Thursday, November 17, 2022

#41: Strip Poker


[fullscreen] [PDF] [PUZ]
difficulty: medium

Somewhat belated puzzle, as hinted at by the vestiges of Halloween theming. Thanks to Brian Thomas and Will Eisenberg for testing this one!

I've had a lot of irons in the fire (including one that, when I can say it, will be of interest to all of you interested in puzzles bearing my imprint). Well, I had the November 15 Crossword Club puzzle, which was quite good, and due to the vagaries of our publication schedule there I'll also have tomorrow's grid. More excitingly, I also have a puzzle in this month's Lemonade Disco suite, edited by Taylor Johnson. I love Taylor's willingness to arrange these community projects - it's nice to see the return of a bit of the indie spirit that has been sorely missing from crosswords these days, even amidst the Puzzle Boom. Somewhat relatedly, I was not involved with its creation, but I loved this Ocean's Eleven themed cryptic by the Rackenfracker.

OK, puzzle under the cut. Love y'all.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Crossworld Monthly Roundup, October 2022

 I took the past (checks calendar) EIGHT MONTHS!?!?!? off doing these, because they were very time-consuming. So this will be a relatively pared-down offering, just noting grids I found really interesting this month. They are not necessarily my *favorite* grids of the month - just ones that got me thinking. Again, there are spoilers in these write-ups, so if you want to give these a blind solve, don't read beyond the headers, click the link (if available) and go for it.

Oct. 1: Two Little Words (Frisco17, Good Clues for People Who Love Bad Clues)
This puzzle has a really interesting conceit - as the title implies, every clue is exactly two words. We've seen puzzles like this before - Chris Piuma made one with all the clues being fifteen characters, and one of my favorite guest offerings on QVXwordz was Robin Yu's grid where every clue was one word. I think this puzzle is perhaps one of the less satisfying takes on that premise, because it sort of flattens the impact of some of the brilliant concise clues here. For instance, the spanner and likely seed in this (slightly oversized) grid is APPLE BOTTOM JEANS, clued brilliantly as [Low gear?] - but when that's surrounded by entries of the same length you can't quite appreciate what a funny, terse, clever clue that is.
In any case, I don't mean to imply this grid is anything but wonderful: how could I hate a puzzle with a bottom stack of MADAGASCAR / ACE VENTURA / LANA DEL REY? It's just a case where I feel the puzzle was slightly weakened by the gimmick here.

Oct. 2: On a Monday (Dan Schwartz, xwords with babka)
I was going to talk about how the theme here is straightforward, but how it's *tight* and with a cute revealer - but honestly, I think that's burying the lede here, which is that every single clue in this puzzle is just a delight. Unbound by mainstream standards, Dan is able to breathe life into entries that most constructors simply take for granted as necessary glue. Where else would you see Q.E.D. clued as [Mathematics for "there you have it, mofos!"], or a clue shouting out Ludacris's contributions to the 2 Fast 2 Furious soundtrack? Of course, the greatest part of this puzzle is that it comes up with the only OP-ED clue that really gets to the heart of the matter: [With "PAGE," where to find some of the stupidest shit you've ever read in your life] ... I mean, who could argue with that?

Oct. 3: Host Country (Ross Trudeau, Current Magazine)
Current Magazine's... monthly?... crossword puzzle is public media themed, which lends itself to some very niche themes. In this case, we have one of the classic crossword themes - phrases whose first word have been reparsed as people's surnames. You know the type - the one where [Production of Carmen starring actor Chris?] clues ROCK OPERA. This one does that, but with the surnames of public radio hosts, e.g., GROSS INCOME clued as [Take-home for "Fresh Air" host Terry] ... as in Terry GROSS's income, get it? I personally went 2 for 5 on this one; I suspect for a majority of solvers the only name they'll recognize is "This American Life" host Ira, and that's largely a consequence of his first name showing up so often in puzzles.
Fortunately, as you might expect from Ross Trudeau, the puzzle is filled very solidly, with no Naticks or otherwise weird bits, so the floor for enjoyment here is fairly high. But I suspect the average solver here, the one who can only name one NPR host, will find themselves hitting a...


