Alex Vratsanos and Jeff Chen’s New York Times crossword, “Matching Wits”
This puzzle includes the black squares in the theme—the theme answers all have M.W. initials, like the crossword’s title, and there are a squat M and W made out of black squares. (Actually, they’re capital E’s on their sides. They may be preparing to make letter whoopee and generate a bunch of baby e’s.) And no, it can’t be product placement for Merriam-Webster because they’re not a theme answer.
- 64a. [Piece longer than its name suggests], MINUTE WALTZ. Is it long but played on tiny instruments for tiny dancers?
- 2d. [“Hoochie Coochie Man” singer], MUDDY WATERS. Great name, great entry.
- 52d. [Euphemism used often on “The Newlywed Game”], MAKING WHOOPEE. Terrific entry. It is a euphemism for “vacuuming the carpet,” of course.
- 58d. [Money raised by members of Congress?], MINIMUM WAGE. It’s currently set at $7.25 an hour, which translates to $15,080 a year for full-time work. I remember when I started as an entry-level editorial assistant in 1989 making a measly $16,250—and that was double what minimum wage was at the time. $7.25 an hour? Not a living wage. The craziest part is that six years ago, the minimum wage was $5.15 an hour. Eek.
- 30d. [1962 movie for which Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke won Oscars, with “The”], MIRACLE WORKER.
- 17d. [Bang for one’s buck] MONEY’S WORTH. Really feels naked without a possessive pronoun in front of it.
- 6d. [West Point subject], MODERN WARFARE.
- 68d. [Dewar’s product], MALT WHISKEY.
The “hey, look at the grid” trick is less engaging than the “connect the dots and draw a foot” sort of trick, if you ask me. And the theme is straightforward, just words that start with certain letters. A little bit of a snooze compared to what I was expecting with Jeff Chen’s name occupying half of the byline. Yes, some of the theme answers are delightful, and the fill includes such goodies as TOTEM POLE, TO THE MAX, TWO-FACED, TANGRAMS, IN ECSTASY, and COLD AS ICE. But there were not many surprises waiting to be uncovered in this crossword.
Five clues of note:
- 83a. [Seat of Dallas County, Ala.], SELMA. Had no idea Alabama had a Dallas County, but of course SELMA is world-famous in civil rights history.
- 35a. [What whalers may bring back], YARNS. Ahoy, Moby-Dick! I am now about 20 chapters behind my reading group. It’s a helluva yarn, though. Also, have you watched Whale Wars on cable? An international team strives to interrupt Japanese whaling missions. They spin some insane (and true) yarns.
- 38d. [Still dripping?], BOOZE. It’s what’s dripping out of the pipes or tubes (whatever, I’m not up on my moonshine terminology) of a distilling still.
- 101d. [Writing on the Wall?], POST. I reckon this is a Facebook reference, although I think Facebook wants everyone to forget the term Wall and use Timeline.
- 83d, 98d. [Where one might be in the hot seat?], STEAM BATH and comedy ROAST. Nice double play.
Solid puzzle with precious little ugliness in the grid, but a mite less wordplay action than I like to see. 3.9 stars.
Merl Reagle’s syndicated Sunday crossword, “Pun Control”
Did you solve this puzzle without looking at the notepad entry and then try to discern a common thread connecting the theme answers? Merl’s note says “Puns have a way of piling up around the house, so I have to clear them out once in a while.” Would you want Merl to be a pun hoarder? That would be dangerous. The sheer weight of accumulated puns would likely tax the floor and compromise the structural integrity of his house. Plus, there’s the risk of fire. For safety’s sake, Merl disgorges the following in a single puzzle:
- 21a. [Lower-tract product whose instructions say “Fasten your seat belts”?], COLON POW. Colin Powell minus the last syllable. Who among us would not try a product called Colin Powell’s Colon Pow?
- 22a. [Mexico’s presidential jet?], AIR FORCE JUAN. (Air Force One.)
- 29a. [Story of a hero’s less-than-successful early years before he got the sword idea?], THUMB MARK OF ZORRO. …”Thumb mark” as a pun on “The Mark”??
- 48a. [Why Lucifer’s hair always looks so good?], THE DEVIL WEARS PRODUCT. (…Prada.)
- 65a. [What some grain companies are busy doin’?], HAULIN’ OATS. (Hall & Oates.)
- 69a. [“Salad in a can” that never caught on?], SPAMBROSIA. Spam + ambrosia. Merl’s not the only one to think of this one—a Google search shows lots of different Spambrosias, and yet I didn’t see any recipes. However! Google spambrosia recipe and you get haiku. One John Mitchell wrote the following: “Shredded coconut, / Marshmallows, mayo, fake ham: / SPAMbrosia salad.”
