I just test-solved all but the finals puzzle for the upcoming Crosswords LA tournament. Hoo-wee! The “bastard” puzzle is a beaut. Elegantly conceived and executed. And then there are the other five crosswords, too, all solid. Excellent group of constructors. Californians, you are in for a treat. Crosswords LA takes place Sunday, May 1, at Loyola Marymount University. Go here for more info and to register.
The weekend before that, there’s the Boston Crossword Puzzle Tournament. The puzzles are all by Boston-area constructors, and the event takes place at Harvard on Saturday, April 23. Advance tickets required.
Saturday, April 16, I’ll be at Marbles: The Brain Store for the third annual Chicago Crossword Tournament. This competition features unpublished New York Times crosswords. More info here.
Other upcoming puzzle events listed on the ACPT website include an April 16 tournament in Canton, OH; the outdoors DASH puzzle hunts in various cities nationwide on April 30; Deb Amlen’s presentation on crossword solving on May 23 in New Jersey; and the Lollapuzzoola tournament on August 6 in New York.
E.J. Masicampo’s New York Times crossword
Do you ever find yourself not at all in a mood to blog about a crossword? What’s that? 100% of the time, 99% of you are not in the mood to blog about crosswords? Gotcha. So you know how I’m feeling tonight. Just not inclined. And yet I persevere! The Iron Horse of crossword blogging.
The theme is far less dramatic than the IMAX movie I saw yesterday, Tornado Alley. The top row has some NIMBUS / CLOUDS, without even a hint of a scary supercell forming. The circled squares show the RAIN falling within the longest Down answers:
- 6d. STRAINERS would be a little more elegant if not plural.
- 10d. UKRAINIAN is clued ominously: [Like the Chernobyl nuclear power plant].
- 31d. BRAINIEST also suffers from that -EST ending, similar to 6d.
- 33d. TRAIN STOP feels a hair off-kilter to me. Husband says El stop. I feel like my old commuter train days involved getting off at a train station because that was my stop, but TRAIN STOP sounds funny to me. Maybe this is one of those regional things and everybody says TRAIN STOP in some places.
And then at the bottom, where the RAINdrops hit, you hear the PITTER / PATTER of rain. Cute!
In the non-theme fill, I like the college sports RANKING, FERTILIZER, an NBA ALL-STAR, TIRADES, HIRSUTE (“she wore ‘hirsute’ of body hair”), and ORANGES clued as [Ones getting squeezed before breakfast]. Not fond of ADORNER, RETABLE and REFOLD, and Z-BAR.
Donna Levin’s Los Angeles Times crossword – Neville’s review
Surf’s up in today’s puzzle by frequent contributor Donna S. Levin – the S stands for Shore today. Hopefully you weren’t left at sea by this puzzle. Each of the long across entries ends with a bit of motion in the ocean:
- 20a. [Chocolate-ribboned ice cream flavor] – FUDGE RIPPLE. Is Lent over yet?
- 27a. [One setting a new high] isn’t CHEECH MARIN but RECORD BREAKER. This reminds me of the “Make or Break” LAT puzzle from the end of last month – that’s not a bad thing!
- 49a. [Salon treatment] – PERMANENT WAVE. Alternate clue: [Reason to keep standing and sitting at the ballpark].
- 56a. ["Nifty, huh?"] – ISN’T IT SWELL? Well, isn’t this a swell puzzle? I think so!
Lots of gnarly fill in the grid today – that’s surfer-gnarly, not tree-gnarly:
- We’ve got MR. SLATE and CINDERELLA in the barefoot fictional character mini-theme. Only one slipper between their four feet!
- Even though I live in a New York City apartment, I haven’t needed to shout EEK! yet. Knock on wood! Once that happens, this will quickly move to the least-liked entry section.
- In the cool phrases reading straight down department, I like LIAM IN A TREE the best, but GLAD CHEAPSKATE is pretty nice. Not sure what to make of STREAKY ATMS.
- If the Cheshire Cat wasn’t enough Lewis Carroll for you, we’ve got GYRE in the lower left.
- LET RIDE and CRAISIN round out my favorite fill in this puzzle.