Glass ceiling.


Oct. 4: Getting in Shape (Brian Thomas, Puzzles That Need a Home)
I'm always impressed by grids that maintain two distinct themes simultaneously, as this grid does - it could have easily just had the most obvious of the two themes, just a simple remove-a-letter gimmick, and still be an enjoyable puzzle. But then you realize what the *second* theme here is, and your jaw drops to the floor, because it's a big architectural achievement. Super impressive.

Oct. 4: Let's Bang It Out (Norah Sharpe & Christopher Adams, Norah's Puzzles)
Not much to say here, other than that I'm glad that the indie space exists because there's no way a puzzle like this could be accepted at any mainstream outlet. I don't merely mean the theme here (which, as you can guess from the title, is a sex thing), but rather just the cluing voice. E.g., who else would do a clue with a reference to that shot-for-shot re-enactment of Beyonce's "Countdown" done by a teenage boy in a Snuggie? Will Shortz would never.


October 9, 2022 (Chase Dittrich, The Atlantic)
You know, I've gotten a lot of opportunities to work with new constructors over the past year or so, and I think one of the hallmarks of new constructors' grids is black squares placed in long horizontal streaks in the center of the grid. That usually doesn't result in very fun fill - you end up with a couple very long horizontal entries in the grid, and then a huge snarl of consecutive 3s. So seeing a grid like this in The Atlantic made me very confused, because I wouldn't expect to see a grid like this published in... any outlet, really. There's only 30 across entries in this extra-wide grid, and there are 30 3-letter entries! Whew!
But of course, if you're seeing this grid in The Atlantic, then there must be a great thematic justification for such a weird grid shape, which... sure, I guess there's a good rationale here: the long lines of black are all TUNNELS. Better than that, though, is how good all the long answers are! CATASTROPHE! TOOK THE REINS! PARODY ACCOUNT! Et cetera. But honestly, I think my favorite thing here is that The Atlantic's interface sends you to the next word immediately after you fill in the previous word, so you can blitz through all the 3s in a row. Heh heh.
But yes, this grid theoretically should have been unbearable, so I think it's a testament to Chase Dittrich's talent and Caleb Madison's deft editing that this was so enjoyable.

Oct. 10: How It Started (Rebecca Goldstein, Universal)
I don't know if this is just me not being online enough, and she's actually been getting raves everywhere outside my sphere of crossworld media consumption, so take this with a grain of salt, BUT: I feel like Rebecca Goldstein has mostly eluded the reputation of a crossword "notable," being neither an old-school newspaper regular in the vein of Ed Sessa, C.C. Burnikel, Lynn Lempel, et al, nor an indie puzzle blog "whiz kid" a la myself, Will Eisenberg, Mali Handa, etc. I can't back that claim up, it's just a gut vibe. Anyway - Rebecca rocks, and this puzzle is just the latest in a seemingly weekly string of genius puzzles from her at mainstream outlets over the past couple months. Novel themers like YARN BOMBING abound, tied to the neat revealer ORIGIN STORY - but the puzzle never feels in-your-face with its freshness. Like, it's not beating you over the head with a HEY!!! THIS PUZZLE IS TITLED AFTER A MEME!!! DO YOU GET IT!!! Nothing so overtly modern or radi-k00l. But there's no way to mistake, e.g. the distinctly modernized syntax on a clue like ["This. Always. Happens."] for EVERY TIME. Anyway, Rebecca, you rock. Love you. Please keep making puzzles forever and forever.

