MGWCC #215

crossword 5:16
meta 1 day 

hello, and welcome to episode #215 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Got Game?”. this week, pete muller of muller monthly music meta fame takes the wheel during guest constructor month at MGWCC, and challenges us to find a well-known game. what are the theme answers? well, it looks like there are four long across answers:

  • {Triathlete’s competition purchase} is a RACE SADDLE. i’m guessing this is bike equipment, but it was not a familiar term.
  • {Part of many a Cirque du Soleil stage} is a HIGH PLATFORM. feels pretty arbitrary as a phrase.
  • {USC netmen, collectively} are TROJAN TENNIS. i’m not denying that they’re called that, but again, feels arbitrary.
  • {Labor Department concern} is WORK SAFETY, which is totally a thing. you might have seen OSHA in a crossword a time or twenty.

there are also two 9-letter downs (IPSO FACTO and DOOR JAMBS), and four more 8-letter acrosses. i decided that I AM BORED and HABANERA weren’t thematic because they’re not two-word phrases, and IPSO FACTO and DOOR JAMBS weren’t thematic because they’re very in-the-language phrases (so, less likely to be shoehorned into a theme). but these two caught my eye:

  • {Nuts about} clues WILD OVER. people absolutely say this, but i’m not sure that WILD and OVER really go together as a lexical chunk. in the phrase “we went wild over her new dress”, i think “we went wild” hangs together as a unit and “over her new dress” is a modifying prepositional phrase. the clue itself has the same issue, which is why it’s so bizarre. “nuts about? what does that mean?”
  • {Place to try a Nazi} is a WAR COURT. sure, this is a thing. on our honeymoon, my wife and i went to nürnberg (nuremberg) for a world cup game (the infamous battle of nuremberg, in fact). the fanfest for the match was set up in an old zeppelin field on the old nazi rallying grounds. there’s also a museum there now for documents relating to the nazi regime and war trials.

anyway, back to the meta. staring at RACE SADDLE for long enough eventually made me think of the word “horse”, which is associated with both terms. and hey, TROJAN horse is totally a famous thing too. well lookie here: HIGH horse, WILD horse, WAR horse, and WORKhorse. that’s definitely a theme, a pretty basic “words that can follow” kind of theme. and, importantly, HORSE (or more precisely, H-O-R-S-E) is a game… but is it a well-known game? i mean, i certainly played it as a kid. basketball fans might remember that the NBA tried out H-O-R-S-E at the 2009 and 2010 all-star weekends. but i don’t think this game (unlike basketball itself, obviously) really qualifies as “well-known” to the non-sports-fan populace.

so that was one reservation i had about sending in HORSE as my answer. another was: if pete (or matt) wanted us to send in HORSE, why would the instructions specify a game? why not say “an animal” instead? the third, and most important, misgiving i had was the fact that HORSE only related to the first part of each theme answer, but the theme answers for the most part jumped out at me as being particularly odd/striking two-word phrases. if all you need is RACE, why RACE SADDLE? why TROJAN TENNIS instead of, i dunno, TROJAN CONDOM or TROJAN WAR or whatever? why WILD OVER instead of WILD OATS or WILD BUNCH or WILD WEST or any other possibility?

so i held off on submitting my answer for a day, and i’m glad i did, because when i revisited the puzzle, i was suddenly struck by what the second halves had in common: SHOES. TENNIS shoes, PLATFORM shoes, OVERshoes are all pretty familiar. SADDLE shoes i learned from the first a b.e.wilbered puzzle (can it really have been more than two years ago?). i got nothing for COURT shoes or SAFETY shoes, but they both google up just fine. and finally, most importantly, horseshoes is, unquestionably, a well-known game. so that’s the meta answer.

