WSJ Contest – May 11, 2018

untimed (Evad) 


Matt Gaffney’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “So That’s Your Game!”—Dave Sullivan’s write-up

WSJ Contest – 5/11/18 – “So That’s Your Game!”

Full disclosure (we’re into transparency here chez Fiend): I’m beginning this post without a clear idea of the solution, but hoping that “talking it out” here on the site may help with a critical insight. Let’s start with the instructions, which are to find a sport. The title seems to echo this idea, and looking at the starred theme entries, one can see the names of athletes from various fields of sport in each:

  • 17a. [*One of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles], DONATELLO – they all have names of grand masters (Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael were the others, speaking of Leonardo, I’m almost finished with Walter Isaacson’s generally interesting but a bit tedious toward the end biography of Da Vinci). This one is a bit unclear to me who the athlete is, I’m going with William Tell, the archer, for now, but feeling a bit unsure of that given the other more modern names below.
  • 20a. [*Material for many guitars], MAHOGANY WOOD – the “wood” is completely superfluous here, but perhaps needed for symmetry. (Reminds me of this Beatle’s tune.) . There are two Hogans I can think of in the sports world–Hulk and Ben, a wrestler and a golfer. Perhaps Hulk is the more famous of the two.
  • 35a. [*To be taken lightly], UNSERIOUS – an uncommon word, but a clear pointer to the racecar driving dynasty of Al, Jerry, Bobby and Al Jr.
  • 46a. [*x], TIMES SIGN – “multiplication sign” sounds more appropriate to my ear, but a fun clue all the same. Argentinian footballer Lionel Messi can be found within.
  • 57a. [*”God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” novelist], KURT VONNEGUT – one of my favorite novelists, another fascinating book I read recently was about his brother Bernard who worked at GE with cloud seeding. Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn is whom I found in this one.
  • 64a. [*Match up], CORRELATE – we got Bruin’s great #4, Bobby Orr, here.

When did he grow the beard?

So, taking the title pretty literally, we have the following sports (“games”) associated with these athletes:

  • Archery
  • Wrestling (or Golf)
  • Racecar Driving
  • Football (or Soccer)
  • Alpine Skiing
  • Hockey

When I find ambiguous entries like this, I hope to find confirming information elsewhere in the grid (either in other shorter grid entries, or perhaps in the clues themselves), but no dice there. That left me working with entries I felt were solid and trying to backsolve a sport from them–Hockey seemed definite and Lindsey is definitely a skier, so I’m going to submit SQUASH, cross my fingers and hope the meta gods were smiling on me this weekend.

Other bits ‘n’ pieces:

  • Very timely 1a. [Hawaiian flower] ain’t a LEI, but LAVA
  • [It’s good for the French] is the feminine form of BON or BONNE (as in “bonne nuit”)
  • For both [Wealthy Washingtonian] clues I was thinking D.C., but instead it’s the state, BEZOS and GATES of Amazon and Microsoft respectively
  • Finally something I learned, that a BRIS happens on a baby boy’s 8th day. Must be a biblical reference, makes you wonder what God was thinking about on that 7th day He rested?
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54 Responses to WSJ Contest – May 11, 2018

  1. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Evad. The sports were:

    Auto Racing
    Ice Hockey

    Yielding AGASSI, so the contest answer was TENNIS.

  2. Tim Mitchell says:

    I got this one, but instead of a “click”, it was more of a “squish”. I found most of the names (TELL never occurred to me), but it was a lot of trial and error to get their sports into something that made sense: Golf/Pro Wrestling/Wrestling for HOGAN, Auto Racing/Indy Car/Driving for UNSER, Soccer/Football for MESSI, Skiing/Alpine Skiing for VONN, and Ice Hockey/Hockey for ORR (still not sure why Ice Hockey gets the modifier, but Alpine Skiing doesn’t). Since I didn’t have the first athlete, I never felt good about my answer, even though it worked with the title.

    For a while, I thought that there was no athlete in DONATELLO, and Matt had just pulled off the mother of all intentional misdirects.

  3. Burak says:

    This meta feels a bit rushed. If the Tell is indeed for William Tell, he’s not an athlete unlike the others so that feels a bit weird. Also, auto racing, soccer and ice hockey are legitimate answers, yes, but all those sports also have different and quite popular names (racing/football (admittedly not in the US)/hockey). Once you know the answer, it’s actually a solid meta; but with zero info it’s too open-ended for my taste.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      OK, but “Auto racing,” “Soccer” and “ice hockey” are the common names for these three sports. “Hockey” for “ice hockey” sure but by then you’ve got AGASS? so can piece that together if needed.

      There’s no reason to call soccer “football” in a meta — if I’d needed the F I obviously would’ve used a famous football player.

      • Lance says:

        I disagree that “ice hockey” is the common name for this sport. Field hockey is not so major a sport in the US that “hockey” is ambiguous. In fact, I just went to Google News and searched on “hockey”; in about twenty headlines, not once is it modified by “ice”.

        I think the point here is that if you’re going to specify that Orr played “ice hockey”, then it’s parallel to specify that Conn’s Vonn’s sport is “alpine skiing” and not “skiing”, as Tim Mitchell said above. I also agree with their other points–I think you could overlook the “alpine” vs. “ice” question if there weren’t enough other issues, like the Hogan one (sure, golf is more of a sport, but Hulk is probably more famous), and the fact that it’s five modern athletes and a semi-mythical marksman. To be honest, I only worked backwards to TELL by trying to think of another sport starting with A, and thought of “archery”; before then, I’d put pretty much every substring of DONATELLO into Wikipedia to see if “Atell” or “Onat” or “Tello” was an athlete I’d never heard of.

        I’ll grant that this meta is a rare miss, but it’s a miss nonetheless.

        • Matt Gaffney says:

          As I mentioned in my comment above, if you had AGASS? and knew Bobby ORR, you can puzzle out that it’s Ice Hockey since you need the I.

          Backsolve adjustments like this are common in metas, and I’m surprised at how many solvers had trouble with it. I figured the AG?SS? at least would pop out and then off to the races.

          • Evad says:

            I’ll admit that if I considered that the letters spelled out another athlete’s name (instead of the sport itself), I may have stumbled onto AGASSI, but I’d say that H at the end was my most solid of assumptions of the 6 letters.

            • Matthew G. says:

              Same here. I was sure Hockey was correct, and I waffled between Racing and Auto Racing as well as between Wrestling and Pro Wrestling, never considering Golf.

              Now that I see the solution I think I’ve dimly heard of Ben Hogan, but he doesn’t even have a mention on Wikipedia’s disambiguation page for the surname Hogan (which I actually checked to make sure there wasn’t a non-Hulk famous Hogan that I wasn’t thinking of). I’m not a fan of either wrestling or golf, so I think the fact that I’ve heard of one Hogan but not the other is reasonably representative.

              So I had scribbles that looked like: AWRSSH, which looked like nothing at all. I figured I was barking up the wrong tree and looked for another mechanism.

              Matt is the best meta-maker on Earth, so I hope he doesn’t take the lower ratings particular puzzle seems to be getting too hard. It’s very rare he makes anything below a 4-star meta! Even Homer nodded.

      • Burak says:

        It’s called NHL, not NIL so I have to disagree with you that “ice hockey” is the common name for that sport. I have admitted that soccer/football thing is not applicable in the US, but just pointed that out for the open-ended nature of the meta.

        Also, when you already know the answer it’s much easier to propose deduction. Yes, if you have AGASS? you can deduce it’s Ice Hockey, but what if you have:

        ? (Because William Tell is not an athlete)
        Racing/Auto-racing/Indy 500 racing
        Alpine skiing/Skiing
        Hockey/Ice Hockey

        If we’re being specific with Hockey and calling it Ice Hockey, why are we being generic with Skiing and not calling it Alpine Skiing etc.

        And again, the Tell thing is inconsistent.

        To reiterate, I appreciate the construction in retrospect. But those are legitimate issues, which doesn’t mean it’s a bad puzzle, it just means those are legitimate issues.

  4. Jon says:

    All except William Tell are modern athletes. Until a solving buddy pointed out “tell” to me, I missed it 3 times when doing all the permutations of DONATELLO. And even if you put in “athlete tell” or “sports tell” into Google, you won’t stumble upon German folklore character William Tell. He’s a legend who might not even exist. Then you’d have Matt using a fictional person.

