Crossword of the Month, October 2014

Here are my five nominees for Crossword of the Month for October 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:

Orange Is the New Black by Brendan Emmett Quigley. www.brendanemmettquigley.com, October 2nd, 2014.

BrendanEmmettQuigley

Title-driven two-way rebus: four squares in the grid are a rebus ORANGE one way and a “new” black square the other; this new black square divides its entry into two valid answers to the single clue. Nicely done.

Stack ‘Em Up by Pete Muller. Muller Monthly Music Meta, October 7th, 2014.

pm-head-shot1

A clever contest crossword with an unusual aspect: the symmetry of the puzzle’s theme entries emerges only after you’ve uncovered the meta.

Untitled by Mary Lou Guizzo and Jeff Chen. The New York Times, October 8th, 2014.

GuizzoChen

The word MAN progresses downward through the grid in five 15-letter theme entries, where, pulling double duty, THE DESCENT OF MAN both reveals the theme and completes its pattern.

A Few Short Words by Patrick Berry. Fireball Crosswords, October 23rd, 2014.

Berry

A crushword puzzle on acid: 27 (!) symmetrically-placed squares contain a full word in them (and comprise the puzzle’s five theme entries).

Spirituals by Caleb Madison. American Values Club Crossword, October 29th, 2014.

CalebMadison

A bizarre and unique creation, with novel aspects in its clues, theme and fill.

And the winner is…
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Caleb Madison for Spirituals.

Are ELVIS Presley and TUPAC Shakur really dead? Both are alive in this Halloween-week puzzle, where their names spookily emerge in rows of five black squares.

The wicked twist: all twenty (!) of the down entries on either side of the re-animated musicians form cluable words — and their clues are, in fact, cloaked by parentheses within the main clue. This echoes their undead state amusingly; for example, ABE is clued as [Fi(rst) v(ictim of his own broth)er], with [Fiver] serving as slang for a five-dollar bill (an “Abe”), while it becomes [First victim of his own brother] for ABEL, whose L is the second letter in ELVIS.

There are also two theme entries, DEAD BEATS and SOUL MUSIC, explaining the idea further.

Unique, strange and skillfully executed, and my choice for October’s Crossword of the Month.

Full list of Crossword of the Month winners:

October 2014 — Caleb Madison, American Values Club Crossword
September 2014 — Peter Broda, Fireball Crosswords; Francis Heaney, MGWCC (tie)
August 2014 — Josh Knapp, The Washington Post
July 2014 — David Phillips, The New York Times
June 2014 — Patrick Blindauer, www.patrickblindauer.com
May 2014 — Sam Donaldson, Fireball Crosswords
April 2014 — Patrick Blindauer, www.patrickblindauer.com
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, September 2014

Here are my five nominees for Crossword of the Month for September 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:

Cross Hatching by Peter Broda. Fireball Crosswords, September 11th, 2014.

PeterBroda

In most months, this strikingly original two-way rebus would have won Crossword of the Month with room to spare. Eleven squares in the grid represent the letters EGG on the across and just a normal single letter on the down. Each down is a kind of bird, though, visually dropped from its egg, and the eleven hatches spell the Beatles song FREE AS A BIRD. Remarkably clever, novel, and well-executed.

Untitled by Joel Fagliano. The New York Times, September 18th, 2014.

fagliano

The least clarifying clarifications imaginable make for an amusing theme.

Untitled by Erik Agard. The New York Times, September 20th, 2014.

agard

That odd duck called the “themed themeless” pays an entertaining visit. The grid looks freestyle, but a subtle mini-theme lurks herein.

Mismatched Socks by Byron Walden. American Values Club Crossword, September 24th, 2014.

ByronWalden

An archetypal Byron Walden puzzle: unique theme, lots of it, and a wide-open grid masterfully woven around it.

Repeat Offenders by Francis Heaney. MGWCC, September 26th, 2014.

Heaney

In most months, this strikingly original concept would have won Crossword of the Month with room to spare. The author goes out of his way to flout the crossword guideline that the same word should not appear in both the grid and in a clue.

And the winner is…
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Peter Broda for Cross Hatching and Francis Heaney for Repeat Offenders (tie).

I told myself we’d never have a tie in Crossword of the Month, but here it is. My admiration for both of these puzzles is such that leaving one without the CotM would rankle more than going against precedent.

