MGWCC #369

crossword 5:25
meta DNF3 days 

mgwcc369hello and welcome to episode #369 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “No Exit”. for this week 4 puzzle, we were looking for a ten-letter term explaining this puzzle’s theme. so what are the theme answers? there are four long answers in the oversized 17×17 grid:

  • {You can see it from the top of the Burj Khalifa} clues the STRAIT OF HORMUZ, at the opening to the persian gulf, between the UAE and iran. incidentally, this is something like 50 miles away from dubai, so that is a pretty good view there.
  • {It opened on May 6, 1994} clues THE CHUNNEL, connecting great britain to mainland europe.
  • {Put a cork in it} is a tricky clue for BOTTLENECK.
  • {Where a clown blows} is a BALLOON OPENING, which is not really a lexical unit if you ask me.

so it’s pretty clear that the theme here is constricted flow: sea traffic between the persian gulf and the arabian sea, auto traffic between britain and the continent, liquid flow from the inside to the outside of a bottle, and air flow into a balloon. correspondingly, the crossword grid itself features many bottlenecks, places where a single white square divides two otherwise-unconnected sections of the grid. the S of STRAIT OF HORMUZ is the only connection to the NW corner; likewise the G of BALLOON OPENING to the SE. the B of BOTTLENECK and the L of THE CHUNNEL are likewise the gatekeepers to the middle-west and middle-east sections. in addition, the OF in STRAIT OF HORMUZ and the NO of BALLOON OPENING are the only ways to connect the top-middle and bottom-middle to the main diagonal of the puzzle, although they aren’t single squares.

all this i got more or less immediately, and i was expecting the meta answer to follow immediately thereupon. but … it didn’t. if i had to come up with a ten-letter term to describe the puzzle’s theme, it would be BOTTLENECK, but of course that’s already in the puzzle explicitly. CONSTRICTED, maybe. NARROWNESS. but i’m not seeing a way to arrive at any of these based on the letters at the chokepoints. (CHOKEPOINT is another one.)

what about the title? “no exit” connotes a dead end, and indeed there are four dead ends in the puzzle. you could not construct a hamiltonian path (to put it in topological terms) that traverses the grid. i suppose the theme answers also represent dead ends of a sort: the persian gulf, great britain, the inside of a bottle and the inside of a balloon are essentially dead ends.

does the fill or grid have any other hints for us? with only four theme answers, none longer than 14 letters, this doesn’t exactly need to be a 17×17 grid, but i suspect there’s no way to constrict the flow of the grid the way he did in a 15×15, so i’m willing to let that go. the fill is, for the most part, just fine, but that SE corner is setting off alarm bells. for a totally unconstrained 4×4 section, i don’t know why RICO, A BOX, DINO, IBID, and the obscure OXON are all in there. for that matter, why is DINO/OXON not just DINE/OXEN? there must be more theme in this corner somehow.

the middle-west and middle-east sections are also weirdly filled. the downs are okay, but all those three-letter acrosses are weak: BIV UNI NCO INB ADO STN. again, these are totally unconstrained sections that are easy to fill. hmm.

now i’m wondering if maybe we’re supposed to free up the gridflow by putting letters into some of the black squares. i can’t see how, but that’s the sort of thing that might get us 10 letters. TATE at 26-down and its symmetric partner SKIN at 57d could each gain a letter on either end (in place of cheater squares) to widen those openings, but i don’t think there’s any way to get the crossing fill to work for SKIN. (TATE -> STATES is easy enough, making FART and TALK FARTS and TALKS.)

aha, i think i’ve got something. that dead end in the NW, connected only by STRAIT OF HORMUZ, actually contains every letter of PERSIAN GULF. likewise, the dead end in the middle-east has all of the letters of BRITAIN. this must be why the fill is weird in there. let me see if i can figure out the other two.

the SE is CARBON DIOXIDE filling the balloon. (allow me to digress here to correct a common scientific misconception: air exhaled from your lungs contains only about 4% CO2. that’s about 100x the CO2 concentration of inhaled air, but it’s still mostly nitrogen, just like inhaled air.) i haven’t figured out the west section yet: the clue for BOTTLENECK suggests a wine bottle, but there’s no W. there is COLA, but that doesn’t even come close to using most of the letters in that section. i suppose it could be VINO BIANCO (or BLANCO). wait, no, there isn’t a second O. i don’t know.

