The Orcas are back! Budget cuts forced us to scrap the fancy-shmancy awards ceremony this year. (Now we’ll just have to imagine what Henry Hook would have worn on the black-and-white carpet.) We had a cute little magic show all planned and everything, but recent events led us to scrap it at the last minute. But, hey, we don’t need a splashy show to honor many of the great crossword puzzles from 2013. (Get it? “Splashy?” Orcas?)
As is tradition, the Orca Awards honor excellence in crossword construction and editing in several categories. This year, the Best Contest Crossword award joins the returning categories, and we’ll also confer both the Bob Klahn Award for Most Outstanding Clue and the Margaret Farrar Award for Constructor of the Year. The final award will be for Best Crossword of 2013.
Okay, before we start let’s review some of the basic logistics. Nominees for Best Crossword were determined based on the star ratings awarded by readers of this site. As you can see from the “Best Crosswords of 2013″ tab up top, the nominees for this award may not have the highest overall average star rating among eligible puzzles due to any number of factors that were previously explained when the nominees were announced two weeks ago. Unlike past years, however, this year a panel of ten judges ranked the nine Best Crossword nominees. The panel consisted of veteran constructors, accomplished solvers, and crossword critics. I promised them anonymity, so you’ll just have to trust me–this was a very good slate of judges.
The nominees for all other awards were selected even more arbitrarily than Best Crossword, so there’s no need to think that they’re the product of some definitive empirical research. Reasonable minds will differ, of course, but hopefully everyone will appreciate the really nice puzzles to which we are about to pay tribute.
Let’s roll. Each puzzle category will feature the winner, along with a list of the other nominees.
BEST EASY CROSSWORD OF 2013: Untitled, by Lynn Lempel (NYT, August 6). For years Lynn Lempel has been constructing some of the finest easy crosswords out there, and this Tuesday puzzle is among her best. It exemplifies the attributes of a great easy puzzle. First, the theme is catchy but accessible. Here, five two-word terms starting with words that, in other contexts, are synonymous with “steal” are clued as though they are, in fact, engaged in theft. Thus, for instance, TAKE CHANCES is clued as [Make off with some raffle tickets?] and LIFT WEIGHTS is clued as [Make off with some gym equipment?]. That’s nice wordplay. Second, the fill is squeaky-clean–no obscurities, unfamiliar abbreviations, or awkward partials. Third, the non-thematic stuff is lively: DEMONIZING, HIPSTER, SKETCHBOOK, and lots of two-word terms like ADD UP, IN USE, and SAY NO. As commenter John E observed, “These are the types of puzzles that make me enjoy my NYT crossword subscription.” Indeed, this is the type of puzzle that makes us all happy.
Other Nominees for Best Easy Crossword (in order of date of publication in 2013):
- Untitled, by Dan Schoenholz (LAT, February 18). In honor of President’s Day we got to play a little “before and after” with presidential surnames. For instance, the answer to [Washington] is GEORGE OR IRVING, as in President George Washington and author Washington Irving. There’s also THOMAS OR DAVIS for [Jefferson], ANDREW OR BROWNE for [Jackson], and HARRY OR CAPOTE for [Truman]. Like any great easy puzzle, you don’t think much about the construction as you solve it. But now consider that those four, obvious theme answers happen to pair off symmetrically (two 14s and two 13s). And then consider that the fill lends itself to Monday-level cluing, the day on which a presidential theme is most appropriate. That’s not all happenstance–it’s evidence of fine construction.
- Untitled, by Jeff Chen (LAT, May 6). Jeff Chen got uncharacteristically negative in this Monday puzzle containing the revealer NO NO NO, an [Emphatic refusal and words that precede the ends of 20-, 35- and 52-Across in a restaurant warning]. Those referenced entries are LOST ONE’S SHIRT, GOODY TWO-SHOES, and SECRET SERVICE. Put it all together and you get “no shirt, no shoes, no service.” The theme is more nuanced than what one normally sees in a Monday puzzle, and there’s also tidbits like HITS THE HAY, OH RATS, and SO TRUE.
- Untitled, by Jeff Chen (LAT, June 18). A month later, Jeff Chen offered a superb tribute puzzle to the late Roger Ebert on what would have been the film critic’s 70th birthday. The grid contained CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, TWO THUMBS UP, and PULITZER PRIZE in addition to Ebert’s name. But my favorite touch is the pair of black thumbs made by the black squares on the sides of the puzzle. Two thumbs up indeed!
- Untitled, by Kevin G. Der (NYT, November 25). Bumper stickers! This one’s like looking at back of an old VW bus, but in a good way. The grid contains the cliched beginnings of many bumper stickers: I’D RATHER BE IN, HONK IF YOU LOVE, MY OTHER CAR IS A, and WILL BRAKE FOR. The theme clues all take the form of [Start of a bumper sticker that may end with one's favorite...]. It’s a Wednesday-caliber theme in a Monday grid, but it works terrifically because of the straightforward fill and the direct clues.
BEST FREESTYLE CROSSWORD OF 2013: Themeless Monday, by Brendan Emmett Quigley and Joon Pahk (BEQ, July 8). There is a saying that the true test of a chef is how she or he can cook an egg. Anyone can do it, of course, but only the best can do it perfectly. The same can be said of freestyle crosswords. At first, the challenge seems simple: just fill a grid with crossing words. You’re not constrained by a theme, so how hard can it be? Well, it’s pretty darn hard, even though the well-cooked freestyle puzzles make it all look easy.
There were many great freestyle puzzles in 2013, but this tag-team effort from Brendan Emmett Quigley and Joon Pahk stole the show. Terrific entries (AIR GUITAR, DASH-CAM, MAN BAG, SUBJUGATE, GNOSTICS, DAMP DRY, J.D. DEGREE) paired with exceptional clues ([Like a virgin?] for MAIDISH, [Journey accompanier, often] for the aforementioned AIR GUITAR, [Time out?] for DATE, and [It involves a score of digits] for MANI-PEDI, to name just a few) made for a delightful solving experience from start to finish. Yep, it’s 63-Across.
