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

showing 25 out of 233 POW selections from 8/1/2017 to 1/16/2018

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

POW Tue 1/16/2018

My favorite type of creativity is the ability to merge different ideas from multiple disciplines into something new. David excels at that today, using FOUR LETTER WORDS from English and "four-letter" words from cryptology / frequency analysis to produce a perfect Tuesday theme.

Still haven't figured it out? SASSAFRAS is made up just of A + F + R + S, SENESCENCE = C + E + N + S, etc. As someone who loves trivia and oddities about words, this one was right up my alley. I've heard all sorts of factoids about longest words that can be a different word when read backward, longest words of one syllable, etc. but this was new to me.

I wondered why OMOO would show up in a Steinberg puzzle — he's usually more careful about his short fill ... oh! Seven (!) theme answers is the reason. That'll strain your grid but good.

But! Hardly any other crossword glue. Plus the fun shorties David mentioned, along with Casey STENGEL's awesome nickname, "The Old Perfessor," TETRIS. Now that's the way to make your short fill stand out!

Innovative, entertaining theme + standout execution = POW!


★ I'll admit, I had no idea what was going on until well after I uncovered the OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE revealer. Okay, I'll admit it was well past filling in the last square-- and re-reading the clue for OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE several times — before I finally figured it out.

Check out row 3 — ABE FORTAS is hiding in there, "obstructed" in two spots by black squares! Same in row 7, with EARL WARREN similarly "obstructed." So cool to see long, full names hidden throughout the grid. ELENA KAGAN within TO HELEN / AKA / GANYMEDE is beautiful.

So although it took some work and an embarrassingly long time to grok, what a neat a-ha moment when I finally cottoned to the idea. I highlighted the six names below, in case you haven't found them yet.

How awesome would it have been to get all the nine current Supreme Court justices? I spent some time wondering if that would have been possible … not really. Not only is it extremely tough to work in 10 themers (nine justices + OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE), but how are you going to hide JOHN ROBERTS? Stupid -HNR- string of letters! And good luck with RUTH BADER GINSBURG.

Still, a guy can wish.*

Grid played out like a solid themeless for me, loving the WANNABE, SABOTEUR, GO DARK, NEW WAVE, TAJ MAHAL, THE BOSS kind of fill (although I didn't care for the THE dupe, THE BOSS crossing THE PEARL). I enjoyed the solve even without understanding what was going on — so many good bonuses, with just a bit of OLA, NEBS, ANSONIA (how else are you going to hide SONIA, I guess), etc. Felt like an elegant, well-constructed grid.

If Joel could have figured out a way to make it work with all nine current justices, this would have been an easy POY! (year) choice. As is though, a fun, smooth solve, with a beautiful moment of clarity for this constitutional law lover = POW!

*I'm lucky enough to count Will as one of my daily readers. He recently wrote me with some feedback, that some of my wish-list ideas come across as too audacious or even impossible, and therefore aren't that useful. I agree that many of my dreamy notions are impossible, like the one today. Ridiculously impossible! But I'm hoping that these lofty ideas spur on constructors, both veteran and novice, to go on to create bigger and better puzzles. Think big!

POW Sat 1/6/2018

★ A triple of MAJOR LABELS / DARE TO DREAM (love it!) / LITTERBOXES with a funny "kitty corner" clue makes for a great centerpiece. Getting DART GUN, EGO TRIP, EASY RIDER, and THE BEEB (nickname for BBC) running through it makes it outstanding.

Stairstacks like this depend on the NW / SE corners to give extra sizzle, and Peter delivers on both counts. VOODOO DOLL was my favorite entry, and the awesome "sticking point" clue made it even better. POWER LEVEL was a fun one for this huge "Clash Royale" player (giant + night witch is my deck of choice).

Not as wild about TAKE AIM AT in the other corner — felt more neutral than an asset, given that added preposition — but ONE AT A TIME makes me imagine some poor bureaucrat imploring people to wait. And BRAKE FLUID is pretty good.