anyway, where does this get us? i still don’t know how to extract a ten-letter answer here. there are very few letters left over in the NW and SE when we take out PERSIAN GULF and CARBON DIOXIDE: just CHEOT and OEN, respectively. but there are entirely too many in the BRITAIN section. (so many, in fact, that i’m a little surprised this wasn’t GREAT BRITAIN. it doesn’t seem that tough to get all those letters into that section. i guess it could be BRITISH LAND but that’s not really a phrase.)

ah, i figured out the other one. it’s SAUVIGNON BLANC, leaving ITK. so we have: PERSIAN GULF, BRITAIN, SAUVIGNON BLANC, and CARBON DIOXIDE. now BRITAIN is really starting to look like an outlier for not having enough letters; not to mention this still doesn’t lead us to a ten-letter answer. well, actually, maybe it does. CHEOT and ITK and ONE are all in CHOKEPOINT. hmm, maybe it’s THE PERSIAN GULF? yes, i think so. i’m submitting CHOKEPOINT.

okay—CO, ITK, ONE. we still need just H and P from the fourth section. aha, it’s ISLAND OF BRITAIN. wow. very nice. this also explains why it’s OXON and not OXEN—he needed the leftover E, not the O. yikes.

just in time for me. how’d you guys fare on this one?

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61 Responses to MGWCC #369

  1. pgw says:

    Eleventh-hour solve for me as well, reached via similar reasoning (those four cul-de-sac sections all have horrible fill in some way or another, though the NW is pretty good other than FART being a little risque.) I had a million false starts, red herrings and dead ends. I can’t believe so many people got this so much earlier, it was staggeringly hard for me.

    I never did see SAUVIGNON BLANC, I just had enough information at that point to suss out CHOKE POINT and see what I needed to leave behind to make it work. Just, wow.

    • pgw says:

      I’d also like to personally thank joon for my solve of this one. It was from him that I learned the technique of asking, “why is this constructed this way?,” and without that I never could have gotten this in a million years.

  2. Matt Gaffney says:

    159 right answers this week. I had to use a Scrabble board to do those four chokepoint sections. Not database-literate enough to do it electronically.

    • joon says:

      i love this. i constructed my very first crossword on a scrabble board (it’s conveniently 15×15!), with pennies as black squares. i needed to use two sets of tiles, but it worked.

  3. Qatsi says:

    I submitted CHOKE POINT based on the theme entries and my inability to come up with a better 10-letter word or phrase would tie them together. I figured there had to be a reason for the 17×17 grid but didn’t pick up on the actual choke points in the grid.

    • Jeff M says:

      Ditto. Holy Headache that must have been tough to write.

    • pgw says:

      I wondered whether there were guessers out there. This was not guessable to me – I had CONGESTION as my hail mary, and CHOKE POINT (or CHOKEPOINT – now I get why Matt chose the word “term” instead of “word” or “phrase”) never occurred to me until this morning once I had some of the letters isolated. Maybe this is something in the tech lexicon (data/bandwidth chokepoints) that would never come immediately to my mind but would to lots of folks? I dunno.

    • bunella says:

      Exactly what I did. I got choke point without actually going through the whole layout. I don’t care – it’s my first and probably last week 4 win and I’ll take it however I can get it.

      • SlowStumperSolver says:

        Same here, stuck on CONGESTION as a hail mary, as it took me until past the deadline to see SauvignonBlanc, which finally gave the a-ha for Chokepoint. Great puzzle, too bad I only started it Monday night after a hectic graduation-themed weekend. Got as far as (thepersiangulf) last night, then stuck trying to figure the rest during lulls at work this AM. Proud of myself nonetheless, didn’t look here until after finishing. Minor yay.

