Crossword of the Month, March 2014

Here are my five nominees for Crossword of the Month for March 2014. Note that if a puzzle requires a subscription to solve, clicking on the title below will lead to a review of the puzzle. If no subscription is required, clicking on the title below will lead to the puzzle itself.

In chronological order, our five nominees are:

All or Nothing by Erik Agard. Fireball Crosswords, Mar. 6th, 2014.

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Power Schrödinger puzzle where the word ALL can be removed from the three theme entries and replaced with…nothing.

Send in the Clones by Brendan Emmett Quigley. The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Mar. 8th, 2014. (No review or puzzle link available, but the tournament puzzles can be purchased here).

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A novel and hidden trick: theme entries only make sense if you remove a crossing entry from them.

Eeeeeevil! by Matt Jones. Jonesin’ Crosswords, Mar. 11th, 2014.

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The 666th Jonesin’ Crossword gets a satanic twist: the letter E appears nowhere in the grid, and, where it appears in a clue, must be dropped for the clue to make sense.

Draw Swords by Brendan Emmett Quigley. The American Values Club Crossword, Mar. 27th, 2014.

BrendanEmmettQuigley

That’s “Draw S-words,” and that parsing makes all the difference.


Running Opposition
by Andrew Ries. Fireball Crosswords, Mar. 27th, 2014. (No puzzle link or review available, but subscriptions can be purchased at the link from the puzzle title).

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An intriguing find turned into an excellent meta: the first names of several opponents in U.S. presidential elections combine to form stand-alone phrases, such as the Kubrick film “Barry Lyndon” from the Johnson-Goldwater matchup of 1964.

And the winner is…
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Brendan Emmett Quigley for Draw Swords.

Strong month of crosswords, but these S-words came out on top. An ambitious and creative theme, and a tricky one to pull off: not only do the S-words form the shape of a letter S in the grid, but the letters forming that S must also spell cluable entries.

Several nice touches that push this one ahead of the tough competition: there are no other words beginning with S in the grid besides the three used in the theme; the three S-boxes are placed symmetrically in the grid; and the long central entry creates its own symmetry by continuing along its path after its S word is formed.

Beautifully done, and my pick for Crossword of the Month for March 2014.

Full list of Crossword of the Month winners:

March 2014 — Brendan Emmett Quigley, American Values Club Crossword
February 2014 — Neville Fogarty, www.nevillefogarty.wordpress.com
January 2014 — Peter Broda, The Cross Nerd
December 2013 — Francis Heaney, American Values Club Crossword
November 2013 — Pete Muller, Muller Monthly Music Meta
October 2013 — Francis Heaney, American Values Club Crossword
September 2013 — Anna Shechtman, American Values Club Crossword

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Crossword of the Month, February 2014

Here are my five nominees for Crossword of the Month for February 2014. Note that if a puzzle requires a subscription to solve, clicking on the title below will lead to a review of the puzzle. If no subscription is required, clicking on the title below will lead to the puzzle itself.

In chronological order, our five nominees are:

The Dark Side by Merl Reagle. The Washington Post et al., Feb. 2nd, 2014.

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Theme-packed Groundhog Day idea from one of the all-time master constructors.

Untitled by Joe Krozel. The New York Times, Feb. 6th, 2014.

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Japanese loan words to English get an amusing second hearing.

The Post Puzzler #202 by Trip Payne. The Washington Post, Feb. 16th, 2014.

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Beautiful freestyle puzzle with a wide-open center and many marquee entries.


A Word From Our Sponsors
by Neville Fogarty. www.nevillefogarty.wordpress.com, Feb. 21st, 2014.

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A tiny grid (10×10 squares) conceals a lovely meta concept.

Untitled by Stan Newman. The New York Times, Feb. 27th, 2014.

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Snarky quote puzzle with the legendary constructor/editor’s trademark super-clean fill (in a wide-open grid, to boot).

And the winner is…
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Neville Fogarty for A Word From Our Sponsors.

Good things come in small packages, and that includes this clever meta idea. Which I won’t ruin in case you want to solve it (link above), but its a-ha moment and timeliness make it my choice for February’s Crossword of the Month.

Full list of Crossword of the Month winners:

February 2014 — Neville Fogarty, www.nevillefogarty.wordpress.com
January 2014 — Peter Broda, The Cross Nerd
December 2013 — Francis Heaney, American Values Club Crossword
November 2013 — Pete Muller, Muller Monthly Music Meta
October 2013 — Francis Heaney, American Values Club Crossword
September 2013 — Anna Shechtman, American Values Club Crossword

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Warning: nerdy post ahead

Crossword geeks sometimes argue very fine points of puzzle construction. This is one of those times. Fair warning!