- 84a. [Oatmeal?], THE QUAKER PICKER-UPPER. Wait. We just had an OATS theme entry. (Bounty, the quicker picker-upper.)
- 102a/116a. [With 116 Across, creepy book that takes place at a truck dealership?], INTERVIEW WITH THE / VAN BUYER. Meh. (…Vampire.)
- 112a. [“That small drink you ordered has now been poured”?], THE JIGGER’S UP. (The jig is up.)
Never heard of: 17d. [Jerome who played Miles Archer, Sam’s ill-fated partner, in “The Maltese Falcon”], COWAN.
Have heard of, but don’t expect you to have heard of: 67d. [Palm used in basketry], NIPA. My kid did a poster project on the Philippines early on in grade school. The nipa hut is a traditional house made of bamboo with a thatched roof of nipa leaves.
Did not know: that KERALA is an 42d: [Upscale state of India]. State of India, yes, but I didn’t know the upscale part.
Toughest crossing for people who haven’t been doing crosswords for decades: 5a: [Singing brother who went solo] ED AMES meets 8d: [Diva Anna] MOFFO.
3.5 stars from me. How’d you enjoy the hodgepodge of Merlian puns?
Liz Gorski’s syndicated Los Angeles Times Sunday crossword, “PH Balance”
This theme is similar to the NYT’s—the theme answers all contain the same two letters in specific places. In this case, it’s a P at the start and an H at the end.
- 23a. [11-part documentary with the episodes “Caves” and “Deserts”], PLANET EARTH.
- 37a. [“Peanuts” Halloween setting], PUMPKIN PATCH.
- 68a. [Yamaha seat, perhaps], PIANO BENCH.
- 71a. [It can help you put on a coat], PAINTBRUSH.
- 100a. [Soapbox delivery], PUBLIC SPEECH.
- 121a. [Fruity pastry], PRUNE DANISH. Never had one. Call it a plum danish and I’ll be all over it.
- 33d. [Hybrid language], PIDGIN ENGLISH.
- 35d. [A former ace might be one], PITCHING COACH.
A fine assortment of words and phrases, but again, no tricks, no wordplay, no jokes. So it plays a little on the dry side. Highlights in the fill include SORE SPOT, “THAT’S UNFAIR!,” THINGAMABOB (raise your hand if you tried THINGAMAJIG first), GOES NUTS, and the metaphorical SALT MINE I toil in when blogging about crosswords.
I gently dispute the TRIKE clue, 67d: [Playground ride]. The slide, swings, and merry-go-round can be playground rides. The tricycle is a sidewalk ride. Although, yes, if you mean “ride” as slang for “vehicle,” then the clue works perfectly.
119a. [Org. with part of a prominent statue in its logo] clues ACLU. Which statue? It’s the top of the Statue of Liberty, as you can see here.
Byron Walden’s Washington Post crossword, “The Post Puzzler No. 169”- Sam Donaldson’s review
We haven’t seen Byron Walden’s byline on the Post Puzzler before, and indeed it might some time before we see it again. You see, several months ago, editor Peter Gordon solicited submissions for one of four open slots on the Post Puzzler calendar. Today’s Post Puzzler was the one selected for the first open spot. Rumor has it there were about 30 submissions, and some of the best names in the freestyle crossword business participated. I had heard all of this going in, so I had high expectations for the puzzle. And knowing it came from Byron, I expected a workout. This one delivered on both fronts. So if this proves to be Byron’s only foray into the Post Puzzler, let’s savor it.
What a beautiful 64/28 grid! Conventional wisdom says that once we drop below 68 or 66 answers in a 15×15 grid, there’s bound to be some compromises in the fill. But name the weakest entry in this grid. ASTI, just because it’s common in crosswords? LIVERIED, because few of us have footmen and thus wouldn’t know the answer to [Dressed like a footman] even with five of the eight letters in place? [1980 NFL MVP Brian] SIPE, just because he’s probably not in the list of the nine most famous NFL MVPs from the 1980s? A CURE because it’s a partial and partials are somehow inherently evil and a threat to the ecosystem? Here’s the point: pick any entry you want and it’s hardly an eyesore. You can’t even call this fill “silky smooth,” as silk only wishes it was so flawless.
So conventional wisdom sometimes replies that a grid devoid of flaws also lacks juiciness. But look at the goodies resting comfortably here. Start with HEAD SLAP at 1-Across. For my money, that may be the most apt entry ever found at the start of a Byron Walden puzzle. And it sits atop a lovely quad-stack of eights, any one entry of which would normally be the star entry in a stack. Then you have the symmetrically placed quad-8s in the southeast corner, another great stack of goodness despite the presence of the over-rated ZAC EFRON, the [Link Larkin portrayer in “Hairspray”]. You know what makes these stacks so terrific? The squeaky-clean crossings. No contrived RE- or -ER words. No vowel-laden, 100-meter-long European rivers. Just good, solid entries. I wonder how long it took Byron to come up with these. Wait, never mind–I don’t want to know, as the answer will likely be along the lines of “less than an hour” or something similar that will have me head-slapping in earnest. I’ll just choose to believe that Byron stayed holed up in his office for weeks and didn’t emerge until this grid was in its final form.
Do the clues match the elegance of the grid? As Lana Kane would say, “Yup.” Here are some of my favorites:
- The [Waif befriended by Katniss in “The Hunger Games”] is RUE. Great, contemporary clue for a three-letter entry we see quite often. I’m not the biggest Hunger Games fan out there (I like it, but it’s not like I’m on Team Katniss or anything), but fresh clues for crossword staples are always welcome.
- [“Psycho” and others] is terrific for PEJORATIVES because it’s an unexpected diversion. I was sure the answer was going to be along the lines of HORROR MOVIE (and the fact that HORROR MOVIE crosses OAK GROVE at the V didn’t dispel me of that thought). When I figured it out, it was a great “aha moment.” (As opposed to the many “Ahhhh!” moments in Psycho.)
- Now for two examples of clues that are obviously misdirections. We’ve all seen so many cute clues for DIET, DIETS, and DIETING, et alia that [Followed a lessen plan?] didn’t fool us for a minute, right? Sure enough, that was DIETED. And the Hillary in [Companion on Hillary’s ascent?] just couldn’t be Sir Edmund Hillary, for the clue likely would have used his full name if that was the case. The only other Hillary I could think of was Hillary Clinton, but with only a few letters at the end in place, I confess it took a while to remember CLINTONISTA (another terrific entry, by the way). Another clue that sent off alarm bells right away was [Godfather’s offerings] for PEPPERONI PIZZAS. I know the Godfather’s pizza chain from my youth, but I doubted both its national reach and continued existence. So I thought that was just my own handicap and not the right direction for the clue.
- Anytime I see a reference to Michael Keaton movies in the clues, I think of MR. MOM. But the [1988 Michael Keaton drama] here is CLEAN AND SOBER, one of his best performances.
- Duplicate clues always entertain me, especially when they sit close to each other. Here [Sysop concern] pulls double duty at 45-Across (USERS) and immediately below for 51-Across (SERVER). What’s nice about this is that neither answer is a stretch for the clue. Many times one of the answers to a repeated clue is a bit too contrived, making the duplicate clue a stunt instead of something cool. Here it’s cool all the way.
- [Further caught up in class?] was a fun clue for SNOOTIER, a fun entry.
- I had CROUCHES as the answer to [Prepares to pounce], and would have bet the farm on it. But no, it was CLOSES IN. It’s especially evil when a couple of letters from the wrong guess are correct, isn’t it? I don’t know if that was an intentional trap, but it sure proved sticky.
- Runner-up for the puzzle’s best clue: [Conversion attempt involving a Hail Mary?] is great for CRUSADE. I knew right away the answer had everything to do with religion and nothing to do with football, but still felt very satisfied when I tumbled to the answer.
- Finally, a short round-up of the clues that had me flummoxed for a while: I didn’t know LISAS were [Early Apples], that JANUS was the [God by whom Iago swears, aptly], or that the U.N. FLAG would be the [Standard for blue helmets] (“blue helmets” being peacekeepers). And yet ENOS as the [Spinoff of “The Dukes of Hazzard”] was a gimme. Sigh.
Favorite entry = the aforementioned HEAD SLAP. Favorite clue = [Where the past comes alive] for a TIME WARP. I hope it’s not long before this entry returns to a puzzle–I can’t wait to do the TIME WARP again.
Randolph Ross’s CrosSynergy/Washington Post crossword, “Sunday Challenge” – Dave Sullivan’s review
This was definitely the Tale of Two Puzzles, as I smoked through the right hand side, but really struggled with the left.
