December 31, 2005

Happy New Year!

Will Shortz kicks off 2006 with an excellent puzzle by Joe DiPietro, featuring a theme that must have been fun to work on. Skimming the dictionary for REP* words in which the * is a word in its own right, and then cooking up entries like REPAIRING DIRTY LAUNDRY and REPROACH MOTEL? C'mon, that sounds like fun! The rest of the grid has treats like AFTERPARTY, SOUNDS GOOD, PED XING, and IM MOVED, and then there are some entertaining clues like "Moving experience?" for EXODUS. Great puzzle! You know it's a fantastic puzzle when someone can get screwed over by the applet and still love the puzzle—the screen froze up on me with 8:20 on the clock when I had a mere 33 squares left to go in the SW corner. Between sitting there agape and checking my e-mail before retyping the whole puzzle, I managed to use up plenty of extra time on the clock.


Nancy Salomon's LA Times fun puzzle works in the countdown to the ball dropping at midnight, with 10 numerical phrases like SEVEN DWARFS.

Harvey Estes has two puzzles today. The CrosSynergy Sunday Challenge has three triple-stacked 15's. I did slow myself down a smidgen by filling in ARMED TO THE GILLS instead of TEETH, because apparently some part of my brain believes that fish are heavily armed. Of course, piranhas and sharks are fierce, but their armaments have more to do with teeth than gills. Anyway...Harvey's other puzzle is "Not All There" in the Washington Post. One thing I learned from it is that "parabolic" can pertain to parables as well as to parabolas; who knew? Either this is the most difficult Sunday-sized puzzle today, or too much Moscato d'Asti is incompatible with deciphering Harvey's cluing style.

Henry Hook's LA Weekly puzzle, "Repeat Performance," was eased up a bit by the word duplication within theme entries. Most of the theme entries were lo-o-ong, too—I'm guessing that having two 21's rendered the construction process much more difficult. My favorite clue was the one that kept me guessing the longest: "Silent partner?" for HARPO. And I learned a few new words, VROUW ("Hollander's Mrs."), ESBAT ("Meeting of witches"), and EOLUS ("Colorado mountain"). If you're tackling this one one on screen with Across Lite, note two errors in the answer key for 28A—it's Mrs. Gorbachev who was named Raisa, not Mrs. Yeltsin.

NYT 18:30 on the applet, but I swear it had to be under 10:00
WaPo 10:51
Hook 8:07
LAT 6:44
CS 3:48


December 30, 2005


Robert H. Wolfe's Saturday NYT is a fairly straightforward puzzle—if you can consider anything with one triple stack and two double stacks of 15's straightforward. The clues tended to be straightforward, anyway. Not only is NO SUCH LUCK a lively entry, but it also ties together five of the 15-letter entries. The only fill-in-the-blank clue, "___-Mex," was designed to dupe, as most people will confidently plug in TEX long before CAL occurs to them. For me, the deadliest spot in the puzzle was the last across entry, GO BY SEA; I entered GO TO SEA and wondered how a FIT was an "inconsequential invention" (try FIB) and how "movable type" might mean SOFTO (try SOFTY). I clicked "done" and spent a minute reviewing the entire rest of the grid before questioning those two answers that made no sense to me. (Note to self: when the puzzle is incorrect and a couple entries don't make sense, reconsider those ones first!)

Patrick Berry's Chronicle of Higher Education puzzle was cute—a fun Beatles theme tied loosely into academia.

NYT 6:46
Saturday Stumper tba
LAT 4:47
CS 4:02
12/9 CHE 3:45



David Liben-Nowell's NYT puzzle was good fun since I was on his wavelength. A host of great entries—most notably SEX SCENES, spicing up the Gray Lady—were accompanied by so many fantastic clues. My favorites were "Cup of ice?" for STANLEY, "Banking assessor, perhaps" for TEST PILOT, "Outbound vessel" for AORTA, "Engages in violent practices" for SPARS, and "Kind of gold" for OLYMPIC...not to mention "Double execution?" for STUNT. It's shaping up to be another one of those weekends when we say, "Don't just pay the constructors more—Will Shortz deserves a raise, too."

David Sullivan (a.k.a. Fiend regular Evad) cooked up the "Do the Math" puzzle in Friday's Sun. This is the puzzle that blew John "Popeye" Minarcik away—the one with the vertical Roman numeral math problem complete with mathematical symbols. The trickiest aspects of this puzzle, for me, were parsing the second pair of theme entries (the minus in "take A LESSON from HISTORY and the plus in INSULT added to INJURY) and figuring out how to enter what in Across Lite (I couldn't for the life of me get a minus sign to show up). It's a rather bizarre, envelope-pushing, paradigm-bending puzzle—hooray!'s a pangram. Dave, would you care to talk a bit about the genesis and development of this puzzle?

Updated late:

John Farmer's LA Times puzzle has a clever theme with the best use of OREO ever.

Randall Hartman's CrosSynergy puzzle includes COP SHOP, which is slang for police station. I'd only heard the term used once, about 10 years ago, by a guy saying he played basketball "at the school over by the cop shop." That's all it took—my husband and I have called it the cop shop ever since.

Great theme in Manny Nosowsky's Wall Street Journal puzzle, "50% Off."

NYS 7:45
NYT 5:09
LAT 4:43
CS 3:38

WSJ (Hmm, the timer still said 0:00 when I finished...)
Reagle 8:17


December 28, 2005


How about that theme in David Pringle's NYT, eh? It's a beaut. Four 15's cleverly hiding NORTH, EAST, WEST, and SOUTH amid in-the-language phrases, tied together with the explanatory DIR at the bottom of the grid. And it's too bad that ASIAN is clued in reference to bird flu, because otherwise the juxtaposition of CHICKEN, ASIAN, and CHUTNEY would have had me on the phone to Star of India for a late supper.