Names you might not know:
- I had no idea on 66a. [Capone henchman] - Francesco Raffaele Nittoni, AKA Frank Nitto, AKA Frank “The Enforcer” NITTI. He served 18 months for tax evasion – I’m sure that’s the worst thing he did.
- RODAN, [Sometime ally of Godzilla] is a mutated pterosaur. He is not Mothra, so I had no clue. (Apparently he’s sometimes Godzilla’s enemy. I think that all of this Godzilla stuff wasn’t very well thought through at the beginning.)
- I did know Isaac STERN right underneath at 69a, but in case you didn’t, he was a Ukrainian violinist.
Doug Peterson’s CrosSynergy/Washington Post puzzle, “Sports Spots”—Sam Donaldson’s review
To: New Crossword Solvers and Aspiring Crossword Constructors
From: Sam Donaldson, Diary of a Crossword Fiend correspondent
In re: How to Spot a Quality Crossword
This office has received a number of queries (okay, two) regarding the distinction between quality handcrafted crosswords and those of inferior quality. Those new to crosswords—especially to easy crosswords—may be fooled by imitation grids that appear at first blush to be of decent quality. Upon close inspection, however, one can easily identify the traits of a quality crossword. This memorandum is intended to identify several of the characteristics of a great crossword. It is issued today to coincide with the publication of today’s outstanding puzzle by Doug Peterson and uses that puzzle for illustration purposes.
1. Theme Tightness. Yes, most easy puzzles have a “theme,” something that unites the longest answers in the grid. Here, the four longest answers are two-word phrases ending with a word that’s also a place at which a sport is played. Thus we get:
- 17-Across: FORCE FIELD is the [Invisible barrier in a sci-fi movie], and a field is where one plays soccer, among many other sports;
- 27-Across: PARALLEL PARK is something one would do to [Practice for part of a driving test], and both baseball and softball are played in parks;
- 43-Across: GOLDFISH BOWL is a [Home made of glass], and a bowl is where many a college football team hopes to play at the end of its season; and
- 57-Across: TEAPOT DOME is the [Area at the center of a ‘20s White House scandal], and a dome is where some pro sports teams in foul-weathered cities play.
Notice that all theme entries have two words. Notice too that the key thematic word is always the second word. So an entry like COURT JESTER would be out of place, as would TAKE TO COURT. Notice also that the key thematic word is consistently used in a way that’s different from the theme. In other words, you can’t play in a goldfish bowl or in a force field, so Peterson is using the words “bowl” and “field” in different contexts, and that’s true of all the theme entries. Thus, FIELD OF DREAMS would be an inconsistent theme entry in this puzzle (and therefore bad, for this puzzle anyway). Good puzzles are all about consistency in the theme entries. It’s the little things, but they matter so much.
2. Good Title. Puzzles with titles offer a hint to the theme, and good titles suggest many thematic possibilities. Peterson’s puzzle has the title “Sports Spots.” It’s a fine description for the theme (phrases ending with a word that’s also a place at which a sport is played), but that same title could be used for a puzzle where the theme entries consist of wacky two-word phrases where the first word contains an R that’s deleted from the second word (with theme entries like, say, RAFT AFT, FRAME FAME, and POKER POKE). Or it could describe a theme where the name of a sport is hidden within a larger phrase (like APPLIED ARTS hiding the game of “darts”). The solver should be given some hint of what’s to come, but it should leave some air of mystery because part of the fun is sussing out the theme in the first place.
(If the puzzle runs without a title, then usually there’s some hint within the puzzle itself, like in Donna S. Levin’s puzzle from yesterday. That’s not always the case, especially in very easy puzzles where the theme is obvious, like rhyming words. But for more subtle themes without titles, you should get some indication of what’s going on from the grid itself or from the clues.)
3. Fresh, Evocative Fill. We use “fill” to describe the entries that are unrelated to the theme. Good fill is important—the theme usually covers four to six of a puzzle’s 74 to 78 words, so the rest of the grid should be filled with sparkly stuff that will appeal to solvers of all age ranges. To borrow from another expression, you want some things old, some things new, nothing borrowed, and maybe one thing blue.
