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

showing 25 out of 207 POW selections from 8/11/2016 to 1/23/2017

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

POW Mon 1/23/2017

★ Really enjoyed this one. Very nice that Bruce perfectly divided up RUMP EL STILT SKIN into its syllables, sticking them at the starts of snappy phrases. I particularly liked RUMP ROAST and the legend of EL DORADO. I'm more familiar with golf's SKINS GAME than a SKIN GAME, but the latter does appear to be legit. And STILT WALKER … don't they just call them "person on stilts"? But again, the term does appear to be in use, and it's a fun word to say.

I always enjoy a good a-ha moment, and it's tough to get one on a Monday. If the theme is too hard, solvers won't understand (see: Bruce's mom). I thought this one was just about right, hiding in plain sight until I got to the very end and finally put those syllables together. Good choice to have an oblique revealer in FAIRY TALE — I think it would have been too hit-solvers-over-the-head-with-a-hammer obvious with RUMPELSTILTSKIN as a revealer.

And what nice fill! Not a surprise to me that Bruce's puzzles have taken a quantum leap since (warning: shameless plug ahead) he went all in on the XWord Info Word List. I loved getting the bonuses of PASTA BAR / E READER / DAD BODS (I'm trying very hard to avoid the first in order to avoid the third), SOFA BED. That's one great corner.

Bruce's puzzles used to be fairly well sprinkled with crossword glue, but this one is so nice and clean, generally.

I did have some qualms about the SW, though. SAULT crossing ELO is rough, almost making me disqualify the puzzle from POW! contention (given that this is a Monday puzzle). And STRING UP … I know there are a lot of nooses in Wild West movies, but … ick.

But overall, such a fun hidden theme, giving me a solid a-ha, and a well-executed grid. It's so difficult to make a Monday puzzle that's interesting to more experienced solvers, while also keeping the fill easily accessible to noobs. Great job!

POW Fri 1/20/2017

★ PuzzleGirl! So great to see her name back in the NYT lineup. That combo of TONY SOPRANO and his TOY SOLDIERS in a HOTEL ROOM being THE DEVIL YOU KNOW makes for such a neat middle of the puzzle. A few other long answers spice up the corners, in particular, the AMEN CORNER. This engineer highly approves of EXHAUST FAN, too.

Angela's layout is heavily dependent on seven-letter entries, and those can be tough to make sing. There are a few so-so answers like SINCERE, NETTLES, MARIANO (sorry, this Yankee-hater can't abide by that), but Angela does well to work in the colloquial MR RIGHT (aka "Jeff Chen"), DREAM ON!, and AFROPOP.

Not only that, but she spruces up some of the entries that don't sing by themselves with great clues. EPITHET as ["The Great" or "The Terrible"] is fun, giving such a huge range. ASTAIRE gets a nice piece of trivia, his book known as "The Man, the Dancer." And TARTANS gives us cool names in "Royal Stewart" and Clan Donald" (the patterns associated with those clans). It's stuff like this that makes me wish my name were MacChen.

Even [Activate, as a wah-wah pedal] for STEP ON and [Chat, across the Pyrénées] for GATO ("chat" is the French word for "cat") help spice things up.

Now, I didn't care for some entries. SAINTE feels a bit of a cheat, tagging on that uber-friendly ending E. The HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) is outdated, although one could argue it's historically important. STD isn't a great abbreviation, nor is PSS. With SEL and the arbitrary TEN AM, it was on the verge of being too much for me.

(KEB and PITTI are tough proper nouns, but I think both of those are both crossworthy and done with fair crossings.)

And this puzzle might not do much for those who haven't seen "The Sopranos." TONY SOPRANO is a toughie — he'll elate some, and cause others to shrug.

But overall, I was personally so entertained by this one, that middle in particular.

POW Thu 1/12/2017

★ For my money, Joe Krozel is one of the most innovative, interesting constructors out there. Some of my friends have grumbled that pushing the envelope doesn't always lead to great solving experiences, and I can see their point. But I felt that today's puzzle not only broke (pun intended) new ground, but it was an immense pleasure to solve.

