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

showing 25 out of 194 POW selections from 5/9/2016 to 10/25/2016

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

POW Tue 10/25/2016

★ THIS ROUNDS ON ME! Er, THE ROUNDS ON ME. Hmm. I've never actually heard anyone get up and declare either one, but the former is the way I imagine it happening.

Jeb (John E. Bennett) and I live pretty close to each other, so we meet up occasionally to talk shop. When he mentioned this one to me, I smiled — great minds think alike! I actually like his interpretation better than mine, what with 1.) the pretty circle, or "round" formed by the drinks, and 2.) the fact that all of his are alcoholic beverages.

I also appreciated his touch of GIN and STOUT, ones that can easily be clued not as the drink. As Jeb mentioned, that did hide the theme for a little bit.

I always worry when I see diagonal answers, since it's so tough to construct around them. But I like what Jeb did in the top left corner a lot. It is true that he had a lot of flexibility, being able to use any six-letter alcoholic beverage, but he made SHERRY work so nicely. DEATHS did give me a pause, since it's a bit of a no-no to include downers like this, but needing virtually no crossword glue to hold a section like this together is great work.

The bottom left exhibits a few of the usual traits I'd expect out of a section with diagonal answers — not surprising, given how open the corner is compared to the top left. I did like TRAIN CAR, HOT MEALS, even GIMBAL (sue me, I'm an engineer). I didn't like NNE/ACAP/PCT/ERST holding it together.

A different type of compromise in the bottom right. The short stuff is all fine, but the longer stuff ... RETESTS is a bit iffy, and EAGEREST feels more than a bit iffy. Working around these diagonal answers, if it ain't one thing, it's another.

Given the degree of difficulty here though, I enjoyed the final result despite my initial hesitations, especially that pretty ring of drinks, and the theme felt uplifting. I like it when a puzzle leaves me with good spirits.

(rim shot)

POW Wed 10/19/2016

★ Great wordplay today, with five PRO- words split up and given a kooky interpretation. What a clever revealer for these "professions" in PRO VOCATION! So much fun to get PRO TESTER as "a professional in testing," and then even more fun to get that spot-on revealer. Awesome solving experience.

At first I hitched on PROPOSER. Is that a real word? Turns out it is, especially when referring to Parliamentary procedure. I also wondered if a CURER was a real word (from PROCURER). Hmm. And it would have been nice if PROFILERS had been singular, like the other themers.

Then I decided I was being way too nit-picky and I should just sit back and enjoy Tom's finds.

A couple of nice bonuses, in PANORAMA / EARDRUM and YOURE ON! ANDERSON isn't as colorful to me, especially since the cross-reference made me jump around the grid, but it still works. (I have "Aqualung" stuck in my head now — thanks a lot, Tom.) I really appreciated Tom's effort in those two corners, since he could have easily put more black squares at the R of OPENER and D of DRIVEL and made his life easier at 78 (instead of 76) words.

In terms of smoothness, I didn't care for the ARA / HROSS / LIS section — three dabs of crossword glue glaringly concentrated in one place — but again, I liked the theme so much that it didn't bother me as much as it usually would. Anyway, this is a common region of stress for puzzles that utilize a central 11-letter themer — once you place those black squares at the sides, you take away a ton of flexibility.

Overall, such a joy to solve.

POW Mon 10/10/2016

★ Easy-breezy, smooth puzzle with a fun theme — creatures with a monster in their names — everything I think a Monday should be. At first I didn't get why GIANT of GIANT SQUID fit into the concept, but a quick headslap came after recalling the GIANTs in fairy tales, Harry Potter, etc.

Did you notice Patrick's elegant touch, two airborne animals in the top half of the grid, and two undersea ones in the bottom half? Love that! And I can imagine an ordered sequence, with a VAMPIRE BAT flying high, a DRAGONFLY closer to the ground, a DEVILFISH swimming not too deep, and a GIANT SQUID lurking in the depths. Absolutely perfect.

Nice bonus entries, too. Patrick uses the "long downs" approach with RUTABAGA (I'm not sure why, but it's such a funny-sounding word) and OFF NIGHT, a typical way to incorporate longer fill. Working long bonus fill into the across direction can be trickier, since those answers tend to have a lot of overlap with themers. Some very good choices in STALLION and BEATNIKS, and both are integrated so smoothly. Throw in a little NOONDAY, ITS TIME, and BAROQUE, and this solver got a lot more than he expected out of a Monday puzzle.

Such a smooth solve. I didn't care for ORONO, since it's a pretty small town and constructors tend to lean on it due to its vowel / consonant alternation, but all the crossings are fair. I debated whether ARIEL should be known by NYT solvers, but what else could that R be?

Normally I don't care for fill that's related to the theme, but it was fun to get a little STINE in the grid. For those in the know, he's been called the "Stephen King of children's literature." Perfect for this puzzle!

Although I'm a total wuss when it comes to anything remotely scary, I really enjoyed this puzzle.

POW Mon 10/3/2016

★ LONDON BRIDGE is FALLING DOWN today, with a neat visual and a great selection of themers. I've been dying to work SOCIAL LUBRICANT into a puzzle, so it was really fun to see. STAND ON ONES HEAD, LONG STEMMED, and WENT OVER THE EGDE are all nice too.

I like when a puzzle lulls me into thinking I know what's happening, and then it throws me for a loop. Working quickly through LON to DON, I figured this had to be a word ladder. What a pleasure to get SOCIAL LUBRICANT as a sizzling entry, and even more so when I realized the next trigram wasn't DOT or DEN or something.

And what an entertaining visual, LON DON BRI DGE actually looking like the bridge broke up, Tacoma-Narrows-style, and sections plummeted in sequence from right to left. Love it.