    “Well then you’d have _GASSI, so of course you’d be able to figure out via context clues.” That’s where the vagueness of the exact sports terms he chose comes in.

    Archery – that one’s good; no other terms for it. Just A.
    Golf – ditto. Just G.
    Auto racing – this one has at least 2 alternative ones: Racing or Indycar. So A, R or I.
    Soccer – football is the only alternative here. S or F.
    Skiing – or Downhill Skiing or Alpine Skiing or Super-G Skiing or Combined Skiing or Slalom Skiing or Giant Slalom Skiing; so D, A, C, G or S.
    Ice Hockey – or just Hockey. I or H.

    Sometimes a specific term is used – ice hockey instead of just hockey – but other times a vague term is required – skiing instead of alpine skiing. So the mixture of specific vs vague makes the formation of the anagram word inconsistent, and thus, inelegant.

    For me, I had TGRSSH because I thought NA from DONATELLO was for Li Na so I had Tennis as my 1st sport.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Yeah but come on — SKIING is the most obvious choice, and there’s no reason to use “football” over soccer. As I mentioned above, if I’d needed an F I would’ve used a football player.

      • Jon says:

        Take the note, Matt. You get 99 out of 100 meta right, but always feel the need to argue constructive critiques.


        TGRSSH – try to figure out AGASSI from that. Oh, Ice Hockey instead of Hockey, then you’ve got to use Alpine Skiing instead of Skiing and IndyCar Racing instead of Auto Racing. TGISAI – That’s even farther away from Agassi. Oh, IndyCar is dumb, Auto Racing is better? Then TGASAI – Still far from AGASSI.

        • Matt Gaffney says:

          Before taking the note I’ll wait to see what % of WSJ solvers got the right answer in the morning. Unanimous but small and understandably motivated sample group here. If it’s under 60% I’ll semi-graciously concede the point.

          • Matt Gaffney says:

            Also note that LI is her last name so it couldn’t have been NA on the first one

          • Lance says:

            Not a great metric. I did solve this (though I don’t ever send in answers); the problem is not “is it solvable”.

          • Burak says:

            Statistically speaking, you would also need to consider if there was a drop in the number of answers submitted. That drop can be attributed to many other factors, but if you just look at the correct answer % there’ll be some sort of a selection bias there.

            • Matt Gaffney says:

              Agreed, but 811 entries (which is higher-than-average for the WSJ) with about 2/3 correct. So not terrible, but agreed that a large % of those may have been unsure about their answer, which isn’t good.

            • Maggie W. says:

              Also, since there were six themers, people may have thought they were looking for a six letter sport. Eliminating sports included in the theme entries, you’re pretty much down to tennis and boxing.

  5. Gideon says:

    I thought there were too many “multiple choice answers” which made this one a slog. E.g. I had Wrestling (or Pro Wrestling?) for Hogan as the obvious choice until someone corrected me.

    In fact I had the theme + mechanism down in minutes , but only cracked the meta days later (again, with help).

    I will say though that the click on AGASSI was solid, once reached.

  6. Mark says:

    I came up with:
    ?GRSSH (Golf, Racing, Soccer, Skiing, Hockey) or
    ?BALLB (Ben hogan; Al unser; Lionel messi, Lindsey vonn, Bobby Orr)
    could not see coming up with a 6 letter sport with either approach.
    considered both William Tell and Cristian Tello.
    Did not enter.

    • MattG. says:

      I also ended up with ?BALLB and nothing that looked recognizable from the sports. Found Guillaume TELL as others mentioned but figured that couldn’t be right. Somewhat glad to see I at least was on the right track…

      • DavidB says:

        My girlfriend and I solve this every week and neither of us is into sports, so I was very proud of our accomplishment in finding the last names of the athletes. We thought that Li Na was the Donatello athlete, so we ended up with LBALLB. Bobby Orr’s actual name is Robert, so it became LBALLR, which we interpreted as the ball going between the left and right goalposts in football. I was absolutely convinced that was the answer because of the football-shaped pattern made by the black squares in the center of the puzzle. That should qualify for an honorable mention.

  7. Robin says:

    Glad I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t figure this one out.

