MGWCC #608

crossword 3:28 
meta 2 days 


hello and welcome to episode #608 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Illegal Activity”. for this week 4 puzzle, matt challenges us to name a seven-letter phrase. okay. what are the theme answers? nothing is indicated as such in the grid, but one of the clues certainly stands out: {2015 Jeff Bartsch novel about a crossword-loving couple (whose title entry is illegal in American crosswords)} TWO ACROSS. this is because according to the standard rules of american crosswords, 1-across has to be at least three letters, so squares 2 and 3 have to be part of 1-across rather than starting their own across entries.

but what to do next? the entry symmetric to TWO ACROSS is {Group of companies} BATTALION, and does not look especially thematic. (indeed, it is not.) i noticed pretty early on another unusual feature of the grid: there’s a slight asymmetry in the black squares. look at the middle row: RAY / METAS / BEACH. for that to be symmetric, either the black square between RAY and METAS would have to move two places to the right, or the one between METAS and BEACH would have to move two places to the right (or they would both have to move one place to the right). this is unusual, too, and also constitutes “illegal activity” in the context of the standard american crossword grid rules.

is there anything else “illegal”? most certainly. a key word from TWO ACROSS is duped in the entry {Ring combination} ONE-TWO. i thought this had to be significant, too. but i couldn’t figure out a way to get to a seven-letter phrase based on these rule violations (especially since the one involving black square placement doesn’t really suggest any particular letters).

the next thing i tried was looking at the actual entry at “2-across”, which would be the GO of {WWF, e.g.} NGO. that might be the start of a message. i tried reading several other across entries dropping their first letter in a similar way, and found several intriguing ones:

  • {Teenagers often play on them} (X)BOXES.
  • {Source of cash} (F)UNDER (this is a weird word anyway, so it had already caught my eye).
  • {Shell station?} (B)EACH. that’s a fun clue.

now it really does look like we’re spelling out a message including the words GO BOXES UNDER EACH. but just as clearly, we’re missing some words in the message (likely three of them, based on the instructions), and nothing else was jumping out at me, and i didn’t understand yet what the TWO dupe or the asymmetric black square placement had to do with anything, so i had to set the puzzle down for a bit.

coming back to it a couple days later, i had the aha more or less right away: the numbers of the across “entries” i had already found were 2, 22, 32, and 42. going back to fill in the gaps at 12, 52, and 62 reveals the full message:

  • 2: {WWF, e.g.} (N)GO.
  • 12: {Was backed into a corner} (HAD)TO.
  • 22: {Teenagers often play on them} (X)BOXES.
  • 32: {Source of cash} (F)UNDER. this is a weird word anyway, so it had already caught my eye.
  • 42: {Shell station?} (B)EACH. that’s a fun clue!
  • 52: {Ring combination} (ONE)TWO.
  • 62: {2015 Jeff Bartsch novel about a crossword-loving couple (whose title entry is illegal in American crosswords)} (TWO) ACROSS.

the full message is GO TO BOXES UNDER EACH TWO ACROSS (circled in the screenshot above). and indeed, taking the squares right below the starts of each of those words (also circled) spells out NO CAN DO, a seven-letter phrase that must be the meta answer. and a fitting one, at that, given that the mechanism relies on conspicuous rule-breaking.

let’s examine that rule-breaking a little closer, shall we? duping the TWO was necessary because we needed to get TWO in the message at 52-across but also have TWO ACROSS itself be a theme answer (indeed, the only evident theme answer). but what about the asymmetry? here it was necessary so that (B)EACH would be at 42-across instead of 41. was there any way to restructure the grid so that an asymmetry would not be necessary? that’s impossible for me to answer. i don’t know how difficult it is to put theme answers at particular grid numbers because i’ve never tried to do it, but it does seem awfully constraining. so you can chalk this one up as a minor inelegance, and certainly a distracting one since it didn’t really help you solve the meta even though it arose due a constraint imposed by the meta.

aside from that, i thought this meta was quite challenging and very good. definitely a week 4 puzzle—and i’m girding my loins for week 5!

that’s all i’ve got this week. i’ll leave you with my favorite crossword that does have a 2-across, the thursday, february 2, 1995 NYT by bob and sharon klahn.

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27 Responses to MGWCC #608

  1. Clint Hepner says:

    Submitted a Hail Mary of “beats me”, which was the anagram of METAS and EB if you swap the black square with the E in BEACH to make the grid symmetric. I thought the “illegal” in the title might be a cryptic-crossword-style hint to anagram something. Oh, well. Starting the year 3/3 was pretty good for me; I won’t lose sleep over not going 4/4 :)

  2. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks Joon — 144 right answers this week.