Speaking of India, Ben Tausig's Sun Themeless Thursday had some winning clues, like "Cleveland Indians, perhaps?" for the fresh entry EXPATS, "Michael Jordan, e.g." for SCENT, and "Extra minute?" for TEENIER. I also liked "Go through odontiasis" for TEETHE—I can't say I ever encountered the word odontiasis in all my years of dental editing, but the odont- portion definitely makes the answer gettable.


Two masters of the themeless form have themed puzzles today—Manny Nosowsky in the LA Times and Bob Klahn with the CrosSynergy puzzle.

NYT 4:11
NYS 4:09
CS 4:01
LAT 4:00


December 27, 2005


Richard and Judith Martin's NYS puzzle, "Just Add Water," has a beautifully executed theme, with EAU added to each theme entry. Can you think of other possible theme entries? The best I can come up could be clued "hood's dessert" (15), "giant rococo painting" (11), and "latex bikini top" (13).

The highlight of Ben Tausig's latest puzzle has got to be CZECH BI MALE. Now, I haven't checked the Cruciverb database, but I think that's a new entry. Nothing even comes up for it in a Google search. Someday, though, somebody will Google that term, and they'll be terribly disappointed when this post is the only search result.

I don't know why, but I've been slower than usual on the NYT puzzles for several days. I don't get it. You'd think I could have moved a little faster on Ernest Lampert's hurried theme, but no. What, do I need to brush up on Portuguese rivers and operatic baritones? Fine, fine...


Paula Gamache's CrosSynergy puzzle, "Dalmatian's Delight," includes the shiny new entry XMRADIO. This puzzle and Stella Daily and Bruce Venzke's LA Times puzzle have CASA in the 1A spot.

NYT 4:46
Tausig 4:16
LAT 3:58
NYS 3:46
CS 3:22



Just a cursory post this morning—

I liked Harvey Estes and Nancy Salomon's HO rebus puzzle in the Sunday NYT, but it took me a few minutes longer than I'd have expected since I'm usually on Harvey's wavelength. Was this puzzle on the hard side, or is it just that I'm not at my best when people are shouting over Monopoly while I'm solving?

I liked the better-late-than-never Christmas theme in today's NYS, with FROSTY and RUDOLPH GIULIANI.

And I enjoyed today's NYT by Lee Glickstein and Nancy Salomon. The theme was on the hard side for a Tuesday, since the theme entries were made up and the clues didn't reference the original phrases at all. The theme would perhaps have been a little more intuitive ffor me if all the hard G's rendered into soft G's were followed by vowels (I and E) that can accompany hard or soft G's (get vs. gem, give vs. gin). Are there words starting with GA, GO, or GU that have a soft G sound?

Also, if you can find the January issue of Games World of Puzzles, pick up a copy. The Frank Longo Jumbo Crossword was especially good this time. There's a special cryptic section that has a fun cryptic crossword (with a center containing no black squares, and lively fill) by Harvey Estes. There are a bunch of Patrick Berry puzzles (I always like the Some Assembly Required format; he's also got an ingenious variety cryptic). And there's a contest puzzle by Mike Selinker that is eluding me for the time being.

Sun. NYT 12:45 (on paper)
Sun. CS 3:43

Mon. CS 3:44
Mon. NYT 2:45
Mon. LAT 2:41

Tues. NYT 4:14
Tues. NYS 3:25
Tues. LAT 2:53Tues. CS 3:11


December 23, 2005


Well, speak of the devil. No sooner do I mention how much I've enjoyed Byron Walden's puzzles this year, and then I get gobsmacked by another one—possibly his hardest puzzle this year. Or maybe it's not really so hard? Maybe my headache caused cognitive impairment? Or perhaps it really is The Killer of 2005 (cue slasher-movie sound effects). This puzzle was indeed rather 15A. And I'd talk specifics, but I don't want to make it easy for anyone to succumb to spoiler temptations and end up posting a faster applet time than I did—that was too hard-fought. I will say that Byron worked in about 15 entries that haven't shown up in crosswords before (per the Cruciverb database)—that's a whopping amount of new stuff. Also, check out the square around the middle made up of 24A, 24D, 46A, and 26D; isn't that a nice grouping? "Salty hail" is an awesome clue, and the combo of 1D, 2D, and 3D (clues and entries) is great, too. Thanks to Byron and Will for getting the holiday weekend off to a crushing start (and I mean that in the best way!).

P.S. Hapless Googlers, "Salty hail" means AHOYMATE.

NYT 15:14
LAT 5:08
Saturday Stumper 3:52
CS 3:32—"Twisted Christmas Carols" by Raymond Hamel was cute


We open the floor for YUMMV nominations

Over on the NYT's Today's Puzzle forum today, John "Popeye" Minarcik bemoaned the demise of the annual forum tradition of choosing the year's best puzzles. I don't know the full history, but originally they were the YUMMI awards, the MMI being the year 2001. Then there were YUMMIIs, YUMMIIIs, and YUMMIVs. And now, we are ready to nominate the year's finest for YUMMV status.

I'll nominate:

• Byron Walden's assorted themeless puzzles in the NYT and NYS
• Frank Longo's vowelless puzzle in the NYS (10/7)
• Eric Berlin's "Going Too Far" puzzles from the NYS (9/2 and...wasn't there another date?)

As you can see, my favorite puzzles are tough themelesses with clever clues and oddball varietals that pose an extra challenge.

I'll be away for an extended Christmas weekend, but the comments will remain open so you can put in a good word for your favorite puzzles and constructors of 2005. What and who gave you cruciverbal thrills and chills this year?


December 22, 2005


Two classic (but not that tough) themeless puzzles for Friday—Manny Nosowsky in the NYT corner, and Joe DiPietro in the NYS. Manny's got a wealth of good phrases, including six entries making their debut in the Cruciverb database: ABOARD SHIP, DRYABLE, ITS A CINCH, DOTTED THE I, CAME AS, and RAISE TAXES. There's even a new, less obvious clue for OTOE: "Iowa kin." And who doesn't like to see PASHA in a crossword? EMIR and AGA are dull, but I like to call my husband the pasha at times.

