The 2016 Orca Awards

Everyone’s favorite 8,000-word post is back! It’s time for the (now sixth!) annual Orca Awards, recognizing outstanding achievement in crossword construction and editing throughout several categories in 2016.

For the past two years the Orcas have been spread out over a whole week. It was consistent with the theory that fine crosswords should be savored like fine wine. But this time around we’re chugging the whole box jug bottle, as we return to a single post format with all the winners and nominees. Each puzzle category will feature the winner, along with a list of the other nominees (except for Best Crossword, which features just the winner, with the understanding that winners and nominees in other categories were considered for Best Crossword too). So let’s get on with it!

As in past years, preliminary nominees within each category were selected first based on the star ratings awarded by readers of this site. But unlike past years the Selection Committee (does it look more credible when capitalized?) considered a large number of puzzles not reviewed on this site, as well as others that, for whatever reason, were underrated here even though they were by most accounts truly impressive. Maybe that’s another way of saying that the selection method this year was more arbitrary than ever. Whatever. The Orcas are about appreciating great puzzles, and there are some real beauts in the paragraphs that follow. We’ll start with the award for Best Easy Crossword.

BEST EASY CROSSWORD: Untitled, by Dan Schoenholz (NYT, May 9)

BEST EASY CROSSWORD OF 2016: Untitled, by Dan Schoenholz (New York Times, May 9). Plenty of puzzles have used state postal abbreviations as thematic inspiration, so it takes something special to stand out with this gimmick. This one combined postal abbreviations with state nicknames–each theme answer starts with a word that is the nickname for a state, and the last word in each theme answer contains that state’s postal abbreviation. ALOHA SHIRT, for instance, starts with Hawaii’s nickname (the Aloha State) and ends with a word containing Hawaii’s postal abbreviation, HI. There’s also Missouri’s SHOW ME THE MONEY, Massachusetts’s’s’s’s BAY MARE, Delaware’s FIRST RESPONDER, and California’s GOLDEN CALF. That these theme entries are so tight and fit symmetrically is nothing short of mind-blowing. Crossword gold! Add in colorful fill (PLAY-DOH, SO TRUE, NO ICE, ACHE FOR, SO DO I, etc.) and you have an exceptional early-week offering.

This being a Monday puzzle, the abbreviations are shaded in the grid (circled for Across Lite solvers), and solvers are tipped to the gimmick through added information provided in the clue to the first theme answer. But the over-reveal doesn’t detract one bit from the puzzle’s elegance. If anything, it welcomes newbies, as a Monday puzzle should. The Orcas are off to a good start here.

Other Nominees for Best Easy Crossword (in order of date of publication in 2016):

  • Untitled, by Kathy Wienberg (New York Times, January 18). This Monday puzzle sent POETRY IN MOTION, with the six letters of POETRY found remixed in three other phrases: MINORITY REPORT, PYROTECHNIC, and PARTY PEOPLE. You could carp about inconsistency in the theme (two two-word theme answers and one one-word answer) but that would miss the really nice touches in this smooth 74-word grid. Few proper nouns (though SAM always makes a grid look smarter), just the right amount of rare letters, and classy stuff like MAELSTROM and KNOLL to make you feel smart while solving. Brava!
  • Untitled, by Bruce Haight (Los Angeles Times, January 27). Four phrases referring to large amounts of money are clued with reference to apt professions. PRETTY PENNY is a [Tidy sum, to a coin collector], AN ARM AND A LEG is a [Tidy sum, to a chairmaker], SMALL FORTUNE is a [Tidy sum, to a soothsayer], and KING’S RANSOM is a [Tidy sum, to a chess player]. The added tie-in to professions elevates the puzzle’s elegance, as does the great non-thematic fill like I NEED A NAP, BEAU GESTE, SAYS YES, HOPS ON, and DAY SPAS.
  • Hearing All Sides, by David Steinberg (Wall Street Journal, August 3). The puzzle pays tribute to PHIL SPECTOR and the WALL OF SOUND production technique he created by jamming the perimeter of the grid with onomatopoeic words like YAWN, TWEET, SPLAT, DING and DONG. Each sound is clued only with reference to the source of the sound, so TWEET is clued as [Small bird] and SPLAT is clued as [Food fight]. Smooth fill is extraordinarily difficult when the theme entries span every edge of the grid, but David makes it look easy here. Though one might quibble with the choice of honoree, this is how a great tribute puzzle should work–you don’t have to know anything about Phil Spector or the Wall of Sound to conquer it, yet the clever cluing angle and all of the fun noises allows for a truly enjoyable solve.
  • Untitled, by Bruce Haight (Los Angeles Times, October 19). Bruce again, this time with a CLOSING NUMBER, what you’ll find at the end of BREAKS EVEN, NET WEIGHT, MEZZANINE, and BROW-BEATEN. Sure, sometimes pronunciation of the number changes and sometimes it doesn’t. And sure, some theme answers have two words, one is a single word, and one is hyphenated. But if you’re frowning at a puzzle on these grounds, you must not enjoy crosswords very much. The grid has nice, open corners, together with fun fill like I’M GONE and YECCH. The theme is accessible but not so obvious as to be dull, which is trickier to pull off than you may think. Bonus points for the sequential appearance in the numbers from top to bottom!

BEST FREESTYLE CROSSWORD: Untitled, by Patrick Berry (NYT, November 25)

BEST FREESTYLE CROSSWORD OF 2016: Untitled, by Patrick Berry (New York Times, November 25). It’s no surprise to see Patrick Berry nominated in this (or any) category. But maybe it’s a mild surprise to see him win this award. Patrick has made so many great themeless puzzles over the years, and we expect such high standards from his work, that to single out any one of his puzzles for recognition suggests that it must be his magnum opus. We’re not saying that (probably because we selfishly hope that his magnum opus is yet to come). We’re just saying this is a terrific themeless puzzle.

