January 31, 2009

The 2008 Oryx Awards

Back in 2007, yours truly and Rex Parker started keeping track of their favorite crosswords, and teamed up to form the two-member squad called the American Crossword Critics Association. A year ago, we posted our joint write-up of first annual awards, but ever since, constructor Andrea Carla Michaels—a naming consultant by trade—exhorted us to let her rename the ACCA Awards. And so it is that the second annual American Crossword Critics Association awards are hereafter referred to as the Oryx Awards. The oryx is an Old World antelope that sometimes has black and white coloring, just like a crossword. It's one of those four-letter words that crossworders know but many of their friends don't. And it's a sonic blend between "Orange" and "Rex," so we love it. The Oryx Awards have not (yet) been made manifest in shiny cast gold trophies to be handed out at a gala affair, so the recipients need not stumble nervously or tipsily to the stage to thank their agent.

Without further ado:

Best Easy Crosswords

These are typically themed Monday and Tuesday puzzles.

GOLD: Patrick Blindauer's New York Times, 10/6/08
  • Look, he turned a crossword puzzle into a dollar bill! It's adorable....and rectangular.
SILVER: Matt Ginsberg's New York Times, 12/2/08
  • "Would you hush? I'm working a crossword here." The world's noisiest crossword has 20 theme entries making a terrific DIN. KERPLUNK!
BRONZE: Laura Sternberg's LA Times, 3/11/08
  • Four famous people share the same first names as the AMERICAN IDOL judges. Two corners boast four-packs of 7- and 8-letter answers, and the fill is lively.
Best Medium Crosswords

This category includes themed daily-sized puzzles of Wednesday-NYT difficulty or greater, with no twisty gimmicks.

GOLD: Byron Walden's Onion A.V. Club, 1/2/08
  • Asymmetrical grid features Democratic (PILLORY CLINTON) and Republican (TWIT ROMNEY) "dirty debate tactics" with name-into-verb puns on candidates' names. Did we mention there are seven theme answers occupying 94 (!) squares?
SILVER: Alan Arbesfeld's New York Sun, 1/3/08
  • In "Strange Signs From Above," the zodiac puns are absolutely nuts: e.g., LEIGH BRA and "UH, QUERY US."
BRONZE: Dan & Mike Naddor's LA Times, 10/8/08
  • What do a BAT MITZVAH and AQUA VELVA have in common? Add MAN to the first word and you're spawning superheroes. Great "aha!" moment.
Best Gimmick Crosswords

These are the ones that people remember months or years later, the envelope-pushers that bend the rules, incorporate other kinds of puzzle challenges, and give our brains a delicious workout. These crosswords are so awesome, we couldn't honor just three.

PLATINUM: Patrick Blindauer and Francis Heaney's New York Sun, 1/11/08
  • "Squares Away" is a really hard rebus puzzle with an asymmetrical grid. Guess what? If you color the rebus squares black instead of putting the word BLACK in 'em, those new black squares make the grid symmetrical, and the entries that had the rebuses are still valid words. HONOR [BLACK]MAN turns into HONOR and MAN with a black square in between. Sheer crossword genius.
GOLD: Patrick Blindauer and Frank Longo's Sun, 11/20/08
  • "Three-Ring Circus" messed with our heads in a big way. It looks like a 15x16 grid with two 15-letter answers in the middle, but it turns out there's a TIGHTROPE WALKER balancing precariously between those rows—all the Downs that cross the 15s are one square shy, and the extra letters wedged in spell out TIGHTROPE WALKER. Devious!
PALLADIUM: Pete Muller's New York Sun, 2/29/08
  • The skull-crushing trick in "Return of the Indivisibles" is that answers to prime-numbered clues have to go in backwards. 2-Down is AIXELSYD, no joke. EDISPU is here too: UPSIDE is upside down.
SILVER: Patrick Berry's Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/12/08
  • "Standardized Test" has ABCDE in five places and you have to blacken the space for the correct answer to the accompanying multiple-choice questions. If you err, you're going to flunk the Down answers.
BRONZE: Donald Willing's New York Times, 11/1/08
  • An amazing debut puzzle in which every other Across row's answers appear backwards in the grid. We call it "Two-Way Streets" but the middle entry is STEERTSYAWOWT.
"Dishonorable" Mention: Joe Krozel's New York Times, 6/19/08
  • This is the famous LIES puzzle: the black squares spell out LIES and—this is the genius part—the clue for TEN tells you ten clues are lies. For example, tennis player AGASSI is clued as [Golf great Andre]. Terrific Shortzian cluing twist.
Best Themeless Crosswords

Themeless puzzles tend to be the hardest ones each week, barring crazy gimmick puzzles, and we love them so. A touch of sadism endears a constructor to us, as does a fondness for shiny new crossword vocabulary.

