Remember that the Orcas will continue all week according to this schedule:
• Sunday, February 28: Best Easy Crossword (won by Lynn Lempel)
• 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
Today’s award comes after the jump.
Sometimes, bigger really is better. Sunday-sized crosswords allow deeper theme exploration, more elaborate visual gimmicks, and for a constructor’s voice to shine through. But with around 140-144 answers, nearly double the number of the typical 15×15 daily puzzle, the vigilance required to maintain superior fill and create original, engaging clues can be exhausting. A mediocre Sunday puzzle can be a slog, sure, but a good one makes the weekend that much better.
Speaking of which, no one made our weekends better more consistently than the late Merl Reagle. You’ve already read wonderful, heart-felt tributes to the man. We still miss his unique humor and undying passion for wordplay. It is fitting, then, that we hereby rename today’s Orca the Merl Reagle Award for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword.
Today’s winner will join an elite group of past winners:
- 2011: “You’ll Get Through This,” by Jeremy Newton and Tony Orbach (NYT, May 29)
- 2012: “Get Over it,” by Merl Reagle (Syndicated, February 19)
- 2013: “Two-by-Fours,” by Patrick Berry (NYT, June 23)
- 2014: “Cross-Hatching,” by Peter Broda (Fireball Crosswords, September 11)
Here then are the nominees for this year’s Merl Reagle Award for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword, in order of publication date (with links to their reviews on this site):
- Flip-Flops, by Patrick Berry (New York Times, February 22). This impressive grid featured eight pairs of stacked theme answers, each with shaded letters. Each answer contained a hidden word that would normally appear in the shaded squares, but the central answer in the grid told solvers that each shaded word GOES UP AND DOWN when entered in the grid. To assist, the clues for each theme entry gave an additional hint. For instance, the clue for 21-Across was [Turnpike turnoffs (intimidate, in a way)]. The first part of the clue hinted at REST AREAS, which contains the word STARE, and “STARE down” would answer the parenthetical part of the clue. In the grid, then, solvers would write the STARE part of REST AREAS in the shaded boxes beneath the answer, so that there is a visual “STARE down” from the rest of the answer, Likewise, the entry beneath REST AREAS was PURINA CAT CHOW, containing CATCH. The clue read [Pet food brand (recover lost ground)], so the solver would write the CATCH letters in the shaded squares above the rest of the answer (because to “CATCH up” is to recover lost ground). The resulting answers, RECATCHAS and PURINASTAREOW look silly, but when you peel away each layer, it makes for such a satisfying solve. Readers loved it too, with 32 five-star ratings and a 4.61 average star rating overall. Commenter Jim Hale called it the “best Sunday puzzle in a long time,” and Matt hailed it “a feat of lexical complexity.” ArtLvr said “Berry deserves a special award for the intricacy.” An Orca nomination may not be what ArtLvr had in mind, but it’s certainly apt.
- 3.1415926…, by Tom McCoy (New York Times, March 8). It’s a Pi Day tribute puzzle, complete with three (alas, not 3.14) layers. First and most obvious, there’s a pi figure made of black squares in the heart of the grid. Second, five (symmetrically-placed) squares in the grid contain the π symbol, which read as PI in the Down answers and as TT in the Across answers. Thus, GUILT TRIPS crossed RESPITE, and ROTTEN EGG crosses TYPICALLY. Finally, there’s the [mnemonic for the first eight digits of] pi, HOW I WISH I COULD CALCULATE PI EASILY. I guess if you want to find a “.14” layer, there’s also FILLING as the central Down entry, clued as [Pie part (that’s appropriately placed in this puzzle?)]. If you focus on any one gimmick alone, you might shrug. But this puzzle combines all three gimmicks for maximum impact. Readers gave the puzzle an impressive 4.57-star average. In her review, Amy observed that Tom is “demonstrating a knack for crazy multi-layered/visual themes that evokes the best work of Liz Gorski and Kevin Der.” High praise indeed for this two-time Orca nominee.