Nice bonuses in RV PARK — excellent use of a six-letter slot — ACTING OUT, STATE SEAL, NY GIANTS, SHOWCASE, even ARABIC with its crazy clue (see Jim's note below). Great extras made the solve even more enjoyable.

There were a few questionable spots, ones that made me hesitate about giving this the POW! XKES is a toughie, basically random letters. Thankfully Jacob made all the crossings straightforward.

That SUZI / ZWEIG crossing … I guess it's fair, since what other letter could look more reasonable? I briefly considered SUKI / KWEIG, but that looked strange. I do like the Scrabbly Z, but oof, that caused me a moment of panic.

Were those two rough patches worth the price all the great extras? I did like all the bonuses, and given that Jacob had to work with five long themers, some signs of strain were to be expected. Going up to 76 words could have smoothed out those two crunchy spots — the end product is not as novice-friendly as I like to see in a Monday — but I'm okay with Jacob's decision.

I really enjoy getting something a little different on Mondays, and this fit the bill. Very entertaining.

POW Fri 9/30/2016

★ Right on my wavelength. The top half of the grid kicked off my solving experience with a bang. I already liked TONE LOC (I like my old school rap) when I hit HACKATHON, and then I uncovered INK BLOT right after that. BABY BJORN and DIVE BAR were next — and I hadn't even gotten to the middle stack yet!

Beautiful triple in VICHYSSOISE (I misspelled it roughly eleventy times before finally getting it right), GHETTO BLASTER, and LBJ. The GHETTO BLASTER holds a lot of cultural significance for me — it makes me think about "Do the Right Thing." One of the most powerful movies of all time, I still feel for Radio Raheem.

HACKATHON might be one of my favorite recent debuts, as it's such an evocative term (a bunch of coders getting together to hack up quick prototypes). There's something so fresh, so juicy about that; makes me want to go back to my college days or my startup days when anything and everything was possible — if you were willing to stay up three days in a row (I was).

All that, for just the very minor prices of TAROS (is it really pluralizable?) and OCTO = yes, please! (I'm fine with OTB, since it's a real thing, apparently common to some folks.)

The bottom half of the puzzle didn't have the same jam-packed zing for me, but HERE GOES, GLOBULIN, and SLAM POETS still stood out. But I LOVE LA is one of those mid-length entries that constructors lean on (I've used it many times) because of the perfect vowel-consonant alternation. It's so darn useful in spots like this. I wouldn't personally count it as an asset — I wonder if people of other generations might?

LIEABED … still thinking. Do I love this or hate it?

Still, there was more than enough in the top half of the grid that I had big smiles overall. I have a feeling it might not play as well for crowds unfamiliar with HACKATHON or BABY BJORN, but considering I have a (very sweaty) BABY BJORN and love to work on coding projects, the ton of colorful, vivid answers hit all the right notes for me.

POW Tue 9/20/2016

★ Such a fun puzzle! I'm still addicted to "The Great British Bake-off," and my mouth watered as I read the clues. I normally skip over any clue that looks too long, but I stopped to read [Layers of sherry-soaked torte, homemade custard and fruit served chilled in a giant stem glass] several times. I can barely look at that without going to the fridge and wishing there was an ENGLISH TRIFLE waiting for me!

Fun punchline, too. Although the ENGLISH TRIFLE, BAKED ALASKA, and PLUM PUDDING do look a lot like cakes, they technically aren't. NO PIECE OF CAKE is so apt. Neat a-ha!

Speaking of NO PIECE OF CAKE, this puzzle wasn't a piece of cake for me — but in a good way. I stopped very early at … RUCHE? I double-checked all my crossings to find my error, but everything was fine. Then I remembered that Tracy is big into certain crafts, so learning that word for decorative edging gave me a grin. Very glad every crossing was a gimme, though!

Very nice gridwork overall. DARE WE SAY is fun, and I can't type YOU SEND ME without breaking into song. And I really liked her mid-length stuff. PRUSSIA, SVELTE, NICOISE, SUCKER — what interesting words. Great to see MELINDA Gates get her due, too. Amazing what the Gates are attempting to do for the world.

A couple of minor gluey bits in Max BAER (yes a boxing champ, but from such a long time ago), plural Spanish TIOS, GLO. But all of these are so negligible. Tracy took such care in putting together each and every section of her grid.

Another minor point: I usually don't care if a grid entry is duplicated in a clue, but DARE WE SAY felt cheapened to me by seeing ["I dare you"!] for the DO IT clue. The two in close proximity made it stand out even more. This is an awfully nit-picky thing, but it did jump out at me as inelegant.

Just about everything I want in a Tuesday. Delicious puzzle.


★ It's been seven years of constructing, and I've only now started to realize how difficult it is to create a captivating Sunday 140-word puzzle. Part of it is the sheer difficulty of adhering to Will's limit of at most 140 words — WAY harder than some other editors' 144 max — but a bigger part is coming up with a concept that holds solvers' attention through a 21x21 grid. This gets even tougher when considering how varied the NYT's solving population is.

Personally, I often don't enjoy the Sunday puzzle as much as I would like — I often get tired of it halfway through or even sooner. And I have very high expectations for Jeremy — I think he's one of the greats when it comes to Sunday puzzles — so I was honestly a little disappointed to figure out that this was "just" a theme including the dashes inside entries like UH-OH and PUSH-UP BRA. Felt like I had seen similar punctuation-related themes before (2015, 2013, 2007.)

Great a-ha moment to discover that wait, there was more! Took me over half of the puzzle to finally realize that Jeremy had replaced some regular words with hyphenated phrases — PHOENIX, AZ going to PHOENIX A-Z was so amusing. And each themer using an interesting word-to-hyphenated-word substitution helped hold my attention. My favorite was AMERICAN GOT HI-C for its unusual breaking of GOTHIC into GOT HI-C, plus the amusing result.

