★ Longtime readers know my love of Matt Gaffney's metapuzzle series. It's not uncommon for theme answers' clues to include numbers that hint at something. These numbers could lead to the letter number within the theme answer — KEVIN KLINE [7,9] would return the 7th and 9th letters, or L and N — or something completely different. These cryptic hints can be maddeningly difficult to crack, but once you get them, it's magic.
I went into this one with the meta-detective mindset, considering all sorts of strategies on how to use the clue numbers. Clearly, they had to lead to some meta-answer, somehow. Yet when I got to WAR HERO [4,0], I was baffled. How could an enumeration of zero possibly work? Was there a zeroth square hidden to the left of square one?
And when I typed in the last square, I was … done? Adam, this is supposed to be a mid-week puzzle, not one of Matt's deadly week 5 brain-melters!
Oh. I glossed over a long clue, for RHYMING.
GREAT FUN is so apt, those numbers rhyming with their two-word entries. WAR HERO rhymes with FOUR ZERO, that's so novel and entertaining!
It's extremely rare that I run across a puzzle where I can't immediately recall some predecessor or even ancestor on the crosswording evolutionary chain. Along with some delights in GASTROPUB and MCDOUBLES more than making up for gloopy IS TOO VILLE (neighboring town to Whoville), I haven't decided on my POW! so quickly in ages. Bravo, Adam!
(Answer to Adam's bonus: [8, 2, 4] = GREAT SIOUX WAR)
★ Mind-bending concept, three animals replaced by their collective noun. Three CROWs equal a MURDER, three LIONs a PRIDE, and three ANTs a COLONY. I love the innovation within the old-hat rebus genre, making for a memorable debut.
Memorable gridwork, too. Consider how many themers Andrew had to work with. It's not simply four Acrosses, but nine crossing Downs — triplets crammed together! There are so few possibilities containing LION, it's miraculous that any arrangement of SCALLION, PAVILION, A MILLION BUCKS worked.
I especially appreciated the gridwork in the BOLO TIE region, where so many themers interacted. With PRIDE MONTH lacing through CROWD NOISE and MICROWATT, I'd expect globs of crossword epoxy holding it all together. Such smooth results — with so few black squares in that area, allowing for not just BOLO TIE but also BRUNEI. Brilliant!
My frustratingly obsessive brain held me back from giving this an auto-POW!, as it raised a yellow flag, immediately recalling Paolo's Fireball. There are so many similarities. First reaction: ugh.
However, this is almost surely a product of constraints. So many of the themers have so few options, that if you asked 100 experienced constructors to work up this concept, I bet that out of the 10 who didn't stab their eyes out, 8 or 9 would arrive at something approaching this northwest corner.
Should Paolo's prior art take away from Andrew's debut? Paolo's isn't easy to find, the themers not even showing up on Matt Ginsberg's extensive database, and it ran in a different publication with a different target audience. Given the fact that constructors come up with identical ideas independently all the time — just like scientists — I shook off my hesitations.
This is the type of envelope-pushing I love to see in Thursday puzzles. It's a shame that Andrew got there much later than Paolo, but hopefully NYT tricksy Thursdays will continue to push boundaries in even more creative ways.
★ It's a pleasure to encounter a set of connections I'd never thought of before — especially when it involves items that are in my fridge. I have a full bottle of RANCH DRESSING and a container of COTTAGE CHEESE that have been sitting for a month because my kids thought they sounded delicious ... and then they spurned both after tasting a fraction of a molecule. Stupid marketers; so annoyingly successful.
I wasn't impressed by the first themer, since there's a picture of a log cabin on the bottle — so much for subtlety. Then, I realized that it wasn't just LOG CABIN SYRUP that was named to give it a rustic feel. The words RANCH and COTTAGE are also employed to get at their foods' humble beginnings.
And HOMEMADE MEALS is a great way to tie the three foods together, plus make it all work with crossword symmetry. Love it.
I wasn't as wild about the gridwork. Four 13s is no joke, as each one forces two black square placements. Almost any four-themer grid can be executed with some long Down bonuses and a completely clean grid, though.
I appreciate the effort to work in great bonuses like MIND MELD, HABANERA, STILETTO, but even a single crossing like ORU (Oral Roberts University) / HABANERA can leave newer solvers in a TAILSPIN.
Okay, that is a ton of bonuses. I prefer a cleaner product to serve the NYT's broad range of less-experienced solvers, but I can understand the opposing philosophical viewpoint.
Most importantly, an excellent theme is an excellent theme. I spent an hour trying to come up with a single other possible entry but failed miserably. (KOZY SHACK PUDDING was the closest I got.) That element of tightness made this theme stand out.
★ I loved Andy Weir's latest book, Project Hail Mary. It's so inspiring to imagine humankind achieving the impossible.