- Upsides, by Jeremy Newton (New York Times, March 22). As the title suggests, the six five-letter Down answers on the left and right sides of grid also read up to complete the four crossing Acrosses. Take DEBUT, the first Down answer along the right side of the grid, clued as [It’s a first]. It also supplies the end to the crossing BRAISED, SHARE ONE’S BED, DAUBED, and YOU-TUBED. The Downs on the left side similarly supply the starts of the crossing Acrosses. For example, there’s TETON, which, when read “up,” supplies the starts to NOTE TO SELF, NOT EVEN A LITTLE, NO TAX, and NORTH. Symmetrically-placed entries in the middle tell solvers that those Acrosses are CLIMBING / THE WALLS. And the non-theme fill just sparkles, with YO MAMA, SCRAPHEAP, PEACH PIE, and ME FIRST among the highlights. Reader John Haber explained why this puzzle is so special: “We’ve had themes in which an entry completed only after turning 90 degrees, but never, I bet, in which the down clue had to work with all the across clues touching it. Impressive construction, and fun.” Steve Manion declared victory for this puzzle (with more than eight months to go in the year!): “Puzzle of the year for me. Superb.” Readers clearly agreed: 91 ratings overall (that’s almost suspiciously high), and 65 of them gave five stars. It was the highest-rated Sunday-sized puzzle of 2015, and with good reason.
- First-Name Basis, by Merl Reagle (Merl Reagle’s Syndicated Crossword, August 2). The same week our fearless Crossword Fiend leader received a new kidney, Merl published this tribute puzzle in which the 12 overt theme entries featured the three-letter sequence, A-M-Y. Everything from CREAMY peanut butter and the AMYGDALA to BRIGHAM YOUNG and LUKE I AM YOUR FATHER found its way into the puzzle. I missed it at the time, but it turns out there were 23 hidden AMYs, both in the grid and in the clues! Then there’s that note accompanying the puzzle: “I have a lot of friends with the same name – it appears more than a dozen times in this puzzle – but one in particular is doing a hospital stint this week. Luckily, she’s a crossword whiz and should sail right through this.” This note is that much more touching when you consider that Merl unexpectedly died just a few weeks later. As I said in my review of the puzzle at the time, “Such a nice gesture from Merl, one of the nicest in the business, to Amy, another one of the nicest in the business.” Readers gave the puzzle an amazing 4.86 star rating. No doubt that was in large part because of their affection for Amy. And yet, six months later, I’m willing to bet the affection for this puzzle still stands. It may not have been Merl’s wittiest puzzle, and it may not have been technically perfect. But I can’t think of a puzzle more touching on so many levels.
- Going on a Bender, by Bruce Haight (Los Angeles Times, November 15). The puzzle features eight takes on TURN A PHRASE, the central Across answer. Each time, the answer takes a turn that associated with the phrase. Thus, TAKES THE PLUNGE starts as an Across answer but THE PLUNGE then heads down. Same for DEBBIE DOWNER, whose second word takes a nose-dive. Not all of the turns are down, however (because then the title would be “Turndowns” or something like that). Instead there’s also HANG A RIGHT making a right turn and the end of PUT ONE ACROSS also turning right. The fill contained five Qs and a high number of Ks, so if you like Scrabbly grids this one was for you. Twenty-one readers gave the puzzle an overall star rating of 4.45. In his review, Andy called it “one of the most enjoyable LAT Sundays in recent memory.” And it even produced one of the greatest “WTF” comments in the history of this site (from Bob): “Clue: Abomination – Ans: today’s LAT – not a puzzle of knowledge but a quirky trivia game. Even the theme is a misnomer. Sorry to offend those who have made crosswords solvers into a clannish group of trivia groupies, but, over the years we ‘veterans’ of puzzling have been left on the platform as the train pulled out. I’m sorry that I am ‘turning a phrase’ instead of ‘waxing eloquent’ -which actually can be antonyms! But, I now must go put on my metaphorical armor to absorb the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune hurled at me – to turn a phrase.” Hoo boy. If only we conferred an Orca for Best Blog Comment.
And the 2015 Merl Reagle Award for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword goes to…
Upsides, by Jeremy Newton (New York Times, March 22)! If you told me there was some ballot-stuffing by Newton-maniacs in the star ratings for this puzzle, I wouldn’t be surprised. (91 ratings? When no other puzzle last year got more than 66 ratings?) But that doesn’t take away from what this puzzle accomplished. It’s an intricate and masterful tour de force.
Congratulations to Jeremy Newton and to all the nominees! Tomorrow we present two Orcas, Best Freestyle Crossword and the new Best Tournament Crossword. See you then!