Other Nominees for Best Freestyle Crossword, again in order of publication date:
- The Post Puzzler No. 152, by Frank Longo (WaPo, March 3). In other hands, a 64/24 freestyle puzzle is cause for concern. But when you see the byline, you know the puzzle will be a treat. Highlights included SLEAZO, NO REMORSE, WHOPPER JR., and MASH UNIT. From the clues, you have to love [The third golfer] for DAVIS LOVE (seriously, you must love it–you have no choice), and [Jacks' rippers?] for the SAWS of lumberjacks is brilliant.
- Themeless 60, by Peter Gordon (Fireball, March 14). This 70/32 grid had three super-long answers. There was METHAMPHETAMINE, clued simply as [Speed], intersecting two 14s: BACK-SEAT DRIVER (with the brilliant clue, [Pain in the rear?]) and SPORTSMAN’S PARK (with the wicked clue, [Slaughter house?], a reference to St. Louis Cardinals legend Enos Slaughter). Throw in ORAL PHASE, PSHAW, BAD APPLE, FANNY BRICE, BALLOONED, and I’LL TREAT and you’ve got yourself a classic freestyle crossword.
- The Post Puzzler No. 192, by Patrick Berry (WaPo, December 8). Another low-word-count puzzle (this was a 64/30), but again it’s in very capable hands. Sure, you have six “cheater” squares, but the grid’s format allows for 103 open squares. Click on the link to the solution grid and marvel at the open midsection and the two gates into every open corner. (Go ahead, we’ll still be here when you get back.) Don’t forget to note some of the fill, like MADE DO WITH, WHAT AM I, THIS IS IT, HOUSE-SITS, LAND LINE, IN PRIVATE, and AIR-DRIED. And yes, there are terrific clues, like [Ones who get out and earn some money?] for ESCAPE ARTISTS, [Big name in pop] for NEHI, and [Likely to be taken in?] for EDIBLE.
- Themeless Monday, by Brendan Emmett Quigley (BEQ, December 23), Brendan celebrated his 600th(!) online puzzle with an amazing technical construction using two 15s to feed into both triple 10s in the Acrosses and paired 11s in the Downs. Oh, and there’s another open swath of white squares in the middle. (Everyone’s making hurricane grids, it seems.) How fitting that DOVETAILED is among the long fill and that LEGROOM rests comfortably in the middle. Other highlights included TEAR-JERKER, GIFT-WRAPPED, EMBASSY ROW, WISE AS AN OWL, and THAT’S A BIG IF. In the post accompanying the puzzle, Brendan notes that this started as a themed puzzle. (If you can read faux-Klingon you can get the full details.) We’re lucky he decided against abandoning the idea because he managed to make a great freestyle from it. Talk about making lemonade from lemons!
BEST SUNDAY-SIZED CROSSWORD OF 2013: Two-by-Fours by Patrick Berry (NYT, June 23). Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find eight phrases that each contain four repeated two-letter strings. Your reason for doing this is to play on the term “two-by-four,” a common piece of lumber. You can’t just use any eight phrases: they need to pair off symmetrically because they will be placed in a crossword grid. And they better sparkle. To challenge the solver (and to bring home the “two” aspect of “two-by-four”), you need to place the two-letter strings into rebus squares. You must then build a smooth crossword puzzle around those theme entries. Oh, almost forgot: four of the theme entries have to intersect, and four of them have to sit at least partially side by side. And remember, the grid better be smooth.
Most of us receiving this mission would be institutionalized within a short time, unless we talked ourselves into thinking THE THIRTIETH THIMBLE is a legit entry. Happily, Patrick Berry spared us from this fate by creating this Sunday-sized tour-de-force that exemplifies all the things that make Patrick Berry one of the crossword immortals.
The theme entries are fun: HOW NOW BROWN COW, FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE, SINGIN‘ IN THE RAIN, THIS THAT AND THE OTHER, and CASTS THE FIRST STONE all shine. WERNER KLEMPERER, known to most of my generation as Colonel Klink, makes an appearance, as does MARGARET FARRAR, the [Classic name in crosswords] for whom the Orca for Constructor of the Year is named.
You can scour that grid for subpar fill and, unless you apply some over-sensitive filter, you’ll come up empty. That’s what makes this puzzle so special. Patrick Berry makes this kind of thing look easy, so perhaps this is the appropriate time to remind everyone not to try this kind of thing at home. He’s a professional.
Not surprisingly, this puzzle was one of the nominees for Best Crossword of 2013. It didn’t win that award, but it is well-deserving of Best Sunday Crossword of 2013. Commenter Karen r said it well: “This was the most brilliant, most fun, most clever Sunday puzzle in years! Patrick: Thank you!”
Other nominees for Best Sunday-sized Crossword (in order of publication date):
- Condensation, by Finn Vigeland (NYT, March 10). Kevin Costner’s Waterworld was a flop, but this puzzle was a smash hit. It was a two-way rebus: reading across you needed to put the letters W-A-T-E-R in a single square, but reading down the same square had to contain the letters H-H-O (you know, as in H2O). So WATERGATE SCANDAL intersected with WITHHOLD, for instance, while CARBONATED WATER intersected ELEVENTH HOUR. That’s inspired! Seven such intersections made for 14 theme entries, but you don’t see compromises in the fill. In fact, you see gems like AQUATICS, AIR-BRUSHED, MACHINE GUN and CATCH FIRE. At risk of repetition and redundancy, this was inspired.