Also inspiring: today's fantastic theme phrases! I would never have guessed that OPPORTUNITY, CURIOSITY, and INGENUITY could be incorporated into sizzling phrases (SPIRIT is easier). MORBID CURIOSITY is incredible.
I wasn't as wild about the revealer, as MARTIAN MISSIONS felt clunky; not nearly as strong as MARS MISSIONS or MARS LANDERS.
More importantly, the revealer gave away the game much too quickly. I love the moonshot at grid art (although I squinted so hard my glasses broke), and using left-right symmetry can easily allow for the revealer to go at the end of the puzzle, where it's supposed to. Singular MARS MISSION or plural MARS LANDERS in row 12 would have been perfect.
Dreaming big is admirable. It gets people thinking beyond their limits. Trying to build around five grid-spanners with only 72 words, though … there must be a balance between dreams and reality. The bottom corners show the most strain, not a surprise given how many Down answers had to weave through two themers.
As with space missions, continuous improvement is critical, and another 10 or 20 revisions could have turned this into a tremendous lift-off puzzle for two new constructors.
Even with the rickety elements, though, the quality of the theme phrases + the inspirational nature of the concept + Lawrence's space exploration background added up to win me over. Can't wait to see what Noki, Lawrence, and Andy Weir put out next.
★ I haven't been so happily stumped by "Name That Theme" in ages. RAILROAD STATION … MARKET CRASH … CINNAMON BUN? Could it be a "words that can follow X" theme ... nope. Their first words aren't synonyms, nor are their last. Perhaps there are words hidden in the middle of the themers? Nuh-uh.
I give. Tell me the revealer!
STOP DROP AND ROLL?
How does that …
Ah! RAILROAD STATION is a STOP, MARKET CRASH is a DROP, and CINNAMON BUN is a ROLL. Elation as the lightbulb finally flicked on!
I love that each of the three theme phrases is strong and in the language, plus they're all nouns. Verbs might have worked for any, like COME TO AN END, TAKE THE PLUNGE, or SHOOT CRAPS, so it's elegant to connect the themers further through consistency.
Solid gridwork, especially for a debut. With four themers, there's always room for at least two long bonuses, and BRIE LARSON and ANOTHER ONE hit that mark.
Most importantly for a Monday puzzle, Tomas took such care to avoid sticky globs of glue. Bryn MAWR might look unfamiliar to some. AERO is easy enough to figure out from etymology. Given such excellence in gridding, I'd suggest that Tomas try adding another set of long Downs in the SW and NE next time.
This finance guy never likes hearing about a MARKET CRASH, but he loves it when a theme crashes joyously over him. No CRABs today.
★ Themelesses featuring grid-spanning 15-letter marquees can be tough to pull off since these long entries take up a lot of real estate. Often, the rest of the grid isn't juicy enough. Not today! Fourteen long answers (8+ letters) is about average for a themeless, so hitting the norm while featuring great REQUIRED READING and PENCIL SHARPENER is an excellent result.
Standout clue for PENCIL SHARPENER, too — making good points in the classroom, heh. I love these types of themeless entries because not only are they colorful, but they lend themselves to such delightful wordplay.
The marquee entries were solid, but Hal hooked me at TAQUERIA crossing QUESADILLA. The former mystified me until I remembered how much I love mole sauces, and the latter made me crack up, remembering Marshawn Lynch's cameo on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine."
AND a QQQ staircase, with the Q of IRAQ / QUEST? I love it even more, considering how well QQQ has treated investors over the past two decades.
I worried about wastage when I encountered ISOTONIC and NEAR SIDE, but everything else was thumbs-up. I've jumped to work in EUROZONE in some of my constructions, only to realize that it's boring because it's hard to riff on. Wish I had thought to play on "tender union."
I also enjoyed the freshness of HI TOP FADES. I attempted to give my neighbor's two-year-old a HI-TOP FADE last year, to disastrous results. Good thing hair grows back quickly.
Icing on the cake was RUMOR MILL, a great entry made even better by its amusing clue. I didn't know what a dirt farm was, but that didn't stop me from loving the wordplay.
★ CHEF'S KISS is right! Perfect Saturday puzzle. This further establishes Nam Jin as a preeminent themeless constructor. Hard to believe his debut was only about a year ago.
Did you notice the diagonal symmetry along the NW to SE axis? Not only is it different — this long-time solver appreciates different — but it's purposeful. Running triple-stacked long entries through each other often makes a themeless constructor's life doubly agonizing because even if you can achieve greatness in one corner, you have to do it again in the opposite.
Not so with diagonal symmetry! Check out how much easier the SE is to fill than the NW.
And what excellent results in the NW. The horizontal stack is the star, with three marquee entries. The vertical stack isn't nearly as strong, but with HOOKAH BAR, it's so much better than a typical triple-stack-intersecting-into-triple-stack result.