Jeff Chen described this 68/32 crossword as “quintessential Patrick Berry,” meaning it was elegant, devoid of obscure entries or terms that likely won’t be in the general vocabulary a few years from now, and innovative in its layout. The eye is drawn immediately to stair-stepping 9s and 10s in the middle that give the grid’s center so much white space. It’s so daunting at first, but as you plunk in answers here and there it all comes together in such a satisfying way. Even better, the central Across entries are all fun: LESSON PLAN, TEA CADDIES, TAX RETURN, BRITANNICA, and HEAVEN SENT all have the potential for great clues. [Prepared statement], for instance, is a superb clue for TAX RETURN. Other great entries included RISING STAR, SPACE SUITS, and ME FIRST.

From the clue department, [Future reporter] for SEER is inspired. But the best clue may well have been [Drag out of a bed?] for TRAWL. Entertaining wordplay, interesting grids, and silky smooth fill–it’s trademark Patrick Berry and it’s why this puzzle wins Best Freestyle.

Other Nominees for Best Freestyle Crossword, again in order of publication date:

  • Untitled, by Josh Knapp (New York Times, March 12). Clean, open corners, with fill for all ages (BOX SOCIAL and a USO SHOW meet QUESTLOVE and THAT’S WHAT’S UP). Plus some great clues ([Bush junior?] for ROO, [Something off the wall?] for ART, [Where dogs may be put in the backyard] for BBQ PIT, [Not having many different parts?] for TYPECAST.) You can’t ask for more in a knotty Saturday puzzle. This is a great example of Josh’s usual great work on themeless puzzles. He just crams so much great stuff into grids that you smile at nearly every twist and turn. Alas, you may remember this as the puzzle that garnered a lot of scowls for cluing SCOLD not as a verb but as [Termagant], an archaic and sexist noun. This might explain why its star rating was the lowest of any nominee in this category.
  • Untitled, by Robyn Weintraub (New York Times, April 22). If you’re wondering whether a themeless crossword has to be completely devoid of subpar fill to be truly great, let this one be Exhibit A in the case for “no, it does not.” This spectacular offering contains NENE, ANOS, ANAS, EES, YOO, and AGA. But is also has SMARTYPANTS, MADE YOU LOOK, ORDER ONLINE (stacked no less!), GREEN EGGS, ZYDECO, BOZO, LIVE A LITTLE, NAIL GUN, IVY LEAGUE, and PASSED OUT. Even the more mediocre stuff gets some great clues (see [Cold remedies?] for RADIATORS). We’ll happily take rare Hawaiian birds and some Turkish chiefs if it means we get fresh, inventive stuff like this.
  • Untitled, by David Steinberg (New York Times, November 4). 45-Across says it best: WOW, JUST WOW. This 68/34 marvel was cram-packed with sparkly stuff like ABOVE WATER, HOT STONE MASSAGE, CHEAP DATE, and SOUP UP. But, without question, the star of the show was the southwest corner with WOW JUST WOW teetering atop the great triple-stack of ASK ANYONE, SLOW DANCE, and TUNA STEAK. The clues were perfectly pitched for a Friday puzzle, with gems like [Professional boxer?] for MOVER, [Things short people have?] for DEBTS, and [Something no one can sing?] for DUET. There was even a mini-theme in the clues, with four of the first five Across clues containing “pot” ([Pot remnant], [Pot part], [Anagram of “pots”], and just plain [Pot]).
  • Themeless Monday #389, by Brendan Emmett Quigley (BEQ, November 7). Back in 2013, Brendan published his 600th online puzzle, a themeless that snagged an Orca nod. Three hundred puzzles later, he repeats the feat. This, the 900th puzzle published on Brendan’s site, stars WAX NOSTALGIC, SAY THE MAGIC WORD, and JE NE SAIS QUOI as the only entries with double-digit letters. But the mid-length stuff is classic. I REPEAT, SAME AGE, SOBER UP, SATURN V, ART MAJORS, SEMIOTICS, DAY SPA, and the PEQUOD all make cameos. As you come to expect from a multiple Orca-winning constructor, the clues show a masterful touch. [Go back in time?] is superb for WAX NOSTALGIC, and [Some men get a rise out of it] is a just-the-right-amount-of-cheeky clue for VIAGRA. (My favorite was [Siamese dogs?] as the clue for PAWS.) Be on the lookout for the 1,200th puzzle when it drops sometime in 2019–never bet against a streak!

BEST SUNDAY-SIZED CROSSWORD: “Twisting One’s Words,” by Jeff Chen (NYT, January 17)

MERL REAGLE AWARD FOR BEST SUNDAY-SIZED CROSSWORD OF 2016: Twisting One’s Words, by Jeff Chen (NYT, January 17). We’re accustomed to the occasional puzzle where theme answers change direction in the grid. This one took things to another level, honoring the CORIOLIS FORCE. You know, the Coriolis Force (aka the Coriolis Effect)–what causes hurricanes to spin in one direction in northern hemisphere but the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere. Likewise in the puzzle grid, theme answers (all reading Down) in the northern half pivot counterclockwise around orphan black squares. In the southern half of the grid, they pivot clockwise around single black squares.

This gimmick required theme answers with repeated letters. Often when constraints like that are imposed on the theme it’s hard to find theme answers that are interesting in an of themselves. But here we get quality theme answers like IS THIS THING ON, MANIFEST DESTINY, and ON HANDS AND KNEES. What’s most impressive is that Jeff weaves eight theme answers plus a 13-letter revealer in a grid that features sparkly non-theme fill like HOLODECK, MPEG FILE, GO TO RUIN, and ASIAN FLU. A truly amazing construction worthy of the Reagle Award.