now, i’m sure a bunch of people sent in HORSE, and the thing is, it’s not exactly wrong. it’s definitely not the best answer, but i could imagine why you would stop looking if you found it, because it is obviously related to the theme, and it satisfies the instructions. i only wish the instructions had been written in such a way as to rule out HORSE and SHOES, so as to reward only the people who actually grokked the full theme. “an object made of metal” or “a game with 10 letters in its name” are some ways this could have been done.

having said that, i should add that this is a remarkable construction. finding six symmetric-length two-word phrases where both words satisfy the theme, even with some awkwardness (as i’ve already alluded to), is pretty incredible. i mean, six decently long themers, with a clean grid, is already a tour de force, and that’s not even considering how they’re each double-constrained.

the crossword itself was pretty darn tough, i think; it took me about as long as a NYT saturday. odds & ends from the fill:

  • this isn’t the MMMM, but pete goes music-y for some of the clues like {When doubled, pedal in a guitarist’s gig bag} for WAH, {No Doubt influence} for SKA, {“Bette Davis ___” (Kim Carnes song)} for EYES, and, most incomprehensibly, {First word of the Shawn Colvin song “Steady On”} for CHINA. is that clue at all fair? i know who shawn colvin is, but, like many (i suspect), i only know one of her songs, and there’s no connection that can be reasoned out between the clue and answer.
  • oh, there’s also the {Kinky Rihanna hit} S AND M. i suspect it’s about spaniards and mexicans. other clues you will not see in a newspaper crossword include {Place to nuzzle} for BOSOM and {They’ll clear you out} ENEMAS.
  • {Initially sold out?} is a nice clue for SRO. seems like it must have been done before, but i can’t remember having seen it.

that’s all for me. what’d you all think of this one?

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44 Responses to MGWCC #215

  1. Aaron says:

    Noticed the missing HORSE about ten minutes ago. Didn’t notice the missing SHOES, which, you’re right, is a very impressive feat of construction. I wish I’d thought about it more — although it’s not unusual for a meta to use only one part of a theme answer, especially in the early weeks — but I’d argue that HORSE *is* a very common game, at least in the city where I grew up (far more than HORSESHOES, in fact), and I wish I’d had somewhat more of a cue to keep looking for an answer past HORSE.

  2. Paul Coulter says:

    I saw the shoes immediately, not so much the horses until later, so fortunately I didn’t have Joon’s difficulty. But I was distracted for a few minutes by the fact that Trojan War and Tennis Court made more common phrases than the original pairings. Overwork? Trojan Saddle (on the Trojan Horse?) Other red herrings kept this from being obvious – i.e., lawn crossing tennis, the weird flattened wheel definition of taco crossing race saddle, sets (a tennis term) crossing court, or cross-court if you will. Of the themes, all but war court were kind of clunky, but overall, this was a meritorious mid-month meta from monthly music master Pete.

  3. bob says:

    Saw HORSE missed SHOES. Sent in horse but I thought it was a rather lame answer to the meta. Now that I see Horseshoes is the correct answer I am much more impressed. I should have figured to keep looking based on the oddness factor of the theme answers. Very nice Paul.

  4. mitchs says:

    Ouch! Hand up for sending in HORSE with a fair amount of confidence. We used to play it daily when I was a kid. It never occurred to me to keep looking.

  5. Andrew says:

    I was likewise distracted by the way Trojan War and Tennis Court went together much more nicely than the original theme pairings.

  6. Aaron says:

    I’ll add that it doesn’t help that I’ve never heard of SADDLE SHOES or COURT SHOES, nor SAFETY SHOES and OVER SHOES, though it’s still impressive that Mr. Muller sussed them out.

  7. Matt Gaffney says:

    201 entrants submitted HORSESHOES (or HORSE SHOES), while 80 sent in HORSE. Which we’re still discussing, but leaning towards taking. As Joon says, it’s not exactly wrong.

  8. Erik says:

    a shoeless submission from me as well. brilliant, mr. muller.

  9. Todd says:

    I figured it out finally by trying to see what all of the first parts had in common, then doing the same with the back parts, since I wasn’t sure where the theme was going to be. When _both _ parts clicked, I knew I had it, although I did need to Google COURT SHOES. I considered HORSE as a trap for the unwary; it’s Matt’s decision, but it’s not exactly right, either, and as he’s said in the past, you should have that “A-HA” feeling when you get the right answer. I jokingly asked in my submission if there would be credit for “getting close”; sounds like Matt will be doing just that.

  10. Scott says:

    I googled SHOE GAME and discovered that it is a game played at weddings with the bride’s and groom’s shoes so I sent in The Shoe Game. I missed the HORSE references altogether.

  11. Mark M. says:

    I normally fight for the folks who didn’t gronk the entire meta. But this one seemed pretty straight forward. Cannot remember a puzzle where the first half of a theme answer provided the meta and the second half of the theme answer did not matter. Week 1 I might feel a little bit more sorry for them, but week 2?

    As always, don’t count them as right for the week and allow them to remain for the month is always an option.

    As an aside, anyone who works in manufacturing knows safety shoes. Required footwear on any factory floor.

  12. Jeffrey says:

    I don’t think horse is a well known game. I lean towards only accepting horseshoes.

    Full disclosure – I sent in horseshoes.

  13. Jim says:

    Stopped at “HORSE” but wasn’t really thrilled with it. I thought the meta was just a not too exciting/difficult week 2.

    The title is really what made me look no further. “Got Game” is more of a basketball reference, I believe, than a horseshoe reference.


  14. Matthew G. says:

    I sent in HORSE, but I think I should be judged wrong this week.

    Preliminarily, I’m surprised by anyone who hasn’t heard of the game of HORSE (anyone American, anyhow). Basketball is a sport I know very little about, but HORSE is a schoolyard favorite. In fact, it’s the only context in which I ever have played basketball.

    I’m even more surprised by those who spotted the SHOE pairings more easily than the HORSE pairings. To me, the HORSE terms are vastly more familiar than the SHOE terms. I’ve never heard of COURT SHOES or SAFETY SHOES at all, and OVER SHOES only barely.

    But it’s precisely because of the foregoing that I think I should not receive credit for HORSE. My instincts told me that it was too easy (unlike Joon, I never imagined anyone would find HORSE to fall short of being “well-known”), and I should have trusted my instincts. When sending in HORSE, I thought it seemed way too straightforward to be anything other than a Week 1 meta, but justified it on the grounds that the difficulties might deviate from the norm during Guest Constructor month.

    In any event, it seems pretty clear to me that HORSESHOES should be the only valid answer, since only it accounts for both halves of each entry. If Matt’s panel rules otherwise, I’ll take it, but I have no problem saying I didn’t think about this one long enough.

  15. sps says:

    I was on the shoes bandwagon first, but finally saw the horse connections. Sent in horseshoes, but I agree with Jim–the title was a clear basketball reference. It would have been more effective and more clear if it pointed us in a different direction…However, as Joon noted, the two word phrases were so awkward that I figured I had to be going for a compound word. Wild Over? Really? Trojan Tennis? They just seemed too forced and, if my many meta failures have taught me anything, it’s to look out for the things that just don’t sound right, the awkward clues or the awkward answers. So when I finally stumbled on horseshoes, I had that AHA moment and knew it was right. I have very rarely sent in an answer that didn’t feel right and had it pan out.

  16. Evad says:

    I’m in Jeffrey’s camp, much more familiar with the game of horseshoes than horse, but I’m also one of the 201. I also would expect more complexity in the meta since Matt has indicated in his introduction he was impressed with Pete’s submissions and chose this particular one for this special guess constructor month.

    Nice job Pete!

  17. Matthew G. says:

    Ditto what Jim said about the title, though. “Got Game?” is definitely a phrase that makes me think immediately about basketball.

