Special cross-blog tie-in tonight: Over at the NYT’s Wordplay blog, Anne Erdmann has written about her experience with the Times puzzle, a speed solver’s play-by-play. And below, you get my version of the play-by-play rather than my standard style of crossword review. I won’t see Anne’s interview until after I’ve written mine, and I can’t wait to tease out the differences in our approaches to the puzzle. If you’re not a speed solver, you might view our essays as freakish anthropological/neuropsychological explorations.
Barry Silk’s New York Times crossword
Usually I solve via the computer keyboard, but this time it was on paper. I barely noticed the byline, which worked to my advantage—had I been thinking “Ooh, Barry Silk puzzle,” I would have been suspecting Scrabbly answers throughout. Just one solitary Q and one X? Not Barry’s usual style.
I do generally begin with 1-Across, but if the answer doesn’t come to me right away, I quickly move on. PALATE made sense for 9-Across, and the [Magician's opening] of ABRA (cadabra) confirmed one A. I knew the 16-Across clue was about astronomy and suspected URANUS (Herschel is, in fact, credited with discovering Uranus), but the B in ABRA made me wait for more crossings. After filling in POOR AT/ABRA/LEAFS, I had OBE*** and jotted OBERON for 16-Across. Have I ever heard of a celestial body called Oberon? I have not. But a gazillion moons are named after mythological characters. (But, uh, this particular name is from Shakespeare, not the Greeks! Oberon is one of Uranus’s moons.)
In that same corner, I enjoyed the “impressive address” clue for ORATES, and was utterly misled by 24-Across’s clue. I tried SLED, but it turned out to be SCAM. Lots of erasing after the S there. The 14-Down clue was tricky because it sounds like a verb, but the [Pieces together?] are a collective noun, a clothing ENSEMBLE. I got that one only with a good five or more letters already in place.
From there, I moved through the middle of the grid, down to the lower right, then to the lower left, and finally back up to the 1-Across quadrant.
The easiest clues—the ones whose answers I filled in with few or no letters in place—included 9-, 23-, 25-, 29-, and 43-Across (PALATE, ARUBA, ONE LAP, LIB, TROI), and 2-, 6-, 10-, 35-, 48-, and 55-Down (HESTON, ERO learned from crosswords, ABRA, RUST BELT, OWNERS, STET). With a little help from crossings, some other answers fell quickly: 61-Across (ROD LAVER) and 7-, 36-, and 44-Down (WESER and ADAM’S ALE learned from crosswords, RESODS). Oh! That 44-Down. I was just grumbling about RESODS in another puzzle. RESOD(S) gets a teeny hit count in Google compared with other words, but it does get used in landscaping and football-field circles. Really not an answer that brings light and joy to a crossword, though.
There were plenty of answers I just plain did not know based on the clue—but the crossings allowed me to piece them together and make educated guesses based on words’ letter patterns. This category is absolutely bigger than the “gimmes” category in a Saturday puzzle. (Monday and Tuesday puzzles hold far fewer mysteries.) This is actually the most rewarding part of the solving experience: Taking clues that have left me dumbfounded and working the crossings to crack the constructor and editor’s code. My favorite clues are often the ones that vexed me the longest. The “Huh?” category today includes 1- (CHIPPEWA), 18- (ORATES), 22- (should’ve known this name trivia from past crosswords, René COTY, but four-letter Orly Airport intervened in my head), 30- (O’TOOLE), 51- (EILAT—clue sounds Arabic but Eilat’s in Israel), 56- (BORON), and 58-Across (ESCAROLE, which I argue is not so common in salads, unless it’s part of mesclun mixes), and 1- (CRISCO—have seen this vegetable-oil-not-petroleum trick before), 12- (ARTICLES), 14- (ENSEMBLE), 34- (B.J. THOMAS, seldom seen since the 1970s), 38- (TROT), 46- (SHROVE—so that’s what that means? Gotta love the non-ED past tense trick), 47- (TOOLER—not a thing I’ve ever heard of before), 50- (LENIN), 52- (AESOP), and 59-Down (Roman numeral year CDI). See how these are pretty well spaced out? I can usually find something I know or can plausibly guess in each section of a puzzle. It’s when an entire quadrant seems impenetrable that the solving experience becomes infinitely more challenging.
I know from discussions and online postings from other speed solvers that piecing answers together based on suggestive crossings and letter patterns is one of the most important skills that allows speed solving. (That, and just plain brute force: Doing so many puzzles that you quickly, sometimes instantaneously, recognize the answers to a great many clues.) Dan Feyer once explained that sometimes he’s guessing what the answer is based on the letters provided by the crossings—and reading the clue for confirmation.
- 17a. I love the clue and answer, “I SUPPOSE“/[Comment while hemming]. This one’s not about sewing hems at all.