Other nominees for Best Sunday-sized Crossword (in order of publication date):

  • The Word is Out, by Evan Birnholz (Washington Post, May 15). This puzzle features six phrases in the form of “the x is y,” not as theme entries but as instructions for making sense of six other entries that otherwise don’t match their clues. For example, the completed grid says the answer to 38-Across, [Clue, for example], is BOARD UP. But that makes no sense until you see that the [Phrase that explains 38-Across] is THE GAME IS UP. By replacing “up” with “game,” solvers get BOARD GAME, a much better answer to the original clue. As an added degree of elegance, even the six “weird” entries are legit answers by themselves (BOARD UP is a perfectly fine answer, just not with that clue). Evan’s construction takes a real risk here–solvers that are too lazy to play hide and seek once a grid is completed will likely find the gimmick annoying and unsatisfying. And if we had a steady diet of puzzles like this, I’d tend to agree. But this was a clever, one-time diversion that supplied six little “aha” moments, adding up to one very satisfying solve. Others agreed, as it was the highest-rated Sunday-sized puzzle from 2016 (an impressive 4.78-star average rating).
  • Exhibit A, by Patrick Berry (New York Times, May 15). How about that–two Orca-nominated Sundays published the same day! The title to this one has you thinking of courtroom drama, but it’s better parsed as “this puzzle exhibits the A at the start of a word by treating it instead as an article.” Thus the Apache helicopter becomes A PATCHY HELICOPTER, or a [Whirlybird whose paint job is flaking off]. Likewise [What Carrie needed after the prom] was not a “change of address” but a CHANGE OF A DRESS. Seven more fun theme entries in a grid that is distinctly the work of Patrick Berry (see the Best Freestyle discussion for the elements of Berry-ness). Once again Patrick shows that you don’t have to have the wackiest or most out-of-the-box idea for a Sunday puzzle to shine. All you need is a fun and consistently executed theme with no obscure fill and clues that go hard on the wordplay. Yep, that’s all (he said sarcastically). Bonus points for the fun clue [It often contains “lies”] for the non-thematic EPITAPH.
  • Writer’s Block, by Evan Birnholz (Washington Post, July 17). Evan’s back with another fun, well-executed concept. The grid contains five book titles clued in a straightforward way. What’s not straightforward is that the last name of each book’s author must appear in one of the grid’s black squares in order for the adjacent Across and Down entries to make sense. For instance, there’s a black square in the upper-left corner (something some editors frown upon, so perhaps that was a sign of the gimmick). Solvers are supposed to use Harper LEE in that square to get LEERING reading across and LEEWARD reading down. For three of the writers, the names work for two Across and two Down entries (Anne Rice, e.g., pulls quadruple duty with AVARICE, RICE CAKE, BEATRICE, and RICE BELT). Here too notice that the author-less entries make sense in the grid but don’t match their clues (CAKE is perfectly appealing, but it’s sure not the answer to [Low-calorie snack].) The grid scores elegance points for having the five author squares placed symmetrically.  Note the five writers are in blocks, thus fully realizing the puzzle’s title. One suspects the term “writer’s block” was the inspiration for this puzzle. Thank goodness it did so we could all enjoy this treat.
  • Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other, by Jeff Chen (Wall Street Journal, October 8). This was a personal favorite from the year. The clues to the seven theme entries reveal the gimmick quickly, but that doesn’t take anything away from the fun of the solve. The clue for 23-Across, for example, reads [Hitchcock classic / tik a ni metI]. (Actually, in the print version the clue is typeset to be an exact mirror image of a forward-facing clue, but I can’t pull off that magic here.) The answer is DIALMFORMURDERANS. Do you see it? Reading from left to right is DIAL M FOR MURDER, with some leftover letters. But reading from right to left reveals SNARE DRUM (also with leftover letters). The last six letters of the film title are also the last six letters of the musical instrument, just in reverse order. Thus you get six of one going from left to right and half a dozen of the other going from right to left! Other theme entries included AMERIGOVESPUCCIHEHT (Amerigo Vespucci/the hiccups) and BECAUSEISAIDSONEUB (because I said so/buenos dias). Jeff’s grids always include fun nonthematic tidbits, and this is no exception The gems WIFE TO BE, MADE A PASS, MATING CALLS, STREAKER, and CAMPUS MAP almost tell a story of their own, though I’m not sure whether it would be TMI to tell it. In any case, if you like a little treasure hunting in your solving experience, this is an ideal puzzle. Had a similar puzzle not appeared at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament earlier in the year, this one could have been the winner. Either way, it looks like it was Jeff’s year.

BOB KLAHN AWARD FOR MOST OUTSTANDING CLUE OF 2016: [Getting off topic] for SEXOLOGY, Erik Agard, Untitled, A-Garde Puzzles, November 21). This year we announced the Bob Klahn Award nominees via a puzzle that received thousands hundreds tens of downloads. All ten nominees were featured in the grid. If you want the joy of figuring them out sans spoilers, have at it before reading further. Otherwise, we’re getting to the answers straight away. (Spoiler space is so 2000-and-late.)

This year’s Klahn Award goes to [Getting off topic], the clue for SEXOLOGY that appeared in one of the many terrific puzzles published online by Erik Agard in “A-Garde,” a collection of a dozen crosswords, “each a little strange in its own way” (as the website correctly claims). This one clue gives you a sense of how much fun the whole collection is–and hey, it’s still available if you click on the link above.

Erik has the great ability to re-parse common phrases to great effect. Here, the solver initially thinks of DIGRESSING as the answer, and when that doesn’t fit the solver tries to think of other synonyms that do. But that goes nowhere. Only after going through this exercise does the solver then read the clue in its intended way, and the solver can’t help but grin, both from the satisfaction of figuring it out and from appreciation of the clever wordplay. Thanks, Erik, for this and many other moments of entertainment in 2016!

