The 2014 Orca Awards – Best Crossword

orcaOrcas Week now concludes (finally!) with the coveted award for Best Crossword. Before we get to the big honor, thanks to Amy for giving me permission to run with this idea. It’s both fun and inspirational to take a closer look at some of the exceptional crosswords from 2014, and hopefully you’ve enjoyed it too.

We’ve given out a lot of Orcas already:

The nominees for Best Crossword were already announced, and most have already been recapped earlier this week. So is there any incentive to click the “Continue Reading” link besides finding out the winner? How about a custom Hayley Gold crossword cartoon honoring the winner? Go ahead, clink the link to see it.

Once again, here are the nominees for Best Crossword, listed in order of publication date:

  • Untitled, by Andrew Reynolds (New York Times, April 1). This April Fools Day puzzle won the Orca for Best Gimmick Crossword and received 39 five-star ratings from our readers. The center answer can be either HEADS or TAILS (both work with the crossings), and each of five “coins” (circled squares) could be H or T. Thirteen masterful dual-purpose clues that work perfectly both senses of each answer, eight Schrödinger squares, and yet the fill still generally works for a Tuesday puzzle. There’s even some bonus fill with BEST THREE / OUT OF FIVE giving solvers a hint to the coin-flipping theme. No wonder it was the most well-received puzzle from The New York Times in 2014.
  • Flight Path, by Francis Heaney (American Values Club Crossword, April 16). Flight PathYou won’t find a puzzle that executes a theme so thoroughly as this prison-break delight. Solvers had to find a hidden message snaking through the grid from a corner with  CELL to a corner with a GATE. To make the path connect, solvers had to “break through” eight black squares and substitute letters. The letters in the eight black squares spelled INSECURE and the snaking message was DIGGING A SECRET TUNNEL TO FREEDOM. Then there were the extras like a GUARD / TOWER in the grid and lots of prison-related references in the clues. This gem claimed the 2014 Orca for Best Meta/Contest Crossword from a tough field of truly exceptional nominees.
  • Bugs in the Program, by Ben Tausig (InkWell Crossword, June 25). Ben’s final InkWell puzzle may have been the best one of the series. And we’re not just saying that because it was based on one of the classic arcade games of our youth. All four theme entries (SHOOT ‘EM UP, MUSHROOM, HOME GAME, and CENTIPEDE) actually WIND / DOWN the grid in zig-zag fashion, just like the title critter in the game of Centipede. The grid included bonus theme content like ATARIS and WIIS. Plus there’s classic InkWell fill like SHTUPS, the fun-to-say SHIH-TZU, TMZ, P-DIDDY, RASSLE, and WEDGIE. There’s even USE ME, BAD EGG, THE MAMBO, and a BIC PEN. Ben went all out with this finale, and our readers responded with a superb 4.81 average star rating among 14 votes.
  • Chain Reaction, by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #321, July 25).mgwcc321 Every time I look at this puzzle I admire it more. A ten-part word chain (PRINCESS – BRIDE – GROOMS – MEN – FOLK – ROCK – SLIDE – DOWN – SOUTH – PACIFIC) is placed in the grid such that the first letter of each link is in a numbered square that is a multiple of six. And what’s even more impressive is that the clues for those ten words in the link work both for the word by itself and for the compound word used in the chain. ([“The Love Boat” setting, with “the”] worked for both PACIFIC (the word in the grid) and PACIFIC PRINCESS (from the word chain).) Readers appreciated this construction too, awarding 36 five-star ratings and a 4.93 overall average.
  • Cross Hatching, by Peter Broda (Fireball Crosswords, September 11). 2014 Best Sunday-Sized Crossword (Fireball, September 11) by Peter Broda (edited by Peter Gordon) The winner of the Best Sunday-Sized Crossword, this puzzle got 23 five-star ratings and a jaw-dropping 4.91 average. The puzzle contained 11 theme crossings, each containing a rebus square that in the Across position uses EGG. But in the Down position, that square is the first letter of a bird name (in this case, it was FINCH). It gives the illusion of a hatching at each crossing (hence the title). All of the bird words were clued in a non-avian way to make the gimmick more rewarding to uncover. But the most amazing touch was the answer to the meta puzzle associated with the crossword: if you read the letters in the EGG squares row by row and from left to right, they spell FREE AS A BIRD.
  • Repeat Offenders, by Francis Heaney (MGWCC #330, September 26). mgwcc330Another nominee for Best Meta/Contest Crossword? Another puzzle from Francis Heaney? Actually “another” is a great word to use for this puzzle. This was the puzzle that was all about finding “dupes” between the grid and the clues. But the dupes were subtle. [Parts of a patriotic design], the clue for STARS, for instance, hid the word RIOT, a word found in the grid. But notice that RIOT crosses the word STARS, and then that the clue for RIOT, [Activity that may involve civil unrest, arson, looting, and the like], returns the favor and hides the word STARS. How cool is that? (Answer = very.) And yet that’s not the best part. This “hidden duplication at crossing words” happens ten times total, and if you circle the letters where those pairs cross and then read the letters in the circles, they spell RECIDIVISM, the habit of “repeat offenders” that was the meta answer.
  • Colorful Characters, by Tom McCoy (New York Times, November 9). This puzzle was a nominee for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword and was an absolute tour-de-force. The puzzle illustrated the concepts of BLUE JAY, BLACK EYE, YELLOW SEA, and GREEN TEA in a “colorful” way. As an example, answers in the southeast corner included “blueberry,” “blue ribbon,” and “blue moon” but the “blue” part didn’t fit in the grid. Yet if you imagine those answers as written in BLUE ink, you’ll see that the three words form a J-shape in the grid–hence your BLUE JAY! Our readers liked all the layers to this puzzle–including the cute FORM LETTERS hint–awarding it 32 five-star ratings.
  • Road Trips, by Pete Muller (Muller Monthly Music Meta, December 1).Muller This was the “Nine Inch Nails” puzzle that was a nominee for Best Meta/Contest Crossword. Note it’s the only puzzle with at least 10 votes to get a 5.00 average star rating. And it’s easy to see why. As the screenshot from Pete’s site illustrates, the puzzle featured ten hit songs from various artists, and the clues for these songs indicated each was a part of one of three “trips.” (The screenshot arranges the songs for each trip by color.) Solvers had to discover that each song either mentions or specifically relates to a particular place in the United States and then, using a map, plot out the road trip made from these locations.
    If you do this correctly, you get a result like this map (again from Pete’s site), and sure enough the road trips form the logo for the band Nine Inch Nails. So you have thematic density, the chance to engage in some extracurricular activity, and a beautiful “aha moment” that comes as you draw the map lines. Satisfying all around.

And the 2014 Orca for Best Crossword goes to

Repeat Offenders, by Francis Heaney (MGWCC #330, September 26)! In a field of exceptional puzzles, this one–with twenty theme entries that intersect at precise spots to spell a fitting ten-letter word, all using clever clues to disguise hidden words–stood out for delighting on every level. It got 52(!!) five-star ratings from readers and a 4.86 overall average from 57 votes, easily the most five-star ratings and the highest average for any puzzle with more than 50 votes.

The puzzle appeared on the contest website of fellow nominee Matt Gaffney, and his comment about the puzzle is a nice tribute: “When I test-solved this a couple of months ago, my e-mail response to the author was ‘Thanks a lot for upstaging me on my own site, you [unprintable word].'” Other readers heaped on the praise, and the word used most consistently to describe the whole experience was simply, “Wow.” Put differently, it was the best crossword of 2014.

And now, as promised, here’s a special cartoon from Hayley Gold honoring our Best Crossword recipient. You can read Hayley’s NYT puzzle comics at  She publishes a new one each week, but on random days, so make sure to subscribe (it’s free!) so you can get notification of a new comic.  You can do so by entering your email in the subscribe box underneath the comic on the main page.  If you’d like to request prints or custom crossword comics, or have any other questions, you can contact Hayley at  She loves feedback. orcas2015

Thanks, Hayley! Congratulations to Francis and to all the nominees! That’s a wrap for Orcas Week. See you next year! Stay tuned for your local news.

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2 Responses to The 2014 Orca Awards – Best Crossword

  1. Evad says:

    Thanks Sam for your thoughtful analyses and congratulations to all the nominees and winners. 2014 was a great year for puzzle solvers!

  2. joon says:

    awesome. i remember thinking a few days ago when “flight path” won the best meta orca, “gee, that was a great puzzle, but it wasn’t even the best francis heaney puzzle nominated for best meta.”

    thanks, sam, for this delightful reminder of some of the jaw-dropping puzzles we were treated to in 2014!

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