The 2017 Orca Awards

Welcome, everyone, to the 2017 Orca Awards! It’s the seventh annual celebration of outstanding achievement in crossword construction and editing from puzzles published in 2017. Below the fold you’ll read about some amazing crosswords as we discuss the nominees and present awards in nine separate categories, including the Margaret Farrar Award for Constructor of the Year, and the coveted award for Best Crossword. A reminder, folks: please, no wagering.

As you read through the 9,000+ words that follow, keep in mind that the selection process is extraordinarily difficult. Preliminary nominees within each category are selected based on a combination of the star ratings awarded by readers of this site, the Selection Committee’s own assessment of underrated puzzles, and a consideration of puzzles not reviewed on this site. Like the Oscars and March Madness, there are bound to be some worthy puzzles that get snubbed. Advance apologies to anyone who feels left out, especially since the Orcas are about not about classifying puzzles as winners or losers. The Orcas are about showering love on some great puzzles and hopefully inspiring constructors and editors to continue innovating.

On with the show! We start with the award for Best Easy Crossword of 2017.

Best Easy Crossword of 2017: “Tautologies”

BEST EASY CROSSWORD OF 2017: “Tautologies,” by Greg Poulos (Wall Street Journal, May 18). Here’s a fun take on the lamenting tautology, “it is what it is.” The four intersecting (!) 15-letter theme entries are each an answer to the tautology, depending on how you parse the expression: [It is what “it” is] clues 54-Across, PERSONAL PRONOUN; [It is what “It” is] clues 5-Down, STEPHEN KING BOOK; [“It is what it is”] clues 17-Across, NO USE PROTESTING; and [It is what it is] (sans quotation marks) clues 10-Down, ANSWER TO TEN DOWN. A neat idea with just the right dash of sass in that last theme entry. We’ve seen puzzles that make multiple theme entries out of the same clue (like where [Green] is the answer to GOLF SURFACE, INEXPERIENCED, ABOUT TO BLOW CHUNKS, and THE COLOR OF MONEY), but what makes this offering unique is that the clue words have to be read a different way each time to make the theme answers work. Despite the intersecting theme entries, the grid also contains some swanky fill like CHINTZIER, CESSPOOL, BALTIMORE, and, well, SWANKY. And did we mention that the four grid-spanning theme entries intersect?

Other Nominees for Best Easy Crossword of 2017, in order of publication:

  • Untitled, by Roger & Kathy Weinberg (Los Angeles Times, January 11). Five theme entries, STAGE RIGHT, FIRST OFF, UPPER DECK, OVER-UNDER, and HOUR-LONG, seem to lack a common thread other than containing two words. But the revealer tells you that each word in those five phrases can come BEFOREHAND (that is, BEFORE HAND). The “here’s a word that can come before/after each of the words in the other theme entries” concept certainly isn’t new, but this puzzle wins us over with its balance of thematic density, fill quality, and smoothness required to make an easy puzzle engaging and conquerable.
  • Untitled, by Michael Hawkins (New York Times, July 18). The stair-stepped chunks of black squares along all four sides aren’t just for aesthetic purposes. The theme entries in the puzzle are STAIRCASE WIT, ESCALATOR CLAUSE, and ON THE UP AND UP. It’s always nice when the grid layout itself meshes with the theme. And this puzzle had only 70 entries (squarely within themeless territory), allowing for interesting fill like ICE CUBE TRAY (clued wonderfully as [Freeze frame?]—who says easy puzzles must avoid tricky wordplay?), FROWNED UPON, COSPLAY, EVIL EYE, ROCK OPERA, and SARA LEE. Nobody doesn’t like SARA LEE in a crossword, amirite?
  • Untitled, by Peter Gordon (New York Times, July 24). Less than a week after the stair-stepping gem, the Times returned with this Peter Gordon sample featuring a tall 15×16 grid and left-right symmetry. (Is left-right symmetry the new black?) The theme entries are all expressions featuring the same letter strings at the start and end. They are even more fun to say aloud than they are to read in print. Go ahead, have a go: OODLES OF NOODLES, ABBY CADABBY, IN IT TO WIN IT, and EVEL KNIEVEL. I see you smiling. Throw in some interesting non-thematic goodies like TACO BELL, SHEBOYGAN, RONZONI, and WASABI and you have a refreshing, fun Monday experience. Plus, this puzzle may have the best clue from any easy crossword published in 2017: [Opposite of a life coach?] for HEARSE. A little dark, granted, but it injects some life (pun only sorta intended) into the early-week solving routine.
  • Untitled, by John Lampkin (Los Angeles Times, December 15). Four classical works are clued as though they were not completed. Consider, for instance, the clues [Unfinished Puccini work a.k.a. “Homage to a Dairy”?] and [Unfinished Beethoven work a.k.a. “Dracula’s Boy”?]. Now these composers may have had unfinished works, but not with those titles. Instead, these are “unfinished” works because they’re cut short in the 16×15 grid: Puccini’s Madame Butterfly appears as MADAME BUTTER, a better fit for “Homage to a Dairy,” and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata appears as MOONLIGHT SON, a good description for Dracula’s boy. Such a fun riff on the idea of an “unfinished work!” Despite the grid’s obesity, the solving experience was free of dreck, aided by the pinwheel placement of the theme entries so John had plenty of room to let the grid breathe. Yet another great example of how easy puzzles can still be a little wacky and subtle.

Best Sunday-Sized Crossword of 2017: “Love Letters”

MERL REAGLE AWARD FOR BEST SUNDAY-SIZED CROSSWORD OF 2017: “Love Letters,” by Francis Heaney (American Values Club, February 22). A Sunday-sized puzzle from Francis Heaney? Yes, please! That means twice as many fun clues, and twice as much room for Francis’s artistry to shine. And does it ever in this tour-de-force that was under consideration not only for this award but also for Best Contest Crossword and Best Crossword.

The puzzle came with this message: “Thirteen couples in this grid (which you may recognize from seeing them here and there) have written letters to show their loving, devoted attachment to each other. If you intercept their mail and read it, you’ll see what they all are.” If you search the grid for thirteen couples, you’ll likely come up empty. That’s because the couples are in the clues. Exactly thirteen clues contain common “X and Y” phrases like the “here and there” contained in the message’s parenthetical. For instance, the clue for CASTS is [Uses a rod and reel] and the clue for AGITATOR is [Rebel whose weapon might be a gun, or just pen and ink].

Now here’s where it gets good—the components of all thirteen “X and Y” phrases appear in the grid with an extra letter, and they intersect at that shared extra letter. Check out the right-hand section of the grid above, where ROD and REEL meet at the P added to both words to make PROD and REPEL. Just to the left of that, PEN and INK intersect at the D used to make them PEND and DINK. If you take those extra intersecting letters and read them in order from left to right and top to bottom, you get WANTED POSTERS, the “well-loved mail senders” described in the message. Get it? <overexplanation> They’re wanted because they’re receiving missives declaring devotion and they’re posters because they’re sending letters by mail. </overexplanation> Brilliant!