Here were the other nominees for the Bob Klahn Award for Most Outstanding Clue in order of publication, because that’s how we roll here (for this award we credit both constructor and editor, as we don’t really know the source of the clue):

  • [Boxer, in brief?] for SEN. (Peter A. Collins, Peter Gordon) (Fireball, February 24).
  • [Prefix with f Boyardee] for CHE (Francis Heaney, Ben Tausig) (AV Club, April 2) (more on this puzzle appears below).
  • [What a chair covers] for AGENDA (David Phillips and David Steinberg, Will Shortz) (NYT, May 13).
  • [Balance sheets?] for YOGA MATS (Byron Walden, Will Shortz) (NYT, July 16).
  • [Leaving on a jet plane, say] for FORGETTING (Erik Agard, August 8).
  • [One dragging on and on and on?] for CHAIN SMOKER (Joon Pahk, September 13).
  • [Graces with one’s company] for SOCIAL ETIQUETTE (Erik Agard, September 13).
  • [You thinking what I’m thinking?] for ESP (Jeremy Newton, Will Shortz) (NYT, September 18).
  • [Previously used by poets] for ERE (Paul Coulter, Mike Shenk) (WSJ, November 26).

BEST TOURNAMENT CROSSWORD: “Quote Boxes” by Francis Heaney (Lollapuzzoola 9)

BEST TOURNAMENT CROSSWORD OF 2016: Quote Boxes, by Francis Heaney (Lollapuzzoola 9: It’s Hip to Be Squared). Go ahead and click on the grid to the right and take the time to let it all sink in. You see what’s going on there, right? Five famous four-word movie quotes are squeezed into a box shape made of four squares in the grid. Each word is then part of both an Across and Down entry, so DEAL in the lower right corner feeds into D.E.A. LAB for the Across and DEALER for the Down. To make it all fit (and legible), contestants could write the corresponding word into the blanks beneath the grid.

This is a great tournament crossword because you need some time to figure out what’s happening, but once you do you can be off to the races with a good chance of finishing within the allotted time. There was a bit of a hint in the lower left corner, with AS IF clued as [Famous two-word movie quote from Alicia Silverstone (you may find some longer ones from Cher, Faye Dunaway, Humphrey Bogart, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Shirley MacLaine elsewhere in the grid)], but most competitors probably saw what was happening before reaching that point.

As is typical of Francis Heaney puzzles, there were fun and interesting clues. ROCKWELL, for instance, could be clued in any number of ways, but Francis makes it more evocative with [Artist whose 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With” was used when O.J. Simpson’s defense team redecorated his house for the jury’s benefit]. On the fun side, ISLIP was a [Long Island town that looks like a clumsy person’s confession] and the [Topic of a Jew dough lesson?] was a BAGEL.

Congratulations (and thanks) to Francis on the Best Tournament Crossword! Other nominees for Best Tournament Crossword, by publication date:

  • Symbology, by Zhouqin Burnikel (American Crossword Puzzle Tournament). Solvers eased back into the tournament from the lunch break with this wonderful easy puzzle requiring solvers to read symbols in a different sense. The clue for 17-Across, e.g., was — (a dash). Get it? The clue is really [Dash], and the answer is TRACK EVENT. Likewise [ ] is really [Brackets], which clues TAX LEVELS. Fun concept! The grid’s also loaded with good stuff like NO FEAR ACT, C’EST LA VIE, BELIEVE ME, ART SCAM, I’M NEXT, ICED LATTE, and FIASCOS. Smooth, interesting, and accessible–the hallmarks of a Burnikel puzzle.
  • Changing Lanes, by Patrick Berry (American Crossword Puzzle Tournament). This was the dreaded “Puzzle 5,” the hard one that makes or breaks you in the standings. It did just that. In a way, it’s too bad this was a tournament puzzle because only several hundred people will have the joy of solving it. This was a thing of beauty to behold. Lots of Across entries had no clues–a tip that something weird was happening. It turned out those unclued entries were the continuation of Down entries that took an across turn before continuing down. Okay, you’re thinking, the answers took a couple of turns in the grid–that’s not so hard. But here’s the kicker: that same sequence of letters in the unclued entry was also used in reverse order for a different Down entry! Ugh, that explanation does no justice to the concept. Let’s illustrate: two Down answers in the grid were VITAL SIGNS and LEGISLATION. But here’s how they looked in the grid:
 V           E
 I T A L S I G
 O           N
 N           S

VITAL SIGNS runs left to right over the seven shared letters, while LEGISLATION runs right to left. So cool! And there five more pairs of theme entries in this 19×19 grid that were all just as good.

  • I Now Pronounce You…, by Sam Trabucco (The Indie 500). The grid’s central entry is CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW, clued as a [Question from someone with a bad connection…or from the silent letter(s) in the original answers to the starred clues?]. There were six starred clues, and the expected answers to those clues contained silent letters. For example, [Military subdivision] suggests CORPS, with its silent P (and S). But what if you pronounced those silent letters? Well, then it would sound like CORPSE, and that’s what you have to enter into the grid. Nice! Likewise, KNEW becomes CANOE, and BERETS turn into BERATES. The theme clues contained some unnecessary (and, frankly, annoying) extra chatter like “Sorry, I’m going through a tunnel” and “Wait, I’ll be out of the elevator in a bit” to really hammer home the whole “can you hear me now” gimmick–look, the theme clues were already starred, so there’s no need to overplay the joke. But this was still a really clever idea for a tournament puzzle.
  • Down in Front, by Evan Birnholz (Lollapuzzoola 9). As the title suggests, the front (first three or four) letters to the longest Across answers appear in the grid running down, with the rest of the letters reading across. Interestingly and elegantly, when you do that, the word reading across in the grid is also a valid word. For instance, the answer to the clue for 18-Across, [Certain branch], was DENOMINATION, but solvers had to write the first three letters running down (they were used to complete ARDEN, by the way) and then the remaining letters (OMINATION) across from the first letter (D). So in the grid it just looks like DOMINATION. The same trick was used for A(NA)TOMICALLY, B(ART)ENDER, C(ONS)ENSUS, and B(AS)ERATE. Great use of title and just the right amount of subtlety to make for an excellent tournament puzzle!