Jeremy is so good with his long fill. There wasn't as much as we usually see from him — CROP CIRCLE, TIME LOCKS, and VIP LINES the standouts — but there's a reason for that. Any time you have to work with crossing entries, a grid quickly becomes tough to fill. He could have gotten away with relying on short dashed fill like UH-OH and HA-HA everywhere, but I love how he pushed himself to work in THE PO-PO (slang for the police), FREE WI-FI, and PUSH-UP BRA. Doesn't leave much room for long fill throughout the grid, but when all your theme material is this good, that doesn't matter very much.

Really tough to hold my attention all the way through a Sunday puzzle. Big thanks to Jeremy for this one that greatly succeeded!

POW Sat 9/10/2016

★ Beautiful grid from one of the best in the business. Peter has such a knack for assembling snazzy, colorful entries in a way that doesn't require much — if any — crossword glue. Sometimes themeless constructors tell me, "But I only needed to use four little gluey bits!" (I say this myself at times.) Years ago, that would have been good, perhaps even exceptional. But now, it's tough when the bar gets set by constructors like Peter, who finds ways to make vivid puzzles with virtually no glue.

It's a slightly different take on the usual themeless pattern, with Peter "turning the corner" up in the NW and the SE. It's hard enough to create a triple-stack of great answers without many gluey entries. It's even harder when you run a 7x3 chunk straight through that triple-stack. And it's still harder yet to do this without resorting to 1.) ugly short answers or 2.) neutral answers that just take up space.

The NW is just jaw-dropping. SPIFFED UP / PHNOM PENH / ALEX ROCCO is a strong triple (I didn't remember who ALEX ROCCO was, but as a lover of "The Godfather," a clip of Moe Greene made him come immediately to mind). And to run SPARE ME / PH LEVEL / IN EXILE — three colorful assets — straight through that stack = no wastage of potential at all. Converting so many intersecting slots into prime material is incredible. Plus, two Xs up there!

Okay, some might balk at fMRI (functional MRI). I knew this immediately through my pharma background, but I can see why it might elicit grumbles. Thankfully, that starting F is easy to get through the crossing entry, and MRI should be known to most all.

Excellent work in the opposite corner, too. This nerd loves NERD ALERT (I'm making a siren sound right now as I wave my arm in the air), and getting JOYRIDE and MAE WEST through that stack is good stuff. ALL OVER is more neutral, but getting two strong answers running through the PALMOLIVE / AREA CODES / NERD ALERT stack is hard to do. I wasn't quite as taken with this corner since AREA CODES has been used many times in crosswords, thus taking away from its impact. But still, great work.

It's not perfect — TOEJAM made me slightly gag, and SKEE-LO was tough even given my fascination with rappers — but there's so much strong material and clues. Even something as innocuous as [Non-PC sort] meaning "not a PC but a MAC USER" is a highlight. Great stuff all throughout.

P.S. In craps, ELEVEN and seven are called "naturals." I dig craps terminology.

POW Thu 9/1/2016

★ Schrödinger! Ben adds to the short list of puzzles displaying duality, using the GENDER FLUID concept of identity. The four special squares are animated below — part of a house can be a ROOM or a ROOF, fabricate can be MAKE or FAKE, etc.

I really liked the fresh feel of this puzzle. Ben gives us material that both feels simultaneously new and timeless. ESPNU is such a weird string of letters, but ESPN U is definitely gettable even if you're not a subscriber. LOW ART, QUEER as part of LGBTQ, a great term in the clue for PUENTE — Nuyorican = Puerto Rican in New York — even MUSTY / FUSTY, it was a joy to solve all throughout.

Of the Schrödinger squares, my favorite was SAME sex … or was that SAFE sex? As Peter Gordon once emphasized, a great Schrödinger should exhibit real duality, making the solver pause as he/she tries to figure out which of two equally-correct-sounding possibilities is the "right" one. And with both options here as appropriate as well as colorful phrases, it's the huge winner of the four special squares.

I wasn't as taken with some of the other Schrödinger squares, filling in either M or F without giving it a second thought. [Reveal a secret, say] seemed like it had to be FESS UP. Afterward, thinking about it, MESS UP did fit, but FESS UP was the clear choice without looking back. Same with MAKE for [Fabricate] — FAKE does fit, as with fabricating a lie, but it feels like much more a stretch than MAKE. [It's combined at the beginning] felt like a tortured way to say PREFIX, but PREMIX didn't give me a pause.

But overall, I really liked the idea of using GENDER FLUIDity as the rationale for a Schrödinger, and the smooth, fresh fill — with all kinds of great DYSTOPIA, ODYSSEY, EQUUS, DANDY entries — made for an extremely enjoyable solve.

P.S. [Snake's place, partially] — the Snake river winds through OREGON. Tricky clue!

POW Tue 8/23/2016

★ Ice cream swirls today, CHOCOLATE, RUM RAISIN, BUBBLE GUM, and PISTACHO swirling within the puzzle. And what an impressive construction! There have been tons of puzzles done with 2x2 chunks of letters (square D E A L kind of things), but rarely 3x3s. That's because they are so incredibly tough to execute on without resorting to the ugliest (capital Ug) type of crossword glue to hold those areas together. Most 2x2 chunks suffer, so think about how much harder a 3x3 is — I'd estimate it's a factor of 5 tougher.

