Welcome back to the Orcas, our annual recap honoring outstanding achievement in crossword construction. Today we present the Orca for Best Meta/Contest Crossword, the fifth of nine awards given out this year. To recap the schedule for the week:
• Sunday, February 28: Best Easy Crossword (won by Lynn Lempel)
• Monday, February 29: Merl Reagle Award for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword (won by Jeremy Newton)
• Tuesday, March 1: Best Freestyle Crossword (won by Natan Last) and Best Tournament Crossword (won by Joon Pahk)
• Wednesday, March 2: Best Meta/Contest Crossword
• Thursday, March 3: Best Gimmick Crossword
• Friday, March 4: Bob Klahn Award for Best Clue and Margaret Farrar Constructor of the Year Award
• Saturday, March 5: Best Crossword
There’s some great puzzles to read about after the jump. So jump already!
[Puzzle within a puzzle] is how one recent crossword clued META. Finishing a crossword is always nice, but there’s something extra-satisfying about using the completed puzzle to solve some other puzzle. To borrow from contemporary political parlance, the past decade has seen yooge growth in “meta” puzzles, and they have kept elite solvers occupied for hours. Maybe you remember the past winners of this award (we only started this category in 2013):
- 2013: “Religious Inscription” by Pete Muller (Muller Monthly Music Meta)–the Madonna puzzle with her name and album traveling around two crosses
- 2104: “Flight Path” by Francis Heaney (American Values Club Crossword)–in which one is DIGGING A SECRET TUNNEL TO FREEDOM through cell walls that are INSECURE
Though short-lived, this category is a favorite among our readers, and the one that usually provokes some comments about favorites that got “snubbed” in the Orca selection process. That we have an embarrassment of meta riches is such a First World Crossword Problem. Anyway, let the carping begin as we unveil this year’s nominees for Best Meta/Contest Crossword:
- Double-Headers, by Andrew J. Ries (American Values Club Crossword, February 18). For this contest crossword, solvers were told only there was a meta solution. Not much as starting hints go, but the clue for 54-Across said that FALSE START was both an [Athletic infraction … or what occurs at the beginning of this puzzle’s four theme answers, both across and down]. Sure enough, the clues for 18-Across and Down ([Results of voting] and [Happy hour enticement]) work both for their full answers, SELECTIONS and SALE and for the words formed by dropping the initial S: ELECTIONS and ALE. Likewise, the clues at 23-Across and Down ([It’s heaved up and the results aren’t pretty] and [Do some landscaping work]) work for (H)AIRBALL and (H)EDGE. And the clues at 36-Across and Down ([Scientific object poorly understood until the 20the Century] and [A very, very long time]) fit (A)STEROID and (A)EON). Finally, the clues at 50-Across and Down ([One featured in a Victor Herbert work] and [Fabulous finish, of a sort]) work, though perhaps in a slightly off-color way, for (M)ARIETTA and (M)ORAL. Take the four initial letters from each set and you have S-H-A-M, the obviously intended meta answer. Matt Gaffney nominated this for February Puzzle of the Month, and our readers gave it 13 five-star ratings and a 4.65 average rating. Yes, it’s a Schrödinger puzzle, and we said last year that they were starting to outstay their welcome. But this one scores an Orca nod for being very accessible and containing some first-rate double clues.
- Ode to Crosswords, by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #356, March 27). It didn’t take long to see all the haikus happening in this difficult meta puzzle. First, the instructions were a haiku: “To solve this meta, / do as I will instruct you — / or else you will fail!” The three 15-letter answers formed another haiku, as did the accompanying clues(!): [Lines hiding herein] for TWENTY-FOUR POEMS; [How to do as I instruct] for OBEY ELEVENS ONLY; and [Solvers must do this] for UNCOVER YOUR TASK. So where were these 24 other haikus? In the puzzle’s 72 clues! Each clue was a line, and every three clues formed their own haiku. The “obey elevens only” suggestion told solvers to focus only on the 11th syllable of each 17-syllable haiku. By doing so, you get this list: “right the word high coo in the an cer box all sew right out a cross word high coo in the com ment box.” That translates to write the word “haiku” in the answer box (of Matt’s online answer submission form) then also write out a crossword haiku in the comment box. Such a satisfying aha moment! The clues were longer than you’d normally see in a puzzle (they have to be to make this work), but the purpose for long clues was not immediately apparent until you cracked the theme entries. And for the syllables to work every time like that could not have been easy. No doubt many of the haikus in Matt’s comment box started with “Best meta ever.”