BEST CONTEST CROSSWORD: “Across the Board” by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC, February 26)

BEST META/CONTEST CROSSWORD OF 2016: Across the Board, by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #404, February 26). Contest crosswords are a unique challenge for constructors. Like most puzzles, they require original themes that are well executed. But contest puzzles also include the riddle element, the “bonus” for which solvers are hunting. The riddle–the “meta”–needs to put up just the right amount of resistance, enough so that those who uncover the answer feel proud but not so much that solvers who fail find the exercise unfair.

We’ve reviewed lots of great contest crosswords on this site during 2016, but one puzzle absolutely stood out from the pack, and that was Matt Gaffney’s ode to a certain board game. The puzzle itself is just 11 square squares (er, it’s an 11×11 grid). By itself, the grid doesn’t look all that exceptional. The clues feel a little stilted, too. [Winged warbler] for DOVE? [Fun prancing] for ROMP? [Visually appropriated] for APED? What in the world is going on, and how is one supposed to divine “an eight-letter word,” the contest’s instruction?

What’s going on is this: every answer in the grid corresponds to a space on the Monopoly game board, and the clue for that answer shares the same initials as the Monopoly space. Check out ROMP at 1-Across. That answer starts in the upper-left corner, which in Monopoly is the Free Parking space. Sure enough, the clue for ROMP, [Fun prancing] has the same initials as Free Parking. Now look at 2-Down. On the Monopoly board, 2-Down starts at the space that’s Kentucky Avenue. And whaddya know, the clue for 2-Down (OH SURE) is [Kiddingly, “Alright!”]. This pattern continues all the way around the grid’s perimeter! Every single Across and Down answer corresponds to a Monopoly space, and every clue shares the same initials as that space. The answer to the meta, then, is MONOPOLY.

This construction is simply staggering. It’s not simply that there are 40 answers to go with 40 Monopoly spaces–each answer in grid begins or ends where that exact Monopoly space appears on the game board. When you start to reverse-engineer the process and think of how Matt got this all to work, you’re quickly reduced to a quivering blob of failure. Commenters were in awe, using words like “astonishing,” “spectacular,” “brilliant,” and just plan “wow.” Even those who missed the gimmick took the time to share their amazement. In a way, that’s among the highest praise you can bestow to a contest puzzle: I didn’t get it, but damn that’s clever. Debbie observed, “I have a feeling we’ll be seeing this puzzle again around this time next year…#OrcaAwards.” You nailed it, Debbie.

Congratulations to Matt on this well-deserved Best Contest Crossword Orca! Other nominees for Best Contest Crossword, by publication date:

  • Business is Booming, by Matt Gaffney (MGWCC #403, February 19). Yep, just the week before his Monopoly masterpiece, Matt unleashed this ode to Minesweeper. (Matt has a thing for games, it seems.) Solvers had to play Minesweeper using the completed grid. Here’s how Joon explained the rules of the game in his review (the lack of capitalization proves this was a cut-and-paste job): “for those who don’t know the game, each square in the grid is either a mine or not a mine. if you click a square that turns out to be a mine, it blows up and you lose; if it’s not a mine, the square will turn into a number that indicates how many mines are (orthogonally or diagonally) adjacent. if that number is 0, the cell is blank and it automatically opens up all adjacent squares. well, in this crossword grid, [there are a sh!+-load of Ms, which stand for mines; and] almost every square is orthogonally or diagonally adjacent to a mine.” But if you take the letters that are not adjacent to a mine and read them in order, they spell the meta answer, THANKS I HAD A BLAST. So did solvers! It snagged 47 five-star ratings from readers, the second-highest number of five-star ratings for the year.
  • Prime Directive, by Pete Muller (Muller Monthly Music Meta, June). A baker’s dozen theme entries(!), all marked with asterisks and symmetrically placed in a standard 15×15 grid. Following the puzzle’s title, solvers are directed to string those theme entries end to end from top to bottom and take the letters from the “prime” spaces in that string (i.e., the second letter, the third letter, the fifth letter, the seventh letter, the eleventh letter, and so on). That spelled the meta answer, DON’T STAND SO CLOSE TO ME. Not many people got it, but those who did found it very satisfying. Those who didn’t felt the *cough* sting.
  • Externalities, by Pete Muller (Muller Monthly Music Meta, September).
    Twelve clues contained asterisks. The answers to those clues run along the left and right edges of the grid. The word CLOUD could be added to the theme answers in the top third of the grid to form the titles of popular songs (like Cloud Nine and Rain Cloud), the word LOVE could be added to the theme answers in the middle third of the grid for four more songs (like Love Tap and One Love), and the word LIFE could be added to the theme answers at the bottom of the grid to make another four songs (including Life Line and Lush Life). The added words CLOUD, LOVE, and LIFE in turn suggest Joni Mitchell’s BOTH SIDES, NOW, the meta answer. How fitting that the added words can be added to the ends of both sides of the grid, and how amazing that the solving process allows for the tie to a dozen different songs. It is a music-themed meta, after all. And if that’s not enough, the name JON/IMIT/ETCH/ELL runs symmetrically down the grid’s middle as a subtle hint!
  • Backdrops, by Patrick Berry (Wall Street Journal, September 23). Solvers had to find a “theater employee” somehow related to nine theme entries. The clues for each theme entry suggested a two-word answer, but it appeared that the grid contained only the first word from each phrase. The answer to [Inferior movie segment?] couldn’t just be LESSER, right? There had to be another word to go with it. Here’s where expert meta solvers think to read the puzzle’s title. Turns out the grid does contain the second word, REEL, if you read LESSER backwards and drop the double-Ss. Likewise, STILTED works as the answer to [Unnatural eateries?] when you drop the two T’s and read it backward to get the second word DELIS. For the end game, you take all of the dropped double letters from each theme entry and read them in order from top to bottom–they spell STAGEHAND, the meta answer. This right here is yet another display of Patrick Berry’s genius. Readers heaped praises on the puzzle, but commenter Doug P may have said it best: “Berry is a witch.”

