
MINERALWATER
AMENGAPLSU
MEDIUMRARETUBS
BAGFALSEMONET
USEONOGTASEE
SLURSBRAWNATE
HYPEFEELINGILL
AHASIRADES
WELLACTUALLY
OXYREELEUDORA
RANPUNTDRAWER
DMXOPTSERECT

★ It's not uncommon for "Name That Theme" to stump me on a Wednesday. MINERAL WATER … MEDIUM RARE … FEELING ILL.

Stomach flu from undercooked beef from cows that drank contaminated water?

Bzzt!

WELL, ACTUALLY reminded me of the bizarre six-well Monday two weeks ago, when the Universal and LAT both ran WELL, WELL, WELL themes. I worried that the NYT would run another — things happen in threes, after all.

WELL, ACTUALLY, today's NYT was hardly well-worn! I had to read through the clues and the themers several times before figuring it out. Well, well, well worth it, though! Do you want MINERAL WATER? No, I'd like WELL (water), ACTUALLY. Shall we cook your steak MEDIUM RARE? Please make that WELL (done), ACTUALLY. Uh oh, are you FEELING ILL? No, I'm doing WELL, ACTUALLY.

Talk about well done! That's incredibly imaginative, an order of magnitude more so than those Universal or LAT puzzles.

Not many bonuses in the fill, but a few mid-lengthers like WINGMAN, EARLOBE, SHERPAS, REGALIA helped out. This grid layout can be tricky — moving MEDIUM RARE and FEELING ILL one row toward the center can help space things out better, allowing for more breathing room to incorporate longer bonuses.

A creative and memorable POW!

POW Tue 8/2/2022
MUSKDWARFEVIL
UBERVENUEAIRY
FOROLDTIMESSAKE
ALINEPLIE
STEAMEDDUMPLING
ASSNORSETOE
STYLELIESL
REPEATAFTERME
SEDANMEATS
APEUVEASASA
CONSUMERREPORTS
AEONOGRES
JIMMYKIMMELLIVE
ARGOACIDSEVEN
BAMAYEASTDENT

★ Over the past two years, I've been helping a friend iterate on REPEAT AFTER ME in umpteen different implementations, yet today's still caught me off guard in such a pleasing way. I love being surprised by an early-week theme.

At first glance, REPEAT AFTER ME explaining "doubled letter following ME" was hardly impressive. As Jim Horne points out in his Finder link below, thousands of entries have this pattern. A theme that feels like anyone could do it usually means the wow factor will be low.

But wait! Jay and Daniel introduced a clever constraint: tightening the theme by breaking the doubled letters across words of a phrase. While an extra layer can feel arbitrary, today's lent a sense of elegance. JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE is such a great find, and how many more of these could there possibly be?

So, of course, I checked. Only turning up NUTMEG GRATER, RAMEN NOODLES, and SUMMER READING made the theme feel even more magical.

Not as magical as RAMEN NOODLES and STEAMED DUMPLINGS in the same grid, but I'll excuse that infelicity at Din Tai Fung later tonight.

Their gridwork impressed me, too. Oddly enough, five full grid spanners would have been easier to work with than dealing with the lone 13. Note that this middle 13 forces at least two corners to be tough to fill — in this case, the NW and SE. To escape the NW with just a LEM is hardly a MUSKy result.

I appreciated this theme with every additional perusal. Such a neat idea to tighten the theme, and all four theme phrases are so snazzy.

POW Tue 7/26/2022
ALTOWNBASNORT
WOOLHOEDLONER
HARDCIDERARESO
INSERTITTVIN
LEONAWIFEHOOD
ERSPRINTMEDIUM
SENDPRICES
APRSLOUPENEST
COOKIELISA
EASYTARGETSPJS
CHEESIERKARAT
AHAREFHELENA
LEMMAFRIEDEGGS
ORBITLAVAUGLI
USONEEYEDTOYS

★ It's been years since I've solved such a novel and memorable Tuesday debut. I admired this crossword on so many different levels!

It all started with the visual element, two Os as EGGS done over HARD, over MEDIUM, or over EASY. The clusters of circles even look like FRIED EGGS, the Os sitting high like yolks. It's unconventional, and it's charming.

I also enjoyed the misdirect. I didn't understand what was going on as I was solving, so it had to be HARD to MEDIUM to SOFT, of course. I sure had egg on my face, thinking that [Virtuoso] was probably ACS because mechanical engineering HVAC formulas take virtue to chug through.

