The Honorary Orcas

Thanks to Sam Donaldson for his kind permission. While his February Orca Awards will focus on the best puzzles in various important categories, I’d like to give acknowledgment to some other notable record-setters. A number of these records come from Jim Horne’s end-of-year roundup, so rather than link it each time, I’ll give it special recognition here. Horne’s a mensch and the field of crossword study is far richer for his efforts.

One of the difficulties of assigning any awards is deciding eligibility requirements. Thanks to (ahem) writing a column for the Fiend and putting together a book for 2013 publication, I’ve been up to my eyeballs in crossword nuggets this year, so I can assign “best or worst this or that” with a little more confidence. I’m sure, though, that readers will have many opinions about these awards… and categories of their own… to volunteer in the comments. As you do.

In fact, let’s start annoying people right off the bat. The first award isn’t even part of a published crossword, but a Facebook posting.

Best clue of the year. “Black-and-white cookie made of sugar, enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate {vitamin b1}, riboflavin {vitamin b2}, folic acid), high oleic canola oil and/or palm oil and/or canola oil, and/or soybean oil, cocoa (processed with alkali), high fructose corn syrup, cornstarch, leavening (baking soda and/or calcium phosphate), salt, soy lecithin (emulsifier), vanillin (an artificial flavor), and chocolate.” Answer: OREO. Author: Patrick Blindauer.

Best answer of the year. MID-ASS TOUCH (“Cause of a sexual harrassment complaint?”), completing a troika of eyebrow-raisers from Lynn Lempel, who was also responsible for 2009’s CRAP (“Losing roll in a casino”) and 2006’s SCUMBAG (“Scounderel”).

Most confounding clue. Crossword Tracker reports that the most-searched-for clue (not the most-published clue) in 2012 was “African antelope,” for which the answer could be GNU, ORYX, TOPI, SUNI, ELAND, ORIBI, NYALA, IMPALA, RHEBOK or DIKDIK. If that answer isn’t three letters long, you solvers better hope the crossings are solid.

Worst clue and answer. Though great clues often match old standbys and great answers sometimes have little buildup in the clues, the worst of each tend to go together. The er, “winner” this year is “One caught by border patrol” (ILLEGAL). A manful apology was issued, but it still wasn’t the field’s finest moment. Runner-up suggested by Rex Parker posts: “Age calculation at a vet clinic” (CAT YEARS).

Bravest puzzle. DANIEL MORGAN: JUSTICE NOT DONE! (Who is Daniel Morgan? Don’t Google it, find out here.) Runner-up: a puzzle that satirized the Venezualan government after an accusation aimed at Neptali Segovia of embedding a message in his latest crossword puzzle, urging solvers to assassinate Hugo Chavez, the brother of Venezuela’s ailing president.

The bravest puzzle for this year already has a strong contender, but more about that in this week’s “Week In Crosswords” installment tomorrow.

Most confounding regular puzzle. A hotly contested category this year, as it likely will be for many years to come. Horne reports he got the most confused e-mail from Xan Vongsathon’s “Getting Around.” But I’m going to give it to “ALL FOR ONE” by Dan Schmiedeler, which prompted at least one affiliate newspaper to claim it was a misprint. Get the full story about this and so many other puzzles in my book On Crosswords, which also cures most diseases, stimulates your stock portfolio and burns fat.

Most confounding metapuzzle. The finale to Muller Monday Music Meta, with four correct solvers.

Constructor of the year. Oh, let’s put the cat amongst the pigeons. In 2012, Joe Krozel published the Times’ first stack of five 15-letter words, its only puzzle with the record-setting 17 squares, and a puzzle that tied the Times’ lowest-ever word count (52). Online recognition for these accomplishments has been mixed at best, but Krozel continues to test the limits of what’s possible in the regimented structure of the Times. I am of the opinion that future years will see more entertaining variations on his efforts. History will judge.

I’ve gotten enough feedback about this one that I feel the need to make a clarification. This “constructor of the year” label is not meant as an endorsement of the quality of the constructor’s work. Like TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year, it’s more about judging impact than value. I do not feel qualified to declare the year’s “best constructor,” because I don’t do nearly as many puzzles as most Fiend writers do. Deciding the highest-quality puzzles is Sam Donaldson’s domain, and so it shall remain. I simply find Krozel’s envelope-pushing significant in the realm of “crossword news and history,” which is more my specialty. You’re welcome to disagree with this assessment, and I expected many people to do so, but please don’t confuse it with a “best” label.

Solver of the year. Dan Feyer and Tyler Hinman gave us a solid, entertaining 2012 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Also considered were Dr. Fill, the program that (or should “that” be “who?”) beguiled journalists at the tournament, though its final score was somewhat less than anticipated. And then there’s Mark Goodliffe, whose flashy fifth consecutive win in a British national competition equals Hinman’s record in the States.

But the winner is Anne Erdmann, who chose honor over increasing her chances of a win at the 2012 ACPT, really going the extra mile to be evaluated fairly. For her considerable talent and her demonstrated character, there’s no solver more worth emulating.

Loser of the year. Leo Traynor, phony cruciverbalist, phony Internet-abuse victim, and all-around phony.

