MGWCC #490

crossword 3:30* 
meta 1 day 


(* except for square 1)
hello and welcome to episode #490 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Five out of Five”. for this week 3 puzzle, matt gives us the unusual instruction: What letter should go in the upper-leftmost square (i.e. the square with the 1 in it) in this grid? well, okay. what are the clues?

  • 1-across is clued as {A common, uncapitalized English word} _IGHT.
  • and 1-down is {*A common, uncapitalized English word} _AILS.

based on these clues alone, the answer could be F, M, N, R, S, or T. or, if you think BIGHT and/or WIGHT is “common”, B or W. they are “common” in the sense that they are lowercase nouns, not proper nouns, but not exactly in common usage.

so, there’s probably something more going on to the meta, right? indeed. in addition to 1-down (but not 1-across!), three other clues get *s:

  • {*Exploding sticks} TNT.
  • {*Ted of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”} DANSON.
  • {*Wild cat} LYNX.

at first glance, these do not appear to have anything in common.

plus, there are the long across answers:

  • {Georgia hitters} THE BRAVES.
  • {Set of 50 flyers} STATE FLAGS.
  • {Daughter of Anne Boleyn} QUEEN ELIZABETH I.
  • {Roughs up} MANHANDLES.
  • {Think tank since 1916} BROOKINGS.

what to make of this? well, the first thing i saw was QUEEN, plus both ROOK and KING overlapping in BROOKINGS. knowing matt’s love of chess, i thought this might be important, but it does not appear to be a chess meta. the absence of anything resembling KNIGHT, BISHOP, or PAWN is certainly a factor, as is the title (since there aren’t five of anything in chess).

setting the puzzle aside for a while, i came back to it the next day and talked it over with andy, who had the key insight: each of the five long across answers starts with the first five letters of one of the five new york city boroughs:

  • THE BRonx
  • STATEn island
  • QUEENs
  • MANHAttan
  • BROOKlyn

5 letters from each of the 5 boroughs, hence “five out of five”. the remaining letters in the borough names are scattered throughout the *ed answers:

  • TNT has the TTN from manhaTTAN.
  • LYNX has the -LYN from brookLYN and the X of the brONX.
  • DANSON has the missing A from manhattAn, the missing ON of brONx, the S of queenS, and an additional ND from stateN ISLAND.

that leaves us still needing NISLA, so it must be NAILS at 1-down, which means N is the meta answer. there was, somewhat surprisingly, a second email indicating that solvers should include some brief “show your work” element with their submissions. i wonder why? over on twitter, tyler hinman mentioned that he was the one who tipped matt off to the reason why the explanation ought to be required. that suggests that there’s a dumber way of arriving at the same answer N. is it just because it would be the fifth N in the *ed answers?

anyway, this is a nice meta. it’s subtle, but the hints are all there: the title suggests five, and there are five long across answers, so you should definitely look at those. taking the first five letters of each is a big leap, though. it definitely feels tough enough for a week 4, and last week’s was already tough enough for a week 3. hmm.

the construction is also very nice. not only are there the five long theme answers, and 1a/1d have to accommodate a large number of possibilities for square 1, but then you’ve also got to squeeze in LYNX, TNT, and DANSON in there somewhere. for all that, the grid doesn’t appear badly strained by all the demands of the theme. that’s some deft construction right there.

that’s all i’ve got this week. how’d you like this one?

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24 Responses to MGWCC #490

  1. Joe says:

    So, I cheated and used the CheckPUZ app to learn that N was the correct entry. Then I tried to back solve. I suspect that might be why Matt said to show work. Backsolving was hopeless. I failed this week. But this was a great meta, Matt!

  2. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 175 right answers this week.

    The reason I had to have solvers show their work is that Tyler (and another solver) pointed out that some solving programs will not give you the correct letter if the file is locked (as here), but *will* verify whether your solution is correct or not, so a solver could get the meta just by popping in the 6 or 7 candidate letters there and seeing which one the program verifies.

    To avoid this in the future on metas of this type, I’ll use Peter Gordon’s trick of putting an X in every box in the solution grid.

  3. Matthew G. says:

    One of my longest streaks ever comes to an end with a meta about my home city. Man(hattan), is my face ever red.

    • Matt Gaffney says:


    • John says:

      Oh man. that is kind of crazy because the first thing i thought upon solving is that New Yorkers and others in the east would have kind of an unfair advantage because of their daily familiarity with these names. Despite living about as far away as possible in the continental US, i got this fairly quickly. I too was initially on the same track as joon, though he left out that “HORSE” was in the grid too and that word is sometimes used in place of “KNIGHT”. Also, there are 5 types of first-rank pieces. I loved this meta and glad i got it.

  4. bunella says:

    I should have gotten it sooner. I was born in the Bronx and lived there for 30 years.

    We get by with a little help from our friends.

  5. AK37 says:

    Wow! Did not even get the connection that the “Five out of Five” tied into the first 5 letters of each borough being in the theme answers. Incredible.

    Needless to say, this is “Five” stars for me.

    • John says:

      Agreed. I got the meta but missed that each grid entry had exactly 5 letters of the final answer. Just more Matt Magic.

  6. ajk says:

    Yeah, I was nowhere on this one. Spent way too much time treating the *ed entries as words instead of letters. Too bad, because the answer is pretty cool. :)

  7. Jimmy L. says:

    Was convinced for the longest time that this was tied to the last (5?) week 5 out of 5 puzzles. Seemed strange that he’d make that solution path a week 3 out of 4, so I’m happy we wisened up eventually and found our way to the correct answer!

  8. jefe says:

    It was nice that BROOKINGS and LYNX were so near each other in the grid. I don’t know that I would’ve made the connection otherwise.

    • dbardolph says:

      Agreed. I had the five boroughs thing, but the proximity of BROOKINGS and LYNX gave me the last piece of the puzzle.

  9. Small Wave Dave says:

    Did lots of ill-advised Googling and came up with a Hail Mary of N (ultimately unnecessary, thank goodness) with this unassailable rationale:

    The four asterisked entries had 3, 4, 5, 6 letters, and each had an attribute consistent with its letter count–TNT is TRI-nitrotoluene, there are 4 species of LYNX (for good measure, the WNBA Lynx have won 4 championships), there are 5 NAILS on each hand, and Ted DANSON, well, er, umm, he must have 6 of something; kidney stones? Pairs of fashion eyewear? Oh look, 3 Emmys plus 3 Golden Globes!

    Am I glad I finally wised up and paid attention to the 5 long answers.
    Definitely a superb puzzle.

  10. pgw says:

    I found it pleasing that Brookings includes the name of Brooklyn’s county.

  11. BarbaraK says:

    I mostly do puzzles on paper, so I had no idea it was possible to check the answers. But I liked having to explain, just because it was such a short list of possibilities.

    607 people got week 1 this month. If the 432 who didn’t get this week had guessed, one sixth would have got it just from random chance and there would have been 72 more “correct” answers.

  12. Astrokurtis says:

    I’ll admit I stumbled on the answer using the “dumb” way (5 starred words, 5 ns). I thought it seemed too easy for a week 3, but then I thought maybe I just got lucky. How many others fell victim to that trap?

    Week 3 is always my downfall. I think I’ve gotten more week 4s right.

  13. Dogpole says:

    As well as the chess rathole, I also found a basketball one (both TNT and lynx are professional teams, NBA, layup and some more imaginary clues), and a “J is the only letter missing from the grid and maybe jights really are becoming a thing if only I could make sense of the other letter counts” one. So maybe week 3 means 3 ratholes?

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