    • I’m also in the boat of “guessed CHOKE POINT with fully grokking it.” I saw the 4 sections of the grid that were connected by only one square and spend a while scouring the internet trying to find if there was a well-known term for that, but the best I could find was this discussion of the 2015-04-05 NYT, which had two squares connecting the two halves of the puzzle, and Joshua Kosman commented that it’s almost completely bifurcated. I considered sending in BIFURCATED as my guess, but it just didn’t feel right at all.

      I realized that the fill in the choke points of the grid was pretty terrible (except for the top-left, which was decent), and I knew there had to be something more to the puzzle. At some point I even considered anagramming those letters (maybe while I was lying in bed or in the shower), but I never went through and actually did that.

      I think I got the idea to submit CHOKE POINT while looking at synonyms of bottleneck etc. on, so if Matt had edited that out of the Strait of Hormuz wiki page, that wouldn’t have stopped me ;).

    • mnemonica says:

      I saw the grid and theme similarities, couldn’t get any further, and submitted CHOKE POINT as a wild guess. Stunned to learn that I got it right.

  4. Joe says:

    IMO, the correct answer for “where a clown blows” is everywhere.

  5. ===Dan says:

    I could see only four superficially connected theme answers so my joke hail mary was “TUESDAYISH.”

  6. George says:

    Wow, that blows me away. I could not see it at all. I knew there must be multiple levels, but I all I could see was the choke point connection between the theme answers and the single point of connection between the upper right half of the puzzle and the lower left. I didn’t even notice the four small choke points. I guess on paper I got it right because I submitted choke point, but for my own purposes, this was a miss. I wonder if the high number of solvers for week 4 have a similar story to me. Either way, Great puzzle Matt.

    • Matthew G. says:

      I’m with you, George. I got it right without ever noticing the relevance of the four corner sections.

      I was undecided between CHOKE POINT and TRAFFIC JAM, and then I saw the little choke points scattered through the grid. Those could also have been BOTTLENECKs, to be fair, but since that word was already in the grid, I “knew” it had to be CHOKE POINT.

      Stopped right there, sent in my answer, and never imagined until reading joon’s review that there was another level to this.

  7. Rachel says:

    Oh man! Choke point was my immediate reaction on Friday but I thought it was a red herring bc it wouldn’t be week four to just spot the (obvious) connection between those four terms and come up with another one. (I even jokingly put in Choke Point and Red Herring in my message to Matt). I didn’t see the scrambles in the corner at all. I got way focused on all the iis and ios and OOs and submitted binary code. Shiite AND Prii? C’mon! If those answers had actually spelled “binary code” in ascii that would have been mind blowing. Thanks Matt.

  8. Paul Coulter says:

    Yeah, I knew there had to be more to the bottlenecked sections that I couldn’t find, but after a weekend of head-bashing, I also submitted choke point based on there being little else that would describe this theme. I’m reasonably certain that more than half the correct answers are like this. That’s the only weakness in an otherwise stellar meta — it’s pretty guessable. 4.5 stellae from me.

  9. Zifmia says:

    I had chokepoint just from a thesaurus search for ten-letter synonyms of bottleneck, but didn’t get the rest of the meta and didn’t submit. Oh well. I wonder how many solvers just got that far without grokking the meta.

  10. PJ Ward says:

    I got CHOKEPOINT. Didn’t deserve it. But I’ll take it.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Yes, in retrospect I shouldn’t have included the “10-letter” indicator. I wrestled with whether to do so, but decided to in the end because I didn’t think CHOKE POINT was a well-known enough phrase to be so easily guessable.

      Although of the clear Hail Marys in the last 15 minutes, only two out of 13 were CHOKE POINT, so I think most solvers who got it grokked it.

      • Matthew G. says:

        It was also made easier–through no fault of yours–by the fact that the Wikipedia page for STRAIT OF HORMUZ very conspicuously calls it a CHOKE POINT at the top of the article.

      • Vraal says:

        Ouch. Yes, as I noted later in this thread, it was the first answer that came to mind (even before looking at the Wikipedia page, which I suppose did help solidify my answer, now that I see someone mentioned it). I think if you’d removed 10-letter I wouldn’t have been so sure of it until corroborating somewhere in the grid.