Stairstack puzzles can finally eke out a bit more juice in the SW / NE corners, but this is a tough task, given that these corners are already constrained by that middle stair stack. CAPITAL M was good, especially since it misdirects to the ENVELOPE in the Gmail logo — sneaky that both are eight letters! — but DIGICAMS and LOAN OUT didn't do much for me.

I normally love THE FEDS as an entry, but the minor dupe with THE BEEB nearby felt inelegant.

Such a smooth puzzle, maybe just INCANT a bit of an odd duck. So few constructors can get so much snazz packed into a 68-word grid without relying on any short crossword glue as a crutch.

Overall, another beaut from one of my favorite themeless constructors.

POW Mon 12/25/2017

★ What a nice Christmas present, opening up another Lempelian delight. Like Lynn mentioned, I'd seen this theme a few times before — disguised synonyms for HIT — but I still got an a-ha moment because she did such a great job obfuscating CLOCK, BELT, BEAN (as in a beanball in baseball), PELT, and PASTE. Why had this huge "Peanuts" fan never thought of how apt LUCY VAN PELT's last name is?!

Great themer choices, too, colorful selections in SHOT CLOCK, SUN BELT, HIT PARADE, etc. Almost all of them I'd happily incorporate into a themeless.

Interesting choice to use the "windmill" layout of themers. That often allows for smoother fill because it spaces themers out to the max. Today, it lets Lynn squeeze two shorties — SUN BELT and WAX BEAN — into the center. A more traditional layout of "all themers in the across direction" would likely have resulted in more difficulty in filling, as putting six themers in the traditional way is no joke.

Neat that Lynn still managed to work in some beauties in the fill: CELSIUS, FAUX PAS, even MOXIE. The "windmill" layout's drawback is often a dearth of bonus fill, so good work here.

A bit more crossword glue that I'm used to in a Lempel, though: OTT, CSA (Confederate States of America), RAH, ILIE, RUSSE, VETOER. And a tough section for novices, CILIA / ILIE / SMELT. Given the simplicity of the theme, I would have preferred a stricter adherence to newbie-friendliness.

But overall, another gem of a puzzle from the early-week master, still at the top of my list of favorite Monday bylines. Such a pleasurable solving experience.

Speaking of pleasurable, heartfelt thanks to all our readers and site users out there. Jim and I know that you all have many URLs that attract your attention, so to continually get your eyeballs and feedback is a blessing to us. Happy holidays!

POW Fri 12/22/2017

★ Sam had me at THE LEGION OF DOOM. Even if you don't know this one, what an incredibly catchy name! So catchy that the Seahawks nicknamed their Super Bowl defense "The Legion of Boom." That would also make a great feature entry in a themeless!

And it didn't stop there. Love the audacity of such a huge swath of white space in the middle of the puzzle. Stair-stacking five long entries atop each other is such a tough task. Often, an arrangement like this results in a ton of crossword glue and/or subpar long entries, but not today. AIRLINE FOOD is the butt of many jokes. GALLIVANTED is so entertaining to say. TECH SCHOOL felt slightly off at first (I was thinking "vocational school), but indeed, it's an accepted term. And a FISH STORY running through it all? Yes, please!

Now, HAVE A isn't great, and TALLAHASSEE is on the dry side, but what a great save on TALLAHASSEE — made me wonder what other cities have three sets of double letters.

Along with NERF ROCKET and SNAKE EYES, Sam hit my wavelength right on. It's an incredible amount of snazzy material to pack into a low-word-count (64) grid.

I didn't know what the GIRL CODE was. An equivalent to the "guy code"? The clue confused me even more, "sisterhood" making me think it was about nuns? It's tough to use this type of misdirection on an entry that might not be that well-known. (I'm told there was an MTV series called GIRL CODE?)