In the Broda puzzle, we have the lovely visual element of the bird eggs hatching downward, and then the apt reveal phrase. That the downs stand for simply the bird’s first letter in the two-way rebus is another surprising and amusing factor.

In the Heaney, he breaks the no-duplications rule in as funny a way as possible: in ten cases, crossing entries conceal each other in their clues. Then ten squares where those pairs cross spell out the fitting answer to the meta: RECIDIVISM.

Ties will be an extremely rare result here, but these two puzzles were of a special class, and they share the honors as September’s Crossword of the Month.

Full list of Crossword of the Month winners:

September 2014 — Peter Broda, Fireball Crosswords; Francis Heaney, MGWCC (tie)
August 2014 — Josh Knapp, The Washington Post
July 2014 — David Phillips, The New York Times
June 2014 — Patrick Blindauer, www.patrickblindauer.com
May 2014 — Sam Donaldson, Fireball Crosswords
April 2014 — Patrick Blindauer, www.patrickblindauer.com
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, August 2014

Here are my five nominees for Crossword of the Month for August 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:

Untitled by Ashton Anderson and James Mulhern. The New York Times, August 1st, 2014.

AndersonMulhern

This is the most appealing kind of freestyle crossword, with the emphasis placed on maximizing the number of marquee entries instead of on low word count (70 here, not particularly low).

Character Study by Evan Birnholz. Devil Cross, August 5th, 2014.

EvanBirnholz

Quite a challenge the constructor set himself here, using the letter N exactly 64(!) times to hint at this contest puzzle’s answer.

Untitled by Lynn Lempel. The New York Times, August 5th, 2014.

LynnLempel

Lynn Lempel is earning a reputation as a constructor of close-to-perfect early week puzzles, and this why-hasn’t-someone-done-that-before? idea is a good example.

Party Hopping by Ben Tausig. The American Values Club Crossword, Aug. 27th, 2014.

BenTausig

Crossword writers can find wordplay in just about anything. Here, six real-life cases of politicians switching parties form the basis of this amusing and well-executed theme idea.

Post Puzzler #230 by Josh Knapp. The Washington Post, August 31st, 2014.

knapp

As with the other freestyle nominated this month, this puzzle focuses on loading plenty of killer entries into the grid without many fill compromises at all.

And the winner is…
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Josh Knapp for Post Puzzler #230.

Only the second time a themeless has won CoTM, but this one has it all: the many marquee entries, the clean fill, and even a little joke from the author, who inserts J.K. (his initials) into the grid four times along symmetrical diagonals. And all ten (!) entries of 9+ letters are either marquee or close to it in my book.

Outstanding work, and my choice for August 2014′s Crossword of the Month.

Full list of Crossword of the Month winners:

August 2014 — Josh Knapp, The Washington Post
July 2014 — David Phillips, The New York Times
June 2014 — Patrick Blindauer, www.patrickblindauer.com
May 2014 — Sam Donaldson, Fireball Crosswords
April 2014 — Patrick Blindauer, www.patrickblindauer.com
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, July 2014

Here are my five nominees for Crossword of the Month for July 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:

Untitled by Luke Vaughn. The New York Times, July 3rd, 2014.

LukeVaughn

The 11 states on which MOUNT ST. HELENS rained ash in 1980 are represented by 11 ASH rebus squares in this excellent debut puzzle.

Check Your Privilege by Brendan Emmett Quigley. www.brendanemmettquigley.com, July 17th, 2014.

BrendanEmmettQuigley

Amusing take on the “check your privilege” meme, where WHITE (on the acrosses) and MAN (on the downs) cross each other (a further play on “checking,” the cruciverbal term for two letters crossing in the grid).

Untitled by Joel Fagliano. The New York Times, July 22nd, 2014.

fagliano

A novel and subtle theme: seven words are both crossed and cross-referenced in the grid, forming in-the-language words and phrases no matter which one you start with.

Untitled by David Phillips. The New York Times, July 24th, 2014.

DavidPhillips

An extremely impressive grid punctuates this clever take on the letters-in-black-squares concept.

Sour Notes by Andy Kravis. Fireball Crosswords, July 24th, 2014.

AndyKravis

A fine rendering of the swap-letters-between-entries theme idea, and on a grand scale.

And the winner is…
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David Phillips for Untitled.