Even after understanding the theme and admiring the pretty pictures, I took an extra five minutes to admire the construction. There's way more long fill, both in the Across and Down directions, than in a typical Tuesday. It's not all sparkly — ROSHAMBO more interesting than workmanlike RELEASE, for example — but the sheer quantity seemed impossible to pull off. I wouldn't have thought about using something as long as WIFEHOOD above PRINT MEDIUM.

The mid-length fill was even stronger: two standard deviations over easy. PREGGO JANGLY STASIS tucked into a single corner? Shiny as 24 KARAT gold.

I did wonder if newer solvers might look oddly at ROSHAMBO and/or misguess the crossing with LEMMA. I used to think LEMMA was commonplace until it came up in the NYT Spelling Bee a few weeks ago, and my Harvard-educated wife asked what the hell that was. I, of course, took the opportunity to deride Harvard's lack of lemmatic abilties.

After solving thousands of crosswords over more than a decade, it is incredibly rare that I sit up straighter on a Tuesday. For today's excellent debut, I got out of my seat to clap.

POW Sun 7/24/2022 Going Somewhere?
ACRESAMIDTSAESS
PROMOBASEAHIVEEPS
HEROWORSHIPPEREGRETS
IDSSPASESAFRETNOT
DOCKIMPUGNFRAGRANCE
HOESIMONSOIRSKA
TRACERKARYNDREAYSL
BICHROMEGLOBEEVAL
ASHICESEADOONERVE
RECECLATNERDTRIALS
AERODROMEARSEANKH
FORKSULUTIERDISH
YODELSBEFITVERONA
IFSETHANFROMEAYEAYE
BEAUALEACEVIV
IMPOSTERSYNDROMEZEKE
TEACHSUMOGUYTONER
STLEODAWDLESPROUST
ALLROADSLEADTOROME
TILERSHEADELOPE
DISCSDRYREFER

★ Jessie and Ross! With all due respect to my dear wife, who's turned to the Dark Side of word games (she's unapologetically obsessed with the Spelling Bee and Wordle), I bend the knee to today's royal couple of crosswords.

Fun Sunday puzzle to celebrate their big day, too. I enjoyed figuring out that the five roads led to Rome, and I appreciated the four ways they hid ROME: BICHROME, AERODROME, ETHAN FROME, IMPOSTER SYNDROME. I wouldn't have guessed there were so many different types of *ROME entries. The only other strong one I could find was PALINDROME, but not all solvers are selihphiles.

What made the puzzle stand out was its technical merits. I've had many people ask me about ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROME puzzle ideas, but figuring out how to pull one off has always been the trouble. Note Jessie and Ross's use of diagonal symmetry, which allowed them to so elegantly intersect a road and a *ROME entry at their ends (we've highlighted the themers to illuminate the skeleton). It's a perfect way to execute the sense of finality carried by the ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROME revealer.

Diagonal symmetry allows for some flashy touches, too. Given that some themers are shorties and/or not that colorful — BICHROME feels a bit black and white, for example — spicing up the grid is a great thing. Although you risk muddying up what is theme and what is not, the sparkle of HERO WORSHIPPER and RORSCHACH CARDS is well worth it. Diagonal symmetry plus the short themers in the upper left make this possible.

Certainly no IMPOSTER SYNDROME, Jessie and Ross are the REAL DEAL, the crossworld's residents of PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE. I can't wait to see what delights they bring us in the future.

POW Mon 7/11/2022
CASHIMPSOSCAR
OHIONEATNAOMI
DARTSEGARURAL
WHITEKNUCKLE
ILIADREUSE
MARREDTHRASH
BLUEPRINTSSHE
EARSOARSTAR
ATEGREENTHUMB
DELETESPRITE
GRASPROPED
FINGERPAINTS
ARENAANTELACE
TAROTSKEWOVAL
SNOGSMOMSGERM

★ I can't quite put my finger on this theme … wait a sec, I sure can! Handy idea to imagine FINGERPAINT as tying together phrases in the form of (color) + (finger term). Unbelievable that there were three colorful (sorry) phrases that did precisely that.

Constructors are always searching for El Dorado, the Fountain of Youth, the Platonic Ideal of theme perfection. Here, that might come in the form of something like GREEN THUMB, (color) INDEX, (color) MIDDLE, (color) RING, (color) PINKY. It quickly becomes apparent that that's a fool errand, so the question then follows: is the theme worth doing as is, even though THUMB is a specific finger while KNUCKLE and PRINTS are parts of fingers? What about the inelegance of KNUCKLE being singular and PRINTS plural?

Objections overruled; suck it Plato! The creativity of connecting KNUCKLE, PRINTS, THUMB far outweighs the nits.