Several constructor friends and I have brainstormed concepts with a grid separated in two, but none of us have ever thought of this cool idea. Joe found three solid phrases relating to a separated grid — and separated those phrases! Not only that, but each piece of each broken phrase makes a fine word in itself. BUSTED APART = BUS / TED + APART, BANANA SPLIT = BAN / ANA + SPLIT, BROKEN IN TWO = BRO / KEN + IN TWO. Just genius.

Will has rejected every one of my attempts to use this "up-down" style of symmetry, saying that it just looks odd, and I can usually see his point. But Joe uses a set of heavy black lines that evokes left-right symmetry, maintaining a pleasing visual effect.

And the fill! With some trick puzzles, fill necessarily shows strain to make the trick work. Joe does so well, giving us some excellent IKEBANA, TRANSISTOR RADIO, RAGTIME, THE NORM, SANGRIA, etc., flowing all the way down the right side. Okay, UNTAME isn't very good, but all the great entries overwhelmed that one for me.

The left side isn't quite as snazzy, but it does have a nice TAXICAB, PLANETS, NITWITS, ARMHOLE, without much crossword glue holding it together — just an UNA and a TELE made for a silky solve.

It's not often that I'm green with envy, wishing that it had been my name on the byline, but that was the case today. If I did a Crossword of the Month like Matt Gaffney, this one would be sure to be on it. Loved it.


★ I was baffled for the longest time — was PROSE POETRY supposed to be PROSE ROSE POETRY or something? Headslap moment when I realized it was P. ROSE POETRY. Brilliant! So many celebs go by their first initial and their last name (or part of it), like D Wade (Dwyane Wade), J Law (Jennifer Lawrence … or Jude Law?), etc. Great idea, cluing all these normal phrases as if they were parsed into celeb-ish names.

And the poetry for P. ROSE! "Charlie Hustle is my name / I am banned from the Hall of Fame" = fantastic. Great entry and even better clue, like something Muhammad Ali might have said in taunt. (I didn't know the MALI EMPIRE, but I really liked learning about this historical powerhouse.)

I did find it odd to get Stephen HARPER's first name right in the clue, but I'm the first to admit that I couldn't have guessed who Stephen Harper was, even given eleventy-billion guesses. So I appreciated the hint.

These young guns are two of the best in the new generation. I love me some Agard puzzles — his indies are some of my favorites out there — and Peter Broda blew my mind with a hero metapuzzle a while back.

Sometimes with the indies, I have a hard time getting into the hot / trendy people they throw in; names that you either know or don't, ones that either elate you or leave you shrugging.

So to get fresh, juicy bonus entries that even this old crotchety fella can appreciate was great. VICE UNIT! BEER DARTS! (I didn't know that one, but it wasn't hard to figure out from the clue.) URL HIJACKING! And HARRY HOUDINI with its appropriately confounding clue about when Houdini was buried (for a stage trick) vs. his death = brilliant.

There were a few tough themers — if you never watched "Friends," CHANDLER BING would be rough. And even rougher if you don't know who C. HANDLER (Chelsea Handler) is.

But overall, loved, loved, loved it. Such fun to do the puzzle, and even more fun to analyze why that was. More please, sirs!

P.S. RETCON = retroactive continuity. Even as a writer, I didn't know that — fun to learn!

POW Wed 12/28/2016

★ Such a fun idea, THE CARPENTERS potentially made up of people with carpentry-sounding names: ELIJAH WOOD, STUDS TERKEL, BRAD STEVENS, and MIKE HAMMER. Nice touch to use two first names and two last names.

Five themers of length 10/11/13/11/10 is tough to build around, especially since that middle 13 tends to force big, wide-open corners. I wasn't surprised that the old pro BEQ had no problem filling those corners with panache and cleanliness — a ton of great fill everywhere I looked. OIL RIG, STIGMA, CUJO in the upper left. SLINKIER, PATTERNS, and SPOOLED are pretty good in the upper right. And my favorite = WHAMMO, SAVE IT, and the hilarious-sounding PLOTZ! That is a fantastic use of mid-length slots, which too often get filled with blah entries.