- The Stepword Fives, by Merl Reagle (Syndicated, March 24). The title makes you think Reverend Spooner’s cousin is paying a visit. Then you look at the grid and you think it’s “just” a super-sixed freestyle puzzle with ginormous diagonal swaths of stair-stepping five-letter answers. But there’s more: the notes accompanying the puzzle indicate that “Two well-known ‘step’-related titles are hidden diagonally in this puzzle – both of them run in straight lines (although one makes an appropriate turn) and both are 18 letters long. Can you find them?” Sure enough, you’ll see UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS and UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE in the diagonals. (The screen shot of the completed grid in the link to the puzzle’s review shows the effect very well.) Note that the theme entries intersect and yet Merl was still able to pull off a Scrabbly grid so smooth that solvers would miss the theme entirely were it not for the hint. Fine craftsmanship from one of the best in the trade.
- Seeing Double, by Merl Reagle (Syndicated, May 5). It’s not the only crossword from 2013 with that title. Heck, it’s not the only Orca-nominated crossword with that title (more on that coming up). But it is the only Best Sunday Crossword nominee with that title, so that makes it distinctive. As does the construction itself: the ten theme entries contain each of the ten digits in repeated form: CHAPTER 11, CATCH-22, 55 MILES PER HOUR, 99-CENT STORES, and so forth. The crossings use those numbers too, so 55 MILES PER HOUR crosses 5 FT and THE 5OS. Sure, sometimes the letter O doubles as a zero, and sometimes it’s just the letter O. But this baby was probably hard enough to construct, and the chameleon-like tendency of the O adds another layer of playfulness to this exceptionally fun puzzle.
- Two Outs, by Patrick Berry (NYT, December 8). The same day he unleashed one of the best freestyle puzzles of 2013 (um, see above), Patrick Berry gave us this gem. Twelve(!) answers have two circles in them. Interestingly, if you subtract those two letters from the answer, you get an entirely different answer. For the fun twist, the clues to these answers allude to both the full answer and the shorter one. So you can remove two letters from SHANGRI-LA to get SANGRIA, and the clue for what’s going on here is [Red wine drinker's paradise?] (a SANGRIA SHANGRI-LA). Likewise, the [Employee at the Ron Paul Archive?] is a LIBERTARIAN LIBRARIAN, with just LIBERTARIAN in the grid (with the E and the T circled so you can suss out the LIBRARIAN hiding in the LIBERTARIAN. Remember, there’s 12 of these in the grid. And it’s by Patrick Berry, so it goes without saying that you won’t see signs of mortals toying with the grid. Again, that’s two Orca-nominated puzzles from the same constructor on the same day. It has been moved and seconded that December 8 shall henceforth be known as Patrick Berry Day. Hearing no objections, the motion passes.
- A Cut Above the Rest, by Jeff Chen (NYT, December 15). This one has many layers, so let’s see if I can describe it fairly and succinctly. We’ve all seen the clue-as-answer gimmick, where the crossword answer is the clue and the typical clue is the answer. Here, we get six “clue-like” answers for CUT: PLAYED HOOKY, PIECE OF THE ACTION, ALBUM TRACK, EDITED DOWN, KICKED OFF THE TEAM, and SNIDE REMARK. So far, it seems ho-hum. But each is clued not as [CUT] but as [See above]. Huh? Then there’s the part where the top fourth of the puzzle has all these repeated letters, with clues like [Oceans] and [Grab] for CCCCC (seas and seize), together with [Farm females] and [Profit from] for UUUUU (ewes and use), as well as [Razz] and [Aids in long drives] for TTTTT (tease and tees). Again, huh? Then, the “aha moment” occurs when you put the two features of the puzzle together (which many solvers likely did after re-reading the puzzle’s title)–all those Cs, Us, and Ts literally form a large C-U-T across the top of the grid, and that’s what you’re supposed to [See above] to figure out the “cut” terms. Brilliant, and quite true to its title.
BOB KLAHN AWARD FOR MOST OUTSTANDING CLUE OF 2013: [Dieter's complaint] for ACH, Stanley Newman, Newsday Saturday Stumper (November 2). Solve one crossword a day and you’ll have seen 365 puzzles over the course of a year. It also means you will have seen over 27,000 clues. Now imagine if you solve five crosswords a day, like many readers of this site. You’re up to over 135,000 clues. (We should hire Neil deGrasse Tyson to do the narration here.) We give the crossword a lot of love, but clues do the heavy lifting. If you think picking out the best crosswords in various categories is tough, you’re right–but it’s not nearly as onerous as choosing the year’s single best clue.
But we don’t back down from a challenge! We scoured tons of grids, searched this and other websites for favorite clues, and came up with a good list of nominees. Your personal favorite may not have made the list, but we only have room to feature about 0.004% of the crossword clues avid solvers saw in 2013. If you don’t like it, start your own awards show (you can call it the Manatees, maybe).
The winner of the Bob Klahn Award for Most Outstanding Clue of 2013 is [Dieter's complaint] for ACH. It appeared in the November 2 Saturday Stumper, constructed and edited by Stan Newman. If you can’t see the cleverness, try saying ”Dieter” as DEE-ter (the German name) and not DYE-et-er. This illustrates how a dynamite clue can make ordinary fill (a foreign three-letter entry no less!) sparkle. And since nearly everyone takes the bait at first, the satisfying “aha” of figuring it out is shared by so many solvers. So that’s why it gets the Bob Klahn award.
Other nominees for the Bob Klahn Award for Most Outstanding Clue (in order of publication, natch):
- [One on the verge of croaking?] for TADPOLE (Jeff Chen, Will Shortz) (NYT, January 27).
- [Render powerless?] for UNPLUG (Marti DuGuay-Carpenter, Rich Norris) (LAT, May 8).
- [Dee and Oh] for SANDRAS (Brendan Emmett Quigley and Joon Pahk) (BEQ, July 8) — hey, this was the puzzle that won the Best Freestyle Orca!
- [Overhang, in a sports bar?] for BEER GUT (Ian Livengood, Mike Shenk) (WSJ, September 20).
- [Person who pedals stolen goods?] for BIKE THIEF (Matt Jones) (Jonesin’, October 15).
BEST CONTEST PUZZLE OF 2013: Religious Inscription by Pete Muller (Muller Monthly Music Meta, June). Contest crosswords–those that require solvers to play with the completed puzzle to find some “meta” element–continue to grow in popularity. Indeed the most popular crosswords blogged on this site are contest puzzles. Contest puzzles are judged a little differently than ordinary crosswords. You’re looking at both the meta element and the crossword itself. Compromised fill is often forgiven where the “meta” element forced the constraint. Solvers often judge a contest crossword not only by the meta’s freshness but also its accessibility; we are apt to ding a puzzle where we feel the meta is too easy or too impossible based on our expectations. Since contest crosswords are a different animal, then, it seemed appropriate to award a Best Contest Puzzle Orca.
The debut winner of this Orca is, quite simply, elegant. Solvers in Pete Muller’s Monthly Music Meta contest had to come up with the name of a particular greatest hits album. The only long entry in the grid ran down the center, ITALIAN-AMERICAN, clued as [Like Ani DiFranco or Gwen Stefani] (hey, it’s a music puzzle–what did you expect?). But that doesn’t seem to help much. The only other thing that stands out about the grid are those crosses in the northwest and southeast. And there’s your answer. Starting at the top of the left (upright?) cross and reading the squares around it counter-clockwise, you get MADONNA LOUISE CICCONE, the artist currently known as Madonna. And the title of her greatest hits album–the answer to the meta–starts along the right-hand side of the right (upside down?) cross and reads clockwise: IMMACULATE COLLECTION.
The answer is right there the whole time, but nothing in the surrounding fill is awkward enough to call attention to itself. Like any great meta, it seems so obvious in retrospect. Given the album’s title and Madonna’s frequent invocation of religious symbols in her art, the use of cross-shapes to hide the answer could not be more appropriate. Was ITALIAN-AMERICAN a pseudo theme answer (cuz Madonna could be described as such) or just a happy coincidence? It doesn’t really matter, because this meta is a winner on all fronts. Not surprisingly, it was one of the nominees for Best Crossword.
Congrats to Pete on the first-ever Best Contest Crossword Orca! Other nominees for Best Contest Crossword, by publication date:
- Play 36 Rounds of the Game, by Peter Gordon (Fireball, January 24). Solvers had to name a famous American as the answer to the puzzle. (Well that narrows it down, huh?) So what’s the game that has to be played 36 times? It’s ONE POTATO / TWO POTATO. You know, the one that goes “one potato, two potato, three potato, four, five potato, six potato, seven potato, more” (or something like that–apparently the last word has regional variants). It’s an elimination game whereby the eighth one counted is eliminated. The title tells you to play this game 36 times, but with whom or what? Well, how about the three fifteens in the grid: DAGWOOD SANDWICH, FARQUHAR ISLANDS, and YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE. Starting with the “D” in DAGWOOD, eliminate every eighth letter, then repeat 35 more times, each time starting with the next letter in the sequence. (If that makes no sense, click on the link to read the review of the puzzle and look for Howard B’s thorough explanation of how the elimination game works.) Eventually, you’re left with DAN QUAYLE, the famous American who, not coincidentally, famously struggled with the spelling of potato(e). You had to work to get there, but what a terrific “aha moment” once you did.
- Knight Moves, by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #243, January 25). It was a “week 4″ meta puzzle, so we knew it would be tough. And we had the puzzle’s title to suggest that some chess moves might be afoot. But how would it all play out, we wondered. The answer: masterfully. Solvers were told to name a singer who should be hidden in the puzzle’s grid but is not. There were four theme answers: 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, SCREW RINGS, JACK DANIEL, and CENTER OF GRAVITY. The trick was seeing that the last word in each entry alluded to a knight–VIRGIN for Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, RINGS for “Lord of the Rings” actor Sir Ian McKellen, DANIEL for “Daniel” singer Sir Elton John, and GRAVITY for “let me give this thing we all experience a name” scientist Sir Isaac Newton. From there, the six circled letters in the grid came into play. Starting at the R in VIRGIN, you can move through the grid like a chess knight (or “horsey,” as we called it in public school) and spell out R-I-C-H-A-R-D-B-R-A-N-S-O-N, ending with the circled N. You could do the same thing for Ian McKellen and for Isaac Newton. But not Elton John, so there was your answer. Great idea for a meta, as it makes two plays on the “knight.” But the real star here is the construction. Do you realize how many theme squares are involved here? It’s not just the 50 squares used for the four theme entries–there’s all the other letters that have to work for the “knight moves” too. This is one of those feats that just leaves one’s head shaking in disbelief (hold on while I add LEAVES ONE’S HEAD SHAKING to my crossword database). How the heck did he do that? No wonder it was one of the nominees both for this award and for Best Crossword.
- First-Quarter Action, by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #250, March 15). To commemorate his 250th weekly contest, Matt Gaffney asked solvers to answer a “hidden trivia question.” To find the question, solvers had to pay attention to both the clues and the answers to the four theme entries. WHEN I’M SIXTY-FOUR, for example, was clued as [It mentions the Isle of Wight (first, quarter; then first quarter)]. The key, of course, is the stuff in parentheses. First, it says, we take one-quarter. But of what? Well, the number in the answer to the clue. Here, that’s 16 (one-quarter of 64). Then, we take the “first quarter” of the clue for 16-Across. The clue there was ["What is it, caller?"], a four-word clue, the first quarter of which is “What.” Repeat this process three more times and eventually you get What / State quarter / Features a / Piece of fruit. Looks like a trivia question, alright, and the answer’s a gimme for this Atlanta resident: Georgia, the Peach State. Joon described the meta as a “real scavenger hunt-style meta” that was “deftly executed. [I] loved the thematic tightness involving the first-quarterness of each clue, and the wording on the quartered clues was fun.” Yep, just about every part of this one was fun. Solvers absolutely loved it, and not surprisingly it made the list for Best Crossword too.
