MGWCC #386

crossword 4:03
meta 3 days, with help 


mgwcc386hello and welcome—we’re kickin’ it intel-style here in episode #386 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “A Time to Die”. for this week 4 puzzle, matt asks us to name well-known U.S. Senator, past or present. what are the theme answers? five long answers are all people whose date of death is given in parentheses in the clue:

  • {One of three placekickers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (November 29, 2000)} is LOU “the toe” GROZA.
  • {Pianist whose useful surname frequently turns up in crosswords (June 9, 1991)} is CLAUDIO ARRAU.
  • {Singer with dozens of hit singles in the ’50s and ’60s (December 31, 1985)} is RICKY NELSON, who had the first #1 song on the billboard hot 100 with “poor little fool”.
  • {Tobey Maguire portrayed him in the movie “Pawn Sacrifice” (January 17, 2008)} is eccentric/legendary/virulently antisemitic chess champion BOBBY FISCHER.
  • {Gambler and author who wore disguises to casinos worldwide because he was banned from so many of them (September 19, 1987)} is blackjack mastermind KEN USTON, whom i’d never heard of before doing this crossword. or if i had heard of him (i did read bringing down the house, a long time ago), it made no lasting impression on me. anyway, this guy either developed or successfully executed a card-counting strategy at blackjack.

i thought this one was really tough. again, i worked on it with andy kravis, and we went down so many rabbit holes. rather than subject you to them all, i’ll cut to the chase: we had all the relevant ideas early on, but didn’t put them together in the right way until late on.

it goes like this: all of these people are given with their date of death. the title of the puzzle, “a time to die”, is a lyric from the byrds’ “turn turn turn” (itself liberally paraphrased from ecclesiastes); it is paired with “a time to be born”. you can look up all the birthdates for these folks on the web, or actually i’ll save you the trouble and just paste them here. note their ages at their deaths:

  • groza: 1/25/1924 to 11/29/2000, age 76
  • arrau: 2/6/1903 to 6/9/1991, age 88
  • nelson: 5/8/1940 to 12/31/1985, age 45 (died in a plane crash)
  • fischer: 3/9/1943 to 1/17/2008, age 64
  • uston: 1/12/1935 to 9/19/1987, age 52

76 was groza’s jersey number. 88 is the number of keys on a piano. 45 is the revolution rate in rpm of the vinyl singles for which nelson became so famous (and which were mentioned in the clue); 45s were introduced by rca in 1949 and quickly became the standard. 64 is the number of squares on a chess board (although fischer is also associated with the number 960, as he invented a form of chess with randomized initial placement of pieces called “chess960”). and, of course, 52 is the number of cards in a deck, appropriate for a guy who was known not only for cards but particularly for counting cards.

so for the meta, the instructions tell us we want a u.s. senator, which means we’re looking for somebody who died at age 100 (the size of the senate). the first obvious name to jump to mind is strom thurmond, and he’s the right answer—he completed his last term in the senate just after turning 100 and died a few short months later.

phew. this was a tough meta. i can’t remember all the wrong turns andy and i took; the funniest, i think, was (speaking of turns) when we decided that “turn turn turn” suggested that we turn the dates of death upside-down and read them as if from a calculator. (arrau’s 6/9/1991 is shockingly close to being an ambigram.) it was really cool, but i shudder to think how brutal (and macabre) week 5 is going to be.

i’d love to hear how everybody else fared with this meta!

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41 Responses to MGWCC #386

  1. Jeff M says:

    So. Much. Time. On. This.

    Worst rabbit hole: I thought die may have referred to pips on a die. That BOOO x OOO looked like a five on a die…and there went three days of my life I’ll never get back.

    Got it with an hour left on the clock. Five stars.

  2. Paul Coulter says:

    This was a nicely macabre idea for Halloween week, but given its easy title hint and the date gimmes, I do think Matt could have made this Week 3. Four stars from me.

    Lou Groza’s 76 was a bit devilish to start, since his Wikipedia page shows him wearing #46. But right below that, it says No. 46, 76. Then we were off to the races with 88 keys, 45 RPM, 64 squares, and 52 cards. Like Joon, I hadn’t heard of Ken Uston previously, and I doubt that many of us had, but that’s only a slight nit. I’m impressed that Matt was able to find enough theme entries of the right lengths.