In today’s New York Times crossword, entitled “Passing Grades,” constructor Yaakov Bendavid uses a theme in which the failing F’s in theme entries change to passing D’s. For example, Transportation company that skimps on safety? is a NO-DRILLS AIRLINE instead of a “no-frills airline,” and One who turned Cinderella’s pumpkin into pumpkin cheesecake? is her DAIRY GODMOTHER instead of her “fairy godmother.” Here is the solution grid:

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So far so good, but puzzle critic Rex Parker dinged one of the theme entries at his blog:

Also—major stylistic oversight—there’s still a pesky “F” left in TWO DIVES FOR A TEN. As a general rule, you want your core theme concept to be not just consistent, but executed to squeaky clean perfection. If you’re changing Fs to Ds, you just can’t leave Fs on the table.

Seems like a fair point, but New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz pushed back in comments:

For the record, I don’t give a hoot about the second F in 49A.

Does the theme answer read naturally? Does it make sense? Is it funny? That’s what I care about.

So who’s right? Let’s take a look.

First of all, let’s clarify that we’re talking here not about change-a-letter themes in general, but cases where one specific letter is changed to the same specific letter in all theme entries. In today’s NYT, that’s the F’s in theme entries changing to D’s. In other puzzles of this general theme type the letters are usually different from one theme entry to the next; that’s not what we’re talking about here.

The two main reasons to not leave an unchanged F like in TWO DIVES FOR A TEN are: 1) it’s confusing for solvers, since some of the F’s are changed in theme entries and some are not, and 2) it’s inconsistent and therefore stylisticially inelegant.

Take a look at this 2009 New York Times puzzle by Patrick Blindauer, where the last letter of phrases that end in E is changed to an A, such as NAME THAT TUNA:

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Here I’d argue that it’s alright that some of the phrases have unchanged E’s in them, for two reasons: first, since E is a very common (in fact the most common) letter, the unchanged E’s won’t stick out to solvers; and second, since the changed letters are all positioned in a specific place — the last letter of the entry — solvers won’t be confused by the unchanged E’s elsewhere.

Now take a look at this 2010 New York Times puzzle by Anna Shechtman, where B’s are changed to A’s in entries such as HONEY COMA or LAMA CHOPS (a similar grade-changing idea to today’s NYT). Here the B is a rare enough letter that unchanged B’s would’ve stood out, and there’s no specific positioning of the changed letters to clarify for solvers what’s going on. In this case, it was a good thing that the constructor left no unchanged B’s in the theme entries, and it would’ve been a dingable offense if she had.

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Which brings us back to today’s puzzle and lets us render a judgment on this point: the F is a rare enough letter that it sticks out, less like the E in the Blindauer than the B in the Shechtman, and there is no consistent positioning of the changed F’s in the theme entries.

For these reasons, we can say: the F in TWO DIVES FOR A TEN is inelegant, and Rex Parker was correct to flag it as such in his post.

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Crossword of the Month, January 2014

Here are my five nominees for Crossword of the Month for January 2014. Note that if a puzzle requires a subscription to solve, clicking on the title below will lead to a review of the puzzle. If no subscription is required, clicking on the title below will lead to the puzzle itself.

In chronological order, our five nominees are:

Numbers Game by Pete Muller. Muller Monthly Music Meta, Dec. 31st, 2013.

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Complex and mysterious meta that revealed its secrets one after the next. [Note: although this puzzle was published on Dec. 31st, I couldn't have included it in the December Crossword of the Month post because I didn't solve it in time. So it's been bumped up to the month in which I and most others actually solved it.]

One Liner by Erik Agard. Glutton for Pun, Jan. 8th, 2014.

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Indie puzzle writers can do whatever they want, including use a grid that measures 67×5 squares if they deem it worthwhile. It was here.

Untitled by Patrick Berry. The New York Times, Jan. 10th, 2014.

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An archetypal Berry themeless, with a low word count, wide-open grid, and very clean fill.

Untitled by Lynn Lempel. The New York Times, Jan. 13th, 2014.

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A fine example of an easy crossword done well: novel theme, clean fill, fun reveal.

Themeless #27 by Peter Broda. The Cross Nerd, Jan. 20th, 2014.

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Again, indie puzzle writers can do whatever they want, and that includes freestyle puzzles.

And the winner is…
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Peter Broda for Themeless #27.