      • Lorraine says:

        well i’ll fess up — I got CHOKE POINT but never saw the deeper meta. i certainly noted the choke points themselves in the grid’s construction, knew that choke point was a synonym for bottleneck, but i never saw the rest of it. I certainly didn’t think choke point was the answer, not at least the way i arrived at it — too week 2-ish for that.

        I’ve never been very good at sussing out things that are patently obvious to puzzle constructors.

        i did confess in my entry to Matt that it was a wild guess, and certainly won’t count this week as one of my week 4/5 wins, since it was only serendipity that i got it.

      • abide says:

        I fully grokked late Monday, but “choke point” was NOT inherently familiar to me, so I appreciated the Wiki confirmation. My earlier starts were BLOCKADING (there’s a RAFT in the strait), BARRICADES (“bar” RIC ADE in bottom right), and CRAPPYFILL.
        Finally started playing with THE/PERSIAN GULF, and used Oneacross Anagram page to good advantage. Putting in all letters and getting “sauvignon blanc kit” was a nice feeling. It still took a while to figure out what letters to ignore to get Island of Britain.

  11. pgw says:

    Here was one of my more elaborate and infuriating dead ends (at no time did I really seriously entertain the possibility it would yield the right answer, but still):

    For me, the absolute worst bit of fill was the partial “FIB ON” at 47-down. I couldn’t believe Matt would put that in a grid without a reason. I considered the FIBONacci numbers, and discovered that there are ten of them (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, and 89) in the grid. The letters in those squares anagram to IMPACT MAIL, which is not a thing at all.

    (Edit: it’s a thing.)

  12. Gwinns says:

    I had the answer CHOKEPOINT in 30 seconds after seeing the term on the Strait of Hormuz’s wikipedia page. It was 10 letters, clearly applied to all 4 theme answers, and was a cool phrase. So I was pretty confident, but wanted to solve/backsolve to confirm before I submitted it.
    Stared at the puzzle for 2 days before finding PERSIAN GULF, like Joon, and worked it out from there. Needed a friend to suss out SAUVIGNON BLANC. That was an evil anagram– not only in French to defeat internet anagram generators, but also containing I, N, and G but not -ING.

  13. bananarchy says:

    While I did figure it out (one of very few week 4s for me), I was primed by seeing CHOKE POINT in the wikipedia article for STRAIT OF HORMUZ after solving (I noticed UAE in the grid south of S.O.H., and wanted to read up on the layout of the region). I had CARBON DIOXIDE and GULF OF PERSIA and *BRIT(AIN|ISH)* and their corresponding leftovers and since I suck at anagrams there’s no way I would have worked out CHOKE POINT without priming. Case in point: even backsolving I couldn’t figure out SAUVIGNON BLANC.

    Edit: Gwinns beat me to it (see above). I can’t remember another difficult/complex meta for which so many solvers have taken such similar paths to the answer.

  14. Mutman says:

    I finally ended a week 4 drought without guessing! Took me a while because I had the idea along with Persian Gulf and CO2, but the wine and British island took a long time. Thought that ‘connection’ could be theme based on my letters from first two.

    My daughter helped with SBlanc and finally deduced choke point before finding’ Britain’.

    I thought passageway may be another common guess.

    Excellent week 4 Matt!

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      21 PASSAGEWAY guesses.

    • Jim S says:

      PASSAGEWAY here. Also considered ENTRY POINT. Obviously didn’t get far beyond realizing the commonality in the theme words, but I’m on vacation and wasn’t going to be able to spend the time on it so a lobbed up a guess… Impressive construction indeed!

  15. Pete Rimkus says:

    I did notice “PERSIANGULF” in the NW, and found “BRITAIN” in the E, but that wasn’t until this morning … and I had to keep covering up the puzzle every time someone came in my office so I never got the rest…

    Great puzzle Matt.

  16. Justin says:

    I was nowhere close (figured there was a term for a white square in a puzzle, that when it’s turned black cuts off the rest of the grid). But wow, that was good.