BEQ's puzzles often have a very fresh, contemporary feel — sometimes too much so for my taste. I wasn't sure whether I loved HOWRU = HOW R U, or hated it (probably more the former). SOO I've seen before as in the SOO locks in the Great Lakes. That's minor-ish for me in terms of crossword glue, but SOO… as ["Your point being…?"] left me with a groan. It seems like that opens up a Pandora's Box of WELLL and NOOO and OOOOPS.

VIKES looks odd, but it does appear to be the term the Minnesota Vikings' fans use.

A couple of standout clues = a real treat on a Wednesday. For me, the best was [There might be a spat about this]. Mystifying, until I realized "spat" was talking about decorative spats worn about shoes, not quarrel-type spats. Beautiful how it didn't require a telltale question mark.

I initially wondered why BEQ chose BRAD STEVENS out of all the BRADs out there (BRAD PITT the obvious choice), but his commentary makes sense of the decision. I like it when constructors inject some of their personal tastes into a puzzle, just as long as it doesn't result in too esoteric entries. BRAD STEVENS is relatively new as a coach, and I wouldn't feature him as a theme entry, but I can see BEQ's rationale.

An entertaining concept with standout execution.

POW Thu 12/22/2016

★ (AL)UMINUM SIDING added to today's puzzle, featuring the chemical symbol for aluminum, Al. Check out the grid below for the deets. We've also corrected the appropriate answers so they match the clues. We wouldn't want to add ERT or LEGE to our database!

Neat concept. (AL)BERT EINSTEIN MED(AL) is such a great feature entry for this puzzle, just perfect how 1.) it has an AL on either side, 2.) it's 19 letters long, making it exactly 15 letters without the ALs and 3.) it's such a great-sounding entry. Reminds me of another puzzle featuring OUTSIDERS.

The first step in this construction is quite easy — you start with a 19x15 grid, with AL down each side in columns 1, 2, 18, and 19 (and black squares appropriately extended out to the sides). After you're done, you can lop off those extra columns, and voila!

HOWEVER … the execution is not easy at all. There are a reasonable number of words that start / end with AL, but limiting yourself to just that subset makes things so rough when constructing the sides of the puzzle. I was impressed that Mark, a debut constructor, was able to work in some great long entries like ALOHA SHIRTS, COLOSSAL, and PURITANICAL, without resorting to that much crossword glue. Yes, IN LA and REMAT are not good, but those are minor prices considering how tough those sides must have been to construct.

I would have loved for ALUMINUM SIDING to be one long entry, as it felt inelegant to split it up, but to do that, Mark would have needed a matching 12-letter entry. It would have forced the puzzle to be more open; less segmented, as 12-letter entries are very inconvenient to work around.

On that note, I would have liked the puzzle to breathe more — it's very partitioned. It was smooth overall, though, and if I had to choose between smooth vs. good puzzle flow, I'd tend toward the former.

I thought about this puzzle a lot after finishing it, and that's a sign of an excellent puzzle. Great stuff, especially from a debut constructor!

POW Thu 12/15/2016

★ Sam "S Diddy" Donaldson told me a long time ago that he was over rebuses; that they were so far overdone that he couldn't take them anymore. I tend to agree with him, although when they have a little somethin' extra, I still really enjoy them. That was the case for me today, grinning at Jacob's neat FA LA LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA entry as an entire row of rebi.

I quickly figured out that there was a rebus element when SP(LA)SH didn't fit in, and that triggered my usual sad trombone feeling. But when a FA popped up, I perked up. Could it be related to FDR's super-cute dog, FALA?

What a neat moment when I got to the FA LA LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA finale. Maybe I'm just a sucker for holiday songs and feelings, but I enjoyed that discovery.