- Start to Finish, by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #365, May 29). How were solvers supposed to find a “secret word” from EMPEROR NERO, SUPER BOWL XL, DOUBLE SIXES, and DOLLY PARTON? The title hints at the gimmick, as each can be associated with a “number-to-number” phrase: 54 to 68 for Nero’s reign, “21 to 10” for the score of Super Bowl XL (the one where the wrong team won), “35 to 1” as the odds against rolling boxcars in craps, and “9 to 5” for the song and movie featuring Dolly Parton. The key was to take each number sequence and trace it in the grid. For instance, start in box 54 and draw a direct line to box 68. The letters along that line spell CODE. The letters in the line from box 21 to box 10 spell WORD. The letters along the diagonal line from box 35 to box 1 spell AESOPIC (don’t ask), and the letters from box 9 to box 5 spell LOSER. Put it all together, then, and the mission is to uncover CODE WORD AESOPIC LOSER. That’s the HARE, made famous by its opponent, the tortoise. Solvers were given the extra nudge that the grid contained RHEA, an anagram of HARE. Joon said it best in his review: “the construction itself is remarkable. … the four words hidden in the grid have to be hidden in very specific numbered positions, and those have to correspond to the theme answers. it’s all absolutely mind-boggling. my jaw hit the floor so hard i can’t even bring myself to ding matt for making up the word AESOPIC. just wow.”
- Trade-Ins, by Patrick Berry (Fireball Crosswords, September 9). It looks easy enough, as six squares contain IN, used for both Across and Down answers. But the puzzle’s title tells you to “trade INs,” in this case with a single letter that would still form words at the crossings. Thus, where STA(IN)S crosses (IN)ORDER, you can swap in a B for STABS and BORDER. This happens five more times throughout the grid. Here’s the kicker, though: if you take the added letters in order from top to bottom, they spell BARTER, an apt meta answer for a puzzle with this title and gimmick. Amy’s review said it so well I’ll just paste here too: “I’m still trying to figure out how much data mining and thinking it took to assemble a list of word pairs that could intersect at both an IN and another letter, settle on a workable set that spelled out a highly relevant word, and place those six pairs in the grid with rebus squares in order from top to bottom—and have the grid be perfectly fine, no terrible compromises. You could be churlish and ding the puzzle for not having the rebus squares/entries in symmetrical spots, but (1) that was probably impossible to pull off given the theme constraints, and (2) it’s fine to up the challenge in a contest puzzle by not putting rebus squares in predictable spots.”
- Same Difference, by Patrick Berry (Wall Street Journal, December 18). Solvers were told to look for a five-letter word. Oh how I wanted the answer to be BERRY! Alas, it was not to be. Still, this puzzle was just off-the-charts elegant. Five pairs of answers shared the same clue: [Suspicious] for FISHY and SHIFTY, [Game featuring shapes of different colors] for TETRIS and TWISTER, [Overseeing a child’s development, say] for PREGNANT and PARENTING, [Cavorts playfully] for CAPERS and PRANCES, and [Men’s formalwear purchase] for COAT and ASCOT. Clues get duplicated all the time, but do you notice anything funny about the answer pairs? The second word is an anagram of the first word with one extra letter. Take the extra letters added to each second word and they spell–wait for it–TWINS, the meta answer. What makes this meta puzzle so great is that the trick is simple to explain and identify, yet it still takes some work to figure it out–all leading to a very satisfying aha moment. There’s cool, there’s very cool, and then there’s Berry cool.
What a great group of nominees! But there can only be one Orca for Best Meta/Contest Crossword, and it goes to:
Ode to Crosswords, by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #356)! This puzzle garnered 31 five-star ratings and–wait’ll you get a load of this–an amazing 4.97 average! Readers have chimed in / Give this puzzle an Orca / Happy to do so.
If you haven’t done so yet, check out the “Best Puzzles of 2015” tab near the top of this site. You’ll notice that this year there are two rankings, one for contest crosswords and one for all others. Now check out the bylines on the highest-rated contest puzzles. It’s simple evidence of the amazing work Matt Gaffney is doing on a regular basis. Few constructors are as prolific, and none is as singularly creative and envelope-pushing as Matt. One of these days we’re very likely going to name this award after him, but to the extent that might make him ineligible we can’t pull the trigger just yet. We will just enjoy watching one of the all-time greats continue making us re-think what a crossword can do.
Congratulations to Matt on this well-earned Orca and to Andrew and Patrick for their nominations. Be sure to come back tomorrow for the Best Gimmick Crossword, another category that overflows with goodness every year.