Impressive debut gridwork. I wasn't surprised to hear that Roy has a technical background and applied it to his filling process. Such a smooth Monday solve, along with enough pizzazz in HOT WIRES, SHIPS LOG, EGG NOG, NPR NEWS.

It confuses me when I hear old-guard criticism about reliance on tech. I think it's helpful to go through the filling process with a piece of graph paper once, so you get a sense of the inherent challenges, but why would you stubbornly stick to a typewriter if you could use a computer? Are you still using a landline, refusing a smartphone?

Some great Monday-accessible clues, too, a treat to riff on Oldman and Newman for OSCAR, and Stevie Nicks and the Knicks playing at an ARENA.

Novel theme plus excellence in gridwork and cluing. Looking forward to more from Roy.

POW Tue 7/5/2022
LAPSSALADMINE
EXITIMAGEEMIR
ALSOLADENRONA
FEARLESSMAGNET
YENSBABE
GRABATVARYRED
ROLOBLANKSPACE
ACTORELFSUDAN
SHAKEITOFFTORT
PERDOORROUNDS
SOWNHEAP
BROWSEDEARJOHN
YURIYOINKOBOE
OLAFOUNCEBIAS
BELTURGEDSEXT

★ I was so intrigued by "Name That Tune" today. What could MINE and FEARLESS have in common? Toss in BABE … RED …

BLANK SPACE is right!

I admitted defeat before piecing together ...

SWIFT.

SWIFT?

As in, what my brain was not, in still being unable to figure out the puzzle's theme?

I couldn't pick out Taylor Swift from a lineup of her, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jonathan Swift, and if offered one treeelion dollars to name any of her songs, I'd mumble "I'm lovin' it?" So my disappointment was appropriately SWIFT.

But wait! Even this pop culture moron's ears perked up, recognizing SHAKE IT OFF. Then I nearly broke my computer while listening to Taylor Swift tunes for 22 straight hours. As I bopped to the beats, I couldn't help but yell out FEARLESS! to the neighbors.

Alas, they responded with:

I'm taking it as a personal challenge to go through life speaking only in Tay-tay titles.

Nothing flashy in the grid, but STORYBOOK and I OWE YOU are fun. Although I'd have preferred more T-Swizzle sparkle, erring on the side of cleanliness is the right thing to do for most Tuesday crosswords. The fact that I couldn't pick out a single ding-worthy entry makes this debut a bit enchanted.

I'm so glad I gave this tribute puzzle a second look. Along with solidly smooth debut gridwork, I'm finding it as hard to SHAKE IT (this crossword) OFF as that earwormy song.

POW Thu 6/30/2022
DATAAURORASAG
EXECPROVESEVA
VENDNGMACHNES
CREEDEBARK
MAREANTONETTE
ALONGTRAPLEST
PETARDOHARA
COVERYOUREYES
ATEUPKNELLS
CHARGREYODOUR
DETROTREDWNGS
CATERSLENO
ALLNONEPRNTER
SEEOPENERYULE
ERETHEORYXBOX

★ It's hard for me to be objective regarding anything Sam and Doug do because they're two of the funniest, most humble, greatest people in the Crossworld. I love them both. And when they come out with a Thursday trick that flips me from infuriatingly frustrated to euphorically delighted, I'd double-POW! it if that were possible.

I'm all too familiar with COVERing my EYEs, given that a friend's attempt to inure me to horror movies twenty years ago resulted in me still carrying zombie repellent everywhere I go. So surely, once I uncovered COVER YOUR EYES, I should have figured out what was going on. Nope, only more fast-zombie-level fear that I'd never crack it open. NG MACH? EANTO? NONE PR? Talk about bad ODOURs.

What a mixture of relief and joy when I finally understood that the two Is in each entry were covered under black squares! VEND(I)NG MACH(I)NES, MAR(I)E ANTO(I)NETTE, DETRO(I)T RED W(I)NGS, ALL (I)N ONE PR(I)NTER.

And there was yet another a-ha to be had! Look at the three clues to VEND / NGMACH / NES. Mechanical / Snack / Dispensers. The other three themers work similarly: French cake advocate, Atlantic Division skaters, and Home Office convenience.

I could ding the gridwork, with its excess of ELO RECD ROM ROTO etc., and DEBARK is a bit of an odd duck. These might have been minimized with different themer selections, especially considering there are many options for each I I pattern. However, it takes more than some gloop to bring down a great theme. It's also much harder than it looks to grid around a multitude of short themers, so the constructor in me took that into consideration.

