The 2014 Orca Awards – Best Freestyle Crossword

orcaWelcome back to Orcas Week, the event that makes Shark Week look like Shark Weak. Our annual awards ceremony celebrating outstanding achievement in crossword construction continues now with Best Freestyle Crossword, the award for the most outstanding themeless puzzle from 2014.

As a reminder (and in case you’re not apt to scroll further down the front page), this year’s Orcas are doled out over a one-week period according to this schedule:

  • Sunday, March 1: Best Easy Crossword (won by Lynn Lempel)
  • Monday, March 2: Best Sunday-Sized Crossword (won by Peter Broda)
  • 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

To see who wins today’s award, click this “Continue Reading” link now →

A crossword need not have an overt theme to be entertaining. But it still needs to have a point–a raison d’être–if it wants to be taken seriously. Any hack with money to spend on software can have a computer spit out an adequate grid with a low word count. But it takes a pro to produce a challenging, thoughtful puzzle that educates and entertains with juicy words at every turn and tough clues to boot. This year’s nominees are exemplars of freestyle construction at its best.

Here are the nominees for Best Freestyle Crossword, in order of publication date:

  • The Post Puzzler No. 208, by Trip Payne (Washington Post, March 30). PP208At the time of its release, I called it the “perfect freestyle puzzle,” and hindsight only affirms my conviction. That northwest quad-stack of eights remains the most beautiful corner I’ve ever seen in this or any year. The clues were excellent even by Post Puzzler standards, which is saying something. (I especially liked [Sort of wounds] for TRIAGE and [Keys on a Piano] for ALICIA.) There’s even a Monty Python EX-PARROT in the grid. Readers agreed–the puzzle received nine 5-star ratings out of 17 total votes and an impressive 4.62 average star rating. It didn’t generate a lot of comments on the blog (Avg Solver simply labeled it “Another good WaPo”–high praise considering the source), but it landed in the top 20 of puzzles from 2014 that got at least 15 ratings.
  • Untitled, by Peter Wentz (New York Times, April 11). WentzThirty-three of the 40 readers who voted gave this puzzle either 4.5 or 5 stars, and it’s apparent why. You’ll find every letter of the alphabet in this grid, but it’s not the result of compromise. The long entries like VELVET ROPE, SQUARE DEAL, FACE MASKS, BLUE JEANS, and BIG GAMES are all great. You don’t see any unsightly short fill holding it all together. It’s as though everything naturally belongs there and nothing is forced. And yet an “organic” vibe like that doesn’t just happen–it’s a product of superb engineering. And then there are the clues, like [Things worn at home?] for the aforemtioned FACE MASKS and [Part of a moving cloud] for GNAT. As Amy observed in her initial review, “This is exactly the sort of themeless crossword that floats my metaphorical boat. Utterly fresh fill? Check. Some pop culture from my generation? Check. Funky words? Check. Scrabbly letters without ugly compromises in fill? Check. Absence of grievous junk? Check. Crispy clues? Check.” Six checks = success.
  • The Post Puzzler No. 212, by Patrick Berry (Washington Post, April 27). wp140427The 11- and 12-letter entries in this puzzle are beautiful: NEW CAR SMELL, SOPWITH CAMEL, BLACK PEPPER, MANILA PAPER, GREEN CHEESE, and TICKETMASTER all just sing. And the clue pairings worked perfectly, especially [What you might pick up at a dealership?] for the NEW CAR SMELL and [What Attila reputedly demanded 3,000 pounds of as a ransom for the city of Rome] for the BLACK PEPPER. Those wide open corners in the northwest and southeast look intimidating and yet there’s not a weak entry in either corner. No wonder 14 of the 18 ratings were 4.5 or 5 stars. Gareth’s review put it well: “The most impressive thing about this puzzle, as always with Mr. Berry, is that there are no short, contrived answers to be seen – none. After a whole weekend of great themeless puzzles, the only person who could out-themeless them all did so.”
  • Untitled, by Patrick Berry (New York Times, July 4). Like the fireworks that followed later that day, this puzzle just sparkled. The stair-stepped 13s in the center of this 66-word grid command the spotlight (especially BEFORE I FORGET), but there’s plenty of colorful entries like the crossing HAVE A NICE TRIP, AGRICOLA, and TURNED RED. More importantly, take a moment to focus on the short fill. In many grids with low word counts, you’ll see a clunky abbreviation or bit of crosswordese here and there in order to make all the long stuff fit together. And yet there’s no weak spot at all in this puzzle. If you measure great puzzles by their clues, this one still satisfies on every level. There’s [Upstanding one?] for a BIPED, [Call from home] for BATTER UP, and the favorite of many readers, [Not-so-fast food?] for ESCARGOT. Yes, the future’s bright for this Berry kid.
  • The Post Puzzler No. 230, by Josh Knapp (Washington Post, August 31). PP230So the editor of the Post Puzzler, Peter Gordon, had this really cool idea for filling in the few open slots not claimed by the regular constructors in the Post Puzzler stable. He welcomed submissions from mere mortals, and the puzzles they sent in would be stripped of identifying information by a third party (hi, Frank Longo!) before Peter solved them. Peter would then select his favorite from the submissions received without knowing who constructed any of the submissions. I, for one, loved the meritocracy of this approach; I wish all crossword submissions were judged this way. I mention this, of course, because our final nominee this year was one of the crosswords selected through this wild card process. Check out the J’s in boxes 23, 26, 28, and 30! Then notice the four Ks in the symmetrically opposite locations! Conspiracy theorists will tell you Josh Knapp was trying to reveal his identity to Peter through the deliberate placement of his initials. But don’t let them get in the way of appreciating this fine puzzle. Highlights in the fill included AS WE SPEAK, CAMELBACK, JUMP STARTS, CHE GUEVERA, RANSOM NOTE, and LEFT BANK. There were too many good clues to list them all, but I loved [Fox with a dark brown mane] for MEGAN and [Figure seen through the end of a gun barrel] for JAMES BOND.

