Today marks the start of the fifth annual Orca Awards, our week-long ceremony cum love-fest honoring outstanding achievement in crossword construction. For the next several days we will look back and toast some of the best puzzles from 2015. #OrcasSoBlackAndWhite
For those keeping score, here’s the complete schedule for the awards:
• Sunday, February 28: Best Easy Crossword
• Monday, February 29: Best Sunday-Sized Crossword
• Tuesday, March 1: Best Freestyle Crossword and Best Tournament Crossword
• Wednesday, March 2: Best Meta/Contest Crossword
• Thursday, March 3: Best Gimmick Crossword
• Friday, March 4: Bob Klahn Award for Best Clue and Margaret Farrar Constructor of the Year Award
• Saturday, March 5: Best Crossword
Check back each day to read about all of this year’s winners and nominees. After the jump we’ll get the party started with the Orca for Best Easy Crossword.
Psych! C’mon now! We can’t start presenting awards until we talk about the rules. Rules rule! But since you may not care much, we’ll present them in fine print.
Puzzles published during the 2015 calendar year were eligible for consideration. Nominees are determined in part from reader feedback based on the star rating system used on this blog, but the nominees in any one category may not necessarily be the ones with the highest average star ratings. That’s because, 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, for example, 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.
Then there is the subjective element. For whatever reasons, sometimes excellent puzzles just don’t get much love from our readers. And some puzzles considered for awards were not even reviewed on this site. We will not ignore a great puzzle that flew under the radar, especially where we think it is a finer representation of the form.
Finally, if you weren’t discounting the significance of the Orcas already, there’s one more important disclosure: all awards were selected by yours truly. So don’t read too much into who got nominated and who did not. The real point of the Orcas isn’t to delcare objective superiority but to celebrate another fine year for crosswords. So let’s just congratulate all of the nominees and look forward to more puzzles from all of them, m’kay?
At last then, we can get on with the show. We start with Best Easy Crossword. You may recall some of the previous winners of this award—
- 2011: Joel Fagliano (NYT, August 11, 2011)
- 2012: Jeff Chen (LAT, July 2, 2012)
- 2013: Lynn Lempel (NYT, August 6, 2013)
- 2014: Lynn Lempel (NYT, August 5, 2014)
Looks like the summer is a good time for easy crosswords! Can Lynn Lempel pull a hat trick? Was the winning puzzle published in August? Let’s find out!
Here are the 2015 nominees, listed in order of publication date (with links to their reviews on this site):
- Untitled, by Gary Cee (Los Angeles Times, April 14). What do FIFTH WHEEL, BLOOPER REEL, HALTER TOP, and WORLD RECORD have in common? Each ends in a word that can GO FOR A SPIN, the revealer entry. The puzzle features not only lively theme entries but also lovely triple-seven corners covering everything from CLAM BAR to BED REST. Perhaps best of all, IRE and ORE are just about the only traditional short fill in the whole puzzle. In his review on this site, Matt called it “a perfect easy-level crossword.” Commenter Sarah, not known for excessive praise, called it “absolutely fantastic.”
- Untitled, by Lynn Lempel (New York Times, July 6). The gimmick was (appropriately) simple: take common two-word phrases where the second word starts with A, then add a space after the A to form new, wacky three-word phrases. Thus “walk around” becomes WALK A ROUND, clued as [Decline to use a golf cart?]. There’s also PLAN A HEAD ([Design the lav?]), TAKE A PART ([Accept one of the acting roles?]), MOVE A SIDE ([Pass the coleslaw or potato salad?]), and KNOCK A BOUT ([Pan the boxing match?]). This puzzle also has triple-sevens, not twice but in all four corners. Here again Lynn Lempel shows why she’s the Meryl Streep of the Orcas.