DiPietro's NYS "Weekend Warrior" featured a pair of triple-stacked 15's. Three clues stood out for me: "Sprint competitor" (deviously bringing things like Verizon and Cingular to mind) for RACER, "Featherweight boxer?" for PUPPY, and "Beat record: Abbr." for ECG (which is perhaps a little more common in than EKG in medical publishing circles).

Updates below:

NYS 5:23
NYT 4:48
LAT 4:15—tribute to Rosa Parks
CS 3:36—Harvey Estes, with a goofball theme and some seldom-seen longish entries

WSJ—"Deck the Halls" puzzle by "Judith Seretto" ("just the editor" = Mike Shenk) that I liked, but I forgot to time myself
WaPo 9:17—a timely "Tree-Trimming Party" by the always-good Frank Longo
Hex LA Weekly 11:27 (don't time yourself when you're nodding off)—Who the heck is ALIDA Valli, and why is ISIS "Thames, in Oxford"? Always nice to see XERXES I pop up in a puzzle...
Reagle n/a this weekend


December 21, 2005


John "Popeye" Minarcik and Vic Fleming joined forces to create the THREE L LLLAMA delight, "Wanna Bet a Silk Pajama?" in the Sun. Sure, the theme entries are goofy, but that's half the fun. Then there's fill like NOHITS, MALLRAT, PHAT, ALLPRO, and the words that contain those two X's and five Z's. And the clue for INLAW ("One who comes with a tied knot?") is cute. My only quibble is that I don't think too many youths shop at Banana Republic—the apparel there tends to skew a little more grown-up.

Elizabeth Gorski's NYT features an interesting quip from Miles Davis. SPHINX and DEJA VU are great fill, no doubt, and I liked KOOK, but a few entries had me scratching my head. Never heard of Neil Diamond's SHILO, Villa RICA, CORON Bay, or the phrase LAND UP. Live and learn...and land up smarter?


Martin Ashwood-Smith's CrosSynergy puzzle, "On Average," has a pretty ambitious grid for an easy puzzle, with 10 8- to 10-letter entries outside of the theme. I liked how the first theme entry was clued in reference to a short entry, both involving Homer Simpson.

And updated again:

If you subscribe to Ben Tausig's crosswords via e-mail, you received today's bonus 21x21 ("Book Groups") from the Chicago Reader's fiction issue. (It'll also be posted at the NYT "Today's Puzzle" forum.) I liked the handful of Chicago-specific clues, sure, but even better were the clever clues that elicited laughs or "aha" moments. Even if you aren't familiar with every component of the theme entries, you're still sure to enjoy this puzzle. You can

Tausig bonus 8:52
NYT 5:38
NYS 5:04
LAT 3:40
CS 2:59


December 20, 2005


After I finished David Kahn's NYT puzzle and went back to reread the theme clues, I said to myself, "Holy sh...!" Yes, we were all duly impressed when Pat Merrell created one of last week's puzzles using only the 15 letters found on the left side of the keyboard. But here Kahn has made a puzzle using just the 10 letters found in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, he's included four 11-letter theme entries in addition to that central 15, and the theme entries interlock. Wow! David Kahn, I raise my glass to you—a glass containing a nice Moscato, from Asti (even though MOSCATO and ASTI didn't find their way into this grid). My guess for what inspired this puzzle is the constructor noticing that MRS CRATCHIT's letters were contained in the book's title. What do you think?

Sadly for Ben Tausig's indie puzzle, "Star Children," and James Kaplan's NYS puzzle, "Risky Business," I did them right after the NYT puzzle. Of course they're both good puzzles, but...the Kahn puzzle exhausted the evening's supply of enthusiasm.

NYS 4:50
Tausig 4:44
NYT 3:41
LAT 3:21
CS 3:16


December 19, 2005


Nicely constructed NYT puzzle by Nancy and Holden Baker with the man-of-war/Man o' War theme. I liked the six 8-letter entries (one sixth of which, ONE FIFTH, may be new to puzzledom) and the bunch of 6's (including PAPAYA, clued as "yellow fruit"—I wouldn't want to happen to have only the A's filled in when I hit that clue). Looking back at the puzzle just now, I was trying to figure out what a TEA RAT is. And who is this PAPA YA fellow, anyway?


The Monday Sun puzzle by Timothy Powell offers up an alternative to Roy Leban's set of herbs and spices in the 12/13 NYT. Wait, was ROSEMARY CLOONEY in the Leban puzzle too? Anyway, there's plenty of good fill (COSMIC RAYS, DR RUTH, BELARUS—not to mention EDIT OUT crossing PARSE in the editor's corner of this puzzle) to offset the occasional TPKE.

In Randall Hartman's Tuesday Sun, I understood how the "On/Off Switch" aspect worked in the theme entries, but had no idea what "coffin corner" meant. In football: "Either corner of the field formed by the sideline and the defending team's goal line. The ball may be deliberately punted out of bounds in this area, thus forcing the receiving team to play very close to its goal line." And in aviation: "Coffin corner is a dangerous portion of the flight envelope that must be carefully approached by high altitude high subsonic speed aircraft." Kudos to Randall for squeezing in two non-theme 10-letter entries.

NYS Tues 3:56
NYS Mon 3:17
CS 2:56
NYT 2:49
LAT 2:47


December 18, 2005


Richard Hughes' Christmas-themed NYT packs a lot of bonus theme entries into the grid in addition to YES VIRGINIA/THERE IS/A SANTA CLAUS: there are four 6-letter Yule-related entries going across, plus DEER ("Rudolph and team") going down. Having spent hours draping TINSEL and hanging ornaments while listening to CAROLS, the puzzle was a perfect way to cap off Sunday afternoon. Now, given that it was the New York Sun that originally published the "Yes, Virginia" editorial, I wonder whether Peter Gordon has a similar puzzle in store for us this week...