There goes the neighborhood, but this oddball piece of work was my favorite solve of the month.

Themeless puzzles seem to be bifurcating into silky-smooth, wide-open, more database-driven grids on one hand (such as the Berry nominated this month) and highly idiosyncratic, marquee-answer-packed, bizarrely clued grids like this one on the other (Erik Agard is another practitioner of this style).

I can appreciate both approaches, but an excellent specimen of the latter grabs you by the lapels and shakes the craziest words and phrases out of your brain, while remaining no stranger to classical content. This wild energy won’t suit everyone’s tastes, but it does make for an unforgettable solve, and earns this puzzle my pick for January’s Crossword of the Month.

(I won’t ruin the experience by providing spoilers, but I will warn you here about 63-Across; it’s not for the faint of heart).

Full list of Crossword of the Month winners:

January 2014 — Peter Broda, The Cross Nerd
December 2013 — Francis Heaney, American Values Club Crossword
November 2013 — Pete Muller, Muller Monthly Music Meta
October 2013 — Francis Heaney, American Values Club Crossword
September 2013 — Anna Shechtman, American Values Club Crossword

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Bernice Gordon, Centenarian Cruciverbalist

Crossword constructor Bernice Gordon turned 100 years old on Saturday, and celebrated this week with a puzzle in the New York Times. Will Shortz made the trip to Philadelphia for her birthday party. BerniceGordon100b

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Crossword of the Month, December 2013

Here are my five nominees for Crossword of the Month for December 2013. Note that if a puzzle requires a subscription to solve, clicking on the title below will lead to a review of the puzzle. If no subscription is required, clicking on the title below will lead to the puzzle itself.

In chronological order, our five nominees are:

“Turning 100″ by Patrick Blindauer. www.patrickblindauer.com, Dec. 1st, 2013.

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Timely and novel variation on the grid-entries-take-a-turn idea: in honor of the crossword puzzle’s 100th birthday, entries turn at each letter C (since C=100).

“One Good Turn Deserves Another” by Patrick Berry. Fireball Crosswords, Dec. 5th, 2013.

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Another novel take on the same concept, with two new wrinkles: 1) grid entries are clued on their turns, but also create cluable words when they keep going straight, and 2) the ten pivot letters spell out an apt word for a “turning” puzzle: ROTISSERIE.

Untitled by David Steinberg. The New York Times, Dec. 12th, 2013.

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Inventive and unexpected theme trick, requiring solvers to erase all the R’s in the grid to complete the puzzle.


“A Cut Above the Rest” by Jeff Chen.
The New York Times, Dec. 15th, 2013.

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Polished construction with a great “aha moment”: the word CUT is spelled out by its own letters above the rest of the grid.


“Seasonal Staff” by Francis Heaney.
The American Values Club Crossword, Dec. 19th, 2013.

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Many-layered masterwork with one beautiful and unexpected reveal after the next.

And the winner is:

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Francis Heaney for “Seasonal Staff.”

This is one of the very best contest crosswords I’ve ever seen and should be considered as a candidate for Crossword of the Year. Its concept and execution are both extremely high-level.

A candy cane conceals itself among thirteen two-way rebus squares which alternate between WHITE and RED on the acrosses. The thirteen down letters spell ROCK DUO at the WHITEs and LAGERS at the REDs, which clue the meta answers the WHITE STRIPES (famous rock duo) and RED STRIPES (Jamaican lagers).

In other words: the candy cane not only forms itself in the grid, but also clues its own component parts! Amazingly clever and creative idea.

This puzzle’s novelty, intricacy, and series of revelatory moments make it the cruciverbal equivalent of a detective story, and make it my pick for December 2013′s Crossword of the Month.

Full list of Crossword of the Month winners:

December 2013 — Francis Heaney, American Values Club Crossword
November 2013 — Pete Muller, Muller Monthly Music Meta
October 2013 — Francis Heaney, American Values Club Crossword
September 2013 — Anna Shechtman, American Values Club Crossword

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How I (almost) ruined today’s Google Doodle

Their planned Arthur Wynne tribute puzzle had to be redone quickly. Read why here.

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Flag on the play

dallas

What do crosswords and football have in common? Not a whole lot, but I’m going to play football referee today and assess penalties for three crossword-writing infractions, which I’ll illustrate with recent examples. And let me first state that I myself have committed each of these infractions multiple times, so absolutely no picking on anyone intended!

Now, let’s throw some flags onto the grid(iron):

1) Clue contains part of the answer in it.