- Logical Conclusions, by David Sullivan (Fireball, June 20). Go, Evad! Our site’s technical guru published a great Fireball contest puzzle that got lots of rave reviews. As Meta Guru Matt Gaffney explained in his review of the puzzle, “If a meta seems ‘blindingly obvious, but only in retrospect’ then the constructor has done a nice job. This applies to Dave Sullivan’s Fireball puzzle.” He’s right. The five theme entries look innocent enough: GEORGE BLANDA, SLOW LORIS, KAFKA ON THE SHORE, ANDY PANDA, and ENRON SCANDAL. But pay attention to the last word of each–they all contain either “AND” or “OR.” The puzzle’s title tells us to apply these conclusions logically, so let’s do it and see if we can find the “famous mathematician” requested in the contest’s instructions. We start with taking BL and A (BLANDA). Then we take L or IS (LORIS)–hmm, let’s go with the IS. Next comes SH or E (SHORE)–we’ll take the E, please. Then we have P and A (PANDA) and SC and AL (SCANDAL). Add ‘em all up and you get BLA/IS/E PA/SCAL, or Blaise Pascal, the mathematician. I had to think (about this one), therefore I am (most impressed with its execution). (I know, that’s a reference to a different math guy. But it’s not like the number of math jokes is … infinite.) Anyway, this puzzle was just about as flawless as they come.
- Veiled Invitation, by Pete Muller (Muller Monthly Music Meta, November). All music, all the time–that’s the slogan at the Muller Monthly Music Meta (well, it’s not, but it should be). In November, solvers were told to name a Fleetwood Mac song. Heck, even I can do that. Alas, solvers needed to find a specific song and not just any old Fleetwood Mac tune. This one was hidden in the answers. On every line of this grid, part of the lyrics to a Fleetwood Mac song were hidden in longer answers: WONTON, YOUNG, LAYMAN, MENS, DOWNY, INIGO, THERES, TALLIED, GRASSO, ANDRE, LETCH, MERLE, DOTS, MYOPE, STUFFY. Again, folks, that means there’s a theme entry on every line of this grid. But the surrounding fill is so icy cool and smooth that many never saw the gimmick and thus could not tumble to the answer (it was Second Hand News, incidentally). Like Pete’s other nominated meta, the answer is right there in front of you the whole time and yet it’s camouflaged so well that most never see it. A nice display of some serious constructing chops. No wonder it snagged a Best Crossword nomination.
BEST GIMMICK CROSSWORD OF 2013: Seeing Double by Trip Payne (Fireball, November 20). If “gimmick” sounds like a backhanded compliment, I invite you to come up with a better name. In fact, this is perhaps my favorite category, as I love crosswords that do (or make me do) something unusual or unexpected. Happily, 2013 will be remembered as the Year of the Gimmick Crossword. There were so many innovative puzzles that pushed the creative limits of crosswords to new frontiers. The Orcas are filled with tough choices, but none was tougher than selecting the winner of this particular award. As you’ll soon see, many were deserving. But one really did stand out as a construction feat.
We’ve seen duplicate clues many times before. You know, like where [Santa ___, California] appears as the clue for both ANA and ROSA in the same grid. We’ve also seen puzzles that used two or even three duplicate clues. But we ain’t seen nothing like this. Thirty-nine duplicate clues for the 78 total entries! That’s right, every clue is used twice. Every. Single. Clue. Twice!
Some of the best pairs here are LIE and HOP IN for [What you might say to someone you're picking up], MOST and NONE for [If you get this amount of votes, you're not a spoiler], BRAVES and MINNESOTA TWINS for [1991 World Series team], and MICE and MACINTOSH CLONES for [Certain computer purchases]. Probably the most strained pairing was ARCHIVAL COPIES and LORE for [What a reference librarian might search through], but that has such a quirky twist to it that you really can’t hold a grudge.
From a solving standpoint, all the duplication might have been a little wearing. From a construction standpoint, though, this is truly something to behold. Every time I think of how Trip constructed this, the synapses in my brain just stop firing and start smoking. Yep, my head explodes. You guys, every entry in this puzzle is in service to the theme! Yet if you just studied the grid and paid no attention to the clues, you wouldn’t tell that every answer in the grid has something in common with another answer. You’d just see a nice, smooth grid. Again, you don’t see any of the seams holding this baby together and there simply are no cracks. It’s flawless. It’s amazing. And it’s the Best Gimmick Crossword of 2013.
Still, it wasn’t an easy choice. Look at the other nominees for Best Gimmick Puzzle:
- Fantastic Four Play, by Patrick Blindauer (Patrick Blindauer’s Website Crossword, March 1). Bet you never knew the letter X was just two crossing hyphens, did you? That’s okay, no one else did either until Patrick Blaindauer unleashed this amazing puzzle on his website. The three Xs in the grid serve as hyphens for four answers that run diagonally along the grid. So TOP-OF-THE-LINE, running from the northwest corner to the southeast corner, intersects with RED-HOT, KILLER-DILLER, and FIVE-STAR, all running diagonally from southwest to northeast. And where those hyphens meet, an X is made, which works nicely for the regular Across and Down entries. As Matt Gaffney observed in his review, “Great concept and great execution don’t always inhabit the same crossword but here they did.” So true.