Something unusual and cool about two long entries with a terminal F. Both SANS SERIF and NOTE TO SELF didn't come easy because I couldn't convince myself that this might happen. So many long entries in themelesses end in common RSTLNE letters.
Such entertaining cluing, too — material that made me feel smart. Great mix of giveaway question marks ("overdrawn account?" = YARN) and brilliant misdirects that you don't necessarily need to understand to solve. I missed why ERS were transcript omissions until Jim Horne mentioned that it's not a college transcript but a spoken one.
I love it when a constructor sets me up for a smashing victory, like an en fuego game of pool where each shot leaves the cue ball with a perfect angle for the next shot, culminating in slamming the eight-ball home. It's rare that I'll want to see a themeless byline repeated more than once a month, but I'm adding Nam Jin's name to that list.
★ I don't know if it's because Jeff and I share the same first name, we both have two kids, or that his wife inspired him around constructing just like mine did, but this puzzle tickled me. I laughed at a majority of these dad jokes, which is saying a lot considering I don't even laugh at my own!
(Somehow, my kids still call me the funny one.)
DROP EVERYTHING as a pitch (sorry) for a mitt with a hole in it? NO STRINGS ATTACHED for a broken guitar you might pick (get it, guitar pick?)? I'd describe a book with missing pages as a LIMITED EDITION, without anyone being able to read me.
Thank you, I'm here every day!
I didn't understand BUY NOW PAY LATER — why do you pay later due to empty wallet slots? — and DOORBUSTER DEAL didn't play on a broken item like the rest. But five hearty/groany laughs is a great result.
Along with solid gridwork that didn't get in the way of the solve, and a plethora of dad-jokey clues, Jeff stuck the DISMOUNT. Okay, okay, I'm finally getting off my high horse!
★ Fantastic finds! As if I wasn't already wowed by FRIDA spaced out through FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, SEVEN through OCEANS ELEVEN was doubly interesting because both movies are number-related.
And then the coup de grace, HEAT found twice throughout THE GODFATHER PART II. At first, I wondered if that double-vision was strange? But the duality of the themers echoed by two HEATs — as well as THE GODFATHER, Part II! — made it such a captivating finale.
I hadn't heard of INHERENT VICE, and HER all together (instead of spaced out like the others) made it less impactful. However, I admire Joaquin Phoenix's body of work so much that this entry cued me to add these movies onto my long to-be-watched list.
When a theme concept is this strong, the best thing to do with your grid is to make sure it doesn't get in the way. Work in a few bonuses if you can — EXOTIC FISH, NO SIREE BOB, NEED A LIFT, REN FAIRE, LOW LIFES more than do the trick — and keep your short fill unnoticeable. Adam did an impeccable job, not only keeping his quantity of gluey bits to way less than Sunday average but limiting them to gettable entries like ELLS, PHS (think PH paper), TO BE.
Sunday puzzles ought to have themes that captivate solvers all the way through the large canvas, and this did exactly that. I'd pay a premium if every Sunday NYT were half as entertaining.
★ I'm only vaguely familiar with OGDEN Nash's poetry — most through crosswords — but what a treat, these kooky animal rhymes. I have huge admiration for works that I couldn't imagine creating, and even with eight million limbs, there's no way I'd compose "Tell me, O Octopus, I begs, / Is those things arms," OR IS THEY LEGS? Bravo!
Nash is prolific, so how could you possibly pick only four of his best lines? Jenny and Victor did a fantastic job, narrowing it down to animals. I also appreciated that they stayed away from the popularized ones: Candy is dandy, but LIQUOR IS QUICKER, for example. I'd only heard the kitten/CAT line before, so I was treated to experiencing the rest for the first time.
My solve was much longer than usual, partially because of the thematic novelty, but the fill felt harder than a typical Tuesday. Starting with tough vocab in PARSE — crossed by ROTI — I stumbled out of the gate. EDUCE is another SAT prep word, and if you don't follow the Transformers (the AUTOBOTs vs. the Decepticons), that crossing could be deceptive. Given that the theme was on the difficult side, it'd have been nice to ease up the short fill. Perhaps blander but putting up less of a fight.
Great bonuses, the four long downs placed perfectly for smart spacing, and used to full potential: NOW SEE HERE, STEP ON IT, MOCKTAIL, NEW RELEASE all excellent.
It's neat that an older poet (born in 1902) gave me such amusement. I bet Nash fans might find this one too easy, but they might also appreciate one of their favorites being featured.
★ Eye-opening finds. I love these space-addition/deletion/shifting discoveries, GOLD INGOT and HOLDING ON sharing that long string of middle letters. Haters tend to say that these themes feel computer-generated, but this one requires a ton of human sifting. It's easy to write code to come up with pairs of entries differing only in their first/last letters. It's much, much harder to identify which of the thousands of finds are interesting.