    You had it exactly right — after almost 8 hours of trying I finally had to ditch grid symmetry to get the idea to work. I did not appreciate at the time how that might lead solvers down a big “illegal activity” rabbit hole. METAS on that row probably didn’t help.

    • Dave Bardolph says:

      Yep, that was a hole I never managed to dig out of. Asymmetry, dupes, plus a word count of 79 – one over the NYT limit. It all had to mean something, right? Nope. Great puzzle, requiring a better mind than mine.

  3. Abide says:

    5 stars here, based on multiple constraints.

    FUNDER was unusual enough that I initially looked for alternate answers with GO, here GOFUNDME.

    DUNDER Mifflin anyone?

    • Paul Coulter says:

      My rabbit hole was that FUNDER, in addition to its strangeness as an entry, was clued in an odd way, so that the definition also fit the ATM of AT(EA)M. I spent a long time trying to make this work elsewhere by removing 2-letter segments of Across answers (two across) and seeing if the resultant words would fit any other definitions. In the end, I submitted NOT DONE, which Brits say for something that’s against propriety. It also describes the status of my solve.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      I was choosing between DUNDER, FUNDER, and SUNDER on that square, and the idea was to be as straightforward and unmissable as possible. Wanted DUNDER but in the end thought, proper name, let’s just use FUNDER.

  4. Charles Stevens says:


    I spent way too many hours on this. Banged my head against the wall trying to shift the asymmetric black square “two across” to make the grid “legal.” Also tried circling various animal names, anagramming long answers, and other fruitless activity. I did notice BOXES, UNDER, and EACH lurking in the grid, but couldn’t make the connection.

    The real solution is elegant and impressive. Hats off to Matt, great puzzle.

  5. pgw says:

    > was there any way to restructure the grid so that an asymmetry would
    > not be necessary? that’s impossible for me to answer. i don’t know how
    > difficult it is to put theme answers at particular grid numbers because
    > i’ve never tried to do it, but it does seem awfully constraining.

    As someone who does this a lot (shameless plug alert – check out my metapuzzles at!), I can attest that it is usually a time-consuming, tricky pain in the butt – though sometimes it works out pretty smoothly.

    I liked this puzzle a lot.

  6. Bob Klahn says:

    It was quite a surprise just now to see a Bob and Sharon puzzle from twenty-five years ago mentioned in this space. Thanks for the kudos, Joon!

  7. Alex Bourzutschky says:

    One of the more fun rabbit holes I went down was trying to add partials to the grid entries. Tipped by AD SALES, I realized that I could make (AD)EQUATE, ALO(AD)OF, maybe even FUN(AD)DER.

    I was getting ready to do my desperation move of putting all the entries in a spreadsheet and thought to myself, “Maybe I should put in the pseudo-entries too, e.g. 2-A, 3-A, etc.” and before actually doing any of it I saw the pattern. Difficult! And all for personal glory too–no prizes and everyone gets credit for it anyway.

  8. I got stuck on the asymmetry rabbit hole too. I thought maybe we had to blacken out additional squares to make it symmetric again, which might violate some of the crossword rules to produce a 2-Across in the grid. I noticed that you could blacken out the first X in XBOXES to make valid words in all directions (BOXES, MAN, CAT), but that didn’t work anywhere else in the grid.

  9. Small Wave Dave says:

    Is the dupe of AT (LET AT & LAP AT) also considered “illegal?”
    Sure kept me distracted, along with the grid asymmetries.
    I was permanently stuck trying to find 7 instances of crossword crime, although that made me realize I don’t know what all the official rules are.

    • Jon Forsythe says:

      This also tripped me up. The title of “illegal” and the clue about an illegal crossword construction made me feel like you had to fundamentally understand how to construct a crossword. Since I don’t know how to do it nor do know what the official rules are, I was lost.

      So I was with you in focusing on the LET AT & LAP AT (especially since they were symmetrically placed in an asymmetrical grid).

      • Charles Stevens says:

        >>The title of “illegal” and the clue about an illegal crossword construction made me feel like you had to fundamentally understand how to construct a crossword.<<

        Agreed – and the fact that Peter Gordon got the right answer right out of the gate (according to Matt's website leaderboard) reaffirmed my belief that the answer would seem obvious to a seasoned constructor. Whoops!