It's so rare that a Thursday trick will make me yell CAN GETAW TNESS. Such a neat use of black squares as CLOAK NGDEV CES.

POW Tue 6/21/2022
GOBIFBILABGPS
ENOSOLDELILAT
NOWWEREEVENUSE
LENWAITFETA
AHEADAMSTERDAM
GARRSKAEAU
ASHRHINOZIPIT
STATUESDAYTONA
PETRISWOLEKFC
ANAERAGEEK
SNOWGLOBETARRY
EARLLISAOUR
WIGSPLITSECOND
EVAGRETELHOUR
RENTOREROEMTS

★ I'll never split hairs when a puzzle outduels me in a fair manner. Appropriate that I finished SECOND today; the clever wordplay making me more than happy to lose at "Name That Theme."

Most editors don't take "split word" puzzles if the target word is repeated. Once you uncover the second instance, you can confidently write in the rest of them, and the puzzle is over. No fun! It's even getting difficult to garner an acceptance for a "split words" where the words are different. If the solver can see what's coming too early, it spoils the fun.

The harder Matt Gaffney Weekly Crossword Contest puzzles are often my favorite solves of the month, and one from a few years back was no exception. I wrung my squares in so many different ways for two solid days before finally landing on the connection between BLUE, ARIZONA, YEMEN, OCTOBER, CLINTON, X: they're all antepenultimates in a well-known(ish) series.

That level of off-the-charts difficulty wouldn't fly for an NYT Tuesday, so I appreciated Alex's easier approach, which still captured some of the fun. Incorporating the SECONDs in SPLIT fashion made for a great additional layer, making the concept stand out even further.

I hesitated on TUESDAY, wondering if most calendars go from Sunday to Saturday, or if Monday to Sunday was more "standard." Given that there's a lot of debate on this, a different series might have made for a better choice. Not sure I'd have figured out that TAURUS was second in the Zodiac, but if I have a third child (thank goodness for the world, I won't), I'd name him/her BRU ARYA Chen to throw Alex a bone.

A great aspect of "split words" themes is that they give you so much flexibility to incorporate great bonuses, and Alex took full advantage. The pattern ???AD is so flexible that it's a constructor's responsibility to weave great material around it. BOWLER HAT and I SWEAR? Hell yeah, I swear! Weaving BLEW A KISS and WEBSITE / ODOR EATER through pairs of themers is even better.

Such a fun solve. I knew this was POW!-worthy not even a SPLIT SECOND after the revealer.

POW Thu 6/16/2022
SUCKSAMPABETS
ORNOTPARILLBE
NNNNICSCIENTIST
ALLEYCATS
WITTOSSERSABS
ATOASTPOPDUO
IAMBHICKSADDS
FLOURCUEKIDDO
IOTAATEINDY
MAOJUNIPERDMS
ANOSTEWSDOO
RIOICEPACKDVR
ICONSVATEYDIE
SEOULETCYODEL
ASONENTHSUDSY

★ Plenty of hacks have tried their hand at playing with repeated letters, but Parker and Ross made theirs shine. Quite the pair of CUTIE PATOOTIES!

The other themers, in case you didn't CCCCCCD (six-C D = succeed; I know, not only does this joke not fit the pluralization pattern, but it's terrible) in catching them:

4Ns IC SCIENTIST = FORENSIC SCIENTIST

TOM 8Os = TOMATOES

A 10Ds = ATTENDEES

The last one hit me the weakest since the lone A so badly wanted to be a long A, not a short A as in ATTENDEES. It was close enough that I could look the other way, though.

I wonder how many solvers will think that CUTIE PATT is a Gen alpha-speak term they're too out of touch to understand. Thankfully, the italicization of the clue forces you to notice that something odd is going on, but the others have so many repeated letters that they don't need such flagging. I grew to like how CUTIE PA(TOOTIES) forced me to think; to not grow complacent.

Such a great take-off on repeated letters. Integrating the partial syllables into words made them delightfully unpredictable.

POW Tue 6/7/2022
ESCCRAGSASPER
SALMEDIABORAX
PHOTOBOMBSNOTS
RAVENMLBALF
IRESTWEETSTORM
TARTAREWHINER
POSHANGST
COMPUTERCRASH
ARNIEYOLK
BUSMAPTOSTADA
EMAILBLASTARAB
PFCSIRCREMA
FLAKETECHBOOMS
DEREKUNDUELEE
ASIDEPACERADD

★ Standout debut. It's hard to come up with novel themes, and even harder to land on ones that are accessible to newer solvers. "Phrases that can be punnily described as TECH BOOMS" is IPO-worthy.