There are tricks to cutting down possible pairs. You can eliminate terminal Ss, for instance, since things like CISTERN and SISTERS aren't impressive. You can require a space deletion or a space addition or a space shifting, but that will still allow a bunch of bland add-a-preposition phrases through. Then there's the issue of false negatives, i.e., the possibilities you miss by tightening the constraints too much.
There's a lot of artistry in organizing searches like this one. I had the good fortune to do a backyard hangout with David and Jim Horne last month, and I could happily chat for hours about an interesting problem like this.
Neat idea to incorporate the finds into rebus squares, too. Something was clearly odd about GA?AP, so breaking open GA(SC)AP made for a satisfying a-ha.
Great clues throughout, too. Kicking off the puzzle with [Where students might kick their feet up] — as in karate kicks in a DOJO — told me that I'd be in for some fun. It continued all the way to the end, where [Outdated charging device?] baffled me, even with the telltale question mark. Describing a LANCE as a "charging device" in a joust such a terrible pun that I groaned with delight.
It's so hard to come up with novel Thursday ideas, and this one scratched the itch I've been having for months now. Maybe it'll play hard for some solvers, since so much is going on, but the solve felt so worth the effort.
★ I love getting cleverly stymied in "Name That Theme." NUTS AND BOLTS. AN ARM AND A LEG. Clearly, it's X AND Y phrases. Let's figure out what ties them more tightly.
Wait. LIGHTNING ROD?
Bzzt … literally!
At that point, I went looking for hidden words like SAND in NUTS AND BOLTS and MAN in AN ARM AND A LEG. Nope.
Maybe BOLTS, LEG, ROD are all different parts of … a Wankel rotary engine?
Even this mechanical engineer snickered.
Wait! The BOLTS is the nickname for the San Diego Chargers. The LEG … is the nickname of their punter, Mr. ROD?
An appropriate bzzzzt!!! for that Chargers theory.
Such a huge smile on my face upon uncovering FRANKENSTEIN. All three themers work beautifully, these figures of speech literally things that Dr. FRANKENSTEIN needed. You might even say that this joke was a graveyard smash.
Ow, stop smashing me!
A couple of blips in execution, not surprisingly showing up in the 1.) big NW corner (LAOTSE crossing ARS) and 2.) middle, where two themers squish together (ENGR crossing the ambiguous G CLEFS). Much of this stems from having to squeeze themers together since the 12-letter FRANKENSTEIN had to go in row 12, not 13. Some massaging could have helped boot out the AMIE/AMI and SNERTy crossword glue, but there's a case to be made that goodies like AD LIBS, MEADOW, AMOEBA, ROADIE, TWISTY, DONKEY …
And now that I see all those mid-length bonuses, I'm perfectly fine with these trade-offs.
What I want most out of a crossword, especially these days, is a few minutes of diversion, maybe some smiles, and even a laugh. I got all that and a whole lot more today. You might even say I was buzzing with electricity—
Bzzt bzzt BZZZZZZT!!!!
★ This is a perfect example of why people shouldn't listen to me.
If Katie had approached me for feedback, I'd have replied that the general approach is fine — we've seen sports term reinterpretations for golf, basketball, football, and many more. However, a mishmash from all different sports? What is this, a Calvinball crossword?
Moreover, I'd have suggested that terms like UNPLAYABLE LIE might turn off sportsball haters. Heck, even OFFENSIVE REBOUND might have that effect (unless you're a bball junkie like me). Will Shortz has such a vast solving population to address that he usually pushes to the masses.
The fact that Katie picked and chose from the entire sporting universe, looking for odd and interesting terms that best lent themselves to reinterpretation, is exactly what made this puzzle stand out.
Maybe you don't know the dreaded 7-10 split in bowling, but what a clever idea to imagine it as a time to leave. I'm no golf fan, but I could at least guess what an UNPLAYABLE LIE might be. Such a huge change in meaning, to an untruthy statement that can't be rebroadcast.
It was probably even funnier pre-2016 ...
It'd have been so meta if the grid had a black corner square in the NW — a perfect STARTING BLOCK to insiders. Still, an empty square can be called a "block," perhaps.
I also appreciated that Katie didn't try to do too much with her grid. Work in a handful of bonuses (RAISE HELL, TEEN MOVIE, YO YO TRICK, UNION REP), take meticulous care to avoid crossword glue (only APA and INRI is outstanding Sunday cleanliness) ... it's not a complicated formula, but so many constructors push too hard to feature some snazzy bonus they're in love with, aim for a personal-best low-word-count, etc. and end up with a product that I hear tons of complaints about.
Even not knowing some of the phrases right off the top, I still breezed through the entire puzzle, solving in record time due to the grid's top-notch smoothness. That made me feel smart, and who doesn't like feeling smart? Ten minutes of pleasure and ego-boosting, accentuated by several humorous highs? Yes, please! Every Sunday NYT needs to be at least this good.
★ A perfect Saturday crossword.