The Rolling Stones song “Paint It, Black” forms the basis for this beautiful debut puzzle: the word IT goes into adjacent pairs of black squares four times, completing the grid as clued. Even if you’re familiar with the letters-in-black-squares idea, the “aha” moment is amazing since, at first glance, that would seem to make the grid too wide open to be possible. But the constructor pulled it off.

Since I gave this puzzle an A- when blogging it at Rex Parker’s site and the above-nominated Joel Fagliano puzzle an A, it may seem odd to give this one the nod. But the ambition and difficulty of making this theme work, and the elegance with which it was handled — note the symmetrical placement of the grid’s four ITs, and the lack of other ITs in the grid — make it my choice for July’s Crossword of the Month.

Full list of Crossword of the Month winners:

July 2014 — David Phillips, The New York Times
June 2014 — Patrick Blindauer, www.patrickblindauer.com
May 2014 — Sam Donaldson, Fireball Crosswords
April 2014 — Patrick Blindauer, www.patrickblindauer.com
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, June 2014

Here are my five nominees for Crossword of the Month for June 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:

Something Is Rotten in the State of Denmark by Patrick Blindauer. www.patrickblindauer.com, June 1st, 2014.

blindauer

No big deal — just another amusing, original, and finely-executed idea from one of the very best in the business.

Flippin’ Digital by Matt Jones. Jonesin’ Crosswords, June 2nd, 2014.

jones

Remember turning a calculator readout upside-down to spell words when you were a kid, like 07734 becoming HELLO? This puzzle replaces numerals in phrases with their upside-down calculator letters.

Oh, You! by Byron Walden. American Values Club Crossword, June 4th, 2014.

ByronWalden

Add-a-letter themes don’t make my lists very often, but this puzzle is an exception. Its theme entries are strong, there are a lot of them, and — despite that — the grid is wide-open and dazzling. All of which makes this a textbook Byron Walden crossword.

Ten’ll Get You Twenty by Patrick Berry. Fireball Crosswords, June 18th, 2014.

Berry

Schrödingers need a novel twist to make the list, and this one delivers: a top-to-bottom chain of works-two-ways squares connect two fitting entries, essentially giving the middle of the puzzle two different solutions.

Put the Gun Down by Caleb Madison. American Values Club Crossword, June 18th, 2014.

CalebMadison

Five theme entries take a fitting, literal turn in the grid.

And the winner is…
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Patrick Blindauer for Something Is Rotten in the State of Denmark.

Like a film director manipulating the viewer’s expectations and emotions, a classic Blindauer crossword is always one step ahead of the solver.

As here: first you notice that the three theme entries are comprised of jibberish; what to make of that? Then you notice the reference to ROT-13 encoding in a clue, and surely your solve is over? But no, entering the words into a decoder produces just more jibberish, which is not what you expected. Hmmm.

After some pondering, you go back to the title: “Rotten” is actually ROT-10, and plunking the theme entries in a ROT-10 decoder reveals that jibberish to be two apt quotes from “Hamlet”: WORDS, WORDS, WORDS! and I MUST BE CRUEL / ONLY TO BE KIND.

The entire journey was planned by the constructor, with several aha! moments en route to the puzzle’s apt conclusion. A clever conception with characteristically maximized execution — each step along the way is just challenging enough, for instance — and my choice for June 2014′s Crossword of the Month.

Full list of Crossword of the Month winners:

June 2014 — Patrick Blindauer, www.patrickblindauer.com
May 2014 — Sam Donaldson, Fireball Crosswords
April 2014 — Patrick Blindauer, www.patrickblindauer.com
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, May 2014

Here are my five nominees for Crossword of the Month for May 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:

Click Language by Ben Tausig. Ink Well Crosswords, May 13th, 2014.

BenTausig

Ink Well closes its doors this month after a stellar 10-year run, and series author Ben Tausig is not going gently into that good night. Instead he’s “Going Out on Top,” as a recent Ink Well puzzle title reads, with a torrent of witty theme ideas — such as here (see also below), where a relevant famous name reveals itself in an apt way.

Little Big Puzzle by Erik Agard. Glutton for Pun, May 21st, 2014.

agard

Newspaper puzzles need to be a certain size, but web puzzles can expand or shrink to the natural state their theme demands. With great elegance, this amusing trifle does just that.

Untitled by Peter Wentz. The New York Times, May 24th, 2014.

Wentz

Another incredible freestyle grid from this constructor. Note the staggered 13s that don’t intersect a single three-letter entry, plus the nifty 5×5 boxes in the upper left and lower-right corners.