What impressed me most was how hard it seems to come up with a fitting set. Even if I'd landed upon the idea of riffing on TECH BOOMS (I doubt I would have), what themers would I have identified? Probably COMPUTER CRASH and TWEETSTORM ... and then I'd have shelved it.

Even after a second look, I find myself studying the theme choices, wondering what I could learn about broadening my search paths.

Wonderful gridwork, too; much better than many experienced constructors can produce. There's some minor CREMA CBER PFC glue, but it's more than offset by the color in EAT FRESH and ON SAFARI.

Not to mention, those long bonuses shine even brighter with clever clues. Repurposing "subway line" and "watching the big game" is Friday-level deliciousness that's still accessible to newbs.

Carly (who I just found out was a test-solver for my latest book!) could have chosen an easier grid layout — those wide-open upper-right and lower-left corners are extremely tricky — and I'm glad she didn't. CRUMPLES / ON SAFARI / MIMICKED for the low, low cost of PFC greatly strengthens the balance sheet.

As with startups, unicorns come around only once every few years. I'm rushing to get my venture cap funds invested into shares of Carly Schuna.

POW Fri 6/3/2022
LOGICOTISTILT
OPENINGACTEMIR
BANKROLLEDNONO
OLECREEPDUVET
SUMSLAUREN
CANOLABARTER
EBOLAFANCYTHAT
LEVARIREFREDO
STARFLEETRARER
SPIELSDECENT
SCALEDWEEK
PHONETEENSMOM
RATECRUNCHTIME
EVILBIRDHOUSES
PEASSPOTPEONS

★ Another beauty from Robyn — you bet I FANCY THAT! Not many constructors can work with 14 long slots (8+ letters) and convert them into 14 excellent entries. Editors prize multi-worders in themelesses, because they often have more zing than single-worders. CIRCULAR FILE and CRUNCH TIME are perfect examples, laden with meaning and imagery.

And the single-worders that Robyn did employ? This dork would gladly submit to the emotional terrors of pon farr if it meant a shot at joining STARFLEET.

DUTY-FREE SHOPS does double duty, too, as both a fantastic phrase and one that lends itself to a Starfleet admiral-level clue. "Non-taxing part of airline travel" wins a Medal of Excellence.

Themeless constructors often either allow too much glue or are too stringent at the cost of not enough color. Robyn has found the sweet spot, achieving top-notch pizazz at only nominal costs like STD and TUE.

I did have one hitch at the end of my solve, since I confidently wrote in BANTER for [Give and take]. My annoyance level was high; unable to figure out how ANC could match [Bow]. But when I finally corrected to BARTER, I appreciated what an interesting coincidence that is, BANTER and BARTER both aptly fitting that clue. Crossword theme radar pinging ...

I've raised my bar for Robyn because she's just that good. Today's surpassed even my final frontier expectations.

POW Tue 5/24/2022
VANSPALEADCAR
CHEAPENABREAST
RAWSILKPARABLE
FEELEYED
ORCASEELTOWED
BOARTAMANERO
SOLACERIDEIAN
MUSICALCHAIRS
AIMOHIODUMDUM
YENSORBSPARE
NSYNCPEAALLEN
OHNOYOLO
SPACIERSWADDLE
YOGAMATHEREIAM
NEOPETSISMNGO

★ Back in my first career as a mechanical engineer in product design, I had a visionary idea for "chair pants." Tired? Crouch down, and the legs automatically pop out. Instant chair! All my coworkers mocked me mercilessly, but who's laughing now?!

(They still are.)

Neat visual: seven-letter musicals forming (most of) a chair. I'd have loved two black squares popping out to form the back legs — where the M and E of CHIME are, in the bottom left, for example — but it's hard to take me seriously, given that I'm walking around today with aluminum rods mounted into my sweatpants.

Although the chairs weren't as beautiful as my ahead-of-its-time invention, the execution was super solid. (Unlike my prototypes, which tend to buckle at inopportune moments.) It's so tough to work with fixed circles that Will Shortz doesn't take them much these days, with the rationale that they usually force too many fill compromises. I love how smoothly Ella worked NEWSIES into that opening corner — RAW SILK is apt!

ARRET isn't great, but that didn't stop me.

What made this puzzle stand out was its amazing cluing. Having to tailor an early-week puzzle to newer solvers can choke off creativity and fun, but Ella managed to make the puzzle sing in multiple clue categories:

  • Freshness. Love the [#carpediem] hashtag.
  • Question-mark wordplay. Newer solvers might not figure out what [Provider of moral support] has to do with PARABLE, but that question mark forces a second glance.
  • Innocent punnery. This one is the hardest to accomplish well in an early-week puzzle because it's too easy to make wordplay go over newbs' heads. [People who bug others] is both clever and accessible, hinting at SPIES.