Oct. 11: Number of Movies (Barb Lin, Universal)
I am noting this puzzle for two reasons, one about the puzzle itself and one about my truly warped brain.
One: I truly love puzzles like this, where you *think* the theme is something facile, and then the revealer makes you realize that you were actually looking at a much, *much* tighter set than you initially reckoned with. For instance, this set is full of fill-in-the-blank clues whose titles are films with numbers in the title (e.g. [Seven ___] for SAMURAI, [101 ___] for DALMATIANS, [127 ___] for HOURS, etc), which seems basic until you get to the revealer: PRIME VIDEO. Because surprise - they're all prime numbers! Mic drop. So clever. And there are six themers here! Pretty cool.
Two: When filling in this grid, I caught onto the theme and then came to the theme entry [___ 13]. Naturally, I saw this entry and filled in... STALAG. As in, Stalag 13! Everyone remembers William Holden's Oscar-winning performance in Stalag 13! Tom Hanks? Who's that? Also, what do you mean that William Holden was in Stalag 17, not Stalag 13? SMH. Whatever.

He had died while he was drinking; he was no one I had heard of. (OK, he was pretty great in Network!)

Oct. 14: Strings Attached (Will Eisenberg & Christopher Adams, Half-Baked Puzzles)
I'm a big fan of themes which take advantage of weird symmetry and interlocks, and this puzzle delivers. The theme is very straightforward - phrases containing the names of various string instruments, e.g. FRANK VIOLA and BANJO KAZOOIE - but the way that they're arranged around the horizontally symmetrical grid is just beautiful. It kind of looks like a Bible, or maybe like Link's shield in The Legend of Zelda. Or maybe even like a string instrument of some sort, which is quite on-theme. Very cool shape, and of course, very cool clues, even if they're heavier on "sporps" content than I would go.

Oct. 15: Universal Freestyle 42 (Ada Nicolle, Universal)
Ada's talent as a constructor really shines through here, because not everyone is able to have a puzzle where their personality comes through as strongly as this one does in a mainstream outlet. The center stack here starts off beautiful, featuring MIRROR SELFIES and COUNT VON COUNT, but then you worry, hey, what if the last entry doesn't live up to the other two? But the bottom bun of the spanner sandwich, CROSS SECTIONS, which on its face is a neutral entry, is saved with a great clue: [Cuts often made to show off a burrito's contents] !!! What fun. You also have to adore the entries OK I'LL BITE and FUN SPONGE, as well as such charming clues as [TV spot of Sonic telling you not to do drugs, e.g.] for PSA. What a queen. I love Ada so much.


Oct. 17: May I Cut In? (Will Nediger, Bewilderingly)
I don't know how Will Nediger does it - this grid has a brilliant conceit where the revealer, DIVIDING LINES, perfectly bisects four of the six long acrosses at the Is, which serve as "dividing lines" that split them into two other entries - DETERIORATION becomes DETER/ORATION, for instance. An interesting consequence of this is that the theme entries are positioned asymmetrically throughout the grid, but it feels perfectly natural. Typically thoughtful Nediger clues, too.

Oct. 21: All In Love Is Fair (Alex Boisvert & Ben Zimmer, Crossword Nexus)
This is one of those puzzles that's not overtly "indie" theme-wise, but simply could not exist anywhere else but on a blog - the shape, the use of color, the cluing angles... etc. All wonderful. This is the kind of puzzle you could show your mom as proof indie crosswords are wonderful, before she stumbles on a grid where PERIODIC TABLE is clued as [Gold shower?] and makes a strategic retreat back to the Platonic cave of the Times crossword app.

Oct. 22: Brats + Barbary Pirates (Ryan Patrick Smith, Real Puzzling Stuff)
I'm consistently wowed by just how much fresh and interesting fill Ryan is able to get into these 11x11 puzzles, and the super fun cluing angles he comes up with for stock mid-length fill, like [Bar, as the bar might] for ESTOP and - my favorite! - [Authority on baby name data, in brief] for SSA.
This puzzle also deserves notice for its A+ use of profanity, with ABCDEFU in the northwest corner and APESHIT in the southeast. Better yet, APESHIT is next to SGS, with their clues being [Bananas] and [UN top bananas] - it's a nice bit of connection between those two clues (and thus between two corners of the grid) that shows Ryan's attention to detail.

