It’s time for the 2014 Orca Awards! For the uninitiated, the Orcas honor outstanding achievement in crossword construction.
This year, unlike years past, the Orcas will be presented over the course of a week. That’s eight awards over seven days! Here’s the award schedule:
- Sunday, March 1: Best Easy Crossword
- Monday, March 2: Best Sunday-Sized Crossword
- Tuesday, March 3: Best Freestyle Crossword
- Wednesday, March 4: Best Meta/Contest Crossword
- Thursday, March 5: Best Gimmick Crossword
- Friday, March 6: Bob Klahn Award for Best Clue and Margaret Farrar Constructor of the Year Award
- Saturday, March 7: Best Crossword
Keep checking back to see all of this year’s winners and nominees! Today we kick off the festivities with the award for Best Easy Crossword.
To start, let’s review the rules. Puzzles published during the 2014 calendar year were eligible for consideration. Nominees are determined in part from reader feedback based on the star rating system, but the nominees in any one category may not necessarily be the ones with the highest average star ratings.
Why not, you (didn’t) ask? Well, for one thing, we adhere to the tradition that no one constructor should be nominated more than twice in any category. For another, we consider not only the average star rating but also the number of votes cast. A higher-than-average-for-that-puzzle turnout suggests intensity of opinion about the puzzle. So a puzzle with a 4.6 average rating based on 10 votes may be snubbed in favor of a 4.4 average puzzle with 50 votes, particularly if the average puzzle published by the latter outlet normally gets only 15 votes.
Finally, there is a subjective element. For whatever reasons, sometimes darn good puzzles just don’t get much love from our readers. We simply cannot shun a great puzzle that flew under the radar. Call it the Annie Hall effect: maybe everyone loved Star Wars that year, but we’re still going to honor the puzzle that we think is a finer representation of the form.
Last year the Best Crossword was selected by a distinguished panel of solvers and constructors. This year, as in the first two years, all awards were selected by yours truly. That’s not because the panel did a poor job or anything–it’s simply because I didn’t have the time to get it all organized this year.
All of the above is a long way of saying this: don’t read too much into who got selected and who did not. And don’t lose sleep over who wins and who “is just happy to be nominated.” We’re just here to celebrate another fine year in crosswords. So let’s congratulate all of the nominees and look forward to more puzzles from all of them!
Okay, on with the show! Here are the nominees for Best Easy Crossword, in order of publication date:
- Untitled, by Lynn Lempel (New York Times, January 13). The revealer entry is ONE AND ALL, and sure enough, you’ll find those letter sequences (O-N-E and A-L-L) in each theme entry: PHONE CALL, RHONE VALLEY, GONE BALLISTIC, and STONEWALLED. The fill is super-smooth and lively. In the northwest corner alone you’ll see ON THE GO, FOR A SONG, and FLEW SOLO stacked aside each other. That’s something you don’t see every Monday. Leave it to Lynn Lempel.
- Untitled, by Joel Fagliano (New York Times, July 22). It’s hard to explain this one concisely, but let’s have a go. The grid features seven compound words or phrases that have different meanings when you reverse the order of the words. Each word intersects the other, and each is clued with reference to each other. Well, maybe that description didn’t go so well. Let’s look at an example: 6-Across is LIGHT, which crosses 8-Down, GREEN. That forms both LIGHT GREEN and GREEN-LIGHT. So 6-Across is clued as [With 8-Down, lime shade], and 8-Down is clued as [With 6-Across, approve]. The other compounds include HEADCHEESE (and CHEESEHEAD), WISHING WELL (and WELL-WISHING), and BREAKFAST (and FAST BREAK). Despite the 14 theme entries that have to intersect at certain places, we still get cool fill like BEATEN DOWN, BANDLEADER, and DIRT BIKES.