The puzzle nabbed 22 five-star ratings from readers (how the H-E-double-hockey-sticks anyone could give this one star or even just two stars defies comprehension, but whatevs), along with plenty of accolades. Evan Birnholz admiringly called it “some devilish withcraft” and Paul Coulter found it a “Spectacular feat of construction.” Even commenters who never figured out the trick chimed in with their admiration.

Other Nominees for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword, in order of publication:

  • “The Downsizing of Nathaniel Ames,” by Peter Broda and Erik Agard (New York Times, January 8). Such a unique title! Are we supposed to know Nathanial Ames from history or the other liberal arts? Maybe from science? Was he a last-minute cut from the New England Patriots? Turns out, no. What’s unique about him is his name–shorten it to the first initial and surname and you have N. AMES, or just NAMES. Aha! The theme entries in the puzzle are supposed to be re-parsed in a similar manner. Thus CLOVE CIGARETTES is really meant to be C. LOVE CIGARETTES, explaining the clue, [Things smoked by singer Courtney?]. And [“Charlie Hustle is my name / I am banned from Hall of Fame,” e.g.?] is not PROSE POETRY but P. ROSE POETRY (Pete Rose). Then there’s this one, the coup de gras: the [Cherry for talk show host Chelsea?] is C. HANDLER BING, not Matthew Perry’s “Friend” role, CHANDLER BING. All ten(!) theme entries were great fun to suss out, and the grid also gave us MIX CDS, NU JAZZ, COLA WARS, BBC RADIO, URL HIJACKING, and BEER DARTS. A puzzle this fresh and fun was a super way to start the year.
  • “It’s a Mystery,” by Evan Birnholz (Washington Post, June 18). The grid features three sets of circled squares arranged like upside-down Vs that resemble mountain tops. The letters in the circles spell FRATERNAL, CONJOINED, and IDENTICAL, all terms related to twins. Mountain tops made of twins? What gives? 119-Across explains it’s TWIN PEAKS, the [Mystery series revived in 2017, and a hint to the circled squares]. Along with the visual element, the grid has four other long answers related to the show: CRIME DRAMA, the State of WASHINGTON, character DALE COOPER, and creator DAVID LYNCH. But just as “Twin Peaks” is/was a show full of layers, so too is the puzzle. The clue for DAVID LYNCH says that “in honor of season 3, [LYNCH is] the speaker of the quote spelled out in the third letters of the Down clues.” Those third letters spell “Happy accidents are real gifts, and they can open the door to a future that didn’t even exist.” Cool! But there was even more! The third letters in the Across clues spelled another secret message: “To hear a special message, enter with all caps this address: tiny url dot com slash logtp.” Doing so takes you to a Twin Peaks video. For all I know, this puzzle has even more layers. But as it is, this is the perfect treat for a mystery lover.
  • “The Magic Show,” Eric Berlin (New York Times, August 13). Five magic tricks are performed right before your eyes in this inventive puzzle. First up, 23-Across says that the VANISHING COIN trick is performed at 78-Down. At 78-Down, the clue is [Provide part of a coverage policy for]. That’s CO-INSURE, but in grid only SURE appears because the COIN has “vanished.” The lower left corner has LINKING RINGS (a RING rebus that connects intersecting Across and Down answers), The bottom of the grid shows SAWING A LADY IN HALF, since ELLA appears nest to DYS, separated by a black square. In a CHANGING CARD trick, PEKING DUCK becomes PEACE DUCK. And there’s a LEVITATING MAN floating above the northeast corner of the grid. The variety of tricks give the puzzle a liveliness throughout the solve, and sussing out each trick becomes a fun mini-hunt. An ambitious concept that’s really well-executed.
  • “Spelling Divas,” by Elizabeth C. Gorski (Crossword Nation, October 30). This Halloween-themed puzzle from Liz Gorski was both tricky and a treat. The grid features five “divas” who have all played a WITCH on stage or screen. Each is clued by the show in which the actress played a witch. So [“Into the Woods”] clues MERYL STREEP, for example, and [“Wicked”] clues IDINA MENZEL. As witches, they cast spells, hence the puzzle’s title. In vintage Gorski-esque form, there’s a connect-the-dots finale that draws out a large witch’s hat. Nearly 90% of the ratings for this puzzle were of the five-star variety, testimony that Crossword Nation subscribers loved it too.

Best Contest Crossword: “The Long and Short of It”

BEST META/CONTEST CROSSWORD OF 2017: “MGWCC #487: The Long and Short of It,” by Matt Gaffney (Matt Gaffney Weekly Crossword Contest, September 29). The clues for the seven longest Across answers in this 19×19 grid contained parenthetical numbers. And the answers to those clues were, in each case, the longest member of the group identified by the start of the clue. For instance, SAGITTARIUS is not just the [Zodiac sign for Britney Spears and Ben Stiller], it’s also the longest “Zodiac sign” by letter count. And SEPTEMBER is both the [Month when you might be solving this] and the longest “Month” of the year by letter count. And CARNATION PINK is a [Color in a Crayola Classic 16-pack named for a flower] and the longest name for a “Color in a Crayola Class 16-pack.”

Okay, fine. But what is the solver to make of seven other clues, for shorter answers, that contain asterisks? Like [Only*] for SOLE, [Arizona city*] for YUMA, and [Pose a challenge to*] for DARE? Turns out, as is often the case, the puzzle’s title gives the key hint. The grid contains the longest members of each set, so perhaps we are asked to consider the shortest members of each set. Like how LEO is the shortest Zodiac sign, MAY is the shortest month (again, by letter count), and RED is the shortest 16-pack Crayola color. It’s here where 191 solvers likely realized that each of the answers to the asterisked clues is an anagram of one of the shortest-in-the-set members plus one extra letter. Sure enough, if you take those extra letters and arrange them in the order indicated by the parenthetical numbers in the clues to the long Across answers, it spells out BASHFUL. He’s the longest of the Seven Dwarfs, the shortest Dwarf (hmm) being DOC. So DOC is the correct contest answer.

Notice that four of the long Across answers are partially stacked, and many Downs cross three of the theme entries. Still, the fill shows no compromise. None of the anagrammed answers stands out as odd, further adding to the contest’s intricacy.

What makes this contest puzzle so brilliant is that solvers have to take many steps to get the right answer, but each step logically progresses from the last one. No Deus ex machina here, folks. No wonder then that this puzzle snagged 43 five-star ratings from readers. Joon called it “a jaw-droppingly intricate and beautiful meta.” Yep.

This puzzle ran the same weekend that Matt became a father. Imagine the conversation in about ten years: “Dad, what were you doing when I was born?” “Having people solve the Best Meta/Contest Crossword of 2017. Now go clean your room.”

