March 09, 2009

Sunday, 3/8 NYT Diagramless

If you haven't yet taken a crack at Mike Nothnagel's Second Sunday New York Times puzzle, a diagramless crossword, because you're not sure how to get started, let me give you a boost. (After the cut.)

There are two ways to get started on a diagramless. One is to use the hint that tells you the starting square for 1-Across. If you're good at conventional crosswords, though, you can probably muddle through without the hint, and you'll feel that much more accomplished when you finish it.

If you're leery of giving up the starting-square crutch, make things easier on yourself by using graph paper that's bigger than the puzzle's 17x17 grid. Here's a printable PDF of a 20x27 sheet that will work well. Using graph paper will let you start writing answers before you've figured out exactly where the first square is supposed to go. Read the clues for 1-Across and the Down answers that intersect it, and see how many of the words you can fill in. Turn that graph paper sideways and jot your 1-Across answer in the top row, near the middle. That will give you enough leeway to not run off the edge of the grid. You can blacken in the squares before and after 1-Across. So that means two black squares with five white squares between them.

[Classroom furniture], 5 letters? Could be DESKS. Do the crossings support that? 1-Down is [Search for water with a divining rod], or DOWSE. 2-Down is [Franc replacers], or EUROS. Yep, it looks like 1-Across is DESKS. 3-Down is ["Uncle!"] and starting with an S, it could be STOP, STOP IT, STOP THAT, SAVE ME, or something else. 4-Down is Barbie's KEN, and 5-Down, [Wise man] starting with S, looks to be SAGE. When you're confident of a Down answer, remember to follow it with a black square—those black squares will help you figure out the placement of subsequent Across answers.

With those crossings, the answer below DESKS includes OU*EA. [Defeat in a hot dog contest, e.g.] sounds like OUTEAT, so we can fill that in, along with the number 10 in the O square and black squares before and after the word. With the black square above the second T, you know a Down answer starts there; after 10 comes 11, so that's the number that goes there. [Economic stimulus]...hmm, I'm thinking it's TARP, but the clue has no signal for an abbreviation.

The answer between DESKS and OUTEATS is [Island east of Java] at 6-Across. It's either in the top row to the right of DESKS or in the second row to the left of OUTEAT. If you don't know 6-Across, use the clues for 6-, 7-, 8-, and 9-Down to try to fill in the 4-letter 6-Across. I'm thinking BALI, and if [Cruising] is ASEA and [Feudal lord] is LIEGE, 7- and 8-Down provide confirmation of BALI.

13-Across is a starred theme clue, [*"Nope, that's not it either"]. The Down crossings extending from DESKS/OUTEAT give us WR*NG*—so WRONG something, maybe WRONG AGAIN. The O in WRONG makes ["Uncle!"] start with STOP, and that P finishes SOP, or 19-Across [Soak (up). The E at the end of SAGE is thus square 20, and 20-Across is clued [Dual track bet]. EXACTA? That would make 11-Down a TAX something, TAX BREAK or REBATE or CUT. The A in TAX supports WRONG AGAIN, so we can fill that in. The letters we have connected so far run 10 letters wide; WRONG AGAIN is 10, and answers like DESKS and SOP don't extend farther to the left than that W.

After 20-Across is 21-Across, theme entry [*Sonic the Hedgehog game system]. Isn't that the SEGA GENESIS? (The things I learn from crosswords...) There's a corresponding ES at the ends of DOWSE/EUROS. If that's where SEGA GENESIS goes, an I would follow STOP in 3-Down, making STOP IT look good there. If you write in the rest of SEGA GENESIS to the left, the distance from its start to WRONG AGAIN's end is 17 squares—exactly the width of an NYT diagramless grid. So now we know where the grid's edges are. Go ahead and draw an outline for the 17x17 grid within the confines of the graph paper—or copy what you've got to the diagramless's grid now that you know where things go. It looks a little weird to have DESKS just to the right of center, doesn't it? You'd expect a 1-Across to be further left.

The AG in SEGAGENESIS pairs up with the A and G in ASEA/LIEGE, so now that section of fill can be connected to the rest of what we have. 12-Across must be AS IN ([Q ___ queen]), and [Knock-___] must be KNEED. 6-Down is a theme entry, [*1972 T. Rx hit titled "Get It On" in the U.K.]. BANG something...I'm not sure what this is. 9-Down looks to be INDENT, the [Start of many paragraphs].

Head back over to WRONG AGAIN. There are black squares above the GAIN portion, so those white squares get numbers and double as the start of four Down answers. With the help of EXACTA, you can probably forge your way through 14- to 17-Down and use those answers to divine 24- and 29-Across.

It's always a good idea to see what unifies the theme entries. WRONG AGAIN and SEGA GENESIS...hmm...I see GAGA hidden in the former, but only a GAG in the latter. Take a gander at the other starred clues—6-Down, 44-Across, 40-Down, 65-Across—and see if you think they might have a hidden GAG in them. The clue for 73-Across is [Something you might not get...or what the answers to the starred clues each contain?]. That supports the theory that the unifying theme is a hidden word. Is a GAG "something you might not get"?

Has this step-by-step write-up given you a good nudge in the direction of knowing what to do when faced with a diagramless puzzle? I hope so. In lieu of continuing this (time-consuming!) approach, I'll trust that you're off to the races now.

If you've skipped the hint, you don't know if the grid will turn out to be asymmetrical (like the diagramlesses that form a picture with the black square pattern) or have standard crossword symmetry. You've already observed that it doesn't have left/right symmetry, because DESKS isn't in the exact middle and BALI and OUTEAT are different lengths and not centered below DESKS. It doesn't look like a picture of anything, and most diagramlesses do have symmetry rather than a picture. If you're confident that the puzzle has standard rotational 180° symmetry, you can get a jump on the bottom half of the grid by filling in black squares diagonally opposite from the black squares on top. Where DESKS has 7 blacks before it and 5 after, the sole answer in the bottom row will have 5 blacks before it and 7 after. The clue for that answer, 78-Across [Word before fund or me], points towards the 5-letter word TRUST. Fill in the black squares in the row above that, and you'll see that 76- and 77-Across have 6 and 4 letters, respectively. So you can work your way towards the middle of the puzzle from both ends, which can be a huge help if you hit the skids on your way down.

Remember, a square in an Across answer that has a black square above it will contain a number and be the start of a Down answer. You can use the Across and Down numbers to figure out how long certain answers are. For example, 32-Across [Overworked worker's cry] has two letters that are below black squares, because the next Across clue is numbered 35. 33 and 34 appear along with 32 in 32-Across. Looking at the partially filled grid and working through the crossings will help you figure out if 32-Across has just 3 letters or if it's longer (with one or more squares not containing numbers].

Feel free to drag your mouse over the solution grid below to highlight the white text if you're stuck and want to see a chunk of the grid.

Good luck, and have fun!

If you're already adept at solving diagramless puzzles, please don't be shy about sharing other hints and approaches in the comments.

Answer grid:



As for the theme, here's how it plays out (again, click your mouse and drag over the text to highlight the white text):
WRONG AGAIN, SEGA GENESIS, LONG AGO, BUSTING A GUT, BANG A GONG, and VOTING AGE all contain a hidden GAG, which is defined as an INSIDE JOKE in 73-Across. A gag is a joke, not an inside joke—but the jokes/GAGs are all "inside" the phrases in the theme answers.