Joel is one of the best gridworkers in the business, so I always expect a lot out of his puzzles, but this one goes above and beyond. I braced myself in each of those four areas, ready to cringe at some ridiculous random set of letters trying to pass off as a real entry … but there was nothing even creaky! TOI is very minor, and although NEHI will draw some assorted groans, it is a real brand. (Plus, it's Radar O'Reilly's drink of choice!) It's astounding that Joel managed to pull off this ambitious construction so smoothly.

He did have the advantage of flexibility — both in where the swirl started and which direction it went. Both of those seemed a bit random for my taste, but then again, that's how swirls really do appear in ice cream.

I did hitch on pistachio, as it's my favorite flavor of ice cream … and I've never seen a swirl in any pint I've eaten. Looking it up, there do appear to be pistachio swirl cakes, but no pistachio swirl ice cream. Dang it, now I really want someone to make just that! Hopefully Ben or Jerry is a crossword fan (please pass this along to them if you know ‘em) and heeds my desperate plea.

So that is a ding for me — CHOCOLATE, RUM RAISIN, BUBBLE GUM swirls = real things. Sigh, PISTACHIO. I'm not even sure what that would look like in ice cream form, but dang it, I want to know now!

The swirls smack dab in the 9x3 stacks were even more impressive, given the fact that 9x3 stacks in themselves are hard enough to get clean and colorful. To pull one off with a mostly fixed 3x3 chunk right inside is plain insane. EX HIPPIES did feel slightly made-up, but it's a funny enough answer that I decided I liked it. With great stuff like MATCH GAME, NO CONTEST, THAT'S A LIE — and just an ESTS and a TOI / ALII to pay — these are some brilliant sections.

Neat visual (see below for how it looked in print), gold-medal execution = very fun solve.

POW Mon 8/15/2016

★ Such a well-executed puzzle. Colorful themers, strong long fill, nary a gluey bit in sight, and a really fun revealer: HEADS WILL ROLL, describing an EGG roll, BARREL roll, DRUM roll, and LOG roll. Hits most every criterion I look for in a Monday puzzle.

Okay, there was one point I considered before giving this the POW. Will has said that he's not taking "words that can follow (or precede) X" puzzles anymore, and rightfully so. Over the years, these have been done to death. And I can just hear people asking me, "Isn't this essentially a words-that-follow" puzzle?

Yes and no. I came up with a tiered system:

  • Lowest level: using the word ROLL at the end of the puzzle for a revealer, with the clue [word that can follow the starts of …]. I think many will agree that this is pretty boring.
  • Middle level: using a dry phrase as a revealer, i.e. ROLL TOP [Type of desk, and a hint to the starts of …]. A little better, but still not punchy.
  • Higher level: using a colorful, themeless-worthy phrase for a revealer. ROLL CALL ["Sound off!" and a hint to the starts of …] is pretty fun.
  • Best: using a colorful, themeless-worthy phrase for a revealer — which cleverly hints at the position of ROLL: HEADS WILL ROLL indicates that the first word — or "head" — of each phrase is a type of roll.

And EGG HUNTS, BARREL RACE, DRUMSTICKS, LOG CABIN are all phrases I'd give check-marks to in a themeless. As are HOT SEAT, FAMILY TREE, END OF STORY, even IM NEXT. Sam wisely spreads out his long fill so he doesn't have to struggle with filling it. Beautiful results, only the minor blights Sam pointed out. And ET TU I'm perfectly fine with.

Doesn't hurt that I'm a huge Andrew Luck fan. Go COLTS! And go Sam! Really well done.

POW Thu 8/11/2016

★ I'm impressed at the range of creative ideas Tim comes up with. There have been a lot of plays on multiple Cs = seize, seas, sees, etc., but I haven't seen this implementation before. So cool that Tim found self-defining phrases … each one with exactly two of the letters in question! E E for "ease" = LIFE OF RILEY is genius; what a cool find. G G for "geez!" = GOOD GOLLY is also fantastic. FLIRT WITH = T T = tease is pretty nice too. Such cleverness.

I also liked CONFISCATES = C C = seize and SCRUTINIZES = I I = eyes, but those weren't quite as fun, being one-word entries. And RUN THROUGH for U U = use = a confused Jeff. I stared at that one, trying to figure out if I missed something. Even after thinking about it for a while, I couldn't equate the two. Finally, some dictionary searching turned up that "run through" can be defined as "use up," as in a person using up or running through all their cash. So that's legit.

With six themers, I'd be really happy with just a smooth grid and two good bonus pieces of fill. Tim goes above and beyond my expectations, with some delightful CANDY CORN, NIMROD, DRY WIT, IZZATSO, even tickling my mechanical engineer's brain with a PULLEY, one of the major tools giving mechanical advantage. EPILOGUES ain't bad either; nice to see that spelling, as opposed to "epilogs," which I don't often see in real life.

Okay, there's a dab of crunchiness in the lower right, with ENERO (deep Spanish, with too-easy vowel-consonant alternation) and HOS, but really, that's about it. Excellent work.

Neat idea, some great finds, excellent consistency (exactly two of the critical letter for each themer), high theme density, snazzy and clean fill. I couldn't ask for much more.

POW Sat 8/6/2016

★ Sometimes you're right on a constructor's wavelength, and I think I mind melded with David today. From start to finish, such an enjoyable solve, featuring a high count of stellar entries along with just a modicum of crossword glue. Beautiful work.

I thought it would be a breeze when I filled in FLASH MOB without a crossing (a more clever clue would have been great for a Saturday puzzle). But I struggled to finish that corner, with a big smile on my face after uncovering LL COOL J. That terminal J is so odd looking! And then to race ahead with JEDI MIND TRICKS = awesome for this Star Wars lover.