An interesting thing to notice is that no entry in this one is longer than eight letters. Of that set, the most interesting were:
- [Notable name in Nairobi] was KENYATTA. Wasn’t that also the name of a horse in one of the Triple Crown races? If so, I imagine the clue is instead referencing Jomo, the “founding father” of the nation of Kenya. (I wonder why we don’t see his first name more often in puzzles?) Edited to add: the horse was Zenyatta
- [Director of “Star Wars: Episode VII”] was J.J. ABRAMS. Having just seen the latest installment in the Star Trek series (which he also directed), his name was familiar to me. This Star Wars movie is scheduled to come out in 2015. Beware the Force, Luke!
- Good vocab word of VORACITY for [Extreme hunger]. Try to drop that into a casual conversation today. I think of its friend “rapacity,” which has a similar meaning of being voracious or greedy.
Some nice shorter entries as well: JV SQUAD, SQUIBS (I’ve heard of a “squib kick,” but never “squib” on its own), OSHKOSH (Wisconsin), Michael MCKEAN of This is Spinal Tap and another great vocab word of JOCUND, meaning [Full of fun].. My FAVE was the entry PUB QUIZ with its clever clue [Competition for crawlers?] as in a “pub crawl.” (I was thinking of night crawlers used as fishing lures instead.) I was less impressed with STATLER ([Waldorf’s Muppet partner]), neither name being familiar to me. I’m guessing they’re the two older men who sit in the audience and heckle performers on stage (like Rowlf pictured here), but I can’t be sure I ever heard what their names were.
Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon’s CRooked crossword, “Pun Gently” — pannonica’s write-up
As usual, I neglected to look at the title until after solving, which is a bit of a shame since it’s catchy and perfectly expresses the theme. For each theme entry either a single word is divided into two or more, or the spacing in a two-word phrase SLIDES (34a) to a different location. In either case, the slightly modified new entity compels the solver to parse it a new way, as clued. Funny how a small change can have a pungent effect.
In a cryptic crossword, these would be simple charades (i.e., without other wordplay or manipulation involved), but the clues would need to include a “straight” definition of the original word/phrase.
- 24a. [Ballerina’s hairdo gets into the act?] A BUN DANCES (abundances).
- 27a.[Bust on a scuba outing?] DIVE STING (divesting).
- 29a. [Hidden sign of spring?] SECRET ARIES (secretaries). I’m really bad at recognizing sign for zodiacal sign.
- 46a. [Wilder demonstration?] GENE RALLY (generally).
- 48a. [Notably big butts?] OVERT RUMPS (overtrumps). Not thrilled with the source word here.
- 59a. [“Get off the fairway, Mac!”] FORE, STRANGER (forest ranger).
- 65a. [Lineage of some Peruvians?] INCAN DESCENT (incandescent).
- 80a. [Race that’s less hairy?] BALDER DASH (balderdash).
- 83a. [Spud sculptures?] STARCH ART (star chart).
- 94a. [Y chromosomes?] MALE FACTORS (malefactors). This is the only entry, as far as I can tell, in which the before and after versions share a bit of etymology (factors and factors). This is because the alteration for the first part is based on a bit of functional flexibility: male derives from the Latin masculus, and mal- from the Latin malus, meaning bad; however, sometimes when used as a prefix mal- takes on an additional syllable, to create a smoother, easier pronunciation. So the schwa in this word occupies a no-man’s-land as far as the mechanics of the theme are concerned.
- 99a. [Bartok yawning?] BÉLA BORED (belabored).
- 105a. [What to do as the beer runs out?] RATION ALES (rationales). Oops, I take back what I said about 94a being exceptional. The RATIONs here also share an etymology: the Latin ration-.
Really liked this theme because I find this kind of wordplay very fun and fascinating. So, despite a few questionable entries and one that employed two splits for a three-word phrase, I feel it’s refreshing and entertaining. For a bit more cohesiveness, notice ARIES and STAR CHART, as well as MALE FACTOR and GENE. Exploring beyond only the theme entries, there’s STARCH and TARO (Tropical tuber), INCAN and MAYA (Certain Mexican), BÉLA Bartók and Edvard GRIEG, and perhaps more connections I didn’t see. (There are definitely more among just the ballast fill: NOSE and SCENT, ELBA and BALI, et al.)
In general, the fill is strong and low on the CAP Quotient™ scale. A significant number of the clues are clever or, failing that, informative. A small sampling:
- Was unaware that gumbo could be synonymous with OKRA. (32a)
- 55a [Cupid’s driver] SANTA. 73a [Daffy associate] PORKY.
- 104a [Last thing bid?] ADIEU.
- 35d [NOLA protector] LEVEE.
Also liked CALYX, HENS’ EGGS, CILANTRO, DRAGOMAN, TOREADOR. Good mix of pop culture, general knowledge, sports, and so forth—the range of ingredients that make for a good crossword. Really engaging solve, above average puzzle.