- Untitled, by Dan Bischoff and Jeff Chen (New York Times, September 28). The three theme entries are “supervocalic,” meaning they include all five vowels, each a single time. But Dan and Jeff kick it up a notch, in two ways (so maybe “kick it up two notches” is right). First, they include the swings-both-ways Y in each theme entry. That gives us RHAPSODY IN BLUE, SOCIAL BUTTERFLY, and UPWARDLY MOBILE. Second, they feature the five vowels in symmetrically-placed circled squares in the top and bottom rows, with ANDY (which can be parsed as AND Y) in the bottom right. So while on the one hand there’s “only” three theme entries, five full rows are constrained by thematic material. Yet the constraints don’t really show in the smooth fill. Indeed, there’s some gems like ARM CANDY and FLEA CIRCUS. Overall, then, the puzzle is “ultraviolet-y”—beyond the typical spectrum for easy puzzles. (See what I did there?)
- Untitled, by Patrick Berry (New York Times, October 13). A rebus puzzle on a Tuesday? It was part of “New Ideas Week” at the NYT, and happily Patrick Berry was at the wheel. This puzzle featured six(!) two-word answers with a (7,7) enumeration. But they only take up seven squares, so you have to read the squares twice to get the full answer. I like Rex Parker’s description of how it all works: The two [words] mostly share letters, and where they don’t, two letters share the same square, with the letter from the first part coming first in the Down cross, and the letter in the second part coming second. So with HERMAN’S HERMITS, the answer is HERM??S … then just write “A” and “N” in the top halves of the remaining two boxes, respectively, and “I” and “T” in the bottom halves. This will make the Downs make sense. (There should be an Orca for Best Description of a Crossword Theme.) The other theme entries were CRAYOLA CRAYONS, FOGHORN LEGHORN, CHARLIE CHAPLIN, LILLIAN HELLMAN, and WASHING MACHINE. Amy wrote that the puzzle was “smoother than the typical Tuesday NYT, despite the constraints of the doubled-up squares.” Maybe none of the non-thematic fill jumped off the grid (though I have a soft spot for ARM HOLE), but it sure was clean and new-solver-friendly.
- Break a Leg!, by Jeff Chen (CrosSynergy Syndicate, October 13). October 13 was indeed a banner day for easy crosswords. On the heels of Berry’s Tuesday rebus came this fun take on the “broken word” gimmick. We’re used to seeing a revealer like BROKEN BAT accompany theme entries like BLACK HAT, BODY HEAT, and BUCKWHEAT (dibs!), but Jeff takes the concept to a new level here. Consecutive Across entries contain the four leg bones that are “broken” by black squares. CAFÉ/MURALIST hides a FEMUR, SPATE/LLAMAFARM contains a PATELLA, BAKED ZITI/BIALY are made from a TIBIA (eww), and TELL A FIB/ULAN contains a FIBULA. Notice he uses all four leg bones, so as the cool kids would say, the theme is “tight.” I confess I loved this concept even before this puzzle was published (you’ll get what I mean some day soon, hopefully later this year), but I wasn’t alone, as the puzzle earned a 4.65 average rating from readers.
And the 2015 Orca for Best Easy Crossword goes to…
Untitled, by Lynn Lempel (New York Times, July 6)! This was the highest-rated easy puzzle from 2015 on this site (4.65 average with 21 five-star ratings), and for good reason. Lynn makes this stuff look easy, but it’s truly hard to devise a clever theme that’s suitable for solvers at all levels.
Fellow nominee Jeff Chen awarded bestowed “Puzzle of the Week” honors to this offering, observing that the puzzle “does such a nice job of playing to a wide audience.” Over on Rex’s blog, guest reviewer Annabel Thompson said “it was great for a Monday. It had a clever enough theme, with good fill (OP ART, ERSE, RECTORY) and good clues (HASTE was “Waste maker, proverbially” and EVE was “The ‘madam’ in ‘Madam, I’m Adam'”).” And Colum Amory of the underrated Horace and Frances Discuss the New York Times Crossword Puzzle noted that “the puzzle is really topnotch when it comes to the non-themed portion.”
You know, it’s easy to get all dismissive and think, “Ho hum. Lynn Lempel wins the Orca. Again.” But keep in mind that you’re privileged to solve in the era when one of the best is practicing her craft. We can’t take that for granted.
Congratulations to Lynn Lempel and to all the Best Easy Crossword nominees! Remember to return tomorrow to see who gets the Orca for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword.