Favorite crosswords of 2009

Rex Parker and I aren’t compiling an official set of 2009 Oryx Awards (we hope to do it up big for 2010, though), but I wanted to spotlight the puzzles that enchanted me last year. This list will be heavily weighted towards the types of puzzles I like best (twisty gimmicks! themeless!) and light on others (hello, easy themed puzzles).

My list is long, so it appears after the jump.

Easy themed puzzle:

  • Doug Peterson‘s 6/3/09 CrosSynergy crossword, “Child’s Play”—Accessible theme, terrific fill.

Medium themed puzzles:

  • Byron Walden‘s 9/2/09 Onion A.V. Club crossword featuring JULIE AND JULIA intersecting four other entries with related name pairs drawn from the arts (cinema, song, Shakespeare): ME AND JULIO, JULIUS AND ETHEL, ROMEO AND JULIET, and JULES ET JIM. Incredible theme content and structure. The non-theme fill sparkles, too, with answers like SOUP NAZI and JOCK ITCH.
  • Ed Stein and Paula Gamache‘s 4/1/09 New York Times April Fools Day crossword appears to give away the theme answers in the clues, but no: [In what country are Panama hats made?] clues ECUADOR, and [What is George Eliot’s given name?] clues MARY ANN. Tons of fun to solve.
  • Donna Hoke Kahwaty‘s 3/12/09 Los Angeles Times crossword featuring phrases whose first words can follow SPAGHETTI, such as SQUASH COURTS and WESTERN UNION. Lively!
  • Francis Heaney‘s 11/4/09 Onion A.V. Club crossword featuring BAKING B.B. KING, HEROES’ HERPES, and other advance-one-letter-in-the-alphabet gems.
  • Donna S. Levin‘s 1/22/09 Los Angeles Times crossword with four numerical TV show titles cut by 1 (e.g., FIVE FEET UNDER, TWENTY-NINE ROCK).

Sunday puzzles:

  • Elizabeth C. Gorski‘s 10/18/09 New York Times crossword, “Ahead of the Curve”—This asymmetrical grid contains a Guggenheim spiral and answers relating to the museum (including artists’ names clued by their works of art held by the Guggenheim), all in honor of the Guggenheim’s 50th anniversary. Arty and elegant.
  • Elizabeth C. Gorski‘s 3/29/09 New York Times crossword, “Architectural Drawing”—This is the EIFFEL TOWER puzzle with connect-the-dot ET rebus squares outlining the Tower’s shape, on its 120th birthday. ET is not just the tower’s initials, it also means “and” in French, a.k.a. THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and there are other French connections in the theme.
  • Patrick Berry‘s 3/15/09 New York Times crossword, “Prioresses”—Patrick adds a prior S to the beginning of both words in familiar phrases. Creamed corn, for example, becomes SCREAMED SCORN. Excellent cluing of theme entries.
  • Trip Payne‘s 4/26/09 New York Times crossword, “Roughly Speaking”—The vocal dysfluencies UM and ER appear in rebus squares. D{UM}B AND D{UM}B{ER}{ER}, anyone?
  • David J. Kahn‘s 1/11/09 New York Times crossword, “Making History”—An Obama inauguration theme in which 28 circled squares contain rebuses that are the 2-letter abbreviations of all the states Obama won in the 2008 presidential election. No, the states did not appear in geographically correct places, but it’s cool to see how many state abbreviations appear in A{ME}{RI}{CA}N {FL}AGS.

Most promising debut:

  • David Chapus‘s 3/12/09 New York Times crossword, a Thursday puzzle with a PED XING rebus—each of the theme entries has a {PED} rebus square crossing another answer. COU{PE D}EVILLES and CA{PED} CRUSADER shone.

A wealth of gimmick puzzles:

