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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

Berry

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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