As an aside, many — MANY — people ask me to reduce the rapper references in my crosswords. I don't actually care for much rap these days, but it's hard to argue that LL COOL J isn't a megastar that most every NYT solver really ought to know. He's excelled in both music and acting, so I don't buy the "why do I have to know all these rap stars" grumbling. Sorry, buddy, expand your horizons.

David does something interesting with his grid layout, compressing JEDI MIND TRICKS and UNIVERSAL DONOR (I just gave blood donation #124, so I loved this entry) together. It's tough to feature 14-letter answers in a themeless, as they fix so much into place, cutting down your flexibility. I love David's push to not just use these difficult lengths, but also to run a bunch entries through the middle of them — including the long and strong entries BUM A RIDE and USA TODAY.

(What a shame USA TODAY wasn't clued to #gridgate. Lost opportunity; so awesome that a plagiarist got what was coming to him.)

I wasn't as big a fan of the lower right as the rest of the puzzle — YEARS AGO and DIAPER PIN feel a bit … well, YEARS AGO. But STREAKING is a nice single-word answer, and to get some GRINGO / OLYMPIA makes up for some of the lost potential. (I'm a huge Lord of the Rings fan, so GIMLI was a gimme for me. Your results may vary.)

Overall though, such good use of most every portion of his grid, UPSILON, NEODADA, I LOST IT converting those 7-letter slots into nice assets — not to mention BLITZEN and THE HULK!

Not a SINLESS puzzle what with a bit of ESE, ETAT, OEIL (it is an admirable attempt to save those latter two by linking them together in [Coup d'___]), but what a snazzy and clean solving experience, right up my alley. I really liked that I gelled so well today with someone from two generations behind me.

POW Fri 7/29/2016

★ Really fun solve ... and so familiar! John sent me two versions of this puzzle, asking for my feedback. One was a "clean" version — this one — and the other was "less clean." They differed mainly in that bottom right corner, with LAST RESORT / URBAN DECAY in the "less clean" one where ANGLOPHONE / INTERSECTS is now. I felt like the puzzle would be just tremendous if he could work in LAST RESORT / URBAN DECAY … but without the uglies like TEN CC, EELER, GOER, STYE that it required to hold that corner together. Ultimately, it proved impossible, though. Ah well.

We also discussed INRI. That to me is a pretty big offender (stands for "Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Iudaeorvm"), one I'd go to any length to get rid of, since to a good chunk of solvers it could seem like four random letters stuck together. I liked INRE much better, since I use that all the time in memos. But that required FOGS to become FOGG (with SICKOS becoming GECKOS), and John really disliked FOGG. Curious how subjective this business is! To me, Phileas FOGG is the beloved protagonist of "Around the World in 80 Days," a book that made a tremendous impact on me. But to people who haven't read the book, FOGG will be … just four random letters stuck together!

Other than INRI, it's such a well-made puzzle. Themelesses featuring 15-letter answers often have compromises, i.e. not very many feature answers, a lot of crossword glue, some stilted sounding fill. But to get not only TEACHABLE MOMENT and BIOLOGICAL CLOCK, but CHEST HAIR, GRAY MATTER, the ONE PERCENT, THE BEE GEES, etc. plus some really strong mid-length INKBLOT, CHURCHY, SPY KIDS, BAUBLES, is awesome. Very good use of all his slots.

QAID might cause some head-scratching. Merriam Webster does list it as a variant spelling of CAID, but it's so hard to pin down the "correct" spelling of those words like HIJAB and NIQAB. So I give it a pass.

All in all, I still would have loved for that bottom right corner to be snazzed up — ANGLOPHONE and INTERSECTS don't feel like standout answers to me — but as a whole, I really enjoyed the solve.

POW Sat 7/23/2016

★ Even knowing all the answers beforehand, I really enjoyed the solve. Debbie got in touch with me a while back, and I worked with her to complete her first themeless. Will thought it was very good, but given the huge competition in themelesses, it didn't have enough snazzy material to cross his high threshold. I really liked that this feedback drove Debbie to develop another one, which you see today. Hard work + careful adherence to feedback = success!

Debbie saved 18 versions of this puzzle, and I thought I'd list out some feedback I gave her through the different stages, in case that helps out aspiring themeless constructors:

  • Version 6: This one didn't have enough fresh, eye-catching material. And one corner in particular seemed problematic. It had SVENGALI, and HAVE AN IN was pretty nice, but ELIAN / ERNS / INES / SANER felt like it really weakened that corner. The grid also had SROS and ESALEN — too much glue in all.
  • Version 10: ONESIDED / ONE AM dupe. Also, THE MONEY felt too much like a partial to me.
  • Version 13: Introducing FLAME WAR added a lot of spice. She had TV REMOTE next to it, but SEASONED was the third in the triple — that one wasn't nearly as strong. Also, the bottom left corner contained CLARITIN and HOME BASE. They're both fine answers, but neither wowed me. I suggested she ought to redo that, trying to work in stronger answers, in order to show Will she was listening to his advice.
  • Version 15: Getting IT'S A SIGN felt like it added a lot to the bottom left corner, along with LIVE A LIE. Debbie hadn't filled out the bottom right, but this partial grid felt like it could be NYT-worthy if she could get a really nice triplet of answers to finish it out.
  • Version 17: TRADE NAME / SETH ROGEN / DEAD WOOD in that bottom right corner was a really nice result. However, it required DHA, and Will doesn't like tough acronyms that aren't widely known. He has a valid point — to many, DHA will look like three random, ungettable letters.
  • Version 17.1: The grid as shown. I didn't care for GO I, but that and DST allowed for IPAD MINIS, AFROPOP, PET NAMES, BARNUM (I was plus/minus on NOT SO SURE).

