The 2011 Orca Awards

"Let's just say I know how to make a splash."

We’re here on the black and white carpet, just minutes from the start of the 2011 Orca Awards! It’s a veritable who’s who of crosswording talent, and many are dressed in DIOR or YSL. The excitement is truly palpable!  Before the ceremony begins, though, let’s take a moment to review how nominees and winners were selected.

Nominees for the best crossword awards were determined based on the star ratings awarded by readers of this blog. The nominees for any particular award may not have the highest overall average star rating among eligible puzzles, however, and that may be due to any number of factors, including the number of ratings received by a puzzle, our completely arbitrary rule that no constructor can have more than two puzzles in the running for any single crossword award, and our equally arbitrary desire to sample from several of best crossword venues.

The nominees for other awards were selected even more arbitrarily, 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.

Oh, one more thing: this ceremony was originally announced as the Oryx Awards, reviving the year-end awards originally presented by Amy Reynaldo and Michael Sharp. I didn’t realize until after the Best Crossword nominees were published that the awards were named in part for their blogging pseudonyms, Orange and Rex (take “orange” and “rex” to the Jersey Shore smush room and you get “oryx”). Readers, thus, may have been lead to believe that Amy and Michael selected the nominees and winners. Not true. So to make it clear that they are not to blame for any mistakes or oversights, and with apologies to Amy and Michael, we’re re-branding the award into the Orca, another black and white mammal.

Okay, the lights have dimmed, and everyone appears to be seated. It’s time to start the 2011 Orcas!

First up is the award for Best Easy Crossword. Here to present the nominees and name the winner, please welcome the celebrity with the highest all-time Shortz Factor, Mr. Erle Stanley Gardner:

Did you know: Erle Stanley Gardner was a Mason? (He wasn't.)

It’s a pleasure to be here, especially since I haven’t been much of anywhere for about 42 years now (pause for laughter). I’m here today to honor the most outstanding easy crossword puzzles from 2011. Easy puzzles may not take too long to solve, but they’re vitally important. As the gateway drug to more advanced puzzles, they get new solvers hooked on the pleasures of puzzling and wordplay. Each of this year’s nominees did a fabulous job of entertaining solvers of all abilities and exposing them to the elegance of superior construction. The nominees for Best Easy Crossword (in order of date of publication in 2011) are:

  • Untitled, by Dan Naddor (LAT, January 14). The late, great Dan Naddor had nine(!) theme entries where words ending in -CK were changed to words ending in -C, yielding entries like CROC POT ([Trap for large reptiles?]) and MOC TRIAL ([Court dispute over footwear?]).
  • Untitled, by Michael Sharp and Angela Olson Halsted (LAT, January 19). The theme was TANK TOP, as the first word in each of the four theme entries could precede “tank” (THINK FAST (think tank), SHERMAN ALEXIE (Sherman tank), etc.).
  • Untitled, by Ian Livengood (NYT, May 16). Solvers saw HORSEPLAY, as “horse” could follow the last word in each of the other eight(!) theme entries (AFTER DARK (dark horse), ACE HIGH (high horse), etc.).
  • Untitled, by Joel Fagliano (NYT, August 1). Also nominated for Best Crossword of 2011, so you’ll find a detailed analysis of it below.
  • Untitled, by Patrick Berry (NYT, October 18). Day 2 of Patrick’s week-long contest in the NYT invited solvers to think of common terms as portmanteaus of other common phrases (“starch” is portrayed as a cross between STARSKY AND HUTCH, “pimple” as a cross between PURE AND SIMPLE, and so forth). A great puzzle that was merely a pawn in a much larger game.
  • Untitled, by Lynn Lempel (NYT, October 24). This puzzle from one of the top early-week constructors goes every which way: IN THE DUMPS, DOWN THE ROAD, OVER THE HILL and UP THE CREEK, all blending with lots of long, sparkly non-theme answers.

And the Best Easy Crossword is… Untitled, by Joel Fagliano (NYT, August 1)! It received 30 five-star ratings from blog readers. Congratulations to Joel and to all of the nominees!

Next up is the award for Best Freestyle Crossword, and here to present it is the great freestyle swimming champion, Michael Phelps.

"What's the street value of this?"

Dude! I’m, like, major jonesin’ for some Taco Bell right now. But whatever, man, I can load up on that later. Right now I’m pleased to present the award for Best Freestyle Crossword, a crossword that don’t need no stinkin’ theme to be totally awesome. So, like, here’s the nominees and stuff:

  • Untitled, by David Quarfoot (NYT, April 29), featuring SNOOKI, KERFUFFLE, REFUDIATE, and PRAY FOR RAIN.
  • Untitled, by Mike Nothnagel (NYT, May 14), featuring GOOD GAME, GRUNT WORK, TIP JAR, and WE’RE LIVE.
  • Untitled, by Patrick Berry (NYT, June 10), a 66-worder featuring DEEP END, SPITBALL, HAVE IT OUT, and tons of knotty clues.
  • Untitled, by Patrick Berry (NYT, August 19), featuring ADAM WEST, CAPRICORN, MRS. SMITH, and only 61 more answers in a grid with quadruple-8 stacks resting against 9s.
  • Untitled, by David Quarfoot (NYT, October 1), featuring JUMBOTRON, BOOB JOB, PAGE RANK, and SOY LATTE.
  • Untitled, by Joon Pahk (NYT, October 15), featuring the triple stack of the year in AMEN TO THAT, SENIOR-ITIS, and KNOCK KNOCK.

Wait, what? They all have the same name? Did the same puzzle get nominated six times? That’s cool and everything, man, but you know what? It’s still two short of EIGHT GOLD MEDALS, suck-ahs! Okay, okay–the results:

And the Best Freestyle Crossword is… Untitled by Patrick Berry (NYT, June 10), with 22 five-star ratings from blog readers! It was a great year for themeless puzzles in the NYT, it seems, as it owned this category. Congratulations to all of the nominees.

The next award honors big grids. So we asked a big star to present it. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome @FakeWillShortz:

Errol Flynn, the Will Shortz of Hollywood

This is @FakePaulaGamache, writing on behalf of @FakeWillShortz. @FakeWillShortz is pleased to say yes to presenting the award for Best Sunday Crossword. Here are the nominees:

  • All Aquiver, by Francis Heaney and Patrick Blindauer (WSJ, February 11). Paying tribute to CUPID, eight rebus squares read as BOW going Across and as ARROW going Down, yielding answers like {BOW}LING LESSON, MIA F{ARROW}, DUST {BOW}L, and STRAIGHT AND N{ARROW}. What’s not to love?
  • Unfinished B Movies, by Chris McGlothlin (LAT, May 1). Each theme answer is a film title in which the letter B is “unfinished,” with its final stroke not made. This turns those B’s into P’s, giving us, et. al., MARRIED TO THE MOP, PEST IN SHOW, and PORN FREE.
  • You’ll Get Through This, by Jeremy Newton and Tony Orbach (NYT, May 29). This is also a nominee for Best Crossword of 2011, so a detailed analysis of it awaits.
  • Space Exploration, by Merl Reagle (Syndicated, July 31). Another Best Crossword of 2011 nominee, so let’s not explain it just yet.
  • Taking the Fifth, by Natalia Shore (Mike Shenk) (WSJ, September 16). Say goodbye to the fifth letter from each of nine common phrases, leaving us with entertaining nuggets like TEMPING FATE and BARNARD FOWL. Better still, a revealer entry near the bottom shows that the “taken” letters, in order, spell NOT GUILTY. Just as Sheldon Cooper covets a signed napkin from Leonard Nimoy, I would treasure one from Mike Shenk (and for the same reasons).
  • Getting in Shape, by Joel Fagliano (NYT, October 16). Yet another Best Crossword of 2011 nominee, and I still don’t want to write the same paragraph twice.

@FakeWillShortz sends regrets to the many other Sunday puzzles that were great. He did appreciate seeing them, though.

And the Best Sunday Crossword is: You’ll Get Through This, by Jeremy Newton and Tony Orbach (NYT, May 29), with 46 five-star ratings on the blog! Again, congratulations to all of the nominees, half of which we’ll see again at the end of the show.

Our next award is for the Best Gimmick Puzzle. And no one knows how to milk a gimmick better than our next presenter. Put your hands together for Carrot Top!

There's a prop for that. (TM)

Gimmick puzzles push the envelope, often by making solvers do unexpected things, whether it’s writing multiple letters in a box, connecting dots, coloring boxes, folding grids, writing outside the grid, or wadding the puzzle up into a ball and tossing it in the recycle bin. 2011 was a great year for gimmick puzzles, and blog readers especially enjoyed the following nominees for Best Gimmick Puzzle:

  • Cuckoo Crossword, by Trip Payne (Fireball, March 31). You either love it or you hate it, and that’s the cool thing about Trip’s annual nonsense puzzle. This one includes WIKIPEDIA STREET, DELETED MANITOBA, and perhaps the answer of the year (at least for those in on the joke), GORGONZOLAESQUE.
  • Making Money, by Brendan Emmett Quigley (BEQ, April 21). Is it a dollar-sign rebus? Not really. In the Across answers, it reads as an S. In the Down answers, it’s an I. What’s more, all six entries crossing rebus squares are financial terms, like ACCRUED INTEREST and SIX-FIGURE INCOME.
  • Untitled, by Chris McGlothlin (NYT, July 1). Sneaking a theme into what looks like an ordinary themeless grid is one thing, but finding a way to cram ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM into 11 squares but still keep everything smooth and of Friday quality? That, friends, is a gimmick.
  • Untitled, by Joel Fagliano (NYT, September 1). You could make a theme from repeated expressions like POOH POOH, EXCUSES EXCUSES, and ZOOM ZOOM alright, but Joel gets funky with it–the doubled words appear only once in the grid reading Across, but you have to pretend they appear twice when reading the Downs. Thus, the corner containing POOH looks to have crossing Downs of APS, MOT, MOR, and OHI, but in fact those are APPS, MOOT, MOOR, and OH HI (um, hello), because we pretend 14-Across has two POOHs instead of one. (Two poohs! Let your Inner Beavis rejoice!)
  • Common Sort, by Patrick Berry (Fireball, October 20). It took the longest time to figure out what the (bleep) was going on, but, oh, the payoff! The Downs were perfectly normal, but every one of the Across answers was ORDERED FROM A TO Z, so, for example, CLAIM appeared as ACILM and PLUG as GLPU. Some solvers had to seek therapy to get their brains untwisted from this puzzle.
  • I, For One…, by Patrick Berry (CHE, November 11). It was November 11, 2011–11/11/11, and we wouldn’t have a similar occasion for another, well, 367 days. But still, it called for some commemoration, right? In seven rebus squares (not 11, Patrick?), solvers had to write in “II.” Going one way (sometimes Across, sometimes Down), it read as “eleven.” Going the other way, it read as two consecutive Is. So Seven-{11} crossed {I I}NSIST, Oceans {11} crossed SH{II}TES, and so on.

And the Best Gimmick Puzzle is: Untitled, by Joel Fagliano (NYT, September 1)! This baby got a hefty 44 five-star ratings from readers. Way to go, Joel! Keep those great gimmicks coming, everyone.

It’s now time to pay tribute to some of our favorite clues through the year. Here to present the award for Best Clue is the star of the 1995 film Clueless, Alicia Silverstone!

Alicia Silverstone : 1995 :: Reese Witherspoon : 2005

Five puzzles a day, 365 days per year. An average of 74 answers per puzzle. That comes to over 135,000 clues used on the puzzles blogged on this site in 2011. Good clues are like vegan diets–they’re super-cool, mind-bending, life-changing, and totally kind. Well, maybe the good clues are a little unkind…in the best sense of the word, of course. They torture us until we just about give up, but when we crack them they give us a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. The nominated clues this year are a great mix of the lively, the cruel, and the just plain funny.

It was just too hard to narrow the list to six nominees. Here, then, are the 11 nominees for Best Clue: (click here for the musical accompaniment)

  • [Touching moments?] for SEX, in “There’s More to This Tale” by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC, February 4)
  • [“Go me!”] for I RULE, in “Final Example” by Tyler Hinman (CS, April 26)
  • [Letter’s paper] for LEASE, in “Sunday Challenge” by Doug Peterson (CS, May 22)
  • [Hold out your arm] for AIM, in “Cooling It” by Bob Klahn (CS, May 28)
  • [Where to see a band, perhaps] for ARM, in “The Supremes” by Brendan Emmett Quigley (BEQ, July 21)
  • [Toronto jazz duo] for ZEDS, in “Saturday Stumper” by Brad Wilber (Newsday, July 30)
  • [Nap sacks?] for BEDS, in “State Department” by Martin Ashwood-Smith (CS, September 13)
  • [Start without permission?] for HOTWIRE, in “Don’t!” by Josh Knapp (NYT, September 18)
  • [Rule broken by foreigners?] for I BEFORE E, in “Sunday Challenge” by Doug Peterson (CS, September 25)
  • [Passé gas] for ETHER, in “Candy Land” by Patrick Blindauer (CS, September 30)
  • [Chemical agent for climate change] for ANAGRAM, in Untitled by Paula Gamache (NYT, November 9)

And the Best Clue award goes to… [Chemical agent for climate change] for ANAGRAM, in Untitled by Paula Gamache (NYT, November 9)! Congratulations to Paula and to all of the nominees.