Not the perfect imagery for MUSICAL CHAIRS, but when you add up all the ways Ella excelled, that's some first chair-level work.

POW Sun 5/22/2022 Parting Ways
MDPHDBROPOLWHIM
AERIEIANERATHINE
STOPSIGNSREVERENCE
COGSINCHSOAMIGUT
AXEPIEHOLECOPIERS
RENALWOREATOP
ASYLUMSETCKENOSHA
TMISHOESPAS
DEPOSITIONTORN
AMORCORNICEERODE
RAGEBONYRELEVANCE
ANTGERLTEFAD
NOREGRETSASIANUSE
CHESSREACTTOSLED
IMACANIMATIONS
NATSPLATSRI
INSIDERARKCHAPTER
CECEOATHTERRA
BODYARTINSHAPEIMP
APERERUNHERRSLIP
REVOLTINGMILESTONE
BRINYADOIREPAGER
SALELOTRSSABYSS

★ You know what they say: the family that crosses words together never says cross words to get her!

Well, they should.

I loved seeing the three pics here: son, mother, and father, each contributing to the creation. I'll remember this one for that aspect alone.

Some great finds, too, especially those involving a space change. NO REG(R)ETS split into BERGERON and BERETS is excellent. And what a winner in DE(P)OSITION forking into PLUMPED / PLUM POSITION!

I didn't notice the Notepad until well after finishing, but I'm glad I did. I assumed that the circled letters had to be random because getting them to spell something out while adhering to the theme constraint and crossword symmetry would be near impossible. The key word is "near!" Spelling out SEPARATE separated this one from the pack.

All that, plus mid-length fill! Seven-letter slots often work best with boring entries like CHAPTER, so BIG NEWS, BODY ART, DETOXES, KASHMIR, MASCARA, PROGENY, TRILOGY add so much spice.

Entertaining discoveries all tied together with a solid meta-answer, put together by a family all contributing their parts? I could hardly ask for more.

POW Sun 5/15/2022 Way Out West
METSSISTINEGERBIL
ETRESCREAMINSOLOIST
THEMOTHERROADMARMOTS
REVIVERVONPAOLO
ELITEOMITFOLKSYHIP
ORDEALBASTECORA
PAINTEDDESERTSQUALOR
STREAMERINGUNPACK
HOVKOREANOKSHOOT
ANISEGEMHURTINT
WENTGATEWAYARCHOARS
DEAICONYAKINTOW
SILENTXNIACINIPA
PUSHEDRANDONTDOIT
INVERSECADILLACRANCH
ETESLLOYDEATSAT
RONONMEDSBAITNANAS
PEEVEPANACETONE
CRAZIERROUTESIXTYSIX
DEPENDSENTHRALLPITT
CARNEYDETESTSERAS

★ Aw, rats! A friend and I were just brainstorming crosswords based on famous routes. One of the most famous, ROUTE SIXTY-SIX, came up right away, but we couldn't figure out an execution that both made sense and felt interesting to solve. Today's did just that.

A basic necessity of the concept is to incorporate the states that the route goes through, from CA to IL, and Dan executed that aspect smoothly. Not a difficult task considering how much space there is to work with in a 21x21, but I appreciated the touches like how he incorporated TX into SILENT X. There aren't many ways to do this — CHEST X-RAY was one of the interesting few I found — and SILENT X is a winner, especially with a great clue referencing a "roux ingredient."

ROUTE SIXTY SIX is also a must to include. The fact that it can be balanced out with Steinbeck's nickname for it, THE MOTHER ROAD is so fortuitous!

What made the puzzle sing for me was how it mirrored the scenic drive, featuring sights along the path such as the PAINTED DESERT, GATEWAY ARCH, and CADILLAC RANCH. All three are such colorful entries — the first/last literally so!

I've played the jazz classic Route 66 dozens of times, but I've never been motivated to take the famous drive until now. After finishing the puzzle, I spent some time investigating what else there is to experience along the way. I don't generally enjoy road trips, but this is one I'm now motivated to try.