Other Nominees for Best Meta/Contest Crossword of 2017, in order of publication:

  • “MGWCC #461: Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New” by Matt Gaffney (Matt Gaffney Weekly Crossword Contest, March 31). The contest instructions told solvers to find a 20-Century year. The grid itself offered no real toeholds, as there were no obvious theme entries (eight entries had eight letters, but nothing longer). But eleven clues for various Across answers contained an asterisk. Solvers were supposed to notice that one letter in each of these answers could be changed to another letter that would also work in the grid (even though they would no longer match the given clues). Arguably, many of the replaced letters would be an improvement over the “correct” letters in the solution grid. Turns out that’s kind of the point: The replaced “correct” letters, read from top to bottom and left to right in the grid, spell out CASSIUS CLAY. And the new “replacement” letters spell out MUHAMMAD ALI. Just as Clay changed his name to ALI, solvers could change the letters in the grid to get a new-and-improved solution. Clay changed his name in 1964, which is the contest answer. Noticing CASSIUS CLAY and MUHAMMAD ALI are both 11 letters long is one thing, but crafting a grid like this to highlight it is amazing. Plus, that title! Readers adored this puzzle, showering it with 39 five-star ratings.
  • “One, Two, Three, Four,” by Patrick Berry (Wall Street Journal, June 16). Oddly, solvers were told to look for “a group of four.” The theme entries were BYE BYE BABY (whose clue included the mysterious “[4,2,1]”), PEPPER TREE (with a clue ending in “[1]”), SLEEVELESS (with a clue ending in “[2,4]”), and TASTE TESTS (with a “[3]” appended to its clue). Putting the bracketed numbers to the side for the moment, notice that each theme entry, while ten letters long, consists of only four unique letters, and in each case, one letter appears once, another letter appears twice, another appears three times, and the last appears four times. That helps make sense of the bracketed numbers. In BYE BYE BABY, for instance, we need the letter that appears four times (B), the letter that appears twice (E), and the one that appears once (A). Repeat that process for the other theme entries and put all the pulled out letters together in order–they spell out B-E-A-T-L-E-S, a “group of four” that’s the contest answer. Of course Patrick Berry would think to find words that possess this unique quality, and of course he would see that some of the letters in those four words could be arranged so as to spell BEATLES, perhaps the most famous foursome in modern history. Accessible but elegant, novel but entirely logical. Yep, that was a Patrick Berry puzzle. ‘Tis a shame readers only gave this one six five-star ratings. Has he set the bar that high for himself?
  • “Fortune Hunter,” by Pete Muller (Muller Monthly Music Meta, September). This one will take a while to explain, but it’s totally worth it. Solvers had to find a particular song from the Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” The hints started in the clues. For one thing, the clues to seven answers contain parenthetical numbers, like [Van ___ (1)] for HALEN and [“The Producers” director Brooks (2)] for MEL. Then, seven other clues contain don’t make much sense. [Class head] for HOT? [Name invoking fascism] as a clue for SPRINGTIME? At this point it helps to consider the puzzle’s title, especially if you parse it as “For-tune Hunter.” The nonsense clues are getting at seven songs containing the word “for,” and the numbered clues refer to the artist. Sure enough, “Hot for Teacher” is a Van Halen tune, and a TEACHER is a “class head.” Likewise “Springtime for Hitler” is a song by Mel Brooks, and HITLER is a “name invoking fascism.” If you arrange the new words (TEACHER and HITLER from these examples) in numerical order, then take the first letter from each, it spells out THE CITY. And the only tune on the Rolling Stone list in the form of “___ for the City” is Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” the contest answer. Lots of steps, but they proceed logically enough to yield a really rewarding payoff. Unsurprisingly, the puzzle got 27 five-star ratings from readers
  • “Inexact Science,” by “Marie Kelly” (Mike Shenk) (Wall Street Journal, November 17). This contest crossword blinded us with science. Solvers had to identify a certain scientist. The only apparent oddity was that seven Across clues substitute asterisks for one or two letters. (Note to self: asterisks are apparently the key to a good contest crossword.) The clue for FILE MENUS, for example, read [They enable u*ers to open and print]. Obviously the missing letters in the clue are “s” and “e.” It was up to the solver to make the leap that the missing letters could be symbols for chemical elements (in this case, Se for Selenium). But then solvers had to notice that the answer, FILE MENUS, was an anagram of SELENIUM plus one extra letter (here, an F). If you repeat that process for the other starred clues and then read the added letters in order, they spell out FARADAY, the contest answer. A neat concept and execution worthy of all 22 five-star ratings conferred by readers.

Best Freestyle Crossword of 2017: Untitled

BEST FREESTYLE PUZZLE OF 2017: Untitled, by Zhouqin Burnikel (New York Times, June 16). Sure, the longer entries (GENDER FLUID, SOCIAL MEDIA, SECRET SAUCE, DR. PEPPER) in this 68-worder are nice, but this puzzle shines most in the nooks and crannies, with gems like BIG IF, MADE OUT, SO THERE, WARTHOG, and ALL GONE. It’s the attention to the shorter stuff that made this such a satisfying solve. And look at that southeast corner, with the stacking of SLIP IN, SAVE ME, and OVER IT. That’s just beautiful. Speaking of beauty, the grid has both traditional 180-degree symmetry and the rarer 90-degree symmetry. Best clue from the puzzle = [Situation with no up side] for TIE.

Other Nominees for Best Freestyle Crossword of 2017, in order of publication:

  • Saturday Stumper,” by Frank Longo (Newsday, January 7). Every single letter in the grid-spanning ANCHORAGE ALASKA crosses a Down that is at least five letters long, giving the center section a very open feel. Such technical achievements often require ho-hum crossings, but there’s not a bland entry in sight. This is one of those deceptively lovely grids in that you don’t really appreciate its smoothness until you go looking for subpar fill and come up empty. Best clue from the puzzle = [Silver mining data] for NATE.
  • “Crossword #932: Themeless Monday,” by Brendan Emmett Quigley (BEQ, February 27). This one might have the prettiest triple stair-step set of central entries, with LAWN PARTIES atop GETS A GRIP atop DEATH SPIRAL. That fun trio (well, DEATH SPIRAL isn’t “fun,” but you know what I mean) even feeds long Downs like DATE NIGHT, IRS AUDITS, and ATE SUPPER. The corners get some love too, with BIG PAPI, HAGRID, DESK JOB, PITSTOP, and LET’S EAT. Best clue from the puzzle = [Writes between the lines?] for NOTATES.
  • Saturday Stumper,” by Dan Addams IV (Sam Ezersky and David Steinberg) (Newsday, March 18). The byline anagrams to “Sam and David,” and that’s just one of the fun enigmas served up in this Saturday Stumper. Among the highlights in this 70-worder are SCHMALTZY, EL CHAPO, ANNA SUI, OH SNAP, THE TALK, LAST LEG, SOY LATTE, and I’M HYPED. Best clue from the puzzle = [Breaks at Oxford] for TAKES TEA.
  • “Lollapuzzoola 10 Themeless #2,” by Josh Knapp (American Values Club, August 23). For the tenth anniversary of the Lollapuzzoola crossword tournament, the AV Club distributed two themeless puzzles. The Josh Knapp offering fittingly has an X-shape (the Roman numeral X—get it?) in a 17×17 grid. The long crossing entries in the center include COGITO ERGO SUM, BEELZEBUB, BLOODLESS COUP, CULT FOLLOWING, SUMO WRESTLING, and FREEZE TAG. In the corners you’ll find HOT TOPIC, STAGE MOM, JOE COOL, LOLLYGAG, and GAME TIME. Best clue from the puzzle = [It might be involved in an explosive breakup] for ATOM. (Incidentally, the companion to this puzzle, Andy Kravis’s “Lollapuzzoola 10 Themeless #1” (featuring Neville Fogarty), was also a delight, especially the clue for I’M STUFFED, [Full disclosure?].)
  • Untitled, by Patrick Berry (New York Times, November 10). This 66-worder is typical Patrick Berry in its smoothness. The sparkle is also there with CAT LITTER, AT A GLANCE, WHAT ELSE, PARKING LOT, HELLBOY, SOFTEN UP, PAN-FRY, RIOT ACT, and HAD A COW. Only two three-letter entries and eight four-letter answers in the entire grid, making for 56 answers of five letters or more. That’s some fine architecture right there. One fun highlight: OSCAR and DELARENTA in consecutive Across entries. Best clue from the puzzle = [Final outcome of a firing] for POTTERY.

Best Gimmick Crossword of 2017: Untitled

BEST GIMMICK PUZZLE OF 2017: Untitled, by Jeff Chen (New York Times, February 23). For someone like me who finds it amusing when crossword commenters carp about cross-references, this puzzle is a special delight. Four of the puzzle’s answers are familiar phrases containing a multiple of ten: TEN PINS, TWENTY QUESTIONS, THIRTY ROCK, and FORTY WINKS. It’s just that the clues don’t seem to fit very well—the clue for TWENTY QUESTIONS, for example, is [“Which weighs more—a pound of feathers or a pound of lead?” and others]. Well that’s a clue for TRICK QUESTIONS, not TWENTY QUESTIONS. What gives? The answer is that you have to look to the grid entry starting with the number 20 square. Here, that’s 20-Across, which, sure enough, is TRICK. Likewise, the answer at box 30 (30-Down’s PET) makes PET ROCK the right answer to the clue for THIRTY ROCK, [1970s fad item]. Thus TEN PINS is really PUSHPINS and FORTY WINKS is really HOODWINKS. Such a great idea! Mere mortals at construction would be discouraged by the fact that the four theme entries don’t divide symmetrically (the lengths are 7, 10, 10, and 15), not to mention that the 10, 20, 30, and 40 squares must be arranged so that they start only one answer instead of both an Across and a Down. But Jeff sees such challenges and cracks a wide grin. He is so good at grid design that you don’t even realize all the constraints in play. Jeff uses left-right symmetry to place the theme entries into identifiable spots and uses the two “helper” squares at the top to get the numbered squares arranged perfectly. His layout gives him plenty of room to fill the grid cleanly and expertly. You want your gimmick puzzles fresh, well-engineered, and with a fun “aha moment,” and this puzzle knocks it out of the park on all counts.

As in prior years, 2017 had an abundance of terrific gimmicks. We’re listing more than the usual number of nominees to give some love where it’s due. Here then are the Other Nominees for Best Gimmick Crossword of 2017, in order of publication:

  • “Fitting In With,” by Doug Peterson (Fireball Crosswords, January 12). We started the year with a slasher puzzle! No, not an homage to horror films, but a puzzle where Ws became “WITH” thanks to the addition of a slash. So CHEESEW/EDGE is parsed as CHEESE WITH EDGE, and (my fave) WALTW/HITMAN is really WALT WITH HITMAN. As an added nice touch, the slashes are appropriate to the crossings, with ON/OFF crossing CHEESEW/EDGE and AC/DC crossing WALTW/HITMAN. Now every time I see Walt Whitman’s name, I think Walt with Hitman. It will forever haunt me, but in a really good way.
  • “Going to Extremes,” by Brendan Emmett Quigley (BEQ, February 23). The central entry tells you the puzzle has a LUNATIC FRINGE, and that’s because solvers have to write NUT eight times outside the grid’s perimeter in order for the answers to fit. So while the left side of the grid reads AMESAKE, NIT, and ILTS, that’s because there’s a NUT lurking on the fringe to make them into NAMESAKE, UNIT, and TILTS, respectively. Eight nuts make for an imposing group of extremists, but it’s a delightful construction feat.
  • “Over-Under,” by Alex Eaton-Salners (Wall Street Journal, May 11). The revealer tells you that IT GOES UP AND DOWN. That’s because the four theme entries each contain the I-T bigram twice. So in the grid, the first T appears one row above the I (so IT goes up) and the second T appears one row below the I (so IT goes down). That’s why, for example, WORLD HERITAGE SITE reads in the grid as WORLD HERIAGE SIE. Alex found three other fun phrases (BITING WIT, SWITCH-HIT, and LITE BRITE) that look all wacky in the grid. Devilish fun in the WSJ!
  • “Fall Menu,” by Aimee Lucido (American Values Club, May 17). 86-Across in this 18×17 puzzle tells us that there are DROP-DOWN menus in the grid. Sure enough, while the theme entries are Across answers, the “menu” part of the answer drops Down instead. So FILET MIGNON reads as FMIGNON, because the FILE part reads Down before continuing Across. And CREDIT CARD looks like CRE CARD because the EDIT part reads Down. Even MICHAEL PHELPS is re-styled as MICHAEL PHS so the HELP menu can drop down. Neat concept and deft execution!
  • Untitled, by David Steinberg (New York Times, June 8). The grid contained four nine-letter words that were broken into three trigrams that were also words. The three trigrams were separated by plus signs made out of black squares, so a solver could see that WAR + RAN + TED spelled WARRANTED. As a bonus, the last two trigrams in each theme entry formed its own six-letter answer (RANTED in the example above). So the puzzle clued WARRANTED, RANTED, and TED in succession. Just in case there was any doubt as to what was going on, the puzzle gives you a revealer with MINCE / WORDS. Between the plus-sign visual touch, the extra constraint of having the nine-letter answers break into six- and three-letter answers, and the fact that there were no other three-letter answers in the grid, this puzzle was chock full o’ elegance.
  • “Kicking Off the Fourth,” by Alex Eaton-Salners (Fireball Crosswords, June 14). It came a few weeks before Independence Day, but the puzzle wasn’t really about the Fourth of July. As editor Peter Gordon helpfully explained in his summary of the theme: “The theme answers kick off at the fourth letter, go backward to the first letter, then make a U-turn and continue to the end.” For example, the first theme entry was the nonsensical ATOPEELER. But if you “kick off” with the fourth letter, P, and read backwards then forwards, you get POTATO PEELER. Likewise NRUBBER is really BURN RUBBER. The grid had eight (!) overt theme entries, but wait! There’s more! Solvers were told a ninth theme entry was hidden in the grid. Sure enough, SMOTHERS could also be read thematically as TOM SMOTHERS. The best crosswords are innovative and fun without being so overly layered as to be off-putting. This one checks all the boxes and then some. You’ll see this puzzle again in the discussion for Best Crossword.
  • “In the Soup,” by Andrew Linzer (Fireball Crosswords, June 21). The revealer is SPLIT PEAS, a homophonic hint that every P in a Down answer is to be cut in half and entered into two squares. If slice a P in half, of course, you get a D and an I. So the Across answers look normal with Ds and Is, but you have to read them as forming a single P in the Downs. My favorite Down was the central DIEDIDIERSDIRAY, which reads as PEPPER SPRAY if you join the Ds and Is with your eyes. No other Ps appear in the grid, and while there are lone Ds and Is elsewhere, they aren’t accidentally stacked. That’s the attention to detail we expect from Fireball Crosswords.
  • Untitled, by Alex Eaton-Salners (NYT, September 7). If you wrote out every Across answer consecutively, you would notice that they are in alphabetical order. That’s right, from ARBITER and ASTERS in the top row to YEARNS and YTTRIUM in the bottom row, every single Across answer comes alphabetically after the preceding Across answer. Readers had, shall we say, mixed reactions to this puzzle, but from a technical achievement perspective this was a stunner. Just as good art sometimes leaves the viewer unsettled, crossword art should sometimes be more fun to behold than to solve. Yeah, I said it.
  • “Follow the Write Directions,” by Francis Heaney (American Values Club, November 29). Francis Heaney has by far the lowest published-puzzle-to-Orca-nomination ratio of any constructor that’s not a one-hit wonder. While he is not as prolific as many others, like E.F. Hutton, when he talks everyone listens. His fourth-quarter offering looked like your standard 15×15 puzzle with one notable exception—in addition to Across and Down clues, the puzzle featured four “Letters” clues: [1. _+nite], [9. _+earn], [55. _+urb], and [61. _+pill]. Those clues seem easy enough to complete: UNITE, LEARN, CURB, and SPILL. But it takes a closer look to see what’s happening. Consider “1. UNITE.” If you start in square 1 and form a U-shape with the letters in the grid, they spell out PUT IN ONE SPOT, an accurate clue for UNITE. Likewise, if you form an L-shape in the grid starting at square 9, the letters spell DISCOVER, a viable clue for LEARN. Forming a C-shape starting in square 55 spells KEEP IN CHECK, a pretty good clue for CURB, and an S-shape in the southeast corner (starting in square 61) spells out TIP INTO ONE’S LAP, a serviceable (if not exactly roll-off-one’s-tongue) clue for SPILL. A cute gimmick, but it tips into “downright amazing” territory when you think about the wizardry at work to pull this off. Just consider two of the constraints. First, the spelled-out answers had to fit a set letter-shape and still not compromise the quality of the regular Across and Down fill. Second, Francis couldn’t use letter shapes like M, Y, X, T, A, or E since they require more than one pen stroke, and that would leave solvers uncertain as to the path to take. This puzzle just oozes elegance. (Bonus points for the pitch-perfect title, giving solvers just the right hint as to the gimmick without giving things away.)

BOB KLAHN AWARD FOR MOST OUTSTANDING CLUE OF 2017: [Drag to court] for SWIPE RIGHT, “Themeless 81” by Paolo Pasco & Erik Agard (Glutton for Pun, December 14). If you solve every crossword covered by this blog you see about 15,000 clues over a calendar year. Clues are often a crossword’s first impression—if they’re too bland, too obtuse, or otherwise uninviting, solvers won’t stick around for long. Good clues welcome solvers to the puzzle with a mix of subject matter, humor, wordplay, trivia (yes, trivia), and panache. Really good clues provide the solver a miniature “aha moment” and may induce a smile. They give the puzzle some personality, revealing something about the constructor and editor that help the solver see them as fun-loving tricksters. Exceptional clues do that and more. They stick with the solver long after the solve. This year’s nominees for the Bob Klahn Award for Best Clue fall into that latter category.

Any of the nominees would be a suitable winner for the Bob Klahn Award, named a few years ago for one of the best American crossword clue writers the craft has ever known. But this year’s winner, [Drag to court] for SWIPE RIGHT, is a home run. SWIPE RIGHT itself is a fairly fresh, contemporary crossword entry. Usually when now-in-the-language phrases crop up in crosswords, constructors give them straightforward clues. It makes sense—the entry is the star, so the down-the-middle clue lets solvers find it easily. So if Paolo and Erik had clued SWIPE RIGHT as, say, [Express interest on Tinder or Grindr], solvers would have been plenty happy. But Paolo and Erik saw the chance for fun wordplay, and maybe they wanted solvers to wrestle a little bit just so that entry would shine that much more. So somehow they devised [Drag to court].

It’s the perfect misdirection, for if you read “court” as a noun instead of a verb (and why wouldn’t you?), you’ve fallen into their trap. Now you’re thinking of a lawsuit, and of course nothing that answers to that line of thought works in the grid. Eventually, when you get enough crossings to figure out the answer, you react with confusion. Wait, what? How does a dating app relate to a lawsuit? But then you parse the clue again (after having read it, what, half a dozen times already?) and the light goes on. They tricked you. And you loved it.

Erik and Paolo are a terrific team—you see their names throughout this post. Either’s name in a byline means you’re in for some fun, vexing clues (not to mention some of the most creative themes in crosswords today). Congrats to them both for snagging this year’s Bob Klahn Award! One suspects it won’t be last time they do so.

Other Nominees for the 2017 Bob Klahn Award (in order of publication date):

  • [What sometimes follows a pair of hips?] for HOORAY, “Fitting In With” by Doug Peterson (ed. Peter Gordon) (Fireball Crosswords, January 10)
  • [It has a top and a bottom with nothing in between] for BIKINI, Untitled by Ross Trudeau (ed. Will Shortz) (New York Times, February 9)
  • [Actor who sucked in his most famous film role] for LUGOSI, “Several Names” by Randall J. Hartman (ed. Peter Gordon) (Fireball Crosswords, March 8)
  • [Support staff?] for CRUTCH, “Outside the Box Year 2 Rows Garden #29” by Joon Pahk (Outside the Box Puzzles, March 28)
  • [Leaves in a coffee cup, say] for LATTE ART, “Transfers” by Erik Agard & Paolo Pasco (Glutton for Pun, April 26)
  • [Clocks with no hands] for HEADBUTTS, “Tiebreaker” by Erik Agard (ed. Neville Fogarty) (Glutton for Pun, June 8)
  • [It may remove a curse] for TAPE DELAY, “Anchors Away!” by Patrick Berry (ed. Will Shortz) (New York Times, August 6)
  • [Components of ranch dressing?] for STETSONS, “A Higher Power” by “Marie Kelly” (ed. Mike Shenk) (Wall Street Journal, September 8)

Best Tournament Crossword: “Let the Games Begin!”

BEST TOURNAMENT CROSSWORD OF 2017: “Let the Games Begin!” by Paolo Pasco (Lollapuzzoola 10: Passing the Torch). As usual, Lollapuzzoola had consistently great puzzles, but the tournament opener from Paolo Pasco was so unusual, so quirky, so brash that it left the most lasting impression. The puzzle’s Olympics theme covered a 23×13 grid with five evenly-spaced shaded rows (looking a bit like a flag from some crossword-addicted country competing in the Games). Each of the shaded rows started with the name of an Olympic sport. The gimmick is that the letters in the name of each sport were removed from the other entries in the same shaded row. So the J from JABS, the U from FAUST, the D from DRIPS, and the O from GOODS (doesn’t matter which) are pulled to make JUDO. The shaded row thus reads as JUDO-ABS-FAST-RIPS-GODS. But for extra challenge and to execute perfectly the puzzle’s thematic motif, the solver is given clues as if the entries were still JABS-FAUST-DRIPS-GOODS. To make this work with longer sports like ARCHERY, two bigrams and a trigram are removed: ICARUS loses the AR, BENCHED loses the CHE, and TRYOUTS loses the RY, leaving ARCHERY-ICUS-BEND-TOUTS.

It’s cute enough that this one pulls the letters of the names of Olympic sports from other words and moves them to the far left so as to “let the games begin” each shaded row. But notice that the leftover letters from the torn-up words all form legitimate crossword entries. And then notice how smushed together the five shaded rows really are—just two rows between each shaded row. That imposes ridiculously tight constraints on the fill, but you don’t feel any compromises when solving. Throw in interesting longer fill like BEATS DOWN, LABOR DAY, DAME EDNA, and the heretofore-unknown-to-me NASCAR DAD and you have a really terrific tournament crossword.

Other Nominees for Best Tournament Crossword of 2017 (in order of release):

  • “Body Doubles,” by Julie Berube (American Crossword Puzzle Tournament). This was the fourth puzzle in the ACPT. Traditionally a breezy, welcome-back-from-lunch offering, this straightforward puzzle hit the sweet spot. But it also featured a novel, accessible theme. Each of the five theme is a common compound or phrase hiding two body parts. FARM MACHINERY, for instance, hides and ARM and a CHIN, while FISH AND CHIPS hides a HAND and a HIP. In an especially welcome twist, the body parts were not indicated by circled squares but instead by heavy outlines around the squares. This makes the grid much more visually appealing, as the eye can focus on the outlined squares as needed. You’re not immediately confronted by 34 circled squares that feel like little speed bumps as you move your eye along the grid. Small demerit for using EYECHART as a long Down when there is an EYE hidden in COLLEGE YEARS, but it’s not like the duplication was blatant to the…eye.
  • “Splice of Life,” by Mike Shenk (American Crossword Puzzle Tournament). This was the oft-feared ACPT “Puzzle 5,” a hard puzzle intended to separate wheat from chaff. Solvers had 30 minutes to tackle this 17×17 offering from Mike Shenk. Between the puzzle’s title and its subtitle (“You know you’ve got it in you”), one suspected that DNA would play a role. Indeed it did. This was a DNA rebus puzzle—four squares had the DNA trigram to feed Across and Down entries. But the challenge (the cruel, cruel challenge) came from the fact that the DNA here was RECOMBINANT (the revealer). Specifically, the DNA phrases were “spliced” such that the ends were paired with different beginnings. So for instance, the answer to [Country club?] would normally be UNITE(DNA)TIONS, but in the grid the correct answer was UNITE(DNA)TASHA. That’s because the end of BORISAN(DNA)TASHA, [Rocky’s opponents] (Rocky the squirrel, that is), was spliced and paired with the start of UNITE(DNA)TIONS. All four Across theme answers were similarly spliced, really upping the challenge. Luckily, the rebus Downs were not similarly affected or we would still be solving this thing a year later.
  • “Last Words,” by Michael Shteyman (ACPT). This was the Scrabbly championship freestyle puzzle from the ACPT. You’ll get a feel for the puzzle just from the grid’s northwest corner: ZEBRAFISH atop AQUAPLANE atop PUZZLE MUG atop PIZZAS. Lest you have any doubt as to the puzzle’s objective, Z-TILE sat in the lower left corner. In total, the grid had eight Zs, three Js, two Qs, two Xs, and two Ks. The puzzle gets one demerit for featuring WEAKER SEX as the last Across entry. That’s an unfortunate choice since there is virtually no way to clue it without ruffling feathers or being a bit of a downer. But otherwise the puzzle executes its concept cleanly and expertly.
  • “Non-Linear Narratives,” by Erik Agard ft. Allegra Kuney (Indie 500). The subtitle to this puzzle was most helpful: “Prepare to see the aging process as a whole new animal.” Also helpful were the three(!) revealers. The theme, revealed as JUMPING AROUND IN TIME, involved taking common phrases containing the names of either young or grown animals associated with jumping and adding two twists. First, you had to substitute either the name of the mature animal for the name of its young or vice versa. Second, you had to write the letters of the new animal in reverse order. Since all the theme entries were in the Downs, the young would be GETTING UP THERE (the second revealer) in the grid and the old would literally be Benjamin-BUTTONING UP (the third revealer). An example of each: the answer to [Deterrent to talking], FROG IN ONE’S THROAT, was restyled as ELOPDAT IN ONE’S THROAT (TADPOLE backward), and the answer to [Container of dressings], FIRST AID KIT, appeared in the puzzle as FIRST AID TIBBAR (RABBIT backward). One could fairly argue that a crossword requiring three revealers is trying a little too hard, but this whole thing was so wacky and irreverent that it was endearing. Some gems from the fill included AM I HIGH, KIDULT, GO TO POT, THAT HURT and NO HINTS.
  • “Summer Vacation,” by Laura Braunstein (Boswords). SCHOOL’S OUT appears in the middle of this 16×15 puzzle. Parse that as “replace SCHOOL with OUT” and you instantly get the puzzle’s theme: SECONDARY OUT, OUT OF HARD KNOCKS, AFTER-OUT SPECIAL, and (my favorite) OUTHOUSE ROCK. Uber-clean fill makes for smooth sailing throughout this puzzle, a perfect opener for the tournament.