  • Brendan Quigley‘s 1/7/09 blog crossword, “Spoiler Alert!”—This one is cross-referenced in a crazy, meta way. If you don’t think you did this puzzle last year, hurry over to Brendan’s 1/7/09 post to experience this mind-bending crossword. The theme is brilliant and pushes the envelope for what crosswords can do.
  • Matt Ginsberg‘s 5/17/09 New York Times second Sunday puzzle, “Takeaway”—Letters omitted in clues are also omitted in the answers, and the entries are also legitimate words. For example, [Sp*tted cats] are oCELoTS, to be entered in the grid as CELTS. [Biase*] clues ONESIE, which is ONE-SIdEd without the Ds. Brilliant conceit, challenging mental workout for the solver.
  • Matt Gaffney‘s 12/11/09 Weekly Crossword Contest puzzle, “Flip Answer”—Nine clues can plausibly lead to two answers that are reversals of one another. The last letters of the “flipped answers” spell out MISDIRECT, the meta puzzle’s answer. [Word on the labels of some bottles of alcohol] clues both LAGER and REGAL, for example, and [They go in drawers] clues both SPOONS and SNOOPS. A tour de force and a huge challenge.
  • Francis Heaney‘s 4/1/09 Onion A.V. Club crossword—The theme clues pull double duty by clueing two answers, but for one of each pair, you have to change the wording but pronounce the clue the same. For instance, [Type A people] are DOERS and the same clue could be “heard” as “Taipei people,” the TAIWANESE.
  • Ben Tausig‘s 3/26/09 Ink Well puzzle, “Bad Strokes”—Twenty clues have adjacent-key typos. For example, [Hay people, more formally] clues HOMOSEXUALS, as the G and H keys are next to each other. I enjoyed this puzzle-within-a-puzzle.
  • Dan Naddor‘s 1/9/09 Los Angeles Times crossword—Answers that cross a Battleship boat (e.g., AIRCRAFT CARRIER) are tagged “(h)” for hit. Answers that don’t cross a Battleship boat are “(m)” for miss. Who doesn’t like the game of Battleship, especially when combined with a crossword?
  • Frank Longo‘s 1/2/09 Sun “Vowelless Crossword”—Frank’s got a whole book of these gnarly beasts, and I love the added challenge. [Alternative to a true-false test] is a MLTPL-CHC QZ when you strip out the vowels. Can you guess what CSNGSTR is? The clue is [Getting people up in arms].
  • Mark Diehl‘s 2/27/09 Sun crossword, “Think Twice”—This double-edged rebus puts two letters in every single square around the grid’s perimeter. The top row packs three 8-letter answers—{CA}{RI}{BO}{US}, {TH}{E S}{CO}{RE}, and {MO}{NA} {LI}{SA}—into 12 squares.

Themeless puzzles:

  • Brad Wilber‘s 7/25/09 Los Angeles Times crossword—LIZA WITH A “Z,” MALT LIQUOR, and ‘FRAID NOT are among the highlights in this fresh and Scrabbly puzzle.
  • Will Nediger‘s 2/5/09 Sun crossword—SLACK-JAWED YOKEL meets WU-TANG CLAN in a puzzle jam-packed with exceptionally lively fill.
  • Paula Gamache‘s 10/24/09 New York Times crossword—BLU-RAY DISC meets up with PETE SEEGER, TINA TURNER, and EDDIE MONEY.
  • Matt Jones‘s 4/28/09 Jonesin’ crossword—Matt expanded the grid to 16×16 and has an 8×6 space in the center that’s completely devoid of black squares. When’s the last time you saw a sextuple-stack of 8- to 10-letter answers? The fill wasn’t my favorite, but that gigantic swath of white space is an impressive feat.
  • Joon Pahk‘s 9/26/09 New York Times crossword—Tough puzzle with erudite fill and clever clues.

Toughest puzzle of the year:

Favorite puzzle books:

  • Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon‘s collection, The Atlantic Cryptic Crosswords. Sure, the puzzles were all published previously in The Atlantic, but I hadn’t done them. The book was published in July and I finally finished it (mostly solving at bedtime) just recently. This is the main reason I slacked off on ACPT training with regular crosswords. These puzzles were just too damn interesting for me to put down. (New Hex cryptics now appear once every 4 weeks in the Wall Street Journal.)
  • Patrick Berry‘s Puzzle Masterpieces. If you’ve been enjoying Patrick’s variety puzzles in the Wall Street Journal on Saturdays, you will love this book. If you haven’t, well, you should try the Saturday WSJ puzzles, and you should pick up a copy of this attractive hardcover book full of tough variety puzzles with much more interesting fill than standard crosswords have. This book is what occupied me for the post-ACPT months before the Hex cryptics book came out.