Our penultimate award is the Margaret Farrar Award for Constructor of the Year. What better presenter for the penultimate award than the ultimate pen? Please welcome the Alexander Amosu Diamond Montblanc Pen!

Kal Penn's writing implement of choice

What, were you expecting a pencil? If you’re presenting an important award like this, do you really trust it to a slim rod of graphite that snaps under pressure? I didn’t think so….

I’m here to present the Margaret Farrar Award, the honor presented to a single crossword constructor in recognition of his or her selection as the Constructor of the Year. Margaret Farrar was the first crossword editor at the New York Times. During her reign from 1942 to 1968, she introduced many of the stylistic conventions that are still in place today–symmetrical grids, no unchecked letters, no more than 78 words in a 15×15 grid, and more. Arthur Wynne may have given birth to the crossword, but Margaret Farrar raised it into the puzzle form that millions enjoy.

This year, there are three nominees for the award, and by this point none of the names will surprise you. The first nominee is Joel Fagliano. The record speaks for itself: two crosswords nominated for Best Crossword of 2011, nominations in three other Orca categories, and victories in two of those. This kid’s on fire. Okay, he can vote, but he was 19 years old when these puzzles were published–“kid” is not that much of a stretch. Looking back, it’s poetic that one of Joel’s most highly-regarded puzzles, “Getting in Shape,” was published the day before Patrick Berry’s six-day puzzle contest began. With Joel and peers like Caleb Madison, Aimee Lucido, and others, the long-term future of crosswords is in very good hands indeed.

The second nominee is Matt Gaffney. Put it this way: Matt’s the reason we imposed the “no constructor can be nominated more than twice for the same award.” Absent that rule, Matt would have had seven of the ten Best Crossword nominees. The readers of this blog just adore his weekly crossword contests, and their devotion is well earned. Matt’s weekly contests are more than just crossword puzzles–they’re also quasi-lateral-thinking puzzles that use the grids and/or the clues as springboards. In some of the readers’ favorite puzzles from 2011, solvers saw visual representations of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers meeting in St. Louis, learned to read “IN ADDITION” as “Isaac Newton, a guy in addition” and “GO HOLLYWOOD” as “Gary Oldman, a guy in Hollywood,” re-imagined a completed grid as a Battleship board, and found OB-LA-DI, OB-LA-DA in the initials to entries that didn’t appear to be theme entries at first. For bringing something innovative and challenging to the table every single week, Matt’s easily a deserving nominee.

But the 2011 Margaret Farrar Award for Constructor of the Year goes to Patrick Berry. Five of Patrick’s puzzles were nominated for other awards, and he pulled down the Best Freestyle Crossword award. But let’s be honest: Patrick’s getting this award for constructing the “Cross” Word Contest, a six-day extravaganza in the NYT that Jim Horne called “the best word puzzle I have ever done.” Patrick constructed all six of the puzzles that ran from October 17 to 22–a notable feat right there. Each puzzle incorporated “cross” as a thematic element and was appropriate for the day of the week (theme entries ending in X on Monday, the portmanteaus highlighted above on Tuesday, puns involving “cross” on Wednesday, and so on). Instructions accompanying each puzzle told solvers that the completed grids would be required to determine a final “meta-answer” in order to enter the contest. The last puzzle, a Saturday, told solvers that the meta-answer could be found from reading THE FIRST LETTERS of the puzzle’s clues. Sure enough, those initial letters spelled a secret message: THE CORNERS OF THIS WEEK’S GRIDS, READ IN ORDER, SPELL A FAMOUS LEADER AND HIS CROSSING WORDS. The puzzle also told solvers that they had to FILL EVERY CIRCLE in the grids to determine the proper order in which to read the grids. And it’s here where jaws dropped: the circles in question were the Os in the completed grids. The shaded Os turned each grid into the face of a die–from a single O in the center of the first grid (representing a 1 on a die) to six Os in the last grid arranged to look like the 6 side on a die. It was only then that solvers could see that every single O in all six grids was in a very specific location and that those were the only Os in all of the puzzles! And sure enough, if you read the corners of the grids in order after sorting the grids from 1 to 6, you’d get JULIUS / CAESAR / THE DIE / IS CAST. Will Shortz reported that over 5,000 people entered this contest. 5,000! When you think of every layer that went into making this suite of crosswords, and how each puzzle was so beautifully crafted (remember, one of them even snagged a Best Easy Crossword nomination on its own!), you also can’t help but think that this whole endeavor was, as Paul Erdős would say, “straight from The Book.” For constructing the most ambitious crossword puzzle contest ever published in the United States, Patrick Berry is the 2011 Constructor of the Year. Congratulations, Patrick, and thanks very much for making 2011 an unforgettable year in crosswords!