  8. NMG says:

    I’m with Jon here. Matt, learn to have a slice of humble pie and accept the constructive criticism offered here.

  9. Bob Kerfuffle says:

    I hardly ever get these metas, and didn’t this time, but the rabbit hole I was exploring was based on, “Which of these people does not have a related entry in the grid, and thus points to his/her sport?”, as in HOGAN/TEE, VONN/GATES, MESSI/NIL, SERIO (a rap singer otherwise unknown to me)/RAP, and a TATER hanging out there for some baseball player. Never did find the athlete in DONATELLO, and a total dead end anyway, of course.

  10. Dan says:

    I also had to backsolve. Through trial and error, I was fairly certain of AGASSI (Tennis) but was troubled by the first A. Google led me to a French Olympic marathon runner named Guillaume TELL — and road races fall under the sport of Athletics umbrella.

  11. Bob H says:

    I went through all the same thought processes and have the same criticisms mentioned above, but did submit the correct answer. I really tried hard to make ice skating work for the last one, trying multiple four- and five-letter strings before finally seeing the three-letter name Orr and reluctantly settling on that one. I think using an ice skater here would have really cut down on the dissatisfaction with this puzzle.

  12. Gordie Glover says:

    I did back-solve as Matt suggests many metas require. I found 1920s French Olympic runner Guillaume Tell,struggled with the ambiguities of ice hockey vs hockey; auto racing vs. Indy car racing etc.
    I figured with each of the 6 clues providing no clear answer, that route was a dead end.
    So, needing to find a name, I looked for a name in all the clues and I found only one word in all the clues (in 22a)that is also a name:Mantle, the Yankee baseball great.
    “Baseball” is my unambiguous answer.

  13. Barttels says:

    Seems like instead of a red herring or empty rabbit hole, this meta threw up a big CURVE BALL. Such was where I got stuck! Woulda/coulda/shoulda/didn’t.

  14. Garrett says:

    Bris is short for what the Jewish people call brit malah, which is the covenant of circumcision established first with Abraham and all of his descendants. This is described in Genesis 17:10-14, and both here and in Leviticus 12:3 the commandment is for it to happen on the eighth day of the child’s life. Even if that day falls on the Sabbath it is still performed on the eighth day.

    As for the eighth day, there is a very good reason for this. According to Dr. Ayala Abrahamov, “Physiologically, until the eighth day, the liver slowly develops, until on the eighth day itself, it is mature enough to fulfill its role to create the clots necessary to stop bleeding.” — Senior Professor of Pediatrics at the Faculty of Medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in her article “Problems with Blood Clotting and Bleeding in Newborns”

    In fact, clotting factors are higher on this day than any other day of the child’s life.

  15. David R says:

    I got this one with no problem and am almost as mystified as Matt on all the criticism. Tell isn’t consistent with the athletes but we all know that he was an archer. That makes the process inelegant not an obstacle to solving the puzzle. If you are specific about the sports they are ICE HOCKEY and AUTO RACING. The Skiing criticism is laughable.

  16. Scott says:

    I liked it. My mistake was choosing Tiger WOOD(S) rather than HOGAN but they are both golfers so no problem. I found AGASSI quickly enough so i have no beef with the meta.

  17. JohnH says:

    Seems like almost every commentator had trouble making the pattern fit, and I have to agree. (Matt, I do admire your work in fitting all this into a puzzle, but please don’t feel you have to be defensive, especially when so many people respond similarly.)

    I saw Ben HOGAN and Tiger WOOD, so I did spot athletes, and even without the title figured I should know them from golf. UNSER jumped right out, too, and I know ORR from crosswords. (Quite generally, I knew this was going to be a hard or impossible theme for a non-sports fan.) So I wrote down racing and hockey. (It never occurred to me to look for less common names for the sports.) I wondered why just one fill had two athletes but set it aside as a minor flaw.

    That left two. I hate puzzles, as you know, that send me to the Web, especially when I dono’t know what to search for, but here with one fill all I could do was to keep trying different letter combinations that might be a name before finding that VONN was a skier and MESSI a soccer or maybe football player. That left the first theme entry. Was this breaking the pattern by using a first name, Nate as in Archibald, or was it seriously taking a mythical archer from the distant, William Tell, as a professional athlete? He’s a folk hero using his bow as a weapon against tyranny! Neither seemed to fit, but I wrote down both basketball and archery.