There was some ARIE, AGFA (no longer in business), DEBTEE kind of stuff I didn't care for, but the overwhelming amount of great material crushed those uglies down (with THE LEGION OF DOOM's death ray). Such a fun solving experience.

POW Thu 12/14/2017

★ Tim wants us to BURY THE / HATCHET, embedding four AXs below the grid. Neat idea! It's been long enough since we've had a letters-outside-the-grid puzzle that this one made a strong impact for me. Thanks for spacing them out, Will!

One of the best aspects of these types of puzzles is that as a solver, I get phrases I've never (or seldom) seen in crosswords, since they're longer than the usual 15 letters. NONE OF YOUR BEESW(AX) is beautiful. Although SIT BACK AND REL(AX) is 15 letters, it's still fun. I also liked PERSONAL INCOME T(AX) and STELLAR PARALL(AX), although I'm used to seeing the latter as simply PARALLAX.

What made this puzzle a standout for me was Tim's execution. It's hard enough to work with four long themers and even harder to throw in a 7/7 revealer. The theme density means that there'll have to be heavy overlap somewhere and that usually results in crossword glue or wonky-sounding entries. Tim did end up with the odd BURL in the SW corner, but check out how smooth those bottom corners turned out. STELLAR work there.

The south region often suffers in a layout like this, because so many across entries have their start and end fixed into place. But it's so smooth. Such pro work down there.

Toss in a couple extras like TAMALES, ARMORY, OBOISTS, LAB MICE, and I'm an even happier solver.

Interesting theme + high theme density + overall smoothness = POW!

POW Sun 12/10/2017FULL-BODY CAST

★ Great theme around actors, BIT PARTS hinting at "rebusized body parts." I never noticed this property about DENZEL WA(SHIN)GTON and DON C(HEAD)LE, even though they're some of my favorite actors. And what an apt title, FULL-BODY CAST!

I've become very picky about rebuses over the years. They used to be so novel; even rebusizing IN or ER was ground-breaking. These days, it takes a lot for me to consider a rebus worth solving:

  1. Great rationale as to why letters are squished into one square.
  2. Colorful theme answers containing those rebus squares — not just in the across direction, but down too!
  3. Variety in the rebus squares (or some other way of avoiding a repetitive feel).

I think Erik and Laura did all three very well. Where many constructors fall down is the second part of criterion #2. For example, it's not so interesting to have SHIN worked into PU(SH IN), but shorter down entries do make the grid much easier to construct. Thankfully, PU(SH IN) was more the exception than the rule today, as the down entries containing the body parts were so snazzy.

I mean, T(HE AD)VOCATE! I H(EAR) YOU! HE(LI P)ORTS! And my favorite, ROOKI(E YE)AR! Check out how much real estate those long down "themers" take up. That presents all sorts of gridding challenges, reducing flexibility a ton.

Now, the puzzle wasn't perfect. Considering the high strain put on the grid by all those long across AND down themers, it wasn't a surprise to get a good amount of crossword glue. Most of it was ignorable, but one thing that stood out for me was the abundance of partials — A WALK, T AIME, I ATE. Better to spread out your crossword glue — having so many of a single type makes them more noticeable.

But overall, such an entertaining theme, well executed with just a few issues here and there. Plus, a ton of bonus fill, including some stuff you don't usually see in the NYT: NARUTO and PORK ADOBO. I like that kind of diversity. It might not play well to mass audiences, but I like it when constructors (and editors!) take chances like this.

POW Tue 11/28/2017

★ I must admit, when I got to UTURN, I shrugged. Answers making UTURNs (and other turns) have been done a ton. Will has mentioned that he's not taking as many of them these days because they've become overdone.

Man, was I glad to think about the puzzle some more! They aren't just UTURNS. They're U-TURNS!

Okay, that was clear as mud.

