The 2015 Orca Awards – Best Clue and Constructor of the Year

orca breachOrcas Week is winding down. Today we present the Bob Klahn Award for Best Clue and the Margaret Farrar Constructor of the Year Award. Tomorrow the festivities end with the award for Best Crossword. There’s mystery in the air this year, as for the first time the nominees for Best Crossword were not announced in advance. Was your favorite nominated? You’ll find out in 24 hours.

The Orcas honor excellence in crosswords published in 2015. Here’s the list of winners so far:

  • Best Easy Crossword, Lynn Lempel
  • Merl Reagle Award for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword, Jeremy Newton
  • Best Freestyle Crossword, Natan Last
  • Best Tournament Crossword, Joon Pahk
  • Best Meta/Contest Crossword, Matt Gaffney
  • Best Gimmick Crossword, Jeff Chen and David Steinberg (tie)

Today’s awards come after the jump.

First up is the Bob Klahn Award for Best Clue. In 2015, over 1,850 puzzles were reviewed on this site. Assuming just 250 of them were Sunday puzzles with an average of 140 words and the others were daily puzzles with an average of 75 words (remember, freestyle puzzles rarely have more than 72 and themed puzzles rarely have more than 78), that’s over 155,000 clues, only 65,000 of which were for OREO, EMO, and ERE. (Just kidding on that last part.) A well-clued puzzle offers both gimmes for access into the grid and tougher, more clever clues that put up a fair fight before falling. It’s the closest interaction between constructor and solver. So it’s fitting to have an Orca that honors a truly great clue.

As you can imagine, the life of a crossword constructor is similar to that of a rock star. The cheering throngs, the groupies, the wild and extravagant lifestyles. But just as every rock bad spends hours in practice, crossword constructors often spend as much time with clues as with themes and grids. (Well, they should, anyway.) And here’s where editors play the most active part, often tweaking half or more of the clues to keep the right tone and at the same level of rigor. That’s why this is the one award given to both constructor and editor, for we never know which party should get the credit.

Check out the prior winners:

  • 2011: [Chemical agent for climate change] for ANAGRAM (Paula Gamache and Will Shortz, NYT)
  • 2012: No award (award renamed Bob Klahn Award for Best Clue)
  • 2013: [Dieter’s complaint] for ACH (Stanley Newman, Newsday)
  • 2014: [Pack animal?] for JOE CAMEL (Brad Wilbur, Doug Peterson, and Will Shortz, NYT)

Here are the nominees for this year’s Bob Klahn Award for Best Clue:

  • [Site of unexpected change?] for SOFA (by Paul Coulter, edited by Rich Norris, Los Angeles Times, February 6)
  • [What Tom Hanks might be given thanks for?] for USER NAME (by Peter Gordon, Fireball Newsflash Crosswords #15, February 13)
  • [It’ll blow your mine] for TNT (by Mike Torch, edited by Mike Shenk, Wall Street Journal, April 26)
  • [Try to beat the buzzer?] for SWAT (by Patrick Berry, edited by Will Shortz, New York Times, July 24)
  • [A, E, or IOU] for NOTE (by Patrick Jordan, CrosSynergy Syndicate, August 16)
  • [Jordan, to worshippers] for HIS AIRNESS (by Kameron Austin Collins, edited by Will Shortz, New York Times, November 14)
  • [Keep house] for CASTLE (by Alan Arbesfeld, edited by Mike Shenk, Wall Street Journal, November 28)

And the 2015 Bob Klahn Award for Best Clue goes to…

[What Tom Hanks might be given thanks for?] for USER NAME (by Peter Gordon, Fireball Newsflash Crosswords #15, February 13)! Congratulations to Peter and to all of the nominees!

Next up is the Margaret Farrar Award for Constructor of the Year. Here we honor constructors that are prolific, innovative, and entertaining. The ones whose bylines always make you smile. The ones who had an extraordinary year. The winner of this award is in great company:

  • 2011: Patrick Berry
  • 2012: Matt Gaffney
  • 2013: Francis Heaney
  • 2014: Brendan Emmett Quigley

Before we announce this year’s recipient, let’s take a moment to confer Honorable Mention status to other constructors whose work in 2015 was inspired (listed in alphabetical order by surname):

  • Victor Barocas. This one might surprise since we enjoyed just six of his puzzles in 2015. But they were really great. The coup de gras was the LOVE meta puzzle featured on Matt Gaffney’s site. RED CABBAGE and RED CELLS look like unfortunate duplicates, but they were singals to color all the letters in CABBAGE and CELLS red. The result is what you see to the right (in a helpful gif created by Evan Birnholz that he posted in the comments to the write-up on this puzzle)–a replica of the Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture. What an inspired idea! Within a week, though, Victor was back with “Origami,” a Fireball puzzle featuring five terms containing words that can precede paper: FALL BACK POSITION, SCAR TISSUE, CARBON MONOXIDE, and so on. The trick was that the “paper” words fold back on themselves. Thus, TISSUE appeared in only three squares as (TE)(IU)(SS), and both letters were used in the crossing Downs. That kind of one-two punch in two great venues merits Constructor of the Year consideration.
  • Jeff Chen. Jeff snagged an Orca for Best Gimmick Puzzle to go along with a nomination in the Best Easy Crossword category. By our count, he published 35 crosswords in 2015, so he certainly qualifies as “prolific.” More importantly, though, his work is consistently fresh and fun. He joined the CrosSynergy Syndicate, bringing his voice to a new audience of daily crossword solvers. He wrote the dreaded Puzzle #5 at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. He continues to manage the helm of xwordinfo, where he adds his own commentary to the daily NYT puzzle along with sometimes controversial “Puzzle of the Week” honors. As Matt Gaffney observed over the summer, “No one in crosswords had heard of Jeff Chen five short years ago, but he’s now become not only a top crossword writer but a top blogger as well.” We’re excited for the next five years too.
  • Matt Gaffney. Matt’s the only constructor who has been in the running for this award every year. His weekly contest crossword continues to delight an ever-growing legion of fans, he puts out a 10×10 daily crossword, he presents a well-considered Crossword of the Month award, and he regularly blogs puzzles on this site. As is usual, his puzzles dominate our annual listings of the highest-rated puzzles. And he snagged another Orca for Best Meta/Contest Crossword earlier this week. Matt was indie before indie was cool, and he continues to find new ways to entertain solvers.
  • Elizabeth C. Gorski. Liz’s weekly Crossword Nation subscription puzzle usually gets just a handful of ratings on this site, but they are routinely high. Her “Fleet of Foot” puzzle featuring a lightning bolt in honor of Usain Bolt was one of the highest-rated puzzles of the year. It exemplifies the visual layer that so many of us associate with her byline. “Get ready to draw,” is what I usually say to myself when I see her headline. But even when I know it’s coming, I continue to be impressed by what unfolds. Her Mount Rushmore puzzle in the New York Times on July 5 (how patriotic!) cleverly positioned nicknames of the four presidents in order of how they appear on the mountain, complete with other long thematic entries. Closer to Thanksgiving, there was her “crop circle” rebus puzzle in the Wall Street Journal, wherein the rebus squares containing crops like LEMON, RICE, and APPLE formed a circle in the grid. Also in the fall, she had a cute word ladder theme in BuzzFeed. With 70+ puzzles for the year, Liz gave her many fans lots of fun in 2015.

Our deepest thanks to these constructors for a truly great year. And now we present the winner of this year’s Margaret Farrar Award. To no one’s surprise, the award goes to Patrick Berry, the first two-time winner of this honor. By any measure, this was an exceptional year for an exceptional talent. Only one person (um, Patrick) scored an Orca nod in six of the seven categories we have presented this year (and now he’s been in seven of eight categories). He published 14 puzzles in the New York Times, four which earned Puzzle of the Week honors from Jeff Chen.

The honors keep piling up. Patrick won Matt Gaffney’s Crossword of the Month honor three times in 2015, first for his Fireball contest crossword, “What’s Left?,” in which rebus squares contained three of the four playing card suits (but not DIAMOND), six of the seven notes in do re mi (only LA was absent), and three of four corner directions from a compass (just not NE). Put the absent items together and you get DIAMOND LANE, the one that’s to the “left” on a highway.