- 20a. Working from the back end, I opted to make this ULTRA-FINE instead of EXTRA-FINE. Eventually the ASEXUAL reproduction set me straight.
- 37a. Ach, wir sprechen Deutsch hier. STRASSE is “street” in German.
- 40a. [Pump alternative] clues a T-STRAP shoe. Saturday clues are rife with words that have multiple meaning. Gas pump, bicycle tire pump, pump someone for information…and a kind of shoe.
- 56a. Good lord, really? [Group 13 member in chemistry] was a total mystery to me. Luckily, the answer is an element, BORON, and not a chemical like ethene or butane or enol or whatnot.
- 62a. Hmm, as I’ve said before, there are plenty of physicians who put STENTS in place who are not surgeons. Cardiac stents tend to be inserted by interventional cardiologists (a medical, not surgical, specialty).
- 3d. I love the “I QUOTE” clue and answer. [Lead-in to someone else's words's after "and"] is plainly descriptive. Cute to cross I QUOTE with I SUPPOSE, though there are those who would argue that it’s inelegant to repeat the I.
- 5d. [Marks in a casino] are the PIPS, or spots, on dice. I was thinking SAPS first, as in “easy marks.”
- 28d. [One stuck in a float] had me thinking of flowers in Rose Parade floats rather than a STRAW in an ice cream float.
- 33d. Whoa, I got lost here. I read the singer clue (34d) when looking at the 33d space, and couldn’t think of any singers whose names began with CAP(E). CAPE CORAL isn’t a singer, it’s a little-known [Florida city on the Caloosahatchee]. Last year, the town hit #3 in the nation for foreclosures! I swear I’ve never heard of Cape Coral or the Caloosahatchee, though I do love those polysyllabic Indian place names in Florida. Weeki Wachee, Chattahoochee, Okahumpka, Apalachicola? All fun to say.
- 56d. For ["Oklahoma!" set piece], I was thinking of the usual meaning of “set piece,” a grand song or dance number. Instead, it’s a piece of the set, a prop—a hay BALE.
With a solving time of 6:18 on paper, I expect I would have been a little faster online. (For some solvers, it’s the other way around and the online interface stymies them.) From the metric of my typical solving times, I’d call this a Saturday puzzle of average difficulty, maybe on the easier side of the midpoint. You know what that means? It means that some people will declare this to be among the easiest Saturday puzzles they’ve done, and others will state that it was really quite a challenge. What factoids and bits of wordplay resonate with one person will vex another. (Fill a crossword with terms from the nautical, poker, and classical music worlds, and watch me crash and burn while those who play poker and listen to music aboard their boats express appreciation for the puzzle. Fill it with 1970s-2010 pop culture and watch me shred it at top speed while others grumble that TV and pop music are stupid and they’re better off not filling their heads with such fluff.)
How did I get fast in the first place? By doing thousands upon thousands of crosswords, ever since I was a kid. By gorging on the NYT’s 1998+ archives of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday puzzles. By having a quasi-photographic memory for words. By paying close attention to the types of trickery seen in tough puzzles’ clues (and loving those clues!). By paying attention to the answers I didn’t know (well, except for some of the nautical, poker, and music ones) and learning just enough to get them into my head before they show up in another crossword (as they so often do). If you throw away a half-finished crossword, you’re ditching a great learning tool. Don’t let a crossword get the best of you—go ahead and look up anything you didn’t know. Review the puzzle’s solution and see what the clues were for the ones you missed. Read the crossword blogs. Google to your heart’s content. Wikipedia isn’t a perfect resource, no, but it’s ridiculously encyclopedic and is a great place to pick up a passing familiarity with a zillion topics. You never know when something you learn will pop up in a puzzle. Sure, I thought PTAH was a lousy answer the first time I saw it in a puzzle, but I sure was glad I’d seen it the one time when it showed up again. (For the record: It’s a pretty lousy entry.)
Remember: Head over to Wordplay to see how Anne Erdmann wrestled with the Saturday puzzle.
P.S. Just added the grid after keying in my answers with the “check your solution” applet option. It took me 2:16 to type in my already-figured-out answers. Online speed solving demands quick and accurate keyboarding skills, too.
Neville Fogarty’s Los Angeles Times crossword
- 6a. [Angle on the Titanic sinking, to filmmakers] is the MONEY SHOT. I was pleasantly surprised that the answer wasn’t some sort of geometric angle.
- 18a. [Out-of-court testifiers] are people who give depositions, or DEPONENTS.
- 19a. It was Hollywood that told me BLIND SIDE was a football term for a [Vulnerable spot]. I prefer the verb to the noun.
- 22a. The clue, [Takeout throw-in], sounds all oppositey. The answer is CATSUP, the opposite of which is either Downward Facing Dog or mustard.