- Check Your Crossings, by Brendan Emmett Quigley (BEQ, March 7). On the eve of the ACPT, Brendan treated us to a double rebus, where rebus squares read as “AC” going Across and “PT” going Down. That’s how J[AC]KKEROU[AC] can intersect Sanjay GU[PT]A and a Toronto RA[PT]OR, for example. Not the only double rebus this year, by any means, but it’s one where the rebus appears nine times, often multiple times in a single answer (like B[AC]KSP[AC]E CHAR[AC]TER). That makes it something more than “just” a double rebus. A fun way to welcome solvers to Brooklyn!
- Double or Nothing, by Frank Longo (Fireball, July 4). The traditional Double or Nothing is a variety puzzle where solvers either enter two letters or no letters in every box. It’s a crossword-logic game hybrid that offers a fun workout every now and then. This Frank Longo offering was not a traditional Double or Nothing puzzle. Here, each set of double letters in the Across answers get squeezed into a single square, and that same square is simply ignored (as if it contained nothing) when solving the intersecting Down. So the double Ts and double Ss in RIGH[TT]HI[SS]ECOND, for instance, are just empty spaces in the crossing ALY KHAN and APE. For extra elegance, note that all of the two-letter pairs span two words–the Ts between RIGHT and THIS, and the Ss between THIS and SECOND. It’s the extra layer of consistency like this that gives a crossword theme its tightness.
- Flipping the Script, by Anna Schechtman (AV Club, September 12). We’re told in the clue to the central Across entry that a LANGUAGE BARRIER is “what separates this puzzle’s top and bottom halves.” There’s a difference between the two halves, alright! The top half contains LATIN and ROMANCE languages that are read from left to right, just like all of the Across answers in that northern hemisphere. But in the southern hemisphere sits ARABIC and other SEMITIC languages that read from right to left, and sure enough, all of the Across entries in the bottom half of the grid are supposed to be entered from right to left. Thank goodness the Downs all stayed normal or else this one might have been impossible to suss out (“out of which one could not have sussed?”). A simple, graspable concept that’s really well executed.
- Seasonal Staff, by Francis Heaney (AV Club, December 19). You’ll read about this beaut shortly; for now, let’s just say it merits mention in this category (and probably others too).
- December 21st, XX13, by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #290, December 21). Okay, okay–this is probably better labelled as a contest puzzle. But it’s more than that, really. It’s also a tribute puzzle, one of many that honored the centennial of the crossword. And it’s also quite a construction. I decided to put it here because of the “gimmickness” of it was just so inventive. Solvers were given a 10×10 grid with 82 white squares, along with the instruction to find a 10-letter Brit’s name. The puzzle’s title invoked the centennial theme and also gave solvers the hint to look at the first crossword, the one by Arthur Wynne from December 21, 1913. That diamond-shaped grid had 72 white squares. Hey, wait a minute. Matt’s puzzle has 82 white squares and we’re supposed to find a 10-letter British name. That wasn’t a coincidence. Solvers had to eliminate the 72 letters found in Wynne’s grid from Gaffney’s grid. Doing so left the letters AGHIKNRRTU in Gaffney’s puzzle, and that anagrammed to KING ARTHUR, the correct meta answer. Others played on Wynne’s grid in their centennial puzzles, but this one played with that grid, using it to help solvers find King Arthur. As Wynne would say in his debut puzzle: FUN!
MARGARET FARRAR AWARD FOR 2013 CONSTRUCTOR OF THE YEAR: Francis Heaney. Forgive the lowbrow reference, but in the world of professional wrestling, fans chant “Holy sh*t!” (to the tune of “USA! USA! USA!”) after witnessing the flawless execution of an impossible move. In 2013, one constructor had no less than five “Holy sh*t!” crosswords, and that constructor was Francis Heaney. Let’s recap them, shall we?
- Your Table is Ready (AV Club, June 13). This was my personal favorite of the Francis Heaney 2013 Omnibus, and I’m a liberal arts major who remembers little about the periodic table of elements. It’s a double rebus puzzle where the Across entries use the rebus square as a number and the Down entries use it for the one- or two-letter chemical symbol that corresponds to the atomic number. For instance, WHEN I’M 64 at 44-Across crosses MAGDA at 39-Down. The element with atomic number 64 is gadolinium, whose chemical symbol is Gd. Any puzzle that works in the B-52s is killer, and that it crosses RIPOSTE just makes it that much sweeter. This baby took me forever to complete even though I got the theme early on. That’s because there were 15(!!!) double rebus squares to uncover here, and, again, I’m no scientist. Why did this not get 50 5-star ratings? Was it too hard for some solvers, such that uncovering all the elements turned the solve into a slog? Because it certainly did not have that effect on me. It was an amazing construction that facilitated a fun solve.
- Spoonerette’s Syndrome (AV Club, July 25). Francis is the editor of Crasswords, you know, and here he exercises some of those muscles. Reverend Spooner steps in to make some salty language into something funny. The highlight is probably HOLY SHUCKING FIT, clued as ["Oh hell no, that farmer de-husking the corn just started convulsing and speaking in tongues!"]. But in my book, WHAT A MUTT BUNCH, clued as ["Damn, look at all those unpedigreed dogs!"], is a close second. If this one hadn’t appeared at the same time as a certain NYT puzzle (see below), one suspects it would have received even more love from Fiend readers.