The second puzzle to win Crossword of the Month was “Shifting Alliances,” part of Guest Constructor Month at Matt Gaffney’s crossword contest site. To borrow Matt’s description, this is the one where “two squares in each theme entry can take either one or two letters, the middle letter shifting its allegiance based on circumstance — and with either one working on the Down clues. Choosing the intended allegiance for each theme entry yields the fitting words SOLO and PARTNERS,” the answer to the puzzle’s meta. That baby mustered a mere 4.82 average with 28 five-star ratings from our readers.

The third Crossword of the Month selection was for “Same Difference,” the Wall Street Journal contest puzzle that scored an Orca nod earlier this week. Matt called it “an original and clean meta-idea, whose secrets reveal themselves in a logical and satisfying sequence. Each turn in the path is subtly concealed, but the correctness of the path is never in doubt once it’s found.”

And all week we haven’t talked about “Double Digits,” the number-rebus Sunday puzzle in the New York Times in which CAR 54 and TOP 40 fed into 54-40 OR FIGHT. And there was the Wednesday puzzle in which various terms for being in jail were reinterpreted, like [“I merely went to my yoga class, and now I’m”] DOING A STRETCH and [“I merely paddled my canoe against a current, and now I’m”] UP THE RIVER.

So much consistent goodness. Most of us would have been thrilled to have published one of these puzzles. By our count, we’ve covered ten(!) of his puzzles this week as being among the best of 2015. That’s just staggering. Many times, Patrick has been referred to as a Crossword Jesus on this and other sites. At some point in 2015, though, Jesus became Religion Patrick Berry.

Congratulations on a second Margaret Farrar Award, Patrick! We can’t wait to see what’s next.

The Orcas end tomorrow with the award for Best Crossword. Until then!

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14 Responses to The 2015 Orca Awards – Best Clue and Constructor of the Year

  1. DaveB says:

    I don’t get the SOFA clue. Can somebody explain it to me…please!

    • Matthew G. says:

      When cleaning your sofa, you might find unexpected change (i.e., coins under the cushions).

  2. Victor Barocas says:

    Wow, I am shocked and honored! Thanks so much, and thanks to everyone who helped me with construction and cluing, test-solved for me, handled my puzzles as an editor, and of course especially those who did the puzzles (without whom, they would be nothing for than trees falling silently in a forest, I suppose). I am proud to be part of such a terrific community.

    It’s been a great year for me (crosswords and otherwise), and I hope that everyone had a great 2015 and has an even better 2016.

    All the best,
    – VB

  3. Ruth says:

    well, dammit, I don’t get the Tom Hanks clue. Can someone please elucidate?

    • Matthew G. says:

      Many computer systems and websites use your first initial and last name–in lowercase–as your user name. So if your name were Tom Hanks, you might be given the user name “thanks.”

  4. Ruth says:

    merci! too clever for me

  5. Dan F says:

    I want to give a shout-out to Zhouqin “C.C.” Burnikel, who has been incredibly prolific over the last few years. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the most-published constructor in the major dailies (NYT, LAT, WSJ) last year. C.C. (and collaborators) seem to have an endless supply of creative, easy/medium themes, and she takes great care to stock her grids with fresh entries. Early-week puzzles are often boring to us puzzle veterans, so my day is brightened whenever I see a Burnikel byline.

    Thank you to all the constructors who have provided us so much challenge and entertainment, and as always Sam for picking his faves!

  6. Bruce N. Morton says:

    I didn’t get [T]hanks either (nor surprisingly, I suppose.) Another one, I guess I get, but it seems strange to me. An IOU is a payment note. A and E refer to the musical notes? — Is that the point? Does anyone think that the double meaning of the word “note” detracts from the clue? — or perhaps to the contrary, people may think it adds to it (?)

  7. chris says:

    wonderful puzzles, clues, and constructors all around. i quite enjoyed victor’s (especially the two mentioned above), but you can never go wrong with crossword jesus.

    meanwhile, given the winning clue, i’d be remiss if i didn’t mention this puzzle (by myself + george barany), whose central idea is largely the same as peter’s clue above.

  8. Paul Coulter says:

    Wow, I was really surprised to see my name here, but all credit for the SOFA clue goes to Rich. Congratulations to Peter for the USERNAME clue. T.HANKS was fiendishly clever – even after getting the answer from the crossings, I really had to think about that one. Congratulations also to the other winners – well deserved in every case!

    • Shawn P says:

      Congrats on the nomination Paul! I remember that clue very well even though the puzzle apparently came out 13 months ago!

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