BEST GIMMICK CROSSWORD OF 2016: “A Little Back-and-Forth” by Byron Walden (American Values Club, July 6).

BEST GIMMICK CROSSWORD OF 2016: A Little Back-and-Forth, by Byron Walden (American Values Club, July 6). Where to start with this one–there is so much to behold. Each of four wacky phrases contain both ZIG and ZAG–think BENGHAZIGATE PIZZA GIRL, for instance. What makes the puzzle stand out is that that the theme entries literally ZIG and ZAG diagonally in the grid. Note too how each theme entry reads in a different direction–one from left to right (DANZIG JAZZ-AGERS), one from right to left (BUZZ IGNATZ AGAIN), one from top to bottom (the aforementioned pizza girl), and one from bottom to top (MITZI GAYNOR’S ZAGNUT BAR)–that way, all of the theme letters read in the proper order!

Now look at all the juicy non-thematic fill (hello, GAY LIT, DYE JOBS, OPERAMAN, SLOT B, TWINKY, and CAT FEET). It’s one thing to make all the theme entries work, but to have so much wonderful surrounding fill elevates an already impressive puzzle into something really special.

Some commenters on this blog disliked the contrived theme entries and/or the abundance of pop culture references. (By the way, here’s a little blog decoder ring: when one complains of “too much trivia” or “too much pop culture” in a puzzle, one is saying “I’ve never heard of this, and since I’ve never heard of it how can it be worth anyone’s knowing about it?” A bit conceited, no?) But many more readers showered the puzzle with mad props–the puzzle received 37 five-star ratings on this site. Lise said, “The AVCX was so fun that I was nearly late to work (yesterday). I loved the theme entries, and I always appreciate a Calvin and Hobbes reference. It was so unusual and cleverly crafted.”

Unusual and clever are the signature features of the Best Gimmick Crossword Orca, so this puzzle earns the prize. Still, it wasn’t an easy choice. Look at the other nominees for Best Gimmick Puzzle:

  • Ruby Slippers, by Andrew J. Ries (Fireball Crosswords, January 7). The clue for 64-Across tell us RED HERRING is both a whodunit staple and the puzzle’s theme. That’s because the clues to the four theme answers contain an extra shade of red that had solvers going off in wildly different directions. The clue at 16-Across, for instance, is [Pink Floyd hit with hooks (also known as “Money”)]. That’s odd, for there is no other title to that song (is there?). But one is supposed to ignore the red herring (i.e., the word “Pink”), leaving [Floyd hit with hooks (also known as “Money”)]. That gives you the correct answer, MAYWEATHER (as in professional boxer Floyd “Money” Mayweather). Likewise, the correct answer to [Crimson Tide and others] is DETERGENTS once one drops the “Crimson” distraction. What a great interpretation of RED HERRING! (Interestingly, Andrew had his outstanding DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS puzzle appear in the New York Times on the same day this Fireball offering dropped. That’s a one-two punch that would knockout even Floyd Mayweather!)
  • No Seconds for Me, Thanks, by Jeff Chen (American Values Club, June 8). Right away solvers are flummoxed, as it seems no answers fit in the grid. But the title explains the gimmick: just skip the second square in every answer. Thus, for example, the eight-letter answer BY GEORGE fits into the nine squares allotted for the answer if you leave the second square blank. Yet when you do the same thing with the corresponding Down entry, the empty second square in BY GEORGE gets filled in with an “O,” leaving the final grid to read BOY GEORGE! Now anyone could have made a puzzle where the second square could be filled in by any old random crossing, but here the added letter serves to make a legitimate entry in and of itself. Brilliant! Still, though, the completed grid has seven blank squares (because they’re the second squares in both Across and Down entries). Yet solvers can add a letter to each of those squares to form new Across and Down answers–and that’s where this gets really good: Only one letter will fit in each empty square, and those letters spell the phrase ON A DIET. A perfect meta answer, given the puzzle’s title. This ran as a contest puzzle, so it could have been listed among the nominees for that prize. But the monster ambition required to make this concept work at every level made it feel more like a superior gimmick puzzle, hence its inclusion here. Regardless of the category in which you see it, though, this one was one of the memorable stars of 2016.
  • Vwllss Crsswrd, by Frank Longo (Fireball Crosswords, September 28). This puzzle isn’t a nominee because of its uniqueness–vowelless crosswords have been a thing for many years. But this gem from master craftsman Frank Longo is a nominee because of all the terrific entries and clues. Frank uses the vowelless format to show off terrific entries that are too cumbersome in full form, like FFTNMNTSFFM (FIFTEEN MINUTES OF FAME) and PSTVRNFRCMNT (POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT). There’s also the entries that have so many vowels that you really have to think through the answers even after the grid is completed. (Good luck getting AUTOROTATION from TRTTN!) On the clue front, one need go no further than the clue for 1-Across, STEWIE GRIFFIN (er, STWGRFFN), to find a goodie: [“Family Guy” character who said “When I’m done with you, you’re going to hate me more than the other vowels hate Y” (6,7)]. There’s no better opening to a vowelless puzzle.
  • Thank Goodness That’s Over, by Francis Heaney (American Values Club, November 9). The day after the presidential election, Francis brought us a Sunday-sized puzzle that was so delicious in its gimmickry that it seemed to belong here more than up above with the other 21×21 nominees. The letters at the beginning and end of each theme entry spelled the name of a country. To make each one fit in the grid, solvers had to BRING THE COUNTRY TOGETHER into the center of the answer. Thus, the answer BEN FRANKLIN, which has the letter for BENIN on the ends, goes into the grid as FRABENINNKL. Not only did Francis have to find good answers with end letters that spelled out nations, those answers had to break evenly so that the country name could appear exactly centered in the grid. Such a clever concept and, naturally, so well executed. And so dense! A 21×21 puzzle often has six to eight theme answers, but this one had 11 plus the whole BRING THE COUNTRY TOGETHER revealer. An extraordinary (and extraordinarily underrated) crossword.
  • Ending With a Boom, by Alex Eaton-Salners (Fireball Crosswords, December 15). The first Fireball of 2016 was Andrew Ries’s “Ruby Slippers” (another nominee for this award), and the last one was this great offering from one of the cross-world’s rising new stars, Alex Eaton-Salners. The recipe here is simple but unique: one part rebus (the letters MIC appearing in a single square four times over), one part visual stunt (in the Down entries, the MIC should be “dropped” to the bottom of each answer so that, for instance, the answer is not P(MIC)OLE, as it looks in the grid, but POLE(MIC)), shaken vigorously, and garnished with the perfect revealer, DROP THE MIC. The Fireball sure knew how to bookend another fine year!