  17. Norm H says:

    I’m one of the 21 PASSAGEWAY guessers. Seeing how many people had submitted correct answers, with my submission I commented that I had a feeling I would be slapping my forehead when I saw Joon’s write-up. Nope. My forehead is free of red marks — I could have had another month and not grokked this one. My nice little streak comes to an end, but I can’t complain. This one was just too hard for me. Well done, Matt.

  18. mps says:

    traffic jam, choke point, and congestion all came to mind right away. I eliminated the first because there was no J in the grid, and the last because it was one word not a term. I noticed that each theme answer blocked off a section and some of the fill there bothered me (OXON & FIBON the most). All the letters of choke point were in there which was close enough for me. I never considered the extra steps that actually cracked the meta. So count me among the sorta-guessers/halfway backsolvers who got it right.

  19. Garrett says:

    Call me confused… I submitted CHOKE POINT and am not on the leader board.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Garrett — email me, I don’t see you on there. But my website got hacked for a few hours yesterday (I suspect Will Shortz) so some entries may have appeared to go through without actually having done so. E-mail me if this happened to you,

      • Jim Schooler says:

        I’ll verify Garrett’s submission–he texted me on Saturday “I just submitted my answer. We’ll see…” then “Apparently CHOKE POINT is not the meta answer.” I’m another one who submitted PASSAGE WAY.

  20. Jim Curran says:

    I also was one of the PASSAGEWAY guessers. It made a bit of sense, but my MGWCC experience told me that there must be a lot more to it. I figured maybe a 10% chance of being the right answer. So I put in my guess at 2pm Friday. Mostly I just didn’t want to spend three more days in agonizing analysis! :)

  21. Alex P. says:

    I saw PERSIAN GULF in the NW corner, but got hung up when I also found NORTH SEA and ENGLISH CHANNEL in there. Then I saw TIGHT SPOTS too and thought that had to be the answer somehow. Anyone else run into similar trouble?

  22. AK37 says:

    I got hung up on SHIITE and UAE separated by STRAIT OF HORMUZ for about a day.

    Intentional red herring?

  23. Mike Morse says:

    I saw “OIL”, “TRAIN”, “VINO” and “AIR” in each of the appropriate blocks as the things that went through each of the themers. Of course that left way too many letters over to come up with the answer. To me, PERSIAN GULF applies to STRAIT OF HORMUZ in a totally different way than CO2 applies to a balloon opening. One is where it’s located, and the other is what goes through it. Too late I realized that parallelism is not a strict MGWCC feature.

    • pgw says:

      I think the idea was that each entity inside the chokepoints can only access the outside world via the chokepoint. To get out of the Persian Gulf by sea, you have to go through the Strait. To get from Britain to Europe by road or rail, you have to go through the Chunnel. To get the Sauvignon Blanc out of the bottle, it has to come through the bottleneck. And the CO2 inside the balloon can only come out through the balloon opening.

      To me these relationships are certainly parallel, but your mileage may vary.

  24. Vraal says:

    After solving the themers I immediately thought of CHOKE POINT and somewhat later, PINCHPOINT. Sat on that awhile and looked at the squares that closed off islands if they had been black. After that spelled nothing, and being amused that “choke” could go with blowing into a balloon in some funny fashion, I went with that as the asnwer.

    I left a comment indicating I knew I was missing something, and clearly I was. My only gripe with the puzzle was that it was able to be short-circuited with the most associative/common ten-letter answer phrase.

    In other words, if this were a Week 1 or Week 2, I wouldn’t have had a second guess about CHOKE POINT being correct, and wouldn’t have to have looked anywhere else.

    That said, it really was as elegant as I was hoping it would be. Sorry to have short-circuited it.

  25. Steve Blais says:

    I would also like to thank Joon for teaching me (through his write-ups) to look for sections of the grid that just look “off”. This line of reasoning, along with the connection (no pun intended) between the theme answers and the nearly closed-off sections of the grid, directed me towards those letters all crammed in there with fill that would make any crossword blogger’s head explode. After looking up STRAIT OF HORMUZ on Wikipedia and learning that one end of it is connected to the Persian Gulf, I noticed the letters PERSIAN GULF jumbled up in the northwest. From there I pulled LAND OF BRITAIN (which eventually became ISLAND OF BRITAIN) out of the east and CARBON DIOXIDE out of the southwest. Keeping tracking of the letters so far unused changed PERSIAN GULF into THE PERSIAN GULF.

