December 31, 2006

Best of the Best, 2006

In a comment here last week, DA from Down Under suggested that we nominate the best five puzzles of 2007. He and I each hang onto our favorite crosswords during the year—I toss an NYT applet screen capture or an Across Lite file into a "Great Puzzles" folder on my Mac. And I'll bet plenty of you warehouse your favorites, too.

So let's look back at 2006 and give kudos to the crosswords that delighted, challenged, confounded, and entertained us. Here are some categories:

Best themeless puzzle

Best theme, daily size

Best theme, Sunday size

Craziest, most innovative twist

Toughest puzzle to solve

Toughest construction feat

Most entertaining crossword

Favorite newbie constructor

Favorite veteran constructor

Funniest or most dastardly clue

Best crossword book

I'm not in the mood to tally official results, so let's keep it resolutely nonscientific and free-wheeling. Feel free to mint your own categories as needed.

Some of the ones I remember off the top of my head (and yes, I know I'm straying from and muddling the categories I listed):

Twistiest: Ben Tausig's "reverse" 3/16/06 NYT (with theme entries like YGOLOHCYSP and MSICAR); Henry Hook's 3/17/06 Sun, "No Kibitzing" (rebused sentence); Michael Shteyman's surprising [MATCH] rebus in a Saturday NYT, 9/16/06; Henry Hook's HEAR/TTRA/NSPL/ANTS puzzle in the Sun, 2/10/06

Toughest construction feat: Joe DiPietro's 10/5/06 NYT with the clues in alphabetical order; Joe DiPietro's 2/19/06 "It's Next to Nothing" Sunday NYT, with every ITS next to a NIL; Joe DiPietro's "Lay of the Land" Sunday NYT, 12/17/06, with the state abbrevs rebused in where they belong on the US map—hmm, do you sense a pattern here?

Best Sunday theme: Ashish Vengsarkar's non-quote "quote" theme, 5/21/06 NYT; Michael Shteyman's pool table, 3/19/06 NYT; Trip Payne's Q extravaganza, 5/7/06.

Best themeless puzzles: Pretty much anything by Byron Walden, David Quarfoot, Karen Tracey, Bob Klahn, Sherry Blackard, Patrick Berry, Stan Newman, and Harvey Estes, plus most of the Saturday NYTs and Sun Weekend Warriors by other people, not to mention the Friday NYTs and Sun Themeless Thursdays. I'm moderately disappointed if a themeless doesn't fight me hard enough, but my favorite themeless constructors still entertain me even with easier clues.

Best themes, daily size: I'm partial to Thursday NYT and Friday Sun themes with twists or gimmicks. Nearly every early-week puzzle by Lynn Lempel, whatever the theme may be, delights me.

Favorite newbie constructor: I don't recall seeing David Quarfoot's byline before 2006, but he kicked butt with the many themeless creations he published during the year.

Favorite veteran constructor: In addition to the umpteen themeless constructors listed above, Pat Merrell's crosswords nearly always surprise and entertain me; I finished Henry Hook's Twisted Crosswords before this year and his sequel's not out yet, but I'm looking forward to the new book.

Toughest to solve: Might've been Hook's aforementioned rebus puzzle in the Sun, though there may have been a couple themeless puzzles that took me equally long.

Favorite crossword book: Among those published in 2006, the essential NYT Xtreme Xwords (collection of the hardest themeless NYTs of years past) and Byron Walden's Sit & Solve Commuter Hard Crosswords. In the non-crossword arena, The New Yorker Book of Cartoon Puzzles and Games is tremendously clever.

I'm missing a lot of my favorite Sun puzzles, because I've got the Across Lite files stashed in unannotated chronological order, and really, I ought to do a "save as" and copy my favorites to that "Great Puzzles" folder. I'd wade back through months and months of blog posts to give more specific shout-outs to the highlights, but you know what? Y'all will probably mention the same ones I would. So: what crossword puzzles and constructors would you like to single out for praise?