- Heisenberg Uncertainty (AV Club, October 24). If you have yet to see Breaking Bad, this one might not have quite the same appeal. The first and last Across entries state that you can MAKE / METH “four times in this grid without alerting the authorities.” The circled letters in the grid help make sense of it all. You can change the S at the crossing of METS and SOMEBODIES to “make METH” and HOMEBODIES. What makes this especially elegant is that the clue for SOMEBODIES, [People who don't mingle much with the general public], also works for HOMEBODIES. (Go figure–a Schroedinger puzzle with a Heisenberg title.) Likewise, MATH at 22-Across can change to METH, meaning the crossing 11-Down changes from EXPANSIVE to EXPENSIVE, both fitting the clue, [Like acres and acres of real estate, say]. You get the idea. But wait, there’s more! The theme entries intersecting the METHs are symmetrically placed within the grid. And each time, a different letter in METH acts as the replacement. Like blue meth, this puzzle is over 99% pure.
- 100 Years Later (Al Jazeera America, December 18). Here was a fun twist on the whole “crossword centennial” thingie. Take 11(!) modern terms but clue them according to how someone living a century ago might have clued them, given that all of the terms had yet to enter the language. MOUSE CLICKS, for instance, is clued as ["That's the noise their little claws make when they're disporting themselves on a cheese tray"]. And ["I've certainly played a lot of those ... doglegs followed immediately by both sand and water traps? Just impossible"] clues HARD DRIVES. You’ll find similarly fun clues for PODCASTING, WARDROBE MALFUNCTION, GAY PRIDE, and many others. There’s no screen shot for this one because if you never saw or solved this puzzle, you owe it to yourself to do so. It’s included here as a reminder that Francis writes some of the funniest clues you’ll see in crosswords.
- Seasonal Staff (AV Club, December 19). It’s fair to say this one was the “biggest snub” from the nominees for Best Crossword, at least if you go by the feedback received from solvers all around the country. It’s a fair point, for this is one crossword we’ll remember for a long time. It will probably be forever known as the “candy cane puzzle.” It was a contest puzzle, and it worked as a two-way rebus. (Geez, 2013 was the year of the double rebus!) This time the rebus squares formed the shape of a candy cane. Solvers needed either WHITE or RED in a square for the Across entries and an ordinary letter for the Downs. But not just any random letter. If you start with the hook end of the cane and read along, the white letters spell out ROCK DUO and the red letters spell LAGERS. That was the clue leading solvers to the contest answers: WHITE STRIPES and RED STRIPES. A satisfying solve if ever there was one.
That none of these puzzles made it into the Best Puzzles of 2013 page of this website–a list driven entirely by the star ratings–is, well, astonishing. Heck, when the list of Best Crossword nominees was published two weeks ago, one of the nominees publicly declared it “criminal” that “Seasonal Staff” was not among the honorees. Another correspondent said “The best puzzle I did all year, and I know I’m not alone in thinking this, was Francis Heaney’s Candy Cane puzzle for AV Club.”
And yet that’s just one of the amazing 2013 constructions from Francis. We featured four of them just now, but you might also enjoy this one from April or this one from February. No matter which ones you like best, there can be little debate that Francis Heaney deserves the Margaret Farrar Award for 2013 Constructor of the Year. Congratulations, Francis! Please do us all a favor and win this award many times.
Others had a pretty impressive 2013, though. Briefly, here are four others who could also lay claim to the title of “Constructor of the Year:”
- Matt Gaffney. Another year, another two nominations for Best Crossword. Plus three nominations in other categories. Ho hum. Look, he’s already own this award before, so it’s easy to pass over Matt Gaffney’s 2013 portfolio and say “yeah, yeah, he’s always on this list.” But scroll up to the top of this page and click on that “Best Puzzles of 2013″ page. Dude has four of the ten highest-rated puzzles from 2013, and eight of the top 25. He routinely publishes meta puzzles that solvers grapple with all weekend long, and they love it. On top of that, he launched an informative crossword blog and put together a successful crowd-sourced project for a suite of meta crosswords coming out later this year. He may well be the Michael Jordan of crosswords right now. Alas, this is the year Magic gets the MVP–but still, Matt Gaffney continues to light it up.
- Pete Muller. The Muller Monthly Music Meta continues to grow in popularity, and with two Best Crossword nominations this year alone, it’s fair to say that this is Pete Muller’s strongest year yet. Only Matt Gaffney and Patrick Berry had two Best Crossword nominations this year, and that’s great company. In addition to producing elegant music-related contest crosswords, Pete co-authored a lovely Sunday NYT puzzle. Keep an eye on Pete; we may see his name in this category for years to come.
- Patrick Blindauer. Between gigs as a regular contributor to two crossword stables (CrosSynergy and the AV Club), publishing another successful Puzzlefest, distributing free crosswords monthly at his website, and producing a wide array of puzzle books, Patrick Blindauer found time to rock the crossword world last summer (see below). If he ever gets around to his plans for world domination, we are in trouble. Few constructors are as consistently inventive and playful as Patrick, and a tip of the hat as a nominee for Constructor of the Year feels overdue.
- Patrick Berry. Hmm, does winning the Orca for Best Sunday Crossword and having three other puzzles nominated for an Orca mean it’s a good year? After careful consideration, we say yes. Look, there’s no such thing as too much praise for the puzzle talents of Patrick Berry. Earlier we compared Matt Gaffney to Michael Jordan. If that’s so, Patrick Berry is Larry Bird. Now if we can just get Matt and Patrick to shoot a McDonald’s commercial.
BEST CROSSWORD OF 2013: Untitled, by Patrick Blindauer (NYT, July 25). The revealer at 14-Down is the perfect title: DOUBLE FEATURE. The grid features two well-known movies featuring Jack Lemmon (GRUMPY OLD MEN and THE APARTMENT) and two more starring Frank Sinatra (OCEAN’S ELEVEN and GUYS AND DOLLS). All four movies are 12 letters long. Now here’s where it gets good: the Lemmon movies are smushed together into 4-Down, two letters per square. The same goes for the two Sinatra movies at the symmetrically opposite spot, 21-Down. As a concept, it’s simple and relatively easy to spot (especially since it ran on Thursday, when trickery is always afoot in the NYT). But just imagine how hard this was to construct. We saw quite a few double-rebus puzzles in 2013, but none has 24 double-rebus squares in a 15×15 grid. The crossings should have all kinds of compromises to make this work, but they don’t. Heck, some of the liveliest stuff in the grid comes at those crossings: HOV LANE, SO SUE ME, and BEAR HUG.