    I was convinced I was onto something, but I still had to tackle that deadly west section. After staring at it for about an hour, and having the letters COHPOEN as leftovers, I finally resolved to do what I didn’t want to do, and feed those letters into the Free Online Anagram Solver at (Side note: this thing has a huge database, and does cover foreign languages.) This site allows you to use wild cards, so COHPOEN??? gave me, among many, many other things, CHOKE POINT. I knew that had to be it, as I didn’t have KIT yet, and sure enough, those letters were in the west. So taking those letters out, and feeding the remaining letters into the site, gave me SAUVIGNON BLANC. I was slightly redeemed by my use of electronic anagramming help, as I never would’ve gotten SAUVIGNON BLANC before the deadline.

    So, a few forward jumps, followed by a jump to the end and then a few steps back facilitated by an online aid led me to the answer.

    Great job Matt, and thanks to Joon for the write-up!

  26. Dele says:

    Holy cow, what a cool meta. Thanks, Matt! I noticed some of the weird fill in those four cul-de-sac sections and figured I’d probably need to do something with some of it, but I never quite caught on to exactly what. Anagramming all the letters seems obvious in retrospect.

    If I’d remembered, I would’ve submitted “I DON’T GET IT”: 10 letters that accurately described the theme!

  27. Mac says:

    Count me among the masses who got his first week 4 without having a clue about the real meta-layer. Four meta-answers – all “choke points” — ten letter term — done. I knew it had to be wrong because it would be a fairly easy week 1 in my mind if that was the solve. Submitted anyway on Sunday morning. This may be the meta’s “only problem,” but to me it is a major one.

  28. Chris King says:

    When I first opened up the puzzle in Across Lite, my first reaction was “Dang, why did Matt make a puzzle with four different sections closed off like that?” The four theme answers all clued restricted passageways, so I knew the closed of sections were intentional. However, I was trying to find diagonal passages between black squares (K in TALK and E in ERA for one), as well as squares that would create more blockage (C in THECHUNNEL, e.g.).

    I couldn’t get 10 letters that would flow well, but the only word I kept using as I was convincing myself what the answer was using was “chokepoint”, so I submitted it.

    I was excited to see that my answer was right, but I was very excited to see what joon had written up, because I knew there was an actual correct path.

    Awesome puzzle.

  29. Crypdex says:

    Another here who submitted CHOKEPOINT while never working out what was really going on.

    Its prominent mention at the top of the Strait of Hormuz Wikipedia article, combined with the fact that it has both a one-word and a two-word form and Matt using ‘term’ in his instructions as opposed to ‘word’ or ‘phrase’, combined with the fact that I hardly ever get week 4s and I was distracted with other things led to an early Hail Mary and a serendipitous correct answer.

    It’s unfortunate that it was quite easy to short-circuit the meta, but not for the first time I’m amazed by the cleverness and degree of difficulty in the construction. Well done Matt, and thanks for the write-up joon.

  30. Nancy Schuster says:

    This was my first, last and only shot at Week 4, and I sent in CHOKEPOINT only because it has 10 letters. After reading the explanation by Joon, I still barely understand it. Next, I’m shooting for Week 3, Matt. Hear me? :-)

  31. John says:

    Never felt less worthy of a correct answer than on this one. I have just wildly guessed at a country in Africa and come up right, but that doesn’t compare because the construction on this was so inspired and jaw-dropping in execution that my total lack of comprehension, but correct answer nonetheless, is rather embarrassing. Matt, how do you do this week after week??

  32. Molson says:

    I figured there must be some weird extra thing going on based on the weird fill, but after solving and looking at the grid, oh, lots of choke points for a bottleneck themed puzzle, saw that choke point was 10 letters and described the theme so it must be it. It seemed simple but I could not think of any better description of the theme so I submitted it.

    Way deeper than I thought it could possibly be. Very well done.

  33. abide says:

    Judging from comments, I would put the final tally of chokepoint guessers (who didn’t choke!) at 30-40%.

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