From a constructor's standpoint, it's tough to work around so many rebus squares, so I enjoyed the craftsmanship, Jacob giving us a super-smooth grid. I mean, only a bit of IND / RDS around that very tough lower right corner? Great work. And some EASY RIDER, REGULAR GUY, FAJITA, LAPLAND, GRAPPA bonuses, only needing some minor crossword glue (RRS, old-timey SOTS) to make it all happen? That's the type of master craftsmanship I've come to expect from Jacob.

And from a solver's standpoint, it's rare to get an entire long entry made out of rebus squares, so that was a cool surprise. Again, something so pleasing about having that ubiquitous Christmas carol line so tidily packed in.

I'm still not totally sure why most of the themers have exactly one FA and one LA — I liked the consistency of each themer having a FA and a LA, but felt like it might have been better if they had contained the FA LA LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA sequence in order or something? Or if the song went, "Deck the halls with boughs of holly, FA LA FA LA FA LA FA LA, FA LA LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA" that would have made more sense to me.

The puzzle gave me such a warm and fuzzy feeling, however, that I shrugged off my doubt. Off to find some gay apparel!

POW Sun 12/11/2016RETRONYMS

★ RETRONYMS are words/phrases that are coined after a technological leap has been made, i.e. before email was invented, SNAIL MAIL was just MAIL. I love how Tom 1.) found so many good examples of these, and 2.) used a "non-existent" across number to refer to the old word — neat how he puts a black square above the M of MAIL so that he can refer to "34-Across" for MAIL.

Also really enjoyed the bonus entries Tom worked in. CAPRI PANTS, THAT HURTS, COW TIPPING, SUIT AND TIE — great stuff. Some may wonder if EPIC BATTLE is a real thing or not, but this Lord of the Rings fan says to haters YOU SHALL NOT PASS!

Ahem. Ignore me.

The bonus entries were much appreciated, since halfway through, I had already figured out the trick, and the impact of the theme didn't quite last all the way through the puzzle. It's a good thing I kept hitting nice entries, PET CRATE, SAYS ME, ALL MINE, ROBOTIC, and DEAR GOD giving me lifts everywhere.

There was just slightly too much crossword glue for my taste — AGUE is so old-timey, CMDR, CTS, the odd EFT, along with more minor stuff — but I'm totally fine with it as the price to pay for getting so much good bonus fill.

That amount of crossword glue is atypical of a Tom McCoy puzzle — I think he's one of the best in the business when it comes to entertaining, smooth, Sunday puzzles with bonus fill. He brings up a good point about the "fake across entry" trick giving him a little more inflexibility than usual. I built one with this trick a while back, and it was surprising how much more difficult the grid became. It's already so hard to execute on a Sunday 140-word puzzle, and any additional constraint, like cementing so many black squares into place at the outset, makes the gridwork even tougher.

Although I wondered if that would have been better as a Thursday puzzle, where the impact might have more easily lasted all the way through a 15x grid, I still enjoyed it a ton. Love experiencing concepts I've never quite seen before.

POW Sat 12/3/2016

★ I generally shudder when seeing quad-stacks. Because there are so many inflexible crossings to work with, it's inevitable that there are going to be at least a handful of groan-worthy globs of crossword glue holding a quad together.

Or is it? There's hardly anything in this super-smooth grid. SEE IT is a partial in disguise ("Now you ___ …") and the ORY / OR M middle made me cringe, but that's all? Couldn't be.

Well, if there's very little crossword glue, then the long entries are bound to be dreadfully boring.

Or are they? Besides SYSTEMS ANALYSTS, which I've seen anchor stacks many a time, the other seven are very good to great entries. MASTER CRAFTSMAN kicking off the puzzle? Yes! CREATURE FEATURE! Heck yeah! EMANCIPATION DAY! I didn't know what that was, but what a great occasion to learn about! I'm using a lot of exclamation points because I really enjoyed how snappy those long entries are!