NYS tba
CS 3:03
NYT 2:44
LAT 2:19


December 17, 2005


Of the three Sunday puzzles I've done this evening (NYT, LA Weekly, Washington Post), my favorite is Henry Hook's LA Weekly puzzle, "Flipped Fives." You know what? Just in case you've been busy with holiday shopping or something, I won't spoil it by discussing the theme. Just do it, will you?

Ethan Cooper and Michael Shteyman's NYT, "What the Professor Meant To Say," had plenty of good fill (JONESES, SAY WHEN, TRASH TV, THE REDS) and clues ("Caesarean delivery?" for ET TU, "Apples can be compared to them" for IBMS, "Heads of états" for TETES, "Best replacement" for STARR, "Some have black eyes" for PEAS). It was harder than the average Sunday NYT, too—thanks to Ethan, Michael, and Will for a good challenge.


Is it just me, or is anyone else a little troubled by the flipflopping of theme entries and clues in the NYT puzzle? The professor's unspoken subtext seems to be presented in the clues for 27A, 65A, and 94A, but in the entry for 115A; for 44A, 79A, and 29D, it's not clear to me whether it's the clue or entry that's "what the professor meant to say." I'm still a fan of the non-theme portion of this puzzle, but the theme confuses me a bit.

I liked the theme execution in Robert H. Wolfe's Sunday LA Times puzzle, "Gee, That's Better." There's also a hall-of-fame clue: "Moses' title?" I had *****MA and considered MAHATMA before figuring out it was GRANDMA. Did you know GRANDMA only shows up twice in the Cruciverb database?

NYT 10:45 (–20 seconds for technical difficulties)
WaPo 10:18
LAT 9:20
Hook 9:17
CS 3:49


December 16, 2005


Patrick Berry's NYT puzzle delivered a crisp challenge in a beautiful grid—really, I have no antipathy at all towards symmetry, especially when it looks this good. The puzzle features four interlocking 14-letter entries in a grid with plenty of connections between the various sections, allowing for a much smoother solving experience than yesterday's DiPietro, which felt like five small and hard crosswords in one. I liked the clues like "brave" for WARRIOR and "groups" for ASSORTS, probably because I guessed correctly that Patrick meant a noun for one and a verb for the other. Really, the central entries tell the whole story for this puzzle: it's INVENTIVE and it LUMINESCEs. (I just wish I'd been able to solve it faster, darn it; someone else using the NYT applet managed to finish in 41 seconds. *insert eye roll*)


The Newsday Saturday Stumper by "Anna Stiga" (Stan Newman) wasn't all that hard, but I really enjoyed the puzzle—the highlights were ATM INSIDE ("convenience store sign"), THE CREEPS ("uncomfortable feeling"), and YEAH YOU ("playground retort").

Mark Milhet's LA Times puzzle contains three 15's and two 12's bound together by a vertical 11. It's a pangram, thanks in part to the inclusion of QUARTZ TIMEPIECE. There was a wonderfully misleading clue for ELEM (short for element): "He or I." Other great ELEM clues in recent years include "I, O, or U, but not A or E: Abbr." and "Ca, Ga, or Pa" (both Elizabeth Gorski in the NYT)—all three are hall-of-fame clues in my book. Another good clue (and apparently a new one) was "it was you" for THEE.

LAT 7:16
Stumper 5:55
NYT 5:08
CS 4:02


December 15, 2005


Okay, I'm too sleepy to write anything cogent tonight. Joe DiPietro's NYT is stuffed to the gills with phrases, many of which are probably new to crossworddom—BED OF RICE, THE PINTA, WORK A ROOM, POUR IT ON. I was fooled by the "cousin of a capillary" clue and plugged in VENULE, assuming we were looking for another type of blood vessel; I'd say a TUBULE is more of a first cousin, once removed. Was this puzzle as tough as a Saturday puzzle, or is my brain just leaden tonight?

Jay Leatherman's "Puzzling Directions" in the Sun would have tumbled faster if I'd paid attention to the title, rather than filling in both [ACROSS] rebus squares with [OVER] (oops). I liked JESSICA being clued with regard to the old TV show, Soap; MUDFLAP, and NAPTIME. I wasn't crazy about OVULAR, which is gettable but on the obscure side; it turns out some have also repurposed this word as a female substitute for the word "seminar." Who knew?


The answer to the question in the first paragraph is yes, my brain was leaden. More than double Tyler's time = ouch.

In the Wall Street Journal, Harvey Estes produced another days-of-the-week puzzle, but the days aren't wedged into rebus squares because the grid's large enough to accommodate the letters. My favorite clue: "Death of the party" for WET BLANKET.

My favorite part of Merl Reagle's PI puzzle was the adjacent "John and Paul but not Ringo" for POPES and "John or Paul or George but not Ringo" for SAINT. Merl provides an example of how longer partial entries (A MOTHER TO, THE BUM) can be used to good effect. The first one ties together three theme entries that cross it, and THE BUM binds two theme entries plus IN THE BAG.

The 11/25 Chronicle of Higher Education puzzle by Joan Yanofsky introduced me to a couple unfamiliar names. Make a note of them in case they rear their heads again: NARA ("Japan's capital, 710-784") has been used a handful of times before (or 1.2 handsful, really), and Belgian violinist EUGENE/YSAYE's last name has made two previous appearances.

NYT 8:30
NYS 5:23
LAT 4:47
CHE 4:29
CS 2:43

WSJ 7:51
Reagle 7:07


December 14, 2005


Well, I definitely noticed that Pat Merrell's Thursday NYT puzzle only contained certain letters—A, E, and a little over half of the consonants. But it wasn't until I opened the Across Lite file, read the notepad, and then read up the list of clues that I discovered the twist: Pat used only the letters that you type with your left hand. Oddly enough, I did a similar puzzle once on paper (anyone remember the constructor or date?), and figured I would have noticed right away if only I'd solved it via a keyboard. But no. Great job using the X, Q, and Z, and finding three 15-letter entries, Pat!

Joe DiPietro's "Themeless Thursday" in the Sun had some tricky clues ("check out" for EYEBALL was a favorite), but the main appeal for me was the fill. FU MANCHU mustache (How many other constructors wish they'd used that one first?), WENT AWRY (I love the word "awry"), LA RAIDER, and GAME BIRD are new to the Cruciverb database, and VULPINE only has one prior appearance. Great job, Joe!

NYS 5:08
NYT 4:28
LAT 4:05
CS 3:26


December 13, 2005


NAKED MAJA—Now, that's a hell of an entry, isn't it? And it's only a Wednesday! Congrats to James Leeds for an NYT puzzle with two new 9-letter entries (the aforementioned plus RURAL AREA); for other good fill like the WANTON and WILD pair, DOWN ON, and AMNION (you know I like medical terminology); for a fairly ambitious Wednesday grid; and for the three-camel theme.

Ben Tausig's "Reintegration" is a classic example of what his puzzles are like. A touch of politics (ERA, ABU GHRAIB, and UNITER), a little hipster cred (JAM BAND, R CRUMB), pop culture (the clues for NATASHA and ENCINO), computer stuff (IMS and DESKTOP), and the freshness of cluing DEATHTRAP as "car without brakes, say" (rather than as "Ira Levin play"). And a good theme! I especially liked A-LIST ACTOR turned into REALIST ACTOR, and wonder if that was the seed for the puzzle.

I don't know why it took me so long to realize that Randall Hartman's "Mixed Metaphors in the NY Sun was an anagram-theme puzzle. Entering FATHERS PA instead of MOTHERS PA probably didn't help! (D'oh.) It's nice to have SHEWOLF added to the crossword vocabulary, too.


Cute LA Times puzzle from Doug Peterson with an OZ* theme, supplemented by fill like YOOHOO, BUZZWORD, and I LIKE IKE.

Tausig 5:02
NYS 5:01
NYT 4:18
LAT 3:23
CS 2:57


Polemic on the future of crosswords

I'm lucky. When I reached the age at which a kid can manage more challenging adult crosswords, Games magazine had begun publishing, and I started subscribing (and have subscribed for a good 25 years or so). Games gave gainful employment to an assemblage of puzzle professionals who were turning crosswords inside out. Over time, of course, that generation of puzzle editors and creators ended up in charge of the best newspaper and magazine crosswords. While ERNE and OLEO still show up far more often in puzzles than in daily conversation, at least the need to summon up the names of Indonesian trees is a thing of the past; dry obscurities have been supplanted by wordplay, pop culture, modern technology, vernacular phrases, trade names, and other words more reflective of the world we live in. This is a good thing from my perspective. (I don't much enjoy the older puzzles Barry Haldiman collects each year for Litzmas—most pre-Shortz, pre-Newman, pre-Games crosswords strike me as just plain not as much fun.)

Now that the changing of the guard is largely complete, it's time to examine the hide-bound traditions that still constrain the art of crossword construction—and consider whether some of them ought to go the way of the ANOA.

There is such strong insistence on symmetry—symmetrical grids, symmetrical theme entries, symmetrical placement of rebus squares. While symmetry is visually pleasing, I wonder how many otherwise fantastic puzzles and themes have been chucked into the trash because the constructor couldn't get a good fill to fit into the constraints of symmetry. In his Mensa Crosswords for the Super Smart book, half of Frank Longo's puzzles deviate from symmetry. It was a fantastic move on the part of Frank and editor Peter Gordon. By moving some black squares around, Frank squeezed some terrific entries into those puzzles, and I haven't heard anyone say their solving enjoyment was lessened by the asymmetry in the grids.

I bet almost everyone who makes themed crosswords has had to discard a favored theme entry because he or she couldn't find another good entry of the same length, or couldn't design a symmetrical grid to accommodate it. Are crossword solvers best served by the sacrifice of great theme entries at the altar of symmetry? Or would more flexibility in the arrangement of theme entries pay off with greater appreciation of a clever theme? (Perhaps the theme clues could be italicized or all-caps to help solvers identify them if the entries weren't symmetrical.) Imagine that you think up a list of theme entries, and the three very best ones are 10, 12, and 13 letters long. Are solvers grateful if you discard the best ones and instead use the eighth best entry from your list because it had the right number of letters?

Another tradition that can limit crossword constructors is the "rule" that two forms of a word should not appear in the same puzzle. There are deviations from this rule—note SERF BORED and BORER in this weekend's Boston Globe/LA Weekly crossword by Hex, and EAT ON and ATE in Ben Tausig's Sunday NYT. These deviations probably bugged some people who are enmeshed in the crossword world, but does the average solver care, or even notice? Probably not. If you construct, have you ever had to change a word you really liked just to avoid a quasi-duplication in a crossing entry? I bet you have. I certainly don't quibble with not using the same word more than once in a puzzle, but having a pair of closely related ones just might not be so terrible.

Some editors are said to impose strict limits on the number of allowable abbreviations, partial entries (e.g., ON A "___ dare"), or proper nouns. Obscure abbreviations for government programs, for example, don't enhance a puzzle, but I doubt most solvers are bothered by more familiar abbreviatons (especially if they have lively clues). Which entry is better: MPAA or OLEO? RFK or UTA? I vote for the abbreviations. If a partial entry can be clued well and is needed to facilitate the inclusion of top-notch entries nearby, I don't mind. As for proper nouns, quality definitely matters. This Monday's NYT puzzle had about 25 capitalized entries, including STUTZ, EGGO, and SHREK—possibly more proper nouns than some editors would be willing to accept. However, these entries are qualitatively different from (and better than) oddly spelled or obscure names that are quite limited in how they can be clued (e.g., LUISE, ENZO, PATTI, the LEINE river). I suppose the editors need to proclaim certain limits to forestall submission of truly abysmal puzzles, but I hope they are all flexible enough to accept a good and entertaining puzzle even if it exceeds the caps for certain categories of entries.