72 words is the max allowable for a themeless, so the bar is sky high. Not only do you have to maximize every long slot and use near-zero dabs of crossword glue, but these days, there's another requirement: your short entries can't be boring. Will Shortz gets so many themeless submissions that he can shrug at entries like ERA AREA ARENA. Maybe this seems arbitrary, but it's hard to produce anything interesting for these words now — interesting both for him and for solvers. Caitlin and Erik hit all these marks.
Where this puzzle absolutely dazzles is in clever cluing. Roughly five great ones and I'm impressed, but I tallied nine today. Even better, they came from a wide assortment of categories:
On that note, I need to issue an apology to Kameron Austin Collins, as well as other solvers out there who love names in grids. Years ago, I got turned off when OLIVIA POPE caused me to finish with an error. There are many solvers who write to me that they hate names in grids — whether or not they're fairly crossed. I ignorantly assumed that this was the vast majority of solvers. Now I realize there's a segment, notably of younger folks, who strongly disagree.
I still don't love name-heavy grids, preferring pure fun and diversion in my crosswording. And from a results-driven perspective (if that's one of your goals), today's approach finally got me to read up on Olivia Pope — with high interest, at that.
When a name-heavy grid comes up, I try to keep Erik's editorial philosophy in mind: "this one might not be aimed at you, but maybe tomorrow's will be." I'll continue to make mistakes and say ignorant things, but I'll strive to keep listening and learning.
Anyway, I wish I had the skill to make a puzzle half this outstanding. Perhaps my favorite of 2021.
★ I love being surprised by a theme. It didn't take long to uncover PSYCHOANALYSIS, which is a "field of dreams." I didn't have to work at all to make that connection, though, which made it feel like a ho-hum concept. Take movie titles, find appropriate things they describe. Okay, that works.
I was so pleasantly thrown off-kilter by THE RED CARPET. "Star Trek" describes this … how? Then it dawned on me, that it perfectly encapsulates a star's trek into the Oscars. I've done so many of these types of "reinterpretation" puzzles that it's rare for an example like this to shine so brightly.
My solving experience kept ratcheting up, too. I read [Top Gun] and figured it would hint at a weapon high up. Maybe a SNIPER RIFLE — morbid, I know. I was so thankful to uncover something completely different, a T SHIRT CANNON firing tees, or shirt tops. Another innovative leap.
[Scent of a Woman] leading to CHANEL NO. FIVE was more literal than I wanted, but near it was the highlight. I could not figure out how BINGE WATCHER linked to [A Man for All Seasons]. Ironic for someone who's binged every season of roughly 50 shows in the past year.
Oh! Two short bonus answers that I nearly missed. [Guys and Dolls] works okay for GI JOES, but [Wayne's World] — as in Bruce Wayne — is such a creative link to GOTHAM City. A shame that the full GOTHAM CITY wasn't the grid entry since that would be harder to miss.
I do wonder if some solvers' dreaded "weird alert" will be triggered. I've gotten tons of feedback that it only takes a small handful of oddballs to sour people's experience, and ORONYM / ARIOSE, FLUMES / ALLELE, IRAIL, etc. have the potential to do so, as words not heard in everyday conversation. If you're in this camp, I'll plead to you to focus on the fantastic theme and look past any weird-factor grumpiness.
It's no secret that Sunday NYT puzzles sometimes underwhelm me. This is a splendid example of how a standard theme type can be played upon to perfection, built around some creative connections I might never have imagined myself.
★ I'm obsessed with Money Heist on Netflix, down to the level of wondering what city code name I'd choose for myself. Considering I'd be one of the lackeys melting down the gold while everyone else got all the glory, I'll have to go with Peoria.
Put today's puzzle IN THE BANK, because it worked so well as a newb-friendly crossword, featuring things one might see in a BANK: a VAULT, TELLER, some SAVINGS and DEPOSITs. I initially glossed over POLE VAULT as I focused on SAVINGS and DEPOSITS, so it was a treat to go back and discover that was part of the theme. Almost all of them were so well disguised, that it wasn't until I hit BOTTLE DEPOSIT that I figured out what was going on.
It's a shame BOTTLE DEPOSIT isn't as sparkly as the other themers. Perhaps MINERAL DEPOSIT would have at least disguised the concept of a monetary transaction.
It's been so long since I stepped into a bank, I'm not sure what else I'd see. I like that Zach covered all the major items, making this a tight set. Adds a touch of elegance.
Touch of pizzazz, too, what with SELF PITY and NFL TEAMS as standout bonuses. Excellent use of mid-length slots, too, with AGE OLD, Bob MARLEY, CREOLE, CT SCAN, ATTILA the Hun, NONFAT — that's a ton of solid material.
Not wild about ESSO or DYS, but those are minor shorties. The river LETHE isn't as featured in Greek mythology as the Styx, but the crossings are reasonable.
