The 2015 Orca Awards – Best Freestyle and Best Tournament Crossword

2 orcasIt’s a beautiful day for the Orcas—let’s give two! Today we double the fun with awards for themeless and tournament puzzles. It’s all part of our week-long ceremony honoring some of the best puzzles from 2015.

To recap where we are and where we are going, here’s the complete schedule:
• Sunday, February 28: Best Easy Crossword (won by Lynn Lempel)
• Monday, February 29: Merl Reagle Award for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword (won by Jeremy Newton)
• 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
There’s some great puzzles to read about after the jump. So jump already!

We start with the Orca for Best Freestyle Crossword. If you’re like me, you love the weekends in no small part because that’s when most of the freestyle (or “themeless”) crosswords appear. A good freestyle puzzle is chock full o’ sparkly words, with twisted clues that put up a tough, fair fight. This year’s nominees exemplify these qualities.

Past winners of this award read like a Who’s Who list of constructors:

  • 2011: Patrick Berry (NYT, June 10, 2011)
  • 2012: Brendan Emmett Quigley (BEQ, April 9, 2012)
  • 2013: Brendan Emmett Quigley and Joon Pahk (BEQ, July 8, 2013)
  • 2014: Patrick Berry (NYT, July 4, 2014)

Okay, so three names is not exactly a long Who’s Who list. You get the point. Here, then, are this year’s nominees for Best Freestyle Crossword, in order of publication date:

  • Untitled, by Patrick Berry (New York Times, April 3). Here’s the thing: practically any Patrick Berry freestyle could be nominated for an Orca and no one would complain. Heck, if you didn’t see one of his puzzles among the nominees, you’d question the integrity of these awards (well, more than you do already). The defending Orca champ in this category gave us a real treat last spring with a 66-worder with a crazy, wide-open and scrabbly center. It had STOCK EXCHANGES, AFRIKANER, SACK OUT, EXIT RAMPS, W.C. HANDY, and TWICE TOLD TALES among others meeting in that midsection. In the corners you find FINAL EXAM, ON THE MENU, POOR SPORT, FED-EXES, and WETSUIT. There’s even short treats like BARMY and KFC. Quintessential Berry goodness.
  • Untitled, by Ian Livengood (New York Times, May 8). Highlights include the lovely stack of SNAPCHAT, KETEL ONE, and ICE RINKS in the northwest corner, COACH K, ANKLE MONITOR, SIMON COWELL (with the almost-too-cute clue, [Fox hunt leader of old]), ROGER FEDERER, and IRON CHEF, the [Japanese import set in a kitchen]. What makes this one really shine is the complete absence of compromise. When Amy has to call out ELO in her list of fusty bits in her review, you know you have a good grid. As she concluded, this was “really a lovely example of Friday themeless NYT puzzle.”
  • Saturday Stumper, by Doug Peterson (Newsday, June 27). This is an exemplary Doug Peterson grid in that it has just the right mix of culture (UNCLE VANYA, Professor MORIARTY, ST JAMES Place from Monopoly), lively phrases (SNOOZE-FEST, I’M IN LOVE, LIT INTO, LATE SHOW), and clever clues ([Carnival rides] for CRUISES, [Boat trailers] for WAKES, [Not below] for ON DECK—hey, was this a nautically-themed puzzle? Maybe it’s disqualified!).
  • Untitled, by Patrick Berry (New York Times, November 13). Remember how we said practically any Patrick Berry puzzle is Orca-worthy? This 68-word puzzle is just dynamite: that great triple-stack in the northwest with RICE-A-RONI atop BLENDED IN atop SAY CHEESE; WHITE FLAG and HONEST ABE in the southwest; and lovely words and phrases like AQUIVER, SHAFTED, FILLIP, and ACEY-DEUCY. The clues were Friday-perfect, too, with good stuff like [Hands-on sites?] for HIPS and [Metropolis misidentification] for IT’S A PLANE. Patrick Berry just makes this freestyle construction thing look all too easy.
  • Untitled, by Natan Last (New York Times, November 21). That triple-stack of 15s running down the middle of the grid (THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G., HATERS GONNA HATE, AMERICAN APPAREL) might just be the freshest triple-stack ever. Then you notice that ten of the 15 crossings for that stack have at least eight letters (with CLUB OWNER, YOGA PANTS, HOP ON POP, SHAKE ON IT, and I DON’T BITE among them). Plus there’s THAT’S NICE, BOLLYWOOD, and SIDEKICKS? Dude. Haters may hate, but how can you not love this? The grid had just 66 words, and conventional wisdom says when you dip below 68 there may be compromises afoot. Amy’s review saw only ESNE and OTO as sub-par entries, but given all the rich goodness here there’s just no room to carp.
  • Saturday Stumper, by Frank Longo (Newsday, November 27). This one was a true cranium-crusher (especially apt, given Frank’s the author of Cranium Crushing Crosswords). The grid had six 15s, including WHERE APPLICABLE, STRICT ADHERENCE, and the COLORADO ROCKIES, but the real thrill came from the vexing clues, like [High-end main courses] for CAROTID ARTERIES, [Enjoyed the sound, say] for SWUM, and [Private fuel source] for MESS. Derek’s review called it “another classic by Frank,” one of the best in the business.

