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

showing 25 out of 224 POW selections from 6/4/2017 to 11/18/2017

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

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.

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.