Oct. 23: Ours to Share (Ross Trudeau, Universal Sunday)
This puzzle has quite a conceit: the central entry of the grid is a 7-letter across totally isolated from the rest of the grid by black squares and clued as [(CONFIDENTIAL MATERIAL)], which instantly elicits a "what the hell is going on here?" before you fill in a single square. That WTF moment doesn't ease up until literally the final theme entry, which helpfully tells us that to find out the central entry, you have to look BETWEEN YOU AND ME - as in, at the letters between "U" and "ME" in the theme entries. It just goes to prove that arguably one of the most fertile grounds for exciting Sunday-size puzzles is "metas that spell out the meta for you" - not that you needed proof of that when Evan Birnholz's WaPo grids exist, of course.
But while we're on the subject of veteran constructors, I wonder whether Ross was doing a binge through the Spyscape archives when he conceived of this grid? Because this theme, in which an espionage-themed codeword is isolated from the rest of the grid, and the solver must figure it out via the theme content, has "Bryant White's bimonthly Spyscape puzzle" written all over it. I don't mean to suggest foul play here - after all, the dude's done 85 (!?!?!) different puzzles for them, all of them pretty zany, so I suspect I could find precedent for all sorts of seemingly innovative mainstream puzzles in the Spyscape archives if I tried.

Oct. 24: Themeless Monday #695 (Brendan Emmett Quigley, BEQ)
Hell yes! I'm a big fan of the Biz Quig, as we all know, but I will admit that sometimes his themelesses can have a tiny imperfection or two that makes me hesitate to recommend them to all but the truest crossword heads. Not so here - this is a great themeless with an beautiful shape and lots of lovely terse clues (e.g. [She's always high] for SOPRANO). Plus, it has SHAT in it! Who doesn't love seeing "SHAT" in a grid?

Monday, October 24, 2022 (Joe Rodini, NYT)
I rarely go out of my way to criticize the Times puzzle - plenty of places on the Internet where you can go for analysis of Shortz and co., particularly if you're in the mood for excoriation - but I was especially befuddled by them running this grid. It's not just that the theme is almost identical to a Times puzzle from two years ago, which is bad enough; it's that the theme is identical to a puzzle that was pretty roundly derided for only listing men's names! So much so that several indie puzzlemakers proceeded to clown on the NYT by making a puzzle with the same theme and only having women in it!
And bluntly, it's not a very good theme to begin with - yep, those sure are four dudes with common Spanish names. It's a shame, because the grid here is solid, but the best thing I can say about this theme is that it was nice to see PEDRO PASCAL in a Monday Times. He's a cutie pie!

Oct. 24: puzzle 101 (themeless, kinda) (Ada Nicolle, Luckystreak+)
Among my few regrets in the puzzle space is that I do not subscribe to Ada Nicolle's Patreon, and thus miss out on weekly puzzles of this quality. Luckily she was kind enough to make this one public. It's got pretty weird symmetry - it's actually diagonally symmetrical but it took me until after solving the puzzle to realize it - meant to accommodate the beautifully personal stack of "I AM ADA NOW / THANK YOU / THAT IS ALL." It kind of makes me think of one of those charming Max Kurzman stunt midis where PHOEBE / WALLER / BRIDGE are staggered on top of each other, except that the downs crossing the "I AM ADA" stack are arguably even better than the lovely acrosses - any one of JAY SEAN, DEVIANTART, BAND KIDS, or IF I COULD would be an asset, but having them all running flush against each other?? Damn, girl. We also get clue-of-the-year material in ["Pibbly smicken rogs," e.g.] for GIBBERISH (where's the lie?), and the always-hilarious "PLEASE CLAP" on the opposite end of the grid.

Oct. 26: Monster Mash (Quiara Vasquez, AVCX)
Fuck it, it's my blog and I'll plug my puzzle if I want to, because I genuinely believe this themed puzzle of mine is the best Halloween puzzle that came out this year. Did YOUR Halloween puzzle reference Bruce LaBruce's Otto, or Up With Dead People, the 2008 film which Wikipedia describes as an "epic political-porno-zombie movie" !? Did it!?!?!? Yeah, that's what I thought. I will EAT MY HAT if someone comes up with a better Halloween-themed puzzle than this.