An extra layer can help a puzzle stand out in today's ultra-competitive crossworld, with the NYT accepting about 4% of submissions. A dynamite phrase can serve that need, the colorful IN THE BANK helping this one (warning, terrible pun ahead!) gain interest.
★ I love so many things about this puzzle. Such bang-up theme phrases, lending a feeling of recency and freshness. CANNABIS OIL is a big business in Seattle these days. POLITICAL ACTIVISTS is such a sparkly phrase. RACHEL MADDOW's celebrity crossword was the most viewed puzzle in XWord Info's history. DUAL CITIZENS is another standout. Huge props for such fantastic selections.
Even more so, given the theme constraint! ART and LIT are easy to work with, but CHEM, CALC, LATIN, not nearly as much. I appreciated that Priyanka and Matthew broke the shaded letters across words of a phrase for almost all themers. ELITE STAT(U)S was the lone outlier, but it's a saucy phrase, which helps make up for not being like the others.
The meta layer was too obvious — within a few letters, I could tell the circled letters were going to spell CUT CLASS — but it's an apt extra layer to elevate the puzzle. Perfectly describes what's happened to all the classes hidden in the theme phrases.
I also appreciate that Priyanka and Matthew didn't try to do to much with their eight-themer grid, sticking at 140 words. Yet they still managed to squeeze out a lot of juice, taking full advantage of their many mid-length slots. AHI TUNA, EN GARDE, IT WAS ME!, SON OF A …, SAMOVAR, STAND UP comedy, the TIBETAN Dalai Lama — it added so much spice to my solve.
JUDO GI is something that some editors have frowned upon (same with KARATE GI), but I'm a big fan of this entry. Maybe you don't know what it is by name, but you've definitely seen many of them. And TSAI Ing-wen as the first female President of Taiwan is definitely crossworthy. I'm hopefuly that Taiwan's emerging democracy continues to work past its rocky start.
"Hidden words" themes are falling out of favor in crosswords, but as with any tried-and-true genres, an extra layer can make a puzzle sing. This concept, similar to one by Paolo Pasco that also delighted me, is something I'd be happy to see more of in Sunday puzzles. Encore!
★ In basketball, a HEAD FAKE is when you telegraph a move by jerking your eyes or chin one way, then take off in the other direction, blowing past your defender. A successful HEAD FAKE leaves the person off-balance, tripping on their own feet. That's known as "breaking your defender's ankles." Back when I was quicker, the highlight of my rec bball days was when I head-faked a friend so bad, his toe literally tore through his shoe as he fell onto his butt. It was glorious!
Not as glorious as the deception today, though. The clever wordplay on the themer clues threw me off balance, not seeing what Sophie and Ross were planning. I had to work hard enough to understand that [Batter's additions?] referred to someone batting their EYELASHES that when I got to HEAD FAKE, I was dumbfounded, trying to figure out how Sophie and Ross got past me, lifting off for the windmill dunk.
HEAD FAKE … refers to replacement body parts … on the HEAD? Dang, that's fantastic!
When someone skies over you and dunks on your head, it's called "getting posterized," as in that pic will end up as a poster on someone's wall. When that happens — as it frequently did to me — the best response is to shake the other person's hand and admire the feat of athleticism.
I did hitch a few times in the fill, akin to when a point guard almost travels by turning their hand over the ball (called "carrying"). I know WOAH mostly from old Tintin comics — Snowy the dog often said it — but younger generations have adopted this stylized spelling of "whoa."
PIECEWISE … it's been a long time since I've taken any math, but don't most mathematical functions change at different intervals? Yes, but the clue is (awkwardly) getting at step and sub-functions.
And I'm inured to a lot these days, so I got an off-kilter smile out of NIP crossing NON PC.
Neat to see SCALED referring to both fish and rock walls. Ross and I are both avid climbers, so the insidery nod made me smile.
Small nips — er, nits — aside, an excellent debut that so aptly faked me into a beautiful a-ha moment.
★ AWED is a perfect 1-Across for this delight. Money is a common theme in crosswords (except for constructor pay, i.e. micropennies per hour), so you have to add an extra element to make yours stand out. That's exactly what C.C. did today, in three different ways.
Accessible wordplay in many clues, sadly uncommon for early-week puzzles. TOUCAN playing on "big bill" lets even newer solvers groan at its punniness.
ATLAS shows us another type of clue we don't often see in early-week puzzles, giving a piece of information that at first confuses and even causes consternation, but then the light bulb clicks on. There is no Atlas Ocean, but there is an Atlantic.
C.C. did exactly what she needed, to make an old-hat theme stand out. Along with excellent gridwork as is her usual — spicing things up with EYELINERS, LABRADOR, NAKED LIES, and so meticulously keeping her short glue to only EPS — another POW! for C.C. is easy money.
