WSJ Contest — Friday, March 22, 2019

6:21 grid; ~15 minutes meta, okay, maybe 20(Jim P) 


Mike Shenk’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Sticky Situation”—Jim P’s review

Jim P. here filling in for Laura who nerded out this weekend at the ACPT.

My track record at metas has been spotty at best, and this weekend I’m tasked with reviewing two of them: this one and the Fireball. Wish me luck.

Thankfully for me, I was able to work my way through this one, despite a number of red herrings. I wonder if my solving path is typical of others’. Let’s have a look.

WSJ Contest – Fri, 3.22.19 – “Sticky Situation” by Mike Shenk

With no obvious theme answers, let’s focus on the longest entries: AWAKENED, FAINTNESS, DISTRESS, LATENESS, APPORTION, SWEATERS. We’re told we’re looking for an 8-letter word, so if each of those words led to a letter, that’s only six. We need two more. The next likely candidates are ATONED and SPEARS just because of their placement in the grid, but there are a number of other 6-letter words. Hmm.

The next thing I noticed was how bland some of these long entries were: FAINTNESS, DISTRESS, LATENESS, APPORTION, etc. No pizzazz there; how could that be related to the theme? It made me think anagrams were in order especially with three entries ending in -ESS.

Then I noticed the grid contained STRESS at 48d which is DISTRESS minus the DI. And look! STEERS at 1a can be made with SWEATERS minus a WA. Interesting…but this led nowhere, too.

Finally, I cottoned on to the fact that 69a POST-IT was clued [Sticky note] which echoed the puzzle’s title. Surely, this is the right track.

One definition of the word POST is “after,” so maybe we have to find instances of IT in the grid and look for the next letter. Great idea, but rats! There is no other IT in the Across direction or even in the Down direction. But if we widen out to look in all four, or heck, all eight directions (including diagonals) we find there’s an IT going up in STIFLE as well as in TIN CUP, one going down and to the right starting at square 26, and one going backward in APPORTION as well as in TIM. That’s five. Not enough, and anyway, what would you do with TIM and TIN CUP where the square after the IT is a block? Sigh.

Oh, hello! Look at row 11 which consists of POTS and TIM. The first six letters anagram to POST-IT with an M leftover. I wonder…

Nope. Another red herring. There are no other anagrammed instances like that in the grid.

So where are we? Lost. Okay. Well, I tried look for ITs in the grid. What if I looked for them in the clues.

1a has “critters,” 7a has “with,” 14a has “site.” The letters following every “it” are T, H, and E. Hmm. Could it be…?

Continuing with the Acrosses we find witch, competitor, Whitney, Fitted, penitent, units, little, guitar, Britney, Cratchits, knitwear, literary, and citrus. Those give us CONTEST ANSWER. Aha! Cue the air guitar! We are on our way!

Doing the same with the Downs and putting it all together we get the sentence, “THE CONTEST ANSWER IS MOLASSES. “Molasses” is 8-letters long and fits with the title and revealer clue. So there you have “it.” And there. And there as well. And…

I thought this was great fun. Probably because I was able to figure it out. If I hadn’t, I probably would have thought this was no fun. But it still leaves me wondering why there are so many bland answers in the grid. With no actual theme answers, couldn’t it have been a bit more lively? Or was it done by design to lead us away from looking at those long entries. Perhaps we’ll never know.

My first instinct is to ask how hard can it be to construct what is essentially a themeless grid and then massage the clues to get the message you need. As a constructor you would have quite a lot of freedom that you don’t normally have in a themed grid. But I expect there’s some nuance that I’m not grasping.

But all in all, I thought this was a fun mechanism for finding the answer which was clear and unambiguous and provided that dopamine rush we all crave. Four stars from me.

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19 Responses to WSJ Contest — Friday, March 22, 2019

  1. Heidi Birker says:

    I went through all the steps you went through, and the post it hint sent me through the other path. I thought there’s too many! But it worked out.

  2. Craig Mazin says:

    I failed to get this one, although I definitely had “after IT” as one possibility on my list of strategies.

    But I never thought for a moment the answer would be in the clues, because the grid fill was so bizarre. DISTRESSED and STRESSED? APP and APPORTION and APPALL? CURLUP and ICEUP? FAINTNESS and LATENESS?

    And then there were those funky words like PELF and PULI that practically screamed “I needed to be here to make the themers work.”

    But there *were* no themers.