GOLD: Karen M. Tracey's New York Sun, 5/16/08
SILVER: Paula Gamache's CrosSynergy, 6/29/08
  • ZOOKEEPER collides with CLIMATE CANARY in the middle of the grid, YES, LET'S sends mixed messages by colliding with OH STOP IT ... and then there's Orange's favorite word: PASSEL.
BRONZE: Karen M. Tracey's New York Sun, 2/28/08

Best Sunday-Sized Crosswords

These puppies are usually 21x21 squares, so there's room for all sorts of wordplay and visual artistry that daily puzzles can't accommodate.

GOLD: Elizabeth Gorski's New York Times, 5/25/08
  • "Spy Glass" - James Bond-themed puzzle has all the Bond actors, plus IAN FLEMING, plus an alphabetical connect-the-squares element that creates a huge martini glass, inside of which sits the word MARTINI, as if representing the surface level of the drink within the glass. It's just an astonishingly imaginative feat of construction, and a real pleasure to solve as well. Oh, and JAMES is used to clue the "Bond" that all the theme answers share. I'm telling you, this puzzle doesn't stop.
SILVER: Patrick Berry's New York Times, 3/9/08
  • "Splits and Mergers"- theme answers function like rivers, where other words flow into or out of them. Thus "NOT IF I CAN HELP IT" branches off (zags, downward) to create NOTIFICATION, and CLEAN SLATE merges seamlessly into TRANSLATE, etc. Phenomenal.
BRONZE: Merl Reagle's Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/9/08
  • In "Advanced Placement Test," prepositions are replaced by the order of the remaining words in a phrase. Read between the lines shows up as THE READ LINES, and I before E except after C is I E C EXCEPT. Merl being Merl, there are 11 of these gems to solve in his crossword.
Toughest Puzzle of the Year

Stanley Newman's Newsday "Saturday Stumper" (Anna Stiga byline), 3/1/08
  • Some puzzles make us work harder—a lot harder—than others, but there are usually only one or two killer themelesses a year. This one was 2008's big bear, with that trademark Newmanian obliqueness in the clues.
Best Use of Crosswordese for a Higher Purpose

Dan Naddor's LA Times, 4/17/08
  • How many times have you rolled your eyes at yet another [Punxsutawney-to-Boise dir.] clue for a three-letter direction? You play the odds and plug in ENE without thinking about maps. In this crossword, all eight directions appear in criss-crossing pairs in the appropriate places within longer answers. "Gee, what's got NNW and WNW in it?" you ask. Heart's ANN WILSON and DOWNWIND, that's what.

Best New Website

Two of the crossword sites that launched in 2008 immediately established themselves as can't-miss favorites:
  • Brendan Emmett Quigley's eponymous site combines a blog in which BEQ posts three new crosswords a week and shares musings about crossword topics in his inimitable style. One of his latest puzzles is an early favorite for the 2009 Oryx Awards but hell, they're all good. Sometimes there are swear words, so this ain't your grandmother's crossword site.
  • At Matt Gaffney's Weekly Crossword Contest site, Matt posts a two-part puzzle challenge each week. First you fill in the crossword, and then you curdle your brain figuring out the contest answer. Each theme is different, as is each contest challenge—and 31 weeks in, Matt hasn't run out of clever ideas.

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for...drumroll, please.

Constructor of the Year

GOLD: Patrick Blindauer
  • Patrick B2 continues to be an innovator with a gift for not just pushing the envelope but dissolving it completely. Nobody else has three Oryx winners this year, so Patrick pwned crosswords in 2008. No lone wolf, he co-constructs with a terrific group of collaborators.
SILVER: Karen Tracey
  • Karen's a themeless specialist, and her puzzles captivated us all year. We honored two of 'em with an Oryx, but pretty much all of her crosswords kicked ass. More, please!
BRONZE: Patrick Berry
  • Patrick B1 took the gold in this category last year. He's got two Oryx winners this year, but several more of his puzzles were in contention. He's a perennial innovator, and if you're not doing the Chronicle of Higher Education's weekly crossword, you're missing many of Patrick's twists and turns.