The U-turning answers are Us … and (U)niversities, as in Clemson U! Great double-interpretation of those UTURNS. This is one of my favorite types of a-ha moments, when you see two disparate ideas pulled together in a surprising way.

And the execution. If there's not an emoji for *kissing the tips of your fingers like at an Italian restaurant* there ought to be. A grid like this is so tough to make. Not only do you have short, bendy themers, constraining the grid in all sorts of inconvenient places, but you have to work in long fill that sparkles enough, to give solvers some wow.

AND you have to keep your crossword glue to a minimum? Level of difficulty = through the roof, at least if you're aiming to make your puzzle sing. And wow, did it sing. EVIDENCE BAG. PARIS METRO. TRADE ROUTES. ADULTERANT. Adulterant? Wha?

Well, three for four in the long slots ain't bad at all. This sort of construction is usually hard enough to pull off with resorting to ADULTERANT-ish neutral fill. To get such nice longies without compromising elsewhere, c'est Magnifique!

Only a bit of ISS, ESE, MIO, that's pretty good for a normal puzzle. To achieve such a low level of crossword glue on a much tougher than normal construction … just goes to show how good Andrew is.

Okay, GOTYE / COMEY / HESSE will be tougher for some newer solvers. But given the news these days, you gotta know COMEY. (sadly enough)

Enjoyed the unexpected a-ha moment, and loved it when studied under a constructor's lens.

POW Mon 11/20/2017

★ Love this concept, two-word phrases that sound like ALLITERATION but don't start with the same letter. I've looked at the phrase PHOTO FINISH so many times in my life, but I've never realized that those two words are alliterative! Same with CAESAR SALAD. Very cool finds.

GENTLEMAN JOHNNY wasn't as much an everyday phrase, but it's such a great nickname.

KELLYANNE CONWAY didn't do it as much for me. Nice to have someone current and topical, but oof, does she bring up some ickiness for me. More importantly, I can imagine some solvers wondering how on earth Kelly, Anne, and Conway could be a triplet of alliteration. Felt like there might have been better options for a fourth themer.

I'm usually not that impressed by themer interlock, but I like what Peter did today. Something so elegant about the themers running through that ALLITERATION backbone. It does give away the game very quickly, as most solvers will read the ALLITERATION clue shortly after starting. But that was okay with me since even after reading it, I didn't understand the concept until solving two or three themers.

I enjoyed the theme so much that I gave this the POW! ... even though I think the grid is not right for a Monday. Not at all novice friendly. As a mechanical engineer, the first time I ever ran across MHO was through crosswords. DCV is pretty ugly (Peter and I have very different perspectives on random Roman numerals, though). The HEEP / LOGE crossing might prevent some newer solvers from a clean finish. And I can imagine novices bringing up the "you have to know weird esoteric stuff in order to do crosswords" argument with ANAPEST and TETCHY.

The theme is meaty enough, with hardish themers that felt more mid-weekish too. A real shame it was run on a Monday, where it might scare off newer solvers.

Not sure what the right answer is. It could have been Monday-ified by breaking up ANAPEST / STEERED into two words apiece, or losing some of the great bonuses, like IVORY TOWER and AB NEGATIVE. But I enjoyed those last two a lot.

Overall though, the idea was memorable, and that's hard to come by. POW!

POW Sat 11/18/2017

★ Aside from colorfulness and smoothness, you know what makes a themeless stand out in my eyes? It makes me feel smart. I'm not ashamed to say I like having my ego stroked every once in a while, and when a Saturday puzzle tosses me a perfect alley-oop so I can reverse windmill jam for a SportsCenter highlight? That's what I'm talking about!

Okay, maybe plunking in GOTTA CATCH EM ALL without any crossing letters, or OTTER PUP off just the P in PAO isn't *quite* the equivalent of a spectacular dunk. But it felt like it.

(I can touch the rim, honest! Okay, on a 9-foot hoop. Fine.)

