January 04, 2008

The First Annual American Crossword Critics Association Awards!

The American Crossword Critics Association (ACCA) is pleased to announce its awards for achievement in puzzle construction for 2007. Honorees were chosen from among all the major daily and weekly puzzles published in the U.S. in the past year.

Our main goal in issuing these awards (which have monetary value of $0) is to give recognition to constructors, whose work is so often simply consumed and tossed away by solvers. Solving crosswords would become a stale and tedious endeavor were it not for the innovative work of constructors who strive to make puzzles that are thoughtful, fresh, contemporary, often rigorous, and - at best - genuinely exciting. We salute all the (vastly underpaid) constructors out there who have given us countless hours of stimulating diversion (and occasional torture) during the past year. The following awards are not meant to foster competitiveness among constructors or to be exclusionary in any fashion, but simply to honor those puzzles that blew us away.

We are happy to issue (virtual) Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals in the following categories:

Best Early-Week Puzzle (Monday or Tuesday - themed)

GOLD: Alex Boisvert, New York Sun (NYS), 4/2/07 - "10 Baggers"

  • Theme answers featuring SINGLE, DOUBLE, TRIPLE, and HOMER all traverse the central 15-letter Down answer HITS FOR THE CYCLE ... plus the answer for HOMER was "HOMER JAY SIMPSON" - that just sealed the deal for Rex.

SILVER: Fred Piscop, New York Times (NYT), 9/24/07 - ["Here's/There's/Where's"]

  • Three theme answers beginning with HERE'S, THERE'S, and WHERE'S respectively - it's everything an easy puzzle should be. Fresh and fun, with lots of lively, colloquial fill.

BRONZE: Lynn Lempel, NYT, 2/12/07 - ["Last Dance"]

  • Manages to get REEL, HORA, JIG, and HULA onto the ends of completely non-dance-related theme answers. All the dance words are either buried inside another word (as in DON SHULA), or traverse two words (CONGER EEL). Amazing.

Best Gimmick Puzzle (Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday)

GOLD: Patrick Berry, NYS, 9/14/07 - "Color Change"

  • Five-letter word ladder starts at top with BLACK and ends up at the bottom with WHITE - it's astonishing.

SILVER: Brendan Emmett Quigley, NYT, 1/31/07 - ["Tilt at Windmills"]

  • Three NW-to-SE-running diagonal theme answers: LEAN ON ME traversing the NE corner, TIP SHEET traversing the SE corner, and TILT AT WINDMILLS going clear across the grid. Magnificent.

BRONZE: Alan Olschwang, NYT, 1/4/07 - [Punctuation rebus]

  • Exactly one year ago today, this beauty came out, with theme answers that have DASH, COLON, PERIOD, and COMMA ("-" ":" "." and ",") buried inside them.

Best Themeless Puzzle

GOLD: Byron Walden, NYT, 2/24/07

  • So many long, fabulous answers, with the centerpiece being 3 central 15-letter Down answers: DANIEL RADCLIFFE, TRIAL SEPARATION, and VEAL SCALLOPINIS - we forgave that last plural, clearly.

SILVER: David Quarfoot, NYT 4/20/07

  • TOYS 'R' US KID over ONE-MAN ARMY over ABS OF STEEL, plus more fantastic fill than you can shake a stick at. Rex used this puzzle as his example of What Makes a Themeless Puzzle Great.

BRONZE: Karen M. Tracey, NYT, 3/3/07

  • You gotta admire a puzzle whose 1A is XZIBIT. Plus this grid had ORANGES crossing IHOPS, which made it beautiful in our eyes.

Best Sunday-sized Puzzle

GOLD: Craig Kasper, NYT, 3/18/07 - "Initial Substitutions"

  • Familiar "[word x] & [word y]" phrases intersect "[first letter of x] & [first letter of y]" phrases at the ampersand. Needs to be seen to be properly understood and appreciated.

SILVER: Merl Reagle, Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/7/07 - "Seeing Double"

  • Nine theme answers contain numbers 11, 22, 33, etc., respectively, up to 99. All crosses work perfectly - nothing forced. Best use of numbers in a grid that we can remember.