MARGARET FARRAR AWARD FOR 2016 CONSTRUCTOR OF THE YEAR: Matt Gaffney. This is familiar territory for Matt, as he won the Farrar Award in 2012. To legions of solvers, Matt’s name is synonymous with “meta.” He may not have created the contest crossword, but he’s clearly the king of the medium. In addition to his weekly subscription-based crossword contest (nearing its tenth birthday!), Matt’s a regular in the Wall Street Journal’s Friday contest puzzle rotation and he writes his own daily 10×10 puzzle. On top of that he publishes the occasional puzzle in other outlets. The guy knows how to churn out quality crosswords consistently.

2016 was another remarkable year for Matt. Take all of the puzzles reviewed on this site that received at least 20 ratings from readers–that’s about 450 puzzles. To have a puzzle in the top 45 (top 10%) would be fantastic. To have two puzzles in the top 10% would be amazing. Yet Matt had 13 of the top 45. Heck, he constructed five of the top six! In addition to making the best-loved puzzles, he’s a good ambassador of crosswords, being a regular contributor here and on his own blog (where he unknowingly did some R&D for the Orcas with his own Crossword of the Month honor).

Congratulations, Matt, on another well-deserved Farrar Award! Others had a pretty impressive 2016, though. Briefly, here are five others who could also lay claim to the title of “Constructor of the Year” (listed alphabetically by surname):

  • Erik Agard. He won the Bob Klahn Award for having the best clue (as well as two other nominees for the prize!), but Erik Agard would be in this list even if his clues weren’t consistently killer. He epitomizes the “indie constructor” in all the best ways. He publishes work when it’s ready–sometimes weeks go by without anything new on his Glutton for Pun site, and then suddenly he’ll drop a half-dozen puzzles on the same day. His grids aren’t always square; rather than show off some marquee answers in a conventional 15×15 grid, he’ll build a grid around those star answers. If the result is only eight squares tall or ten squares wide, then so be it. Form follows function in an Agard puzzle, and in that sense his work is genuinely pioneering. I won’t claim to understand every one of his gimmicks, but the puzzles are always great fun to solve and something to admire when completed. Can’t wait to see what 2017 has in store from him!
  • Patrick Berry. It’s as simple as this: if Patrick Berry was not on this list, the list would have no street cred. And it’s not just that Patrick always makes great puzzles–he made some truly great ones in 2016. He won Best Freestyle and had nods in three other categories, after all. For most anyone else, it would have been a career year. Happily for us, it was “just another career year” for Patrick.
  • Zhouqin (“C.C.”) Burnikel. Few people will publish as many crosswords in their lifetime as C.C. Burnikel published in 2016 (90+ puzzles by my informal count). While she published themed and themeless puzzles throughout the year, it’s fair to say she specializes in early-week puzzles that are good at getting beginners into the hobby. Her grids are consistently devoid of dreck and while the themes are almost always plainly apparent, they’re also tight. We’ve said many times that easy puzzles are often the hardest to construct, but you wouldn’t know it from C.C.’s prolific work. C.C. has also collaborated with (it seems) dozens of others on puzzles, suggesting she is “paying it forward” in helping others see their ideas turned into published puzzles.
  • Jeff Chen. Speaking of prolific collaborators who can do it all…. Jeff Chen is another of our craft’s great citizens. He’s always helping someone new “break into the business.” But that’s not the extent of his service. Jeff has the reins over at xwordinfo, the site that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about all the puzzles that have ever appeared in the New York Times (and a few thousand more things on top of that). Jeff made his own word list available to other constructors through that site, a contribution that has helped many established and beginning constructors with their own work. But Jeff’s not on this list because he’s a good guy–he’s here because of the great run of puzzles that appeared in print in 2016. He won the Best Sunday-sized Crossword Orca and his “No Seconds for Me, Please” puzzle was just stunning. Jeff works and works and works a grid until he’s satisfied it’s at the peak of freshness and smoothness. Few others have such dedication to making the best possible grid, so he easily merits a spot on this list.
  • Francis Heaney. Francis is another who has won the Farrar Award before (for 2013) and his work continues to impress. When you see his byline, you know something clever is coming. Whether it was the Quote Boxes puzzle that won Best Tournament Crossword, his election parody crossword, or, well, anything else, Francis always delivered something original and amusing. Speaking of Francis….

