The 2015 Orca Awards – Best Gimmick Crossword

Note: whale may not be to scale

Note: whale may not be to scale

Time for today’s installment of the Orcas, our  annual “awards show” saluting some of the best crosswords from 2015. Today features the Orca for Best Gimmick Crossword.

We’re getting close to the big finale on Saturday when the coveted Orca for Best Crossword will be awarded. Here’s how the week is shaping up:
• 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 (won by Natan Last) and Best Tournament Crossword (won by Joon Pahk)
• Wednesday, March 2: Best Meta/Contest Crossword (won by Matt Gaffney)
• 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
Coming up after the jump: puzzles with twists and turns that will make your jaw drop and your head explode (in that order, we assume).

“I was a peripheral visionary. I could see the future, but only way off to the side.” Steven Wright

If we may borrow from late-20th-Century corporate-speak, this is the category for crosswords that make us “think outside the boxes” to realize the many ways in which our square grids can be used to entertain. Whether it’s multiple letters in a square, letters that transcend the grid, answers that veer off in different directions, or some other wackiness, it seems each year offers something unique, different, and fun. Consider the past winners of this award:

  • 2011: Untitled, by Joel Fagliano (New York Times) (in which words from repeated expressions like POOH POOH and ZOOM ZOOM appear only once in the Across entries, but twice in the Downs)
  • 2012: Spelling Trouble, by Patrick Berry (Fireball Crosswords) (in which blank tiles from Scrabble are used as BLANK in Across entries and as missing letters in Down entries)
  • 2013: Seeing Double, by Trip Payne (Fireball Crosswords) (in which every clue is used twice)
  • 2014: Untitled, by Andrew Reynolds (New York Times) (the “Schrödinger coin flip puzzle,” in which HEADS and TAILS works in the midsection and in which H and T are interchangeable throughout the grid)

Since their publication, other puzzles have used or built on these gimmicks, continuing the evolution of crosswords. The puzzles nominated for this year’s Orca are exciting and innovative–and yet it’s very likely their gimmicks will be used again and adapted over the years. If so, we have much to which we can look forward. Here are this year’s nominees for Best Gimmick Crossword:

  • “Have a Blast!,” by Erik Agard (American Values Club Crossword, June 10). Okay, technically this was a contest puzzle, but it was so fresh and fun that we just couldn’t let the week pass without mentioning it. The trick is to parse the puzzle’s title as “Have a B last,” because the theme entries consist of phrases where the last letter changes to B for wacky effect. So DAD BOD becomes DAD BOB, WATER LILY turns to WATER LI’L B, and JACK SQUAT turns into JACK SQUAB. The meta element–another nice layer here–is that the changed letters spell DYN-O-MITE, the catchphrase from Good Times that (not coincidentally) relates to the puzzle’s title. I know what you’re thinking: “Big deal–it’s just a letter-substitution gimmick.” But look at the fresh base phrases! The wacky theme entries! The relative theme density in a 17×17 grid! Fill like OK I’LL BITE, BATGIRL, NOD OFF, I’M TALKING, MR. NOBODY! This puzzle just works on so many levels. Erik is one of the most innovative constructors working today, and we hope to be admiring his work for a long time.
  • Wearing Thin,” by Jeff Chen (American Values Club Crossword, July 22). Jeff’s not a regular in the AV Club rotation, but he certainly made the most of his guest stint with a crossword that demonstrates sheer brilliance. Jeff found four terms containing the name of a garment that might be see-through: the BRA in BRAIN POWER, a DRESS in IP ADDRESS, a ROBE in MICROBE, and a SCARF in NASCAR FAN. Nine out of 10 constructors would just pair those answers with a revealer (SEE-THROUGH) and call it good. But Jeff uses this as a launching point, not a landing pad. He then arranges the crossings so that they form entries with and without the letters in the see-through garment, thus enabling the solver to “see through” those letters! Take the BRA in BRAIN POWER, for example. The crossing Downs are PABST, OPRAH, and DIANE. But the clue for PABST is [It’s always behind you (or … cheap Milwaukee beer)], so in addition to the clue for PABST there’s a clue for PAST, the word you get if you “see through” the B. Similarly, the clue for OPRAH references both the TV queen and the OPAH fish, while the clue for DIANE also contains a clue for DINE. Such a great idea! Take a look at the grid and you’ll soon see Jeff really bit off a lot with this conceit–he had to find 16 answers (!) that could work with and without the “see-through” letters, effectively making it so that very few squares in the grid are non-thematic. No wonder readers gave this one 35 five-star ratings and a 4.76 average rating overall.
  • Off With Their Heads,” by David Steinberg (Chronicle Crossword, September 4). Instructions with the puzzle said “This puzzle’s title will unlock the method for entering answers to the starred clues. At the end, a full ‘head count’ will piece together two 10-letter words inextricably linked in history.” To make the answers to the starred clues fit in the grid, you have to chop off the first (“head”) letter. So 1-Across should be AGATE (the clue was [Banded quartz]), but you lop off the A and write in GATE. 5-Across should be NUMBER ([It can be real or imaginary]), but only UMBER works in the grid. You get the idea. But here’s where it starts to get interesting: the lopped-off letters, when read in order of the clues, spell ANTOINETTE. That’s one 10-letter word, but where’s the other one referenced in the puzzle’s instructions? Turns out it’s in the first letter of each of answers actually entered in the grid (the G from GATE, the U from UMBER, and so on). Those letters spell GUILLOTINE. And there are your two “inextricably linked” words! That’s just awesome. And then consider the extra touches of panache: the starred answers are symmetrically placed in the grid, and the longest Across answers (COCONUT OIL, BEAN BAG, and NOODLE SOUP) all start with a word synonymous with “head.” Mind = blown, which is fitting for this puzzle. No wonder, then, that this puzzle nabbed a 4.71 average star rating with 18 five-star votes. It should be noted that in most weeks, the CHE puzzle gets 8-10 total ratings; that this puzzle got 26 ratings is further proof of how much solvers liked it.
  • Weird Alterations,” by Patrick Berry (Fireball Crosswords, October 8). It starts innocently enough with seven hit songs, including I LOVE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL, HAPPY, and U CAN’T TOUCH THIS, all clued traditionally as “[Year] hit for [Artist].” The trick comes in the crossings, where the titles get altered, er, AL-tered. You see, each of the hit songs has been parodied by Weird Al Yankovic, and the crossings use Weird Al’s version in addition to the original hit. So while the grid correctly has I LOVE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL in the Across position, you must change it to I LOVE ROCKY ROAD (the Weird Al song you can hear here) in order for the the “weird” half of each clue to make sense. The clue for 9-Down, for example, reads: [“Irrational Man” director (normal) / Many an urban shortcut (weird)]. Woody ALLEN is the director crossing the N in I LOVE ROCK ‘N’ ROAD, and ALLEY is the shortcut crossing the Y in I LOVE ROCKY ROAD. Think of all the layers here. You have seven Weird Al tunes that have the same lengths and general letter patterns as their underlying hits. Then you have the neat trick where the crossings form two different answers depending on which version of the song you’re using. And then you have the signature Berry smoothness in the non-thematic fill despite the theme being heavily involved in all but two corners of the grid. I would consider donating a major organ for the chance to watch Patrick Berry at work for just a few days. Luckily I don’t have to in order to enjoy the bountiful fruits of his labors.
  • Heads of State,” by Brendan Emmett Quigley (American Values Club Crossword, November 18). Sometimes the best gimmicks are a mash-up of other ones. We’ve seen puzzles based on the two-letter postal abbreviations for U.S. states. We’ve also seen puzzles where one square contains multiple letters, all of which are used in one direction but not in the other. And we’ve seen puzzles where you have the read the same answer twice in order for it to make sense (see the 2011 winner of this very award). But this puzzle samples from all of those elements to get something that’s just a knockout. Six squares contain postal abbreviations, and while both letters are used in the Downs, the Acrosses use each letter separately to form two words that together provide an answer to the wacky clue. Check out 60-Across, which looks like (PA)LANKING. That’s really PLANKING ALAN KING, the answer to [Monologist comedian posing for a lying-down meme shot?]. The crossing Down, INSURANCE COMPANY, uses both letters in the correct order. Such a great combination of gimmicks! And note that BEQ doesn’t take the “easier” way out by using states with common letters (this puzzle would have been easier, I’m sure, if it contained DE, OR, RI, LA, and AR rather than CT, MT, NJ, TX, WY, and PA). Our readers loved it: 21 five-star ratings and an exceptional 4.86 average.

Before we get to the winner, let’s hit the pause button for a moment to reflect a little. Probably the hardest job in Orca land is narrowing the pool of eligible puzzles into the list of nominees. Again this year, this was the hardest category to pin down. So many great puzzles narrowly missed the cut. Yet if we had, say, eleven nominees, the significance of being nominated would be diluted. The point here is two-fold: (1) If your favorite didn’t make the list, we feel your pain; and (2) This is such a terrific problem to face. Okay, back to the show.

The 2015 Orca for Best Gimmick Crossword goes to:

Holy jumpin’ up and down Martha, it’s a tie! Our winners are “Wearing Thin,” by Jeff Chen (American Values Club Crossword, July 22) and “Off With Their Heads,” by David Steinberg (Chronicle Crossword, September 4)! How can you choose between such a thorough and delightful play on “see-through” garments on the one hand and such a deftly executed take on beheading on the other? Call us tired of more hard choices, but we just couldn’t do it. Instead, we choose to marvel at both puzzles, and look forward to how they inspire other constructors to keep the form evolving.

Congratulations, Jeff and David, and thanks too to the other nominees. Come back tomorrow for two awards, the Bob Klahn Award for Best Clue and the Margaret Farrar Constructor of the Year Award! No ties tomorrow, promise.

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2 Responses to The 2015 Orca Awards – Best Gimmick Crossword

  1. Jeff C. says:

    When do I get to trot out the Asian accountants? Ha ha ha!

    Too soon?

    • Amy Reynaldo says:

      It’s not too soon for you to joke about that, Jeff, but it is years too soon for anyone who didn’t find Rock’s (and/or the writers’) “jokes” about the Asian kids offensive. Sacha Baron Cohen goes on the “Are you effing kidding me?” list, too, even if he thinks he can blame his Asian dick joke on the Ali G character’s idiocy.

      Congrats to Jeff and David!

      And congrats to Erik, Brendan, and Patrick! Those were incredible gimmicks, too.

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