MARGARET FARRAR AWARD FOR 2017 CONSTRUCTOR OF THE YEAR: Erik Agard and Francis Heaney. It’s a tie! We could solve this with a coin flip, but why bother? The world is wide enough to recognize both Erik and Francis for their entertaining and important contributions to our craft. In a field very crowded with talent, Erik and Francis merit special recognition this year for three reasons.

First, of course, is the quality of their work in 2017. Erik was especially prolific this past year. In addition to his own website, Glutton for Pun, he published a number of puzzles in mainstream outlets and, of course, the Indie 500 crossword tournament of which he is a co-founder. A few of his puzzles have been profiled in this post, but that’s just a small sample of his always-entertaining portfolio. He’s equally adept at making themed, freestyle, and meta puzzles, a rare gift.

Francis won the Merl Reagle Award for Best Sunday-Sized Crossword and, as you will soon see, has another puzzle nominated for Best Crossword. His work is consistently lauded by this site’s critics and commenters. His puzzles are always pushing the envelope in creative and daring ways. More often than not, you come away from his puzzles wondering “how did he even think of this, much less make it work?” Francis doesn’t construct puzzles, he crafts them.

Second, they both excel at writing clues, one of the under-appreciated skills in construction. Francis was one of the first to bring a conversational and sardonic style to his clues. He has a gift for adding witty commentary to clues that establishes a personal rapport with the solver. You can recognize an uncredited Francis Heaney puzzle not from the grid or the theme but from the voice in the clues.

And then there’s Erik, who may well be the best clue writer working today. His clues are knotty but fair. He has a gift for using common phrases in unexpected ways that initially flummox and then delight the solver. He was the co-winner of this year’s Bob Klahn Award and several of his clues were nominees for the honor.

Third, and perhaps most important, both have used their talents and their standing in the cross-world to advocate for positive change. Francis has found success raising money for various nonprofit advocacy groups through constructing and selling puzzle sets without taking a dime off the top. Regardless of your politics, you can admire how Francis has leveraged his immense talents for the benefit of causes about which he is passionate.

Erik stands out as the conscience of the crossword community. He has consistently and tirelessly advocated for inclusion in our craft, urging editors, solvers, and other constructors to be especially welcoming of puzzles by women and people of color. As a commenter on this blog, he calls out prejudice and punching down when he sees it, whether in a puzzle, a clue, or another reader’s comment. He mentors aspiring constructors and cheers their achievements. His puzzles feature underrepresented cultures, both in the fill and the clues. Erik is not alone in these efforts at inclusion and respect, but he has become the de facto leader for this important mission.

Finally, though it has nothing to do with construction, it warrants mention that both Erik and Francis are also top-flight solvers. Jeez, Louise (or whatever your name is), is there anything in puzzles they can’t do well?

Given all these parallels, it is fitting that Erik Agard and Francis Heaney share this year’s Margaret Farrar Award. Warm congratulations to both! We appreciate all you do and hope it will continue in 2018 and long beyond.

Again, the pool of talented constructors has no shallow end. We could acknowledge dozens of gifted puzzlemakers, but since we’re already at 8,600 words here we’ll limit the extra kudos to four others who were especially strong contenders for this year’s Margaret Farrar Award (listed here in alphabetical order by surname).

  • Patrick Berry –His themeless crosswords are the smoothest in the business. His meta puzzles always offer a logical and satisfying solution. (See, in particular, a crossword discussed below.) And no one else has Patrick Berry’s chops when it comes to variety puzzles. You owe it to yourself to check out two of his variety puzzles from 2017, both in the Wall Street Journal: Deadbeats (from October 28) and Triple Alliance (from July 8). No spoilers here (for once!) but these puzzles are among the many reasons Patrick Berry is on the Crossword Mount Rushmore. The year Patrick Berry isn’t a strong nominee for Constructor of the Year is the year the Orcas jump the shark.
  • Alex Eaton-Salners – Last year’s Orcas predicted big things for Alex, and his 2017 catalogue did not disappoint. Alex specializes in wacky constructions, which makes his prolific output that much more impressive. Check out any of the puzzles described above and you’ll see why his puzzles are a delight. It’s fun to “expect the unexpected” when you see his byline. He’s one of the freshest voices in the field right now.
  • Matt Gaffney – He won the Best Meta/Contest Crossword Orca (again) and had two nominees for Best Crossword (again). A career year for anyone else, this was “just another year” for Matt Gaffney. Once again, Matt’s puzzles consistently got the highest star ratings. No other constructor was close. Seriously, kids, don’t get into a five-star duel with this guy—you’ll lose handily every time. His ability to devise new contest crosswords—often twice a week when you consider his regular stint with the contest crossword at the Wall Street Journal—continues to amaze even now that we are just over half the way into Matt’s intended 1,000 meta-puzzle run.
  • Joon Pahk – Joon didn’t make as many traditional crosswords in 2017 as in other years, but he deserves mention here for his weekly Rows Garden puzzles and the many variety puzzles he made as part of his Outside the Box Puzzles subscription service. Joon’s talents are on par with Patrick Berry when it comes to Rows Garden puzzles, meaning he has more or less perfected the craft. The puzzles impress at every turn—when you find like four or five possible seed entries in each grid you come to understand that he’s just that damn good. What’s more, Joon made perhaps the best variety puzzle of the year with his “Carrying a Torch” from August 18. It had a great concept was executed perfectly. Joon has also used his site to let others have a go at publishing variety puzzles. My favorite from 2017 was “Science Fiction Double Feature” by Chris Adams (published December 4), highlighting a really cool wordplay find in a most entertaining way.

Best Crossword of 2017: “Conspiracy Theory”

BEST CROSSWORD OF 2017: “Conspiracy Theory,” by Patrick Berry (Fireball Crosswords, May 17). This was a contest puzzle that asked solvers to identify an eight-letter word as the puzzle’s final answer. It looks like an ordinary 15×15 puzzle, but quickly into the solve you realize that there aren’t enough white squares to accommodate the Across answers along the left side of the grid. Right there at 1-Across, for example, the [Dogpatch surname] must be YOKUM, not “OKUM,” the answer that fits in the grid. And right below that, [It’s in the back] doesn’t work as the answer for “PINE,” but it fits for SPINE.

A while later, as you work your way down, you discover that, likewise, there are not enough white squares along the bottom row to fit all the Downs. To make it work, then, you have to add letters outside the grid, as in the screenshot above.

Notice that there are 26 dangling letters. And there are 26 letters in the alphabet. Sure enough, each letter is used exactly once as a “dangler.” That’s pretty neat, but it isn’t exactly obvious how that feeds into an eight-letter word. Some of us meta-solvers (hand raised) give up at this point. Others would figure the answer is ALPHABET since every letter is represented in the danglers. But that’s a bit of a guess, and a good meta crossword usually leaves no doubt as to the correct answer. Those willing to dig a little deeper were in for a helluva payoff.