Overall, there were so many entries on my wavelength — classic TABULA RASA, MS DEGREE (of which I have two, neither of which I'm using now, huh), BETA TESTER with its brilliant non-question marked clue about a "bug catcher" (code bugs, that is), EATS CROW (which I often do, considering how many typos and errors readers point out!) … great stuff all around!

See that black square between HARE and BILES? I appreciated that Sam left it in. So many constructors would have taken it out to create triple-stacks in the NE / SW (instead of the doubles Sam has). Usually, I applaud those sorts of efforts to work extra sizzle into a grid. But with the central GOTTA CATCH EM ALL spanning the grid, I think Sam made the right decision.

Curious, huh? GOTTA CATCH EM ALL constrains the NE / SW to a surprising degree. Probably doesn't look like much — who cares about a little ALL fixed into place, you might ask? By itself, that is no big deal; easy to build a triple-stack around. But that's not the only constraint the corner faces. Look at how much flexibility you lose with that long BYGONE DAYS, and even the SHANDY ARM BAR arm-barring the stack from above. I'm all in favor of Sam's decision here.

A couple of blips here and there; RETAG is iffy, and EL ROPO feels esoteric. But such great craftsmanship overall.

A Saturday constructor's job is to create a tough challenge that the solver can ultimately struggle through to achieve a meaty, satisfying completion. I say YEAH DUDE! to Sam for this one.

POW Wed 11/8/2017

★ Loved this theme. I've seen a lot of reparsing ideas, but to get MARKINGS changed to M A R KINGS, clued as [Midas, Agamemnon, Richard]? Brilliant! PASSPORTS into P A S SPORTS and HUSBANDS into H U S BANDS were also delightful changes in meaning. DIATRIBES into D I A TRIBES and APOSTATES into A P O states brought the total to five fantastic examples. Loved, loved, loved the concept; wish I had thought of it.

And what a beautifully executed grid. A ton of bonuses — almost too much. Big corners chock full of DAD ROCK (hand bashfully raised here), ENTROPY (why hasn't anyone written a crossword about one of my favorite physics concepts yet?!), DRINKER, PAROLEE / GRENDEL.

I admit, I didn't actually read "Beowulf" when I was supposed to. But I like feeling smart that I recognize the name GRENDEL!

Big corners with juicy material were just the start, too. Some longer bonuses in LPGA TOUR and CLEAR SKY, as well as ARS NOVA, a COP CAR lurking, YOU BET! Man, that's a ton of extras.

My only complaint was that I forgot about DIATRIBES and APOSTATES when I was admiring the themers. I was all set to ding the puzzle for only having three themers in MARKINGS, PASSPORTS, HUSBANDS. A more traditional layout would have had DIATRIBES and APOSTATES going horizontally, perhaps roughly where LPGA TOUR and CLEAR SKY. This would have helped themers stand out on their own, as solvers have gotten used to the convention of "longest across entries are themers."

That's not to say flouting convention is bad. There is something pretty neat about DIATRIBES and APOSTATES interlocking PASSPORTS. That's tough to do, and only can happen when the crossword gods smile down upon you. But in this case, I felt like the wow factor of that interlock didn't make up for the fact that the theme and bonuses got muddled up for me. Especially since LPGA TOUR kinda sorta looks like it ought to fit with this theme. If you squint.

But that's a minor point I bring up just for the sake of balanced analysis. Great theme, marvelous execution overall, and such little crossword glue that I couldn't find any to point out (maybe GROSZ, but the finance guy in me likes that).

POW Wed 11/1/2017

★ ANIMAL CRACKERS all broken up at the bottom of the box … "cracked," you might even say! Clever interpretation of CRACKERS, meaning that some black squares crack, or divide, an ANIMAL in two (see below, highlighted).

Even better was that Herre stuck to long-ish animals typically seen in boxes of ANIMAL CRACKERS! Would have been easy to pick short animals like HEN or FROG or ELK, but that would have felt odd. Speaking of odd, not sure why it's unappetizing to eat a hen-shaped cracker vs. a ZEBRA or an ELEPHANT. I call fowl! Er, foul.