We come now to the final award, Best Crossword of 2011. The nominees were revealed in earlier post, but let’s recap each of them here:

Untitled, by Jeremy Horwitz and Tyler Hinman (NYT, March 31). Sometimes coincidences just scream to become crossword themes. Under the heading of “holy freakin’ cow,” Jeremy and Tyler discovered that eccentric Giants pitcher Brian Wilson was one of four World Series pitchers that shared a name with a famous musician who had a #1 hit on the Billboard charts. Even better, the four names paired up symmetrically! Granted, any mere mortal could have been lucky enough to discover this amazing coincidence and then build a crossword around it. But Jeremy and Tyler managed to squeeze in a unifying central answer (PERFECT PITCH), tons of great fill, and some terrific clues. Even if you’re a fan of neither baseball nor music (nor the way I constructed that clause), there was plenty of entertaining material. 37 readers awarded the puzzle five stars. It appeared the same day as Trip Payne’s “Cuckoo Crossword” for Fireball subscribers, another crossword that came this close to being nominated for Best Crossword too. Commenters on the blog couldn’t believe their good fortune in having two five-star puzzles on the same day.

You’ll Get Through This, by Jeremy Newton and Tony Orbach (NYT, May 29). At first glance, the grid looks like the layout from Clue—sixteen separate grids with nothing to connect one section to the other. Yuck! But then, as you work through the puzzle, you realize that some of the black squares are actually closed doorways to an adjacent “room.” Put DOOR into those black squares and suddenly you have access to a neighboring room. In the upper-left, for instance, is DEAD AS A. Put DOOR in the black square at the end, and it connects with NAIL in the next room to form DEAD AS A DOORNAIL. For added elegance, NAIL gets its own clue, making discovery of the doors a little harder and, thus, more rewarding. But wait, there’re more—the rooms form a maze! The instructions accompanying the puzzle tell us to follow a path from the upper left to the lower right, collecting circled letters along the way. Those letters spell EVERY WALL IS A DOOR, an apt observation from EMERSON, the very last Across entry. So many details to admire! (Still don’t get it? Patrick Merrell prepared a very helpful illustration of the maze here.) Some commenters couldn’t get past the ugliness of the grid, but most were in awe. “This is my favorite puzzle of all time,” said commenter Erik. Added Joon: “definitely crosses the line from ‘i wish i’d thought of that’ to ‘no way in a million years i would’ve thought of that.’ five stars, easily.”

Latin Squares, by Victor Barocas (CHE, June 17). It received only ten ratings, but all of them were five stars.  You like a theme with layers?  This crossword gives you both Latin phrases buried within common phrases (a quintessential CHE theme if ever there was one) and a rebus element (mildly surprising in a CHE puzzle). Eight squares contained different two- or three-letter Latin words, and they pair up four times in the long Across entries to form common two-word Latin phrases buried inside longer phrases. For instance, you’ll find ad hoc within BREAD AND CHOCOLATE and (my favorite, of course) et tu within INCOME TAX RETURNS. Commenters on the blog called it “brilliant,” “excellent,” and “great.” Matt Gaffney observed, “I can’t even recall a puzzle where there are two different rebus entries in single entries like this.” (Joon found a Sunday NYT from Mike Nothnagel and David Quarfoot that employed a similar gimmick, but you get the point–this is a fresh theme concept that’s well-executed.)

Making Faces, by Patrick Blindauer (Fireball Year 2 #23, June 23). Nineteen total ratings, and 18 of them were five stars. Even our fearless leader gave it five stars. “Yep, five stars. For inventiveness, freshness, and sheer challenge.” (More of us should write in sound bites—makes it easy to cull tidbits for an awards post.) Solvers got to make two emoticons, a frowny face (that’s colon-hyphen-left parentheses) and a happy face (colon-hyphen-right parentheses). Each COLON was used as a rebus square (forming COLONIES and COLONELS in the crossing Downs), but the hyphens and parentheses were used as such in their crossings—NON-U, HOW-TOS, and DUDE (LOOKS LIKE A LADY). It’s a Fireball puzzle, so it was hard. Damned hard. Solvers were told only that the two emoticons were “opposites” of each other, and they faced clues like [___ Sunset (Escada fragrance)] for TAJ, [___ of choice (set theory topic)] for AXIOM, [Take one’s licks?] for JAM, and [“Salus populi suprema ___ esto” (Missouri’s motto)] for LEX. Note to self: beware fill-in-the-blank clues on the Fireball! Readers called it “spectacular” and “awesome and terrifically difficult.” Doug Peterson called it “One of the best ‘ahas’ I’ve had in ages. PB2 is a mad genius.” I love this take from Matt Gaffney: “I’m solving the puzzle and no theme emerges…the feeling came over me like a horror movie where everything is just…too…quiet…and you know some scary bastard is about to jump out with a chainsaw. Seeing Patrick’s name on the byline is like knowing the movie was based on a novel by Stephen King…I knew something bizarre and imaginative was about to happen, and I had to find out what it was….”