Oct 27: themeless xxvii (ghost type) (Brooke Husic, xwords by a. ladee)
I feel like I could probably just say "this is the best themeless Brooke Husic has ever made" and that would be sufficient explanation. But yes. This puzzle is phenomenal. The triple stack which anchors this puzzle is a thing of beauty (including the A+ clue/entry pair of [Platonic ideal?] for FRIENDSHIP GOALS), but it's also vertically intersected by such phenomental entries as CITIBIKES and ENEMY TURF and TAQUERIAS (clued as [They might drop bomb shells] - god, how brilliant). Even the most painful bits of three-letter glue are clued with thought and care - the down entries are bookended by [Ancient craft] for ARS and [Recent immigrant to the U.S., perhaps (abbr.)] for ELL. A serious contender for the best themeless of the year.


Oct. 28: A.I. (Alex Bosivert & Rose Sloan??, A Crossword Rose)
OK, Alex and Rose didn't actually write this crossword: they had an AI generate the clues for the crossword given access to a clue database. The end result is extremely charming in its hamfistedness: IDA, for instance, gets us the fun and normal clue [muckraking journalist tarbuck or tarbuck]; similarly, C'EST gets us the extremely readable clue [la vie you're contraction before la vie']. Unable to understand that sometimes multiple people have the same name, this grid posits a world where TOM Sawyer is a member of the New England Patriots, and where I.M. PEI was "awarded a maritime prov."
Basically, if you're worried about robots stealing your job... maybe crossword construction is the gig for you!

Oct. 30: Alternative Rock (Evan Birnholz, Washington Post)
(does the meta)
(eats hat)

Oct. 30: Sending a Message (Addison Snell, NYT)
Remember when I said that precedent for every seemingly innovative puzzle idea exists in Bryant White's Spyscape oeuvre? That was what we call foreshadowing. Presented for your approval: June 18, 2021's Spyscape grid, titled "Brewing Up Trouble." Suspicious, suspicious!! J'accuse, Monsieur Snell!!
I'm just kidding. I appreciate what I can only assume was an immense effort that went into making this grid's theme work, and the relative cleanliness of both the cryptogrammed entries and the crosses for them. I'm also mandated to smile at a grid which pays tribute to Alan Turing and the Bletchley Circle, given that the Allied cryptography effort during World War II led to the world's first crossword tournament! (Yes, The Imitation Game took a lot of liberties with the truth, but that detail was, in broad strokes, basically correct!)


Well, that's it for me - did I miss anything? What were your favorite puzzles from this October?

Monday, October 31, 2022

Five by Five #15


Hi all. Wow, it's Halloween! I guess this mini is seasonally appropriate, albeit less so than my AVCX grid from last week (which was - spoilers - awesome!), but probably a little moreso than my Crossword Club puzzle for tomorrow. Hope you like this one as much as those two. Later this week you'll get a "these were the puzzles I had opinions about" recap post for October, which will hopefully be much more sustainable to make than my earlier attempts to be in that space this year.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

#40: There Was an Attempt (ft. Riley Wise)


[fullscreen] [PUZ 2 come]
difficulty: medium (like a Wednesday NYT)

I don't know why it is that when you make a puzzle for a real venue, one that will pay you and everything, it takes literal months of back-and-forth and grid iterations before you get something even remotely decent, but that when you shitpost, you can create a complete and clean and good grid in thirty minutes. Such is the case with this puzzle, co-constructed by myself and Riley Wise. Lila test solved this mess, god bless her. I'll edit in the .puz file when I figure out how to get a certain aspect of the grid to work in .puz form. Anyway, applet under the cut - enjoy!

(P.S.: Did you do my AVCX grid from yesterday? It was called Monster Mash and literally everyone loved it!)