BRONZE: Ashish Vengsarkar, NYT, 1/7/07 - "Spellcheck"

  • Circled squares in theme entries hold letters that are to be pronounced As Letters in correct solution, e.g. O/B/C/T ["obesity"] PROBLEM - best of the lot: X/P/D/N/C [="expediency"]

Best Overall Constructor

GOLD: Patrick Berry

  • Consistently magnificent puzzle construction. He makes beautiful, imaginative puzzles, pure and simple. A master. (Orange also appreciates his assorted variety crosswords and cryptics in Games magazine.)

SILVER: Byron Walden

  • Smart, funny, dazzling puzzles. Deciding between him and Patrick was actually very, very difficult.

BRONZE: David Quarfoot and Karen M. Tracey (tie)

  • Rex asked Orange to choose, and Orange said "No way. That's like 'Sophie's Choice.' Let's call it a tie." And so we did. These two have very similar, contemporary styles, and they helped set the standard for themeless puzzles this year very high indeed.
Rex Parker's Honorable Mentions:

Crossword Fiend’s Honorable Mentions:
  • Patrick Blindauer and Tony Orbach, 6/1 Wall Street Journal, Friday (Sunday-sized) - “Westward Ho!” - Patrick and Tony go west from Georgia (GA) to neighboring AL, turning “mind the GAp” into MIND THE ALP. In the next theme entry, AL is changed to MS, then MS to AR, AR to OK, and so on—eventually you’ve traced a westward course from Georgia all the way to Oregon. Elegant!

  • Francis Heaney, 5/4 NYS, Friday - “Letterbox” - Francis presents the alphabet in a string of 11 rebus squares across the middle, with [ABC] part of the crossing REH[AB C]LINICS, [YZ] part of TOWAWA[Y Z]ONE, and other 2- and 3-letter chunks filling in the remainder of the alphabet.

  • Byron Walden, 10/31 Onion A.V. Club - [“DOUBLE-HUNG”] - In this fun puzzle, DOUBLE-HUNG doesn’t just mean a type of window, it means each theme entry is “hung” with a different pair of phallic double entendres. We’ve got ANDY RODDICK’s last name and four other two-pronged theme entries.

We are also happy to announce Special Awards for

Most Difficult Puzzle (tie)

We had this one decided - Stanley Newman's puzzle (blank PDF here) had crushed Orange like she hadn't been crushed all year, and since Rex took a good long time to get it done, he couldn't argue. And then Klahn happened. And while the Klahn did not vex Orange so much, it vexed the hell out of most of the rest of the puzzling world. Rex couldn't finish. Former champions admitted openly that it brutalized them. Some cried foul. Others humbly accepted defeat and chose to see it as a learning experience. And so we give this award to both puzzles. (An aside: most of you do the NYT, but Newman's "Saturday Stumpers" are definitely worth your time if you like rough stuff.)

Best Cluing

  • [Leaves alone, sometimes] => SALAD (Roger Barkan/Will Shortz, NYT, 8/17/07)

Most Creative Fill (tie)

  • (23A: University of Florida student Andrew Meyer's famous plea) (Matt Gaffney, The Onion AV Club Puzzle, 11/28/07) - the best part about this incredibly contemporary reference is that it is a theme answer involving hidden rivers. As Orange said: "Best use ever of the EBRO river."
  • (35A: With 42-Across, Lesléa Newman book) (Dave Mackey, NYT, 1/16/07) - another theme answer (where the theme involved people one might see at a family reunion). We love puzzles with an audaciously broad cultural frame of reference, and a 20+-year-old work of young adult fiction about a girl with lesbian parents is about as broad as it gets.
That's it. Join us next year when we'll do it all again. And if you see anything out there in the World of Puzzles that you feel is particularly worthy of consideration, or if you can think of viable, interesting categories that we don't have yet, don't hesitate to let us know.

All best wishes for a great new year in puzzling,

Orange and Rex Parker (founding members of ACCA)