  18. *David* says:

    I originally went down, the phrases from the themes fit together, like TROJAN WAR and TENNIS COURT. You can actually mix and match all of them except one which kept me busy for too long. I finally went simple saw the SHOES and the HORSE but didn’t put them together and just sent in HORSE. The meta didn’t really do much for me, felt like a themed puzzle without the title.

  19. Pete Muller says:

    Thanks Matt for letting me guest -construct. I’m glad most people enjoyed the puzzle. Very sorry for the HORSE/HORSESHOES controversy. Perhaps a different title (“Baby, it’s U” or “Omega, man”) could have helped. I agree with Matthew G. that H.O.R.S.E. is not a very satisfying answer and people should have looked further. But it’s also the case that since I’m a guest constructor, solvers are less familiar with my style and might not be 100% sure HORSE was wrong. I’ll let Joon and Matt sort it out…

  20. ant says:

    I didn’t really get a chance to review the meta this weekend. I completed the grid on Friday, then forgot about it until 15 minutes before it was due. I quickly scanned the puzzle, saw ACES and ANTE hidden in the theme answers, and sent in POKER.

  21. John says:

    I say no credit for half a meta. That’s why it’s not called a ME or a TA. Suck it up!

  22. Paul Coulter says:

    Scott, I googled shoe game, too, and learned about the wedding one. Not satisfied with that, I considered baccarat. But it still felt like half a meta, only from the horsey set’s other end. (No, I’m not calling anyone a horse’s rear.)

    Todd, I got a chuckle from your “getting close” comment, which we all know only counts in horseshoes (unless Matt’s awarding hand grenades this week.)

  23. James Schooler says:

    I did not have time to mull over the meta this week, having only solved the grid this morning, but reading over Joon’s synopsis I could only admire Pete’s skill at both the grid and the meta. Kudos to you Pete! And Kudos to you Joon for last week’s puzzle/meta and your always insightful posts! By the way, my neighbors build a horseshoe “court” next door, so if I’d had the time to do the puzzle this week and hadn’t gotten the meta, I’d be kicking myself right now!

  24. When I found the horses, H-O-R-S-E crossed my mind but I didn’t seriously consider that it would be the answer, I wasn’t quite sure how well-known it was. I was deciding between horseshoes, polo, and any of the various equestrian events and felt like horseshoes was more of a ‘game’ while the others were closer to ‘sports’.

    I was just about to send in horseshoes (with uncertainty) when I noticed all of the shoe pairings. Like others have said, court shoes and safety shoes are not in my lexicon, and saddle shoes and overshoes only barely so.

  25. Tyler says:

    Glad to hear I wasn’t the only one who thought the crossword was a real bastard. (If I had been the only one, I would’ve blamed post-Con sleep deprivation.) I got the meta in just a few minutes, and did send in HORSESHOES. I don’t think HORSE should be taken because I am enormously biased.

  26. Neville says:

    I just figured out H-O-R-S-E, and since I think of it as a game, I wasn’t compelled to look further. A false positive, if you will. Plus, having heard of only 3 of the shoe types, I think I’d’ve been hard-pressed to figure out the second half. Like Joon said – I wish there had been something to tell me to keep going. “10-letter game” would’ve been great, I think.

    Hard puzzle. I should’ve considered that since HIGH PLATFORM is such a rubbish entry when all you need is the HIGH bit (so I thought) that P.M. would’ve picked something better!

    I don’t expect to receive credit. It’s not the best answer. I think it’s an answer, but not the best. For precedence, see MGWCC #94 – “What Kind of An Idiot…?” (link:

  27. David says:

    Of course, the words ACES, WILD, HIGH, and ANTE are also hidden in several theme answers suggesting to my non-equestrian mind a game favored by horse-loving cowboys: POKER. Looks like ant and I are cut from the same (saddle)cloth!