    I wonder if anyone submitted a different senator whose age at death matched some number with which he or she is associated. My first thought was actually John Heinz and 57, since I knew he died young in a plane crash (but he was 53, as it turns out.) I also found another Senator who died at 100 – John Heiskell of Arkansas. He’s hardly well known – he only served for 16 days in 1913 – and they didn’t have 100 senators at the time, but he did succeed Jefferson Davis. Except, this one was only a namesake of the CSA president.

    • ConvolutED says:

      I didn’t click with 100, which I’m going to blame on being Canadian (our Senate has 105) rather than my inability to notice the obvious. I ended up submitting Alben W. Barkley, Vice President under Truman and Majority Leader of the Senate for the 78th Congress, who died at age 78. (I mentioned all of this in my email, so hopefully the MGWCC panel allows me my answer.)

  3. Mutman says:

    I submitted Obama:

    47 when he entered office + 54 today = 101 (Senators + Senate President (VP Biden))

    He’s alive and a former senator!

  4. Steve Blais says:

    I actually saw this as more of a week 3 to make up for the real week 3’s week 4. It took a few minutes to notice on Wikipedia that Lou Groza’s number matched his age at time of death. Figuring that was odd, I then noticed that Ricky Nelson was 45 when he passed away, and then it was just a matter of reveling at the eerie coincidences for the other themers. Although in retrospect, it stands to reason that *some* piano composer (for example) was 88 years old when he/she passed, so I imagine it was more a matter of getting the lengths to match up with reasonably noteworthy people. So, off to google “senator who was 100 at death” and I had the answer.

    Either way, a pretty cool meta. Thanks Matt and Joon!

  5. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon. 144 correct entries this week, just right for a Week 4/5.

    The list I got together was extremely restricted. The only other possibilities I found were magicians Harry Houdini and Doug Henning, who both died at 52. Both did card tricks prominently, but I was very glad to find Ken Uston as an actual card player (and to offset Groza).

  6. ===Dan says:

    I’m an early-week solver and I was clobbered. At the last minute, I took all the death-date numbers (month and day) and took the numbered squares, and shuffled to get LUI IS LUGAR (as in Richard). I didn’t even consider it a hail mary.

  7. Giovanni P. says:

    Welp, there goes my Streak eligibility.

    I thought of the ages at one point, perhaps as entries I needed to pull out of the grid, but I didn’t get all of them once I saw Groza’s age.


  8. Stribbs says:

    Flailed for about an hour after having searched a bunch of info, including ages. I was sure it was in the oddly long clues (especially that Uston one!), but had to put it down to go have a drink with a friend. Mid-sentence, talking about shoes or something, the Arrau-88 connection just jumped into the brain out of nowhere. So yeah, I’m definitely a fan of the put-it-down-and-go-do-something-else strategy! Drinks optional.

  9. Garrett says:

    I never made the connection between their age and their occupation or talent. I think it is brilliant, and a little eerie! I give it a five. Beautifully executed.

  10. Tyler says:

    Speaking of turning things upsidedown, I threw a Hail Mary at this one because of Strom Thurmond’s age at death combined with what happens when you reverse his first name to “Morts,” a very macabre reversal indeed.

    Not to mention that his last name combines the beginnings of Thursday and Monday, the name just seemed to fit the title too well knowing all to well I had no idea what was going on in the puzzle. PHEW!

  11. Dan Seidman says:

    It probably helped that I had never heard of Ken Uston — it was in poring over his Wikipedia entry that I noticed he died at 52, and the bell went off.

    Although Groza wore both numbers, it was 76 that the Browns wore the following year to commemorate him. Imagine a lineman doubling as a placekicker today.

  12. Chris says:

    I figured since Matt spotted the death dates of the people, and that I don’t think it’s assumed we would know all five people, it had to be something related to death. I checked Wikipedia to see if they all died the same way (they didn’t), and then I wrote down the age they died, looking to do the same thing of finding what letter is found in the grid at that number (similar to last week’s). Soon as I wrote down “88”, I knew that I was in.