Granted, a puzzle that is great and hews to all the traditional guidelines is more elegant (or at least more hard-fought) than one that dispenses with the rules. But what is the primary purpose of a crossword? To provide entertainment for the solver—all solvers, not just the tiny minority who construct, compete at Stamford, kibitz in the NYT Today's Puzzle forum, and otherwise obsess about crosswords. Maybe, just maybe, there is a place for the imperfect-but-highly-entertaining puzzle—one that bends the rules—alongside the elegance of the more rare "perfect" puzzle.

Solvers, constructors, editors: What do you think? Are you open to stretching the boundaries of the black and white squares?


December 12, 2005

Tooeasyday redux

Okay, so it wasn't quite as easy as the Tuesday puzzle three weeks ago, but Roy Leban's NYT still seemed much easier than a Tuesday puzzle ought to be. (Maybe Will Shortz is deliberately easing up the early-week puzzles? Say it ain't so, Will!) But as I zipped through the grid, it did not escape my notice that it's a good puzzle—PAPYRUS crossing GARGOYLE and SHORT U? GALILEO crossing MUESLI and NOT YET? A spicy/herbal theme? I liked those things. Can anyone explain TORRES = "Spanish constructions" to me, though?

I enjoyed the bodily theme in Paula Gamache's Sun puzzle, "Habeas Corpus"...

Updated: ...and the gearshift theme in Curtis Yee's LA Times puzzle.

NYS 4:18
CS 3:13
LAT 3:00
NYT 2:45


December 11, 2005

The theme in Allan Parrish's Monday NYT had me scratching my head for longer than it took to solve the puzzle. It just so happens I'd filled in the central across entry with just the down clues, so I hadn't seen the explanatory clue for RHYME. (D'oh.) A casualty of an extra-fast solve—I think this was my fastest Monday NYT ever. Did it seem easy to everyone else? This is completely off topic, but a few years ago the Chicago Tribune stopped carrying the comic strip, Rhymes with Orange, which is a shame because it had been one of my favorites. Click on the link for some dry, droll cartoons.

If you don't frequent the NYT Today's Puzzle forum, you will have missed Lee Glickstein's latest Topical Punch crossword. Lee started making these fun and timely puzzles a few months ago. The theme clues are the beginning of topical jokes (largely political) from late-night TV, and the entries are the punchlines. The puzzles are too good to be given away for free, so if you know of any outlet that would pay Lee for their use, send me an e-mail and I'll forward it to Lee.


Somehow Randall Hartman's CrosSynergy puzzle took me longer than any of the other daily puzzles today. I didn't figure out the theme until I was finished—the theme entries in "Fight Prelims" begin with KNOCK, DOWN, DRAG, OUT. Kinda cute!

Curtis Yee's "One-Two Three" is a classic Monday NYS puzzle. Solid, fresh theme; fill with some Scrabbly letters; baseball facts and Hollywood names.

CS 3:56
NYS 3:26
LAT 3:03
NYT 2:43
Topical Punch 5:30


December 10, 2005


Ben Tausig hired himself out to a daily paper for a change, with the Sunday NYT puzzle titled "Switch-Ups." And I'm glad he did, because it means this bang-up weekend of great puzzles continues unabated. I liked the theme, particularly the first theme entry, LIFE OF MY LIGHT. The theme was perhaps a little more challenging than some because the theme entries flip-flopped variably around OF, OF THE, or OF MY. I also liked the energetic fill (ONE VOTE, AIR BALL, SHAKE OFF, AGES AGO, TONGUE TIED, TALKIES, WREAKS) and the cluing—"left homes" for ESTATES, "you can say that again" for MANTRA, "Reed in music" for LOU, "Tony Clifton, to Andy Kaufman" for ALTER EGO, "followers of wells" for UMS, "joined the mob, maybe" for RIOTED, and the etymologically informative "title from which 'admiral' is derived" for EMIR. Congrats on a lovely puzzle, Ben (and Will)!

NYT 9:03
LAT 7:06
CS 4:45 ("Sunday Challenge" from Bob Klahn—check it out)


December 09, 2005

This appears to be only the second NYT puzzle by Henry Hook in five years (the previous one was Saturday, 6/12/04). So treasure the experience, folks; it may not happen again any time soon. Henry knows how to make a quality puzzle, doesn't he? He does. To wit, the following great entries and clues:

"Didn't get nothing" SCORED
"Head of ___" STEAM (Who else went with STATE first?)
"Impregnable stronghold" GIBRALTAR
"Ball carrier, at times" ARNAZ
"Unimprovable situation" HEAVEN ON EARTH
"Its biggest attraction is on a list" PISA
"Water temperature gauge" TOE
"Horse's halter" WHOA (Who had REIN until it appeared elsewhere in the grid?)

That's some primo stuff, man.


You know what? This just might be the best weekend of puzzles in months. I just got caught up by doing seven crosswords, and the Hook puzzle isn't the only goodie out there.

Brendan Emmett Quigley's WSJ puzzle, "iPod Playlists," was standard BEQ—i.e., fantastic. Crazy fill like IXTACIHUATL and OOMPAHPAH; a few first/last name combos (hello again, IRENE CARA); "like Andy Rooney" as a clue for JOWLY. And the theme! My favorite theme entries were CARS POISON AIR SUPPLY and CARPENTERS HAMMER DOORS.

I also loved Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon's LA Weekly/Boston Globe puzzle, "Playing Charades." The theme entries were plenty of fun to puzzle out (HAYDN SIKH! CZECH MARX!). Now, if I don't mention that SERF BORED crossed BORER, with both clues relating to the boring of holes, somebody else is sure to carp about it. Yes, I noticed it; no, it didn't bother me.

Merl Reagle's Philadelphia Inquirer puzzle features things one can buy in bookstore other than books, and yes, it is a tad ridiculous how much unrelated merchandise bookstores sell. It's an entertaining puzzle, complete with a little punchline toward the end.

Patrick Berry's Washington Post Sunday puzzle is great, too. There were plenty of tough clues ("dovekie, for one" for AUK was new to me) and off-kilter clues ("took a shot" for DRANK, "letter, in a way" for STENCIL), but the crossing entries and the thematic movie titles paved the way to a quick solve.

Daniel Stark's Newsday Saturday Stumper had a great clue that kept me guessing for far too long: "back biter" for MOLAR.

Jesse Goldberg's LA Times themeless featured a crossing pair of entries in the center that had nice runs of consonants: HITCHHIKE and CUTTHROAT.

Mel Rosen's CrosSynergy quip puzzle had some good fill, such as CROP CIRCLE.

NYT 8:27
Stumper 6:51
LAT 4:24
CS 3:39

WSJ 8:50
Reagle 8:08
Hex LAW 7:40
WaPo 7:13


December 08, 2005


Holy CRIMEWAVE, Batman! Sherry O. Blackard's Friday NYT felt more like a Saturday puzzle, didn't it? I learned a new word (GAMESOME, meaning playful or "feeling one's oats"). Plenty of tricky clues, like "wipe out an old score" for GET EVEN (I wrongly read the clue as making amends), and clever clues, like "has little to complain about" for NITPICKS. The central intersection of RETAR and RETAG is forgiveable, of course, with words like THINGAMAJIG (anyone else try THINGAMABOB first?) in the vicinity. And who knew IRENE CARA had won so many awards back in the day? Good trivia to know. Now that Sherry has featured her, and Byron Walden included IRENE JACOB not long ago, can Irene Dunne's place in the sun be far off?

When I did the NYS Weekend Warrior by Nancy Kavanaugh a few days ago, I must've channeled her (and Peter Gordon's) intentions from when the clues were written—I filled it in like a CrosSynergy Sunday "Challenge." Beautiful-looking grid, though, with the four 15's anchoring those six blocks of 7's.

Those of you in the snowy Chicago area, I hope your Thursday evening commute wasn't of the five-hours-on-the-expressway variety. Yoicks!


Richard Silvestri's "Learning Centers" from the 11/18 Chronicle of Higher Education reminded me of a Ben Tausig puzzle from a few months ago. The long entries have the names of four colleges embedded within them, and teeny REED College makes an appearance in both puzzles. I suppose it was too tempting to pass up that easy letter combo.

The LAT puzzle by John Underwood contains a whopping 13 theme entries comprising 67 theme squares, all with the same clue: "Mother ___." Kinda cool!

NYT 8:40
LAT 4:21
CHE 4:01
NYS 3:44
CS 2:52

WSJ tba
Reagle tba


December 07, 2005


Yes, it's a THU puzzle all right, the NYT by David Pringle, with the days-of-the-week rebus. I wonder how many solvers will get stuck in the middle, where PULSING is about as valid as PUL[SAT]ING, and question everything else that crosses UNSED (which is UN[SAT]ED). SLOW (SLO[WED]), STAT (STA[TUE]), and MICA ([MON]ICA) look legitimate without the rebuses, too. Good job with the longish fill, too—DE NADA, SWARMED, the largely forgotten ANDROPOV.

Joe DiPietro's Sun puzzle, "Seeing the Sites," features a whopping six dotcom-based theme entries, five of which (plus the two long vertical entries) are new to the Cruciverb database (GILA MONSTER was used once before). It's a shame that BARNEY GOOGLE hasn't been used in a themeless, isn't it? This has been a great week for realizing the full extent of a theme hours or days later. and didn't occur to me until just now. I'd originally noticed only three of the five theme entries in yesterday's creepy-crawly NYS; and some people didn't notice the second and fourth installments of the Wednesday NYT's theme. It's a shame that all the uncounted thousands who solve the puzzles and put them out of their mind probably miss out appreciating the full extent of the constructors' cleverness.

By the way, check out the Wikipedia article on crosswords. I learned there that "a creator may be called a cruciverbalist, setter or compiler." Who are your favorite setters and compilers? I think Irish setters are pretty, personally.

NYS 4:56
NYT 4:37
LAT 4:15
CS 2:37


The pace of human evolution

Here's a question for longtime Stamford contenders (Trip, Ellen, Al, and everyone else who's been competing for years—I'm looking at you) and/or Will Shortz: Has the level of competition at the ACPT been elevated over time, just as world-class athletes' performances have surpassed those of years past? Or are this year's top finishers on a par with their counterparts from 10 or 15 years ago?

I'm wondering whether the solving times listed in Volume 1 and Volume 2 of Will Shortz's Tournament Crosswords are commensurate with the current crop of competitors (sorry about the alliteration), or if they reflect performances that wouldn't cut it at Stamford in 2006.

What do you think?


December 06, 2005

Manny Nosowsky serves up a grammar lesson in Wednesday's NYT, with theme entries conjugating the verb is five ways in contraction (I'M, HE'S, YOU'RE, SHE'S, THEY'RE). I did get slowed down by two phrases I haven't heard before—RUN TO SEED (I usually hear "go to seed") and BY ALL ODDS. One clue also rang a little untrue to me: "source of an androgyne's confusion" for SEX. Who says androgynes are confused about their identity?

Gary Steinmehl follows up his Monday NYT with another NYS outing, "Jeepers Creepers," featuring a SPIDER, WORM, BUG theme—and actually, looking at it again, I see that the HAL ROACH and SLUGFEST entries are also thematic. Even so, this was much less creepy than the centipede/millipede puzzle Dave Mackey concocted for me in July, which gave me a nightmare. (Literally.) The Sun puzzle pops with fill like WHAMMO, OAXACA, and POOHPOOHS. And the clue for ODOR, "mephitis," reminds me that I should use the word mephitic more often.