Constructors of the year:

  • Elizabeth Gorski—She has a gift for merging crosswords and visual art. Nobody does it better. She’s also got a new blog, Crossword City, in which she riffs on common crossword fill (or new names that are likely to become common in crosswords) and shares new puzzles.
  • Matt Gaffney—His Weekly Crossword Contest puzzles provide two challenges: a crossword (often hard) and a meta puzzle to figure out after finishing the crossword. He’s making crossword fans bend their brains in new ways each week. Head to Matt’s site and sign up to receive the puzzle each week. Don’t fret if you can’t figure out the meta every time—it stymies me sometimes too.
  • Brendan Emmett Quigley—Via his blog, Brendan releases three crosswords a week, and he usually feeds people’s themeless hunger early in the week. In addition to his self-published blog puzzles, he also constructs for the Onion A.V. Club, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Visual Thesaurus, and assorted magazines, not to mention his many books (particularly the new Diagramless Crosswords).

It’s worth noting where my favorite puzzles were published. There were 10 in the NYT, 6 in other daily newspapers, 3 Sun puzzles released by Peter Gordon after the newspaper ceased publishing, 5 from alt-weekly papers, and 2 from constructors’ blogs. Five years ago, anyone’s list of favorite crosswords would likely have all come from daily newspapers, but now some haven’t even appeared in print anywhere. I suspect the balance will tip further away from the dailies in the coming years.

A hearty and heartfelt “Thank you!” to everyone who made or edited these puzzles. 2009 was another good year for crosswords, and we’re looking forward to more great works of cruciverbal art from all of you.

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17 Responses to Favorite crosswords of 2009

  1. It’s lovely to be remembered, but … let’s get real here. My “Constructor of the Year” nod deservedly belongs to Patrick Berry.

  2. Jeffrey says:

    Any list of memorable 2009 puzzles must include the Orbach/Reynaldo Stud Puffin.


  3. joon says:

    it’s an honor to be in such august company! all of the puzzles singled out for praise were really fun to solve.

    there were just a couple of others that i wanted to mention (off the top of my head): the clue murder mystery MGWCC; the heaney/blindauer NOAH’S ARK puzzle; brad wilber’s BUSH V. GORE/GROUP HUG themeless; and the vengsarkar/venkatasubramanyan “literally so” sunday. all of them were particularly memorable in some way.

  4. Dan F says:

    Thanks for doing that! Not too much overlap with Ryan and Brian’s best NYTs of the year (on “Fill Me In”)… just goes to show how many great puzzles we’re blessed with. Kudos to all the constructors. Actually, kudos to all constructors!

  5. Matt Gaffney says:

    The best thing about crossword puzzles in 2009 and beyond is how many clever ones there are around these days.

    Thank you Internet for existing, thanks to all who write and all who blog and certainly to all who solve.

    ***GROUP HUG***

  6. Doug P says:

    Thanks, Amy! It’s truly an honor to be included in this group. And it’s great to be reminded of some of the wonderful puzzles from last year. Let me add one that sticks in my mind as a personal favorite: The diagramless puzzle from Patrick Blindauer’s holiday puzzle suite. If you solved it, I’m sure you remember it. That puzzle made me realize that diagramlesses can be pretty darn cool.

  7. John Haber says:

    Thanks. I see that the “Atlantic” cryptic book came out just in July. Is it a second collection or just a reprint? I know I bought and finished it, and that wasn’t this year by any means. Of course, the first time I was solving puzzles I had all worked in the magazine, and they still felt brand new, and I’m sure I’ll have forgotten them all over again by now!

    I took the recommendation of a BEQ with “spoilers.” I could swear I’d seen a theme like that in the NYT, and if I’m not mistaken it has ACE near ACE TEN, which would normally be a flaw. To be honest, I wasn’t wowed anyway, since BEQ, worthy as his puzzles are, always feels like on a different planet from me. It could be a generation gap, but probably it’s just Planet Television. I didn’t really know why the Tokein character was associatied with something called “Precious” or what AB FAB is, and I couldn’t finish because I don’t know the crossing between a cologne and something about Monk, which I’ve never seen (except on ad posters in the subways when it started).

  8. janie says:

    i’d be remiss if i didn’t add some of my faves from the crossynergy team — all of whom have their stellar moments (so no slight intended if yer not in this sampling!!). i won’t go into much detail, but will include title, date and author.