★ Some great finds, ZEN GARDEN becoming EN GARDE, PROSECUTE to ROSE CUT, STABLEMATE to TABLE MAT, WEATHERED to EAT HERE. These types of letter-removal discoveries pique me most when there's a space insertion or deletion or shifting, so they all delighted me.
Apt revealer in ENDLESSLY, too, ZEN GARDEN without its ends becoming EN GARDE.
The circles confused me at first, though. Why are Z and N important, I wondered. A-ha! If you turn Z 90 degrees, it becomes an N!
Wait. P and E? Is that a reference to Proctor and … Emble? Peeking and entering?
S and E … are both compass points? Ironically, that's when I realized that my wanderings were directionless.
It would have been fantastic if all the circled letters were the same. Or somehow related. Or spelled out a relevant phrase. An extra layer would have blown my mind. It's not necessary though, since the finds were all fresh and interesting.
Fantastic debut gridwork. Some editors balk at so many black squares (on the sides of the puzzle), but I'm all for whatever facilitates colorful and clean fill — at least, up to a point. I'm fine with the aesthetics of these pyramid blocks, but I wouldn't want them to grow any bigger.
David used his black squares so carefully throughout the hardest section to fill, the middle. Dotting them throughout created a lot of separation between the themers. That didn't leave many to use for the corners, but that's okay. Regions like these big corners are tractable when you only have to work with one theme answer running through them.
Such great additions to my solving experiences in DREAM ON, DON KING, ENGAGE, DIET PILL — and that was only the first quadrant! JEAN-LUC Picard, PRENUPS, the ROYAL WE … I could tell how much time and care David put into his filling process.
Maybe Harold STASSEN is a bit esoteric these days, but I'm sure older generations will shake their fists at me for saying that.
Once I got over my disappointment that the circled letters didn't do anything except indicate removal, my admiration soared. Enjoyable finds and an equally enjoyable grid. Great debut.
★ Another delightful puzzle from one of my favorite themeless constructors. There's so much emotion tied up in OH, IS THAT SO?, ranging from innocent querying to sarcastic throwing of shade. I love these kinds of entries.
CAKE TOPPERS is another fantastic entry, but for a different reason: it's ripe for clever cluing. Playing on "stuck-up" — as in stuck on top of a cake — is so smile-inducing. Plus, cake!
Similarly with TELEKINESIS. It's not only laden with mystery, but innocently repurposing "brain power," as in a literal power generated by one's brain, is as magical as the wikihow page on how to develop TELEKINESIS. Quite a moving (sorry) article.
I wasn't as hot on the ROSE BUSHES misdirect. Both Jim Horne and I fell for the Rose GARDEN trap, but it felt more mean than clever. Sort of a Nelson Muntz "Haw haw!"
And as typical for a Weintraub themeless, more than a handful of wordplay clues that elevate boring ol' day-to-day short fill. A CODA is (a set of musical) bars that close (out a piece). Getting a date from a PALM is different from Tinder. If only Palm Pilots were still around, you could get a date from a palm or a Palm!
Pardon my French, but how the @#$! am I supposed to know the French for "without caffeine"? Wait. SANS … caf … ah, SANKA! Great piece of trivia.
A "clue echo" works best when the same clue is repurposed in two vastly different senses. Using "turnover" in two consecutive clues, to mean an apple pastry vs. a basketball flub is perfection.
It's not one of my absolute favorite Weintraub creations, what with some potential left on the table — BEFORE I FORGET isn't as evocative as OH, IS THAT SO?, and entries like GUIDEBOOKS and GOES TOO FAR had uninterestingly straight-shooting clues. Still, a lovely ten minutes of escape. Exactly what I want out of a crossword.
★ It's rare that we get treated to two layers of revealers. I hit PARTY ANIMALS and was underwhelmed by the thinness of the theme — why not toss in a couple more animal-related party games, like duck duck goose or dogpile? (Combining the two is not recommended; it sadly happens every night at my house.)
Then I hit THOMAS NAST. How is he a PARTY ANIMAL … then my brain exploded.
It's not just that PIN THE TAIL ON THE DONKEY and WHITE ELEPHANT are party games with animals. They're the only two party games that use the Democratic and Republican animals!
That delayed set of mental fireworks would have been enough to win a POW! But the puzzle didn't stop there. Top-notch gridwork, with excellent bonuses in BLANK CANVAS, BAD HAIR DAYS, along with WHAT FOR? and PAPAYAS. Such meticulous gridding, too, with no short entries that would trigger universal editorial frowns.
(Maybe FLUS in the plural is slightly odd.)
Hilarious clue for EHOW. I'm no mayo fan, but I couldn't stop reading the article about its multitude of uses. Great cluing angle on HOOF, too, eschewing the boring horse or cow route, going with centaur.
All of this — in a debut. Puzzles like this make me even more optimistic about the future of crosswords, in excellent hands with up-and-comers like Alina.