BEST CROSSWORD OF 2016: Getting Duped by Francis Heaney (Part 1)

BEST CROSSWORD OF 2016: Getting Duped, by Francis Heaney (American Values Club, April 2). Some context will help here. If you’ll recall, on the eve of the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, our little cross-world was still reeling from accusations that puzzles appearing in USA Today were recycled from The New York Times. Puzzle plagiarism was the hot topic of the day. Not surprisingly, someone found a way to make merriment from this most serious issue. Happily, that someone was Francis.

It started with a suitable but not really Heaney-esque bonus puzzle sent to AV Club subscribers on April 2 (the day after April Fool’s Day, so how were we supposed to suspect anything?). There was kinda-sorta a theme based on duplication, with the theme answers KNOCKED OFF, ASYMMETRIC, PARAPHRASE, and WAX DUMMIES. The puzzle was … okay. But when you saw the byline and the venue, you knew there had to be something more. And hoo boy, was there.

BEST CROSSWORD OF 2016 (part 2)

In the cover letter to subscribers, AV Club editor Ben Tausig proclaimed this would be the first of two bonus puzzles, the other to be “provided by a special guest who works for our rival puzzle, the United States Devalued Crossword, taking a temporary break from his normal gig.” Hmm. Sure enough, a second puzzle came just hours later, constructed by one “Rochester McMahon” and edited by a “Titus Nixon.” And that puzzle was…well…not so good. Along with the extra puzzle, though, Ben attached a note from Francis, claiming that “the guest who was supposed to help out with this second puzzle didn’t understand what we hired him to do. Maybe by studying both grids solvers can figure out the part of his job description that he appears to have misinterpreted.” Ooh, a riddle!

Thanks to Matt Gaffney for this annotated version of the second grid!

Sure enough, if you compare the two grids, you see that the second puzzle copies the first puzzle’s theme entries (and their locations in the grid). You also notice the second grid adds 15 more black squares (yeesh), perhaps to hide the fact that, to be generous, it leans heavily on the first grid for inspiration. And then there’s all those X’s in the second grid–as if someone is trying to impress solvers with some Scrabble-[copulating]. Despite the “fixes” to the grid, it’s clear the first puzzle is “getting duped.”

That’s pretty clever. But we’re just getting started. If you take the 15 letters from the first grid that turn into black squares in the second grid, and read those letters from top to bottom and left to right, they spell OTHER GRID UNDER X. And if you look at the letters beneath every X in the X-laden second grid, they spell out COPY EDITOR. And there’s the answer to the riddle posed by Francis’s note. The guest constructor thought the “copy editor” was in charge of copying puzzles instead of editing copy. Brilliant!

Given the events of the day, the double meaning of “copy editor” was just about the perfect meta answer, and the execution of this idea is simply amazing. Both grids were under heavy constraints–the first grid needed to have some kind of theme and 15 letters appearing in predetermined cheater-square positions. The second grid needed ten(!) Xs with fixed letters appearing underneath each one. Jeepers!

But wait, there’s even more. Even those who don’t like hunting for metas had to enjoy the comedic, intentionally-gawd-awful cluing of the second puzzle. (See the Klahn Award nominee already discussed.) As a riff on plagiarism, these puzzles were a welcome diversion. As a wry commentary on how “improving” another’s work often misses the mark, they’re razor sharp. As a fun gimmick, these puzzles are highly original. And as a contest puzzle, they offer a most satisfying “aha” moment.

The bottom line is simple: this crossword could have won the Orcas for Best Contest Crossword and Best Gimmick Crossword. No other puzzle in the Orca era has done that. That makes Getting Duped the Best Crossword of 2016. Congratulations to Francis Heaney and editor Ben Tausig!

That’s a wrap for the 2016 Orcas! Thanks as always to Evad for compiling all of the star ratings in an accessible format and to Amy Reynaldo for hosting this platform. See you next year!

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5 Responses to The 2016 Orca Awards

  1. joon says:

    sam, thanks so much for this writeup. it’s lovely to {Go back in time?} every year to revisit the best of the best. one of these years, we’re going to have to find a way for the academy to honor you with a lifetime achievement orca.

    congrats to all the winners and nominees! what a terrific slate of puzzles.

  2. Amy Reynaldo says:

    Thanks a million, Sam!

  3. e.a. says:

    i vociferously third the thanks for sam. in addition to being a huge service to crossworld, the orcas are always just plain fun to read, a treat/feat which takes considerable skill and hard work to accomplish.

    happy-to-overjoyed for all the winners and nominees, and inordinately proud to count both myself and the indie 500 among them. (i called my parents!) this was a great year for crosswords.

    hey, if you’re reading this and happen to be someone with some modicum of power/platform within our The Biz, i hope you’ll (perhaps continue to) do Ev Ry Thing you can to make sure women, people of color, and so forth are Really Out Here at future orca ceremonies. have a closed roster for a thing? make sure it’s not 100% white dudes – that would be to your detriment and also a weird setup to have in 2017! taking open submissions for a thing? ask publicly and loudly for underrepresented people to submit! already have such people submitting and/or rostered? make sure they feel comfortable and valued and heard and whatnot! have constructing chops? pass ’em on! et cetera. this is not the easiest of work, but it is of existential importance to our community. thanks

    • Amy Reynaldo says:

      I agree 150%! I loved it when Ben Tausig’s call for AV Club applications specifically encouraged women, POC, etc., to submit—and he did indeed get submissions from some women who might well not have bothered had the call not been so welcoming.

  4. Garrett says:

    I always enjoy reading these, Sam. Interesting about Jeff making his word list available — I did not know that. Congratulations to Matt. I’m amazed by his meta puzzles much of the time.

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