    I like a good “use the clues” meta (Matt Gaffney’s meta that required you to look at the clues with quotes in them comes to mind), but if the grid fill is bizarre in multiple places, that’s a bit of an unearned red herring, IMO.

    tl;dr the answer was MOLASSES but all I found were SOURGRAPES

    • Matthew G. says:

      I didn’t get it, either—and I spent a lot of time on it because it was the only thing standing between me and a perfect meta week as the MGWCC, Fireball, OTB, and PGWCC metas all fell quickly.

      I thought of looking at the letters after IT in the clues, but too quickly dismissed the idea when I saw that it would generate far more than eight letters. I try to keep a mental list of tricks that regularly work on me, and I need to remember not to assume how many letters will appear in the first step of the extraction.

  3. Lise says:

    I think the fill was constrained by having to make sure that there weren’t any “IT”s in any of the entries. That must have been hard to avoid.

    I could see that POST-IT was the key, and I also looked at those reverse ITs in the grid, but ultimately I had to walk away and come back for the aha! moment to strike.

    I liked IT!

    • Barttels says:

      The more you think about it, the more genius you realize this devious puzzle is. Great point about no uses of “it” in the grid! The construction is a marvel front & back.

      I knew exactly what to do. It never occurred to me where to do it. Stumped a lot of us chumps!

  4. Scott says:

    I followed your logic for about 6 of the 8 steps and (unfortunately) gave up too soon.

    • Scott says:

      My biggest problem is that I do the puzzles on my mobile and it isn’t easy to view the whole set of clues. I guess there is a lesson for me here. If I can’t get the meta after awhile, I should review the clues.

  5. JohnH says:

    I thought of some of those dead ends, but mostly saw nowhere to begin and gave up. I’ve found that coming back to these never helps me. It’s, as I’ve said before, more like a joke than a physics problem: you either get it or you don’t.

    So my admiration for those who did, with such a long route to an answer, and for the constraints on the setter. I’m not all that comfortable, though, with a theme that doesn’t require doing the crossword.

  6. ant says:

    The title of this meta was the two-word alliterative “Sticky Situation” – and there are exactly eight two-word alliterative clues (Syncope symptom, Pomeranian’s place, etc). I spent way too much time on that tack. I, in fact, spent ALL my time on that tack.

    • JoeB says:

      Take the first letter of each of those grid answers in clue order and you get FLSPATEP.
      Which is SPOT inside of a backwards PELF.
      This is where I went down various wrong paths and never recovered, because this was surely too unusual to be completely wrong, right?!

    • Thurman8er says:

      I was sure this was right too.

      I saw those 8 clues made up of two words starting with the same letter….like in Sticky Situation. Taking the first letter of those answers gave me FLSPATEP. Obviously, I figured, I must have missed something, especially since FL_PA_E_ leads to an 8-letter word that fits the title.

      But alas, the answer was not…

  7. mkmf says:

    So many rabbit holes! I followed most of Jim’s steps (though I only considered the four longest answers as themers). But then I went here – did anyone else?

    * Post It clue: Sticky Notes – look for notes (do, re, mi …) in the grid. Hmm, all four themers contain exactly one note name(FA, RE, LA, TI). Take the letters following these notes? Find that there are exactly four more note names preceded by letters in the across entries. Looks promising. In order, those letters are ISPATMOT. But look, this partially anagrams to STAMP. Oh “POST it” as in mail, and stamps are sticky! There must be something here. Kept working that angle for a long time: nope. This was a totally tortured case of mixing metaphors anyway (or digging tunnels between three different rabbit holes). It was a fun hunt though!

  8. Garrett says:


  9. Paul D says:

    Another rabbit hole which I don’t think has been mentioned here or at the WSJ site is the “Up” rabbit hole. I thought it was curious that 7-Up was alluded to but not named (Clue: Citrus soda nickname/Answer: Uncola), and that three answers ended in “-up” (Ice up; Tin Cup; and Curl up). After failing to find the letters post-“it” in the grid, I followed this one for a while before retiring for the night, defeated. Sometimes, whether you’re using an electronic device or if you have a print-out matters; this was one such time.

  10. D B says:

    I do the puzzle on my phone, and actually found it didn’t hurt me. After not finding any “IT”s in the grid, and started down the clues one by one, and felt good after “THE”, kept going down one by one, and had no issues. Sent the following non-sensical in with my answer:

    I witnessed a literary witch site once. Where a straitjacket was covered in visitor’s spitballs.

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