  10. Jon Forsythe says:

    I only managed to figure out the meta through help with my solving group. If it weren’t for them I would also have been stuck on the asymmetry & how that related to two-across.

    There were a number of rows that only had 2 grid entries across them. Also a number of entries that had 2 words in them (A TEAM, HAD TO, LAP AT, I COME, ONE TWO, etc) or entries with just a single letter before a word (A TEAM, I COME, X BOXES, T DOME, etc)

    And then because I was stuck on the symmetry thing, I thought maybe the route had to deal with placing black squares on the grid to make it symmetrical. So putting a black square over the N in NGO & then the S in ERS at its crossword-symmetrical location.

    It’s only from reading Joon’s write up do I realize that 2-Across isn’t just illegal but impossible since putting a black square over the N would just make GO the new 1-Across.

    To me the 1st leap in this meta is a huge leap and unfortunately for a week-4 meta, the only leap. Once you grok the 2, 12, 22, 32 aha moment, you’ve solved the meta. How anyone was able to get to that aha moment without help I’ll never know. It’s puzzles like this that make me feel depressed; like I’ll never get to Joon’s level of lateral thinking.

  11. - kip - says:

    Did anyone else get lost down the rabbit hole of symmetrically placed, 1-letter-off anagrams? All vertical, and each pair (accept one) symmetrical – or very close to symmetrical?

    AOK – ADO
    ORL – URL

    All vertical and placed so beautifully across the grid. Once I found ANEMIC – AMBIEN, I just couldn’t let go. Great puzzle though, Matt. Had lots of fun trying!

    • Charles Stevens says:

      Yes! One of many failed pursuits (and the AMBIEN/ANEMIC pair had the same effect for me)

    • Margaret says:

      Yes, and I also spent a lot of time on the symmetrically placed TREAD/ENDEAR (which was also part of the asymmetric center.) I was sure that the READ/DEAR part meant something and that I was somehow supposed to take the leftover TEN and do something with it. I couldn’t get away from the middle row asymmetry as being the important part of the meta.

  12. M.Gritz says:

    I did not have much time to dig into this one, and usually Week 4s are beyond me anyway, but it’s (more) interesting (than normal) to read your thought process — FUNDER is an everyday word for me and much like regional brands when I left for college, I had no idea it was this uncommon.

  13. Magoo says:

    Brilliant meta – which eases the pain of not getting it. Got pretty close at one point pondering all the 2s in the grid numbers (but gave up thinking about 20-29) and thinking about unclued across answers (but got distracted thinking about TWO-letter ACROSS strings)

  14. Seth says:

    I thought two across meant that two-letter answers were illegal, so I looked at the three-letter entries looking for letters to take out to produce two-letter entries. So I saw GO, but nothing else.

    I don’t get how you would settle on those 7 entries from which to take letters to produce new words. Why not (BATTA)LION or (ATE)AM or (ALO)OF? I guess TWOACROSS suggests to look at the entries with…a two in the ones digit? Never would have seen that.

    • pgw says:

      Yeah, the pattern is that each square with a two in the ones digit *doesn’t* start an across answer, but would yield a valid (though at times two-letter, and thus “illegal”) word if it *did* start an across answer. I thought the notion that the other six should also be called “two-acrosses” was a little bit forced, but it made enough sense, once I spotted the pattern, that it didn’t end up bothering me at all.

  15. Jeffrey Harris says:

    There were a substantial number of _Across_ entries whose first _two_ letters could be changed to get an equally valid answer:

    {Source of cash} = FUNDER or LENDER
    {Pops} = DADAS or SODAS
    {Convened} = MET or SAT
    {Bases for nogs} = YOLKS or MILKS

    I tried for quite a while to find seven of them (and then extract a letter from each), but I eventually decided it was a dead end. (Not before almost convincing myself that “peer-generated content” is a thing)

  16. slubduck says:

    So TAX and TIP both being clued by “Check padder” was meaningless. I was stuck with that and the entries whose first letters could obviously (or others, creatively) stand alone, such as A-TEAM, X-BOXES, T-DOME, I-COME (then also maybe T-OAST, T-READ, A-LOT, etc.), see how those stand-alone first letters are A,X,T,I, T, T, A …….. combined with TAX/TIP clued identically, i could never wrest myself away from this rabbit hole. At the last minute Tuesday morning I noticed “nogs” in the clue for YOLKS and began looking at NGO, and METAS relating to “meats” in 12D, but this quickly went nowhere. Oh well.

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