★ Fascinating set of finds: two-word base phrases where if you substitute in their individual word opposites, you get another valid two-word phrase — one that isn't the opposite of the base phrase!
I reworded that explanation ten times already; I'm sure there's a more efficient way of explaining it. Best is to give an example. LEFT OFF vs. RIGHT ON — left/right and off/on are opposites. However, not only are these two phrases not opposites, but one's an add-a-preposition workhorse while the other's a fun exclamation. Couldn't be more different!
(Alex's other examples he couldn't include: COLD FEET / HOT HEADS, CATWALK / DOG RUN, STANDOUT / SIT IN. So hard to discover since it's not trivial to search for these programmatically — and such fun finds!)
Solid gridwork, too. Six shortish themers give a constructor the opportunity to add in a ton of colorful bonuses, and Alex confronted the problem head-on: SHELF LIFE, ETSY STORE, IRON AGE, SOUR CREAM, REVEILLES, and some fun mid-lengthers in EGALITE, HELICES, INFERNO.
I added COUCH GAGS to the XWI Word List years ago, back when I was a huge fan of "The Simpsons." The fact that they came up with something new for every episode, even after hundreds of episodes, was incredible. I don't love the entry as much anymore because it's been years since I've watched, but even if you're a Simpsons-hater, at least it's two words that you can recognize, making it possible to successfully finish the Monday puzzle.
I'd have liked the themers to be the longest Across entries in the puzzle since IRON AGE overshadowed LEFT OFF as a much more vivid phrase. Achieving that by shifting a few black squares around, and this could have been a perfect grid. (Although not for a Monday since some of the vocab like EGALITE is tough ….)
It's rare that I get the opportunity to laud a theme that feels this fresh, that adds a new modality into the crossword pantheon. It's common that Alex's name is on the byline when that happens. Extremely well done!
Some great finds, four solidly in-the-language phrases comprised of two movie titles. With this type of paired-title theme, the phrases tend to be clunky or dull, since it's hard enough to come up with anything that works, period, much less anything colorful. I was especially impressed by MONSTER MASH, which uses the Charlize Theron star vehicle MONSTER, with the old M*A*S*H. Neat to have to mentally subtract those asterisks.
Solid revealer, too, FILM SPLICER connecting the themers. After the second themer, I confidently jumped to 52-Across and plunked in DOUBLE FEATURE. I was in La La Land …
Superb gridwork. Brandon did such a great job eking every last ounce of potential out of his mid-length slots. Not an ANOMALY to have BARNARD, AP TESTS, THUNDER, BASMATI rice, BIFOCAL, EMINENT, along with BEIGNET (yum!) and ON MY OWN. Nothing flashy, but all enhancing my solving experience.
Plus some FLOTUS ADWARS! I might watch the news again if it featured a Jill vs. Melania throwdown.
I'd often make a different trade-off in the south since MTA / SUR / PSS is a tough triplet to accept. However, FLOTUS is such a fun entry that I can see the merit. Add in GO WILD and RUN LOW, and that definitely tips the scales.
As Brandon mentioned, this isn't a novel idea. But it is a great example of how you can elevate your puzzle from the pack with an extra layer. In this case, excellent in-the-language themer discoveries made all the difference.
★ I enjoy when people smash my expectations for what makes a standout early-week puzzle. For any theme, I've learned over the years that most editors look for:
Upon first glance, today's puzzle didn't excel in any of those criteria. Single-worders REVITALIZE and ENGINEERS didn't do much, even for this engineer!
A revealer in the middle of the puzzle gives away the game too early.
And I was confused by the revealer — I couldn't make any sense of it, much less find an aha.
And then it all came together. And how! IZE = eyes, EERS = ears, NOES = nose, and saving the best for last, LYPSE = lips. FACE RECOGNITION — with the bonus of face parts listed in anatomical order(ish)!
It took me a hot minute to figure out the concept, and I'm so glad I spent the extra time with it. Delayed aha moments can deliver such a powerful impact.
I wouldn't have made the same choices — I'd have gone with colorful multi-worders like NOBEL PEACE PRIZE, SEASON PREMIERS, ACTIVE VOLCANOES, SNOWPOCALYPSE, with the revealer at the end. However, I don't think that would have provided as strong an impact. The simplistic nature of those single-word themers means that they can stay out of the way as solvers figure out the concept.
Thinking about it more, I even like the revealer in the middle more than at the end, where it typically "should be." It doesn't give away the game completely, more hints at it. This way, solvers get more time to think it through as they complete the second half of the puzzle.
Along with solid gridwork — LOVE SHACK, TRY TO RELAX, UNFAITHFUL, FILE TYPES are solid to great — it's a memorable debut. I appreciate Jennifer and Victor smacking me out of my routine to enjoy a puzzle with fresh ize. One amazing positive from the pandemic is the huge influx of new constructors, bringing in ideas that break the mold. REVITALIZE, indeed!