POW Mon 5/2/2022
ACHOOEDSSALEM
PLANKNYEUSAGE
NEVEREVERRINGS
ERAALIBREADTH
WINEMARIABAE
SCANSBEARSEARS
REALMENACT
LADLEFLASK
NIGELROYCE
HOVEROVERKURTA
ATETEXTSPEAT
HALFASSNAPTNT
AFOULTHIGHHIGH
HANESEBTDARLA
ANGLODOESWEET

★ It's a rare constructor who can carve out a theme that seems both familiar and fresh. We've had plenty of rhyming themes, repeated words, phrases made of two words only differing by one letter, phrases made of two words differing by two letters, etc., but I couldn't find this exact implementation anywhere. NEVER EVER, THIGH HIGH, HOVER OVER are perfect examples of two-word phrases where the second word is the first word without the starting letter.

And BEARS EARS! Erik has a gift for digging out phrases I would never have thought of. Not only does the BEARS EARS monument look like bear's ears, but the fact that BEARS and EARS don't rhyme makes this so memorable. I also enjoyed the easy exposure to the Navajo name in the clue.

Tight theme, with few other possibilities. All I could turn up was HANDY ANDY, which feels outdated, and one of my favorite ice cream flavors, CHUBBY HUBBY. Shorter ones like SCAT CAT and PALE ALE work, but they're not as interesting.

Nothing HALF ASSed about this grid. Love me some EGG TARTs in dim sum; can't believe I hadn't already added to our XWord Info Word List.

Will Shortz usually frowns at initialisms that aren't known by virtually everyone in the USA (like USA), because if you don't already know the initialism, there's no way to infer it. Electronic benefit transfer is a common term in economics and finance, anyway, and tens of millions of people use EBT at grocery stores.

FORTNITE, self-descriptive LANDBACK, nerdy LIVE LONG and prosper — there's an ENVIABLE amount of great bonus material to enjoy. Along with a simple yet elegant theme, it's such a welcome early-week experience.

POW Mon 4/25/2022
LOAFNUMBSOMNI
ACNEBROILREAM
GENERALTSOBLIP
GAUDYSTEMSAVA
ANIMESCOLONEL
RITEHOSTUNITE
DAYROLOSINES
FOODFIGHT
OASISITRYSAG
BLINIJADAMILE
SANDERSSCULPT
CDCREBUSATEAT
EDITCAPNCRUNCH
NITEACTORACAI
ENYAPHOTOLESS

★ Appropriate that GENERAL TSO kicks off today's theme because this is a five-star puzzle. Delicious theme, aromatic bonuses, and plated so elegantly, with not even the tiniest smear in sight.

I've thought about GENERAL TSO many a time, since I have a guilty love of Americanized Chinese food. CAP'N CRUNCH and I have fought many a battle, his devious charm and sweetness leading to wild sugar rushes for my kids. Fried chicken is my kryptonite, so the COLONEL and I are well acquainted.

I'm astounded that I've never made the FOOD FIGHT connection. That's thematic gold.

Awesome corners. Only two multi-worders in SIN CITY and GET THIS, but they're both sizzlers. And such color in LAGGARD, OCEANIA, ANNUITY (said the MBA dork); these one-worders sing.

The centered revealer isn't for everyone, as it gives away the game too quickly. A mirror symmetry layout could have avoided this, with the themers running vertically and FOOD FIGHT centered in row 12. That would also have allowed COLONEL / SANDERS to be placed closer together, perhaps at the tops of columns 6 and 8.

Mirror sym isn't for everyone, though — Mike Shenk at the WSJ doesn't like it unless it's absolutely necessary, for example.

It's a rare treat to feast on such a tasty puzzle with so much nutritional value. The fact that it's a debut — and on a Monday, one of the most difficult days to construct for — makes it that much spicier.

POW Sat 4/23/2022
CODEREDTGIF
MACARONILILMO
MATHTESTSERASE
ULTRATECHDEMO
DAREMERGEDOSE
BYEFAROAFROD
ASANASTLDRORE
TITANCOFFEEURN
HASITALLARTSY
LAVALAKES
JIFAPPLEYMCA
CANITLOSTSOUL
OMELETPANOHARA
SUPERSIZETONER
APTNANASPASM

★ Such a cool grid pattern! At first, it looked asymmetrical because those L-blocks looked like they were going every which way, but once I tilted my head 45 degrees counterclockwise, all was right in my crossworld again. I enjoy diagonal symmetry, and the L-blocks look like little arms and legs of a person jumping up and down for joy. Super cool.

A lot of debut entries, too. None boast of cutting-edge freshness, but oh, the clever, accessible clues! MATH TESTS indeed have their own problems — and solutions! HEAD FAKES in basketball get defenders moving the wrong way all the time.