And the 2014 Orca for Best Freestyle Crossword goes to

Untitled, by Patrick Berry (New York Times, July 4)! This puzzle received 24 five-star ratings and another 17 4.5-star ratings. You can usually count on a couple of disgruntled troll-types to give every NYT puzzle a rating of two stars or fewer, but the lowest rating here was a solitary three-star vote. We hope other aspects of this voter’s life are happier.

Readers loved it, many using the label “smooth” to describe the puzzle. “PB is always amazing,” said Mark (in reference, we think, to the constructor and not to the sandwich spread). If there was any complaint, it was that it was over too soon.

Fiend-sters weren’t the only fans. Rex Parker also loved the puzzle. An excerpt from his blog: “As usual with Patrick Berry puzzles, this one is elegant and brimming with exciting fill—center-intersecting colloquialisms, vivid phrases, and not a junky answer in sight. Seriously. Nowhere. That’s just unheard of. A handful of junky answers = normal. A small few = impressive. But none? None = impossible. I’m not sure I can find a real *fault* with this puzzle. Intersecting identical four-letter strings (e.g. BATTLE-SCARRED / BATTER UP) = probably less than ideal, but … I can’t really level that criticism with any conviction or even a straight face.

This was the puzzle Jeff Chen used to debut his “assets and liabilities” formula for themeless crossword acceptance over on xwordinfo (it’s an interesting postulate to consider). He found 15 assets and zero liabilities, consistent with the results of our more subjective “damn, that was sick, yo” approach.

Congratulations to Patrick and many thanks to all the nominees who keep raising the bar for freestyle crosswords! Coming tomorrow is the Best Meta/Contest Crossword Orca. I’m sure there’s a way we could make a contest out of guessing who will win, but we have no prizes to give away. (That’s so meta.) Tune in in about 24 hours to see who wins the next award.

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