Well, it's not that difficult to split up semi-long words so that half ends an entry, and the other half starts another. Even a long guy like GORILLA gives multiple possibilities for *GOR and ILLA*. The latter not so much, but still, with I'll ask, ill-advised, ill at ease, etc., that's a good amount of flexibility.

BUT! Even with that flexibility, it's no joke to work around five pairs of themers. PHANT* doesn't give many possibilities, and when you must obey crossword symmetry, things can get hairy. I thought Herre did extremely well in the top half of the grid, working in some beautiful OH COME ON, NO GO AREA, I HOPE NOT bonus fill — all without crossword glue! Some might complain about LON Chaney, but he was a famous actor. Fine by me.

The bottom half didn't come out as nice, what with AMO, RCMP, AJOKE, LSTS, SYS — that's almost too much for one puzzle, and certainly too much for half of a puzzle. It's a much more difficult section to fill since CRACKERS is fixed into place, whereas the top had much more flexibility (MCGREGOR could have been dozens of other things). Along with the fact that Herre had to spend many of his black squares in the middle of the puzzle, sometimes you just have to accept that there will be compromises like this.

Herre could have gone down to just four pairs of themers, but only three animals would have felt light. Although the SE wasn't very elegant, I think it was a reasonable trade-off to get the higher theme density.

Given how well the theme was obscured, my solving experience played out like a pretty smooth themeless, and then the a-ha at the end was delightful — so much so, that I was able to overlook the gluey SE. Such a fun experience overall!

POW Tue 10/24/2017

★ I'm a sucker for math and physics puzzles done well, and this one was right on my wavelength. I've seen this concept before — POINT, LINE, PLANE, SPACE forming a sequence, but it still eluded me during my solve, giving me a solid a-ha moment. Great job of picking theme phrases that were both snazzy and helped obfuscate the concept — PICKUP LINE and SNAKES ON A PLANE were such fun entries, plus they both hid the math meaning of LINE and PLANE. And what a perfect revealer in ANOTHER DIMENSION!

Damon went wide, with a 16x15 grid, to accommodate the revealer. Wide grids can get tricky, as you don't want to risk losing solvers' attention with the bigger, potentially sloggier grid, so it's even more important than usual to incorporate strong, colorful entries.

Damon started off well, with THAT'S NOT THE POINT a great theme phrase, not often seen in crosswords due to its 16-letter length. Then he tossed in some WIND POWER, PAPAL BULL, IP ADDRESS, even AKRON OHIO as LBJ's birthplace. That's a lot of great material to enjoy, even for (you poor pitiable) non-math types.

A couple of compromises to make it all work, in the form of IRR, STET, OONA, ERE, AERO. Given how much I enjoyed the theme and the bonus fill, I didn't mind all that … with the exception of AERO. Usually AERO wouldn't bother me much, but crossing it with LOG ON, where AERI / LOG IN work (almost) as well = no bueno! I hate finishing a crossword with an error if it feels like the error wasn't 100% my fault. Such a feeling of dissatisfaction.

But overall, solid math theme + juicy themers + a lot of bonus fill + not much crossword glue = one delighted solver.

POW Fri 10/20/2017

★ A few years ago, the movie "V For Vendetta" wowed me. Love it when you go in expecting very little and come out amazed. I was vaguely familiar with GUY FAWKES MASK beforehand, but now I think about it all the time. Must be the times we live in …

Enough of being a downer! Great themeless, with feature entries everywhere. BADA BING starts it off with a bang — a great expression, plus the name of Tony Soprano's hangout in "The Sopranos." EPISODE I was such a terrible movie that the entry was almost depressing for me to see (*shaking fist at George Lucas*), but BODY SURF and ARMS DEAL helped redeem that top corner.