    This is such an awesome puzzle. Well done on finding the incredible short list of people!

  13. Abide says:

    Great puzzle Matt. Arrau 88 was the breakthrough. I found it hard to come up with any alternate theme entries. Best I could do was blues guitarist Albert Collins who died at 61.

  14. Jim S. says:

    I did some deeper investigation of Groza and Nelson – learned lots about Nelson’s death that I didn’t know before – before noticing the 88 for Arrau. I couldn’t piece together Groza’s number at first – I thought maybe Matt was getting tricky with the extra point turning a 6 pt TD into 7 pts – but spotted his jersey number shortly after submitting the right response. I, too, was misled by the Wikipedia page showing his pic with a #46 jersey. Great puzzle – I can’t imagine how one finds 5+ entries that fit this criteria – there certainly shouldn’t be a webpage dedicated to “people who died at an age that is numerically significant ot their life”!

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      I started (as you might have guessed) with Bobby Fischer. When he died a few years ago it was noted in the chess press that he had died at 64, which is the # of squares on the chessboard. But it didn’t occur to me until recently to make a theme from this.

      88 was my first thought, and Googling something like pianist – dies – age – 88 turned up Arrau, Wladislaw Szpilman, and Art Ferrante. I liked that ARRAU is frequently in crosswords, so chose him (assuming letters worked out).

      Thought it would be smooth sailing from there, but much slower going than expected. For 52 I had Doug Henning and Harry Houdini at first, but I really wanted a card player (even though both magician prominently did card tricks). Hitting on Uston was huge, especially since it balanced out LOU GROZA.

      After being unable to find a famous football player who died at 100 (yards on the field), I thought I’d settle for an athlete’s jersey number. Easier said than done — NBA jersey numbers only use digits 0-5, so few possibilities there and none panned out (basketball players seem to have good longevity from my survey). NHL used low jersey numbers too until recently, and I think baseball’s are all over the map but trend low. So NFL was really the main hunting ground. After much list-scouring the best I could come up with was Groza, not a household name but a Hall of Famer from the not too distant past, so legit.

      Hitting on Thurmond was key. That there’s a very well-known senator who lived to exactly 100 was perfect, since I needed a discrete set, with one obvious number associated with the category, and that was it. I’d’ve had to use Bobby Fischer as the meta answer otherwise, which would’ve been guessable since there are only 14 world champions and many of the hail marys would’ve been Fischer anyway.

      I had one other 45 besides RICKY NELSON, which was NAT KING COLE. But oddly I couldn’t verify that he had released many singles, and Nelson was strongly associated with 45s, so went with him instead.

      But other than that, nothing. I’d be very curious to hear if solvers can come up with any that I missed. I probably spent 6 or 7 hours total, over about a week, coming up with the final list.

  15. Dele says:

    Neat theme. Thanks, Matt!

    Thanks to the title and parentheticals, it was clear I needed to connect the deaths of these people to something. I went Googling and made myself a table listing their names, birth and death dates, ages at death, places of birth and death, and causes of death. Didn’t pick up on any obvious commonalities or patterns the first few times I read through it, so I set it aside for a few hours.

    When I came back to it and looked at the ages again, the 64 jumped out at me. Then the 52, then the 88 and 45. I did have to look up the uniform number to confirm, but that was a nice aha!

  16. Brian says:

    I listed the ages at death, 45, 52, 64, 76, 88, and the first thing I noticed is that they almost all differ by 12; you would need to replace 45->40 to make this actually work. If it did, it would suggest the answer is a senator who died at 100 (or 28, but I don’t think there have been any senators that young, let alone who died at that age), which would lead to the same answer. Sadly, there was no way to justify the replacement 45->40, but eventually I found the correct path to the answer.

  17. Jeff Winer says:

    Did not get anywhere near this one, but as a lover of words-about-words want to propose describing this group as being “aptomorts.” Thoughts?

