MGWCC #547

crossword 4:20  
meta 2 days 


hello and welcome to episode #547 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Chain Gang”. for this week 4 puzzle, matt challenges us to name a geographical group. what are the theme answers? the clues for the five long across answers each have a parenthetical number or numbers:

  • {1.d4 d5 2.c4 Nc6 in chess, named for an early Russian great (3)} CHIGORIN DEFENSE. this is not a defense that has featured in the current world chess championship, which is headed to a tiebreaker tomorrow after a deeply unsatisfying draw in game 12.
  • {Baby announcement buys (1)} CANDY CIGARS.
  • {Bird of prey in western North America (7)} PRAIRIE FALCON. this is new one to me.
  • {Market-moving company (5, 6)} PRICE SETTER.
  • {Despised enemies, floridly (2, 8, 4)} DASTARDLY DEVILS.

okay, so what’s the theme? i couldn’t really make heads or tails of it at first, but the title and instructions put me in mind of mountain chains, so i was thinking all along that there would be some kind of mountain or mountains associated with each of these. it certainly seemed like we were going to get an 8-letter answer: one letter each from the first three theme answers, then two from PRICE SETTER and three from DASTARDLY DEVILS, ordered by the parenthetical number. so my first instinct was HIMALAYA, since it’s an 8-letter mountain chain.

but that didn’t really go anywhere, as i couldn’t figure out what these theme answers would have to do with any particular mountains. so i put this on the back burner for a little while. when i came back to it a few days later, i had the key insight: not mountains, but islands, are also geographical features that occur in chains. and indeed, there were islands hiding in there. how so?

well, i first noticed the connection between CANDY CIGARS and CUBAN CIGARS. then PRICE SETTER seemed like it could be related to IRISH SETTER (ENGLISH SETTER is also a dog, but england isn’t an island), and then DASTARDLY DEVILS to JERSEY DEVILS, jersey being one of the u.k. channel islands. now, that one gave me pause, because jersey devil is a thing (not a real thing, but definitely a thing) and new jersey devils is a thing, but jersey devils, plural, is not really a thing, and new jersey isn’t an island. but okay, whatever. what about FALCON and DEFENSE?

FALCON came first—the maltese falcon, of course. so we have cuba, malta, ireland, and jersey. then for DEFENSE, since i’ve had chess on the brain, brought to mind the much more common SICILIAN DEFENSE (which has featured, quite prominently, in the current world chess championship): 1. e4 c5, and all variations following thereupon, very frequently played at all levels of chess.

okay, so there are island phrases. what next? two key insights quickly followed: one, the first word in the grid and the first word of the related phrase had the same length. two, they overlapped in some places—one letter each for the first three theme answers, two for the second, and … well, okay, obviously JERSEY DEVILS had to be wrong, because it’s not the same length as DASTARDLY DEVILS, and there was no overlap. so i soon realized it had to be TASMANIAN DEVILS (yes, even in the plural, that is a real thing), which overlaps with DASTARDLY in three places (_AS_A____).

i’ve circled the overlapping letters in the grid screenshot. from top to bottom, they spell out NCERIASA, but if we order them according to the parenthetical numbers, we get CANARIES, another island group. fun fact: the canary islands are named after an animal, but that animal is not a bird! rather, the canary bird is named after the islands.

this was a very nice meta. some of these theme phrases are a little obscure/forced, but all of the underlying ones are very real, making the puzzle quite solvable. the fact that all of them included the adjectival form of the islands was a nice consistent touch—not sicily, cuba, malta, ireland, and tasmania, but sicilian, cuban, maltese, irish, and tasmanian. if you don’t know enough about chess to be familiar with the SICILIAN DEFENSE, that’s okay, too, as the meta is eminently gettable without that one letter. but since i’ve been pretty chess-obsessed this month, that entry was a plus for me.

well, that’s all i’ve got this week. i’m thankful for matt producing these delightful puzzles to challenge and entertain us. what’d you all think?