Revision has to stop at some point, and I think Debbie did really well to call it only when she felt like her profile of assets and liabilities was very strong. I love seeing that work ethic.

Such a great combination of colorful assets — 15 by my count — along with just a smattering of HRS, WBA, GOI, DST made for such an enjoyable solve.

POW Wed 7/13/2016

★ I greatly admire constructors who can come up with novel ideas. So many crosswords have been made over the years that just about everything feels like it's been done to me. Tom comes up with a neat concept today, one that feels fresh, using TLAs (three letter acronyms) to replace a regular word. PICK ME, U.P.S.! had me chuckling, and MAMMA M.I.A. was clever. But my favorite was LET ER R.I.P. — not only is it a colorful base phrase, but the result is so enjoyably kooky. COMMON E.R.A. and DISAPPEARING A.C.T. (American College Testing) didn't do as much for me, but they still work well, consistent with the others.

Tom does so well with his grids. Many constructors would cite the fact that they have five longish themers, and call it good to produce a smooth, if unexciting, grid. Tom works in not just two, but four long downs, all of them really nice. Amusing to have GRAVE PERIL intersecting LET ER R.I.P., and ASYMMETRY is snazzy. We even get a ROM COM and a MEANIE — fun stuff.

Fun PALIN clue. It's so easy to take potshots at her, but this quote, "Buck up or stay in the truck," reminds me of the various Bushisms out there. I think I'll choose ... stay in the truck? I guess?

All this, with just a minor SCIS abbreviation and a NEURO prefix. I don't mind ILIE at all, since ILIE Nastase was a very famous tennis player. Sometimes he gets clued as a partial, just for a little variety, but I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that Tom was thinking of the tennis player.

I wasn't too hot on the D, E, A, N, S list cluing both ANDES and SEDAN, because having an "order for a Dean's list" didn't feel totally in the language. Still, A for effort, and it's nice to get some novelty here and there.

When someone gets too high on my POW! list, I up my bar for them so I can spread the love. But with an entertaining, innovative idea, and a beautiful grid to boot, I tip my hat to Tom this week.

POW Sat 7/9/2016

★ This puzzle exemplifies why I think Josh is possibly the best themeless constructor out there. I've always been impressed with his puzzles, but this one sizzles. I can't remember the last time I did a themeless where nearly everything I turned up was pure gold. From PIRATE SHIP to FAT SUITS to OLD MASTERS, to TESLA COIL to NOSEGAYS to DO YOU MIND! Not only were almost all the long entries fantastic, but there was a little something for everyone, making it accessible and enjoyable for a huge range of solvers.

Josh goes big by working with 18 (!) long slots of 8+ letters. I've found that it's nearly impossible to convert so many slots into stellar material, because once you start fixing a few in place, you get less and less flexibility as you go. Josh does a great job of spreading his long slots around, but it's impossible to isolate any one of them — each must interact with a ton more.

And what results! I'm usually happy to get 10 colorful answers in a themeless, but I count roughly 17 here (things like ERRONEOUS feel more neutral to me). During my solve, it seemed like Josh was pulling some sort of magic trick. When I went back and studied the grid, what he did made more sense — by staying at a relatively high word count (70), he was able to use a lot of short words to stick his longer ones together. And by never packing too many long slots together, he was able to avoid any one area that had too much white space. It still seems a little magical even after I study it, though.

All this, without using much crossword glue. There's an ELL and an SYST, but those are so minor. Dabs of crossword glue tend to drag down my solving experience when there are more than about five (or one is egregious), but these two little guys were negligible.

And so many amazing clues! I won't point them all out, but if you're an aspiring constructor, go back and study the clues for HURL, GREEN ALGAE, HINGE, HOP, BLACK EYE. Brilliant wordplay in there.

My favorite themeless so far this year. Standing O for Josh.

POW Thu 6/30/2016

★ Debut, and what a brilliant idea! The mysterious clues kept me in the dark for the longest time, even after I had uncovered TOP / OFF. And it continued even after I pieced together DEFECTIVE BULLET — how could "B0B" possibly describe that? What a fantastic a-ha moment, realizing that you have to lop off the top of "B0B," getting DUD as a result. Here are the others, with a helpful graphic from Jonathan:

  • TB8L gives IDOL
  • 8V8TB forms OVOID
  • My favorite, VMB making VIVID. Cutting off the top of M results in an I V I — so cool!

I'm typically not a fan of "definitional" puzzles, where the grid answers sound like they're taken from Merriam Webster. But it worked so well today, since I really needed those definitions in order to finally get my moment of clarity. SUPERSTAR would have been a fine, in-the-language answer for IDOL (and EGG SHAPED for OVOID), but I kind of like how SHAPED LIKE AN EGG feels like it's prodding me to keep on thinking. I needed that nudge!

There's a bit of APER AMOR ATALE crossword glue in the grid, but it's pretty minor stuff, especially considering all four themers are very long. It's not easy to pull off a perfectly clean grid using four grid-spanners, but Jonathan did well. Check out the west and east sections, which are usually the hardest (since you have to work with the beginnings or ends of two long themers) — the east is the roughest spot with TARDE (tough foreign word), ATALE (partial), RETAG (sort of arbitrary RE- word), but the west is so nice. Not a dab of crossword glue in there.

I might have liked a little more bonus fill, but that's a minor complaint when the theme idea is this good. SILLY ME is awfully nice, anyway, and I do like me some Harry Potter referenced in SEEKERS.

All in all, a fantastic debut. So, so, so enjoyable; a very memorable theme.