- 27a. [It leads the way] clues a boat’s PROW. All crossings for this one—the clue wasn’t pushing me towards the front of a ship. (This answer crosses LEAD UP. Hey, get the lead out!)
- 29a. Do infomercials really say PAID AD in their fine print? It’s clued as [Words in an infomercial disclaimer].
- 61a. THE OFFICE—great entry!—is a [TV show set at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company].
- 68a. [Words you may hear after being hurt] clues I’M SO SORRY. I hope you folks don’t need to hear this line any time soon.
- 69a. Blech! [Measures of volume] means sound here, not the amount of space matter takes up, and the answer is SONES. Decibels make sense to me, but SONES? I don’t know who uses sones. Here’s a chart so you can see how sones and decibels compare.
- 2d. [Lip enhancer] clues COLLAGEN. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that injecting collagen into one’s lips is not actually an enhancement. Melanie Griffith, Meg Ryan, Lisa Rinna?
- 3d. [They'll get you going] clues a lame answer, EXCITERS.
- 4d. The LIONS, aptly enough, are a [Team with a mascot named Roary].
- 11d. Crosswordese! A SNEE is a [Bygone blade].
- 13d. OTTAWA, Ontario, is [Dan Aykroyd's birthplace]. I read this clue for the adjacent answer, with an N in square 3, and filled in CANADA where HUNTED belongs.
- 38d. [Get ready for a pledge] clues RISE. As in standing up before reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
- 41d. EXORCISE is clued with [Dispossess?]. Cute!
- 51d. [Music to a dieter's ears] is the clue for this puzzle’s weirdest answer, NO FATS. Who talks of “no fats” in the negative plural?
- 64d. Latin I’ve never seen: MEO [__ periculo: at my own risk].
Patrick Blindauer’s CrosSynergy/Washington Post puzzle, “Spooktacular!”—Janie’s review
Tonight is All-Hallow’s Eve and for this auspicious occasion, Patrick has given us a puzzle that’s a real treat. The trick is that he’s taken familiar names and phrases, added a single letter to the first or last word, and converted them to words we associate with Halloween. What’s most uncanny is our constructor’s gift for the moment. Safe to say that some of the puns will make you, well, groan… Prepare yourself as you see how:
- 17A. Aunt Polly → HAUNT POLLY [Plague "Alice" actress Holliday?]. See what I mean? It only gets better worse.
- 23A. Heavenly host → HEAVENLY GHOST [Angelic apparition?]. Heavenly ghost doesn’t have the sound of a completely made up phrase. I take this as a good thing.
- 35A. Cream of the crop → SCREAM OF THE CROP [Shriek from some soybeans?]. Love the concept here and find both the base phrase and the theme phrase to be particularly lively ones. What? Are they undergoing separation anxiety as they’re just about to be harvested?
- 51A. Radical right → RADICAL FRIGHT [Fear of square root symbols?]. Mathphobes may relate to this.
- 61A. Cary Grant → SCARY GRANT [Eerie endowment?]. Like the kind secured by a parapsychologist? Or maybe the Ghostbusters team?
All of this fine fill is met with a fine complement in the non-theme fill department as well, where we encounter the likes of DAUGHTER [Kate Hudson to Goldie Hawn], ["Poor Richard's] ALMANACK["] and AGREEING [In accord]. Nice, too the way that last word crosses NICER [More polite].
We find other connections in the fill as well. A FAN is a [Circulation increaser], moving the air. Something that’s AIRY is also [Light as a feather]; AER- is a [Bubbly beginning?] (as in aerate, which means, literally, to add air to or to expose to the circulation of air. See fan above…)
We get caffeine from two different sources today—France and Italy. The former suggests LAIT as a [Café enhancer], the latter reminds us that a drink [Like cappuccino] is FOAMY (because it’s been aerated…).
Because (where his TV credits are concerned) I so strongly associate Jerry ORBACH with Law & Order, I was surprised to learn that he was the [Jerry with a recurring role on "Murder, She Wrote"]. Probably didn’t help that I watched the show less than half a dozen times in its 12-year history… That’s one factlet I picked up today. The other is that a CLEW is a [Ball of yarn]. That’s a word I’d seen but whose definition I’d never investigated and always thought might be a variation of “clue.” I’m curious though about REGROW [Cultivate again]. I understand what necessitates using the word in the grid, but why does this one remind me of “recarve”?…
My only real nit today (and this is truly out of the constructor’s control) relates to repeat fill. Patrick’s is not the only puzzle this week to include MAMA and AGRA. But his is the third one in four days to include EDY’S [Breyer's alternative]. Sadly (and I don’t say this to be flip), this kind of repetition gives the appearance of the puzzle’s having been only PARTLY EDITED. I mean, the least we could do with these three scoops is build a banana split—perhaps topped with a “trick or treat” NECCO [wafer] or two!