Congratulations to Patrick Blindauer and to Will Shortz for the Best Crossword of 2013! Before we wrap things up, though, let’s give a little love to the other Best Puzzle nominees. This was a close contest: five of the nine nominees received first-choice votes from our ten panelists, and each of the other four had a healthy number of second- and third-choice votes.
You’ve read about some of them already, but here’s a little more about each of the other nominees for Best Crossword (true to form, in order of publication):
- Knight Moves, by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #243, January 29). This one was recapped in the Best Contest Crossword discussion. Here we’ll just note one panelist’s observation on the puzzle: “I’ll never know how he did this, and I think if I did know some of the magic would be gone. I prefer to believe this was nothing short of divine inspiration.”
- Executive Decisions, by Tom Pepper (BEQ, February 15). Until a couple of years ago, we called it the “Clinton-Bob Dole” gimmick, where two different entries could each work as the correct answer to the given clues. We first saw it in the famous NYT election day puzzle from 1996, and only very rarely since. In 2012, a CHE puzzle used this gimmick in a puzzle about Schrödinger’s cat, and the gimmick earned a new name, a “Schrödinger puzzle.” Now that the Schrödinger gimmick has been done a few times, it’s starting to feel stale. But this guest puzzle at BEQ’s website really nailed the execution beautifully. The central entry, 35-Across, was clued as [A face of change in America?]. Other theme entries told us that CIVIL RIGHTS was an issue for this person in the SIXTIES and that JOHNSON followed him as U.S. PRESIDENT. So who was it? Well, the answer could be either Abe LINCOLN or John F. KENNEDY! The crossing Down for the first letter was clued as [Vegas attraction], and the answer could be either Jay LENO or the game of KENO. My favorite Schrödinger clue in this puzzle was [Solutions usually handled with rubber gloves] for both LYES and DYES. The clues for the Schrödinger squares were so well done, and the pairing used here was so appropriate, that it may be safe to say there will never be better example of this gimmick. Yes, it’s so good that it may be time to retire Schrödinger puzzles altogether … until someone finds some new twist on it, of course.
- First-Quarter Action, by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #250, March 18). This peach of a puzzle was also recapped in the Best Contest Crossword discussion.
- Religious Inscription, by Pete Muller (Muller Monthly Music Meta, June 4). It won Best Contest Crossword among an exceptionally strong debut field. Not surprisingly, it was a strong contender for Best Crossword among our panel.
- Two-by-Fours, by Patrick Berry (NYT, June 23). It won Best Sunday Crossword of 2013, so we’ve already talked about it pretty extensively. Our Best Crossword panelists liked this one a lot. “I’m surprised that I’ve never seen this theme before,” one observed, as it “feels like a very natural one to do.” “Quintessential Patrick Berry,” said another. “An elegant theme executed flawlessly. And how often do we see a Sunday grid with nary a trace of subpar fill?” Um, rarely.
- Cut Down, by Brendan Emmett Quigley (BEQ, October 17). Infomercials may promise six-pack abs with little effort, but rest assured the most enjoyable way to get a six-pack is to solve this BEQ puzzle. The unusual 15×16 grid is justified by 28-Down, the [Gym rat's goal, so to speak] running down the center of the grid. It’s a six-pack alright, as ABS fits within each of the six squares in the answers. From that we get clean crossings: ABSTAIN, ABSURD, ABSENT, KEBABS, REHABS, and BAR TABS. Bonus theme answers come from SIT UP FRONT, CORE SAMPLE, CAP’N CRUNCH, and JOE SIX-PACK. (Note, of course, that two of those four have the hint up front and the other two have the hint at the end. This puzzle gets more elegant the longer you study it.) Rebus puzzles don’t come any smoother than this, and the extra theme material surrounding the six-pack is an especially nice touch.
- Veiled Invitation, by Pete Muller (Muller Monthly Music Meta, November 5). Two panelists absolutely loved this puzzle (also a nominee for Best Contest Crossword), in both cases because of the happy memories it invoked from the song. When you think about it, that’s what crosswords are for–helping solvers escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and escape to an oasis of happiness. That this crossword succeeded so well with two of our panelists suggests it fulfilled its ultimate purpose.
- One Good Turn Deserves Another, by Patrick Berry (Fireball, December 4). The solution for this puzzle looks normal, but the clues take solvers in new directions. At various points, intersecting answers suddenly make turns–the Across answer finishes by heading Down, and the Down answer finishes by going Across. So, for example, what looks like MODESTY crossing TRAVELED is in fact MODELED and TRAVESTY bouncing off each other. Wow! And as if that’s not enough, the “pivot points” for the ten intersecting answers using the special clues, spell out ROTISSERIE (an apt word given this puzzle’s gimmick). Double wow! And the pivot letters don’t anagram into ROTISSERIE, people–they spell it out in order. Triple wow! One panelist described this amazing crossword beautifully: “This puzzle exemplifies the notion of great art not calling attention to itself. The grid is clean and unassuming, yet it accommodates a sophisticated structure of theme answers and rewards the solver with a clever payoff. The puzzle is not labeled a meta crossword but it plays out with more satisfying elegance than most puzzles that are so labeled.” Amen, brother (or sister), amen!
The 2013 Orcas is in the books, and we managed to shave off about 500 words from last year. Many thanks to Evad for compiling all of the star ratings in an accessible format and to Amy Reynaldo for letting me play in her little sandbox here. See you next year!