  18. Mac says:

    My only nit (and it is not sour grapes because I failed to solve the puzzle) is that four of the grid-answer relationships, as well as the meta-answer relationship, are between the individual and his area of expertise or occupation rather than the individual himself. The 76 bears only a relationship to the individual (and maybe others who shared the jersey number), not the sport or position. While a lot of numbers can be associated with football, I cannot think of one large enough to match the age at death of a player.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      I noticed this, too, but figured that 76 was random enough a number that people would figure out it was a jersey number.

  19. Rachel says:

    When I saw that Groza was called “the toe” I thought each of the themers would be linked to a body part. Macabre indeed. A Frankenstein of cobbled meta clues.

    Luckily the ages at death kind of jumped right out at me. Must be how Jangler feels all the time.

    Thanks Matt. Super fun.

  20. Reid says:

    I knew it was too easy for a week 4 but submitted it anyways because it still had somewhat of an aha moment: if you take the 5 days they died and look at those 5 squares, you get the letters Lugar (though not in that order), which would point directly to Richard Lugar, who just so happened to be a recent 30 year us senator!

  21. Abide says:

    In my search I found several near misses such as Don Adams at 82 and Harry Reasoner at 68.

  22. peedee says:

    I never get the hardest metas, and I stumbled across this one pretty fast. I wasn’t sure about the association of 100 with senators, since the number of senators has varied over the years. But it’s been 100 all my life (and I’m pretty old). In finding a Senator who died at 100, I immediately thought of Strom, remembering all the trouble that Trent Lott got into at his 100th birthday party. Just wondering if Matt would have accepted “Essie Mae Washington-Williams’ father” as a correct answer. :-)

  23. Jared Dashoff says:

    This is where living/working in DC gets you something. “Quick, name a senator who most people would know but wouldn’t think of because Matt isn’t going to go for an obvious one (Clinton, Obama, McConnell, Kennedy, etc). THURMOND!” Sent in at 11:30 ish on a Hail Mary.

  24. Abby says:

    I thought there were fatal plane crashes on all those death dates (though that’s not how most of them died) so I went with Paul Wellstone. I know, that requires more info than these usually do, but I’d already missed last week and was in a hurry.

  25. AK37 says:

    Although it would have been rather diabolical, was there any thought given to not providing the dates of death?

  26. Jmbrow29 says:

    Solved the puzzle with a little help of Google and had the meta in about 10 minutes. Much easier for me than week 3! Bring on week 5!

  27. pj says:

    I wrote down the ages at death but just didn’t make the connections. What I did see when I googled the first two dates were references to The Grateful Dead concerts, so of course I thought it had to relate given the title and macabre theme. Bob Weir performed on all of those dates as both the Dead and Ratdog. However I couldn’t connect the latest date. But it couldn’t be a coincidence, could it? Of course it could because this is a Gaffney puzzle. So I guessed George Dennis an obscure senator in 1800s. There was also only one senator with initials BW, Benjamin Wade. If only…

  28. Lance Nathan says:

    This was exactly my reasoning, and I think it ought to count. “Anagram the letters in the squares with these numbers” is a pretty common Matt Gaffney technique–indeed, it was used last week–and coming up with LUGAR does after all use all five of the theme entries (well, their clues, but then again “things are hidden in the clues, not the answers” is also not unheard of for Gaffney’s puzzles). It may have been an unfortunate accident, but it was nevertheless there and perfectly justifiable.

    (The really stupid part of it is, for me, that when I saw the question and the fact that dates of death were included, my first thought before even filling anything in was “Well, if I can’t come up with anything, I’ll just guess Strom Thurmond.”)

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      I’m going to ask the panel about this tomorrow.

    • joon says:

      not to say that it doesn’t happen, but last week there was no anagramming needed. the letters in the squares corresponding to the atomic numbers of the relevant elements were already in order to spell out the answer.

  29. el cyd says:

    My better half looked up all the death dates and saw that there was a Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday date. That leaves Friday and Monday so I submitted FRItz MONdale and was absolutely sure it was correct. No more absolutism for me!

    • Jeff Winer says:

      el cyd, Did Matt give you credit with that explanation? I think it is pretty reasonable and would totally rally for you if I had any say whatsoever.

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