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21 Responses to MGWCC #547

  1. paul coulter says:

    Similar to last week’s experience, it seemed like the first step was the easy one. If we’re looking for a geographical feature, and “chain” is in the title, it’s probably islands or mountains. So it took me little time to come up with the demonyms. For me, confirmation was because together with the themers’ second words, each made a more familiar phrase than the original. And this was key. I didn’t get it right away, more like my tenth try versus ~one hundredth last week, but once I noticed the lengths all matched, I felt reasonably certain I was on the correct path. So I think this was considerably easier than last week, and a lot more enjoyable, too. I continue to be impressed with Matt’s wide variety of techniques to produce a clear answer. My only ding is Dastardly devils, which unlike the others, strikes me as a made up phrase.

    • pgw says:

      I also found it easier than last week. I was thinking “probably islands, maybe mountains” from the beginning, and cigars and setter were very easy to associate with islands.

      Definitely agree with others applauding this feat of construction! To find same-length alternatives to start the phrases, with the right letters overlapping, and have the most awkward one be “dastardly devils,” is very impressive.

  2. MLou says:

    I got as far as figuring it was an island chain…all those early “os” seemed to be Greek. That fell apart quickly and didn’t hold water. Oh well – as Snidely Whiplash might have said “Those dastardly devils!”

  3. john says:

    I was exactly nowhere with this. Freaking brilliant. It all makes so much sense now, but I never even was able to connect what “Chain” was hinting at. Regardless, love it. 5 stars.

  4. LuckyGuest says:

    Five stars from me too… when you get a few minutes, think about all it took to construct this gem…

  5. I’d written down Cuban Cigars & Irish/English Setter but didn’t make the connection that I was looking for an island for all 5 theme answers. I was trying word association with the first words of the theme answers too (Chigorin → Mikhail, Prairie → Dog, Dastardly → Dick) which likely distracted me from seeing the right answer.

  6. Adam S Doctoroff says:

    I also found this one very clever. It’s always interesting to read other people’s paths to the solve, especially when they are different from one’s one. I immediately thought of Tasmanian Devils and Maltese Falcon, noted the number of letters in common with the grid entries, and worked my way through the others from there. Thanks as always, Matt!

  7. I’m curious if anyone else noticed RINGO scrambled in CHIGORIN DEFENSE and then spent 24+ hours convinced this had to be the right idea.

    • BarbaraK says:

      Oh yes! Especially since I was already thinking about/looking for word chains.

    • Matthew G. says:

      Yep. This is a big part of why I took until Tuesday morning to find the correct path. Seemed liked RINGO and GORIN had to point to a word chain of some kind.

      My eventual entry point was TASMANIAN DEVILS. With less than two hours till the deadline, it just leapt out at me that I could superimpose TASMANIAN on DASTARDLY, and then it was off to the races.

  8. Old Meta says:

    Funny. My first thought was Wacky Races with Dick Dastardly and Muttley, which also included the beautiful Penelope Pitstop, who reminds me of “The Perils of Pauline” starring Pat Boone, who reminds me of the straight-laced Dudley Do-right, whose nemesis was Snideley Whiplash!! And oh, by the way, I believe several of the voice actors on Dudley were in that movie as well.

    The New Jersey Devils play hockey.

  9. dbardolph says:

    Really, really good. Like others, I took a side trip to Canada with Dudley Do-right and Snidely Whiplash (Canadian Rockies?) IRISH SETTER was my first toehold, and the other islands dropped pretty quickly after that. It still took me a while to notice that the originals and replacements had the same number of letters, and still longer to write them on top of each other and see the shared letters. Another mind-bending feat of construction from Mr. Gaffney.

  10. Bunny Zukowski says:

    Actually you don’t need the parenthetical numbers at all. Once you have the letters you can just anagram them to canaries.
    Having the numbers was just an extra, I guess.

    • Matthew G. says:

      I think it’s pretty clear after 547 weeks that Matt regards arbitrary anagramming as an inelegance. His first choice is to have the letters appear in order in the grid, and when that isn’t possible (as in this case), he uses some other device, such as parentheticals, to avert the need to randomly shift letters around.

      Sometimes that has the side effect of reducing the difficulty, but I think Matt’s right to think that people would be annoyed if they are arbitrarily expected to anagram with no hint to do so.

  11. Silverskiesdean says:

    Extremely elegant meta in all respects and all I can say is 5+++.

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