At 33-down in today’s New York Times, the answer IT’S ON ME is clued as ["Got it covered!"]. That’s a crossword no-no, since IT appears in both the answer and the clue.

These crop up in almost everyone’s puzzles from time to time, since it’s easy to let a little repeated word slip by. This is especially true when it’s concealed in a multiword answer like here (and in a slightly different form, too, with IT’S in the answer but “it” in the clue).

Hey, “it” happens. Just a small ding. Penalty: ENCROACHMENT, 5 yards.

2) Scrabble-f@#$ing.

This is an indelicate term for when a constructor goes too far out of their way to squeeze one of the high-value letters (X, Q, Z or J) into their grid. This often happens in closed-off little corners where the constructor wants to create a little magic. Check out the northeast corner of Monday’s Los Angeles Times puzzle:

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The constructor had the right idea, fitting both a J and Z into this 3×4 space. But while JEDI, JAR, RITZ and HEINZ are all excellent entries, the price to pay is too high: prefix EPI, partial A PIN and the obscure DIT.

As a fellow constructor pointed out to me, JEDI/OVEN/BENZ going down would’ve kept the two expensive letters while also cleaning up the fill.

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Heart was in the right place, but the execution was off. Penalty: ILLEGAL USE OF HANDS, 10 yards.

3) Missing a one-letter fix.

Constructors (and editors) strive for a clean grid, uncluttered by OLLA and UNAU and ESNE and all that other crosswordese no one will miss when it’s gone. But take a look at this one-letter miss from Monday’s New York Times, where an icky entry was easy to replace:

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Can you find the one-letter fix? Just change that T to a W, getting rid of the subpar ETES (the plural of the French word for “summer”).

Sloppy and avoidable, but again, it can happen to anyone. Penalty: INTENTIONAL FACEMASK, 15 yards.

Who knew crosswords and football had so much in common?

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“Murder by Meta”

Up for a cruciverbal whodunit? Check out my new Kickstarter campaign, “Murder by Meta.” Star crossword constructor Daphne Pratt is poisoned at the biggest puzzle tournament of the year, and you’ve got to solve eight meta-crosswords to unmask the guilty party.

Never solved a meta-crossword before? Don’t worry — there’s a built-in plot device to the story line that allows even a meta-newbie to solve “Murder by Meta.” You can also read my short article, “Introduction to Meta-Crossword Puzzles,” to get the general idea.

After reading that, try an easy meta to get your feet wet here. You’ll need to scroll down to “THIS WEEK’S INSTRUCTIONS,” and make sure you’re solving the puzzle entitled “State Lines.”

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Crossword of the Month, November 2013

Here are my five nominees for Crossword of the Month for November 2013. Note that if a puzzle requires a subscription to solve, clicking on the title below will lead to a review of the puzzle. If no subscription is required, clicking on the title below will lead to the puzzle itself.

In chronological order, our five nominees are:

“Veiled Invitation,”
by Pete Muller. Muller Monthly Music Meta, November 5th, 2013.

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Stunningly original meta-crossword concept with fittingly skillful execution.

“Mark My Words,” by Peter Gordon. Fireball Crosswords, November 6th, 2013.

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Another skillful meta-crossword, utilizing the accent marks found on various foreign words.

“Taylor Made” by Erik Agard. Glutton for Pun, November 6th, 2013.

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One of the very cleverest quotation puzzles of all time, if that’s not damning with faint praise: the constructor forces the solver to feel the frustration expressed by a popular singer about crosswords and love (no joke).

Untitled, by Alan DerKazarian. The New York Times, November 7th, 2013.

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Elegant and intricate two-way rebus by a debut constructor.

“Seeing Double”
by Trip Payne. Fireball Crosswords, November 20th, 2013.

Novel and magisterial construction by one of the all-time greats: each clue appears twice, defining two different entries.

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And the winner is:

Pete Muller for “Veiled Invitation.”

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The king among kings in a regal month for high-concept crosswords: an iconic, fifteen-word Fleetwood Mac lyric hides, one word per row, in fifteen grid entries.

Deceptively simple in concept and construction, requiring only a highlighted grid to explain, and obvious in retrospect — but so hidden-in-plain-sight that fewer than three dozen solvers managed to see what was right before their eyes.

Absolutely beautiful, and a clear winner, despite extremely elegant competition, for my pick as Crossword of the Month, November 2013.

Full list of Crossword of the Month winners:

September 2013 — Anna Shechtman, American Values Club Crossword
October 2013 — Francis Heaney, American Values Club Crossword
November 2013 — Pete Muller, Muller Monthly Music Meta

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