Best new word. Horne’s data suggests SKYPE, the shortest answer to go from 0 to 3 uses at the Times, and likelier to see use in 2013 than the other two that went 0-to-3, OBAMACARE and ELI MANNING. But the Times lags the culture a bit. Of words that entered the language this year, the Scrabbliest is ZZZQUIL, and the most “usefully lettered” is probably YOLO. Let’s split the award between those two extremes– it’ll be two categories next year, if I’m still around.

Best work in crossword scholarship. Despite a strong showing from Sérgio Barcellos Ximenes, this recognition has to go to David Steinberg for the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project.

Biggest move in business. Benjamin Tausig’s announcement that the AV Club Crossword pays a royalty structure more lucrative than the Times, eclipsing the increased shift to Kickstarters and pay-for-play models among various constructors.

Biggest move in technology. The Times‘s extremely overdue self-liberation from Across Lite.

Best quote. “Amazing news, Liz! I made the People magazine crossword. One word, five across, Jenna Maroney’s first name!” — Jenna, 30 Rock

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12 Responses to The Honorary Orcas

  1. john farmer says:

    Great work, T, and thanks for the 2012 roundup. I’d say most people’s “best ___ of the year” choices are personal, perhaps arguable, but I’m glad you gave a shout out to David Steinberg and Joe Krozel, one to remind us that puzzles have a past, the other to blaze at least one trail into the future.

    I think the development of crosswords by subscription is pretty important. Here’s hoping the FB, AV, CRooked, and others to come have much success.

    I had missed a few of the news items, so I appreciate the recap, and I suspect I know the “brave” puzzle contender for this year; will see what you have to say about that soon. I didn’t realize the Times has been liberated from AL. I still solve the NYT most days in .puz format. Is something in the works?

    • T Campbell says:

      Across Lite used to dominate, and essentially decide, the New York Times’ online interface for its crosswords. The new one is developed by the Times itself, and is compatible with Lite (mostly… then as now, some experiments go beyond what Lite can present). But the look and feel of the online crosswords is no longer dependent on what an outside company develops, or fails to develop.

  2. Just saying: I beat Frank to ZZZQUIL by a cool six weeks.

    • T Campbell says:

      I put that link in because it mentioned both your ZZZQUIL and Frank’s in a single breath. Seemed like the most efficient way to show it was gathering use. Eh, I should have found two YOLOs too, but I was running out of time.

  3. Amy Reynaldo says:

    Eh. I disagree heartily with T’s choice of Joe Krozel as constructor of the year. Joe’s puzzles tend to be structural feats. I care not a whit (or only a small whit) for crossword structural accomplishments. I am a word lover. “Look at what I made” puzzles are far less interesting to me than puzzles that entertain me with the words they contain. For example, the recent Ashton Anderson NYT themeless, packed with juicy fill.

    I know there are people who get a thrill out of the statistical feats, the record-chasing—Team Fiend’s Jeffrey is an ardent proponent, for one—but I am among many in Tyler Hinman’s army fighting against “the War on Fill.” If the structural requirements mean the fill must be compromised, I am not likely to say the tradeoff is worth it.

    • Alex says:

      Joe’s puzzles are divisive. Some people love them, and some people don’t. So it makes sense that some would name him constructor of the year, and some would not.

      To me, if we exclude constructors with their own venue, the constructor of the year has to be Joel Fagliano.

    • T Campbell says:

      This is definitely not an argument that I think I have the ability to resolve, nor am I exactly in one corner or another. All the Ubercross puzzles are definitely “stunt puzzles,” yet it’s very important to me that my work doesn’t contain much obscurity by my definition.

      All I have to add here is that, really, I think just about any professional-level puzzle is a “look what I made” puzzle. “Look, I got ZZZQUIL in a grid!” “Look, I got this clever theme going!” Even the few constructors who can make serious money with puzzles know they could have gone into computer programming or whatever instead, but that wouldn’t make us feel special, you know? Crosswords are at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s a blessing that we have the luxury of caring about their art.

  4. Deb Amlen says:

    Thanks for a great wrap-up, T. I’m looking forward to that book of yours, what with the continued wobbliness in the stock market and all.

    The Schmiedeler puzzle “All For One” sticks out in my mind as the one that will haunt my nightmares for years to come. There was a lot of back and forth between the West Coast newspaper that changed the clues and The Times, because they wouldn’t believe me when I explained the theme to them. It took a lot of saber rattling from editorial and the licensing department to get them to 1) admit that they had made a mistake, and 2) promise that they would never, ever touch the clues ever again.

  5. Doug says:

    I know this is a predictable pick, but I’d go with Patrick Berry as Constructor of the Year pretty much every year. The guy can’t make a bad puzzle, or even a below-average puzzle.

    I wholeheartedly agree with T’s pick of Anne as Solver of the Year!

  6. Neville says:

    There was a good number of Grade A Puzzles coming from Erik Agard in 2012: He’s gotta be in the Top 10 for the COTY. (This is, of course, just my opinion.)

  7. Bruce S. says:

    I agree with Neville, Erik Agard is making some grade-A puzzles. I would send a COTY vote in Doug Peterson’s direction. With all his CS puzzles, Puzzlers, Stumpers with Brad, Themelesses with Brad, or Barry, or solo, Doug makes top of the line puzzles in so many venues and is a helluva nice guy.

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