Why is it, do you suppose, the danglers are along the left and bottom sides, as opposed to (or in addition to) the top and right sides? They kinda-sorta make the grid look like a graph with X- and Y-axes. And that turns out to be the key to finding the solution: If you treat the letters in the puzzle’s title, CONSPIRACY THEORY, as coordinate pairs ([C,O], [N,S], [P,I], [R,A], [C,Y], [T,H] [E,O] [R,Y]), the grid letters at the intersection of the coordinate pairs, in order, spell out PARANOIA, the contest answer. You can see it in the shaded squares from the screenshot above.

Swear to [insert deity of choice], this is the crossword version of an onion—a puzzle with all kinds of layers that reduce you to tears when you realize what went into the construction. Think of all the elegant touches and constraints crammed into this puzzle: (1) The solution word, PARANOIA, relates well to CONSPIRACY THEORY, leaving the solver no doubt that this is the correct answer to the contest; (2) A conspiracy theory involves finding a subtle, nefarious “plot,” and solvers here likewise had to find the subtle “plot” points on a graph; (3) CONSPIRACY THEORY has just one repeating letter (the Y), so the coordinate pairs are scattered around the grid and not clumped into the same region; (4) The grid uses all 26 letters of the alphabet exactly once along the axes so there is no doubt as to the exact plot point for each pair; (5) The X dangler is along the X-axis and the Y dangler is along the Y-axis (because, of course); and (6) Patrick had to make sure the first letter from each coordinate pair appeared along the X-axis, with the second along the Y-axis, further constraining his choices for the arrangement of the letters.

Given all of these layers and constraints, one would forgive the puzzle if the fill betrayed signs of wear and tear. But nope–even if you didn’t get the gimmick, there was enough smoothness and trickery to make for a satisfying solving experience. There were even terrific clues, like [Bob Seger’s pickup line?] for LIKE A ROCK and [Feed from a dish?] for SATELLITE TV. Simply put, this puzzle is perfectly executed on all fronts. It’s the Best Crossword of 2017.

The contest generated 160 entries, but only 70 were correct. A conspiracy theorist might find that interesting. Of more relevance to this occasion, the puzzle generated overwhelmingly favorable feedback on this site. It received 53(!) five-star ratings from readers (the typical Fireball puzzle gets maybe ten total ratings on a good week). That’s the most five-star ratings of any crossword published in 2017. In her review, Jenni called the puzzle “incredible, amazing, fascinating, and impressive” (one gets the sense she liked it). But my favorite comment came from reader Cindy Lawson: “Patrick Berry once again proves he is the master, in case you might have somehow forgotten. Now, is he single??”

As amazing as this puzzle is, it was not the runaway winner for Best Crossword. Check out the Other Nominees for Best Crossword of 2017 (in order of publication date):

  • “Love Letters,” by Francis Heaney (American Values Club, February 22). This won Best Sunday-Sized Crossword and is featured above.
  • Untitled, Jeff Chen (New York Times, February 23). This won Best Gimmick Crossword and is also featured above.
  • “Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New,” by Matt Gaffney (Matt Gaffney Weekly Crossword Contest, March 31). This puzzle was discussed above as a nominee for Best Meta/Contest Crossword.
  • “Kicking Off the Fourth,” by Alex Eaton-Salners (Fireball Crosswords, June 14). You already read about this gem in the list of nominees for Best Gimmick Crossword.
  • “MGWCC #487: The Long and Short of It,” by Matt Gaffney (Matt Gaffney Weekly Crossword Contest, September 29). This won Best Meta/Contest Crossword and is highlighted above.
  • “Follow the Write Directions,” by Francis Heaney (American Values Club, November 29). This, the second Best Crossword nominee from the co-winner of the Margaret Farrar Award, was discussed among the Best Gimmick Crossword nominees.

That’s a wrap for the 2017 Orca Awards! Thanks for reading this far. Warm congratulations and huge thanks to all of the winners and nominees–please keep them coming. Please! And, as always, thanks to Amy for giving the Orcas a home, and to tech-master Dave Sullivan for curating the star ratings in an easy-to-use form so that only a few puzzles slip through the cracks (instead of the dozens that would have done so without his helpful arrangement of information).

Now, where’s the after-party?

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12 Responses to The 2017 Orca Awards

  1. lemonade714 says:

    Fabulous year in the puzzle world. For those who look to solve all the nominees, the Roger and Kathy Wienberg puzzle ran on March 14, 2017 LAT, not January 11. Congratulations all!!!

  2. jagoandlitefoot says:

    An excellent year all around. Funny story – last year’s Orca Awards post was what got me interested in the crossword community. Kind of weird to think of how much of an obsession of mine crosswords have become since then.

  3. joon says:

    sam, thanks as always for this terrific celebration of crosswords! congrats to all the winners and nominees, especially erik & francis! speaking for myself, i was stunned to see my name among the nominees for the margaret farrar award, but not at all surprised to see their names. :)

  4. Mary says:

    Congratulations to the winners and candidates. I feel like the real winner.

  5. alex says:

    As usual, an amazing writeup, and congrats to the nominees and winners.

  6. Matt G. says:

    I loved reading this. I only moved from “daily NYT solver” to “solving lots and lots and thinking about competitions” midway through the year, so I’m looking forward to next year when I can remember solving all the puzzles.

  7. e.a. says:

    sam please tell me where you get the energy for these masterworks, i am extremely inspired indeed, thank you for spreading the love and congrats everyone

  8. Stephen McFly says:

    Glad to see “Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New” get some love; when I explain meta crosswords to friends, that is the one I continue to bring up.

  9. BarbaraK says:

    This was great fun to read! A trip down memory lane for the ones I solved, and interesting reading about the others.

    Are there any guidelines for rating puzzles? I don’t rate all that often as I’m not really sure what the rules for judging are. Is it meant to be a bell curve, with most puzzles 3s, some 2s and 4s and few 1s and 5s? Or should everything start at 5 with points deducted only for problems? And is the universe all published crosswords or only the ones that get reviewed on this site (which I’ve recently realized are all massively better than some out there)? Maybe I’m way overthinking this whole subject.

  10. Francis says:

    I forgot Orca time was coming up, so this was a lovely surprise, and E.A. is A+++ company to share an award with. High fives to all fellow nominees, winners, and crossword fans, and special thanks to Sam for another great write-up!

  11. Dan F says:

    Thank you Sam, thank you Amy, thank you all the constructors and editors who bring us so much entertainment!

  12. Howard B says:

    Late to the game, but this is a great writeup, and a great remembrance of each of these masterpieces.
    Thanks and kudos to all who construct, and the solvers who make it all worthwhile. :)

Comments are closed.