(Something amusing about DIMWIT running through EPISODE I … where's the Jar Jar Binks emoji when you need it?)

Not being much of a TV watcher these days, HODA KOTB didn't come easily. But I do think she's more than crossworthy. And that bizarre -OTB ending makes for such an interesting grid entry!

USB PORT and GRAY AREA + BB SHOT and ODDS ARE … = excellent entries everywhere.

And Peter is so good about his craftsmanship, not willing to use any crossword glue if at all possible. I sailed through, coming away with a feeling of elegance in design.

The one hesitation I had before giving this the POW! was FAIR SEX. It's an outdated term and made me wince a bit. I appreciate the attempt at making fun of itself with the [Dated women?] clue, hinting at the old-timey, fustiness of the term. But I'd prefer to leave out of the grid completely.

All in all though, a highly entertaining solving experience. It's so tough to achieve both perfect cleanliness in short fill plus a ton (10+) of long, strong entries, but Peter hit both marks.

POW Sun 10/15/2017WISE MOVE

★ WISE MOVEs indeed, two-word phrases where the Y sound is moved from the end of the first word to the end of the second. Some great results, doggy treats to DOG TREATIES my favorite. Such an amusing visual of dogs sitting around discussing settlement terms (maybe while playing poker?). Gravy train to GRAVE TRAINEES also worked well for me, as 1.) the base phrase is great, and 2.) cemetery interns, now that's something I'd write a book about! Great stuff.

Most of the others worked decently well, too. County fair to COUNT FAIRIES gave me a fun visual of census takers doing their darndest to get an accurate count while all the fairies flit about. Smartypants to SMART PANTIES made me laugh, too — not exactly sure what data a pair of SMART PANTIES collects. Probably don't want to know.

The only one that I was plus minus on was GROCER STORIES, which seemed duller than the others. A little too close to the base phrase of "grocery stores." YMMV.

Mostly strong work in the grid. Loved CHEEZ IT, EASY NOW, EVEN STEVEN, MAIN MAN, MEDIA STORM, NOSE JOB, OLD SALT, POWER NAP, SOUR MASH, and more. It's rare to get this much bonus material in a Sunday grid — four-ish bonuses is passable for me, so this is well above and beyond. Even if the theme didn't amuse solvers, all these great bonuses provide entertainment.

Not that many blips in the short fill, too — ETTES, IN AS, SDS, etc. is overlookable. Didn't bug me as I went.

The only sticking point for me: the oddballs in NEEDER and TUYERES. That first one is hard to imagine ever using in real life. The second … this mechanical engineer didn't recognize the term. It is a real thing, but it's not the type of mid-length word I'd strive to debut in the NYT crossword. Thankfully, John and Mike made the crossings fair. And I did like learning what a TUYERE is.

I liked this twist on the standard "sound change" type of theme. Done consistently, with a bunch of nice bonuses, and the grid mostly executed well. A nice example of a Sunday that can cater well to a wide audience.

POW Wed 10/4/2017

★ Fun debut! At first, I thought it was a simpler concept I'd seen before — listing the very next word in the dictionary AFTER HOURS as the clue (perhaps "house arrest"?) — but Evan's idea is so much better. Not only does "house party" come shortly AFTER HOURS, alphabetically … it's also described by AFTER HOURS! "Flanked" comes UNDER(neath) FIRE in the dictionary … but it's also described by UNDER FIRE! Loved it.

I appreciated how solid all the themers were. BENEATH ME was the only somewhat iffy one (sorry, Evan!), feeling like a partial without "That's" or "It's" preceding it. Five out of six is excellent. (AROUND NOON is a tad arbitrary, but I've heard it plenty to describe lunch plans.)

Tough task to debut with six themers. Evan did a good job with his layout, placing AFTER HOURS above NEAR MINT, and keeping UNDER FIRE well away in another corner. It's a variant on the "windmill" pattern many constructors use with just four themers, and it usually makes for good spacing.