POW Wed 6/22/2016

★ Loved this puzzle. I've seen dozens of anagram puzzles, so it takes something special for one to stand out. I honestly groaned a bit when I read the clue [What NOTICING can anagram to], preparing for a slog of rearranging letters. But something odd happened — I realized that there were more letters in the grid slot than in the anagrammed word! Took a couple of crossings to finally realize that NOTICING had become GIN + TONIC separately, which of course combine to form the common GIN AND TONIC. Great idea!

The JAZZ SINGER, featuring songs by Al Jolson

Each of the four themers worked so beautifully. KISS AND TELL was my second favorite, KISS + TELL anagrammed to the common word, SKILLETS. Fred laid out the themers so nicely, hitting us with his best one first, and ending the puzzle with his second-best to make sure we came away with a strong final impression.

Great bonus fill, too. JAZZ SINGER is a colorful phrase that also includes three rare letters, and WORKAHOLIC is snappy too. Nice also to see EVIL EYES and STORM OUT, along with KEYTAR (a keyboard/guitar combo), even some SMOLDER (crossing KISS AND TELL!), MAN MADE, Dorothy LAMOUR.

All this with virtually no crossword glue? RES and INST are minor offenders, and maybe you could argue that ENID is a bit esoteric, but that's not much at all in total.

Fun PAN AM clue. Some might say that this is an outdated entry since PAN AM is no longer around, but it's a historically important company. And having "flying boats" is pretty interesting. EMBED's clue felt a little strange — a foreign correspondent is really called an EMBED? — but it does appear to be valid usage.

All in all, such an enjoyable solve; a memorable twist on the anagramming theme type.

POW Wed 6/15/2016

★ Love this theme. I hadn't heard of FIFTY FIRST STATE before, but what a beautiful phrase and concept! Jason kept me guessing until the end, wondering how 51st, 6th, 3rd, and 5th might all tie together. Excellent a-ha moment when I hit AND ANOTHER THING — a perfect revealer. As Jason mentioned, I found it so much fun that each one of these themers is derived from "adding one," but they each become something all their own.

One of my personal heroes

As if that weren't enough, Jason executes so well. Today's is a tough construction task, with longish themers plus a middle one cutting the grid in half. He does strong work in the four corners, incorporating some DASHING STOPGAP INFIDEL type bonuses while keeping the crossword glue to a minimum. All I could find was an ERN in the SW and an ELEC in the NE — excellent result, especially considering the difficulty of his task.

LOVE the EBERT clue: [He once asked "How far down can a thumb go?"]. EBERT was such a big part of my youth, my dad and I often watching "At the Movies" together. His wit and quotability make him my pick for the 21st century Alexander Pope or Oscar Wilde.

FEH might be unfamiliar to some, but the crossings are fair. And I find it fun to get the assorted MEH BAH GUH sort of entries in crosswords. (I'm easily amused.)

Wonderful puzzle; very close to my idea of the perfect Wednesday.

POW Tue 6/7/2016

★ Very pretty graphic, with a THREE / STORY / HOUSE and its SLATE ROOF memorialized in NEEDLEPOINT. HOME / SWEET / HOME indeed!

Be it ever so humble ...

I was amazed by how much Pete packed in today, especially THREE / STORY / HOUSE right atop each other. It's very hard to stack three specific answers when you have no flexibility. Then you throw in SLATE ROOF to further constrain things. I was worried at how many compromises Pete would have to make — and that was before I realized NEEDLEPOINT was part of the theme!

Pete did a nice job of deploying his black squares to separate the themers. You absolutely have to use some so THREE / STORY / HOUSE doesn't interact much with the SLATE ROOF. Then, the NEEDLEPOINT intersecting the SLATE ROOF has to be separated from HOME / SWEET / HOME as best as possible, otherwise you're forced to make a ton of compromises.

What with the enormous level of inflexibility — I can't remember when I've seen a puzzle constrained to this level — I like Pete's result. Sure, I hit RUHR / OTOE, SHERE, MEECE (ugh), ISERE right off the bat, but none of them are horrendous. And throughout the puzzle we get some of the usual suspects like ESSO, OPEL, DER, MAI, STE, but there's not a major offender in there. Some would even argue that ESSO is perfectly fine, since it's a major Canadian gas brand.

PHOEBES … apparently it's a fairly common bird in the Americas? Even after piecing it together from the crosses, I stared at the word in DISbelief. Some poor older solvers might choke on the OTOH crossing, four letters that will look random to non-texters. Even knowing that one, somehow PLOEBES seemed more plausible to me.

ASHTONS is a more clear-cut case. Not only is it a pluralized name, inelegant to start with, but it takes up a valuable 7-letter slot. Missed potential; could have been something as fun as CEDILLA.

All in all though, it's actually MUCH less crossword glue than I had expected, given the off-the-charts level of constraints. It's such a fun and pretty image; well worth the trade-offs to me.


★ I wish all constructors would get the chance to talk with Tom in person. I've only been able to do so once a year (at the ACPT), but I've enjoyed it so much. Tom is quickly becoming one of the best constructors in the crossworld, and he's so humble about it. It's inspiring to see someone with so much talent and drive to succeed keep a solid head on his shoulders. Not even out of college yet, I'd bet he'll be among the most-published constructors when he's done.

Now that's a JAWBONE!

Today's puzzle is both clever and simple, in-the-language phrases that hint at a sort of WORD SEARCH. For example, FOLLOWING SUIT is clued with [Where you can find … "jacket" or "yourself"?] Both "jacket" and "yourself" can be found FOLLOWING SUIT, i.e. "suit jacket" or "suit yourself." I really like this twist on the typical "word that can follow X" theme, giving a tired trope a fresh feel.

I also like that Tom picked such a wide assortment of theme phrases. The only word he repeats is the minor TO (CLOSE TO HOME, NEXT TO NOTHING), and uses a great selection of themers, from BEFORE LONG to POST OFFICE.