And the 2015 Orca for Best Freestyle Crossword goes to…

Untitled, by Natan Last (NYT, November 21)

Untitled, by Natan Last (New York Times, November 21)! Heavens to Murgatroyd, this is a dandy freestyle puzzle. Twenty-two readers gave it a five-star rating, and 20 more gave it 4.5 stars (the average of 52 ratings was 4.51, with a single one-star from some ass-hat). Did the puzzle skew youthful? Commenter Christopher Smith felt so, noting “They say you know you’re getting old when the cops start to look young. Well, you know you’re getting really old when the NYT crossword starts to play young. Loved it. Now to check on my 401(k).” Rex Parker put it so well on his blog: “The only thing wrong with this puzzle is that it’s over.”

Oh, and can we come back to ESNE for a second? More than one commenter in the blogosphere felt poor ESNE ruined the entire puzzle. Look, no one thinks ESNE is great. Natan and Will and Joel did their best to make this work, giving it the wink-wink clue, [A slave to crosswords?]. But seriously, people, that one entry means the puzzle is doomed? Aren’t we being just a little too picky? [/rant]

Congratulations, Natan and all the nominees!

But we’re not done! Time to introduce the newest Orca, the award for Best Tournament Puzzle. If you’ve ever thought about attending a crossword tournament but talked yourself out of it, you really did yourself a disservice. Sure, there are ace solvers in the room, most of whom are probably faster than you. But the point of crossword tournaments isn’t competition—it’s about sharing a day or two with other lovers of the craft. Think of it like golf: you don’t have to do better than the people you’re playing with to have fun, but you can still set goals for yourself and seek to improve from one tournament to the next.

Oh, and there’s another good reason to attend a crossword tournament: they often have really great puzzles. We hope that by adding this category we can shine some light on the fun to be had at crossword tournaments. If you’re interested, we’ve included links to each tournament’s main page. In some cases you can order past puzzles, and in others you can find out the deets for this year’s event. No matter which one(s) you choose to attend, just go! You’ll have the time of your life.

So here are the nominees for Best Tournament Crossword, in order of publication date:

  • Whom Not to Invite to the Party, by Tracy Bennett (American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, March). The first puzzle of the ACPT is designed to give everyone a confidence boost. It’s supposed to be a friendly start to the tournament weekend. But Tracy’s puzzle turned those smiles upside down by featuring DOWNERS, [Party poopers… four of which were (were) found, literally, in this puzzle]. Sure enough, the Downs had a SPOILSPORT, a WET BLANKET, a BUZZKILL, and a SOURPUSS. What a delightfully wacky way to start things off! But the best part? The black squares formed a frowny face. So you had a nice visual element to a well-constructed puzzle that had a great, unconventional theme for an opener. All of the ACPT puzzles were really good (as you would expect), but this may be one of the best tournament-opening puzzles ever. That merits an Orca nomination.
  • Welcome to D.C., by Erik Agard (The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, May). This was the first year of the Indie 500 (held in Washington, D.C.), and the puzzles did not disappoint. You could make a case for giving an Orca nod to any of them, really. (Side note: Neville Fogarty’s brutal (for me) puzzle had one of the more satisfying “aha moments” I can recall.) But there’s something so innovative and apt about the tournament’s opening puzzle from Erik Agard. The clues for the theme entries were all D.C. Metro routes: [Yellow line], [Silver line], [Red line], and the like (and they were color-coded with the real Metro symbols too!). The [Yellow line] turned out to be I’M SHAKING IN MY BOOTS. The [Silver line] was STATISTICS (the line of work for Nate Silver of poll research, dontcha know), and the [Red line] was BASEPATH (the chalk line a Cincinnati Red would run along). A terrific concept that uses the many different meanings of “lines”—it made each theme entry its own little “aha moment.”
  • Going Off the Grid, by Joon Pahk (Lollapuzzoola 8, A Saturday in August). You can call this the Onion Puzzle: it had many layers and could make a solver cry. When you first match the clues with the solution grid, there seem to be a lot of errors. How can SOT be the answer to [Flax]? And how is DIES the answer to [Feeding plants]? Or MITER a [Mac’s skin]? Here’s the deal: one letter from the real correct answer has been removed from the grid and is hiding out in the clue. So really SOFT is answer to [Lax], DIETS is the answer to [Feeding plans], and MISTER is a [Mac’s kin]. But wait, there’s more: this happens exactly once in each column of the puzzle, and if you take the hiding letters from each column and read them row by row, they spell LETTERS OF TRANSIT, which explains exactly what those letters did in moving from the grid to the clues. Diabolical and genius.
  • A Fond Farewell, by Trip Payne (Crosswords LA, October). The late Merl Reagle was one of the early contributors to the Crosswords LA event, and this year’s Sunday-size puzzle in the tournament was the most fitting tribute possible. Trip assembled seven theme entries that punned on Merl’s name, with everything from CHIVAS REAGLE ([What to toast a great puzzlemaker with?]) to ROMAN NEW MERL ([What a great puzzlemaker declared himself after putting on a toga for the first time?]) to THE REAGLE HAS LANDED ([What a great puzzlemaker’s groupies shouted at the airport?]) to MERL MAJORITY ([What the vast numbers of crossword solvers who loved and admired this great puzzlemaker could call themselves?]). But for the fact it was about him, Merl would have loved this.

And the 2015 Orca for Best Tournament Crossword goes to…

Going Off the Grid (by Joon Pahk) (Lollapuzzoola 8)

Going Off the Grid (by Joon Pahk) (Lollapuzzoola 8)

Going Off the Grid, by Joon Pahk (Lollapuzzoola 8, A Saturday in August)! We didn’t mention the best clue-answer pair from this great puzzle: [They’re found in latkes] for SURGEONS. Such a great puzzle, as were all of the offerings from Lollapuzzoola.

So remember, folks, make it a priority to attend a crossword tournament this year. You’ll almost certainly be back.

Congratulations, Joon, and thanks to all the nominees for setting the bar so high for this category. We look forward to see what awaits us in 2016.

Coming tomorrow is the Best Meta/Contest Crossword Orca, and with so many awesome puzzles to discuss let’s just say you’re in for a treat. See you then!

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2 Responses to The 2015 Orca Awards – Best Freestyle and Best Tournament Crossword

  1. austin says:

    i’ve been meaning to make it to a crossword tournament for a while now, and this year i might just have to do it. coming from florida makes it difficult. sadly, the indie 500 doesn’t work with my schedule, but maybe lollapuzzoola or the acpt!

  2. Amy Reynaldo says:

    Tournament puzzles typically include many of the year’s most innovative crossword themes and twists, and it’s well worth the travel expenses to partake of them in a social setting. You can often buy a set of the puzzles for solving at home if you can’t make it to a given tournament, and how can you not?

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