Space Exploration, by Merl Reagle (Syndicated, July 31). There’s a dozen theme entries in this Sunday-sized grid, almost 50% more than your typical 21×21 crossword. The answers themselves seem straightforward: JUSTICE, SAVE THE MANATEE, HOLDS DOWN THE FORT, and so forth. But the clues force solvers to rearrange the spaces in between the words (hence, the puzzle is an exercise in “space exploration”). So really those theme entries are JUST ICE ([Request from someone who brought his own cola?]), SAVE THE MAN A TEE ([Florida’s new “be kind to golfers” slogan?]), and my favorite, HOLDS DOWN THE “F” OR “T” ([Registers one’s answer on a computerized true-false quiz?]). There are nine more goodies just like those, and you’ll note that eight of the theme entries are either stacked or pseudo-stacked, the strokes of a master constructor. One commenter said the puzzle was “newer and trickier” than most Sunday puzzles, and solvers seemed to like it a lot: over 70% of the ratings were five stars. Merl’s puzzles don’t tend to get many comments from solvers, but it’s clear that this offering was one of the highlights of the year.

Untitled, by Joel Fagliano (NYT, August 1). The first of two puzzles from Joel to get Best Crossword nods, this Monday puzzle is jam-packed with theme material (95 theme squares! Wait, I didn’t emphasize that enough. Here: 95 THEME SQUARES!!). Yet it retains a Monday smoothness. The central answer tells us that the answers to eight starred clues contain A WORK IN PROGRESS. Specifically, each answer contains the letter sequence A-R-T. And there’s eight of them! But hold on, you haven’t heard the best part. As pannonica noted in her review, “the string progresses through each answer. In the first, it’s at the beginning, occupying positions 1–3; in the second it’s 2–4, and so on, until the final themer, where it appears in spaces 8–10. All eight theme answers are ten letters long.” Another three-letter sequence comes to mind for this: O-M-G. Oh, and just for kicks, four of the theme answers are stacked (with two more theme answers sharing five squares with the stacks!). Someone needs to have a chat with Joel and tell him to stop showing off. No other Monday puzzle got 30 five-star ratings from readers, and it’s little wonder.

The Vision Thing, by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #172, September 16). Solvers in Matt’s weekly crossword contest had to use the completed puzzle to identify “a European capital I’ve never laid eyes on.” Huh? How are we supposed to know where Matt has (or has not) been? The trick is hinted at in the central Across answer: BLIND CROSSING. The puzzle features eight famous visually-impaired people whose names cross: Louis BRAILLE and poet HOMER at the R, John MILTON and Stevie WONDER at the O, SAMSON and jazz pianist (heh heh, you said…) Art TATUM at the M, and Helen KELLER and Ray CHARLES at the E. Put the four crossing letters together and you get R-O-M-E, the contest answer. It was a “week 3” puzzle, though, so Matt couldn’t make it that straightforward. So the answer words in the grid were not clued with reference to the blind people. WONDER, for instance, was [Good bread for a PBJ], and MILTON was [“Free to Choose” co-author Friedman]. That extra layer ended up thwarting many solvers, but it didn’t keep them from admiring the puzzle—20 of 22 ratings were five stars. One commenter, Mike L, observed, “The actual meta is pretty darn awesome…. I just wish I had seen it.”

Getting in Shape, by Joel Fagliano (NYT, October 16). Amy said it best in her review, so let me just paste an abridged version here: “Wow, this kid has some major chops. This is his eighth NYT puzzle in his first two years, and his first Sunday puzzle. … It’s impressive from a construction standpoint, too. Each theme answer contains the name of a shape, and also intersects that shape formed from circled letters that spell out the word that partners with the shape name. So where you have the first of these [See highlighted letters intersected by this answer] clues at 24a, there’s a heart shape that spells out ARTIFICIAL, and it’s traversed by the phrase ARTIFICIAL HEART. … Imagine, for a minute, that you’ve never seen this puzzle and you come up with the same idea. How long would it take you to work out a set of six symmetrically placed theme answers in a grid that would accommodate shapes of the proper size, intersecting their partnered phrases? And then, imagine that you’ve got six sections of the grid with three-way checking of the circled squares. Surely, you say to yourself, the solver will forgive some terrible fill in those sections. But no! The collegian constructor somehow wrangles the letters such that ‘TRUE FACT!,’ Harvey KEITEL, ‘COME QUICK!,’ and ‘AFRAID SO’ include some circled letters. … There are also a bunch of good 8-letter answers, some of which pass through the shapes without touching the circled squares (see ALGERNON and EIGHTEEN) and some of which just sit there looking rock-solid.”

Raise Your Spirits, by Brendan Emmett Quigley (BEQ, December 1). Ten of 11 raters gave five stars to this innovative free puzzle on the BEQ website. Three stacked pairs of theme entries work in tandem to raise the “spirit” (i.e., alcohol) from the lower entry to the one on top. So TAN LINES and DRUMROLL PLEASE become TRUMAN LINES and DROLL PLEASE, as the “RUM” is lifted from DRUMROLL PLEASE and inserted into TAN LINES. ALE and PORT get similar boosts. Not only does Brendan find three pairs of entries where the same spirit can be added and subtracted, he gives us answers of equal lengths and then stacks them on top of each other for full effect. Okay, at this point there can be 20 abbreviations, nine partials, and six French words in the fill and it would still be awesome. But this is BEQ, friends, so instead you get fun stuff like I GET IT, OLE OLE, and FT. DIX, together with entertaining clues like [Ringing endorsement?] for I DO. Blog commenters called it “brilliant” and the “crème de menthe of the day” (an apt play on “crème de la crème,” no?)

And the Best Crossword of 2011 is…

Moving Day, by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #169, August 26). Most crosswords featured on the blog get no more than two dozen ratings. The exception is the NYT, which often pulls in 30-40 ratings. This Matt Gaffney contest puzzle, though, snagged 62 ratings through the end of 2011, second only to a NYT puzzle that got 63 ratings. Even more impressively, 61 of them were five stars.


Regular entrants in Matt’s weekly crossword contest know that the answer to any given puzzle can be anywhere—in the theme answers, the clues, the grid, or, famously once, in a short story published on his contest website. In this puzzle, the contest answer, ESCALATOR, could be “found” by inserting its letters into the diagonal strip running up the center of the grid from left to right. But this isn’t simply a case where the grid has some missing letters purportedly covered by black squares. As Joon explained in his write-up, “that entire main diagonal of black squares can get a letter in each square so that the across clues on both sides of the diagonal are still satisfied.” Thus, for example, solvers not in the know see MANIA as the [Ending for mono or ego] and LOCK as the [Standard iPhone feature], but those in the know add a C in place of the black square that separate these answers to form MANIAC and CLOCK, both of which satisfy the original clues. This happens eight more times, people. And they all line up to spell a word! And, a la Liz Gorski, there’s the visual element of an escalator making a trip up the grid! And you don’t see compromises in the fill to make it work!

Again, wow. Mama told me not to swear but, da-yum, that’s impressive.

Like Joon says: “this certainly isn’t the first time we’ve seen the old ‘the same clue can have multiple correct answers’ trick, or even the old ‘put a letter into a black square’ trick, but the way it’s all put together is tremendously elegant. not only that, but it can’t have been easy to stack nine of these pairs on top of each other, and in the correct order, to make the meta answer ESCALATOR. this is a five-star puzzle if i’ve ever seen one.” Readers agreed, using the word “brilliant” in the comments at least a dozen times. You’ll also see “breathtaking” and “ingenious” more than once. My favorite comment came from Lynne: “Best puzzle I never solved!”

It’s more than that. It’s the Best Crossword of 2011. Kudos, Matt, and congratulations to all of the nominees! We look forward to solving more of your puzzles in 2012 and beyond.

That’s a wrap for the 2011 Orcas! A big shout-out to Evad who compiled all of the star ratings for me in an easy-to-read-and-use format and to our fearless leader, Amy Reynaldo, for her dedication to this blog and to the craft. Oh, and none of the celebrities “appearing” in this post to present awards actually did, you know. It’s called satire. Good night and good solving!


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19 Responses to The 2011 Orca Awards

  1. pannonica says:

    Perhaps the mascot should be called Shortzy, even though it doesn’t come for free?

    p.s. Cute that Orcas anagrams to Oscar.

  2. joon says:

    great writeup, sam! and may i say: it’s an honor just to be nominated!

  3. Meem says:

    Thanks, Sam! What fun and a great trip down memory lane.

  4. Doug says:

    Great job, Sam! And kudos to all the nominees and winners. It was a very good year.

  5. AV says:

    Wonderful memories of some great puzzles brought alive by our eloquent host SamD! Nice job, and great picks – the escalator puzzle choice is perfect, as are the rest of the category picks! (I had missed the CHE puzzle with latin phrases, so thanks for pointing that one out).

    p.s.: I guess we are safe from an additional category next year (the Facebook celebrity puzzle) since no one seems to be rating it!

  6. Tuning Spork says:

    Outstanding Orca Awards presentation, Sam. (And all of you guest presenters, of course!) Couldn’t have been better if Billy Crystal hosted!

    But, on another note, since AV has brought it up…

    Is anyone having the same problem as I am with the Celebrity? Typing letters into the down words shifts the puzzle grid up and down on my screen. Yes, my arrow keys are doing double duty as a) crossword navigator and b) page up/page down enactors. I’ve found no way, yet, to disable the page up/down function of the arrow keys while solving. What is the secret to enjoying the Celebrity puzzle sans this annoying quirk? Sam?

  7. CyberSquirt says:

    I thought the Academy did an Excellent job, especially as my personal 2011 favorite You’ll Get Through This was nominated twice.

    But you can imagine my [causes teeth to gnash], because my job precludes my seeing many of these puzzles when they run.

    I can’t imagine I’m the only one who didn’t see or solve all the nominees. Which is why I’d be deliriously happy to buy a published version of the Orcas, complete w/unsolved puzzles. I’d even PROMISE not to cheat.

    Just a wistful thought…

  8. Jeff Chen says:

    Great presentation, Sam! Many amazing puzzles in there.


  9. Because I am a big fan of irony, I am going to sue you for unauthorized use of my name.

  10. Todd G says:

    I actually read about the ORCAS while watching the OSCARs, an interesting juxtaposition. Both award shows were awesome.

    My Fireball puzzle from last January was one of the first puzzles to get a high rating using Evad’s star system…but it wasn’t even considered for a nomination, which just goes to show HOW INSANELY JEALOUS AND BITTER I AM!!!…uh, I mean how many amazingly great puzzles were created this year. Seriously, some mindblowing stuff, people.

    I look forward to seeing everyone’s incredible inventiveness and skill, and being even more insanely jealous this coming year.

  11. Aaron (not the usual) says:

    I really enjoyed both the presentation and content of the ORCAS
    I usually solve a copy of the paper NYT at work, now I feel motivated to get the online version, so I can solve some of the great puzzles I missed.

    Is it possible to post a copy of Evad’s star compilation for the year, for those of us who might want to check out highly rated puzzles that passed us by?

  12. Evad says:

    Hi Aaron, I’ll try to put a page together with the top 25 or so…as Sam has mentioned, be prepared to see many of Matt Gaffney’s weekly offerings on the list!

  13. Garlic just like moist dirt, nonetheless, not really overly damp. Supply them with several fertilizer. Start creating a super berry keep now. Promote your own pick assisting the road. I’ll stop related to tomato veggies, however, not soda and pop.

  14. Amy Reynaldo says:

    Best spam ever! “Garlic just like moist dirt, nonetheless, not really overly damp. Supply them with several fertilizer. Start creating a super berry keep now. Promote your own pick assisting the road. I’ll stop related to tomato veggies, however, not soda and pop.”

  15. Sam Donaldson says:

    If there’s an Orcas ceremony next year, Javier Frasure will definitely be a presenter (now that he’s stopped the whole tomato veggies thing).

  16. Tuning Spork says:

    Can we get William Shatner to read “Javier”‘s post, accompanied by a bongo player?

  17. Jamie says:

    Belated congratulations to Patrick Berry for that amazing series of crosswords in the NYT. Just superb, PB. Flawless, mind-blowing. Thank you for the effort you put into that and the great joy it gave me every day in solving it and the meta. And then knocking it it out of the park when I realized what the meta really was.

    And Matt Gaffney, Matt Gaffney. FU Matt Gaffney. How do 57 million people get your damn metas? The one time I got a week 1, everybody else did. Still subscribing. Awesome puzzles, ^nth.

    And thank you to all the amazing constructors, some named here and some not, for the last year of crossword bliss. And to Amy/team Fiend and Michael, for relentless standards.

  18. Rex says:

    I’m now attaching “Orca-Nominated Crossword Constructor” to my name in all press releases. Great write-up, giving great puzzles their due.

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