Mike Shenk’s Wall Street Journal Saturday Puzzle, “Marching Bands”
I’ve been doing Marching Bands puzzles ever since they first started running in Games magazine. How long has it been—10 years? 15? I don’t remember seeing one with a theme before, though. Today, Mike’s WSJ puzzle presents a dozen or more Halloween-related clues and answers. I have the same Halloween-theme exhaustion the rest of you have, but this puzzle enchanted me rather than boring me.
The top row very nearly made me give up without finishing. Did you know that the original Peeping Tom was struck blind, in the legend? [React like Peeping Tom in the Godiva legend (2 wds.)] clues GO BLIND. Now, that clue is worded weird.. Going blind isn’t so much an individual reaction, is it? I had [Honey]/DARLING so I knew I needed a 6-letter [Halloween mischief-maker] and finally thought of GOBLIN. I suspected the [County with a famous cemetery] would be something spooky or celebrity-oriented (Pere Lachaise? something in L.A.?) but drew a blank for the longest time. Finally got the “aha” of ARLINGTON.
Bob Peoples’ Newsday crossword, “Saturday Stumper”
Lots of solidly oblique Stumper-style clues today, and precious little in the “gimme” category. First up, the toughest clues:
- 1a. [Homebuilder's need] clues SABER SAW. Random clue. If you’re building a house, there are a zillion tools you need. Does the saber saw have particular relevance to homebuilding above other pursuits?
- 16a. [Haig portrayer in "Nixon"] clues Powers BOOTHE. Sure, it’s a Googleable fact, but how many people know this off the top of their head?
- 17a. We’ve all heard of Lake TITICACA from Trivial Pursuit (or from snickering at its name), but I never knew it was the [Incas' origin, in their mythology].
- 28a. [Heavy heart] is sadness, or DOLOR.
- 31a. All the clue [2010 newcomer to Forbes' Celebrity 100 list] tells me is “you need a celeb who’s newish and hot now, with an assured future.” Needed crossings to get me from there to LADY GAGA. Great answer, tough clue.
- 33a. [Put-off response] is weirdly worded. “WE’LL SEE” is what you say to put someone off until later (or never).
- 39a. [Part of a studio system] clues PREAMP.
- 47a. [Less forward] clues SLIER, but I was thinking SHYER/SHIER. You know, some dictionaries don’t list SLIER and SHIER—just SLYER and SHYER. I is a more common letter than Y, so we get the I spellings in crosswords.
- 49a. [Pfeiffer film of '09] clues CHERI. Say what? Did anyone see this? Hell, I read Entertainment Weekly all the time, and I don’t even remember hearing of this movie. It grossed $8 million, so I’ll bet most of you never heard of it either.
- 51a. ['20s set designer for MGM] is ERTE, one of crosswordese’s favorite artists.
- 2d. [Land-grant recipient] is a dull clue, but the answer’s even snoozier: ALIENEE. It’s a word I see only in crosswords.
- 5d. [Stat holders] clues RECS. I don’t know what this is supposed to be. The official records hold the statistics?
- 8d. ["Much Ado About Nothing" commentary?] doesn’t have anything to do with Shakespeare, it turns out: WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS? Great answer, fun clue.
- 12d. “ET VOILA!” is clued as a [Chef's shout]. Uh, sure.
- 23d. For [Khan kin], I was thinking AGHA, but it’s the masked plural (“kin” is plural) for AGAS.
- 36d. [It ended in Britain with the Roman Conquest] clues the IRON AGE. I was guessing based on a couple crossing letters.
- 40d. ELEANOR [__ Rosalynn Carter] is the former First Lady’s full name. Googleable, but how many people know this trivia bit off the top of their head?
- 42d. [One of two matching colors with different spectra] is a METAMER. I don’t know the word.
- 50d. [Mrs. Soames Forsyte] clues IRENE. No idea who this is. Google to the rescue: characters from The Forsyte Saga.
- 55d. [Second planet past Mercur] clues ERDE. Okay, Erde is German for “earth.” Merkur is German for “Mercury.” What language has Mercur with a C and Erde?
- The ELEVENTH / HOUR.
- LADY GAGA.
- Good verb phrases WINKED AT and FIRE AWAY.
- The rhyming near neighbors ROAD HOG and SHOW DOG.
- SNEERERS and PREYERS? The -ER ending was bad enough, but to then tack on an -S is practically unforgivable.
- Plural BRAVOS.
- The aforementioned RECS clue, ALIENEE, and SLIER.
Question: Peoples had another crossword this week in a different publication, and the byline there was “R.M. (Bob) Peoples.” Here it’s still Bob. Anyone know what’s up with that?