The theme does a wonderful job of catering to both novices and experts — very important considering the breadth of the NYT's large Sunday solving population. It's easy to create a simple theme like an add-a-letter, and it's fascinating to create a mind-bending puzzle, but either can alienate large swaths of Sunday NYT solvers. (I've heard from some solvers that they love my crazier stuff, but also from others that they never actually figured out what was going on.) Finding that balance is hard to do, and I think Tom does it just about perfectly today.

Sure, there are a few gluey bits here and there — STO, and maybe SISI is a bit arbitrary — but just like most every one of Tom's puzzles, it's so well-executed. He's already in the rare air where I have to restrain myself from giving him the POW! in order to spread the kudos around.

POW Mon 5/23/2016

★ What a great debut! Theme is fun and consistent — all zippy phrases in the form of (part of the body) + OF THE + (noun). Some might grouse about the OF THE repetition, but I like it. Cool find, a tight set of four themers which just happen to fit into crossword symmetry.

The old-school ... er, new school? HOVERBOARD

The grid is strong compared to the average construction, and way above most debuts. Ori had to work with four pretty long themers, ones that forced placement of some black squares. Note that entries of length 12-14 are "awkward" in that they cannot go in rows 3/13, which usually is best for good spacing (try it and see what happens). Squeezing themers together makes for a tougher than usual challenge.

I'd usually expect a newer constructor to use a "Utah block" around a 13-letter themer, i.e. blackening in RAT to form a chunk of black squares to help separate themers. That's acceptable, but not elegant. Ori not only leaves things wide open, but manages to work in the beautiful HOVERBOARD on the side.

He doesn't stop there. Some constructors would be satisfied with maybe a pair of long entries as bonus fill. I like Ori's big thinking, working in HALF MOON too. POWDERED doesn't do that much for me, but it does get a nice clue, referring to how it can describe donuts or wigs.

All this while keeping his short fill perfectly clean — way cleaner than 95% of all crosswords. I had such an incredibly smooth solve. Even after scouring the grid, I couldn't find a thing I could point out as iffy.

Now, I would have liked BUTT OF THE JOKE and EYE OF THE STORM switched, so that the body parts would roughly mirror a person standing up. So it's not a perfect Monday puzzle in my eyes. But it's close. Extremely well done!

POW Wed 5/18/2016

★ This one triggered a smile in my heart, as one of my very first puzzles used a similar pronunciation twist. I liked C.C.'s interpretation, FORESEES describing the four letter Cs in ANTARCTIC CIRCLE, FORTIES = four Ts in THAT'S A MOOT POINT, and FORAYS = four As in FANTASY BASEBALL. Nice touch to have each "descriptor" cross its theme answer.

The OORT cloud

C.C. does a very nice job today with her grid. Not easy to work with crossing theme pairs, and to use three sets is tricky. FORESEES is particularly challenging, since it's so long. Good work in incorporating FORESEES, so it crosses both ANTARCTIC CIRCLE and THAT'S A MOOT POINT.

Even with those constraints, C.C. still worked in some bonuses. STRIKE TWO and STREET ROD were much appreciated bonuses during my solve.

I've noticed that C.C. has really been cleaning up her grids. It used to be that I'd notice a good handful of gluey bits here and there, but today's grid is very nice. Not even much minor SRS or TOR kind of stuff — well done. Some might balk at the OORT cloud, but it's a huge "object" in astronomy, and the crossings are fair.

Well, KESHA / VEDA and AVA / VONAGE might be tough for some. Even I've heard of KESHA (not that I could tell you if she's an actress, singer, or dancer), but I paused for a long moment before typing in that V of AVA / VONAGE. I wonder if VONAGE is more ubiquitous in other regions of the country.

And I did wonder why these particular theme phrases. There are a ton of phrases containing exactly four Cs in no particular order, same with T and A. It would have been nice to get more tightness, like if there were two words with pairs of Cs, or phrases with four Cs spaced every other letter apart, or something.

But it was really fun to see how a different constructor started with the same seed idea, and took it in such a different and interesting direction. This puzzle is my favorite of the week, so congrats to C.C. for her fifth POW!

POW Mon 5/9/2016

★ Easily the best Monday puzzle I've done all year, and perhaps one of my all-time favorites. Dan has such an interesting idea — phrases where the first word is the nickname of a state, and the second word contains that state's abbreviation. The SHOW ME state (Missouri), gets its MO in SHOW ME THE MONEY. What a great find! And being from CA, I loved GOLDEN State's GOLDEN CALF. Simple idea, yet innovative, interesting, and accessible to solvers of all levels. Just perfect for a Monday.


I also appreciated that Dan added in long bonus fill, even though he was working with a fairly theme-dense puzzle. PARTY HOP and SEQUENCE in the across direction, and a bit of PLAYDOH, SO TRUE in the vertical, added even more spice to my solving experience. A bit of ACHE FOR and RANG IN ain't bad, either.

BAY MARE (Massachusetts, the Bay State) was a little mystifying to me, but some research shows it's a real thing. It's pretty impressive that Dan found a themer that worked in so few letters.

And Dan did all of this with meticulous care in his short fill, just a minor ADM and EDS. Such a smooth solve, exactly what I want out of a Monday.

What to even point out, in the name of a balanced critique? Maybe the revealer could have been worded a little better? I had to read that a few times before understanding the gist of it. Maybe a final revealer could have helped — STATE NICKNAME, perhaps?

So well executed on all levels: theme, long fill, short fill, puzzle flow. I'd give Dan a gold star and a trophy if I had one, but he'll have to settle for the POW! If I had a POM (Puzzle of the Month) like Matt Gaffney, this one would easily be in the running.