Even shorties like ERASE were elevated with amazing wordplay. [Off the mark?] isn't an adjective, but a verb + noun. Brilliant stuff.

Saving the best for last, an ordinary NAIL FILE becomes so much more with the bland-seeming [Digital tool]. In today's day and age, I go straight to the digital/analog meaning every time, and I give up the slow clap when I finally realize it's the "fingers as digits" meaning yet again.

I did have to put down the puzzle and return to the upper right, such a tough corner. Everything is fair, but I couldn't make myself buy TGIF as a [Freedom cry, for some], since freedom cries are nothing to pun about. Everything finally fell when this art idiot realized that maybe he could guess at Bosch's "The Last Judgment." When in doubt, guess something with common letters, alternating consonant-vowel. Appropriate that the puzzle fell because of the fall of EDEN.

All this goodness in a squeaky-clean grid? Matthew's jumping-for-joy grid art describes my solving experience so well.

POW Thu 4/14/2022
STAGEEGOTPERP
EAGERGREATAPES
WHATAGOODBOYAMI
EOSAIGLUG
REPASTSDECANTS
SCOTTISHPOET
USTAUNAFLU
SPINNINGWHEEL
RUEOVIORES
BRASSSECTION
GYRATESODDSOCK
LASYONBAE
FROMSTEMTOSTERN
HADAHUNCHOHYAY
ADENDDAYPASTA

★ Brilliant. Lowercase m looking like r + n smashed together? That's a strong concept in itself. Combining this with the perfect revealer — FROM STEM TO STERN — makes it a constructor's gem. Praise the benevolent Crucivera, goddess of crosswords, for her magnificent gift!

Excellent theme phrases, too. It'd be all too easy to use dictionary definitions that are unsatisfying to uncover, like if [Burns] had been the clue for OVERCOOKS IN THE OVEN. I'd be happy to get SPINNING WHEEL or BRASS SECTION in a themeless, and WHAT A GOOD BOY AM I is straight out of a nursery rhyme.

SCOTTISH POET did feel like an ODD SOCK compared to the others. Is GERMAN COMPOSER crossworthy? How about SOUTHEASTERN BOXER? I'd have preferred a sizzling (pun intended) phrase like GOES UP IN SMOKE for [Bums?].

Not easy to deal with 12-letter themers in the middle, surrounding a 13-letter middle entry. We try to avoid "cheater squares" whenever possible, but adding black squares at the U of USTA and S of ORES can enhance visual appeal. Yes, it's subjective, but pyramid blocks can be so eye-catching.

People ask me all the time what editors are looking for. It's a tough question to answer since most editors say they know it when they see it. If I had to put some words to it, I'd use fresh, interesting, surprising, indescribable ideas. This one hits all of those criteria and more.

POW Thu 4/7/2022
NEWBTKODMCJOB
YOHOMINIOHARE
UNIONISTSNEMEA
STUHOCKEYMOM
OKEYDOKEEPEES
RAJGPASTAND
ENURESFLOWN
SEGOHAYEDGE
BTEAMABSORB
DOUBTMIANAB
METROTURNKEYS
JOCKEYFOREEK
AVOIDEMMASTONE
DICTADEUSENOS
ANTSYSIRSLGBT

★ Innovative twist for a Thursday!

If you didn't get that, we've highlighted the four KEY words below. Rotate those four KEYs 90 degrees to make sense of each Down entry.

Amazing that Lucy and Ross found enough different ways to incorporate KEY, too. The old kids' joke asks, what three keys open no locks? Answer: donkey, monkey, turkey. If I only had a shot of WHISKEY for every time I heard that!

Solid finds in OKEY DOKE, HOCKEY, and JOCKEY to flesh it out. Others I could think: JOKEY Smurf, MIKEY Day, RICHARD LEAKEY, RICKEY Henderson, and a toadying LACKEY. Crikey!

MONKEY PAW instead of MONKEYS PAW made me hitch. That is, until I saw the creepy picture Peele's production company uses. W.W. Jacobs's story seems like a nursery rhyme compared to this!

I found it confusing that UNIONISTS and EMMA STONE stole the headlines, along with ROBOT KITS and CHEYENNES. I usually dig long bonuses, but these muddied the waters. An alternate layout where the KEY themers are the longest entries would be difficult, but not impossible, especially if you went up to the max of 78 words. Minor point, though.

I've had many editors give me the stink-eye for KOD, TKOD, even KOS, saying that they look so weird. I avoid them now because the editors are the gateKEYpers, but they still seem fine to me.

Innovative, POW!-worthy idea, with a great (WARNING, PUN ALERT!) spin.