Peterson’s puzzle has some wonderful long Down entries—there’s the SODA JERK (the [Old-time fountain worker]), BE A PAL (clued here as [“Help me out, will ya?”]), CHICKADEE (the [Tiny black-and-gray songbird]), and WELL-BUILT (clued here as [Made to last] but an apt description of the puzzle itself). Older folks will get toeholds with [Edgar Bergen dummy Mortimer] SNERD and the [WWII Luftwaffe foe], the R.A.F., while younger solvers will be able to break into the grid with CERA, clued as [Michael of “Superbad”], and TRIO, clued for the younger set as [The Jonas Brothers, e.g.].
There’s also an abundance of rare letters, though Peterson is not seduced into forcing all 26 letters of the alphabet into this grid (thankfully). Rare letters add zippiness—just look at JIFFS, BJORK, OZARK, and FLAK. There’s also plenty of two-word entries, like A SHARP and YELLED AT, in addition to the entries already discussed. Note too there are only four plurals in the entire puzzle, and just two abbreviations (one of which, MTWTF, is really interesting by itself). The grid employs no “partials” (parts of phrases, like AS IN, NOT TO, A TIME, and so forth), which some purists insist is another mark of a high-quality puzzle (some of us at the Diary not only tolerate partials, we even like some of them). This grid proves that good fill can really elevate a puzzle’s elegance. The theme may not be the most exciting in the world (hey, it’s consistent), but the fill really makes for a fun solve.
4. Something Provocative. Lastly, a good crossword should have at least one water-cooler moment—something that makes you want to discuss the puzzle with others. It could be an inventive theme, a clever clue, or, as in this puzzle, some “I can’t believe he got away with it” fill. Yes, the answer to [Curry favor with] really was SUCK UP TO. I wonder how many newspaper editors will hear about this. To me, the expression’s near universal use in my personal and professional lives renders it utterly harmless. But those who seek offense will probably find it just from the first word in the expression. I’d wager that Peterson thought about this as he made the puzzle, but I’m glad he stuck to his guns. My dictionary does not identify the expression as vulgar or crude, so even though some will dislike it, the expression is perfectly fine for a mass-audience crossword.
Others might strongly dislike ORIENTAL. From a constructor’s standpoint, the high-vowel, common-consonant combination makes it especially useful in grids. But that’s a potentially inflammatory term. Peterson handles it deftly, cluing it as [Avenue adjacent to Reading Railroad], a reference to Monopoly’s Oriental Avenue. Still, some are troubled by the word simply because of its Eurocentric (and often offensive) connotation, so some constructors probably consider the word too taboo for their own use. I think Peterson’s use here is perfectly fine.
But the point is that some readers came to this blog just to see what others would say about SUCK UP TO and ORIENTAL. The puzzle provoked discussion, perhaps debate. And that’s never a bad thing, provided the discussion and debate is civil and tolerant.
So there you go: a tight, consistent theme, a good title, wonderful fill, and something that makes you want to talk about it. That’s how you distinguish an outstanding puzzle from an ordinary one. If you want to make a good easy puzzle, save this crossword and use it as a model for your own endeavors–I know I will.
Matt Jones’s Jonesin’ crossword, “Hulk on the Job”
- 17a. [8:53 AM: "Hulk punch ___!"] IN FOR WORK.
- 24a, 38a. [9:15 AM: With 38-across, "Hulk smash ___!"] PERSONAL RECORD / AT MINESWEEPER.
- 48a. [10:02 AM: "Hulk attack ___!"] MASSIVE PROJECT.
- 60a. [10:44 AM: "Hulk break ___!"] … FOR COFFEE.
Methinks Hulk not work hard. In two hours, Hulk only work for 42 minutes. Hulk probably check Twitter and Facebook on job all afternoon. Hulk maybe not get promotion this year. I hope Hulk’s colleagues not have to pick up Hulk slack.
Matt make fancy crossword with 9-letter answers in corners. PITA CHIPS nice and crunchy, have many letters in common with PISTACHIOS (drop first S, move O one letter later in alphabet, boom! New snack).