- Untitled, by Ron Toth and C.C. Burnikel (Los Angeles Times, August 5). SLIDE, the very last Across answer in the lower right corner, is clued as [Wall Street decline, or something that might be associated with] the theme entries: HOME PLATE, FORENSIC LAB, STEEL GUITAR and WATER PARK. Note that the four theme entries all involve different meanings of “slide,” and all are singular nouns. That’s elegant! Fold in great fill like RED LOBSTER, INTERPOL, PIE CHART, TEAM SPIRIT, and OLIVE OYL and you have all you could ever want from an early-week offering. One more thing: this was Mr. Toth’s crossword debut! He’s the Tatum O’Neal of the Orcas!
- Untitled, by Lynn Lempel (New York Times, August 5). Both this one and the SLIDE puzzle above were published on August 5–a banner day for easy crosswords! This Lynn Lempel offering used common verb phrases that could be re-interpreted as “[famous person’s name]’s + [preposition]” phrases. You could come up with theme entries like this all day long, so to add a layer of completeness all of the theme entries here are tied together with baseball-related clues. Theme entries thus included PETER’S OUT ([“That makes three strikes for O’Toole!”]), PAT’S DOWN ([“Uh-oh, Sajak has fallen in the field!”]), and CARRIE’S ON ([“Fisher made it to first base!”]).
- Untitled, by Mary Lou Guizzo and Jeff Chen (New York Times, October 8). Yes, it’s strange to see a Wednesday puzzle make the cut for Best Easy Crossword, but the theme and execution are indeed things of beauty and the solving experience suggested it was on the easy side. The puzzle had five 15-letter theme entries, all running down. The letter sequence M-A-N appears in all five of them, but there’s more to it: M-A-N is the first trigram in the first entry (MANIFEST DESTINY), the second trigram in the second entry (I DEMAND A RECOUNT), the third trigram in the third entry (TEN COMMANDMENTS), the fourth trigram in the fourth entry (THRILLA IN MANILA), and yes, the last trigram in the last entry (fittingly, THE DESCENT OF MAN). Matt Gaffney’s review explained the layers well: “Let’s appreciate the masterful touches here: 1) the key trio of letters in the five theme entries progresses uniformly through the grid, instead of arbitrarily; 2) there are five 15-letter entries involved, which is visually pleasing for consistency’s sake. The authors could have snuck a couple 11′s in at the second and fourth theme columns and no one would have complained, but this looks nicer. 3) This one is the really nice flourish: the final entry is both the revealer and the logical final piece to the puzzle, as MAN occupies the bottom three rows in the grid, and THE DESCENT OF MAN tells us what we’re looking for.”
And the 2014 Orca for Best Easy Crossword goes to…
Untitled, by Lynn Lempel (New York Times, August 5)! Amy called the theme “utterly fresh and wrought with consistency. The names chosen are a good mix—actor, game show host, golfer, business titan, actress.” On top of the lively theme entries, you have terrific fill like BOTTLE-FED, SEESAWS, BREW PUB, JAKARTA, SORE LOSER, and BUGABOO.
And notice how the rest consists of familiar terms that make the puzzle accessible to beginning solvers. Amy put it well: “Lynn has that all-too-rare gift: the ability to distinguish between language that’s actually commonplace and the words that fester in crosswords far out of proportion to their use in the rest of life. No festering here!”
Commenters loved the puzzle too. “Easily my favorite early-week puzzle in a while,” said Victor B. Huda called it “very clever!” Over on xwordinfo, fellow nominee Jeff Chen gave it his NYT “Puzzle of the Week” honor, and Will Shortz observed that “Lynn Lempel is always a joy to edit because a) her grids are so clean and b) her clues are so good. I rewrote only eight clues in her entire puzzle.”
Congratulations to Lynn Lempel and to all the Best Easy Crossword nominees! Come back tomorrow for the extra-large Best Sunday-Sized Crossword Orca.
Lynn’s puzzles are so reliably on target—without fail, you get crisp themes, super-smooth fill, and good clues. She’s been one of my early-week favorites since she began!