NYS 5:17
NYT 4:32
LAT 3:28
CS 3:10


December 05, 2005

Nice Tuesday NYT by Nancy Salomon. Lots of fresh longer entries to liven things up, and a tight theme. In honor of OLEO's second appearance in a puzzle today (the other was in the Monday NYS), I am compelled to mention how appalling it was to find only margarine, no butter, at the Drake Hotel's Sunday breakfast buffet. Margarine! At $21 a person! The horror, the horror.

Nice Tuesday NYS ("Apostrophe Catastrophe") by Randall Hartman, too. But it appears that Blogger is having technical difficulties tonight, so even if I came up with something clever to say, I don't know when anyone would actually read it. Alas.


It was only after I finished Ben Tausig's latest puzzle, "Mental Blocks," that I looked at the black squares and saw that they were all Tetris pieces! Maybe not all the fill was up to Ben's usual standards (OFF A, ON NO, AERI, FMS), but in addition to the five theme entries and the theme black squares, he managed to use ANXIOUSNESS, THEBRONXZOO, and—for the first and possibly last time—MIERS ("short-lived Bush nominee").

Tausig 4:52
CS 4:05
NYS 3:23
NYT 3:06
LAT 2:50


Manic Monday

Byron Walden's "Great Guys" in the 15x16 Monday Sun
The two shorter theme entries, MR WONDERFUL and TOM TERRIFIC, and appeared previously in JackMcInturff's 3/8/05 LAT puzzle, but were paired there with MARVELOUS MARVIN and the not-an-actual-character/person SMASHING PUMPKIN. The theme definitely benefits from a taller grid that allows two 16-letter theme entries (and if you haven't seen the oddly funny movie NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, you should). Byron's showing off just a little with those four 9-letter entries in the NW and SE corners: all four have never appeared in puzzles indexed by the Cruciverb database. Crossword Fiend rule #1: For every great new entry like VODKA SHOT, a constructor is entitled to one OLEO use.

The grid in Harvey Estes's CrosSynergy puzzle, "Trust Aside," doesn't look like a standard early-week grid. In today's NYT, there are 45 3- and 4-letter entries and just eight 6-, 7-. 8-, or 9-letter entries. Harvey's puzzle, in contrast, is weighted toward lots of white space, with just 26 short entries and 22 in the 6- to 9-letter range, and just 32 black squares. It's still a fairly easy CrosSynergy puzzle, yes, but with a much more ambitious grid than we usually see on Mondays.

I liked the four theme entries in Gary Steinmehl's NYT puzzle, but tying them together as STORE employees struck an off note. Perhaps I'm just not shopping at the sort of stores that hire people to crate, box, and pack things? Bonus points for NO CARBS, though, which is new to the Cruciverb database.

CS 3:27
LAT 3:25
NYT 3:10
NYS 3:08


December 03, 2005

Whew, Sunday already?

Technically it's not Sunday yet, but once the Sunday NYT is released, I move on to the next day. I was making my way through Eric Berlin and Craig Kasper's great puzzle when the applet decided to stop. Technically, the applet continued on in its merry timer-advancing way but the browser window froze up, so I finished the puzzle in Across Lite. I loved the theme and how it played out. I'm guessing by the byline that Eric came up with the idea and Craig figured out how to lay it all out elegantly. (According to Eric's blog, Francis Heaney also helped with the theme.) And look at how elegant it is—the first and last five across answers combine to re-parse into terms described by the long entries. I bet this puzzle's genesis came during Super Bowl season when Eric thought about a SUPERB OWL; yea or nay, Eric? Anyway, it's a great puzzle. Look at all the longish vertical fill—HEAVE HOS and TEAPOT DOME, EPITOMIZE and EXORCISM? Good stuff. I'm sure the clues were great, too, but I'm a little too traumatized by the technical glitch to remember specifics.

Updated on Sunday: I'm not really in the mood for crosswords today (although that didn't stop me from doing five of them just now). My favorite clue/entry from all five of them was in Henry Hook's LA Weekly: "Woody's mother-in-law" for MIA. (Har!)

NYT somewhere in the 10- to 11-minute range
WaPo 8:16
Hook 8:17
LAT 9:13
CS 5:04
Saturday Stumper 7:50


December 02, 2005


Dana Motley's Saturday NYT features interesting long entries and knotty clues. But...I'm not going to mention any of them. Nope. Not giving away any answers tonight. I don't mind spoilers, but I'm seeing some killer times (i.e., like molasses) on the applet, and I'd hate to give anyone a unfair boost. I will say this, though—maybe this puzzle's not jam-packed with long entries, but it also has only four 3-letter entries. There are plenty of 4-letter words but the clues diverge from the usual; even the 3's and 4's offer a challenge. Congrats on a tough puzzle, Dana and Will!

NYT 6:41
LAT 5:09
CS 4:03


December 01, 2005

Will Johnston (over on the NYT forum) was right: Pat Merrell's Friday NYT grid is indeed a funky one, with four pairs of adjoining 15s meeting near the corners, and each pair joined by a 7-letter entry. Not only is it impressive that each corner contains the intersection of two pairs of 15s, but it appears that every single entry crosses either a pair of 15s or those four 7s (well, unless it is one of the 15s or 7s). Do you think you could pull off that trick? Yowza! The fill is remarkably solid, too—the worst we see are SSSS and REAIM, which arguably are better than yesterday's TOL, anyway.

My ahistorical knowledge of baseball slowed me down on Charles Gersch's Sun puzzle, "Urban Legends." I had BI*DGREEN and spent too much time wondering what the heck that could be; I also drew a blank with the crossing clue about the Tower of Hanoi game. BIG D for DALLAS! And PEGS! Fine. Anyway—when life gives you LEMONS, make LIMEADE? My favorite clue was "Watch flashers?" for COLONS; however, I think it's time for the crossword world to quit being embarrassed about their viscera and admit that they have abdominal organs. I also enjoyed "More like a young man?" for ANGRIER.

NYS 5:49
CHE 4:19 (more Ben Tausig!)
LAT 4:14
NYT 4:12
CS 3:27

WSJ 8:49
Reagle 8:55