    I was sure even earlier that the initials should spell a name, which would then lead to yet another sport, but this was going nowhere, so I gave up. Not satisfying.

  18. LuckyGuest says:

    I had no issues at all with this meta. I liked that it wasn’t just handed to me on a silver platter. I like getting an idea, trying it out, backing off, rethinking, trying something else… It’s kind of like the difference between a padlock and a combination lock. With a padlock, once you get the key, you’re in, period. With a combination lock, you try and retry, getting the tumblers to fall one by one, until it finally opens with a click.

  19. Dan Seidman says:

    I thought the ambiguity made it less than perfect, but once I hit on the idea of using the sports of the hidden athletes I had no problem finding the solution quickly. Since this was in a US publication, it never occurred to me to use a non-US term for soccer (or for any of the other sports). I never thought of HOGAN meaning anything but golf, since the title refers to a game rather than a scripted performance. And I guess I had less trouble finding/accepting TELL than a lot of people, since I figured even if William Tell wasn’t an athlete, archery is a sport and we’re looking for sports. So using the names I would use for those sports, I came up with AGASSH, which was more than close enough. If I had initially tried, say, alpine skiing and car racing, I don’t think it would have taken too long to try the various combinations and find one that worked.

  20. Small Wave Dave says:

    I worked through the ambiguities in the sports names since the mechanism felt familiar. It reminded me of the Tom Sawyer RAFT puzzle, where you had to identify the mode of transportation associated with people in the grid, and there was more than one possible name for some of the vehicles. Required a little imagination to see the right choices.

    TELL was the last name I found, but thanks to over-googling I now know that there’s a women’s tackle football player named Maggie Natell!

  21. joon says:

    yup, too much ambiguity, and TELL being fictional/legendary is a major flaw. i hate to bring it up, but even the final AGASSI->TENNIS step is flawed, as andre’s dad emmanuel agassi was an olympic boxer.

  22. JRS says:

    A curiosity: If you list the first names of the athletes (William, Ben, Al(the most noted Unser),Lionel, Lindsey, and Bobby), you get WBALLB, which anagrams to WBBALL, or Women’s Basketball, a sport as listed on Google and other sites.

  23. GlennG says:

    I had no issues with this once I figured out what was going on, other than the TELL reference. It’s one of the better metas Matt has done, and I can think of recent ones he’s done that have been far less elegant and less “clicky” than this. Nice puzzle.

  24. Icdogg says:

    No complaints here, I thought it was a relatively smooth solve.

  25. David says:

    I’m completely perplexed by “BANDB” as the answer to “Inn alternative.” Please help!

  26. Andrew Zimmer says:

    Since William Tell is dead, I NEVER would have got there. Googled all possible letter combinations for “Donatello” and got the (alive) Camille Donat. That with Hulk Hogan and the various sport lettering got me nowhere on this one.

  27. Norm H says:

    Pro wrestling is a sport? I guess theater must be as well.

  28. Barry Haldiman says:

    I went completely down the wrong rabbit hole. I didn’t see the theme so I ended up “correlating” as directed in the final theme entry.

    DONATELLO & CORRELATE both have an O in the 2nd position
    MAHOGANYWOOD & KURTVONNEGUT both have an N in the 7th position
    UNSERIOUS & TIMESSIGN both have an E in the 4th position.

    And came up with ONE on ONE thus BASKETBALL is the sport.

    I had a feeling I was way out in LEFT FIELD.

  29. Dave Olson says:

    Deciding William Tell wasn’t really right, but knowing the first entry had to be a sport starting with the letter “A”, I came up with Cristian Tello as a soccer player. Soccer, of course, is short for “association football”. Tada!

    • Evad says:

      So why would one soccer player contribute an A and another (MESSI) an S?

      Funny how I went with Hockey (instead of Ice Hockey) and Alpine Skiing (instead of just Skiing)–I guess I think of skiing having more “varieties” than hockey and therefore requiring more specificity. Oh well, most of us were at least on the right track.

  30. J B says:

    I didn’t know William Tell was a crossbow archer. Seems like every modern depiction of shooting an apple off someone’s head uses a “regular” bow.

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