(The engineer in me even admits to liking SYSTEMS ANALYSTS, much to the chagrin of the constructor in me.)

And getting ETERNITY, FEED LOT, ART STUDIO / SLEEP AIDS, HASIDIM, SOY PROTEIN running through those stacks, making for a wide-open solve … whoa!

I didn't totally get the RENTS clue: [Gets things on time?] I imagine it's sort of an "on borrowed time" type of wordplay? Anybody? Bueller?

After making hundreds of crosswords over the years, it's rare that I sit in such awe of a construction. Even after emailing back and forth with Jason to try to learn some techniques from him (neat that our Finder helped him discover TARDIS when he needed a six-letter word starting with TARD??), I'm still well out of the realm of total comprehension. I really enjoy getting a peek into a master's head.

I've made some triple-stacks before, even some with snazzy entries and clean crossings (don't ask about all the other stinkers), but this my friends, seems like real-life magic. Loved it.

POW Fri 11/25/2016

★ Beautiful puzzle; quintessential Patrick Berry. Here a few identifying factors that I identify with PB's themelesses:

  • A wide-open, well-connected grid with no real choke points
  • Well under the maximum of 72 words, creating a good challenge for solvers
  • Interesting layout of black squares, always trying something new
  • Some very good long answers like TEA CADDIES, HEAVEN SENT, RISING STAR, SPACE SUITS
  • Very little to no gluey short answers needed to hold everything together
  • Some neutral answers converted into assets through the use of a great wordplay clue, i.e. [Immersive experience] misleading toward a surround-sound theater experience, away from a dunking BAPTISM
  • No really flashy answers, but also no trendy answers that might mystify / dissatisfy big chunks of the solving population

Themelesses always involve trade-offs, and each constructor has his/her own weightings on how important each of the above categories are. Some do low-word count puzzles with a lot of neutral / bleh answers, some have really flashy entries with a ton of crossword glue holding everything together, etc. Patrick's blend of factors works really well for me.

I don't always absolutely 100% love Patrick's themelesses — there's rarely a single mind-blowing entry that makes one of his stick in my mind — but they hit every criterion I use for evaluation at such a darn high level. I really, really, enjoyed this one, an ultra-smooth, wide-open solve with a lot of very good entries and not a single hiccup in gluey short fill.

POW Thu 11/17/2016

★ I'm a sucker for visual puzzles, and simply having a MUMMY buried within a pyramid of black squares might have gotten this puzzle the POW! alone. What a brilliant image!

I had the luck to go to Egypt a few years ago before things started getting unsafe, and that made this puzzle even more enjoyable. Descending into those claustrophobic pyramids during 120-degree weather was harrowing, but what a once-in-a-lifetime experience. All those stories about lost tombs and building projects of massive scale … wow. Just, wow.

As if that wasn't enough, Tim and Joe give us some more pyramid graphics in other back square patterns, plus some fun theme material. PYRAMID SCHEME, TOMB RAIDER, PHARAOH ANT are more indirect than TUT, but they gave me enough to feel like the puzzle wasn't just a pretty picture.

And bonus fill to boot, with a themeless-esque open feel! I loved uncovering RARE GAS, MEGAWATTS, LAST GASP, even RASTAMAN (are you singing Bob Marley's RASTAMAN Vibration now too?), and TEA BAGS that come with strings attached.

Not all the fill was great, but that's to be expected with such wide-openness. TWO HEARTS felt partial-ish, and crossing TWICE was inelegant. I doubt many people will like seeing ANIS, but that's the only real glob of crossword glue, and I found it worth the price of LITHUANIA / LAST GASP. Tim and Joe could have cleaned up that region by putting a black square at the T or G of LAST GASP, but I like their decision here.

It also would have been nice to get less random-ish placement of the M U M M Y letters, but I can't think of a better way to do it (maybe have those letters be part of theme answers? or have them regularly spaced somehow?).

I imagine TOMB RAIDERs slipping diagonally into the pyramid from the T of MAD AT or first A of AMANA, just like I crept through chutes into the real pyramids. Totally tickled by this puzzle; a perfect example of the astounding creativity crosswords can exhibit.