Space Elevator by Ben Tausig. Ink Well Crosswords, May 27th, 2014.

BenTausig

The second nominated Ink Well from the feature’s farewell month, with a theme so subtle that I missed it in my review. Hint: there’s a reason those nine-letter theme pairs are stacked like that.

What’s in the Box? by Sam Donaldson. Fireball Crosswords, May 28th, 2014.

SamuelADonaldson

These days, Schrödinger puzzles need a novel twist to make the list. This one delivers.

And the winner is…
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Sam Donaldson for What’s in the Box?cotm

This puzzle’s lovely insight is to split the word PANDORA into P AND/OR A, and then put that into Schrödinger squares that read PA across and either P or A down — in other words, such a square becomes a P/AND/OR/A’s box, reading once as PA, once as P, and once as A. Very, very nice.

This is a beautiful and unique idea for a crossword theme. Even right now as I’m typing out the description of this puzzle I can’t shake the “I really wish I’d thought of that myself” feeling.

And then you have the precise and maximized execution: all three theme entries contain two Pandora’s Boxes instead of just one; the Schrödinger clues are strong; and the fill is excellent, not suffering at all from all that theme activity.

This is the strongest theme crush I’ve had on a crossword yet this year. Its unique hook and pristine execution make it my pick for May 2014′s Crossword of the Month.

Full list of Crossword of the Month winners:

May 2014 — Sam Donaldson, Fireball Crosswords
April 2014 — Patrick Blindauer, www.patrickblindauer.com
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, April 2014

Here are my five nominees for Crossword of the Month for April 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:

A Farewell to Arms by Patrick Blindauer. www.patrickblindauer.com, April 1st, 2014.

blindauer

I propose we label as “spoof puzzles” those crosswords that (gently) mock another crossword. They’re becoming a thing now, and this Blindauer is the best one I’ve seen so far.

Untitled by Peter Wentz. The New York Times, Apr. 11th, 2014.

Wentz

One of the two best in a month of many outstanding freestyle puzzles, most of them written by constructors in their 20s. And all in a similar style: with a focus on maximizing the number of marquee entrees. At the risk of sounding dogmatic, this is what a themeless puzzle should look like.

Flight Path by Francis Heaney. American Values Club Crossword, Apr. 16th, 2014.

Heaney

Yet another extremely clever idea from Francis Heaney: you’re a prisoner busting out of jail, and the crossword is both your prison and — if you can uncover its secrets — your escape path. (No review available, but a subscription to the AVCX is available at the puzzle link. The puzzle can also be purchased by itself at that link.)

White Lies by Evan Birnholz. Fireball Crosswords, Apr. 24th, 2014.

EvanBirnholz

A novel and complex theme trick: every (!) across entry’s first letter is incorrect; those wrong letters spell out a relevant Oscar Wilde quote.

Untitled by Joel Fagliano. The New York Times, Apr. 25th, 2014.

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The other of the two best of April’s many lively themeless puzzles.

And the winner is…
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Patrick Blindauer for A Farewell to Arms.

Extremely competitive month, but this elaborate and elegant ruse comes out on top. Patrick ingeniously spoofs the Tuesday, Mar. 18th New York Times puzzle in a way I won’t reveal here in case you’d like to see it for yourself.

I did say it was elaborate: you’ll need to 1) Solve the 3/18 New York Times puzzle; 2) Read the first three paragraphs ONLY (anything beyond that is spoiler territory) of my write-up of it here to see the special circumstance surrounding that NYT puz; 3) Solve the April Blindauer, linked above (click on April 2014 / PDF); 4) Know that there is an unannounced meta in the Blindauer, using a similar hidden message to the NYT of 3/18; and 5) Solve that meta. Phew!

If you get lost, or just want to read about it instead of solving, I explain everything here.

The spoof puzzles have arrived, and this serpentine send-up is the one for future spoofs to beat. It’s also my pick for Crossword of the Month for April 2014.

Full list of Crossword of the Month winners:

April 2014 — Patrick Blindauer, www.patrickblindauer.com
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, 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.

agard

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).

BrendanEmmettQuigley

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).

ries

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.

200px-Merl_Reagle

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

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

JoeKrozel

Japanese loan words to English get an amusing second hearing.

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

payne1

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.

Neville 400x

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

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

StanleyNewman

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:

bendavid

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:

blindauer

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.

shechtman

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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