I was worried about execution when I quickly ran into OER, RAH, SDS, all at the top. And there was quite a bit of crossword glue scattered about — DER, EDY, GAI, IRR, MES, ORI — but at least there wasn't another section quite so dense with it as the north.

And Evan did give us some strong bonuses in BROWNIE MIX, SONIC YOUTH, LEONARDO, DARE I SAY. I'd personally have preferred a smoother grid with fewer snappy bonuses, especially because the theme already tickled me. But I think this trade-off is a reasonable one.

Overall, a great idea, taking a concept I'd already seen to another level. The theme, plus all the great bonuses, plus the fact that it was a debut, were enough for me to overlook the glut of crossword glue. POW!

POW Tue 9/26/2017

★ So much fun to make comedy out of regular phrases … using comedians! FALLEN IDLE made me laugh; so appropriate to kooky Monty Python humor. PURPLE HART (heart), PAW PRINZE (prints), PRYOR (prior) COMMITMENT, BARR (bar) FIGHT — nice that Joy and Lois drew from different ages, genders, races, and styles of comedy. I only vaguely knew Freddy PRINZE, but that was fine with me, as hitting 4/5 for this pop culture idiot is pretty darn good.

Five themers can give newer constructors fits, so it's a good thing the early-week veteran was on board. Lynn is such a strong constructor, always turning in clean and snazzy grids, and today's is no different. The 15-letter central entry is much easier to work with than a 13 or 11 or even 9 — a 15 doesn't force you to place any black squares — but still, look how many down entries must run through at least two across entries. So many constraints.

Lovely long downs in HARDY BOYS, NOTORIETY, DALAI LAMA, RESCUE DOG. So important to make your long fill slots count, and they did great here.

Smart to stick to 78 words, the max allowed. Some constructors might have attempted the low-word-count challenge (74 or even 72), but that's generally not wise, requiring a lot of compromises.

It is true that there are a ton of short words — a whopping 69 out of 78 that are five letters or less — but that's perfectly fine for an early-week puzzle. The high word count makes it so much easier to avoid dabs of crossword glue. Just some NEHI, OER, ENO, which I'm even hesitant to point out because they're so minor.

Amusing theme, superb execution. Not easy to entertain with an early-week puzzle, but this one succeeded for me.

POW Sat 9/23/2017

★ Robyn hit my SWEET SPOT with this one — a ton of colorful answers right up my alley, with not much crossword glue holding the grid together. Along with easy, unrestricted solving flow that was problematic in many of her previous puzzles, it wowed me!

That starting triple-stack of HIGH SCORES / ARE YOU DONE / DEEP FREEZE was dynamite. PAW PRINTS with its brilliant [Dog-walking trail] clue (think of a trail of PAW PRINTS left behind), IT FIGURES / CORNER LOT, GET BUSY (did you also titter at the alternate meaning?), PENPAL, and another great triple-stack in the SE to finish it off. Yes!

Now, not everyone will love (or even know) RON WEASLEY. I debated whether the BEHAR and SUNOCO crossings were fair. I even debated whether or not RON WEASLEY was crossworthy, considering there are some infidel muggles out there. Ultimately, given how huge the HP series is, with giant box-office takes on the eight blockbuster movies, though … and Joy BEHAR is big enough a star that NYT solvers ought to know her.

Great clue on HOUSEPLANT, too. I was thinking of a "mister" as a guy, not a device that produces mist. Wicked clever! And the clue for ROE as [Potential perch] — great misdirection from "fish" to "a place to sit on."

I didn't care for ALEE, RECD, MPAA, but they all felt minor. Nice craftsmanship to keep it to just these insignificant blips. Well, there was SEE IF. The clue tried to disguise it as not a partial, but let's call a spade a spade, people.

Robyn's sparkly voice shining through, along with strong execution. Wonderful solving experience.

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.