★ I have to admit I didn't understand this one at all after uncovering PANTS AND A SNEAKER. Of course an aerobics instructor would wear pants! And a sneaker! But why not two?

I felt silly when I realized that 1.) it was PANTS AND A SWEATER and 2.) how much fun, that you hear PANTS in an aerobics class, and everyone is a SWEATER (one who sweats). Amusing play on double-meanings of words.

I liked most all the themers, but I loved SLACKS AND LOAFERS for an unemployed person — slacking and loafing are two of my favorite hobbies. And some of the themers also gave me amusing visuals. A gardener wearing BLOOMERS AND HOSE, love it!

I wasn't as much a fan of the central answer because 1.) it was the only one with three items, so I had a hard time figuring out that I needed implied commas in TURTLENECK, BOA, AND CROCS and 2.) TURTLENECK is associated with the turtle (to some extent), as is BOA / feather boa, and CROCS even have a crocodile for a logo — no real wordplay for me here.

Incredibly well-constructed. Plenty of constructors have tried to go down to 132 words, but very few have been successful in creating a both snazzy and smooth product. Joel uses four big corners and a diagonal swath of white in the middle of the puzzle, both of which should result in at least a few dabs of crossword glue, or at least some bleh/neutral answers. I love that lower left, with TRIBUTE BANDS, TAPENADE, WEB APP, (we were) ON A BREAK! ("Friends," anyone?), TEMPEST, with such clean results. Great stuff.

There were a few tiny HICCUPs here and there — as good as L'ETAT, C'EST MOI / DRONE BEE / the ICE MAN are in the upper right, TOOTER feels contrived. And in the lower right, PISTES is a bit esoteric. But to get so much jazzy fill like CHAKRA, KRONOS, CHIPPER, even CANNIBAL with a jokey clue, that's great stuff.

A playful theme plus top-notch execution is a rare feat on a Sunday 21x.

POW Fri 11/4/2016

★ A ton of flashy, catchy answers. That bottom left corner is especially shiny, with four strong answers — WOW JUST WOW / ASK ANYONE / SLOW DANCE / TUNA STEAK — stacked right atop each other, with only the very minor ASTI needed to hold it all together. Stacking three long answers is hard enough, but when you throw in a fourth (even if it is shifted over somewhat), it gets much harder. That's fantastic work.

WOW JUST WOW might not do much for some people, but it's one of my favorite types of entries, taking advantage of the crossword convention of ignoring punctuation. WOW JUST WOW looks odd, but think of it like this: WOW. (eye roll) JUST … WOW. (shake head.) Love it.

Interesting to hear David say that HOT STONE MASSAGE wasn't one of the seed entries. I would never have thought to build opposite corners like this, hoping that they would mesh in the middle — seems like you'd too often end up with unmatchable starts / ends for that long slot. But David kept his middle section pretty closed off with liberal use of black squares, so he set himself up to facilitate the start / end of that grid-spanning entry meshing in the middle. Clever!

Also nice to hear David point out EILAT as the least desirable entry, as that one stood out to me as well (a name I know only from crosswords). Is it a truly gluey entry, though? I'm on the fence about that. Major cities ought to be fair game, and never having traveled in that part of the world, I don't know enough about EILAT to gauge its tourist draw or its place in history. Tough call.

AMICO was second behind EILAT for me, but that felt more minor to me (it's easily inferable from the common "amigo" and "amicus brief"). It speaks to David's construction abilities that he was able to keep it to just these entries in terms of crossword glue, especially considering all the long answers stacked atop each other.

I wasn't a fan of the mini-theme — four of the first five answers clued to "pot" or "pots" — a rare case that a mini-theme actually detracted from a themeless for me. Felt a bit haphazard; inelegant. I'm glad I went back afterward to review the construction though, because once I got past that opening sensation of oddness, I really enjoyed the craftsmanship.

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.