  28. abide says:

    Saw some of the possible shoes but came to a halt for a day–leaning towards football, soccer, kick the can. 3 of the 4 long entries had their “clue” start with C-L-U, so I thought the well-known game CLUE would be a cool meta-meta.

    It did seem apparent that the TROJAN had to mean something, so reviewing that definition reminded me of Trojan Horse. I said ok, Trojan (HORSE), Tennis (SHOE), let me Google “Monopoly tokens” to confirm the others. The penny fell shortly after that.

    Pack of gum for this week’s winner!

  29. Chris says:

    Count me as another that submitted HORSE. I did think the meta was a bit on the easier side, but I also found the puzzle to be very difficult (and possibly why this was not a week 1, even though the meta wasn’t as tough). But HORSE fit so well and is definitely a “well known game” so I happily sent it in.
    Not sure if I would have gotten the shoe part (as I also did not know most of the references) but it definitely would have been nice if the instructions had somehow indicated I needed to go further.
    I agree that HORSESHOES is a much better (and way more satisfing answer) but I feel like I got gipped because I stopped looking when I found the well known game of HORSE!
    So I hope that horse will still be counted, but if not I can’t deny that I did not get the best answer.

  30. Hugh says:

    As a member of the HORSESHOES club, I agree with Tyler. HORSE is only half the meta, and it’s just wrong. Hold fast, Matt.

  31. Patrick says:

    I was one of the 80 who submitted HORSE. The puzzle itself was the hardest one I’ve ever seen on the MGWCC site – took forever to get any traction with it. I didn’t even get the SE corner right – I had WORK PARITY, which produced PRO instead of SRO, and MIRE instead of MERE. And SORTG instead of SOFTG, which I’ll admit made no sense.

    The Muller Monthly Music Metas have been so incredibly easy (intentionally, I know) that I figured this would be similarly straightforward. Also, in the MMMMs the titles are always deliberate clues – so like others have mentioned I thought ‘Got Game’ just reinforced the hoops reference. As soon as I saw HORSE, I felt the same Muller-aha that I’d felt three times before. (Not the same as a Gaffney-aha, but this wasn’t a Gaffney meta.) Since I was well over my allotted puzzle time for the weekend, I was more than happy to stop looking.

    I’m sure the 201 would like to increase their odds of winning by excluding the 80 – and that’s fine. I don’t want the ‘asterisk’ due to controversy. But I do think this meta should have been more carefully constructed to avoid such a highly plausible alternate answer.

    I’m sure I’ve played over 100 games of HORSE in my life. I have never once played Horseshoes, nor have I ever seen anyone play Horseshoes. The only reason I know it exists is because one of my teachers used to say ‘Close only counts in Horseshoes and hand grenades.’ If that is in fact true, then perhaps in the spirit of the meta, HORSE should be considered close enough to count.

  32. Erik says:

    the meta and the puzzle were constructed with the utmost care. the HORSE thing was an understandable, albeit major, oversight. IMO a better title, or better yet a more constrained prompt (name a 10-letter game, name a lucky charm), would have made this an undisputedly 5-star-worthy puzzle.

    p.s. it’s a travesty that anyone has never played HORSE

  33. dunnderhead says:

    What percent of the correct submissions, especilly the iffy HORSE submissions, were from women and can you compare that percentage to any history of gendered submissions? This girl was way out of her element either way but HORSE? What?

  34. Jeff Chen says:

    I enjoyed it – thanks, Pete! I got really stuck when I noticed you could form TROJAN WAR and TENNIS COURT by swapping words. I spent hours trying to mix up the other entries. D’oh!

  35. Dave Taube says:

    Ant and David, I’m with you in submitting Poker. It seemed too obvious a meta, but that’s all I could come up with. Upon seeing the solution, I agree with those who thought that the horse answers were easier to find than the shoe answers, although I’ve heard of all four types of shoes. And yes, every American should know what the game of horse is. Very nice puzzle, Pete!