Monday, October 24, 2022

Five by Five #14

Nothing to say this week, really. I have a puzzle with AVCX Classic in a week or two that's got, I think, the most concise and brilliant angle ever conceived for a very common crossword entry. So there's that to look forward to.

Well, here's the puzzle. There's a bit of a gimmick here, and a very on-brand one at that. Hope you like it.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

#39: For Sexy MFs Only (Themeless #18)


difficulty: middling (Friday)
 [fullscreen] [PUZ]

The dulcet tones of the Lady Miss Kier can only mean one thing - the return of QVXwordz themelesses! Holy shit!

Not too much to say here. Astute solvers will note that this puzzle has 74 words, which is too many for the majority of crossword outlets; I estimate that at least one of the clues/entries here is a no-go at most crossword outlets, too. (Hint: it's the one that says MOTHAFUCKIN' in all caps.) Thanks to Ben, Josh, and Riley for test-solving.

Puzzle under the cut! Although, I've also included a fullscreen link above in lieu of a PDF (which you can just make with the Amuselabs applet anyway), in case you want to solve it that way. Have fun!

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Five by Five #13, AND: an unsolicited review of "Olga Dies Dreaming" by Xochitl Gonzalez

A couple weeks ago I met up with some friends for dinner in Downtown Brooklyn. I had not really been to downtown since my high school days a decade prior, but not matter. I assumed I would have an easy time navigating from the subway to the restaurant - I would just use the Williamsburgh Savings Bank's clock tower as a massive compass needle, with Brooklyn Tech's spire and radio antenna as a backup, and use that as my north star. I had no such luck - apparently, in the past decade, skyscrapers had bloomed seemingly everywhere within a two-mile radius of the Barclays Center. My memories of a pre-Kyrie Irving downtown were useless, conquered by concrete kudzu.

It is in moments like this where I most appreciate Olga Dies Dreaming, the debut novel by Xochitl Gonzalez. I liked the novel a lot, despite its many flaws, largely because I am demographically obligated to - how could I not love this novel by a Mexican-American Bensonhurster, which claims to be dedicated to "South Brooklyn girls who stare at the water, dreaming," and then backs that claim up at least once per page for 400 pages? In heroine Olga Acevedo I see a mirror of my own strivings and failings. It is very rarely that I feel seen by a work of fiction with this level of precision.

Ergo, I was willing to put up with the shittier, didactic parts of the novel. So many of the secondary characters seem to talk straight past our protagonist and zero in on the reader, not so much speaking as orating, delivering multi-page lectures about Puerto Rican history for the sake of gringos on Goodreads for whom the greatest compliment you can give a book is "intersectional." Eventually, belatedly, these characters mostly become real people instead of The Jones Act for Dummies audiobooks. But not all of them, and especially not Olga's seemingly endless parade of lovers. I have seen Olga Dies Dreaming described/derided as "chick lit," which isn't wrong, naked misogyny aside. The book insists on the cover that it is A Novel but in my mind it is more of A Fanfiction, converting a century of Boricua radicalism into grist for love triangles. Which is only a negative insofar as that element of the book is so obvious - gee, will Olga fall for the white gazillionaire real estate mogul-slash-vulture, or the homeboy whose eyes and freckles merit a paragraph's worth of descriptors!?!?

And yet despite that cynicism I really did love the book, and its characters, and its lovingly chaotic depiction of a whole family ecosystem, and the parts where Gonzalez doesn't feel the need to explain la cultura to los blancos and instead just writes down the experience of walking down an ungentrified Sunset Park block for five pages. I even kind of loved the goofy fairytale ending. Great book. Four stars.

Wow, that was a lot of opinions. Anyway, here's a 5x5. It's times like these, when I forget to post the puzzle at the start of the week, where I'm glad I don't have these called "Monday Minis" anymore. There will actually be a new full-size QVXword this Thursday - a very lovely themeless which I got test-solved and everything! - and hopefully there will be more than one of them in the coming weeks. Love you all.