    “vision quest” — donna s. levin, 12/22/09
    “goth milk” — doug peterson, 12/4/09
    “baby talk” — sarah keller, 10/19/09
    “missing the point” — nancy salomon, 10/16/09
    “just visiting” — martin ashwood-smith, 10/9/09
    “seven EZ pieces” — randolph ross, 10/8/09
    “quiet!” — randall j. hartman, 10/6/09
    “vowel play” — bob klahn, 10/5/09
    “give ’em an inch…” — doug peterson, 7/7/09
    “they’ll take a mile” — patrick blindauer, 7/8/09
    “getting a foothold” — tony orbach, 7/9/09

    i could go on, but there’s always next (this) year!


  9. Daz says:

    Compiling a list of terrific puzzles is a terrific idea, but — if there’s some way that people who would like to tackle those highly praised puzzles they haven’t yet tried, without seeing potential spoilers — that would also be great.

    Maybe somewhere there can just be a list of these terrific puzzles, their broad categories, and if possible links to them, but without further detail.

  10. Amy Reynaldo says:

    Daz, here are the puzzles I recommended. I leave it to you to track down their whereabouts.

    Easy themed puzzle:

    Doug Peterson’s 6/3/09 CrosSynergy crossword, “Child’s Play”

    Medium themed puzzles:

    Byron Walden’s 9/2/09 Onion A.V. Club crossword
    Ed Stein and Paula Gamache’s 4/1/09 New York Times
    Donna Hoke Kahwaty’s 3/12/09 Los Angeles Times crossword
    Francis Heaney’s 11/4/09 Onion A.V. Club crossword
    Donna S. Levin’s 1/22/09 Los Angeles Times crossword

    Sunday puzzles:

    Elizabeth C. Gorski’s 10/18/09 New York Times crossword, “Ahead of the Curve”
    Elizabeth C. Gorski’s 3/29/09 New York Times crossword, “Architectural Drawing”
    Patrick Berry’s 3/15/09 New York Times crossword, “Prioresses”
    Trip Payne’s 4/26/09 New York Times crossword, “Roughly Speaking”
    David J. Kahn’s 1/11/09 New York Times crossword, “Making History”

    Most promising debut:

    David Chapus’s 3/12/09 New York Times crossword

    A wealth of gimmick puzzles:

    Brendan Quigley’s 1/7/09 blog crossword, “Spoiler Alert!”
    Matt Ginsberg’s 5/17/09 New York Times second Sunday puzzle, “Takeaway”
    Matt Gaffney’s 12/11/09 Weekly Crossword Contest puzzle, “Flip Answer”
    Francis Heaney’s 4/1/09 Onion A.V. Club crossword
    Ben Tausig’s 3/26/09 Ink Well puzzle, “Bad Strokes”
    Dan Naddor’s 1/9/09 Los Angeles Times crossword
    Frank Longo’s 1/2/09 Sun “Vowelless Crossword”
    Mark Diehl’s 2/27/09 Sun crossword, “Think Twice”

    Themeless puzzles:

    Brad Wilber’s 7/25/09 Los Angeles Times crossword
    Will Nediger’s 2/5/09 Sun crossword
    Paula Gamache’s 10/24/09 New York Times crossword
    Matt Jones’s 4/28/09 Jonesin’ crossword
    Joon Pahk’s 9/26/09 New York Times crossword

    Toughest puzzle of the year:

    Stanley Newman’s 1/3/09 Newsday “Saturday Stumper”

  11. anon says:

    just curious, why no oryx awards? i waited all year for those. thanks for doing this in its place though.

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  13. Mitchs says:

    This is embarrassing, but I STILL don’t get the BEQ Spoiler theme.

  14. Amy Reynaldo says:

    Mitchs, did you read my post (linked in this write-up) explaining it? It was a hard one to explain.

  15. Mitchs says:

    Holy cow! I would never have got that – thanks much, Amy. (I didn’t see your explanatory post before.) Also, kudos on this great summary – I’m looking forward to some great stuff I missed. I was just a(n?) NYT Thursday – Sun solver until I discovered Wordplay, Rex, Fiend, BEQ, Fireball, etc. Many thanks to all.

  16. Matt Ginsberg says:

    Aw, shucks! Thanks, Amy!

    I sent Will another takeaway puzzle in May of last year (give or take); hopefully, Amy, you’ll see it in the vaguely near future!


  17. Elizabeth Gorski says:

    Amy . . . we should thank you! After all, you invented the daily crossword blog, and that made all the difference. Open discourse improves puzzles in every market. You’re in a category that includes Washington, January, One, A and Adam . . . first in a series. Brava!

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