  36. CY Hollander says:

    I’m one of the people who saw the shoes first (got it from PLATFORM and SADDLE; confirmed most of the others by Googling) so never had the issue of getting distracted by H.O.R.S.E.

    Re the puzzle itself, it was challenging but I didn’t find it as hard as Joon (comparatively; I’m sure he’s faster than me all around). I thought that the CHINA clue was hard, but just within the borders of fair, as the letter pattern is distinct enough that you can guess the word with reasonable certainty once you get enough letters from crosses. For instance, even if you’ve never heard of a wah-wah pedal, there’s only one word that fits the pattern C?INA.

    For that matter, the crosses were all fair too—most of them were longish phrases, and theme phrases to boot. For that matter, even “WAH” is a good trivia clue as its onomatopoeic derivation makes it semi-guessable.

  37. joon says:

    cy, everything you say about CHINA is true, but none of it relates to the clue, which might as well have been blank. it would still have been gettable from crosses, which is a reason to love crosswords but not that clue.

  38. Pete Muller says:

    Hey Joon…the only way I can justify the clue is that it might turn someone on to a cool song they didn’t know…if you’re curious, check out Colvin doing the song on Letterman at

  39. pannonica says:

    Dave Taube: There were six—not four—theme answers, with six types of shoes. It seems universally agreed that court shoes were the least well-known (a British equivalent of pumps).

  40. CY Hollander says:

    Well, you’re right that the clue itself might almost as well have been blank for people who didn’t know the song (like both of us) Joon, but that’s a general failing of “trivia” clues. For me the most important thing is how the puzzle is arranged as a whole: the more obscure a trivium is, the easier it should be to guess/confirm it from crosses. In that way, I think that Pete did a good job of composing his puzzle: the CHINA clue *was* pretty hard/obscure, but the placement was enough to let the Colvin-ignorant overcome their lack of knowledge. That sort of arrangement is important and it takes some skill and care from the composer/editor. It’s the biggest part of what makes the NYT crossword stand out, for instance, and probably the easiest place for a crossword to go wrong (both IMO).

    So I agree that in isolation the clue wouldn’t be “fair”, but in isolation, most crosswords have at least a handful of clues that won’t be fair to a given solver who doesn’t happen to know the requisite info. That’s why I take the overall arrangement into account when deciding if an entry is “fair” (and why I should have been careful to say that I thought the “entry” was fair rather than the “clue” per se).

  41. Janette says:

    Sadly I was one of the 80 who submitted HORSE. I felt good about it at the time. As I assumed everyone new what that was and the title did seem basketball related so I looked no further.

    I am however quite embarrased that I didn’t pick up on the shoe part.
    I am widely known as a “Shoe Horse” and all the shoe varieties were familar to me.

    I have play both horse and horseshoes on numerous occasions. However if I had to say which I thought was a more well known game I would have to say. HORSE.

  42. DaveH says:

    Saddle OXFORDS is the only terminology I have ever been exposed to in referring to these “saddle’ shoes. I’m surprised no one else has mentioned this. I see that googling “saddle shoes” does bring up the same kind of shoes, but surely Saddle Oxfords is really the recognizable name for these classic shoes. I don’t say that recognition would have made the difference in my blanking about this meta, but …… stranger things have happened!

  43. Elaine says:

    Actually solved the puzzle with little trouble…well, I Googled to check one answer (CHINA) and I picked out the phrases and sat there looking at them at least ten minutes. Then I threw the puzzle away. {Pout}

    I bet I could beat Matt at horseshoes.

  44. non-Anonymous says:

    I also got stuck at HORSE.

    Two red herrings from cross-fertilization not yet mentioned are PLATFORM TENNIS and HIGH COURT.

    They say “close doesn’t count EXCEPT WITH HORSESHOES.”
    But still, I think Matt picked the right resolution.

    ===Dan, who has to change his ID on this board.

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